22 April 1995
John Pilger reported the Vietnam War for a decade, right up until the last day. Twenty years on he returns to find a country facing a new battle. This time there are no bombs and there is no napalm. But already the civilian casualties are mounting again.
Vietnam is fashionable. At Saigon airport there are backpackers and conga lines of package tourists, and Taiwanese businessmen watching Mr Bean. They almost cancel nostalgia and the memory of fear, but not the absurd. At Cu Chi, a drive from the city, they descend on the scene of one of the war’s most remarkable chapters: the tunnels where soldiers of the National Liberation Front (Vietcong was an American term) crawled through insects and snakes with the technology of a ‘free fire zone’ rampant above them.
Now teenage girls dress up as wartime guerrillas, guiding tourists through the bomb craters and shooing them off the new grass. Like so much else in the new Vietnam, the army has turned itself into a business and runs the tunnels like a theme park. They have thoughtfully widened the tunnels for large tourists and put in a shooting range where, for a dollar a shot, Americans can relive all the fun of Rambo and Platoon. There is the choice of an American M-16 rifle or a Vietnamese AK-47. And if you hit a bullseye you win a genuine, black and white checked Vietcong scarf. People line up to do this.
There are no tourists at the American embassy in Saigon, which stands empty awaiting the return of the Americans. The other day I walked through its six floors. One fluorescent tube flickered; a time switch clicked on and off; a jammed lavatory flushed and flushed. The door of the embassy vault was open and a sign read: ‘This is a US Government Security Vault Door Class 5. In case of radiological attack it will close for 20 man-hours’. I climbed up to the helicopter pad on the roof, where there were two striking views: one of a giant Vietnamese flag, red with a yellow star, and the other, looking down, of the cesspool of the embassy swimming pool, the water unchanged for 20 years.
APRIL 29, 1975: Another Jolly Green Giant helicopter had just landed on the roof, the thudding syncopation of its rotaries invoking a menace I shall always associate with helicopters. Looking up from the courtyard, I could just see it through smoke billowing from an incinerator on the roof attended by silhouetted figures running to and fro with sacks. The surreal was guaranteed on the last day of the longest war this century. Now the sky rained money. Swept up in the draught of the rotary blades a snow storm of dollar bills fluttered down: tens, twenties, fifties, one hundreds. Former ministers in the Saigon regime, and generals and torturers, scrambled for their redundancy pay from the sky or sent children to retrieve the notes. An embassy official whispered that more than five million dollars were being burned. “Every safe has been emptied and locked again,” he said with a smile, “so as to fool the gooks when we’re gone.” His satisfaction was understandable. Several embassy staff had suggested that the ambassador, Graham Martin, might use the money to further delay the evacuation and buy time, literally, by bribing the fast approaching People’s Army of Vietnam into agreeing to a ‘decent interval’ so that the remnants of the American-supported regime might be accepted into an interim government. This would give America, the ambassador was said to argue, the fabled ‘peace with honour’ made famous by Richard Nixon and his Rasputin figure, Henry Kissinger.
From early morning the Marine at the embassy gates had a clipboard and a list. “Look, it’s me… let me in… thank you very much.” The shrill voice in the crowd laying siege to the embassy on April 29, the last day, belonged to Lieut-General Dang Van Quang, whose wealth was notorious in South Vietnam. To his American mentors, who loathed him, he was ‘Giggles’ and ‘General Fats’. He was on the list, and the marine helped him squeeze his bulk through, then retrieved his three Samsonite bags. Giggles was so relieved that he walked away, leaving his son in the crowd. Two packets of dollars sagged from his breast pocket; and when they were pointed out to him, he stuffed them back, joking, or not, that the Samsonites held more of the same.
Much of the drama of this gathering finale appeared not to invade Graham Martin’s sound-proofed, mahogany-panelled office on the sixth floor where the ambassador sat, often alone, with Nitnoy, his poodle. Whether the bribery story was true or mischievous, it was clear that Martin could barely bring himself to contemplate the ignominy of America’s departure from Indochina. A few days earlier he had made an extraordinary appearance on Saigon television at his own request. “I, the American ambassador,” he said gravely, “am not going to run away in the middle of the night. Anyone can come to my home and see I have not packed my bags… I give you my word.” The camera panned to a pointedly empty suitcase beside him.
