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The Ghosts of Communism in Asia

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!

The Brutal Truth about ISIS

My latest was published today in the Sunday edition of the New York Daily News. Here's the first part.

It was inevitable: Our post-Iraq isolationist funk is finally ending. And it’s ending, of all places, right back in Iraq.

President Obama, a mere week after saying ISIS is a problem that needs to be “managed,” is now promising to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the terrorist organization that controls a proto-state in huge swaths of Syria and Iraq. He plans a “systematic campaign of air strikes” alongside support for the new Iraqi government and relatively “moderate” Syrian rebels.

The President is the most reluctant of warriors. He campaigned on ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and even the most casual observer could see that he was spectacularly uninterested in doing the first thing about Syria’s civil war.

What forced his hand is the fact that the Syrian civil war is no longer the Syrian civil war. It’s a regional war that is exploding into Iraq and to a lesser extent into Lebanon. It long ago sucked in Iran and Hezbollah and is now dragging in Washington, kicking and screaming.

The erstwhile hawkish Republicans have been hardly more interested in getting involved than Obama, what with Syria’s terrorist-supporting President Bashar Assad battling it out with other terrorists. Sarah Palin summed up the mood of her party’s right wing when she wrote “let Allah sort it out” on Facebook.

Why not, right? Iraq has proven to be all but unfixable, and so has Afghanistan.

The reason we must reject the tempting tendency to close our eyes and hope this problem goes away is that Allah doesn’t always sort things out according to American interests.

Life is filled with things we don’t want to do but have to do anyway. No one wants radiation or chemotherapy, but if you get cancer, you’re going to have to take it despite the fact that it might not work and that it will certainly feel like it’s killing you.

Let’s not kid ourselves. ISIS — or ISIL as the President calls it — is cancerous. And it is not a benign tumor. It is metastasizing and will not stop growing stronger and deadlier until it is dealt with aggressively and, at the absolute minimum, contained.

Read the rest in the New York Daily News.

Iraq's Kurdish Firewall

Iraq’s Kurdish Peshmerga forces worked with the Iraqi branch of Hezbollah to oust Islamic State fighters from the town of Amerli, but now they’re told they are no longer welcome. “We fought for three months here, and now we have to fight these bastards,” one of the Kurdish fighters told Greg Jaffe at the Washington Post. “If this continues, we’ll have another war.”

I doubt the Kurds will get sucked into a war with Iraq’s Shia population, but it’s possible. What’s more striking about this and other recent developments is that Iraq’s Kurds are frequently fighting outside their autonomous region in the northern three provinces.

They’re doing it defensively—they have no interest in conquering and annexing Arab parts of the country—but they’re doing it nevertheless.

They’ve long wanted out of Iraq and they plan to hold a referendum on independence, but for now, thanks to IS, they’re intricately and militarily involved with the country they want to leave.

The Kurds of Iraq and Syria are not strong enough to demolish the Islamic State by themselves or even with help, but they’re perfectly capable of keeping hostiles out of their well-guarded autonomous region and can even push back beyond their own borders with help from their friends in the US and even enemies like Iran and Hezbollah.

The Obama administration is currently looking for allies in the region who are willing to fight the Islamic State and the Kurds are without a doubt the best we’re going to find. They are allergic to radical Islam, they’re more pro-American than even Israelis, and they fight competently and hard.

Washington has been mostly neglecting these people for more than a decade now. Their autonomous region has been stable since the 1990s and they sat out most of the fighting after Saddam Hussein fell, but their holiday from history is over.

The Iraqi Army dropped its weapons and ran when IS approached, and Syria’s ludicrous “president” Bashar al-Assad Syria left IS alone for years since they make him look almost respectable by comparison, but the Kurds are not screwing around. Give them whatever they want and whatever they need—including recognition when they declare independence.

The Fate of Steven Sotloff

Earlier today Gretchen Carlson at Fox News interviewed me about Steven Sotloff and the risks foreign correspondents take when working in war zones. You can watch the clip online if you're interested.

Journalist Steven Sotloff Executed

The Islamic State just executed my colleague Steven Sotloff on camera.

He and I corresponded by email and planned to meet in Libya last year, though it didn’t work out. He had to leave and I had to cancel my trip and re-route myself to Lebanon, so we never actually met. But I did introduce him to the publisher of this magazine and he wrote a few articles for us before he was kidnapped in Syria.

I sort of knew him, though not in the flesh, so I can’t tell you much about him personally, but I can tell you this: he was a hell of a lot braver than I am. I have not for even a second considered going to Syria during this conflict, and I doubt I’d be willing to go there even a couple of years from now if the conflict were to miraculously end later today.

When he lived in Benghazi and everyone was heading for the exits, he told me—and I believed him—that Benghazi was the same old Benghazi, by which he meant mostly fine aside from some unfortunate incidents. Dangerous places are often, though not always, less dangerous than they appear in the media. At least they appear that way.

Maybe that's just a trick of the mind. Those of us who insert ourselves into war zones figure out ways to cope with anxiety and get it to drop nearly to zero. The human mind is extremely adaptable, and it’s easier to neutralize fear when it’s faced voluntarily. That’s why I felt calm in Baghdad most of the time. It’s also why exposure therapy works.  

Steven was brave and unlucky, but he was not stupid. He knew how risky going to Syria was and, according to Ben Taub, he planned to take a hiatus from this nasty business after one final trip and possibly apply to graduate school in Florida.

The Islamic State took that from him, and they took him from us.

I didn’t actually meet him, but I miss him anyway. Sincerest condolences to his friends and family.

