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Vietnam: a firsthand view

Before visiting Vietnam, it is vital to learn one key phrase of Vietnamese: "Kong phai Lien Xo," or "I am not a Soviet." Everywhere I went in Vietnam, children would point at me and shout "Lien Xo, Lien Xo," or literally, "Soviet Union, Soviet Union." Apparently, the only Caucasians the Vietnamese see regularly are Soviet advisers and technicians, who I am told have a bad reputation for being cheap and unfriendly.

After trying the key phrase with several intonations (Vietnamese, like many Asian languages, depends on inflections to convey meaning; depending on how you pronounce it, for example, "ga" can mean "chicken," "train station" and probably four other things), the listeners usually understood. The next step was to try to say, "Toi la nguoi Me," with the "Me" made to sound as if I were asking a question, to convey the fact that I was an American. Surprisingly to me, this assertion was never greeted with hostility, even in the north.

One afternoon in Da Nang, I ditched my guide and decided to head for Non Nuoc, the site of the US R&R base at China Beach about 10 miles out of town. All traces of the base are gone, but there is a hotel sitting on the sand dunes of the long, pristine beach. I had been there a few days before, enjoying the big breakers as they rolled ashore, alone except for two Soviet touristry officials.

So I headed for the short-haul bus station -- actually a dirt parking lot filled with covered pick-up trucks with a bench on each side of the flatbed. There is of course no schedule; the bus leaves when full. As I sat there for 45 minutes waiting for the departure, a crowd gathered, mostly of children. I used the key phrase and explained that I was American, generating excitement and curiosity. No one in the crowd spoke English, and the Vietnamese phrases in my Lonely Planet guidebook were not really helpful (e.g., "I would like a bowl of train station and noodle soup," at least the way I would have pronounced it).

The crowd did enjoy seeing the pictures of their country, Laos and Cambodia, and passed the book back and forth among themselves. The children, however, were fascinated with my legs: They had never seen any with hair on them. So one by one they would sidle up to me, casually rest a hand on my knee, and try a couple of nonchalant brushes. The next edition of the guidebook really should contain the phrase, "Please do not caress my shins." I suppose I could have discouraged them, but I was trying real hard to appear as easygoing and unaffected as they.

Eventually I made it to the beach in the late afternoon, after a winding journey through the streets of Da Nang. At every stop the scene at the "bus station" repeated itself, and even while the truck was moving I could only hold on with one hand so I could wave at the people we passed who were waving at me.

Throughout the country, the uniform attitude I encountered was that the war had ended 16 years ago, and it was time to look forward, not backward. The effects of years of war, first against the Japanese, then the French, then the Americans, nonetheless dominate the consciousness of Vietnamese today. Everybody with whom I spoke had lost relatives at some point to the wars, on one side or the other.

Travelling through the lush countryside of this mostly agrarian society, it is hard to imagine anyone making war in such a beautiful place, but before long the evidence pops into view, from the roadside pillbox, to the bullet creases in what is left of the royal palace in Hue (mostly destroyed in 1946 and in the 1968 Tet offensive), to the huge, weeded-over air base outside Da Nang.

Every city I visited -- Ho Chi Minh, Da Nang, Hue and Hanoi -- has an American War Crimes Museum. The somewhat jumbled presentations at these museums provide insight into Vietnamese perceptions. Along with exhibits on the My Lai massacre, for example, there are ones about the use of tear gas to break up pro-communist demonstrations, and in Ho Chi Minh there stands the guillotine used during French rule to execute "freedom fighters." My favorite exhibit was one on imported counterrevolutionary items seized by the government, including a case of heavy metal T-shirts. My guide broke out laughing when I explained that people like Tipper Gore and the Parents Music Resource Center probably think AC/DC and Poison are communists.

All the people I met, however, even the few I encountered out of the presence of my guides, said they wished more Americans would visit Vietnam (and bring American dollars, of course). The United States does not have diplomatic relations with Vietnam, but Hanoi and Washington are talking. The sticking points are Vietnamese involvement in Cambodia and the government's accounting for American MIAs.