The last proconsul was a private, strong-willed and complex man. His desk was dominated by a photograph of his son in uniform, who had died in the war nine years earlier. He was also sick; his skin was skeined grey from weeks of pneumonia; he chain-smoked, and conversations with him were frequently interrupted by bouts of coughing. For months he had tried in vain to convince Washington that its client state could survive with an iron ring of bombs laid around Saigon by B-52s flying in relays.
Graham Martin was the embodiment of America’s mission in Vietnam; he was one of those who had, as the historian Gabriel Kolko wrote in his seminal Anatomy of a War, a ‘penchant for illusions and symbolism that made them the only true ideologists of the war’. Martin’s symbol, as the end approached, was a tree: a great tamarind which commanded the lawns of his embassy. Unless it was cut down the Jolly Green Giant pilots, flying in from carriers in the South China Sea, would be unable to land and a full-scale evacuation would not be possible.
The ambassador had made it clear that once that tree fell “America’s prestige will fall with it”. When a pre-dawn meeting in his office on April 29 broke up without a decision on the tree, there were those who believed that the last proconsul was planning to burn with Rome. At 6.30am someone gave the order for the tree to be felled. (The CIA Station Chief, Tom Polgar, was the prime suspect.) Soon afterwards American Forces Radio broadcast the evacuation signal: Bing Crosby singing ‘I’m dreaming of a white Christmas’. (Evacuees had been advised in writing to ‘bring along two changes of clothing, a raincoat, a sewing kit, an umbrella, a can opener, insect repellent, your marriage certificate, a power of attorney and your will . . . Unfortunately, you must leave your automobile behind.’) In the amazing aerial Dunkirk that followed some 7,000 people were lifted out of Saigon in less than 18 hours.
At 2.30am on April 30 Kissinger phoned Martin and told him to be out by 3.45. Within half an hour Martin emerged from his office with the Stars and Stripes folded in a carrier bag. He caught the lift to the roof and climbed the iron stairs to the Tarmac. “Lady Ace 09 in the air with Code Two,” crackled the Marine radio. Code Two was the call sign for an American ambassador. As his helicopter banked over Highway One, he could see the silhouettes of the tanks and trucks of the People’s Army of Vietnam, waiting. The war was over.
Ho Chi Minh’s nationalists had fought 30 years of war first against the French, whose tree-lined boulevards, pink-wash villas and Odeon terraces were the facades of an unrelenting exploitation; then against the Japanese, with whom the French colons duly collaborated; then against the British, who came to take the Japanese surrender and re-armed them so that they could put down the Vietminh and restore the French; then against the Americans; then against Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge who attacked from the west; then against the Chinese, Pol Pot’s protectors, who attacked from the north. All of them were seen off, at immeasurable cost. The story of Mrs Thai Thi Tinh is not untypical.
A diminutive, white-haired woman of 84, Mrs Tinh lives in an area of Hanoi that might have been laid out in the Middle Ages. There are streets of workers in ivory, brass and leather, streets of tinsmiths and coffin-makers, hatters and herbalists. These streets, not the spacious, French-built centre of the city, were the targets of the B-52s that Nixon and Kissinger sent during Christmas, 1972. Mrs Tinh’s house was not hit. She remembers only “the great roar” in the sky and the ground above the shelter “splitting open like an earthquake”.
Her life exemplifies the suffering and sacrifice of the Vietnamese in the 20th century. She lost five of her eight children, the first two in a meningitis epidemic for which there were no drugs. Her eldest son died at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, which was decisive in driving the French out of Indochina. Her next son, Khang, was killed shortly afterwards in the liberation of Hanoi. Her husband, a doctor in Ho Chi Minh’s resistance, was killed evacuating the wounded from Hanoi. She had no idea then that America was ‘the next enemy’. Her youngest, Luong, was killed by the Americans in 1967. A few years ago she went to Cu Chi where Luong died and erected a dinh, a shrine, and prayed for him and the others, and wore their medals.
I FIRST met Thien Thi Tao in Saigon shortly after the end of the war, and I never forgot her words when she heard that it was all over. “My heart flies,” she said.
