I awoke from a fitful jet-lagged sleep in Hanoi to the sound of communist propaganda being broadcast outside on a city-wide sound system. It began with patriotic Vietnamese music, which I first thought an annoying neighbor must be playing on a boom box or car stereo, but then the Ant Queen came onto the air.
She obviously worked for the government. Nobody needed to tell me that. She sounded too official to be anything but the spokesperson for the ruler of an ant hill barking orders at worker drones. This was no radio station DJ, and anyway, no radio station on earth blasts an entire city at full volume from a public address system.
I stayed in a small boutique hotel the size of a large bed-and-breakfast tucked between businesses on a main street in the Old Quarter. The sidewalk was just outside and only one story down. Judging by its volume, I could swear one of the speakers was right outside my window.
I rose, bleary-eyed, and when I yanked back the curtain, sure enough, a megaphone wired into a rat’s nest of electrical wires was indeed less than three feet from the glass and pointing at the street and sidewalk below.
Grumbling, I returned to bed. But the Ant Queen wouldn’t shut up. When I emerged from the shower, she was still haranguing the city. When I finished my breakfast downstairs she was still at it.
“What on earth is going on outside?” I said to the woman at the front desk.
“It’s the morning news from the government,” she said. She looked a little embarrassed. “I know it’s loud. Sorry.” She actually cringed when she said the word sorry. She must have to explain this to foreign visitors constantly.
“Oh, that’s just propaganda,” another Vietnamese person said dismissively when I later asked for a second opinion. I’m keeping his name out of this so he won’t get in trouble.
“Does anyone listen to it?” I said.
“It’s impossible not to,” he said and laughed, “because it’s so loud.”
I found the whole thing amusing initially. What an anachronism! I encountered what I would have expected in a place like Moscow circa 1956, and I found it in tropical Southeast Asia in the year 2014.
Somebody recorded one of these state public addresses on a video camera and uploaded it to YouTube. The clip is eight years old, but the phenomenon he recorded is still going strong.
Obviously it’s a leftover from the totalitarian era. I flew to Hanoi from Seattle via Taipei, and I know without even checking that nothing remotely like this exists in Taiwan even though I never made it out of the airport. Nor does anything like it exist in the Philippines. Or South Korea. Or Thailand. Certainly not in Japan.
But a touch of North Korea remains behind in Hanoi.
Vietnam is emphatically not regulated or regimented like its unspeakable neighbor far to the north. For the most part, it looks and feels like a freewheeling place, a country I could live in without much stress at all as long as I stayed out of politics. But its totalitarian past hasn’t entirely faded. No democratic state in the world would inflict noise pollution like this on its citizens. Only an unelected regime that lords it over everyone else from on high would even think of behaving this way in the 21st century.
Vietnam’s one-party state, despite being much more relaxed than it used to be, still spends hours each day broadcasting bullshit into everyone’s ears whether they like it or not. I couldn’t help laughing at the absurdity.
Then it hit me: This is going to wake me up in the morning every single day that I’m here.
“What exactly,” I said to the lady at the hotel’s front desk, “is the woman on that loudspeaker talking about?”
She paused and listened. “She’s telling us about a Communist Party meeting in the ward yesterday.”
The last vestiges of economic communism appear to have been vaporized. Hanoi looks and feels more like a capitalist Wild West than the actual West does these days. But some habits die harder than others.
I never asked anyone the name of the woman who reads “the news” at seven o’clock in the morning to a city that’s spectacularly uninterested in listening to it. Her name doesn’t matter. To me she is and always will be the Ant Queen.
Rice production is up 200 percent!
She isn’t saying anything quite that ludicrous now, but I’ll bet she was back in 1973 when ragged civilians waited in lines on those very same streets to exchange government coupons for meager handfuls of food. Vietnam suffered terrible shortages when its economy was still Marxist-Leninist, but once that system was scrapped and producers were “allowed” to profit from their work on the market, Vietnam became one of the world’s largest exporters of rice.