America's boycott hits hard at the Vietnamese economy. I could not use my credit cards there, could not ship any Vietnamese goods into the United States, nor carry home more than $100 worth. The Vietnamese are desperately poor. My guide in Ho Chi Minh told me he makes the equivalent of $30 a month and his brother, a schoolteacher, makes only $15, which even in Vietnam is very hard to live on. The guide in Hanoi explained that if a peasant family saves $30 after a year of dawn-to-dusk labor in a rice paddy, they are considered wealthy.

The currency itself reflects the poverty. The largest denomination bill, the 5000 dong note, is worth around 70 US cents at the official exchange rate. When you change even $20, you receive a fat stack of bills. A filling meal in a nice restaurant is available for 15,000 dong; beer is anywhere from 2000 to 5000 dong a can; buses in Hanoi cost 100 dong. Large portable radios, available at the newly legal private markets, run in the 100,000 to 150,000 dong range, which is still a lot if you are making 200,000 dong a month.

I actually caused a sensation my last day in Hanoi at the sad, gray government-run shopping center by buying a fairly large box of souvenirs,

mostly painted wooden or ceramic knickknacks, for around $15 or 110,000 dong. A crowd of other shoppers gathered around just to watch me buy things.

The government store is not really useful for much more than souvenirs. The real shopping occurs at the private markets. Vietnam, with Soviet foreign-aid decreasing, has become desperate enough to engage in its own form of perestroika. Like the Chinese, however, the Vietnamese communists are trying to liberalize the economy without opening up politically.

The communist bureaucracy is still reputedly horrendous. I made the mistake of buying a package tour in Bangkok for three times what I would have paid had I travelled on my own, but the government tourist bureau did handle all of my paperwork, including the all-important internal travel permits. If one goes on one's own to Vietnam, as I would recommend, buying day tours on an ad hoc basis, one must be prepared to spend a day here and there doing nothing but dealing with the bureaucracy.

According to my guides, things have been getting better, both for the tourists and for the people. They say the government has become much less oppressive. Given the nature of the sources and my lack of basis for comparison, I cannot tell one way or the other, but foreign investment and tourism are increasing, and there was an international trade fair in Hanoi to drum up capital for industrial projects two weeks after I left.

The negative effects of increased tourism are already apparent: Hotels in Ho Chi Minh have "massage rooms," there are supposedly 1000 licensed prostitutes in Hanoi, and I was twice solicited in my room at Da Nang by a giggling door-to-door "masseuse." (I politely declined.) It would be tragic if any part of Vietnam turned into another Bangkok in this respect.

Club Med is planning to build along one of the beaches north of Da Nang at the foot of the coastal mountain pass to Hue. On the other side of the pass, a small fishing village will soon have a hotel and nightclub. Vietnam is also in danger of becoming China where, for example, across the street from Mao's tomb in Tiananmen Square sits a Kentucky Fried Chicken. What America cannot impose by force of arms we seem to be able to impose by force of Hot Wings.

The economic challenge for the Vietnamese will be to absorb new foreign investment, especially after the inevitable lifting of the US boycott in a couple of years, and not lose their identity. They are the friendliest people I have met in my travels around the world, and have one of the most beautiful countries. I wish them luck.

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Robert E. Malchman '85 is a former editor in chief of The Tech.

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Throughout the country, the uniform attitude I encountered was that the war had ended 16 years ago, and it was time to look forward, not backward.

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Travelling through the lush countryside of this mostly agrarian society, it is hard to imagine anyone making war in such a beautiful place.

[ufsandwich,1,1.5]

What America cannot impose by force of arms we seem to be able to impose by force of Hot Wings.

Vietnam, with Soviet foreign-aid decreasing, has become desperate enough to engage in its own form of perestroika.

This last one can be used if you need a fourth -- adl