Then, at the age of 28, she walked with a limp. She had spent most of her youth in torture centres run by the South Vietnamese secret police, a terror organisation established, trained and run by teams from the CIA and Michigan State University. (According to Amnesty International, more than half the world’s known political prisoners in the early 1960s were incarcerated by the South Vietnamese regime.) Tao was 17 when she was first arrested. She was cycling home from school and taken to a villa run by the secret police. She was accused of being a communist and a member of the National Liberation Front. “I was neither,” she said. “Like most students I hated the regime, especially for bringing a foreign army to Vietnam. It is true I co-operated with the NLF and was prepared to fight for them. We all respected them. The police demanded NLF names; when I refused I was strung upside down and electrocuted, and my head was held in a bucket of water. Then I was sent to Cong Son Island and put in what they called the tiger cages. You couldn’t stand up in them, and, anyway, my legs were shackled; and every day they threw quicklime down on me. They had a place there that was full of cow and pig excrement, and for no reason they’d put you in it and leave you. This place was known as the coffin.”
Seven years ago, Tao married the NLF cadre who had courted her for 20 years. They lost touch during the war, thinking the other was dead. “Anyway, I couldn’t be sure about him; he was a communist,” she said dryly. “As a child I was told to run away from communists!” Four years ago she almost died during pregnancy; her kidneys had been damaged by the years of torture. Her son, Huynh, was born premature with a blood disorder; and Tao was told he had a “one per cent chance”. When I met her the other day on a bustling Saigon street, outside a nursery school, she was dropping off a lad unusually well-built for a four-year-old. “His name means golden spring,” she said.
Perhaps five million people died during the Vietnam war, the great majority of them civilians. My own introduction to the war against civilians was at the hospital at Can Tho in the Mekong Delta in 1967. American aircraft had been attacking VC strongholds nearby. This meant villages. “I guess he’s around 10 years old,” said the young American doctor, a volunteer. Before us was a child whose nose and chin had merged, whose eyes apparently could not close and whose skin, once brown, was now red and black and papery, like frayed cloth. I touched him, or her, and the skin stuck to my fingers. “Beats me how these kids live through all that shit out there,” said the doctor. “This one’s been burned with Napalm B. That’s the stuff made from benzene, polystyrene and gasoline. It sticks to the body and is impossible to get off, and either burns the victim to death or suffocates him by using up all the oxygen.” I went back to My Lai, the hamlet where Lieutenant William Calley’s ‘Charlie Company’ massacred more than 200 old men, women and children on March 18, 1968. It took them four hours to kill everyone, and that included a break for lunch which they ate within a few yards of a pile of fresh corpses, mostly women and infants. (There was one American casualty, a sergeant who shot himself in the foot).
I was here in 1974 and people were still afraid to talk to anyone resembling Calley and his murderers. What I had not realised at the time was that the Americans had declared most of Quang Ngai province a ‘free fire zone’ and that 70 per cent of the villages had been razed. When it was My Lai’s turn civilians were being killed at a rate of 50,000 a year. This was known as ‘collateral damage’.
Look closely at the famous photograph of the piles of dead in a ditch at My Lai, and there is a shadow in the grass to the left. This was Mrs Truong Thi Le, who survived beneath the bodies of her mother, daughter and grandson. Now 68, she bravely held the photograph and listed for me the others in the ditch who were her family: her brother, aged 30, her nephew, aged one, four nieces, all of them under 10, a total of nine. “It was six o’clock in the morning,” she said. “Suddenly this helicopter was manoeuvring above the house, then we saw soldiers come across the fields. They ordered all the families out and told us to march towards the ditch. If we walked too slowly, they prodded us with their guns. We came to an assembly point and huddled together; then they shot us one by one. I saw a little boat and used it to cover my son, and dead bodies fell down on me. I kept telling my son, who was six years old, “Oh, please don’t cry. They will hear us if you do”. When the Americans had finished and walked away, I waited, then stood up with my boy; I felt I was walking in the sky or somewhere else; I didn’t have any kind of feelings. I was covered in blood and pieces of human brain, which smelt terrible. On the way back we had to walk in the field because the pathway was covered with bodies; I saw a mother die here, children there. They even killed the animals like ox and buffaloes. When we got to our home, it was burned down. It was only then I realised a bullet had passed right through me, but I was still alive.”
In 1970 I went to the US and interviewed seven American soldiers who had taken part in mass murder in Vietnam. None had been charged. Each was adamant that he had been under orders to “kill everyone and everything”. “A village was a designated playground,” one of them said.
America had extended the nature of its own cities to Vietnam. Homicide, not military tactic, was the means of conducting the war. The US Ninth Infantry Division was said to be notorious. In fact, it was typical and did no more than carry out the orders of the military command at Dodge City in Saigon: orders dispensed by generals and colonels who made Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 an exemplary work of non-fiction.