I only asked a handful of people if they enjoyed getting “news” from the state every morning and then again at the end of the work day, but surveying a handful was enough. Everyone hates it. Is there any conceivable reason why they would not?
Even some government officials think it’s ridiculous.
“For people who live near the speakers, it’s a disaster,” Pham Van Hien said to the LA Times five years ago. “It hurts their ears.” Hien at the time was the chairman of one of Hanoi’s so-called government “communes,” and he tried to convince the party to shut off its public address system and put its broadcasts on the Internet where residents could listen to them voluntarily, but his initiative obviously didn’t work out.
Vietnam’s nationwide English-language newspaper is, for the most part, a written version of the Ant Queen for foreigners. The vast majority of its articles are tedious descriptions in crushing detail of things government officials did and said the previous day.
Here’s an example. “President Truong Tan Sang wrapped up a two-day tour of the central province of Quang Tri yesterday, visiting Con Co island district and inspecting the new-style rural area building programme in Vinh Linh District's Vinh Thach Commune… Sang hailed the locality's efforts to implement the new-style rural area building programme. The commune fulfilled 15 of the 19 criteria and aims to achieve the rest by the end of this year.”
Almost the entire paper is like that. You’ll learn as much about the country reading “news” of that sort as you would if you stayed in your hotel room and napped.
I brought with me the electronic version of Theodore Dalrymple’s book The Wilder Shores of Marx. He visited Vietnam just after the Berlin Wall fell when the country was only beginning to reform its way out of communist economics, and he had a similar experience in one of Saigon’s bookstores.
I picked up a little volume of the recent speeches of Nguyen Van Linh, General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Part of Vietnam (ie, the Pope). It was called Vietnam: Urgent Problems. Following the title page was a photograph of the General Secretary: I knew at once I was not in for an exciting read. The first paragraph was unencouraging.
“After several days of diligent and active work with a high sense of responsibility to the Party and people, today the 6th Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam has come to fruition.”
Although the book was only 147 pages long, I could not help but recall Lord MaCauley’s review of a two-volume biography of Lord Burghley:
“Compared with the labor of reading these volumes, all other labour, the labour of thieves on the treadmill, the labour of children in the mines, the labour of slaves on the plantation, is but a pleasant recreation.”
Vietnam is no longer totalitarian. It’s merely authoritarian now.
The difference may seem strictly semantic, but it’s huge. Jeanne Kirkpatrick explained it in a landmark essay in Commentary in 1979.
“Traditional autocrats,” she wrote, “leave in place existing allocations of wealth, power, status, and other resources which in most traditional societies favor an affluent few and maintain masses in poverty. But they worship traditional gods and observe traditional taboos. They do not disturb the habitual rhythms of work and leisure, habitual places of residence, habitual patterns of family and personal relations. Because the miseries of traditional life are familiar, they are bearable to ordinary people who, growing up in the society, learn to cope, as children born to untouchables in India acquire the skills and attitudes necessary for survival in the miserable roles they are destined to fill. Such societies create no refugees.
“Precisely the opposite is true of revolutionary Communist regimes. They create refugees by the million because they claim jurisdiction over the whole life of the society and make demands for change that so violate internalized values and habits that inhabitants flee by the tens of thousands in the remarkable expectation that their attitudes, values, and goals will ‘fit’ better in a foreign country than in their native land.”
Most Vietnamese-Americans originate in the south. They and their families moved here after the communist north overran Saigon and annexed the republic of South Vietnam in 1975.
The communists didn’t instigate the widely feared bloodbath, but they did send hundreds of thousands to re-education camps. French historian Jean-Louis Margolin published a letter about the ghastly conditions from prisoners that several dozen orally “signed.” It concluded this way:
“If it really is the case that humanity at present is recoiling from the spread of Communism, and rejecting at last the claims of the North Vietnamese Communists that their defeat of American imperialism is proof of their invincibility, then we, the prisoners of Vietnam, ask the International Red Cross, humanitarian organizations throughout the world, and all men of goodwill to send us cyanide capsules as soon as possible so that we can put an end to our suffering ourselves.”