The Nusra Front's Impossible Demand

Considering the events of the last couple of weeks, you could be forgiven if you forgot that the Islamic State isn’t the only terrorist group fighting in Syria. There’s also the Nusra Front.

They recently kidnapped peacekeepers from Fiji monitoring the ceasefire on the Israeli-Syrian border. (They also surrounded Filipino peacekeepers who managed to escape.)

The Associated Press reports that they won’t release the hostages unless the United Nations takes them off its list of terrorist organizations.

I’d say someone should tell these guys that if they don’t want to be called terrorists they shouldn’t do terroristy things like taking hostages, but they are the Syrian branch of Al Qaeda, so fat chance of that ever happening.

Don't Cooperate with Assad

The US is considering air strikes against the Islamic State in Syria as well as Iraq and the Syrian government says any unilateral action that isn’t coordinated with Damascus will be seen as an act of aggression.

President Bashar al-Assad would be perfectly content, however, to have the United States fighting on its side. That’s what he wanted from the very beginning. He hoped Americans would forget or simply not care that he is the Arab world’s largest state sponsor of international terrorism and has even cooperated with ISIS under its previous name to kill Americans in Iraq.

He might pull it off. Nicholas Blanford, a brilliant analyst of Levantine politics, explains why that would be dangerous in the Christian Science Monitor.

One of the grim ironies of the Syrian civil war is that IS has flourished in Syria in part due to the manipulations of the Assad regime itself. As initially peaceful protests turned into sectarian war in the latter half of 2011, Assad appears to have understood that secular moderate rebel factions posed a greater long-term threat to his survival than bands of wild-eyed Islamist extremists. Moderate rebel groups were more likely to win the logistical backing of the US and other Western countries that could provide sufficient leverage to oust Assad.

On the other hand, if the rebel ranks were dominated by Al Qaeda-style Islamist groups, the West would balk at providing support and could eventually even side with Damascus.

In a cynical but skillfully exploited strategy, hundreds of Islamic militants were released from Syrian prisons in the first few months of the then generally peaceful uprising.

Some of those militants became leading figures in groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, which today is Al Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria and one of the most effective anti-Assad factions. IS was originally an Iraq-based group that began extending its influence into Syria in 2012, drawing ever-expanding numbers of recruits and earning a reputation for brutality. Unlike Jabhat al-Nusra and other rebel factions, ISIS has been more interested in acquiring territory and funds to build its self-declared caliphate than in tackling the Syrian Army. And the Assad regime, until recently at least, was generally content to leave IS alone, especially as the extremist group’s attacks against moderate rebel rivals turned it into a tacit ally of Damascus.

With IS, analysts say, the Assad regime has quietly nurtured the perfect enemy – one that prefers to battle Assad’s more moderate opponents but whose brutal behavior has alarmed the international community and spurred calls in the West to bite the bullet and consider resuming cooperation with Damascus.

“In a very disciplined way, Bashar al-Assad is trying to maneuver the US into collaborating with him against ISIS in eastern Syria, even as he stands aside while ISIS tries to finish off the nationalist Syrian opposition in western Syria,” says Frederic C. Hof, senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and a former State Department adviser on Syrian affairs. “This appearance of collaboration [between Damascus and Washington] will, in Assad's view, facilitate his eventual return to polite society while promoting tension between Washington and its Gulf partners.”

[…]

A European ambassador in Beirut who is in regular contact with a broad array of opposition groups in Syria, including ISIS, warns that any Western coordination with the Assad regime, which is dominated by Alawites, a splinter sect of Shiite Islam, would further inflame Sunni sentiment across the region and further afield, deepening the sectarian dynamics of the conflict and rallying more recruits for IS.

If the West joins forces with the Assad regime to fight ISIS, it will be perceived as “Crusaders fighting with Alawite infidels against Sunnis.… It couldn’t be worse,” the ambassador says, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The experienced diplomat says that IS can be defeated if Sunnis in Syria and Iraq are brought into an alliance against the extremist group. Recalling a recent phone conversation with a member of IS in northern Syria, the ambassador quoted the militant as acknowledging “the more it becomes a Sunni-Shiite war, the faster we will grow.”

The Worst Fate Possible for a Journalist

Last year when Libya still looked like it might be okay I planned my second visit. It would have been my first since the overthrow of Moammar Qaddafi.

An American journalist who lived in Benghazi emailed me and said we should meet for coffee once I arrived. I liked the idea, partly because he could show me around and introduce me to people, but mostly because I would not be alone in a strange and potentially dangerous city. No one, not even war correspondents, enjoys being alone in such places.

Then several governments, including our own, ordered its citizens out. Westerners headed for the exits and European airlines stopped flying to Tripoli. I had no choice but to cancel my trip. Nothing much bad was happening at the time, but several foreign intelligence agencies, including the CIA, concluded that something horrible was likely to happen and that people like me had to clear out of the way.

I didn’t know what, exactly, they were worried about, which only made my own anxiety worse. What I dreaded more than anything was being kidnapped. I’ve risked getting shot and blown up in a number of different war zones, but I will not go to a place where I stand a serious chance of being grabbed by terrorists. I decided long ago I would let would-be kidnappers shoot me in the street before I’d get in a car with them even at gunpoint.

So I cancelled my trip to Libya and went to Lebanon instead. Knowing I had a colleague and a friend-to-be waiting in Benghazi wasn’t enough. There is safety in numbers, sure, but we journalists can only do so much to protect each other. He seemed disappointed, but he too ended up leaving Libya and went to, of all places, Syria.

His name is Steven Sotloff. And he was kidnapped last August by ISIS. Last weekend ISIS executed our colleague James Foley on camera and said Sotloff is next. Sotloff appears in the video too and personally witnessed Foley’s beheading.

