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Ho Ho Ho: Hanoi for the Holidays

Curtis Sliwa is on WABC radio, telling his listeners in 38 states, that I am heading to Hanoi for the holidays. He plays a country song that the GI's in the Nam loved to hear back when the bullets were flying -- it was about going home for Christmas.Irony is his subtext, but I explain that I am going to Vietnam to help a Vietnamese-American filmmaker produce a documentary to encourage Americans to visit her native land. For me that is a double irony in light of nearly a decade spent encouraging the United States to leave Vietnam. But times change, and today the United States has normalized relations. Vietnam wants and needs dollar rich Americans. The welcome mat is out.It was time for a second visit.My first trip was in l974, as one of a relatively small group of American journalists allowed into North Viet Nam. The war was still grinding on, although most US troops were gone. Hanoi City, as it is known, was a Spartan capital then with soldiers in the streets, and the wreckage of American bombing still visible. There were no shops to speak of, and the wide Avenues of this French influenced town with its colonial architecture and art deco touches were deserted at night. By day, the only means of transportation were bicycles and the occasional jeep or Russian made limo for officials. Two or three planes a week were the only link with the outside. If it Hanoi has been a movie then, it was distinctly black and white.Twenty three years later, that movie is fully colorized. Capitalism has conquered the capitol of our ex-enemy even though the flag of the Socialist Republic still flies and the Christmas decorations on a main drag sport a hammer and sickle with red lights casting an eerie reflection on a drizzly night. Christmas Eve there felt like New Year's in Times Square with packed streets and a celebratory spirit. Bizarre I thought, in a land with no official religion although seeped in centuries of Buddhism. Bicycles are still pervasive as they were twenty years ago, but today they seem to be outnumbered by Honda mopeds and motorcycles. It seemed as if every young person was on his or her dream machine, cruising the streets, American graffiti style. Some were three to a bike, with young lovers clinging to each other, many decked out with red Santa hats and blowing on noisemakers. The square outside the Catholic Cathedral was packed as was the Church itself. Outside, the crowd seemed restlessly waiting for something to happen.And happen it did, at least on one nearby street where an unexplained altercation was reported between a mob of youngsters and the cops, resulting in arrests and a burned out police vehicle. This is a generation with leisure time that its parents never had, where the old canons of obedience to authority are breaking down. A few weeks earlier, there was even a rock and roll riot when a Danish band, Michael Learns to Rock, played the Gian Vo Exhibition Center. Hundreds of teenagers who couldn't buy tickets stormed the arena, battling with 50 cops for 40 minutes. Parts of the ceiling were destroyed and windows were shattered along with any notion that the Gen Xers of North Vietnam are a conforming and compliant generation. Incidentally, the band, virtually unknown in the West, is popular in Asia because their songs go down well in Karaoke bars where they lend themselves to sing alongs. Is this the rumblings of the next phase of Vietnamese revolution?What, I wondered, would Ho Chi Minh have thought of 'his children.' who are quickly inheriting the land he spent so many years fighting for. Had he or anyone anticipated the time when 70 percent of the country's population would be under the age of 30, most born after the end of what the Vietnamese call the American war. Ho is still there but not saying much even though every day, thousands line up to march single file through the mausoleum where his well preserved cadaver sleeps in glass surrounded by a rifle toting honor guard permanently at attention. The communist hammer and sickle sits behind him on the wall to his right; the country's red flag to the left. (I am told only four leaders have the honor of being so cured and pickled. There's Lenin, Chairman Mao, and, get this, Eva Peron, a.k.a. Evita, in Argentina. All of these bodies gets an annual freshen up from an aging Russian mortician who doesn't make house calls. The Lonely Planet Guide book to Vietnam counsels tourists against asking the guards if Ho is still dead.The late leader of Vietnamese communism passed on in l969. He had asked in his last will to be cremated but his final wish was not granted because his presence as a symbol remains too important. He is the link between the old Vietnam with its culture of struggle and sacrifice and the new which is pursuing an opening to the West. Ho Chi Minh's portrait is on every note of currency; his spirit invoked endlessly. While he may be dead, he is still around as a role model and example of fearless and fearsome dedication. You can get a sense of why he remains so loved by visiting the famous house on stilts where he lived simply, even monk-like, alone in his last years writing and overseeing the armies that fought in his name.You can tour his command post in an open air conference space under the two room structure. The three phones that kept him connected to his colleagues and comrades are silent now. Everything is as he left it, simple, unencumbered, subdued. (Just before his death, he was moved to a more secure concrete house with a bomb shelter, House #51, a name that was just a number) A small government guide book speaks of his daily routine which included a mid-afternoon stroll to an adjacent