In 1971 soldiers of the ‘Glorious Ninth’ were credited with a ‘body count’ of 11,000 of the enemy in a ‘pacification’ campaign called ‘Operation Speedy Express’. The flaw in this story was that only 700 weapons were found. Later an American official admitted that 5,000 ‘non-combatants’ had been killed. Mass slaughter. The magazine Newsweek had the story for six months but suppressed it, saying it amounted to a “gratuitous attack” on President Nixon. When it was finally published it bore little resemblance to the original.
Vietnam is said to have been the first ‘media war’ in which there was no censorship and nothing escaped the scrutiny of the television camera. There were more than 600 reporters in Vietnam at the time of the My Lai massacre. None of them broke the story. For more than a year after the event a soldier who had heard about it tried to interest Newsweek, and others, without success. Finally the story was broken by a freelance reporter based in the US, Seymour Hersh, who believed the murder of civilians by his country’s soldiers was news. Only then did many of the correspondents tell their own ‘atrocity stories’.
The walls of news organisations in Saigon had long been decorated with photographs of dismembered bodies, of GIs holding up severed ears and testicles and of actual moments of torture. In the Associated Press office someone had written on one of these: “This is what happens when you speak to the press.” To the question why these pictures had not been sent usually came the reply that the agencies would not distribute them, because newspapers would not publish them. There were outstanding, honourable journalists and photographers who fought against this.
The My Lai massacre eventually made the cover of Newsweek under the headline, An American Tragedy, which invited sympathy for America and deflected from two truths: that the massacre was, above all, a Vietnamese tragedy and that, far from being an “aberration”, as the army claimed, it accurately reflected the criminal nature of the war. This was never spelt out. That the war was a “series of blunders”, or a “quagmire” into which naive politicians and generals were “dragged” was the preferred media version and still is.
This myth endures alongside nonsense that reporters helped “lose” the war. Had the war been reported as an all-out assault on the Vietnamese people, regardless of whether they were communist or non-communist, northerners or southerners, this charge might have some validity. But it was never presented like that, rather as a Gladiators contest between ‘good’ teams and ‘bad’ teams. The Americans were on the side of the good team, the South Vietnamese, who were defending themselves against several bad teams of ?communists?. Not surprisingly, this version excluded the fact that the Americans had killed tens of thousands of their South Vietnamese ‘allies’ and had levelled half of all their forests, poisoned their environment and forced millions of them to leave their homes.
Neither did the news version ever really come to terms with who the ‘communists’ were. If the NLF, or Vietcong , were also South Vietnamese, how could they possible invade their own country, as President Kennedy claimed. Words had to be found to describe the actions of people resisting an American invasion. ‘Insurgency’ and ‘internal aggression’ were popular for a time.
The news version also had difficulty with the North Vietnamese, who were said to be attacking the south. There had been no North Vietnam and no South Vietnam until the Geneva Conference on Indochina in 1954 had temporarily divided the country to await national elections two years later. The record is clear that the Americans sabotaged these elections, for the good reason that they knew Ho Chi Minh would win hands down. “I have never talked with a person knowledgeable in Indochinese affairs,” said President Eisenhower, “who did not believe that 80 per cent of the population would have voted for Ho Chi Minh.” The theme of the Vietnam war as an ‘American tragedy’ was picked up by Hollywood with a series of movies that have pitied the invader with a potent blend of Rambo-and-angst – sometimes crude (Rambo) and sometimes subtle (Platoon). In all of them the Vietnamese flit across the screen as bit players. When they are not Oriental barbarians and idiots (The Deer Hunter) they are victims (Platoon) and sentimentalised (Good Morning Vietnam), just like the Indians in all those matinee westerns of the past. The few films that have provided glimpses of the Vietnamese as human beings have merely added credibility to the distortion and enriched the purgative.
Many of the retrospectives leading up to next week;s anniversary have illustrated the stamina of these myths. On television, Hollywood is given yet another run; and the BBC, we are told with miraculous certainty, was “more impartial” in its coverage than the American media. There has been no reference to the Corporation’s blacklisting of the reports by cameraman Malcolm Aird and journalist James Cameron of the bombing of civilian targets in North Vietnam in 1965: a rare glimpse of the longest aerial bombardment in history.
With Vietnam fashionable again, nothing has changed. The ‘good’ and ‘bad’ teams are recalled, along with the venerable catch-all, ‘the communists’, which at a stroke relegates to the shadows the men and women who fought and died not as Asian Prussians under the spell of some blind faith, but as nationalists who developed their ingenuity and patience to the extremes of human limits, who built underground schools and hospitals and were united in their sense of history.