I never met him, but now I can’t stop thinking about him and worrying about him. Sometimes it makes me physically sick. We were going to meet in Benghazi. I’m sure we would have become friends. We have friends in common already and, believe me, hanging out with colleagues in dangerous places is a bonding experience. He published a few articles in this very magazine because I introduced him by email to the editors and the publisher.

Apparently ISIS demanded 132 million dollars in ransom money from Foley’s family before killing him—an impossible amount. The government could pay it, of course, but will not. Rewarding kidnappers only encourages more kidnappings and puts even more people at risk.

Instead the US military tried to rescue Foley, Sotloff, and other so-far unnamed journalists who are supposedly being held. The operation didn’t work out. The victims were at another location.

Washington can’t pay ransoms, but it could and probably should offer a large cash reward for intelligence that leads to a successful rescue. Kidnappers might try to collect the reward money themselves, which would make it a ransom by other means, but there’s an easy way around that—kill all the kidnappers. Do not arrest them and send them to Guantanamo. Kill them.

I have no doubt Washington is looking for Sotloff and the others right now. They’ll send men if they think they know where he is. They’ve already tried at least once. We can only hope they’ll succeed before it’s too late.

In the meantime, to all of my colleagues: for God’s sake, stay the hell out of Syria.

Vice News Embeds With the Islamic State

I’ve just returned from a very brief summer vacation in a remote part of the Pacific Northwest without cell phone coverage or Internet access, so I’m a bit behind on what’s happening in the world. While I’m catching up, take a look at Vice magazine’s five-part documentary on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

I don’t know how they did it, but they somehow got permission to embed a team of reporters with IS in both Syria and Iraq. There is no chance I would ever trust these people with my life and my safety, but the team got in and out okay and what they came back with is extraordinary.

The Islamic State is a deadly serious army with delusional global ambitions. Someone will have to defeat it with force, and it won’t be one of the local armed forces. Not any time soon. I’m sorry to say this, but if you watch Vice magazine’s documentary I doubt you’ll come to any other conclusion.

Hamas Threatened Reporters in Gaza

The Foreign Press Association is protesting “in the strongest terms the blatant, incessant, forceful and unorthodox methods employed by the Hamas authorities and their representatives against visiting international journalists in Gaza over the past month."

Of course this happened. Gaza is ruled by a dictatorship and a terrorist army, and this is what dictators and terrorists do. I’d flatly refuse to believe any report that said otherwise. Hezbollah pulled the same crap with me in Lebanon, and that was during peace time, not war time. I also told my readers about it and refused to be censored. And Hezbollah, at least in some ways, is less oppressive and controlling than Hamas.

Alan Johnson published a round-up of first-person reports in The Telegraph if you want to know the nuts-and-bolts of how this actually works.

Here is just one:

Israeli filmmaker Michael Grynszpan described on Facebook an exchange he had had with a Spanish journalist who had just left Gaza. “We talked about the situation there. He was very friendly. I asked him how come we never see on television channels reporting from Gaza any Hamas people, no gunmen, no rocket launcher, no policemen. We only see civilians on these reports, mostly women and children. He answered me frankly: 'It's very simple, we did see Hamas people there launching rockets, they were close to our hotel, but if ever we dare pointing our camera on them they would simply shoot at us and kill us.'”

I understand why these reporters didn’t write about this while they were in Gaza. They could have been kidnapped or killed. Perhaps their editors back home kept quiet for the same reason, to protect their employees and freelancers.

There is a solution to this conundrum, however. Don’t send reporters to places where they are intimidated into lying by omission or commission.

The Gaza war was a huge story, of course, and it had to be covered, but it could just as easily have been covered from the Israeli side of the line. Covering both sides of the story is of course preferable whenever possible, but providing balanced coverage from Israel alongside censored coverage from Gaza is a form of journalistic malpractice. Stop it. 

Who Are the Yezidis?

The Weekly Standard asked me to write a piece explaining who Iraq's Yezidis are since I spent some time with them in 2006 and 2008. Here's the first part.

Islamic State terrorists, formerly known as ISIS, have killed at least 500 members of Iraq’s Yezidi religious minority in and around the city of Sinjar and taken hundreds of women as slaves. Some of the victims were buried alive. Their only crime: not being Muslims.

Tens of thousands bolted from Sinjar and fled to a remote mountaintop without food, water, or shelter where many more perished. If the United States hadn’t air dropped supplies or blasted the Islamic State from the skies, the number of dead Yezidis could have mushroomed to genocidal proportions.

Even so, the Islamic State’s genocidal intentions are obvious now. Christians, Jews, Druze, Alawites, Shia Muslims, and mainstream Sunni Muslims should expect precisely the same treatment if they find themselves conquered.

If war teaches us about geography, genocide teaches us about ethnic and religious minorities who might remain obscure otherwise. I had never heard of the Yezidis myself until I went to Iraq in 2006 and interviewed the president of Duhok University in the Kurdish autonomous region. He told me to go to Lalish, the Yezidi “Mecca,” where the last of the region’s ancient fire-worshippers believe the universe was born.

The place is scorching hot during the summer like everywhere else in Iraq, but I drove there through empty snow-covered land during the winter. Lalish didn’t look or feel like the center of the universe. It looked and felt like the ends of the earth. The area is as unpopulated as the Wyoming outback, which offers the Yezidis a certain measure of protection. If their “Mecca” were in the center of Baghdad—or, worse, Fallujah—they’d be in more serious danger right now than they already are.

Read the whole thing.

