Many books, magazine articles, and papers have been written about the Vietnam war and its consequences, but most are written from the perspective of an outsider looking in without actually living in Vietnam after the fall of Saigon in 1975. Few reporters ever came back to Vietnam to live there and describe day-to-day life in Vietnam after the war. Under the control of Communist rulers and an embargo from the US, Vietnam was almost isolated from the western world between 1975 and the very late eighties (one can recognize a similar pattern in North Korea now). Western reporters were not welcome or even permitted to enter Vietnam for reporting purposes without an agreement from government officials.
This report describes life in Vietnam after the fall of Saigon from the perspective of a Vietnamese person who grew up in Vietnam from 1975 to the early nineties. Such descriptions should be backed up by reliable media sources, but where one could find reliable sources if the media is simply a tool for the government to spread propaganda? There are two contrasting views about the media. From the US or Western point of view, the press should consist of free expression: a voice of freedom. In Vietnam and other communist countries, the media is simply a tool of government; the constant propaganda makes people believe that this is the way of news and media regardless of where one lives. The events described in this report are taken from books and the personal experiences of a woman who survived the war and lived under the new government.
The situation in Vietnam closely parallels that of the current situation in North Korea, and demonstrates why it is very hard to find good published reliable sources about that country: officially, none exist. The only reliable source of information about North Korea one can find is from the experience of the people who have survived and escaped from North Korea; reports from its government are simply propaganda.
Vietnam lies along the eastern coast of the Indochina peninsula in an “S” shape. It is about 1,650 km long and is from 50 to 560 km wide. Its area is about 329,560 sq. km--slightly larger than Mexico (CIA World Factbook). It is bordered on the north by China and the west by Laos and Cambodia. With a population of more than 81 million, Vietnam is one of the 15 most highly populated countries in the world. It is also one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia with many problems like pollution, uneven population distribution, and a very fragile economic infrastructure.
According to archaeological discoveries, around the fourth millennium BC and during the Bronze Age the first Vietnamese civilization, called Lac Viet (People of the Valley) was established in northern Vietnam. Lac Viet reached its prime in the third century BC before it was conquered by the Chinese ruling Han Dynasty in 207 BC (Booz 20). For the next thousand years Vietnam was dominated by Chinese rulers, and its culture was strongly influenced by Chinese culture. Many cultural ideals, religion, and art still remain today. However, there were a number of uprisings during the Chinese ruling. One of the earliest and most famous rebellions was headed by two sisters called Trung Trac and Trung Nhi around 40 AD. According to legend, when they heard their husbands were beheaded by local Chinese officials, the two sisters rode elephants and led a group of rebels to overthrow the officials. When the Chinese army arrived to quell the rebellion the two sisters fought bravely but were outnumbered, finally committing suicide by drowning themselves (Booz 21). Though there were some uprisings after that they were not strong enough to prevent the Chinese from coming back. Until 938 AD Ngo Quyen, a legendary military commander, used the tide of the Bach Dang River as a trap to destroy the mighty Chinese navy. He ordered the soldiers to place sharp stakes vertically at the bottom of the river and then lured the Chinese ships into the river during high tide. By the time the tide went out, all the ships were immobilized and burned by torches. Ngo Quyen with his brilliant ideas liberated Vietnam for the first time from Chinese domination (Neil 41). For the next 800 years Vietnam and China fought many battles, but the Vietnamese people maintained their independence and begun to expand their society and extend their country boundary toward the south. By 1802 the boundary of Vietnam acquired its current location.