Former Defence Secretary Robert McNamara has used the anniversary to “confess all”, according to the Guardian. Well, not quite all. It was McNamara who bombed and bombed then tried to build an electrified fence across Vietnam. He now says that his “errors” were “not of values and intentions, but of judgment and capabilities”. This would be laughable if only the language of western power, and its devotion to minimising culpability, was not so insidious. Faithfully echoing McNamara, a BBC radio interviewer asked me, “Well how does an outside power impose order on a country that doesn’t want it?” Personally, I prefer Johnnie Rambo’s line: “Do we get to win this time?” Yes, of course you do: Grenada, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Panama, the Gulf, etc.
Unless the Vietnamese beware, they too will join the list by another route now being marked out for them. After 1975 the US imposed a punishing embargo on them, covering trade and humanitarian aid. Friends joined in. One of Margaret Thatcher’s first acts on coming to power was to stop shipments of powdered milk to Vietnamese children. The blockade ended any hope of the Hanoi government lessening the dependence on the Soviet Union. For ordinary people, bitter years of austerity and repression followed. Former soldiers and servants of the old regime were sent to re-education camps, Vietnam’s gulag, and liberty was often measured by your standing in the Communist Party; and thousands took to the sea. New invasions from Pol Pot’s Cambodia and China were fought off with a standing army now totalling half a million men. Asked for humanitarian aid, President Carter made the extraordinary statement: “We owe them nothing. The damage was mutual.” When I was in Hanoi 10 days after the end of the war it looked as I had imagined the East End of London in Victorian times, even though visible poverty was controlled.
That began to change dramatically after 1986 when the government declared a policy called Doi Moi, which means ‘renovation’ or loosely ‘our way’. The ‘free market’ was embraced as a means of breaking down the embargo; and within two years the World Bank had arrived, followed by the Japanese and Europeans. Last year, President Clinton finally lifted the American embargo and appeared to put to rest the specious ‘MIA issue’. (No president ever mentioned the 200,000 Vietnamese MIAs).
Today, Vietnam is an open marketplace, and foreign ‘investors’ encouraged by a privileged coterie in the government, are achieving what years of bombs and Napalm failed to. As one American banker put it, “The circus is back in town.” It is both a strange and very familiar circus. In the bar of the Hoa Binh hotel in Hanoi, Joe, a former American helicopter pilot, says he now runs a fleet of corporate jets flying in American businessmen, many of them from companies that profited from the war. Next door are the new offices of the Bank of America, a pillar of the American war.
Alfonso L DeMatteis, from Brooklyn, New York, started the American Chamber of Commerce in Hanoi.
He sits in his office in front of a furled American flag and puzzles over why no one here bears him a grudge. I noticed on his desk a letter he had written to the government complaining about a proposed exhibition on the American bombing. He runs a construction company and is putting up a 15-storey building “complete with health club and running track”. Will the Vietnamese have use of it? “You’ve got to understand the rents are not cheap. In a word, John. Unlikely.”
Peter Purcell is an Australian version of Alfonso. He is building the Hanoi Club, where membership fees range from Dollars 6,500 to Dollars 15,000 and which “will only work if it’s exclusive”. With an initial capital of Dollars 14 million, he has probably already made Dollars 50 million, and he still has a vacant lot. He told me the story of a senior government official who asked him, on the quiet, to explain to him what a share was. “Is this a country waiting to be ripped off?” I asked. “Yes,” he said. “It’s part of the education programme of converting into this wonderful world of capitalism.” Vietnam is being raped. The dollar has taken over from the Vietnamese dong, giving the US Reserve Bank effective control of the flow of currency. Japan dominates consumer money lending, Singapore the property market and Taiwan and Korea the sweatshops. The French and the Australians are doing nicely, too, with the British not far behind.
In January, Chancellor Kenneth Clarke came to Hanoi with a group of British businessmen, who were given a briefing document by the Department of Trade and Industry. This is admirably frank, almost ecstatic about the cheapness of people. “Labour rates,” it says, “are as low as Dollars 35 a month.” Moreover, the Vietnamese “can provide a new industrial home for ailing British products”. “Take the long view,” says the DTI, “use Vietnam’s weaknesses selfishly. Vietnam’s open door invites you to take advantage of its low standard of living and low wages.” I showed this to Nguyen Xuan Oanh, who until recently was senior economic adviser to the Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet. “We have inexpensive labour,” he said. “I don’t call it cheap labour. It allows us to be competitive on the international market.”