Why the US is Bombing Iraq and Not Syria

Cable news reporters have spent all weekend asking one US government official after another why we’re bombing Iraq and not Syria if we’re motivated by humanitarian concerns as Washington says.

I have yet to hear a straight answer, perhaps because the administration thinks a straight answer is undiplomatic. But I’m not a diplomat, and I can explain it point-blank.

So here it is. It’s real simple. The US is bombing Iraq right now because the psychopaths of the Islamic State (formerly ISIS) are attacking the Kurds.

Morally and philosophically, the death of every innocent person on earth—from New York City to Gaza—carries the same tragic weight. Lopping off the heads of Kurdish children in Iraq is not more reprehensible than cutting off the heads of children in Homs or Aleppo, but Syria is hostile and the Kurds are our friends, and that difference matters to government officials and foreign policy makers. If it didn’t, friendships and alliances would mean nothing.

The Kurds of Iraq are our best friends in the entire Muslim world. Not even an instinctive pacifist and non-interventionist like Barack Obama can stand aside and let them get slaughtered by lunatics so extreme than even Al Qaeda disowns them. There is no alternate universe where that’s going to happen.

Iraqi Kurdistan is a friendly, civilized, high-functioning place. It’s the one part of Iraq that actually works and has a bright future ahead of it. Refusing to defend it would be like refusing to defend Poland, Taiwan, or Japan. We have no such obligation toward Syria.

That’s it. That’s the entire answer. Washington is following the first and oldest rule of foreign policy—reward your friends and punish your enemies.

ISIS Exterminating Minorities in Iraq

Kurdish members of Iraq’s Yezidi religious minority in Sinjar are being massacred by ISIS if they refuse to convert to Islam. They’re ancient fire-worshipers with roots in Zoroastrianism and they long predate the Koran.

More than 300 of them so far have been murdered for their religion alone.  

Killings of this sort on a large scale are called genocide.

Islam is a proselytizing religion, but converting these people at gunpoint and executing those who refuse will not fly with the Kurds who are Muslims, and not just because the Yezidis are their fellow Kurds.

The Yezidi religion is part of the Kurdish identity. Iraqi Kurdistan’s flag eschews the crescent moon so common on the flags of Islamic countries and opts for fire imagery from the Yezidi religion instead. Many years ago I interviewed the president of Duhok University in Iraq Kurdistan and he seemed to speak for the majority when he professed his affection for these people and their ancient religion. “I am a Muslim,” he told me. “But I love the Yezidis. Theirs is the original religion of the Kurds. Only through the Yezidis can I speak to God in my own language.”

Sinjar is a Kurdish town, but it’s in Nineveh province outside the Kurdish autonomous region. The armed Kurdish Peshmerga forces operating there ran out of ammunition and had little choice but to retreat in the wake of the ISIS assault. Tens of thousands of civilians fled the area and are stranded atop a remote mountain without food, water, or shelter.

Eight years ago I visited the Yezidi “Mecca” in Lalish, Iraq, inside the Kurdish autonomous region a ways south of Duhok. This is where the Yezidis believe the universe was born. Eternal flames burn forever in little shrines. Baba Sheik, their leader, showed me around and took me into their temple.

“All people in the world should be brothers,” he said. “You are welcome here for the rest of your life.”

Baba Sheik wanted to include Muslims in his proclamation of universal brotherhood, but he didn’t entirely trust them. The Yezidis have been persecuted relentlessly in the past and he knew perfectly well that they could be persecuted again, especially considering the precarious state of Iraq. And he was right. Ruthless persecution—this time by ISIS—is on.

I asked my Muslim translator and guide Birzo Abdulkadir if he was offended by Baba Sheik’s comments and he said, “Of course not. Kurds don’t get upset about religion. We aren’t like Arabs. We believe in arguments based on reason, not emotion. If people don’t agree with me about something, I’m not going to get mad at them. We will just have different opinions.”

The Kurds do, however, get mad, so to speak, at the likes of ISIS. And they’re gearing up for a counterattack. Another front in the great Middle East war is about to be opened.

A Closer Look at Gaza’s Civilian Casualties

Hamas wants you to think the Israelis are either killing people at random in Gaza or they’re so inept that can’t hit what they aim at. If either of these narratives strikes you as plausible, by all means, believe whatever you want, but Time magazine parses the fatality statistics and reveals that the number of civilian casualties is not nearly as high as reported.

Analyses of the casualties listed in the daily reports published by the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, a Gaza-based organization operating under Hamas rule, indicate that young males ages 17 to 30 make up a large portion of the fatalities, and a particularly noticeable spike occurs between males ages 21 to 27, a pattern consistent with the age distribution typically found among combatants and military conscripts. Palestinian sources attempt to conceal this discrepancy with their public message by labeling most of these young men as civilians.

[…]

Scrutiny of Palestinian figures in the current conflict reveals a spike in fatalities among males ages 21 to 27 and an over-representation from ages 17 to 30. Data gleaned from the daily reports of the PCHR show that from July 8, the start of Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge,” through July 26, 404 out of 915 fatalities tallied from daily reports in which the ages were identified occurred among males ages 17 to 30, comprising 44% of all fatalities among a group representing about 10% of Gazans.

Expanding the age range from 17 to 39 and including those identified as combatants whose ages were not given increases that number to 551 fatalities, or 57% of all fatalities, even though this group represents less than one-sixth of Gazans. By contrast, adult female fatalities were less than 10% of total fatalities for a group that comprises a quarter of the total population.

Children, here defined as those under age 17, represented 194 of fatalities, 20% of the total. Any child fatality is a tragedy, but it is important to note that children make up over half the population of Gaza.