By late 18th century, French missionaries had extended their mission to Southeast Asia and entered Vietnam, but they soon encountered harsh treatment from the emperors. The relations between the missionaries and emperors were getting worse, especially during the Minh Mang and Thieu Tri period, when practicing Christianity was punishable by death. In the same period, aware that the British were expanding their territories in China, the French used religious persecution as an excuse to colonize Vietnam (SarDesai 33). In 1862, after a few years of fighting, the French took over Vietnam and divided the country into three separate provinces called Tonking, Annam, and Cochin China. In the early 20th century, aroused by the communist revolution in Russia and the expression of democratic ideals in Europe, nationalist sentiment motivated the Vietnamese middle class to express their desire for freedom from foreigners. Two of the early voices of scholars were those of Phan Boi Chau and Phan Chau Trinh. Phan Boi Chau’s History of the Loss of Vietnam had a great impact on scholars and pupils throughout the country (Sardesai 45). Although those early movements did not cause a revolution in Vietnam, they built a foundation for many Vietnam nationalists and led to the creation in 1927 of Vietnam Quoc Dan Dang, which served as a voice of the Vietnamese people--primarily against colonialism and French authority. The French reacted by using their military power to suppress the Vietnam Quoc Dan Dang organization three years later (Booz 29). Meanwhile, another silent movement led by a man named Nguyen Sinh Cung--later known as Ho Chi Minh--was growing strongly among the peasants, who were very poor and looking for anything that could improve their lives. Ho Chi Minh, who favored Marxist ideas, took advantages of poverty, nationalism, and resentment against French authority, and formed a communist party in 1930 initially called the Indochina Communist Party (ICP). Despite ongoing oppression by the French authority, the communists grew stronger every day and by the mid 1940s they formed a new organization called the Viet Minh (Vietnam Independent League) (SarDesai 54). The disagreement between Vietnamese nationalists and the Communist party divided the effort to free Vietnam and weakened their chances against the French authority. A notable incident at this time was the arrest of Phan Boi Chau, which was somehow orchestrated by Ho Chi Minh. In any case, with the use of propaganda the ICP received strong support from the peasantry and survived the French oppressions, and by 1944 the ICP saw World War II as an opportunity to free Vietnam from foreigners. Ho Chi Minh ordered Vo Nguyen Giap, who later became an icon of the North because of the famous victory in Dien Bien Phu in 1954, to form a military force. Vietnam’s first guerilla army consisted of 34 men with a few rifles (SarDesai 55). Using guerrilla warfare methods, they attacked small French posts and capture their weapons. By 1954 the small force had grown into a large well trained army of six divisions with heavy artillery.
In 1945, just after the Japanese were defeated, Ho Chi Minh and the Communist party came out of the jungle, took over Hanoi, and on September 2 declared Vietnam independent using the famous American Declaration of Independence. The Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) was soon created. It was a victory for both the Communists and the Vietnamese Nationalist parties, but due to differences in ideology they eventually went their separate ways. One of the nationalists was Ngo Dinh Nhiem, an anti-communist who later became president of the South after the 1954 Geneva Convention.
Concerned about the expansion of communism into Southeast Asia, the American government decided to support France to gain back Vietnam. The French were desperate to keep Vietnam as a colony but the Viet Minh were not ready to give up their independence. Fighting broke out between the French and the Viet Minh. French military superiority forced the Viet Minh back to the jungle, where they prepared for a major battle against the stronger French army. During that time the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union induced them to stop one another from expanding their territories. The US helped the French to maintain their control in Vietnam, and the Soviet Union and Chinese supplied Viet Minh with ammunition and weapons (Sar Desai 61). Underestimating the Viet Minh military’s will and ability, the French tried to force them into a major battle against French air superiority and better military strategy, which French General Henri Navarre believed would overcome the Viet Minh under Vo Nguyen Giap. The battle at Dien Bien Phu was carefully prepared for by the Viet Minh, who silently carried artillery and heavy machine guns on their backs or bicycles, surrounding Dien Bien Phu with thousands of soldiers and artillery. Just before the battle US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles suggested using nuclear weapons to destroy the Viet Minh, but the United States refused, fearing possible retaliation from the Soviet Union that could lead to World War III (Sar Desai 62).
By May 1954, the battle of Dien Bien Phu was over. The Viet Minh capture of Dien Bien Phu devastated French morale and forced the French to surrender North Vietnam to the DRV. Although this was a huge victory for the DRV and Vo Nguyen Giap, the cost was considerable. Of 15,000 French troops 1,500 were dead, but the Viet Minh lost 8,000 out of 51,000 soldiers. In July 21, 1951, in accordance with a Geneva agreement, Vietnam was temporarily divided into South and North along the 17th parallel and was to be reunified by an election in 1956. The election never took place. Concerned about the expansion of Communism, The US acted on their doctrine of containment (Sar Desai 66) by supporting Ngo Dinh Diem, who was anti-communist, to establish an independent state in the South. The North was then controlled by the DRV.