pond where he is said to have clapped his hands to summon the fish for their daily feeding. His hobbies included growing flowers, receiving delegations of children and going to see movies in the Presidential Palace which for years had been the headquarters of the French colonial governors who had signed death sentences for him in absentia. There was no mention of his favorite films.Ho's influence can also been seen in the posters that surround Hoan Kiem, one of seven lakes in the city. They commemorate the twenty fifth anniversary of the Christmas bombings of Hanoi and Haiphong, those twelve days in December 1972 when Nixon and Kissinger sent in the B-52's to destroy the town inorder to save it, to borrow one of the war's most infamous quotes. Thousands died, but so did the American war effort as the Vietnamese anti-aircraft gunners, armed with Russian rockets and total dedication turned the sky into a shooting gallery. Many American planes were shot out of the sky, filling more cells at the infamous Hanoi Hilton with scores of new pilots who had bailed only to parachute into prison. The posters picture those giant bombers now as piles of junk against a background of construction cranes symbolizing a building boom that is propelling the country into the next century.While the emphasis is on the future, the past has not been forgotten. I was told I was the first American to visit a new museum that just opened to commemorate the defense of Hanoi. Outside this building, their holocaust style museum, were rusted military equipment -- giants radars, rockets, and MIG-21's. And next to them, a bizarre conceptual art piece, literally tons of twisted metal from a downed B-52 with its Made in the USA markings quite visible.I watched as busloads of young Vietnamese students were escorted through the exhibits by guides who weren't alive when the bombs fell. In the collection were photos and pins of American anti-war activists. there was no one I could recognize. The museum features a dramatic film, split on three screens, documenting the horror and the fear of the bombings and the frenzy of the fight against them. These were not images one saw on American TV. The sound still chills: the ack ack of the big guns, the terrifying whine of the bombs or planes exploding in mid-air. That battle is now referred to as "the Dien Ben Phu of the skies," named after the town where the French colonial army met its waterloo, surrounded and decimated by Ho's guerrilla forces back in l954. Hanoi's Madame Binh, who headed the delegation of the National Liberation Front to the Paris Peace Talks back in l973, told a European TV show that they believe the war was won in the skies of Hanoi when that B-52 offensive was neutralized at great cost. Vietnam is a country whose greatest pride historically is marked by its defeat of foreign armies -- The Mongols, the Chinese, The Japanese, The French, and, most recently, the Americans. Clearly the Vietnamese don't take kindly to foreign invaders.Two days later, I met one of the flyers who dropped those bombs, a veteran who had returned with a delegation of fifty Americans, a member of group called World Team Sports, in Hanoi to participate in what was being called "The Vietnam Challenge." It is to be a bicycle ride from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, in the South. 1500 miles along Highway One! Like many enterprises in Vietnam these days, this was a joint venture, joining our vets with Vietnamese counterparts. Many are disabled. All are tough and seasoned athletes. "We Ride the Same Road" is the slogan for this initiative in reconciliation. There are tears and cheers as the two sides meet over dinner, sharing war stories across the boundaries of language, ideology and culture. It is a thrilling moment for onlookers as well as the participants. One of the Vietnamese organizers is a small guy in suspenders, who speaks English with great style and is nicknamed Elvis.Who woulda thunk? That an event like this would take place, or for that matter that it would be sponsored by big American companies like Fed Ex and MCI who want in to this emerging market. You will be able to see it in all of its glory, in living color, on NBC come Memorial day when a film about the Challenge made by the crew that did Hoop Dreams airs on TV as a Sports Illustrated special. I watched as the ride began from a park next to Ho's mausoleum after a ceremony punctuated by a martial arts demonstration, enlivened by the drumming of band of young people wearing red scarves -- a contingent of the communist young pioneers movement. They are like our boy scouts and girl scouts, only they still pledge allegiance to Karl Marx's dream.Helping to organize the event are members of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation led by an old friend of mine, Bobby Muller, a wounded Marine who has fought for peace ever since a bullet left him paralyzed in Quang Tri thirty years earlier. Bobby in his wheel chair is the force behind the international campaign against land mines that was recently recognized with the Nobel Peace Prize. It was Bobby's story that inspired Bruce Springsteen's song "Born in the USA" as I reported in a segment for 20/20 ten years earlier. Muller is there with a delegation of his own,. including a former American General who served in the South and his new wife who turns out to be a doctor, Solange MacArthur, a friend of mine. They have come bearing gifts to Vietnamese hospitals including Bach Mai, which was partially destroyed during the bombings that defiled 'the season of peace' in l972. After the bike ride begins, Bobby will go back for the first time to the battlefield where his life almost ended -- to show his wife and pay respect to