We’ll have a better handle on this when the war is over and some time has passed. As Time also notes in the article, Hamas eventually acknowledged that Israel more or less correctly identified the number of combatants killed in the last war and that previous claims about overwhelming civilian casualties had been fabricated.

Welcome to Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh would be appalled if he could see Vietnam now.

Well, perhaps not appalled—he was less doctrinaire than the likes of Vladimir Lenin and Fidel Castro, and even hard-line ideologues can become more flexible over time—but he certainly wouldn’t recognize it.

The Doi Moi market reforms that began in 1986 (a mere eleven years after the fall of Saigon and national unification under the Communist Party) and a general slackening of state micromanagement have transformed the country out of all recognition.

Theodore Dalrymple visited in the late 1980s when much of the old system was still in place but was on its way out. “Only a fortnight ago,” he wrote in his book The Wilder Shores of Marx, “there was no conveyor belt for luggage at the airport, a deficiency that had been rectified [in the meantime.] It now took only an hour to retrieve luggage instead of three.”

Didn’t take an hour for me to get mine. The entire airport procedure from beginning to end was easier than entering Canada or returning home from abroad. Friendly officials stamped me in promptly and let me bypass Customs entirely. My suitcase was waiting for me on the conveyor belt. Barely ten minutes after stepping off the plane I was already out on the sidewalk.

I did not have a journalist visa, nor did I apply for media credentials from the government. Local reporters and fixers tell me the process is a spectacularly expensive bureaucratic nightmare and that the authorities would dispatch minders to baby-sit me, so I blew it off and stuck with a tourist visa. Nobody cared. I booked interviews with government officials and even they didn’t care.

Vietnam makes a good first impression, which pleased me as a human being but challenged me as a journalist. Writing about war zones and other disaster areas is relatively straightforward. Countries on the mend are a bit tougher, and Vietnam has been on the mend for a while now.

A sign on a bridge leading from the airport into the city reads, in English, “Hanoi: City of Peace” and includes the image of a white dove. If you’re American and older than me and can remember when Hanoi was an enemy capital, don’t doubt the sincerity of that message. The Vietnam War—which the Vietnamese call the American War—has been over for almost forty years now. The Vietnamese never wanted to fight Americans anyway. I have no memory of the war and am too young to have known the country in the 1970s, but nevertheless it’s as obvious as the sky that Vietnam has changed more drastically in the meantime than any country I’ve ever visited beyond Eastern Europe.

Outside the airport I saw more construction and infrastructure projects during the first five minutes of my ride into Hanoi than I saw on my entire weeks-long trip to Cuba last year. A forest of cranes punctuated the skyline. The country is charging ahead like a bull hopped up on adrenaline, and it’s startlingly prosperous.

I’ve seen a lot of poverty in the world—especially in Egypt and Latin America—so perhaps I’m a little desensitized. The country might look a little bit poor, I guess, to someone who has never left the US or Europe, but I don’t even know about that. Average homes in Hanoi are larger than mine. Restaurants, cafes, bars, electronics stores, shopping malls, and luxury stores proliferate. Most of the city looks brand-new. If there are slums tucked away somewhere, I didn’t see any. Vietnam’s per capita income is shockingly low, but so is the cost of living, so a statistical comparison with the US or Europe is pointless.

“Nothing had been repaired in years,” reporter David Lamb wrote of Hanoi in the 1970s. “The old French colonial buildings appeared in danger of collapse. Everything was in a state of poverty and decay.”

Much of Havana and Cairo still look that way now, but there’s little visible evidence that Hanoi ever suffered through such a phase. Take heart! Ruined cities can be repaired.

Some parts of Hanoi are a bit messy, but aside from the outdated rat’s nest of electrical wires, its messes are the kind you make in your house when you’re in the middle of a remodeling project. Parts of the Old Quarter still look a little decayed, but even there the decay is like a holdover from the past that’s being blotted out with one high-end boutique store after another.

The ruling Communist Party knows better than just about anyone that communist economics are a disaster. Vietnam’s economy has been growing at light speed for a while now. I knew that in advance, and yet it still stunned me. The city trembles with industriousness and entrepreneurship. Small and large businesses are everywhere. Half the residents seem to be in business for themselves. Anything and everything you can possibly imagine is for sale, though it’s not all high-end yet. I saw a Louis Vuitton outlet next to a bootleg CD store, an elegant Western-style café next to low-end bar with hard chairs and no air-conditioning, a Body Shop next to a used clothing store with cast-off second-hand T-shirts from the West, and an art gallery next to a store selling old pots and pans.

Market economies are uneven, no doubt, but they sure as hell beat the alternative. I could hardly believe it, but when I was a kid the Vietnamese stood in long lines on the street to exchange ration coupons for handfuls of rice. Today the country is one of the world’s largest exporters of rice.

Japan and South Korea: watch out. If the economy keeps growing and the political system breaks open, Vietnam will be a country to reckon with.

*

Hanoi assaults all five senses.

The streets smell of fried food, incense, barbecue, mold and exhaust, sometimes all at once. The sounds of growling motorbike engines and banging construction are endless, and they’re punctuated by vehicle-mounted loudspeakers announcing God-knows-what all day.

And the climate: God, it is horrendous during the summer. Up to a hundred degrees Fahrenheit with 108 percent humidity and cloud cover, rain, and at times even fog. Summer is the monsoon season. Hanoi gets as much rain in one monsoon month as Portland, Oregon, gets in six. The gloomy sky looks like that of Seattle or London in January, but the air feels like Miami during a heat wave in August.

