eye.gif (5286 bytes) Point of VIEW.

A purely analytical perception...


 

Through the centuries, Vietnam has been occupied by a multitude of invaders starting with the Chinese who settled in the Northern part of Vietnam at approximately the time of Christ. The Chinese became unwelcome guests when they stayed for the next 1100 hundred years. By this time the Vietnamese had enough of the Chinese and they were driven out in about 900 A.D.  At this time, Vietnam established an independent state, which was called Dai Co Viet. () Vietnam, as was the rest of the Pacific Rim was closed to Westerners until the Portuguese arrived in 1516. As night follows day, they were followed soon thereafter by Dominican Missionaries. With God and Country now present, a Portuguese port and small trading center was created at what is now called Hoi An. For a while, the Portuguese had their own way in the region due to the fact that the Vietnamese held these Caucasians in some degree of awe. But the Vietnamese were restless folks and soon saw that nothing much was being gained by having a Western influence and so they forcibly closed down all Portuguese and French installations, except for the original Hoi An.

As time went on, things went from bad to worse for Western interests in Vietnam, and the small cadre of French advisors that had been stationed there had been tolerated were summarily dismissed and sent packing in the late 1830s. Moreover, adding insult to injury, most if not all of the French missionaries holding sway in the country, were executed along with a number of Vietnamese that had foolishly been converted to Christianity. In 1840, French Roman Catholics, up in arms over the treatment of the emissaries from God, held meetings with the French Government demanding retribution for the ill treatment of their religious compatriots.

The French Government looked at this outrage as an opportunity and thought that these atrocities had indeed given them a wonderful excuse to invade the territory and began a public relations campaign that would make it crystal clear to the French public that the only way to maintain their national pride would be to invade Indo-China. However, the planning and logistics for this expedition that lay half way around the world, called for both time and a massive build up. In one of the great public relations campaigns in history, the French Government, along with the Catholic Church, kept the kettle boiling for a decade until the war’s logistics had been worked out. This may have been the longest planning for a war that existed in history but grudges die hard and it is difficult to determine the difference at times, between planning, anger and logistical decision making.

It was Napoleon III who in July of 1857 made the final decision to invade Vietnam. There were a number of other important reasons that Napoleon came to this conclusion; none of which had anything to do with the purported insults France had suffered at the hands of the Vietnamese. The French required new markets for their products, and certainly England and Spain had proved that imperialism pays off in big dividends. In addition, Vietnam could certainly provide France with a continuing source of cheap labor and materials. The city of Da Nan was attacked in August of 1858 by Rigault de Genouilly, the French naval commander in the region with 14 ships and 2,500 men under his command but the lightening fast victory promised the French Citizens did not materialize. As a matter of fact, things didn’t really jell for Genouilly until February of 1859, when by a stroke of luck, he accidentally sailed around what had been pretty much of a military stalemate and seized an unguarded Saigon. No one was more surprised than the de Genouilly by this accidental victory.

However, the war was not over by a long shot. Once again, the French became bogged down and their force in Saigon became mired in a holding action for two years until 1861, when the army once more resumed its advance, but this is after a thoroughly  embarrassed French Government that had become the laughing stock of Europe, sent more up to date weapons, fresh troops and more aggressive plan of attack. Faced with the renewed vigor of the French, The Vietnamese were not able to defend themselves against these modern weapons, which by now had started to arrive in force, and in 1862, Vietnam effectively, surrendered the territory around Saigon.

For some unknown reason, the French ingeniously renamed the area, Cochinchina and were determined to be home with their spoil by Christmas.   However, only after another 16 years did the French finally seize control of the remaining parts of Vietnam. The West should have learned a lesson from the French battle for control of the country. It took the French 24 years to subdue a weaponless country that when the war started, didn’t even have an army. Eventually, the French were able to penetrate Laos and Cambodia as well and soon had opened them up to economic exploitation but at a disastrous cost.

