Those who lived in Vietnam or Thailand during the Vietnam War period will find much has changed while much remains the same. My wife and I and two daughters recently made a two-week visit to Southeast Asia, where our family had lived in Thailand during the 1960s.
Saigon, renamed Ho Chi Minh City (although most South Vietnamese still call it Saigon), continues to host massive numbers of noisy motor bikes and scooters, the major means of transportation in the city. I was astonished to see a man and wife with two small children huddled together on one of these two-wheeled vehicles riding calming along Saigon's crowded thoroughfare. Cars, mostly Japanese, are more numerous and exhibit caution while surrounded by the motor bikes. The tricycle open air taxis are now all but gone.
In Bangkok traffic jams on the narrow streets and boulevards are worse than ever, even though the city opened its first elevated rail line four years ago. Unlike Saigon, motor bikes are rarely seen, and ferry boat traffic on the capital's scenic Chao Phaya River is greater and faster.
A significant change in Saigon from the 1960s is the absence of the Vietnamese women's colorful, flowing skirts that gave the capital such a graceful look. Now women wear mostly slacks and blouses as they do in other Asian cities. In the pricier shops and hotels,, however, younger female employees continue to wear their traditional colorful attire.
The politics and economies of Vietnam and Thailand are strikingly different.
Although Saigon has the appearance of a vibrant, economically thriving city, it is not typical of the country. Vietnam is run by an authoritarian Communist government in Hanoi that allows no opposition to its rule. Visitors are not aware of this control because Vietnam's leaders exert great efforts to attract tourists and foreign capital after years of shutting them out.
South Vietnam, suffered severely from war and its aftermath in the 1970s. Following Hanoi's final military assault on Saigon in 1975, tens of thousands of peoples were sent off to "reorientation camps" and many were executed. Only recently did Hanoi open the country to tourism and trade with the United States. Still, the Vietnamese appear to have no antipathy for Americans. The United States was defeated , they conclude, and it is time to improve relations.
Vietnam nevertheless remains a poor country struggling to improve economic conditions without risking political opposition.. The local currency is nearly worthless in foreign exchange, and a single U.S. dollar bill is accepted everywhere as a very generous tip. Credit cards are used in all of Saigon's main shops, and prices are quoted in dollars as well as local currency.
One has the impression of a very orderly society where each person know his place. Our Vietnamese guide said that the security people are dressed in civilian clothes and are posted around the city. They carry radios to report traffic accidents or public disturbances. We noted fewer policemen on the streets of Saigon than we see in most American cities.
Thailand is a different matter entirely. It has a democratically elected government and a thriving economy, including a strong currency and large international investment. Bangkok has become a sprawling metropolis with high rise apartments and office buildings dotting its skyline.
The major problem is corruption in government, which has long existed there.
We lived in the 1960s to the east of the city in a relatively sparsely populated area. Now that street is so crowded with new homes and apartments that we had difficulty locating where we had lived. A major four-lane boulevard running to the east, Sukhumvit, was once an easy highway to navigate. It has become so crowded with traffic and new stop lights that it took a taxi half an hour to move one mile by car..
Cambodia, the third country on our itinerary, is a depressing place, a tragedy from the post-Vietnam war period when it was wracked by civil war and the an occupation by Vietnam..
Seeing the world-famous massive temple complex at Angkor Wat was a highlight of this trip and we stayed in the nearby town of Siem Reap, in central Cambodia. Here the refurbished Grand Hotel, recently acquired by the Raffles corporation in Singapore, is a beautiful oasis in the midst of abject poverty. Forty years ago Cambodia was prosperous and major exporter of rice. Now this former thriving Khmer civilization is reduced to the status of economic "basket case.".
Western tourist groups are only recently returning to Cambodia, mostly to Siem Reap, because the security situation near Angkor Wat area was dangerous. In the last two years the remnants of the notorious Kmer Rouge terrorists were finally subdued.
A visit to Siem Reap's downtown market place brought us face to face with the legacy of war when a crippled young man on crutches approached begging for money. He motioned to his missing leg and said "boom," meaning it had been blown off by a land mine. We encountered several others with missing limbs. The experience reminded us that tens of thousands of Cambodians, including children, have been maimed by the land mines left from the Vietnam war and the civil war. Although international teams work steadily to clean them up, it will take years to accomplish the task.
We found the Cambodians to be curious about seeing foreigners and friendly. One U.S. dollar seemed to be a gold mine for them, including the children who sold knitted bags and photos near to Angkor Wat. One wondered what kind of live they would have ten years out.
This nostalgic visit to these three countries stimulated some reflection on U.S. policy in this turbulent area during the past forty years.
For example, Southeast Asia today is on the backburner of our foreign policy while the Middle East has the highest priority. Forty years ago these positions were reversed: the Johnson administration made the fateful decisions to intervene in South Vietnam in order to prevent its takeover by North Vietnam. The Middle East at the time was relatively quiet and Washington's priority there was ensuring a steady supply of cheap Persian Gulf oil to world markets.
Anti-communism was the basis of U.S. policy in the 1960s, and a Democratic president, Lyndon Johnson, decided that U.S. security would be vitally threatened if South Vietnam fell to the North Vietnamese Communists, backed by Communist China and the Soviet Union.
In 2003 a Republican president, George Bush, warmed the country that Iraq posed a vital threat to U.S. security and that unless U.S. troops intervened, Saddam Hussein would ally his country with Al Qaeda and produce a Middle East terror war against the western world. In each of these cases, the president persuaded Congress that the United States would be endangered if it did not act militarily.
In 1965 Indonesia came perilously close to being taken over by the Communist Party and turned into an ally of North Vietnam and China. The U.S. intervention in Vietnam that summer encouraged Indonesia's army to crush the attempted coup and thereafter reorient Indonesia's foreign policy toward the United States instead of toward the Soviet Union and China..
In the Middle East, Saudi Arabia is the strategic domino that Indonesia was in Asia in the 1960s. President Bush's gamble in invading Iraq last year and installing a friendly, democratic, government there is that Saudi Arabia will now turn away from coddling the Al Qaeda terrorists and adopt internal reforms that enable it to remain a cooperative ally. That's a large risk but one that is important to bolstering America's strategic interests in the Middle East and Asia.
File last modified on Thursday, 12-AUG-2004 09:00 PM EST