Hanoi looked to my eyes like someone had put China and France into a blender and pressed puree. (To Vietnamese eyes, of course, it just looks like Hanoi.) Parts of the city look oddly European—and I'm not referring here to the French Quarter which looks European for the obvious reasons.

Houses in the newer parts of town (which is to say, most of it) have Victorian characteristics—steep roofs, tall vertical windows, wedding-cake moldings, and balcony spindles. They’re taller and narrower than Victorian houses, though. Taxes are levied by how much street space each structure takes up, so most houses and places of private businesses build up and back as much as possible rather than sideways. 

Nearly all have slanted roofs, not to let snow slide off as in northern climates—I doubt Hanoi has ever known snow—but simply because pitched roofs like nice. They provide a certain elegance to each individual home and to the cityscape.

The city as a whole is not elegant, but it could be if it were twice as rich and four times more orderly. The former may be just a matter of time, but I'm not so sure about the latter. People are the way they are and orderly doesn't seem to be Vietnam’s style. The place is emphatically not German or Austrian. It has a frenetic energy that seems inherent and uncorkable. That a single political party managed to herd everyone into a totalitarian structure for even a short period beggars belief.

Never before have I seen such terrifying and ludicrous traffic. For nearly a decade I thought nothing could beat Beirut’s aggressive bumper-car bedlam, but I was wrong. The Vietnamese are just as aggressive, but most of them are on motorbikes instead of in cars. They take up less space on the roads, so the number of moving vehicles at any given location can be several times greater.

Red lights are suggestions. Sometimes they’re obeyed. Other times traffic moves through intersections in all four directions at once. Best of luck if you are on foot. No one will stop for you. They’ll go around, but they will not stop and they will not slow down.

So when you want to cross in heavy traffic (and traffic is heavy everywhere except after midnight) you just have to steel your nerves and step into the street even as dozens of bikes roar toward you panoramically. Everybody will ride around you. Really, they will—as long as you know what you’re doing. 

If you stop, if you change speed, or—worst of all—if you change the direction you’re moving, you could get hit. But if you pick a direction and just go at a consistent moderate speed, everyone will calculate where you’ll be by the time they get there. They’ll adjust their direction ever so slightly and miss you by a couple of inches. Traffic will swarm around you like an eddy in water. It is every bit as terrifying as it sounds. The police may as well not even exist.

It’s strange how a one-party state can look and feel so anarchic, but sometimes that’s how it goes. North Korea sure as hell isn’t like that, nor is Cuba, but the Vietnamese are like cats who refuse to be herded.

They enjoy no political freedom, but the government doesn’t hassle everyone constantly. Not anymore. The place feels free even though it technically isn’t because at this point in history, the citizens and the state have at least tacitly agreed to a modus vivendi: We won’t screw with you if you won’t screw with us. Like a cease-fire during a war, it will continue working until it doesn’t.

I have a hard time believing Vietnam ever passed through a totalitarian phase, but it’s easy to believe the phase was a brief one. Communism endured in Russia from the early 20th century until nearly the end, but it wasn’t imposed on all of Vietnam until the middle of the 1970s, and it ended in all but name before it ended in Moscow. The Vietnamese are too energetic, fearless, and naturally capitalistic to be forced for long onto an anthill.

*

I crossed a bridge to an island in Hoan Kiem Lake (Lake of the Returned Sword) to an ancient Buddhist pagoda. It had, like all the old temples I saw, Chinese writing on the walls and the pillars. Vietnam’s current modified Latin alphabet didn’t exist before the 17th century and wasn’t widely adopted until early in the 20th century.

The temple looked ancient and felt ancient, and it also looked and felt, to me anyway, purely Chinese. Buddhism came to Vietnam from both India and China, but the temples in the north seem to be mostly Chinese.

Buddhist visitors (as opposed to mere tourists) lit high-quality temple incense and placed the sticks in a central location just outside the entrance. Inside was a quiet place for calm and repose. I saw altars and extravagantly carved tables for offerings, including cash money. The ceiling was made of brown-stained wood held in place by fat red timbers. Intricately carved representations of distinctly Chinese-looking deities stood in the back as they must have for centuries beyond where mere mortals are allowed to tread.

Most buildings and houses in Hanoi are relatively new, so the contrast with everything else in the city was striking. Unlike the medieval walled cities of Europe and the Middle East’s maze-like medinas, Hanoi doesn’t feel ancient. The pagodas do, though, because they are. And their origins lie elsewhere, in the belly of the regional hegemon that has antagonized and periodically invaded Vietnam for thousands of years. China is but a short drive away. I could feel its presence over the horizon like a vast ocean. The Vietnamese feel it too, the way Poles, Estonians, and especially now Ukrainians feel the overwhelming and massive presence of Russia.

Back out on the sidewalk a woman sold small turtles from a white plastic bucket. “When you leave a pagoda,” a local man explained to me, “you are supposed to buy an animal and set it free.”

I like the idea, but it’s a bit circular, isn’t it? The animals must first be captured and sold before they can be freed. The poor turtles would be better off if they were never caught and placed into that bucket at all.

Vietnam’s government falsely claims the majority of its people are non-religious—some communist-era habits die harder than others—but I saw signs not only of Buddhism but also of ancestor worship everywhere. Most businesses have little altars near the front for incense and gifts for the dead. The gifts are often burned so that ancestors can receive them in the spirit world. Some of the gifts are ghost offerings. I saw fake iPhones, for instance, fake iPads and fake money—even fake credit cards. Supposedly when these things are burned they float up to the afterlife where they can be used. Lighting cash on fire, then, is a spiritual Western Union of sorts. Theoretically.

“If you think about it,” one Vietnamese person said to me, “we’re actually burning real money because we have to spend real money to purchase the fake money.”

