Revisiting Vietnam
  Vietnam - A Nation, Not a War
An Online Chat with Robert Templer
Robert Templer

On April 28th, Robert Templer, author of Shadows and Wind, and a veteran Vietnam correspondent, joined us live online to talk about contemporary Vietnam and the legacy of the war.

Templer was a correspondent for Agence France-Presse in Hanoi, where he lived from 1994-97. He is a fellow of the Open Society Institute in New York and a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley. He has worked as a correspondent in France, Hong Kong, China, Afghanistan, Laos, and Taiwan. He now writes for the Guardian and the Sunday Telegraph newspapers in the United Kingdom.

Stephen Smith, Moderator: Welcome to this American RadioWorks live online chat. The topic today is Vietnam - A Nation, Not a War. I'm Stephen Smith, the managing editor of American RadioWorks. Our guest is Robert Templer, author of Shadows and Wind, a book on contemporary Vietnam, and a veteran correspondent in Vietnam and observer of that country.

It was 25 years ago this Sunday that the last U.S. forces pulled out of Vietnam. Diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Vietnam were restored in 1995. One of the key questions is whether the Vietnamese seem as obsessed about the war with the U.S. as many Americans are about Vietnam.

Robert Templer: Hello, and good afternoon

Stephen Smith: Robert, are the Vietnamese as consumed by the war as many Americans seem to be?

Robert Templer: Not in general. Most Vietnamese were born after 1975, and more than 60% of the country has no memory of the war. For most people, it's quite a distant part of history

Stephen Smith: How can that be? We poured more bombs on Vietnam than on Europe.

Robert Templer: Very little physical damage caused by the war is visible. But considerable psychological, political, and economic damage remains to this day. What the Vietnamese call the "American War" was a very short period in a long history of conflict. When you talk to Vietnamese about the worst periods that they remember, they often don't recall the war against the United States but remember the period after 1975, when there was a long economic slump, and the country was fighting in China and Cambodia.

Stephen Smith: How would you characterize the Vietnamese economy today?

Robert Templer: Since they launched reforms in the late 1980s,the economy has opened up considerably. There's a gulf between the country's enormous potential, and what it has been able to achieve so far. For the past 5 years, the government has followed a very timid policy toward economic reform, and opening up to the rest of the world.

Stephen Smith: Can you describe Vietnam as a communist country, or is it something different?

Robert Templer: Well, I think in political-science terms, it's a Leninist country; it still has a very powerful control over all institutions in the state, by the Communist party. It no longer has a centrally planned economy. Still, about half of the country's output comes from the state sector. It's in many ways a hybrid of market Leninism

Stephen Smith: How repressive is the government in terms of individual political and economic freedoms?

Robert Templer: The Vietnamese constitution guarantees most of the rights that Americans have, but in effect, there are very severe restrictions on freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, and freedom of association. For example, all newspapers and TV stations are owned by the government. The religions are all controlled to fairly significant degree by the government, though individuals are free to go to church or go to the temple. There are no independent trade unions, nor are there any independent associations that you might find in the United States. There are no rotary clubs or political parties or lobbying groups. In terms of economic freedom, people are constrained by the lack of a clear legal system. And very unclear rules on ownership, particularly of land. There's still an attitude among the authorities that you have to get permission to do anything, rather than allowing people to do whatever is not illegal.

Stephen Smith: Eighty percent of Vietnam's people live in the countryside. How different is life there compared to major cities such as Hanoi and Saigon?

Robert Templer: The countryside in Vietnam is significantly poorer than any city. Around 40 percent of all children living in rural areas of Vietnam are malnourished. And in many areas, the average income is no more than about 50 dollars per year. Although there have been improvements in certain areas, parts of the country, particularly mountainous areas, remain very poor.

Audience Question: What was the most surprising attitude you found among the Vietnamese?

Robert Templer: One big surprise is how little resentment there is about the war There's a lot of interest in Americans. Often when I traveled around Vietnam, the people would shout Russian at you because they thought you were Russian. After a few years, that changed to U.S.A. They thought all foreigners were American. They're often very disappointed to discover I came from England, a country of no significance to Vietnam, except for its soccer teams, which are very popular.

Stephen Smith: How divided is the country now between people who support the South (and the United States) and those who backed the North?

Robert Templer: The official version of history has erased the very existence of South Vietnam. All the people who supported it tend to be completely ignored. There are lingering discriminations against those who fought for the South. An example of this is whenever you apply for a job or place in university in Vietnam, you have to say what your parents did during the war. And for those who come from the wrong background, it can still mean missing out on a job or an education.

Audience Question: You painted a very depressed picture of Vietnamese youth in your book. There are a lot of good, promising young people there. Can you please give some positive input? I think I have very optimistic views of young Vietnamese. There's a real striving for education, self-improvement, and a real desire for the country to move forward. Almost all the young Vietnamese that I know have 2 jobs, and are studying as well. I think the obstacles to their future comes from the government and its policies

Stephen Smith: Is Vietnam at war with any other countries at present? It's been a nation at war for most of the latter half of the 20th century.

