Thirty Five Years AfterThe War, Betrayal is Vietnam’s Story

New America Media, Commentary, AndrewLam – April 28, 2010

HANOI– A headline in a local paper here seems to say it all: “The Main Methodis to Use Love.” The story: Women and Children trafficking activitiesalong the Vietnam- China border.

One of these “love methods” went something like this: A man fromthe city seduced a young woman from a village, took her across the border to Chinaafter their wedding. When they got there, the honeymoon turned into a slavetrade: the groom sold his naïve bride to a brothel, promptly disappeared.

Or it can be “familial love method:” The destitute widow whosefarmer husband died in an accident decided to sell her daughter. What thedaughter thought was going to be a shopping trip across the border to China to buynew clothes turned instead into a nightmare. The young woman was sold into abrothel and eventually resold to an old man as a child bride.

In both cases, the victims were undone by loyalty and love. For them thecentral theme that defines their lives is, inevitably, betrayal.

But betrayal is not simply the story of trafficked women and children, whichhas reached epidemic proportions. In a sense, it has become the story of Vietnam itself.Empires rose and fell, colonizers came and went, civil wars fought, and livesand lands devastated, but that central theme of being tricked, of beingbetrayed, continues to frame the history of this country.

There are, of course, many kinds of betrayals. Thirty-five years ago, the SouthVietnamese Army (ARVN) was abandoned by the United States and its arms suppliesdwindled to a few bullets per soldier at the end of the war, while the northernCommunist tanks came rolling southward.

Yet, betrayal is not restricted to those who lost the war. It plays itself outwith even deeper irony among those who supposedly won. The Viet Cong –-guerillas in the National Liberation Front based in the South –- quicklyfound that they did not exactly “win” when Saigonfell. Within months, their units were dissolved or integrated under Hanoi commands, their ownsouthern leadership forced into retirement. Though, of all factions, theysuffered the highest casualties, the Viet Cong found themselves losing theirautonomy and ending up playing underlings to northern leadership.

But many northern communist officials themselves were not saved from beingbetrayed either. Among a handful of well-known dissidents in exile is ColonelBui Tin, the highest-ranking officer from Hanoito enter Saigon at the end of the war toaccept South Vietnam’sofficial surrender. Tin, as it turned out, fled Vietnam to France a decadeor so later. The cause: he was dismayed with peacetime Communism inwhich re-education camps and new economic zones were created to punish thesouth, while untold numbers died out at sea as boat people. It was not whathe’d expected when the North was trying to “liberate” theSouth from the Americans during the war. Tins’ books, “Following HoChi Minh: Memoirs of a North Vietnamese,” and “From Enemy Friend: A North Vietnamese Perspective on the War,”became a powerful testimony of Vietnamese corruption and arrogance, coupledwith a passionate plea for democracy.

And even Ho Chi Minh, father of Vietnam’sCommunism, it turned out, wasn’t safe from betrayal either. According toa few in Vietnamwho knew the inner working of the party, Uncle Ho apparently spent the last fewyears of his life under house arrest, his lover murdered and children takenaway from him. It is what the novelist Duong Thu Huong, now living in exile,wrote about in her latest book, “Au Zénith,” a novel basedon the unofficial history of Ho Chi Minh’s last years. Huong herself knewbetrayal intimately. Once a member of the youth brigade in the Communistmovement, she later was under house arrest for her books criticizing Communism,especially in “Paradise of theBlind.” Government officials called her “traitor slut.”

Vietnamin the present tense is a Vietnamat the far end of Orwell’s dystopia, as parodied in Animal Farm, where“all animals are equal but some animals are more equal thanothers.” Corruption is rampant, and according to Asia Times Online,“land transfers have become critical issues in Vietnam. Some observers predictthat, as in China,questionable state land reclamations could lead to widespread social unrest andderail Vietnam‘ssocioeconomic development.”

While Marxist Leninist theory is still being taught in schools and colleges,the poor farmers are often driven off their land for a pittance of compensationso that the rich and powerful can have their golf clubs. While impoverishedwomen and children in rural areas are now commodities to be sold across theborders, often with the help of local officers, the city glints with newwealth, and high rises continue to sprout like mushrooms.

One needs not look far to see it in Saigon.Billboard advertising for Chanel perfume and Versace bags are now overshadowingall the old Communist slogans romanticizing laborers and farmers and socialistparadise. Massage parlors are but a stone’s throw away from Ho ChiMinh’s cheerful bust in downtown Saigon,a city that’s renamed rather inappropriately after a man who championedausterity.

One recent evening out in the new part of Saigon’s district 7, at theultra chic 3-storied restaurant called Cham Charm – built to resembleAngkor Wat with black granite and flowing water running down both sides of thesleek staircase –- there were Mercedeses and Lexuses and even a Ferrariand a Rolls Royce or two dropping by with paparazzi snapping photos at theentrance. It was the famed singer Hong Nhung’s birthday and wealthyfriends -– mostly those connected to the current regime – werethrowing a private party for her. Champagneflowed, wines were poured, and a splendid spread of oyster and sushi andlobster were served to a guest list of 350 VIPs. At one point, Nhung called her“comrades” to join her on stage, many of whom are now eithermulti-millionaires themselves, or married to them. Together they sang aCommunist propaganda song –- something about marching to respond to thecall of their nation. While waiters in bow ties served champagne, the projectorshowed images of Nhung’s past: A youth in Communist uniform, singing. Noone sang songs about betrayal at the golden gala, of course, but still onecould cut the irony with a silver spoon.

Not far from the gala, one aged musician in his ramshackle apartment said hewas profoundly bitter: “Xa Hoi Chu Nghia (Socialist Republic)has turned into Co hoi chu nghia – (the society of opportunists.)”He once knew Uncle Ho and served him with devotion but now, in failing health,had become a vocal critic of the Hanoiregime. He is especially pained that Vietnam three years ago had cededland to Chinaalong its northern border and even signed a multibillion dollar deal to plunderLam Dong province, its once pristine verdant slopes for bauxite, destroying theecosystem in the process.

More worrisome, the disputed Spratly Islands have fallen into China’shand as well, leaving Vietnam’swaters vulnerable to Chinese domination. Rare mass protests in Vietnam havetaken place but to no avail. “The government officials are corrupted tothe core,” the aged musician observed. “All they bow down to ismoney. I wore my uniform and went out and protested. I’m sad to watch thegovernment deceive its people year after year. If you give away land to China, youmight as well sell the blood of the people.”

Which may explain why, in a world whose motto is “to make money isglorious,” and whose moral compass is thereby broken, children could besold by their mothers, wives sold by their husbands, precious land on whichprecious blood spilled sold by the government.

It would follow that in such a world those who hold on to old virtues sufferthe most. It was reported that the girl who was sold by her mother, whenrescued, said she didn’t blame her. She was willing to suffer for thefamily’s sake, she told social workers. And the patriotic old musician,once an idealist, now cries in his sleep. And the exiled dissidents watch indismay as Vietnamis swallowed up by materialism.

The rest are rushing ahead at breakneck speed. Because tosurvive in Vietnam,so goes a new law of the land, one must first and foremost learn to betray thepast.

NAMeditor, Andrew Lam, is the author of Perfume Dreams:Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora and the upcoming memoir: East EatsWest: Writing in Two Hemispheres due out in September. He recently visited hishomeland, Vietnam.

Courtesy: New America Media

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