September 21, 2009
By Charlie Metzger, Senior Columnist
The face of a Vietnamese child affected by Agent Orange (AO) is an image that sticks with you. It’s especially hard to get rid of if he asks if he can have your American water bottle because he’s never seen anything like it before. Or when you consider that his physical deformities and mental challenges are the direct result of a chemical that your government sprayed on his country, all the while knowing that it would cause birth defects like the ones he lives with today.
I met plenty of children like the one described above during the seven weeks I spent in Vietnam last summer as part of a program run by the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies (PIIRS). Most of them lived at a government-run village for children affected by AO, but several, especially in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), were beggars asking predominately Western tourists for money. So much for reparations.
What’s remarkable about AO victims, though, is that they’re some of only a handful of readily apparent indicators in present-day Vietnam that one of the bloodiest wars in history ended there just 30 years ago. They’re easily overshadowed by the exploding industry and vibrant culture of what many people call “Asia’s most beautiful country.” In a lot of ways, what was most startling to me about my time in Vietnam was how much the country’s current state challenges conventional Western ways of thinking about the world, many of which I seriously bought into before I left. So, instead of using this space to argue for the merits of going abroad and leaving the Orange Bubble (which has been done ad nauseam in these pages before) I thought I’d discuss a few.
First, surprising as this may seem, Vietnam is an encouraging counterexample to the idea that anti-Americanism is insurmountable in some parts of the world. According to the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press last July, while President Obama’s election has helped improve the standing of the United States worldwide, “in predominantly Muslim nations, widespread concerns about U.S. policy and power linger.” And while the Muslim world views Obama as a major improvement over George W. Bush, the uptick in American popularity there has been modest at best.
By contrast, Michael Michalak, American ambassador to Vietnam, told me that a survey conducted by the American Embassy in Hanoi a year ago reported that 88 percent of Vietnamese have a positive view of Americans — a strikingly high percentage. If a country that the United States occupied in violation of an international agreement (the 1954 Geneva Conference) invaded on the basis of trumped up and fabricated allegations (the Gulf of Tonkin Incident) and then, to quote Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay, “bombed back to the Stone Age” — we dropped more bombs on Vietnam during the war than on Germany and Japan combined in World War II — can come such a long way in just a few short decades, the prospects for American relations with the Middle East, North Korea or Venezuela don’t seem nearly as bleak.
Second, modern Vietnam is a challenge to the idea that freedom is universally desired and universally applicable, especially when you consider that “freedom” means something very different to Vietnamese. To choose just one freedom (of many) denied to the Vietnamese people by the central government in Hanoi, freedom of the press in Vietnam is more or less nonexistent. But while the slightest hint of media censorship in the West almost sparks revolution, Vietnamese people on the whole don’t seem to mind that they don’t have access to free and fair media outlets. In fact, even the well-educated, young Vietnamese journalists that Princeton put me in touch with, some of whom had spent time in America, much preferred a state-run media to the bloodletting they argue would come about if political reform were accelerated. If given a choice between an expansion of freedoms and continued stability, most Vietnamese would choose the latter.
Finally, unlike other allegedly authoritarian regimes bent on self-preservation (China in particular), the Vietnamese government hasn’t tried to clamp down on what some see as potentially dangerous aspects of Vietnamese culture — religion in particular. The Catholic Church has made great inroads nationwide, and Buddhist Temples are a dime a dozen in major cities. The Hanoi government has also made a major commitment to ancient art forms like Ca tru (a style of dance accompanied by ethnic music), which many other single-party states would view as a threat.
Vietnam still has a long way to go — beneath the surface lie several serious problems, not least of which is the potential danger of Western and regional corporations exploiting local workers or of corruption and nepotism undermining the stability Vietnamese believe should be the country’s top political concern. All the same, in 30 years, Vietnam has managed to transform itself from a nation ravaged by war to one in which serious economic growth has dominated the last two decades. In many ways, that’s nothing short of a miracle.
Charlie Metzger is a sophomore from Palm Beach, Fla. He can be reached at email@example.com