Hundreds of thousands of south Vietnamese fled the country by boat. They didn’t care where they might end up or that they might not make it at all. All they wanted was out. They’d rather hurl themselves into the ocean and hope for the best than stick around and be ruled by the revolutionary new government. Cuban exiles in Florida can perhaps relate to them better than anyone else.
“Without firing a shot,” journalist David Lamb wrote in his book, Vietnam Now, “the communist leadership managed to achieve what a generation of war had not: the flight of discontents; more than a million Vietnamese left their homeland in three waves between 1975 and 1989. Never before in any country had so many people fled peace.”
The north had been terrorized too, as far back as 1931.
“The Party threw itself into the creation of rural ‘soviets’ in Nge Tinh and started liquidating landlords by the hundreds,” Margolin wrote in The Black Book of Communism, translated and published by Harvard University Press. “An article in the Viet Minh press in Hanoi on 29 August recommended that the people set up ‘traitor elimination committees; in every neighborhood and village…Vietnamese women who had married Frenchmen were also systematically slaughtered, although these actions were blamed on people who were not really members of the Viet Minh. In August and September alone the Viet Minh carried out thousands of assassinations and tens of thousands of kidnappings…These fanatics showed not only their unpitying dogmatism, but also the will toward a totalitarian classification of society that was a driving force inside the Vietnamese Communist Party.”
He estimates that 50,000 people were executed and that as many as 100,000 imprisoned. Not only did fellow communists get the axe—the majority of them got the axe. “86 percent of the members of Party cells in the countryside were purged,” he wrote, “as were 95 percent of the cadres in the anti-French resistance.”
Ho Chi Minh is dead now, as are his economic ideas. Despite scrapping his system, however, the party still lionizes him for being the founding father of modern, sovereign, unified Vietnam.
They embalmed his corpse and keep it preserved under glass. Actually, the Russians did the embalming because they know how. They’re experienced. They did the same to Vladimir Lenin. Ho’s body is periodically returned to Russia for a bit of a touch-up. Former US President Bill Clinton was relieved that Ho’s remains were in Moscow for routine maintenance when he visited in 2000 so he wouldn’t have to face the awkward choice of either paying his respects at Ho’s mausoleum or offending his hosts by refusing.
That worked out for everybody, not just Bill Clinton. A visit to Ho wouldn’t have played well in the US. Scabs on old wounds would have torn open again. Refusing to visit Ho would have cheesed off the Vietnamese government, which is as friendly to the United States now as its people. Clinton was treated like a rock star in Hanoi, and, if anything, the US is even more popular today than it was fourteen years ago.
Washington and Hanoi will never forget that they were enemies once, but there’s no point in making a big public show of it now. The Vietnamese got it over a long time ago, and the country is now arguably richer and freer than Saigon was under the South Vietnamese government that Americans fought to defend from the north.
Few Americans would be offended if I visited Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, so I put it on my schedule, but the line was three kilometers long in the blazing tropical sunshine. His mausoleum is only open for a few hours in the morning and it’s closed on Mondays and Fridays. I have little doubt that it’s because the government wants a long line. It makes Ho Chi Minh appear more popular than he actually is.
So I didn’t even try going inside. Outside was interesting enough anyway. A man named Nguyen showed me around.
In front of Ho’s mausoleum is a gigantic square that makes mere mortals like me and Nguyen appear gnat-sized. Spread out over much of that area are 360 squares of grass. “Each square represents a group of people in Vietnam,” Nguyen said.
Carrying the analogy forward, I imagined each blade of grass as an individual person. And it gave me the creeps. The entire country is represented as a blocklike structure flat on the ground at the feet of a single dear leader.
I slightly doubt today’s Vietnamese government would design a public space and monument this way. The country is still a one-party state, but it is no longer militarized, regimented, or blocklike. Like the Ant Queen, the mausoleum and its grounds are anachronistic fragments from the past.