Women wearing conical hats roam the city selling fruit, fried pastries, and other items to passersby. They congregate around pagodas and tourist sites. I stopped an elderly vendor and asked for a small portion of what looked like Vietnam’s version of donuts. The woman smiled and placed a handful in a plastic bag and said “200,000 dong.”

That’s ten dollars. For a fistful of fried bread.

I laughed. 

“Come on,” I said.

Vietnam is not an expensive country. I don’t know what she would have charged a local person, but surely much less than ten dollars. She thought I was rich and therefore wouldn’t mind paying so much, but I’m nowhere near rich, at least not by Western standards. (Only a lucky few writers ever get rich.)

“200,000 dong,” she said again.

“I’ll give you 20,000,” I said. That’s about one dollar and probably more than the locals would pay.

“200,000,” she said again.

Seriously? She wasn’t even going to come down to 180,000?

“Forget it,” I said and walked away.

That night I paid six dollars for an entire meal plus a bottle of beer, so I knew the lady on the street tried to drastically overcharge me. I swore not to buy anything that didn’t have a price tag on it somewhere.

My waitress that evening correctly sensed that I had just arrived (newcomers are obvious everywhere) and gave me some advice.

“The street sellers,” she said, and pointed outside the window with her eyes, “are not good. If you’re a foreigner they’ll charge you ten times what everyone else pays.”

Indeed. It took me no time at all to figure that out. I appreciated, though, that she was looking out for me. She didn’t know me, but she was looking out for me. And she helped me out with the language—which is a pain and a half. The Vietnamese language uses six different vocal tones, and if you’re not used to tonal languages you can easily screw up saying even hello and thank you. A single syllable sound like “Ha” can be made into six different words depending on which tone you use and which markings you put above or below the letters in writing.

The Vietnamese use a modified version of the Latin alphabet, but it’s harder to casually learn a few words and read them that it first appears. You must pay attention to the tone markings, not just the letters, if you want to even begin making sense of it. and , for instance, are not the same word. They look similar and to my tone-deaf ears they sound exactly the same, but they’re different words.

I thanked the waitress for helping me out as best she could with the language, and especially for warning me about scammers prowling the streets, but no one else ever tried to egregiously overcharge me, at least not to my knowledge. Even the taxi drivers used the meter without my having to ask, which is unheard of almost everywhere I’ve ever been. Even European taxi drivers have tried and sometimes succeeded in ripping me off.

Before I left home I read all kinds of horror stories on the Internet about scam artists and hasslers of every conceivable variety in Vietnam, but I hardly ran into any of them. I don’t know if it’s because I got lucky, because I’ve learned how to not look like a sucker, or because the problem is much less severe than it used to be. I don’t know but I suspect it’s the latter. Everything else is changing at rocket ship speed, so why not the hassling?

After dinner I returned to my room in the busting Old Quarter, flicked off the lights, and heard the honking and growling of motorbikes as a bat flew past my window.

*

I awoke early and jetlagged the next morning and set out at six to find some relief from the hideous climate. The air outside was 82 degrees Fahrenheit and humid. Hardly ideal, but it certainly beat the 99 degrees of the previous day. At least I could walk around for a few minutes before my shirt soaked through with sweat.

How miserable it must have been fighting a war in this country. They say war is interminable boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. I’ve been to war zones myself and can attest to the truth of that statement. But war in the sticky and sweltering jungles must have been interminable misery punctuated by terror.

I was advised to check out Le Mat on the outskirts of the city. There you will find the Snake Village where you can pull up a bar stool and order some snake wine. The bartender will kill a cobra, pour its blood into rice wine, and drop the snake’s still-beating heart into the shot glass.

If you don’t want to drink blood, you can have it with bile instead.

I refused. Why make my stomach churn and possibly heave just so I can write about it? The description of the drink itself is enough. I went to Iraq seven times during the war, but drinking snake wine is over the line. I don’t care whether or not that makes sense. 

What I wanted was coffee. I was jet-lagged in a bad way, and if I didn’t have caffeine I’d need a nap. And if I succumbed to that nap I’d sleep for eight hours, miss most of the day, and be up all night when everything’s closed. So I headed back toward Hoan Kiem Lake during early business hours, and when a young woman on the sidewalk beckoned me over and told me about a café upstairs, I eagerly agreed to let her show me the way.

She led me inside a building that looked like a parking garage, though nobody parked there. Empty boxes, a discarded broom, and other detritus were strewn about. There was a café upstairs? Really? I felt a twinge of uncertainty. What kind of café would be above this? The building looked derelict.

I resisted the twinge of uncertainty. The young woman seemed friendly enough and she wore a shirt with a café logo on it. I followed her into the elevator. We rode up to the fourth floor, then she pointed toward a rickety-looking stairway leading up a gloomy fifth floor. The way was unlit, the walls filthy, the air hot and still. I saw no other people and heard no sounds but the traffic outside. I had a hard time believing the kind of café I wanted to hang out in was up there.

If I were anywhere in the West I would have turned around and gone back to the street, but my instincts are different abroad. I ascended the stairs, feeling curious about what I’d find though doubtful that I would like it.

I reached the top of the sweltering stairway, pushed open a glass door, and found myself in a café worthy of South Beach in Miami tucked into an air-conditioned aerie. The place was packed with comfortable sofas and chairs and stylishly dressed Vietnamese with laptops and iPads drinking from cups of Italian-style espresso. The entire south wall was made of glass from floor to ceiling and revealed a 180-degree view of the lake and the skyline below.

Almost everyone in the café was staring at a personal electronic device.

