World·Analysis

Today's Vietnam taunts Beijing, tantalizes the West

In today's Saigon, Patrick Brown writes, the gap between rich and poor would make Marx and Engels choke on their Big Macs. The Communist utopia Ho Chi Minh was fighting for proved as illusory as the Communist menace the U.S. fought against.

40 years after fall of Saigon, Vietnam still at the hub of Great Power rivalries

Vietnamese veterans gathered in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) Thursday for a parade celebrating the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War. Today, many of the sons and daughters of those who fled in 1975 are going back to Vietnam, seeking opportunities that they haven't been able to find in the West. (Na Son Nguyen/The Associated Press)

Forty years ago in Montreal, I was spending my days at Radio Canada International, writing hourly bulletins of the news from Saigon, and my evenings glued to the television with my wife, who was anxious about her parents back in Vietnam.

We had completed the paperwork for them to come to Canada, but had no way of knowing whether they could or would leave as the North Vietnamese forces closed in on the southern capital.

As it turned out, the decision was one more battle in a civil war of their own, so they stayed behind because they could not agree on leaving together.

Life was not easy for them after the Communist takeover, but years later, when we were finally able to visit, my mother-in-law told me that she had no regrets about staying in her homeland.

Today, many of the sons and daughters of those who fled in 1975, are going back to Vietnam, seeking opportunities that they haven't been able to find here in the West.

Foreign tourists sit at the terrace of a bar in the old quarter of Hanoi in March 2015. Since normalizing relations with the U.S. 20 years ago, Vietnam has been open for business. (AFP/Getty Images)
Like China, Vietnam is performing the extraordinary trick known as market-Leninism — combining almost 20 years of lightning, nearly double-digit economic growth with the rigid dogmatism and repression of one-party Communist rule.

In today's Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, you can start a business and make a fortune, popping into Starbucks and McDonald's as you do so.

But you can also go to jail for remarking on your Facebook page that corrupt party officials are making even bigger fortunes.

The gap between rich and poor would make Marx and Engels choke on their Big Macs.

In China's shadow

In economic terms, at least, the Communist utopia Ho Chi Minh was supposed to be fighting for was as illusory as the Communist menace that John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon claimed to be fighting against.

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      But the one preoccupation that has endured throughout Vietnam's history is the determination to be independent at any cost.

      And that will likely continue to be the overwhelming priority for the country in the dramatic transformation that is taking place throughout Asia.

      Living next door to the U.S, Pierre Trudeau once complained, is like sleeping with an elephant. Imagine living next door to China.

      Vietnam's national heroines are the Trung sisters, and the two-thousandth anniversary of their revolt against China's Han dynasty will be celebrated in 2040.

      In the intervening two millennia, by Vietnam's count, the country has been invaded almost 20 times by China, most recently in 1979 when Vietnam fought 200,000 Chinese troops to a standstill.

      These days, the land border is quiet except for the rumble of goods going back and forth.

      But like all of China's maritime neighbours, Vietnam is troubled by the Middle Kingdom's belligerent assertion of sovereignty in the disputed areas of the South China Sea.

      As China's grows in economic and military strength, it has been throwing its weight about, attempting to regain what it considers its rightful predominance in the region.

      A former soldier from Northern Vietnam takes pictures of the front gates of the former presidential palace of the Southern Vietnamese regime in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, on April 29, 2015. (AFP/Getty Images)

      That predominance was challenged last year when China plonked an oil drilling rig down in an area of the South China Sea also claimed by Vietnam.

      The ensuing riots in Vietnam against Chinese firms only underlined the strength of the nationalist feeling there, and the anti-Chinese feelings that are never far from the surface.

      Add to that Washington's new focus on enhancing its Pacific role — including the new military agreements with Vietnam and others and the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, the multi-nation trade deal that includes Hanoi but not Beijing.

      It is not hard to imagine local rivalries and great power interests getting out of hand.

      Great Power rivalries

      Part of Ho Chi Minh's genius was to play off more powerful countries against each other, and Vietnam's current Communist Party leader Nguyen Phu Trong is clearly trying to do the same.

      His meeting with China's President Xi Jinping two weeks ago was preceded by talks in Moscow with Russia's Vladimir Putin in December, and will be followed by a visit to Washington to see Obama later this year.

      That's pretty good access for the leader of a small country still recovering from decades of war, idiotic communist policies and an international embargo.

      In the spirit of an old Chinese joke, which holds that you can't be sure something is true until it's officially denied by the Xinhua news agency, Xinhua confirmed this week that Vietnam is again at the centre of great-power rivalries.

      "Interpretations of Trong's expected U.S. trip as a move to counterbalance China," it sniffed, "smell of Cold War-era machination and confrontationalism, which should have been dumped in the dustbin of history."

      Pu Lani Carlson, one of nearly 3,000 Vietnamese orphans evacuated from Saigon 40 years ago, holds a picture of herself as a baby in her Saigon orphanage at a war memorial to the Vietnam veterans in New Jersey last week. (Reuters)

      In this South China Sea version of the Great Game, Canada is on the sidelines, though our government has added a footnote to foreign meddling in the region with a new addition to Canada's official calendar.

      Trade with Vietnam has been increasing steadily in recent years, propelled in part by a strong community of Vietnamese Canadians, many of whom came here as refugees after the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975.

      But in an awkward attempt to salute that community in advance of a federal election, the Conservative government passed an act last week designating April 30, Vietnam's Reunification Day, as Canada's official Journey to Freedom Day.

      We owe this trolling of another nation's independence day to Conservative Senator Thanh Hai Ngo, whose original proposal was for Black April Day.

      It is hard to imagine Canada adding Long Live King George Day on July 4, or Hands Off the Bastille Day on July 14.

      But if we're so intent on giving gratuitous offence to countries we want to do business with, why stop with Vietnam?

      Vietnam's Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong meets U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Hanoi in December 2013. A month earlier he sat in the same chair and met with Russia's Vladimir Putin. A month before that it was China's premier. (The Associated Press)

      About the Author

      Patrick Brown

      Eye on Asia

      Former CBC correspondent Patrick Brown has reported from world capitals and dusty backwaters for over 30 years, with a particular emphasis on Asia, having been based at different times in Bangkok, Delhi and, most recently, Beijing. He now splits his time between Canada and China as an independent documentary-maker. Follow Patrick Brown on Twitter: @truthfromfacts

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