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Recalling Hanoi, the Capital of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam

March 18, 2012 - Ray Tsuchiyama

In my previous blog post I mentioned that the current U.S. President spent much of his childhood in Hawai’i, plus Jakarta, Indonesia. Interestingly, the other presidential candidate – Senator John McCain – was also born outside the Fifty States -- in the Panama Canal Zone, but at the time of his birth, the Canal Zone was considered “U.S. territory”, so no media time was spent on this fact. (Another current presidential candidate’s father – George Romney – was born in Chihuahua, Mexico.)

After his Skyhawk carrier warplane was shot down over North Vietnam in 1967, Senator McCain spent five and a half long years – the U.S. spent barely four years fighting World War II -- in a POW prison in Hanoi, the Vietnamese capital city, cooler and leafier with attractive French colonial architecture compared to the newer, more frenetic larger Ho Chi Minh City of the south. It is a testament to his motivation and drive that he won political elections and became a presidential nominee of his party. Although the North Vietnamese offered to release Senator McCain earlier (his father was the Pacific Fleet commander and later led all U.S. forces in Vietnam), he refused and remained at the POW prison until 1973. (In the late 1960s his father would poignantly travel to South Vietnam’s border with North Vietnam and gaze northwards towards his son.)

In 2005 I visited the former POW prison site (called “Hoa Lo”) in Hanoi. I remember clearly a sign: “Maison Centrale” (“Central House” in French) – it was a French prison for Vietnamese nationalist prisoners up to the late 1950s. It was also a short walk from my hotel in the middle of Hanoi, so even if a POW in his striped prison uniform escaped, he would stand out immediately while trying to hail a taxi.

Adjacent to the former POW-dubbed “Hanoi Hilton” prison, a Vietnamese real estate firm constructed a tall condo-hotel (I would have loved to see the advertising highlighting the great “views”). I guess no one really cared about the prison and its historical significance. Or in another perspective, the North Vietnamese would argue that very few around the world raised any concerns during the oppression of Vietnamese during the many decades of the French colonial period, and it was their property, anyway.

The Vietnamese have a long view of history, going back to the Vietnamese resistance against the Chinese invaders, but “moved on” after the American War that ended in 1975 (half the population of unified Vietnam – 90 million -- was born after the War, so young Vietnamese have no memories of the long conflict that involved several countries in the region, plus military units from an U.S.-led coalition, including South Korea and Australia).

I recall a meeting at a Vietnamese telecoms firm and the general manager and I looked at each other sitting across each other at a long teak table. I knew that he was thinking that we were about the same age and must have gone through the Vietnam War era. He did not speak English well, and he said through an interpreter that his second language was actually Russian, as he had studied engineering at a Moscow university. In the conference room was a team of young engineering managers, all born after the Vietnam War, and they were fluent in English, highly-educated technocrats.

What struck me was the absence of men my age walking the Hanoi streets or at retail malls – probably several million North Vietnamese men died in the Vietnam War (in the Hanoi airport I saw books analyzing the post-war imbalance of men and women in Vietnamese society). Instead, I was startled by the mass movement of young men and women on motor scooters and cars throughout the city.

During the early 1990s Senators John Kerry (a Vietnam War veteran who would later become an anti-war activist) and McCain joined together in a bipartisan campaign to restore full diplomatic relations with Vietnam, culminating in the 1995 accords during President Clinton’s administration. For many individuals a horrifying experience at a Hanoi POW prison would have made them abhor any contact with any Vietnamese, but Senator McCain worked diligently for years to bring the Vietnamese and Americans back together in peace*.

Since I coincidently arrived on a business trip in Hanoi in 2005, ten years after the accords, I was invited to an U.S. Embassy celebration: in a surreal moment, surrounded by burly American Marines I ate hot dogs, French fries, and drank beer from Budweiser long-neck bottles -- in the middle of Hanoi. There were red-white-and-blue banners and Vietnamese flags decorating the walls and ceiling.

The club house where the party was held was probably bombed during the early 1970s American B-52 campaign that most likely accelerated the U.S.-North Vietnamese Paris peace talks and then resulted in U.S. military withdrawal from Vietnam. I thought that if I had been just a few years older I would have landed with an M-16 assault rifle at a beach in then-South Vietnam in the late 1960s, and encountered the Vietnamese Russian-speaking manager in a firefight. Instead, we met decades later for the first time in a cordial business meeting in a still-Communist-led city, Hanoi. Life is full of “what ifs . . .”

*In an example of reaching out for mutual security after a long conflict, U.S. Navy warships have visited Vietnamese ports and have increased military cooperation in many areas, as the Vietnamese (and U.S.) are concerned about Chinese southward expansion, especially for oil resources.


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