Robert Templer: Since 1989, Vietnam has finally been at peace with all its neighbors. But I think there's still some sense that it's a country at war with itself. There are so many widening divisions in the country and very little means to narrow those divisions.

Stephen Smith: Is there any meaningful opposition movement? Any threat of future civil strife?

Robert Templer: There's no organized opposition in Vietnam. The government tries very hard to control the emergence of any opposing forces But there have been outbreaks of protests and even riots against the government. Often in rural areas, where people are protesting the corruption of local officials.

Audience Question: What is being done to locate all our MIA's?

Robert Templer: In my view, the MIA issue is a real digression in the relationship between Vietnam and the U.S. The U.S. government spends hundreds of millions of dollars collecting phone fragments. I believe that money could be better spent in the United States or better spent alleviating poverty in Vietnam. Although losing a loved one in war is a terrible thing for any family, the fact is the Vietnam War is the only one where America has followed this policy. There are 40,000 missing from World War II, and very little effort was made to recover their remains.

Stephen Smith: Doesn't Vietnam have some 300,000 MIAs itself?

Robert Templer: Yes, there's still large numbers of people missing in Vietnam. The figure of 300,000 is really a guesstimate. But it's certainly a very large number. The Vietnamese don't have the resources to go and look for every one of them.

Stephen Smith: How disabling to Vietnamese society and economy are the after-effects of the war - Agent Orange, etc.?

Robert Templer: The issue of Agent Orange is much more complicated than it's portrayed in the media. There are considerable human impacts from dioxin that was sprayed over southern Vietnam.

Robert Templer: But the Vietnamese have tended to attribute every illness, Frequently, the Vietnamese government has blocked independent research into this issue. On a number of occasions, it has confiscated blood samples. And it has been critical of any work that didn't agree with its line. There needs to be much more research to determine the real impact.

Stephen Smith: Why have they blocked it? What's at risk for the government?

Robert Templer: The reason it doesn't want to see a clear accounting is the issue is much more useful to them, because if it can be used as an explanation for all problems. There are many environmental problems in Vietnam that cannot be blamed on the war. For example, deforestation has been massively worse since 1975 than it was before that period. One of the reasons they don't want to reveal this is the Vietnamese military is heavily involved in logging, which is probably the greatest environmental hazard to Vietnam.

Stephen Smith: How serious is the problem of unexploded land mines and ordinance?

Robert Templer: That's still a very serious problem, particularly up north near the border with China, where a lot of mines were laid after 1979. There's also a big problem in the area around the DMZ. Hundreds of people are injured or killed each year by exploding ordnance

Audience Question: What is the attitude among Vietnamese with regards to the lack of freedoms you were discussing earlier?

Robert Templer: For some Vietnamese, these are very serious issues. Particularly, freedom of speech and religion. But as in all authoritarian countries, many people prefer to lie low and just quietly get on with their lives without taking any risks.

Audience Question: In the absence of unions and other groups supported by government, would you say that the family is a central part of modern Vietnam?

Robert Templer: Yes, family life in Vietnam seems to be very strong. There have been a rise in divorce rates in cities, but most people still hold very traditional views of the family.

Audience Question: After spending three years in Vietnam during the war, in the delta and central highlands, I witnessed many corrupt officials as well as lower positions. How much of a factor does that still play in today's Vietnam?

Robert Templer: It's a big problem to this day, and getting worse. Corruption has become very pervasive in the government. For example, the deputy head of the national drug squad was arrested for smuggling heroin. Even the head of the Vietnamese equivalent of the General Accounting Office was found to have been involved in fairly major fraud. Some of the worst cases have involved companies owned by the Communist Party. In one company, officials were believe to have stolen $400 million. The $400 million is probably larger than the Vietnamese education budget. This has become a major deterrent to foreign investors in the country.

Stephen Smith: With the Soviet Union defunct and China a traditional enemy, does Vietnam look to any other of the few remaining communist states as an ally or patron?

Robert Templer: Vietnam has been developing its relationship with China, and it has a very close relationship to Cuba. But now that there are only 5 communist countries left, it's hard to find a good friend in that small group. China is still regarded with considerable suspicion as Vietnam's historical enemy over thousands of years. If anything, Vietnam has been trying to improve its relations with capitalist, democratic countries in Southeast Asia.

Stephen Smith: Is it likely that Vietnam will "go democratic" in the future?

Robert Templer: In the distant future. I think it may take a long time to develop a democracy in Vietnam. Having said that, a week before the Berlin Wall came down, nobody would have expected that.

Stephen Smith: Is there much of a democratic impulse in Vietnam or is that a totally western question to ask?