Thereupon he extolled growth rates, “tax holidays”, public expenditure cuts and the rest of the IMF deity. What is interesting about this man is that not only is he the architect of Vietnam’s “market socialism”, as he calls it, but he was deputy prime minister in the old Saigon regime. I said South Vietnam is remembered as having an economy based on a black market, drugs, prostitution and war profiteering.
“We had a bad administration,” he replied.
“But you were number two in that administration.”
“I tried very hard to help, but not successfully.”
I said that an American businessmen here told me that Vietnam would soon be capitalist.
“I hope so,” he replied.
The new, Vietnam, according to those like Dr Oanh, is to be found in the ‘EPZs’, which stands for Export Processing Zones. Visiting one of these on the Saigon river run by a Taiwanese company, I was struck by the likeness to photographs of the cotton mills of Lancashire. Ancient looms making towelling for export were attended by mostly young women, who get a basic rate of pounds 12 a month and can work a 12-hour day. If they fall behind a set target, they are sacked. The air is foul and the only protection is from a hair curler. One of them was taken away with an eye injury while I was there. “We got a medical centre for that sort of thing,” said the Taiwanese manager. Under Vietnamese law, there should be a union. “We haven’t got one of those yet,” he said. This brave new world is to be part of a kind of city state, with its own stock exchange, customs and dormitories for female workers. All the profits will be shipped out.
In Saigon the growth of a new, highly visible consumer class, sporting mobile phones and jeans, is at the expense of the majority. The tragedy of this is evident in the countryside where ‘market forces’ have all but wiped out the co-operatives. These once sustained the grain store, which ensured that no one starved in an emergency, the local health clinic, where babies could be born in safety, and the primary school. If development was measured not by Gross National Product, but a society’s success in meeting the basic needs of its people, Vietnam would have been considered a model. Its finest achievements were in education and health, producing a 90 per cent literacy rate, one of the highest in the world, and a child mortality rate comparable with that of rich countries. Today, malaria deaths are back, along with child malnutrition.
Education is being tailored to the new labour market, with fewer children staying on at school. As the health service is no longer free, the well off are meant to pay for the poor. In reality the system in many hospitals is now pay-or-die. Although the Tu Du hospital in Saigon is spruce and well managed the doctors lack the basic diagnostic and curative equipment to deal with the ‘foetal catastrophes’ that happen frequently as the genetic link between the poison Dioxin produces deformed babies and cancerous pregnancies. Dioxin was contained in the herbicide Agent Orange, which the Americans sprayed over South Vietnam in the 1960s. It is a thousand times more powerful than Thalidomide.
The point has yet to be passed when the Communist leadership becomes a captive of its ‘reforms’. But when that happens, and it becomes clear that there is once again the kind of foreign-imposed society that people sacrificed so much to get rid of, the pact between the Party and the peasants will be finally broken, and there will be a vacuum, and trouble. Perhaps that is why very poor people are swept off the streets of Saigon and put in detention centres; and why anti-government Buddhists, who bring to mind those who helped to topple the old regimes, are prisoners of conscience.
Yet what is so attractive about Vietnam is not just that a popular resistance won, but that the maxims of Ho Chi Minh have endured among ordinary people. He said that when the war was over “we shall make our country a thousand times more beautiful”. Millions of hectares of poisoned land have been reclaimed in a spectacular re-greening campaign. Every child plants at least one tree a year. In many parts of the country the sound of birds and the rustle of wildlife are being heard for the first time in a generation.
What I found most moving was the reconciliation between tens of thousands of boat people who have returned. Under a programme sponsored by the EC, people in the camps were first reassured by videotaped interviews with their relatives and friends at home. Then they were lent enough money to start again; and their community was also assisted. A fisherman, Mac Thi Nhan, who fled with his family to Hong Kong, was back in his village on beautiful Ha Long Bay with a new boat. “I was afraid at first, but everyone has been thoughtful to us,” he said. Michael Culligan, a former Irish banker who runs the EC programme in Haiphong, said, “I have travelled all over the country and met thousands of returnees, and I have not come across a single case of victimisation. The Vietnamese are a very kindly people. They were very sympathetic towards the boat people who came home, and they went out of their way to ensure they didn’t lose face. That is a civilised society.”
— source johnpilger.com