A few hundred yards from Ho’s mausoleum is his old house, a simple wooden structure on stilts next to a pond. Across the pond is a museum, an architectural delight that seems a perfect fusion of French and Vietnamese.
Inside, below photographs of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, Ho’s plain wooden dining room table is covered on only one end with a small bit of cloth. “Ho Chi Minh didn’t need to cover the entire table,” Nguyen said, “so he cut the tablecloth and donated the rest so a poor person could use it.”
I thought of the story in America about George Washington and the cherry tree. “I cannot tell a lie,” young George said when his father asked if he felled the tree with an axe. Maybe that story is true, but it’s probably not. It’s a cute little story for kids.
Nguyen showed me the pond behind Ho’s old house.
“Ho Chi Minh came out here every morning and fed the fish,” he said. “He clapped his hands and the fish came. If we clap our hands the fish will still come because they think Ho Chi Minh is still alive.”
He did not attempt to prove that hypothesis by clapping his hands.
The road leading up to Ho’s house is shaded by giant trees—and thank goodness for that. I was dying out there in the heat. “These trees,” Nguyen said, “don’t produce any fruit. Do you know why?”
“Because it’s too cold this far north?” I said.
Nguyen didn’t laugh. I’m not sure he realized that I was joking.
“When Ho Chi Minh planted them,” he said, “the country was only half independent. The south wasn’t yet free. So the trees survived but didn’t produce any fruit.”
These are stories for six year-olds. I doubt Nguyen believes them, but I didn’t ask. He’s an official guide. The government tells him what to say. I can at least attest to the fact that he doesn’t believe every fantastical story because at one point, when telling me about a wooden dragon at one of the local pagodas, he informed me that “dragon is not a real animal.”
Hoa Lo Prison, known to Americans as the Hanoi Hilton, was built by French imperialists in the 19th century for the warehousing of Vietnamese political prisoners. After the French finally left what they called Indochina, the communist government used it to warehouse American prisoners of war, including John McCain, who later became a US Senator and presidential candidate, and Pete Peterson, who later became a US Congressman and the first US Ambassador to Vietnam after the war.
The Vietnamese demolished most of the prison but left a piece of it intact and turned it into a museum. An office complex now rises over the rest of the site which includes one of Hanoi’s finest Western-style coffee houses.
Most of the museum is devoted to French mistreatment of Vietnamese prisoners, which makes sense since that’s what the prison was used for during most of its life. It includes statues of men with shackled ankles and men forced into slave labor.
Grim murals depict the torture of prisoners. A narrow cell block leads to an execution room complete with a guillotine. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin invented the head-chopping device in 1789 supposedly as a “humanitarian” method for killing. I suppose it was when compared with medieval era devices such as the Catherine Wheel still in use at the time which were arguably more savage even than crucifixion.
I do not believe in ghosts, detectable remnants of bad emotional energy, or anything else supernatural or paranormal, but I nevertheless felt some seriously bad juju inside Hoa Lo. Standing and walking in the very places where people were so mistreated is not a pleasant experience. These kinds of museums are important, but I nevertheless felt like it wouldn’t be entirely wrong if the Vietnamese one day decide to raze the rest of Hoa Lo and build just about anything in its place.
For the Vietnamese the museum is all about France, but I was more interested in the American experience there. The official depiction of the “Hanoi Hilton” era of that building’s history is not, shall we say, unflinchingly accurate. I saw no photographs of Americans in prison cells or any mention that they were abused in any way whatsoever. On the contrary, I saw photographs of American prisoners of war decorating a Christmas tree and playing basketball.
There’s a picture of a young John McCain being treated by a doctor. His flight suit hangs on a wall behind glass.
McCain says he was tortured in there. So does Pete Peterson, our former ambassador. Surely others were too. Yet there’s no mention of it anywhere in that building.
We don’t have to hold it against Vietnam that this happened. McCain and Peterson don’t. They appear to have forgiven their former captors and torturers as much as human beings can forgive such a thing, and they both consider themselves friends of Vietnam now. The Vietnamese, for their part, seek a formal alliance with the United States, and for whatever it’s worth I think they should get it. The Vietnamese won’t torture an American captive ever again, nor will Washington ever again bomb Hanoi.
