Vietnam has a sizeable chip on it’s shoulder

The way Vietnam portrays itself is baffling. Rich and poor share the same street. People are brainwashed and museums tell lies. It such a surreal place to experience!

Propaganda ahoy

I’ve mentioned a few times in my different posts about Vietnam that there is something a little odd about the way it presents information about itself and it’s history. My first taste of this was at the Hanoi Hilton. You walk in the door and you are greeted by a poster discussing the “Imperialistic French and the engine of repression”, it goes on to explain in detail how the French were sadistic and evil people. you walk through the various rooms and are shown more and more things about how bad the French were to the people of Vietnam. Compare this to the rooms about the Vietnam War where where they say how well they treat the POW’s, how they were allowed to play Volleyball and receive the care packages from home…

At the other end of the country is the Cu Chi Tunnels where you get to hear from the guides about how the traps they built to maim the enemy. How their children won the “American Killer Award” for shooting American GI’s…

Then the Vietnamese Pièce de résistance, the main Military museum. You have pictures of showing you protests held against the American involvement from around the world, the atrocities the Americans committed, what agent orange did and more. The captions under all the pictures tell you what the picture is of, but often I had to ask myself “really?”.

Sometimes it pays to ask the question “really?”

Back in school I had a problem with English literature lessons when you had to analyse a poem, a story or a book. The teacher was always trying to get us to look for the symbolism the author was trying to portray and I could never understand why we agonised trying to work this out – can you not just take the poem or story at face value? Why was she so obsessed that Lord Of The Flies was not a tale of boys on an island but of a candid take on society as it stood. Given my opinion was different to hers, I was therefore “wrong”. I would write my essay about what I saw in the poem or story and I’d get a lecture about how I hadn’t learned to see the symbolism yet. Here, half my lifetime later, applying my way of thinking to the museums in Vietnam elicits the same response from fellow travellers – I am “wrong”. I guess I still haven’t learned.

I look at the picture of a GI holding a mutilated corpse up with the caption “An American GI holds up the mutilated corpse of a Vietnamese soldier killed by a grenade” and ask what was the Vietnamese person doing before the Grenade was thrown, who threw the grenade and even was a grenade thrown at all or was it a land mine?

The picture of an Vietnamese woman and child coming out of door with the caption “Even women and babies are targets of U.S. Americal (sic) Division mopping up operations” and suggest she doesn’t look too scared and the soldier isn’t acting in a confrontational manor. Was this woman really been led out to be slaughtered?

Then I see the picture of people tied behind a tank with the caption “GI’s tie up prisoners to their tank and drag them to death” and am horrified at the image. My cynical brain looks at it and thinks there might be an alternative explanation but surely there was a better way to have conducted themselves rather than having this picture taken.

Go into the room showing the affects of Agent Orange and against the bright orange paint, you will see shocking pictures of people with extraordinary mutations, of adults with stunted growth and of children with disfigurements. They show people born in 1994 who have no limbs and I ask myself if these are all the affects of Agent Orange or just naturally occurring. With no counter arguments and an obvious bias in the rest of the museum why should I believe this room? Where is the information on the American’s similarly affected? Of the reasons why the chemical was used in the first place and of the efforts made to clean it up.

I should say, I don’t condone the war

I don’t know enough to be able to argue the merits for or against the Vietnam War nor of the various politics that exist around the world so these are opinions formed from what I’m looking at. I don’t condone the Vietnam war and I’m completely sure that terrible things happened on both sides.

Having said that, I am still amazed at how the Vietnam government portray their history in such an obvious and biased way. Worse than that, I can’t understand why the visitors lap it up. Why do they walk around, mouths a-gap muttering quietly and just believing someone else’s interpretation? Where is the independent thought? Why aren’t they asking questions? Why are they so trusting of something borne of corruption?

Maybe I haven’t learned to see symbolism in poems, but heck, I prefer my method of asking questions!

So what do I mean by saying Vietnam has a Chip On It’s Shoulder?

In Vietnam, it feels like the people expect something. The propaganda machine is every where from the streets of Ho Chi Minh City to the tourist haunts of Cu Chi, the museums, the guide in Phong Nha… It’s literally spoon fed to the locals so it’s no surprise therefore that the locals feel aggrieved for the atrocities of the past and that we owe them something. It’s no surprise that they expect we’ll pay more money for everything. Having said that, I don’t think the tourists of the past have helped either as discussed in my other post, Vietnam has a Tourism problem either!

Look around you and it’s obvious corruption is everywhere. My basic understanding of Socialism/Communism is that people should be equals with no rich and no poor. People shouldn’t be begging on the streets whilst the wealthy drive around in Bentley’s and own apartment blocks. In Vietnam, this happens – you have the weak and poor beside a walled and guarded apartment block. Everyone is far from equal…

In Phong Nha the road past the hostel was meant to be paved, the monies were raised but then only 50m were completed and the funds ran out – it had lined the politicians pockets instead.

Someone was telling me that they built a new highway in Ho Chi Minh and planned it completely straight, simply destroying any buildings in the way. People were confused therefore when it would detour around a particular building – it turned out the buildings were owned by a Communist party member and therefore protected. Similarly, he told me that one of his friends bought an apartment building with a view to renting it out. He did his due diligence and the sale went through, monies exchanged hands and then a week later the building was taken off him for the new highway. He wasn’t a member of the Communist party.

Corruption and the sense of entitlement is everywhere. You can’t get away from it and you can’t embrace it. It’s best to try and ignore it but most of the time you can’t.

Is this the problem with Vietnam? Is this why the travellers didn’t like it?

I have no idea. I really don’t. I’ve been trying to work out what is up with Vietnam and wrote these two blog posts (the other about the problems with tourism) trying to understand what it was that makes Vietnam “bad”, but I am not convinced I’ve worked it out yet. I think it’s a mixture of everything – expectation, the sense of entitlement people have, the corruption, the apparent danger, the rain, the lack of true adventures and the constant battle to be treated fairly.

I don’t think I’ll ever return to Vietnam and explain this to people. Whilst I’m not about to try and persuade people not to go, I just hope they have a realistic view of what it is they will find there. It isn’t the utopia it once was!

Further reading

If you head across to the sister post Vietnam has a Tourism problem, you can find a some of other articles I came across in the week these posts were scheduled.

Click here to load a map showing you the location of this post and images from the digitallery taken nearby.