The French took charge of every part of Vietnamese life, making sure that even low-level bureaucrats were loyal to them and no one else. The area now became known as French Indochina, and to some degree, the occupiers became benevolent despots (or as close as any Frenchman can ever come to becoming benevolent). They built railroads, highways, canals, bridges and harbors, and even more importantly, the French evolved a system of irrigation for the Vietnamese rice paddies that quadrupled production. (When we say that the French built these things, we really mean that the Vietnamese laborers built this infrastructure at the direction of French engineers and at the cost of  hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese lives. )

Furthermore, the French oversaw the erection of plants that eventually aided the Vietnamese in their production of sugar, rice, paper, textiles distilled products, glass and cement. More importantly for the French, the Vietnamese churned out an endless supply of coal, minerals, rice and rubber under a series of severe quotas. Naturally these materials were promptly transshipped to Paris. To give you some idea of the benefits of what has been described by historians as a symbiotic relationship between the two, the average Vietnamese would consume far fewer calories almost a hundred years after the French invasion, than he or she consumed before it began in spite of the country's miraculous transformation. In some places, this sort of slave labor is called progress, especially in France.

The French randomly expropriated land from Vietnamese peasants and in turn gave it to collaborators who re-rented it to the people that had owned it in the first place. Naturally, this did not sit well with the Vietnamese population who were now becoming discontented with what they saw as the totally unbalanced nature of the relationship. Exports kept rising, not because of technological breakthroughs, but rather because of ever increasing exploitation of the native people who were suffering acute indigestion at the hands of their French associates. Moreover, this type of national subversion obviously caused the natives to develop a high degree of impatience, and every once and awhile a group of Vietnamese irregulars would attack the French inflicting grievous damage. These types of attacks were often met by stern measures imposed by the military occupation, and things soon seemed to be spiraling totally out of control.

There were other problems as well, the French were providing little, if any, schooling for Vietnamese children, and a total of 80% of the total population was still illiterate as late as 1939. There was only one university in a country of 20-million people, and that school only had 700 students. In addition, there were only two doctors for every ten thousand Vietnamese, while there were 10 times that many in the Philippines, a country considered by the Vietnamese to still be in the dark ages. The French were not big on civil liberties which were literally non-existent in Indo-China, and discontent was rising to a crescendo.

Although the French were hardly aware of it, a shadowy figure had arisen in 1925, Nguyen Ai Quoc (better known to the West as Ho Chi Minh) had founded the Revolutionary Youth League of Vietnam, which later became the Indochinese Communist Party. Ho was born in 1890 in the village of Kimlien, Annam (in central Vietnam), and was the son of an activist government official who had resigned a good job in protest of the French treatment of the Vietnamese people. To add fuel to the fire, Ho Chi Minh had been educated in Paris and spoke the language like a native.

Early on, Ho worked as a schoolteacher in a private school and later worked on a French steamship liner. After that he held various jobs in both London and Paris. He eventually became a card-carrying member of the Communist Party in France in 1920. From there, he traveled extensively in Russia and China where he completed his training in Communist Doctrine. He received schooling in organization and war in Moscow and was then sent to Guangzhou, China, where he organized a revolutionary movement among Vietnamese expatriates.

Ultimately, the Chinese Nationalist government started a crackdown on Communist activities, and in 1930 he beat a hasty retreat back to his homeland. In Vietnam he organized the Indochinese Communist party and acted as their representative in Hong Kong. He was arrested there during the following year by the British and spent the next two years in jail,, where he also came down with tuberculosis. When released he made his way back to Moscow and received treatment for his disease. When he had fully recovered, he once again made his way back to China in 1938. By this time he was a member of the Chinese Communist resistance and acted on their behalf during the Second World War

One of the first things that the Japanese did when World War II broke out was to occupy Vietnam. In a strange arrangement, the French were allowed to continue to administer the country, but only under Japanese direction. The Japanese soon realized how logistically valuable Vietnam was and it soon became the most important staging area for their war effort in that region. Moreover, while all this was going on, the Japanese and the their Vichy French hosts worked out a détente that seemed to make the sometimes adversaries relationship rather painless. On the other hand, the French had historically gotten along swimmingly with their occupiers.

However, when the Japanese Government became concerned that the war was being lost, they quickly disarmed the French and allowed the Vietnamese to declare independence. The Japanese were not interested in having a non-Axis oriented French Government sitting on their doorstep when surrender negotiations were being discussed. When the war ended, Ho Chi Minh wended his way back to Vietnam and became the President of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in Hanoi. He would ultimately take advantage of French weakness in order to gain concessions, then took advantage of the concessions he had gained in order to take things to the next level. Eventually, when Ho Chi Minh had negotiated everything that the French owned but their uniforms, war would break out.