Who during the Vietnam War on either side of the conflict could have imagined that such a bourgeois place would ever appear in Hanoi while the Communist Party still ruled? Ho Chi Minh sure as hell didn't expect this. Nor would he have wanted it. Fidel Castro would hate it. Of that I assure you. Pol Pot would have wanted to murder everyone in there.

The world is becoming more and more alike everywhere. Outside of basket case countries like North Korea, Syria, and Iraq, we all seem to be heading in the same direction toward the same destination. And with everyone looking at the little screens in their hands all the time, even while sitting with friends, I have to wonder: where exactly, as a species, are we going?

Whatever the answer to that question, Hanoi is no longer an impoverished totalitarian backwater. It’s a global city now. And despite the name of its government, communism is finished. 

*

The city exhausted me after a couple of days, so I took a brief break on the coast of the Gulf of Tonkin.

I did not drive there. Vietnam is so far the one country I’ve visited where driving must be left to the professionals.

The near-ubiquitous nice housing of the city continued into the countryside. Where was the poverty? Surely there must be poverty somewhere out in the country. In the mountains, perhaps, or along the Cambodian border. But while the rural areas along the highway between the capital and the coast are less cosmopolitan and fashionable, they are not destitute. At least the ones along the main highway aren’t destitute. I saw water buffaloes and women with conical hats in the fields and three-story houses with balconies. The whole scene looked bucolic, though field work in that climate has to be brutal. 

And the coast is spectacular, especially Halong Bay roughly thirty miles south of the border with China. Hundreds of islands, most of them karst towers and cones topped with a riot of vegetation, spread out in a vast panorama that goes on for miles.

“Hạ Long” means descending dragon in Vietnamese. The bay is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is considered one of the natural wonders of Asia.

Boat tours are startlingly cheap, so I booked one and set out. The air temperature dropped 10 degrees the minute the captain pushed us away from the shoreline.

Every direction looked like the setting for an Asian fairy tale. The land formations are wondrous, even surreal, and they’re crawling with screaming insects that in concert sound like a huge whirring bone saw. There is no other sound on the water.

Sadly, though, there’s trash in the bay. Vietnam is not trashy in general, but I saw a heartbreaking amount of plastic bottles, beer cans, potato chip wrappers, and chunks of Styrofoam floating by in the water—along with jellyfish with heads the size of basketballs.

“How dangerous are those jellyfish?” I asked the captain. “What happens if they sting a person?”

“Pain,” he said. “No die, but great pain.”

The water is calm and refreshing, but don’t swim there at night.

Much of the trash is generated by people who live in floating villages made of clapboard houses floating on Styrofoam platforms far from the mainland. They have no electricity or modern amenities. These villages are objectively poor. None of Vietnam’s newfound prosperity has reached these people, but fewer than two hundred still live out there. The captain told me they lived in caves on the islands until the mid-1990s when the government ordered them out and told them to live in floating houses instead. But they’re polluting the water, so now the government is slowly phasing the villages out and relocating everyone to the mainland. In a few years they will be gone. Whether they’ll prosper after relocating or resent the state for moving them, I have no idea.

The coast was a pleasant diversion, but I found little grist for my writing mill there. It’s beautiful and relaxing, but it’s a place for tourists and poets, not journalists. So back to the city I went.

*

When I returned to Hanoi, I came back to familiar restaurants, cafes, narrow storefronts, traffic, and noise. The hotel staff welcomed me back. It was like a tiny homecoming of sorts, and it triggered a question I often ponder when traveling abroad.

Could I live there?

Lots of Westerners do. Even I could separate them from the tourists. Their motorbike helmets sometimes gave them away, but I could also tell by their ease of navigating the place, how they crossed the street with the confidence of a local and settled into cafes and restaurants as though they were regulars.

I found a cheap but pleasant-enough looking restaurant, ordered a beer and some seafood, and pretended in my own mind that I lived there. I wanted to know how I felt about that, partly to satisfy my own curiosity, but also because it’s an important question for me as a writer. It forces me to think seriously about how distressed a place is or isn’t, about the quality of life for the average person, and about the political system.

I wasn’t initially sure of the answer.

So I kept at it. I tried to look like I lived there by pretending I knew the waitress, drinking my beer with a bored confidence, and not fiddling with my chopsticks like an amateur. Whether or not I actually looked like a resident expat, I was starting to feel like one. The only air-conditioning in that particular restaurant was a fan blowing the hot air around and I didn’t mind. My body had recalibrated its thermostat. Full-on air-conditioning made me feel cold. I later got into a taxi that felt like a refrigerator and laughed at myself when I almost asked the driver to turn up the heat.

But could I live there, at least for a while? I had to know. Most places I’ve traveled it’s an easy question to answer, but in Vietnam it was not.

Could I live in Cairo? No. Baghdad? Hell no. Havana? No chance. Not while it’s under the boot heel of the Castros. Rabat? Perhaps. Beirut? I have already lived in Beirut and theoretically could do so again. But what about Hanoi?

Vietnam is a pleasant destination for tourists, for sure, but it’s also a one-party nominally communist state. I have viscerally detested communism since the first moment I learned about it as a child. No political system in the history of the human race has killed such a vast number of people. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union were the greatest geopolitical events of my lifetime. Every cell in my body rebelled at the existential heaviness of the state in Cuba on my last long trip abroad and after a week I couldn’t wait to get out of there.

I had to look it squarely in the eye in Vietnam without flinching.

Could I live there, despite it?

Yes. I believe so.

As long as I stayed out of politics.

Post-script: If you enjoyed reading this dispatch, please consider contributing with a donation. Many thanks in advance!

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