The War Nobody Won 19

The department store that had been barren in 1981 was filled with merchandise. Bloomingdale’s it was not but the manager, Me Lai Bao Khanh, had scuttled socialist methods. To compete she was improving the quality of her products, changing prices daily, extending warranties on appliances and installing them at no charge. Private bars and restau¬rants, once as covert as speakeasies, were now flourishing. The dilapi¬dated French villas were being refurbished and let to foreigners at astronomical rents. The “Hanoi Hilton,” as the American prisoners of war held there-had dubbed their block-long jail, had been razed to make way for a mammoth office complex financed by Singapore money. One morning my guide steered me to a suburb for a glance at what he called “Hanoi’s Beverly Hills.” Rising from the muddy tract were garish houses embellished with fantasy cupolas and domes, and stairways spiralling up to balconies ringed by carved balustrades. The helter-skelter construc¬tion endangered the web of dikes that protected the city against recur¬rent flooding from the Red River, but little was being done to curb the real estate speculators. With official connivance they would lease state- owned land, build or renovate other houses, Collect two or three years’ rent in advance, then parlay the money into new properties. Thus, if the north had conquered the south, the spirit of the south was conquering the north.
But much of Hanoi was still quaint. I indulged myself in a trim by an outdoor barber, and paid a dollar to a crone to be weighed on a creaky scale. Wandering into an alley, I joined a table of Vietnamese slurping their midday pho, a thick soup of chicken or beef mixed with cabbage, parsley, scallions, soybean sprouts and rice noodles and laced with co¬riander, garlic and the national condiment, nuoc nam, made from fer¬mented fish. I ambled around the medieval district, the Thirty-six Old Streets, each named for a separate guild or its specialty—silversmiths, tailors, weavers, dyers, silk, bronze, copper or lacquer. With restrictions no longer hindering its artisans, the neighborhood was humming.
On an excursion outside town, I stopped at the village of Bat Trang, whose three thousand citizens made ceramics—as their forebears had for seven centuries. Le Van Cam, a stocky, bearded master potter of sixty-five, had lost a leg during the war against the French. Leaning on a cane, he escorted me around his establishment. Most of his profits came from roofing tiles, but he preferred to copy antique ceramics with a glaze that he himself had perfected. He paused to kowtow at a shrine to his deceased sister, then led me into his house, where we sank into arm¬chairs under a certificate attesting to his membership in the Communist Party. After pouring the inevitable tea, he launched a tirade against the Communists. “They did give us medical care and other social welfare,” he said, “but they saddled us with harsh, incompetent managers. A few years ago, I directed a cooperative that manufactured rice bowls. My en¬tire family lived in a single room, and all I had was a bicycle. The re¬forms have allowed me to run my own company. Now I have this big house, a television set, a videocassette recorder, even a washing machine. If I had a garage I would buy an automobile.”
I was startled in 1990 by the Japanese-made telephone in my Hanoi ho¬tel room. Instead of a dial tone, it tinkled “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” The jingle was perhaps a symbolic message: Vietnam urgently needed immense doses of outside capital. But Christmas was not for to¬morrow.
During the war, the Soviet Union and China had donated vast sums to North Vietnam as they competed to demonstrate their zeal in the struggle against American “imperialism.” But their clash with China, which after years of mounting tensions erupted in early 1979, left Vietnam solely reliant on Moscow. As their own problems accumulated, however, the Russians began to lose interest in Southeast Asia. Then the Soviet Union collapsed, and the Vietnamese faced a dilemma. They could not turn to China, and the United States posed stiff conditions before it would grant them aid and trade.
Their relationship with their allies had always been thorny, ingraining in them a streak of paranoia. They had opposed Chinese intrusions for two millennia. At the Geneva Conference of 1954 following their de¬feat of France, they believed that they were entitled to all of Vietnam, but the Russians and Chinese compelled them to accept a partitioned country. Over the ensuing years, hoping that a protracted war would drain the Americans, the Chinese exhorted them to continue fighting and even trimmed aid to them in 1968, when they agreed to talk with the United States in Paris. They again felt betrayed in 1972, when, while they were still struggling against the Americans, both China and the Soviet Union entered into dialogues with President Nixon. The Chinese later tried to restrain them from taking over the south after the U.S. combat troops had departed Vietnam early in 1973. For Mao Zedong, the reunification of Vietnam was as remote as his own dream of captur¬ing Taiwan. “I don’t have a broom long enough to reach Taiwan,” he cautioned Pham Van Dong, “and you don’t have a broom long enough to reach Saigon.”
The four thousand Soviet technicians sent to Vietnam following the war to improve its primitive railroads, build electrical plants and per¬form other tasks, seemed to be physically repellent to the graceful, deli¬cate Vietnamese. Big and sweaty, wearing dowdy clothes unsuited to the tropics, they bore an uncanny resemblance to the big sweaty American hard hats employed by construction outfits in Vietnam during the war. The Americans had flung around cash, but the Russians looked like muzhiks without two kopecks to rub together. Sneering at the Russians as “Americans without dollars,” the Vietnamese circulated a joke that reflected their disappointment with Soviet stinginess and their own des¬titution. Rejecting a plea for help, Moscow cables Vietnam: “Tighten your belts.” To which Vietnam replies: “Send belts.”
The Russians underwrote Vietnam’s military occupation of nearby Cambodia, which lasted from late 1978 to the fall of 1989. But, attach¬ing strings to the aid, they insisted on the right to use the former U.S. naval base at Camranh Bay—a request the Vietnamese skirted by giving them only partial access. Their assistance also consisted of loans that Vietnam had to reimburse, mainly with raw materials. It was a Catch-22 quandary for the Vietnamese. They were unable to earn hard currency by exporting their commodities to the West and, without hard currency, they could not buy technology unavailable in the Soviet Union. Moscow further undercut them by selling the commodities on global markets be¬low world prices.
In 1991, diverted by detente with the United States and dissension in Eastern Europe, the Russians halted their aid to Flanoi. Henceforth, the Vietnamese would have to procure supplies from Moscow in dollars— which they lacked. They already owed the Soviet Union about $15 bil¬lion, a debt that they could not conceivably handle.

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