his private ghosts.For many of these veterans, Vietnam was a defining moment, a turning point in their lives. They lost buddies here -- but also their innocence and childhood's. Now they have come back, wearing cameras, bringing smiles, offering a form of personal witness -- some to help rebuild what they helped destroy, others to find closure and a kind of inner peace from a war that traumatized so many in our generation. I realize that I am a Vietnam veteran too, although I never served in the military. I was in the army on the other side -- opposing the policy, feeling vindicated when it collapsed. Vietnam for me became a country as well as conflict half a lifetime ago when I came here to see it for myself and write about it which I did for at least five publications as well as the radio station I worked for then.I am in Vietnam working with Tiana, the Vietnamese-American director whose movie "From Hollywood to Hanoi" recounts a personal story rich in the contradictions of this Vietnam drama. Tiana was born in the South, the child of anti-communist official who moved to America and hates her coming back. "The communists will get you," he has warned her repeatedly. She is a hurricane of activity, bursting with energy in three languages, as she maneuvers through walls of bureaucracy and protocol. She is making a new film chronicling the transformations of Vietnam, shooting the scenery as it changes, talking to people about the transformation of the country and its culture. She helps me see Vietnam through Vietnamese eyes, with more shadings, nuances, and absurdities that I could have understood on my own.For example, even though her film featured interviews with such Vietnamese leaders as General Giap and the late Pham Van Dong, the former defense minister and prime minister respectively, copies are seized by customs in Hanoi. I am taken in small room with a VCR and the guard asks me if they are 'sexy." It takes a week to get the dubs back which circulate through various layers of bureaucracy which is seeking to stop the flow of pornography and other so-called social evils. The old hard-liners are still in power and there is a continuing tension between the modernizers and free marketeers and the Communist Party aparatchiks who fear what happened to their old ally the Soviet Union could happen to them.When I was in Vietnam, the Party named a new First Secretary, reportedly a military politician. The country remains committed to blocking political pluralism and western style democracy. Human rights are a problem for dissident and others who run afoul of well enforced rules. The propagandistic Voice of Vetnam blares from loudspeakers in the street but it is not clear who is listening. When I asked a government official if the United States has raised human rights concerns, I was told that in light of all that was done to the people during the war, Washington is in no position to lecture Vietnam on that issue. Who could disagree even though I knew that there is repression and political prisoners. I was also told about growing corruption both within the party and the business sector.The power struggle at the top seems to have produced a contradictory set of polices which foreign investment while at the same time make it difficult for foreigners to make money. International companies have to take the State in as a partner; yet regulations, customs rules, and red tape force costs up and insure that there will be delays in getting work done. This is very frustrating for many entrepreneurs who wanted Vietnam to be a new get rich quick environment. The bloom is now off that rose. The Ford Motor company has built a plant but most of the people I spoke with fear the day that cars become more common on crowded streets that were never built with them in mind. They fear that Hanoi and Saigon are on their way to becoming overcrowded Bangkok's teeming with too many people and far too many traffic jams.The economic troubles besetting the region are also effecting the country's growth. Investors in neighboring countries have already started to pull back on promises and new deals. For example. all work has stopped on a new Sheraton Hotel being financed through Singapore. Vietnam, still one of the world's poorest countries, had a relatively high 9 percent growth rate last year. It is expected to grow less in l998, caught in the crunch of the Asian financial crisis, trying to balance state control and private investment. I experienced just one small aspect of the problem when I tried to check my e-mail. I learned that Vietnam has the internet but is trying to manage its use. It is now hard to gain access.Despite all of these problems, Vietnam is today a country at peace, coping with the pressures of globalization like so many of its third world neighbors. The war is now a memory although its legacy in lost years of development and scattered memorials for the millions who died are evident. Yet these are the people, the rice farmers, street peddlers in conical hats, ambitious young people and disciplined cadre who defeated so many far more technologically advanced armies. In that respect Vietnam projects a power and charisma that continues to exercise a hold on the world's imagination. The country's beauty is staggering even if its attractions now include a disco called "Apocalypse Now," a state of the art video game parlor called Magic and one of the world's last statues of Lenin.Hanoi is a great place to visit. Don't just take my word for it. Check it out for yourself.Danny Schechter, Executive Producer of Globalvision is an independent film maker and the author of "The More You Watch, The Less You Know" (Seven Stories Press)

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