After defeating the French and taking over the North the new, young, and inexperienced communist government had to deal with many problems. The French removal of most coal mining machinery, the only resource for foreign exchange, resulted in famine and lack of hard currency for importing food. Lacking knowledge and experience in managing a country’s economy, the Communist party eagerly applied Socialist doctrine to a very fragile economic system. By creating agrarian collectives and bringing all private business into state control, they hoped to grant all a fair share from state distribution centers. Everything from clothes to food were distributed directly from the government, a system that turned North Vietnam’s consumer rate into one of the lowest in the world (SarDesai 71).
Even though they lived in very poor conditions, people were made to believe by propaganda from communist media that there was not much difference between the western lifestyle and their own. On the upside Hanoians overcame their hardships, continued to support the communist party, and believed that unification would bring a much better life. On the other hand, they were completely ignorant of the outside world. Unable to live under the new government and hardships, nearly one million North Vietnamese, most of whom were Catholic, migrated to the South in 1955 and 1956 (Sar Desai 70).
Although Ho Chi Minh was a ruthless leader, his preference for a simple lifestyle had earned much respect from people in the North. By contrast, Ngo Dinh Diem and his closed family in the South alienated themselves from the people by their harsh policy and discrimination against the Buddhist people. This policy caused many protests, uprisings, and coups against the Diem government. Diem was assassinated by one of his generals in 1963, which US intelligence knew of in advance but did nothing to discourage (SarDesai 75). According to Sheehan it was CIA who sponsored the coup (Sheehan 69) as shown in Picture 1 in Appendix A. Leutenant Colonel Lucien Conein, who stands behind the group, served as a liaison with generals who conspired to overthrow Diem (Sheehan)
Figure 1. CIA agent and Vietnamese generals who conspired to overthrow Diem (Sheehan)
In addition to the protests in the South, a grassroots communist group established the National Liberation Front (NLF) or Mat Tran Dan Toc Giai Phong. Using terrorist tactics, the NLF caused many problems for the Diem government and its US advisors. According to SarDesai 74, even though Hanoi had many problems of its own and was reluctant to expand the communist party to the South, the unrest in the South forced Hanoi to re-prioritize and begin to move their people there to establish a base for future larger scale attack on Diem. That was how the NLF was formed under the supervision of their comrades in the North.
Even after the Diem assignation in 1963 the political situation in the South was rapidly deteriorating because guerilla warfare operations by the NLF were becoming more sophisticated. They were gaining more advanced weapons, supplies, and resources from their communist comrades, who were penetrating from the North to the South using a jungle passage called the Ho Chi Minh trail. Recognizing the situation and trying to enforce its communist containment policy, the US government under President Lyndon Johnson used the 1964 Tonking incident to pressure the congress into pass a bill called the Tonking Resolution, which allowed the president to use any necessary force to stop the communists from expanding. As a result, the number of US troops in Vietnam was increased from 45,500 to 500,000 within just two years. Trying to stop the Viet Cong (VC) from penetrating to the South, the US began to bomb strategic military targets in North Vietnam and along the Ho Chi Minh trail. Unfortunately the North Vietnam military had neither a large arsenal of weaponry nor weaponry manufacturers because most of their weapons and supplies were from the Soviet Union and China, or captured from the South and US depots (SarDesai 84). As a result, the bombing strategy did not yield significant results other than to make the North Vietnamese determined to fight against the US and the government of the South.
The war itself brought much pain and suffering to the civilians. Millions of people left their villages and overpopulated Saigon because they could not live under the harassment of the South Vietnamese and US soldiers during the day and the National Front for Liberation (NFL) during the night. The land was destroyed and rendered useless for producing agricultural products (SarDesai 85). Most of the US aids to South Vietnam helped to create an artificial economy in the South because there was virtually no exporting of goods during the war. The political turmoil turned South Vietnam into a region primarily controlled by the military. Moreover, the majority of the funds from US taxpayers went to the pockets of corrupt generals and non-productive businesses like services, prostitution, and interpreters.
