Here’s a picture of the Hanoi Opera House, built in French colonial times.
After flying in from Laos, Saturday night and Sunday in Hanoi were no-photo situations: a diplomatic party hosted by a diplomat I used to know in Tokyo, then Sunday spent with a Vietnamese family, then dinner with a Japanese journalist I also knew in Tokyo.
Not everybody gets to spend Sunday afternoon with an extended Vietnamese family on their first full day in Vietnam. Lucky for me, my friend Jessica, who conducts journalism training courses at various news organizations around town, is well liked in Hanoi. A friend of hers picked us up at our hotel this morning and drove us an hour outside of Hanoi’s urban sprawl, to a country house where his parents spend the weekends. We spent a wonderful afternoon eating home-cooked Vietnamese food and talking with Jessica’s friend, his father, his brothers and their wives… as everybody’s kids played around us. Out of respect for their privacy I will not name the family or upload pictures of them here.
The brothers and their wives speak English and have spent time in the U.S.
and elsewhere abroad. They are members of Vietnam’s new internationally-minded
professional middle class. They have cars, travel abroad, and are making sure
their kids learn English. They recognize what is and isn’t possible here under
the current regime, and find ways to work within the boundaries while pushing
the envelope gently. They're optimistic that things will continue to open up and that life will continue to improve if they work hard - and keep their frustrations with the way the older generation runs the show to themselves, for the time being.
This picture on the left was taken this morning (Monday) when I went out for a run around the local lake near my hotel. With anti-Japanese protests in China and the 30th anniversary of the fall of Saigon coming up next month, history looms large on this visit. But the Vietnamese do not seem as obsessed with history as the Chinese are. Sure the local media is running lots of special coverage about the 30th anniversary, but apart from a few small banners and billboards on the streets of Hanoi, the event is not being handled in the same in-your-face-propaganda-everywhere manner in which the Chinese celebrated their 50th anniversary of the PRC’s founding in 1999. I asked my new Vietnames friends about this. They said people here – especially young people – don’t see Vietnam’s victory over the U.S. (or over anybody else) as an important part of their national identity. They say there’s no anger toward the Americans, despite some lingering issues over Agent Orange and so forth. The government is not using the anniversary to thumb its nose at Americans, either.
In China, on the other hand, historical rage has become very much part of the Chinese identity. (As my good friends know, I can still sing the anti-Japanese songs I was taught at age 10 in a Beijing primary school.) The Chinese government cultivates a sense of historical rage in its young people: Rage over Japanese atrocities. Rage over the unequal treaties imposed on China by foreigners up through the middle of last century. Rage over perceived American arrogance and “interference in China’s internal affairs” that has enabled territorial problems like Taiwan to exist. This rage is used to help bolster the Chinese Communist Party’s legitimacy as the only entity with the requisite nationalistic credentials to run the country. But as the latest anti-Japanese protests around the country show, the government is now riding a monster it created but which it no longer fully controls.
The Vietnamese suffered under Japanese occupation as did many Asians, but
people here are not taught to hate Japan in the way Chinese are. They like
Americans and there is no smugness or self-congratulation about having forced us
out of their country. My new friends pointed out this is in part because Vietnam
is a small country trapped between too many great powers. Vietnam can’t afford
to harbor historical bitterness or arrogance. It can’t afford to offend the
Americans, Japanese or Chinese. It needs them all. But when push comes to shove
– I’m told by a number of local residents – Vietnam fears and distrusts China most. I can’t say