On April 28th,
author of Shadows and Wind, and a veteran Vietnam correspondent,
us live online to talk about contemporary
Vietnam and the legacy of the war.
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.
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
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
Templer: Hello, and good afternoon
Robert, are the Vietnamese as consumed by the war as many Americans
seem to be?
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
How can that be? We poured more bombs on Vietnam than on Europe.
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.
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.
How would you characterize the Vietnamese economy today?
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.
Can you describe Vietnam as a communist country, or is it something
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
How repressive is the government in terms of individual political
and economic freedoms?
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.
Eighty percent of Vietnam's people live in the countryside. How
different is life there compared to major cities such as Hanoi and
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.
was the most surprising attitude you found among the Vietnamese?
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
Smith: How divided is the country now between people who support
the South (and the United States) and those who backed the North?
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
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
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.
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.
Is there any meaningful opposition movement? Any
threat of future civil strife?
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
is being done to locate all our MIA's?
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
Doesn't Vietnam have some 300,000 MIAs itself?
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.
How disabling to Vietnamese society and economy are the after-effects
of the war - Agent Orange, etc.?
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.
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.
Why have they blocked it?
What's at risk for the government?
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.
How serious is the problem of unexploded land mines and ordinance?
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
is the attitude among Vietnamese with regards to the lack of freedoms
you were discussing earlier?
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.
absence of unions and other groups supported by government, would
you say that the family is a central part of modern Vietnam?
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.
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
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
has become a major deterrent to foreign investors in the country.
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?
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.
Is it likely that Vietnam will "go democratic" in the
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
Is there much of a democratic impulse in Vietnam or is that a totally
western question to ask?
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
freedom do filmmakers and other artists have in Vietnam today?
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.
is the French influence today?
Templer: Very few people speak French in Vietnam nowadays.
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.
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?
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
find a lot of obsessed, bitter veterans in the country?
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.
Tell us about Vietnamese veterans from the South Vietnamese side
- losing and being abandoned.
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.
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?
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.
is the current U.S. policy toward Vietnam, with regards to trade?
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.
are women's issues like in Vietnam?
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.
the people recovered from the damages of the war and ready to march
in the new millennium?
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
Thanks very much. Our guest was Robert Templer, author of the book
Shadows and Wind.
Templer: Thank you for inviting me here today.
Smith: I'm Stephen Smith. Good day.
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