Underestimating the strength of the South Vietnamese military and the US troops, Hanoi and the NLF opened a major assault of the entire country during the New Year in 1968; the Tet Offensive. The result was a failure for both President Lyndon Johnson and the Viet Cong. The attack forced Johnson to withdraw a bid for a second term, but more than 40,000 Viet Cong soldiers were killed and none of Saigon was captured.
In addition to mounting political pressure by the antiwar movement in the US, the number of dead or wounded soldiers was increasing daily and modern weaponry and warfare strategies seemed not to be very effective against the opponents’ guerilla warfare tactics. By 1969 the US decided to begin to withdraw American troops from Vietnam but continue to support the South Vietnam government and build a strong South Vietnamese military. The Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), or Quan luc Viet Nam Cong Hoa, reached more than one million troops (SarDesai 87). In 1973, to weaken communist power and try to force Hanoi into an agreement to divide the country into two independent states in the upcoming Geneva Convention, the US began a “surgical bombing” campaign targeting major cities in the North like Hanoi and Haiphong. After twelve days and nights of bombing, most of Hanoi and all of Haiphong was destroyed but the communists survived the attack. According to SarDesai 93, the failure of the US in Vietnam during the Vietnam War was primarily their incorrect diagnosis of the situation. On the part of the North, the motivation for the conflict was not so much to advance communism as it was to bring down the harsh and corrupt governments of Ngo Dinh Diem, then Ky and Thieu. Even though SarDesai does not mention the communist role in his book, there was evidence indicating that the communists and the NFL played a major role in convincing and recruiting many Buddhist monks and students to join the fight against the South Vietnam government and the US by using propaganda. Furthermore, the involvement of the US military fueled the sentiments for nationalism and anti-colonialism. The author also concluded that a possible solution for Vietnam was not a military one but socioeconomic reform.
The cost of Vietnam War was very high. It cost the US about $150 billion and 57,000 lives, and the US dropped eight million tons of bombs on Vietnam between 1965 and 1973, four times the amount of bombs used in World War II. Ten million tons of Agent Orange destroyed the forest and its soil (SarDesai 95). According to a United Nations report on Vietnam issued in 1976, the entire North Vietnamese infrastructure was destroyed during the war. The casualties of both North and South were roughly estimated at two million people (SarDesai 95), although the Vietnamese government never released the actual number of dead and injured.
A few days after capturing Saigon, and even before restructuring the nation after a decade of war, the new government immediately ordered everyone who worked for the South Vietnam government and military to report to local governments. Most people thought they were simply to report to the government and return to their family, but most of them never returned home or were even allowed to write a letter to their family or relatives about their fate or their whereabouts for the next three years. This type of information was never published or available to foreign reporters, which is why none of the books about Vietnam mentions the disappearance of the people who used to work for the former government. The edict clearly violated the Geneva Convention for prisoners of war, but to the new government this was simply a way to reeducate and rehabilitate those who worked for the South, as it was described briefly by Dr. SarDesai on page 98. According to SheeHan, nearly 100,000 citizens, including soldiers and officials of the former government, were imprisoned for years. The number of years in prison was determined by rank and behavior. A husband of a woman that we will mention in this report was detained in a reeducation camp in a remote area of Hanoi called Ha Nam Ninh for eight years. He did not know he was released until they told him so. Picture 2 shows one of the official superficial re-educated camps, which is available to public and foreign reporters. The real re-educated camps are backbreaking hard labor prisons, which are in either deep forests or mountains.
Picture 2. Reeducated camp (Sheehan)
The war was finally over, but the difficulty was just beginning for the new and inexperienced government. As mentioned in the aforementioned section, the infrastructure of the North was destroyed and its economy simply did not exist due to the bombing from 1965 to 1972. Meanwhile the economy of the South, heavily dependent on US assistance during the war, was devastated when the US withdrew from Vietnam. The service sector nearly collapsed and the GDP increase of about 1 percent was overwhelmed by the population increase, which was about 3 percent. By 1975 the economic bubble in South Vietnam was burst; most of its hard currency left with the fleeing bankers and population (SarDesai 97-98, Sheehan 14-15).