Robert Templer: I think there are considerable frustrations with the government, with the way the country is run. These are inchoate feelings that haven't found a voice in a democracy movement yet. People are aware that the democratic countries around them are more prosperous, and have greater freedom. But for decades, they've been told that democracy in Vietnam would lead to chaos and poverty.

Audience Question: How much freedom do filmmakers and other artists have in Vietnam today?

Robert Templer: Officially very little, but many filmmakers and artists have crept under the censor's radar, and produced works that would normally be banned. The level of artistic freedom in Vietnam varies depending on the political climate. In certain periods, artists have been quite free, and other times where even the slightest critics of the government will not be tolerated. There are a lot of issues that the government still finds very sensitive I know that photographs were removed from an exhibition because they showed scenes of poverty in Vietnam. Another artist had his paintings taken down because they had the letters HIV in them. There are ranges of sensitivities, and it's very hard to know at any one time what will be allowed and what will be banned.

Audience Question: How strong is the French influence today?

Robert Templer: Very few people speak French in Vietnam nowadays. I don't think there's much interest in French culture, but there's a considerable historical legacy in architecture, food, and language; there are many French tourists now in Vietnam. And I think they're the main reason anyone still learns French. It's not really nostalgia for the colonial past, but a contemporary political issue.

Stephen Smith: What is your view of the increasing number of Americans traveling to Vietnam as tourists? Do they really see the modern-day country? Or films from the past?

Robert Templer: I think traveling in Vietnam is always an eye-opening experience for any visitor. Many people go back with images that they've taken from novels and movies but those images change when they get there. People realize that Vietnam is a more complex, diverse country with a richer culture and heritage than is portrayed in books and movies about the war. There's much more to Vietnam than that period of history. It's a very beautiful country. And a very interesting country to travel in.

Audience Question: Did you find a lot of obsessed, bitter veterans in the country?

Robert Templer: Obsessed veterans, yes. Bitter veterans, no. We're referring to U.S. veterans - iIt's a different story with Vietnamese veterans. The U.S. veterans that go back tend to find it a very rewarding, if emotional, process.

Stephen Smith: Tell us about Vietnamese veterans from the South Vietnamese side - losing and being abandoned.

Robert Templer: Yes, some of them that I spoke to were very bitter. Many of them felt abandoned by the United States. And then after the war, many of them endured long periods in re-education camps. And after that, long periods of poverty, because they couldn't find work. But for every person I spoke to like that, there was another person who had a different view. One friend, who spent several years in a reeducation camp working for U.S. AID, was a cab driver but later ended up as a director of an advertising agency and was able to turn his life around. He would have been able to emigrate to the United States, but chose to stay in Vietnam.

Stephen Smith: Can you explain the phenomenon of Vietnamese returning to their country, especially those who fled to the U.S. and are now returning, or their children are returning? Are they being accepted and are they, themselves, a force of change in Vietnamese society?

Robert Templer: They've been going back now for about a decade, so many of the fears about them in Vietnam have diminished. Overseas Vietnamese are now accepted normally, particularly in Saigon. They have a very significant economic impact in Vietnam. They send back about a billion dollars a year. And they're a source of information and culture But the Vietnamese government still thinks that many of them are antagonistic and still have some self-defeating policies toward overseas Vietnamese.

Audience Question: What is the current U.S. policy toward Vietnam, with regards to trade?

Robert Templer: In October, at the last minute, Vietnam decided not to sign a trade agreement with the United States. This agreement would have opened up U.S. markets to Vietnamese products but it would have also exposed Vietnamese-based companies to competition from U.S. firms The Vietnamese decided they weren't ready for that. But the U.S. government has been pushing for more trade with Vietnam. Apparently, the trade is about half a billion dollars in Vietnam's favor. But it could expand significantly if they sign the agreement.

Audience Question: What are women's issues like in Vietnam?

Robert Templer: During the war, women had to taken on every role in society They fought alongside men. After the war, in some ways they were pushed back into the home. And nowadays, the government constantly emphasizes a traditional role for women. But women are prominent in all parts of life. And certainly they enjoy more freedoms and protection than they do in many other Asian countries. This is diminishing a little - fewer girls are now educated than before, and more young girls are taken out of school to start work earlier. There's also been a resurgence in prostitution and the sale of women, particularly to China.

Audience Question: So are the people recovered from the damages of the war and ready to march in the new millennium?

Robert Templer: Yes, I think Vietnam has great potential. It has a very well-educated population, with a considerable entrepreneurial spirit. As a people, they've shown that they can endure almost any hardship. I feel the main obstacle to a better future for all Vietnamese remains a government that can offer them the economic success and political freedom that people desire.

Stephen Smith: Thanks very much. Our guest was Robert Templer, author of the book Shadows and Wind.

Robert Templer: Thank you for inviting me here today.

Stephen Smith: I'm Stephen Smith. Good day.

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