Vietnam today

In October, Chicagoans Beatrice Lumpkin and her husband Frank, the chairman of the Wisconsin Steelworkers Save Our Jobs Committee, traveled to Vietnam for two weeks. Here are some of Beatrice’s travel notes.





Hanoi. We learn it is two words: Ha Noi, “city in the mouth of the Red River.”

Vietnam is a country of lakes, ocean bays, rivers and mountains. I think of Chile, which also has a long coastline and mountains running the length of its spine. Unlike Chile, the rivers of Vietnam are long and navigable. There are always rivers and warm temperatures. Some places even yield four crops a year.

A big problem is flooding. Lacking the funding to control the floods, they have decided to live with them. Each year, the people get out of the way as the floods take over. Then they return and work to produce rich crops from the new, fertile soil left by the flood.

Hanoi is the capital of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, a city of 1.1 million people. “You will not see people living in the streets,” Han, our guide tells us. “Everyone has at least a little land.”

Hanoi is a beautiful city, with green trees and gardens everywhere and classic French colonial architecture. At every turn there are lake or river views.

Yet everywhere you see scars from the wars – the “French War” and the “American War,” as they are called in Vietnam. The day we arrived, Vietnam News reported that four school children were severely injured by the explosion of an undetonated bomb dropped during the American War. “Three school children were killed in the same area last month from a similar incident,” the paper reported. The United Nations reports that millions of unexploded bombs and landmines still litter Vietnam’s landscape.

A required tourist visit to the Government Center and Presidential Palace turns out to be a pleasant surprise. The huge square is surrounded by green plantings and towering trees. The Presidential Park park was designed by Ho Chi Minh himself. It is a place of great natural beauty, a perfect setting for rest and reflection.

Ho Chi Minh refused to live in the Presidential Palace. He moved to a very modest house nearby, where he could live in the simple style he was accustomed to and preferred. Because Ho Chi Minh lived only for the people of Vietnam, took nothing for himself and never had children of his own, he is called “Uncle Ho” by everyone in Vietnam.

“That’s certainly a different picture of Ho Chi Minh than we were told in the United States,” one of our tourist friends observed.

Our visit to the grim, French-built prison in Hanoi was hard to forget. It was like a combination of the Slave House in Goree Island in Senegal and the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany. During the French occupation, Vietnamese prisoners were shackled at the legs and forced to lie on boards, crowded side-by-side, day after day. The guillotine was in daily use, especially against political prisoners who fought for their country’s independence.

During the war with the U.S., the prison was cleaned up and used to house U.S. aviators shot down over Hanoi. According to the exhibits, these prisoners received humane treatment. Examples of games played by the prisoners were on display. The U.S. prisoners named it the “Hanoi Hilton.” A few have come back to visit.

When Vietnam finally gained its independence and drove out the U.S. invaders in 1975, many people wanted to tear the prison down. Instead it was turned into a museum so young Vietnamese could learn their country’s history.

Just 37 miles from Hanoi is Halong Bay, a World Heritage Site designated by UNESCO. The spectacular scenery is enough reason to travel to Vietnam. Great changes in the earth’s crust left this bay with ragged, rugged crags sticking out from the sea floor in fantastic shapes, row after row. The scale of beauty was too great for the U.S. bombers to destroy, although bomb they did.

In the local Internet café we met two U.S. soldiers, among the few people of African descent that we saw in Vietnam. They were based in Hawaii but were being sent up into the mountains to search for the remains of American MIAs (Missing in Action). The Vietnamese government has given generous assistance to this effort.

Vietnam is divided into three geographic zones, ruled by separate kings in the past. The North and South are rice growing areas, productive enough to make Vietnam the world’s second greatest exporter of rice, after China. These are delta areas at the mouth of the Red River in the North and Mekong River the South. The central sector was the home of Hue, the former regional capital. A look at the rice farmers showed how the majority of Vietnamese farmers are living. They make up 75 percent of the population.

Traditional, family-based rice farming is intensive work. The technology is ancient but productive. No machinery was used, just manual labor aided by cattle or water buffaloes. Water buffaloes are preferred and easier to train but cost more. Much of the urea fertilizer is supplied by the family itself. They raise green and root vegetables, chickens and hogs to complete a balanced diet. The children look healthy.

The land is nationally owned and cannot be sold. Families pay a tax in rice and live largely outside of a cash economy. The surplus rice, not needed by the family, brings in a cash income used to buy clothes, electrical appliances, bicycles or small motorcycles. Children go to school in five-hour shifts and work on the farm the rest of the day. The first five years of school are free. The literacy rate is among the highest in that part of the world, about 94 percent.

From Hanoi we flew to Da Nang and visited China Beach, used by the U.S. armed forces for R&R. The beach was full of small, circular fishing boats. A trip through the hills showed the ravages of Agent Orange. The mountains were green again but gone were the great hardwood trees that had grown for hundreds of years.