However, Saigon still was left with an infrastructure that could be used for rebuilding the economy by promoting business enterprise and capital ventures with foreigners. Confronting the daunting task of rebuilding the country from scratch, the leadership of the new government was divided into two opposing ideologies. One group believed in socialism and eagerly wanted to transform South Vietnam into a socialist nation like the North despite its living standard, which was among the lowest in Southeast Asia. The other group was more moderate and wanted to allow private business incentives. (The differences in ideology among the members of the communist politburo are described briefly by Sheehan, pp. 78-79.) Unfortunately the majority of the Communist Party believed in Marxist doctrine and South Vietnam’s economic policy was transformed from capitalist to socialist in 1976 (SarDesai 96, Sheenan 15). Although the author did not offer an explanation, one can be deduced from the fact that most of the members of the Communist Party were poorly informed. They simply believed that winning the war against the United States and rebuilding the country were equivalent, and that socialism was the natural path of human evolution (this belief, from Marxist doctrine, had been taught in schools and universities after 1975). Skipping capitalism and advancing directly to socialism would place Vietnam in advance of the US and Western countries, which were still in the capitalism phase.
The long-term goal was to transition to socialism in three stages. The first stage took place from 1975 to 1980. In this period, the government reorganized and redistributed the population to resume their agricultural activities. The second five-year plan started in 1980 and will be ended in 2005 when Vietnam will become a social industrialist country (SarDesai 100). Finally, the third stage would complete the transition to socialism.
The new economic policy has two aims: one is to allow limited private business and the other is to redistribute the population to the countryside to rebuild agriculture (SarDesai 98). Under the first policy, people receive food rations from government subsidized agencies every week. However, the allowance provided by the government is simply not enough for a family. As a result, this policy created a black market for almost everything as shown in Picture 3. Most people are involved one way or another in the black market, even though they can be imprisoned. The following paragraph is a true story, and it happened to someone that is close to the author of this report. A woman with four children had her husband, who had worked for the former government, held by the government without any information about his whereabouts. To feed her family she secretly ran a private business selling construction materials, which had been her occupation before the fall of Saigon in 1975. When she was caught she was imprisoned for four months in 1976 for illegally selling cement. After bribing someone in the system she was released and continued to do the same thing.
Picture 3. Black market in Saigon after the Fall of 1975 (Sheehan)
The second policy, was called Hoi Huong (“returning to grandparent’s land”), and King Te Moi (New Economic Zone-NEZ). The goal was to migrate people out of the city to fallow land in the Mekong Delta, which was under cultivation, and to areas near the Cambodia border (SarDesai 96, 101). Half the population of Saigon-Cholon city and most of the people from Haiphong, whose city was totally destroyed during the war (SarDesai 101), were to be relocated as shown in Picture 4. However, when the plan was fully implemented in 1977 and 1978 it was a disaster due to many factors. Communication between the central government in Hanoi and the local officials in the South were not well coordinated. Lacking information about the situation in the South, the central government blindly ordered the local government to execute the relocation plans without knowing that it would create disruptions in the lives of millions of people living in the Saigon area.
Picture 4. King te moi
In selecting who would move to the NEZ, local officials discriminated against the families and relatives of soldiers and employees of the former South Vietnam government, and forced them to destroy their own houses and move out of the city. This happened to the same person mentioned in the previous section; she was forced to destroy her one-story house and move to the countryside. The order was clear that if she did not relocate, she and her family would never see her husband again. If she did not destroy her house by herself, the local government would do it and she would be charged a demolition fee. She finally destroyed her house, her children dropped out of school, and in 1978 they moved to Go Cong, a village where her grandparents lived about 30 miles from Saigon.
According to the plan the government was to provide enough necessary equipment and grain supplies to last six months (SarDesai 101), but the plan was simply promises. Unable to cope with the difficulties of growing food with the limited supplies from the government, most people left the NEZ and added to the homeless population of the already crowded Saigon in 1979 and 1980. They lived in makeshift tents either inside buildings or in houses that had been abandoned, usually after previous fires (those areas were on Tran Quoc Toan or Ba Thanh Hai street), or along the sidewalks of Hoa Hao street.