But the American section of that museum, I have to say, is a farce. Perhaps an understandable one—admitting to and publicly displaying one’s past bad behavior can be uncomfortable—but it’s a farce all the same.
So is Vietnam’s Museum of Revolution, though it’s nowhere near as bad as it could have been.
Of course it’s one-sided, and its descriptions use standard-issue communist boilerplate. Still, its biases cast a revealing light onto the communist north’s view of the world, if not today then at least during the 1960s and 70s.
The southern Vietnamese at that time are dismissed entirely as “puppets,” as if they had no will of their own, as if the only reason they were anti-communist is because the United States persuaded or forced them to be.
Since the United States and Vietnam are at least on friendly terms if not quite allies just yet, since our people and governments both get along without any hiccups, and since the north and the south are unified and more or less at peace with each other, maybe it’s time to jettison that kind of language.
That language is not even accurate. An honest museum might feature on its walls a poem by Trinh Cong Son, which includes the following all-too-true lines. “Open your eyes and turn over the enemy corpses. There are Vietnamese faces upon them.”
The majority of human beings everywhere in the world who found themselves under communist rule ended up, to one extent or another, as anti-communists. Otherwise, communism would still be a viable force. Communist parties would win elections. Communists would never have needed to round up so many political prisoners and send to them to gulags or re-education camps. Communist regimes would never have created so many millions of refugees or felt the need to murder a combined total of 100 million people.
But the word communist means different things in the United States and in Hanoi. The Communist Party is still in power yet Vietnam is a hypercapitalist wonderland. While most of us equate communism with totalitarian economics and government, in Vietnam it also has a nationalist dimension.
They’ll tell you that if you ask them about it, and their definition made a little more sense when I saw an old ration book from the 1970s behind glass. That book, the description said, was from “the subsidy period.” I think of the 1970s as the communist period, but the Communist Party defines it as the subsidy period.
“Vietnam was never all that ideologically communist,” said Pete Peterson, our former ambassador and Hanoi Hilton survivor when I called him at his home in Melbourne, Australia. “It was always more socialist and nationalist. I told them they should stop calling themselves the Communist Party, but I didn’t get anywhere with it. Everybody pays for everything over there, including health care. The government hardly provides anything. Sweden is more socialist than Vietnam.”
That sounds about right. Whether or not he was right about Vietnam’s communists in the past, I know he is right about them today. Back during the “subsidy period,” people used to queue up for handfuls of rice on the same streets where they can now buy smart phones and iPads. Communism, Marxist economics, subsidies, or whatever we want to call it only lasted from north to south from 1975 to 1989 before if was junked.
The totalitarian system of political control has likewise eased up. Facebook and Twitter used to be banned, but they’re not anymore. Vietnamese were once prohibited from even speaking to foreigners, but that hasn’t been the case for a long time. The Lives of Others, one of the best anti-communist films ever made, played in movie theaters in Hanoi while I was there. I could hardly believe it, and yet there it was.
The phrase “regime-change” has been bandied about in the West for some time now and generally refers to the overthrow of a government by external forces, such as the removal of Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2003. It can also, of course, refer to the kind of revolution from below that we saw in Tunisia in 2011 and in Eastern Europe when the Berlin Wall fell.
But there really is a third type of regime-change, and we’ve seen it in Vietnam (as well as in China). The same party, the Communist Party, has been in power for decades, but the party, the regime, has dramatically changed. That change came not from outside the country or from inside and below but from within the regime and the party itself.
The Ant Queen still wakes everyone up in the morning and one could argue that the museums themselves belong in a museum, but these relics of a bygone era stand out so starkly because they’re at odds with everyone and everything else.
Voluntary regime-change isn’t common in history, but it would be wrong to say it’s unheard of.Post-script: If you enjoyed reading this dispatch, please consider contributing with a donation. Many thanks in advance!