After U.S. chemical defoliants stripped the mountains of trees, the soil washed away in the heavy typhoon rains. Later, eucalyptus trees were planted to retain the little soil that remained. We had thought of these as scrap trees but the Vietnamese used the wood and the bark for roofing and homes. These roofs have to be replaced in four to five years, but the price is right. It seems labor is more available than lumber. Hopefully, in the next 100 years, it will be possible to replant the great native trees of Vietnam.

We stayed a couple of nights in Hoi An. This is a historic old town, clogged with tourists. A high point was a bus trip to the My Son ruins of the Champa Kingdom, an extensive area reminding me of Tikal in Guatemala. These precious ruins of an ancient Hindu-influenced kingdom had been carpet-bombed by the U.S. Air Force. All that remained were many piles of rubble and a few temples that had miraculously survived. French archaeologists had made many drawings of the ruins in the 19th century so it is possible to restore them. Clearly it will take a big international investment to do so.

The bus took us to Hue where we had hotel rooms overlooking the Perfumed River. Perhaps it was perfumed by the original sandalwood logged on its banks and shipped to market downstream.

We visited a Buddhist-operated orphanage where children were getting tender loving care. A large state-operated school for disabled children was even more remarkable. Children were learning trades and becoming skilled artisans, salespersons and managers.

Dinner was at the home of a family descended from the old mandarins (nobles) and who still lived in the traditional, substantial home of that earlier time. The head of the family was a scholar. Despite his family’s mandarin past, he seemed very comfortable with the government and party established by Uncle Ho. The Communist Party of Vietnam is the sole political party and plays an active role in guiding the economy.

Flying south from central to southern Vietnam, we arrive at Ho Chi Minh City, originally named Saigon after the river that flows through it. A highlight of our trip was a visit to the Cu Chih tunnels where 5,000 Vietnamese fighters lived deep underground, out of reach of the carpet-bombing U.S. Air Force. At night the Vietnamese would emerge and fight the invaders.

At first the tunnels were used to fight the French. Then they were extended for 200 miles to fight the U.S. military. The tunnels were dug with shovels and the earth removed, basket by basket. The soldiers survived on rats and whatever else they could find.

I went down to experience one of the tunnels for myself. It was barely wider than me and I had to bend over double. Every few feet it made a sharp turn, making it easy to defend. Not used to the dark, I could barely see. It was scary. After a few minutes I had enough. When I came up, the guide was coming down to look for me.

But thousands lived in those tunnels for years. In the end, the Vietnamese fighters won. Unity, determination and brilliant strategy defeated the high technology of the invaders.

A cruise in Mekong Bay yielded a view of tropical abundance. There was fruit of many kinds, including dragon fruit – red with a gnarled appearance, like dragons. They are somewhat pear-shaped, melon-sized, with firm white meat dotted with tasty, tiny black seeds. We visited some islands and gorged ourselves on the tropical fruit.

Incidentally, Vietnamese food is superb as well as healthful. Not one of the 15 in our group got sick after two weeks of overindulgence. That spoke very well for the sanitation and the health of the food handlers.

We took rides up the bay’s feeder streams in small, round-bottom boats paddled by two women. Here exotic butterflies, 10 inches across, fluttered to and fro to my delight. To make the tourists even happier, there was traditional music played at many of our stops.

So Vietnam is a wonderful tourist destination. What about the life of the people in a poor, socialist country?

Yes, Vietnam – a country of 79 million people – is very poor by most measures. But as mentioned above, about three-quarters of the population is made up of farmers who get most of their food and housing outside the cash economy. People look well-nourished and almost all have access to schools and some health care. Life expectancy is going up about five months each year. In 2001, it had reached 69.6 years.

But a country cannot lift itself up by its own bootstraps in this technological age. Some access to investment capital is needed to build factories and develop technology. Given the low prices of agricultural exports and the high price of manufactured imports, Vietnam cannot produce sufficient capital by itself.

As a consequence, Vietnam has proclaimed an “open door” policy and invited foreign investment. Foreign companies include many from the U.S. since the restoration of relations in 1995. The foreign companies account for 35 percent of Vietnam’s industrial production. They employ 650,000 workers who are paid, on average, $1,000 U.S. a year. Workers receive social insurance benefits, but many foreign companies have failed to pay the tax that finances these benefits.

While in Hanoi, we made an unplanned, unofficial visit to the Vietnam General Confederation of Labor (VGCL). Chau Nhat Binh, deputy director of the International Department, received us and gave us a copy of their federation’s constitution and their VGCL pins. Later, we read the constitution and found it to be oriented to socialist state production. It must have been written before they had to deal with capitalist employers.

We gave Chau Nhat Binh a steelworkers’ union cap and a copy of our book, “Always Bring a Crowd – The Story of Frank Lumpkin, Steelworker.” He expressed great interest in receiving representatives of the AFL-CIO and its affiliated unions. The West Coast Longshoremen’s Union has sent representatives already.

We expressed our solidarity with the union federation’s battle to defend workers’ interests. Given the Vietnamese people’s heroic history of struggle, I would expect them to fight for more equal pay and benefits sooner rather than later.

The author can be reached at bealumpkin@aol.com