The short-term solution for the currency crisis was to standardize the monetary system throughout the country. All banking and private financial institutions were abolished. By 1976, all money had to be exchanged for a new currency at a ratio of 500 to 1 issued by the National Bank of Vietnam. There was also a limit of how much money could be exchanged, the amount being based on the number of individuals or family members (SarDesai 99).
Another drastic measure performed by the government was to balance out the differences in living conditions between the North and the South. SarDesai briefly described those events on page 102. The plan was to confiscate most houses or buildings, including all the furniture, owned by private business people. The houses of families having relatives who worked for the former government were inspected, and any item or extra houses that could be considered luxurious would be confiscated. The local government then distributed the houses to military and government officials, including themselves, and took items like household appliances or equipment back to the North for use in government facilities or the houses of government employees. Some of the confiscated houses are on the Tran Qui Cap and Ba Thanh Hai streets or along the Thanh Da River and are still owned by people working for the government. A house of the woman we mentioned earlier in this report was also inspected. An old gas stove made in 1970 was confiscated because it was considered a luxurious item.
In foreign relationships, in 1976 the new Vietnamese government launched several anti-capitalist and anti-western measures. They refused to pay all the debts owed by the former South Vietnam government during the war, demonstrating their belief in self reliance. However, the government continued to receive large amount of aid from the Soviet Union until the collapse of communist in Europe in early 1990 (SarDesai 103). During that time the Soviet Union was a major contributor to almost every Vietnamese economic development plan, from transportation and communication to energy. In return, Vietnam granted the Soviet Union rights to drill oil offshore of Vung Tau Beach (SarDesai 104). Russian became a second language to be taught in schools and colleges instead of English and French. To repay the loans, Vietnam sent over 100,000 workers to the Soviet Union for several years (SarDesai 104). In the same way, to repay their deficit with Eastern Europe Vietnam sent several thousands workers to countries like Poland and East Germany (SarDesai 104).
Aggravating the very fragile economy, corruption in different levels of the government, and food shortages, Vietnam, with help from the Soviet Union, entered into a war against the Pol Pot regime backed by China in the South and another war against the Chinese in the North during 1978 to 1980. Every man between the ages of sixteen and thirty five (SarDesai 137) would be drafted into the army if he were not in college, which was very difficult to get into because of the lack of colleges and universities and the one-in-ten acceptance rate.
In this particular area, the government discriminated against applicants whose parents worked for the former government of the South and who were still in reeducation camps by implementing a four level scoring system. The first level includes any children of fallen communist soldiers, the second level includes children whose parent had fought for North Vietnam during the war or had been working for their government, the third level is for applicants whose family was not involved with the former South Vietnam government, and the fourth level is for children whose parents had been South Vietnamese soldiers or worked for that government and were still in prison. The level system was not abolished until 1987. However, many were able to evade the draft by bribery or by leaving the country.
Within three years from 1978 to 1981, the number of people leaving Vietnam by boat or across the border into Thailand, Laos, and China were over a million. According to SarDesai 136, approximately 1.5 million Vietnamese left the country by different means during 1975 to 1990 and at least half of those are presumed dead by drowning, sickness, and pirates. Even though the risk was very high people were willing to take the chance because of the uncertainties of living in Vietnam during 1978 to 1980. Among these were the high unemployment rate, wars in both North and South Vietnam, every male between sixteen and thirty five eligible to be drafted, and the resentment against the government for disrupting lives by moving people to the NEZ without enough support (SarDesai 137). The majority of the boat people were Vietnamese Chinese. Most of them acutely felt the oppression of the government when it announced a policy to abolish private trade in 1978 (SarDesai 137). Most of the boat people tried to escape the country to avoid the police, because if they were caught they would be jailed for an indefinite period. However, interestingly, in 1979 some Vietnamese officials arranged a so-called “official return” to China by providing a boat for any Vietnamese Chinese who were willing to pay in gold the equivalent of $5000 (SarDesai 136). Picture 5 shows one of the boat people
Picture 5. Boat people (Sheehan)
In early 1980 the economy was nearly crippled and the government concluded that its plan was not successful. Blamed for the failure was the boycott by the Chinese and the US. Another target of blame was sabotage by the loyalists of the former government and the lack of knowledge by Hanoi about the socioeconomic structure in the South (SarDesai 103, Sheenan 15). The government decided to change its strategy. A new policy called doi moi, or reconstruction, allows very small private businesses, but still with government control of most major businesses and manufacturers.
