Tet Offensive, Tet Amnesia

Tet Offensive, Tet Amnesia
Photo: Reuters, manhhai/ Flickr. Graphics by The Vietnamese Magazine.

Vietnam is welcoming the 2022 Lunar New Year this week.

Also known as Tet, this special occasion is widely embraced by both Vietnamese living in the country and its diaspora community. They spend this time for family reunions, remembering their ancestors, and sharing traditional holiday dishes.

But this year’s Tet holiday will not be the same as its previous celebrations.

The year of the tiger comes amidst the latest wave of COVID-19 cases, which have dampened Vietnam’s prospects for economic growth. The government’s mismanagement of the pandemic has also chipped away at the people’s trust in the state and has also led to over 36,000 coronavirus-related deaths in the country.

This precarious, uncertain, and dangerous situation has resulted in a large exodus of migrant workers from major cities and factory districts as they embark on arduous journeys to return to their hometowns.

A remembrance ceremony for the victims of COVID-19 in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Bao Tin Tuc.

This grim reality is not solely the result of the devastation brought by the pandemic. It is also due, in part, to the Communist government’s increasing crackdown on dissent.

Vietnam arrested and convicted a significant number of democracy activists and journalists last year. While there were ominous signs that this practice might continue this year, government harassment and intimidation have expanded to not only target dissidents but also the families of prisoners of conscience and anyone who dares to speak out against the regime.

As Tet approaches, I often think about the people who will be spending it differently from most of us.

They are the families in Saigon who lost their loved ones to the deadly virus, whose deaths could have been prevented. They are the political prisoners who will be spending this time of festivity and merriment alone, locked away in their prison cells for their peaceful activism. They are the countless migrant workers who cannot afford to buy their children new clothes this holiday season as they had spent the last of their savings on necessities to survive during the pandemic.

Vietnamese people also refer to the Tet Holiday as the Spring Festival. This is because despite Tet only lasting for three days we usually hold the notion that springtime, or Xuân in Vietnamese, should be exclusively dedicated to family gatherings, festivals, and recreational activities.

If a foreigner spends time in Vietnam during this holiday, chances are he or she  will encounter flashy Soviet-style propaganda posters embedded with the slogan, “Mừng đảng, mừng xuân.” In English, this roughly translates to, “Wishing the Party and wishing the people a Happy Spring Festival.”

Spring also witnessed the birth of the Indochinese Communist Party, a precursor to the current Vietnamese Communist Party, which was founded in Hong Kong in February 1930. The Spring Festival also coincided with the fall of Saigon in April 1975, a celebration which the Communist regime often touts as its “greatest spring victory.” Meanwhile, many South Vietnamese denounce this event as “ Black April,” mourning the loss of their homeland to the Communists.

In Vietnam, the main narratives circulated during the Tet holiday mostly consist of the same old political rhetoric and victory speeches.

New Year’s decorations in Hanoi. Photo: Van Hoa Doanh Nghiep.

I was born and raised in post-war Vietnam. During my childhood, I grew up remembering the black and white footage on television showing cheerful Vietnamese people celebrating the first Tet holiday after the reunification. State-owned newspapers would run headlines boasting a unified Vietnamconfidently striding further toward integration into the world under the Party’s leadership.

I only came to know about the other harrowing side of Tet when I became a writer. My job required me to do a lot of historical research, including that part of history that was not written by the winning side of the Vietnam War.

Among those historical events, the most notable one that still haunts its survivors and their families until this day is the Mau Than Massacre, popularly known as the Tet Offensive in 1968. It happened when North Vietnam’s Communist forces and Viet Cong squads launched numerous attacks on major cities and provincial capitals of South Vietnam during the Lunar New Year holiday. According to the South Vietnamese government, more than 7,700 civilians were killed during the offensive, with approximately more than 18,500 wounded.

Furthermore, there is the story of 74 South Vietnamese soldiers who sacrificed their lives in an event that is largely absent in the minds of the younger generation of Vietnamese: the Paracels Sea Battle in early 1974, fought to protect Vietnam’s territorial sovereignty against Chinese invaders.

The government also rarely mentions the bloody Sino-Vietnam border war in February 1979, in which Vietnam claimed 45,000 Chinese casualties during the conflict, according to government numbers.

For the time being, these disturbing parts of history will continue to be effectively censored, suppressed, or distorted in order to maintain the political power and legitimacy of the current ruling Communist regime.

In some ways, I believe that the Tet of 2022 is a repetition of its own offensive counterparts in 1968 or 1979. And it also saddens me to think that these holidays of despair, if not tragedy, that Vietnam has gone through will perhaps someday be erased from the public’s collective memory.

Frankly speaking, I foresee no significant changes in Vietnam’s political and social structures in the near future.

The current government leaders only care about themselves and their monopoly of power, even at the expense of our country’s development, sovereignty, and even integrity. The reality has already proven that they will use all kinds of repressive tactics, ranging from propaganda, arbitrary arrests, or even long prison sentences, to subdue their own citizens and maintain their grip on power.

At the same time, I observe the increasing differences between the youth born in a post-war Communist Vietnam, their parents, and the second generation of Vietnamese descendants who were born and educated in Western democratic countries.

The politically apathetic younger generations of modern Vietnamese are comfortably assured that the country’s economic prospects can compensate for the lack of freedom they have at home. Their parents are still so haunted by the memories of the war that a peaceful life is all they wish for now. And to the younger Vietnamese overseas, Vietnam’s picturesque landscapes and its delicious cuisine seem to overshadow the faces of jailed prisoners of conscience or the soldiers who lost their lives defending Vietnam’s sovereignty.

A Tet flower market in Saigon in the 1960s. Photo: manhhai/ Flickr.

So, is there any hope for the future of Vietnam’s democratization movement and the country as a whole?

I always believe that Vietnamese people, regardless of where we live, all share a dream of a more equal, prosperous, and free country. And Tet is the occasion that brings us together and encourages us to strive for this common cause.

I still remember listening to “Ly rượu mừng,” (”Cheering the Wineglass”), every single Tet holiday during my childhood. “Ly rượu mừng” is one of the most famous and timeless “Nhạc vàng” songs [1] that are usually sung during the Tet holiday in South Vietnam, the Vietnamese community overseas, and inside Vietnam even before the authorities lifted their ban on the song in 2016. Its lyrics portray our wishes for a prosperous life, peace, and freedom for our country.

And I firmly believe that this is the dream that all Vietnamese people truly wish for our country:

“While raising this glass of wine

Let us cheer for a bright and free tomorrow

In our peaceful country

Where the people are happy and living in harmony.”

[1] Nhạc vàng refers to the songs written in the South of Vietnam before 1975 and prohibited in Vietnam after 1975 by the current government.

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