From 1980 to early 1990, Vietnam was one of the poorest countries in the world, with a per capita income below the subsistence level. As an example of the cost of living in Vietnam in 1998, a teacher’s monthly salary was about 600,000 to 1,000,000 Vietnamese dong ($40.00 to $70.00 US). A breakfast could cost the equivalent of $0.70 to $3.50. An electric bill was about $7.00 to $14.00. Most electronic appliance prices were the same or slightly higher than US prices. With that salary most of government officials and businesses had to accept bribes or be corrupted in order to survive, and it happened literally in every level of the government. Kickbacks in businesses became a way of life, and those practices still occurred daily in Vietnam. According to Sheenan in page 17 and SarDesai in page 80, inflation was out of control at 600 to 700 percent per year. Money was rapidly becoming virtually worthless. The state stores were empty. Shortages of water and electric were common in big cities like Saigon, where power outages were scheduled three days a week to last either a whole day or a whole night. During summer when the temperature was about 38 or 40 degrees C (around 90 to 100 Fahrenheit) people usually slept outside their houses and along the sidewalk. Water pressure typically was reasonable at night, but during the day faucets barely trickled. Therefore, most of houses were equipped with some kind of bucket for storing water. Most people did not own a color television set until early 1990 and did not own a refrigerator until the mid 90s. Literature in Vietnam was very limited because it was illegal to possess any Western romantic novels or Chinese supernatural stories similar to the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon movie. Official literature was that written by communist poets and writers like To Huu and Ho Chi Minh, but every thing else had to be obtained in the black market.
The central areas of Hanoi and the countryside were far worst than Saigon. Hanoi had one of the densest populations on earth; about 520 persons per acre. Most buildings in Hanoi were built in early 1990 and their plumbing systems no longer worked (SheeHan . 26). As a result, people had to use public restrooms, which consisted of several toilets made out of wood. Each was a hollow box with a hole on top. Its bottom was a removable wooden box. The waste was used as fertilizer. To collect water for personal use, people had to carry small buckets and collect water from public water fountains, which dripped out little during the day. To avoid standing in a long line, some people woke up early just to collect water. Living space was also a major problem because most Hanoians were packed into very small living quarters. For instance, when the Australian embassy requested a bigger building for their staff in Hanoi they discovered that the two story house they planned to take over had been a home for 127 people. According government regulation, every person was entitled to 21.5 square feet, or about 1/20 the size of a small studio apartment in the United States (SheeHan N. 26).
Vietnam had, and still has, no welfare system supporting elderly or less fortunate people. A few were lucky enough to have a family to care for them. Some found housing built by a non-profit organization and were cared for by voluntary nuns. Others were not fortunate and became homeless and beggars. The medical care system in Vietnam was free and accessible to everyone, but most of the hospitals were built in early 1970 or before, and lack of medicine and adequate equipment (Sheehan 30-32). Most of the good doctors in the South fled the country in 1975. The number of doctors available after the Saigon Fall in 1975 were not adequate to support the number of patients, and new graduates were not as skilled as the former doctors due to lack of qualified instructors in university, lack of medical equipment, prejudice against the children of former soldiers, and favoritism to the children of fallen comrades.
Lack of education and ignorance by governmental officials have created many social problems such as discrimination against off-springs of American solders and Vietnamese women, called con lai. These Amerasian children were bullied, teased in public places or schools. Most of them were forced to drop out from schools and became beggars or underage laborers as shown in Picture 6.
Picture 6. Con lai (Sheehan)
Although the Three-year War against the Pol Pot in the South and Chinese in the North was over in 1981 its consequence lasted much longer. Most land mines in Cambodia did not kill Vietnamese soldiers but rather left them with amputated limbs. Those handicapped soldiers received no special treatment from the government except for living quarters and a small severance pay. Some of the war veterans felt betrayed, depressed, and frustrated and became what were called “desperate robbers”. They carried live grenades and guns, stopped buses or cars in daylight, and asked for money. If passengers did not do exactly what they asked, they threaten to explode the grenades and kill everyone including themselves. This problem persisted for years before government was able to subdue it in the early nineties.
Even though Vietnam has changed a lot from the mid 90s to the present, its road to a better future is still very rough and difficult to achieve. More private business and foreign investment are encouraged, but business laws in Vietnam are not mature and ready for free enterprise and global business. Corruption and bad business practices such as kickbacks are still major problems. Without living in Vietnam in the late nineties it is very difficult to report accurately the situation in Vietnam. Therefore, this report includes Appendix A, containing images and short comments depicting life in Vietnam from the late 1990s to the present.
There is much more information to convey about Vietnam but space restricts this report to a broad view of certain aspects. Readers are encourage to read the references and articles about Vietnam for a better understanding
Booz, Elisabeth & Sarah Jessup. Vietnam. Passport books, Lincolnwood: NTC Publishing
CIA World Fact Book. http://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/geos/vm.html. Retrieved on
February 29, 2004
Lamb, David. Vietnam Now. New York: Perseus Books Group, 2002.
Sheehan, Neil. After the War Was Over: Hanoi and Saigon. New York: Random House, 1991.
Sardesai, D. R. Vietnam: The Struggle for National Identity. Boulder: Westview Press, 1992.
Booz, Elisabeth & Sarah Jessup. Vietnam. Passport books, Lincolnwood: NTC Publishing
This book is an excellent resource or guide for anyone who wants to travel to Vietnam or wishes to learn more about the history and culture of Vietnam. This book first summarizes Vietnam history from its first civilization to 1989. It then describes each province in detail with colorful pictures, which helps the travelers to make a better decision on where they want to visit.
Sheehan, Neil. After the War Was 0ver: Hanoi and Saigon. New York: Random House, 1991.
Written by a reporter who was in Vietnam during the Vietnam War writing articles and correspondence, this book is an excellent choice for anyone wants to know what happened to Vietnam during and after the Vietnam War from 1965 to early 1990. Sheehan returned to Vietnam 14 years after the war to see what happened since the war ended in 1975. Although he did not live in Vietnam from 1975 to 1989, Sheehan depicts quite accurately the situation in Vietnam after the war. The book is arranged in geographical order, starting in the North and ending in Saigon, which is now called Ho Chi Minh City named after the late Communist leader. His report about living conditions in Vietnam is very interesting and colorful. However, most of his interviews with the people were arranged in advanced by communist officials and seem to take on a communist bias. It would be very interesting if he could somehow gather spontaneous interviews with different people without being supervised by government officials.
Sardesai, D. R. Vietnam The Struggle for National Identity. Boulder: Westview Press, 1992
This is another good book about Vietnam War. It is a concise but clear depiction of Vietnam economics, politics, religion, and the psychology of Vietnamese people throughout the war. Unlike other history books, Sardesai’s book pictures the economic situation in both South and North as affected by the war, and presents some interesting thoughts about how US aid partially helped aggravate the war in Vietnam by creating an artificial economy in the South with much prostitution and corruption in the high ranking military. However, most of the events happening after the 1975 were from the Far Eastern Economic Review, whose information was based on published documents from the Vietnamese government or from interviews. The book describes Vietnamese economic plans and situations before and after implementation, but does not reveal how the government executed those plans in detail.
This picture comprises several images taken by Vietnamese reporter Hai Doan. The images illustrate some of the problems in the city or “te nan xa hoi”. The title is “365 Days Have Gone.” The two images in the top left of the picture describe the problem of poor coordination and irresponsibility among government agencies (no one was responsible for fixing the roads). The third image on the top right of the picture shows how people abuse public places and use them to operate their businesses. The image in the middle of the picture was taken during rush hour. The image at the bottom of the picture reveals a drug operation in daylight at a city park.
Figure 1. Images of Saigon in 2001