In 1946, the French worked out a deal with Ho Chi Minh that allowed Vietnam to become a free state within the French Union. However, the aims of the two parties were hopelessly at odds and whatever agreements that had been made between the two parties soon became valueless. Thus, the French took back Vietnam in 1949 and proclaimed a puppet emperor, Bao Dai. Guerrilla war broke out with a vengeance, eventually ending with the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in May of 1954.

Vietnam was partitioned at that time through an agreement called the Geneva Accords. Canadian, Polish and Indian members of an international commission were stationed at the 17th parallel to make sure that the lines of demarcation were carefully kept. The land north of the 17th Parallel became known as the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Under the terms of the Geneva Accord, there was supposed to be a national election in 1956 so that the people of the entire country could determine how they wanted to be ruled.

However, the United States, paranoid over the rise of communism, would not go along with the agreement that they had overseen and the agreed-upon election was never held. Rebuilding started to occur in the country with China and Russia supplying the North and the United States and their allies providing materials to the South. Ngo Dinh Diem was named the President of South Vietnam by the Americans, and for a time he was able to unify competing elements in the southern part of the country.

Diem was a Catholic, and his somewhat heavy handed polices soon started to alienate the majority Buddhist population. Seeing an ability to probe a weak spot, the communist-let forces were organized into a movement called the Viet Cong and mounted a major insurrection. Eventually, this insurrection turned into a major Cold War confrontation between the world’s major powers, the United States and the Soviet Union and both sides began pouring vast resources into the conflict.

Unfortunately for Diem, two bad things always seemed to happen. The Communists unrelenting continued to advance on the south and the Buddhist monks began killing themselves to protest his policies causing much consternation in the international press. Diem was killed in a coup by the South Vietnamese military sanctioned by the United States whose government felt it was time for a change in management.

The governments that followed remained unstable, and eventually, a military authority was established under Nguyen Cao Ky. Ky was able to stay in power by eliminating his political opponents, restricting civil liberties and imprisoning communists. The relationship with Ky was memorialized when he was elected President in an election held in 1967. Meanwhile, China and Russia continued to supply the Viet Cong and what had been a small force of 30,000 men in 1963 of 30,000, by 1965 had grown to a substantial obstacle to American led domination and had an army that by 1965 had grown to over 150,000.

As the pro-communist menace increased, the United States upped the ante as well. What had started in 1960 as 700 American advisors, some financial aid and a small amount of military equipment, quickly rose to 17,000 advisors and substantial material. By 1963 it was clear this increasing of the stakes had not worked either, and in 1965 U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson started randomly bombing North Vietnam. Simultaneously, as though Johnson did not believe that the bombing in itself was going to provide a solution, he once again upped the ante by sending another 60,000 troops into the area. By 1968, this number had zoomed to 500,000 U.S. troops fighting alongside of the largely hopeless South Vietnamese force of over 600,000. In addition, troops were sent in to fight alongside of the Americans from South Korea, Thailand, Australia and New Zealand.

The Viet Cong launched what they identified as the Ho Chi Minh Trail and were able to move stealthily from north to south without any major opposition or detection. The Trail was a work of art in literally every respect, but even so, the journey was a protracted one requiring almost a month to traverse the distance from Hanoi to Saigon by foot. This trail eventually provided easy access to the more than 100 cities and military bases that were attacked during the Viet Cong’s extremely successful "Tet" offensive in early 1968. When nothing that the American Government could do was able to stop the Viet Cong advance, the Johnson administration opened up peace talks with the Vietnamese in Paris in May of 1968.

In that same year, Richard Nixon became President of the United States and he ordered attacks on the Ho Chi Minh Trail that had extended into Viet Cong sanctuaries inside of both Laos and Cambodia. However, even while this terror attack was going on, the peace talks in Paris continued unabated. It wasn’t until January of 1973 that a peace treaty was signed by the Vietnamese and the Americans. In spite of the treaty, the war did not stop, and the Viet Cong (now comprised mostly of North Vietnamese main force troops) attacked the south with vengeance.

Although publicly neutral, Cambodia’s eastern provinces were serving as bases for the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong throughout the Vietnam War, while their ports acted as supply depots. The United States considered these actions antagonistic to its interests sent its ruler a message that he could not afford to resist. Cambodia’s ruler, Prince Sihanouk, caught between a rock and a hard place withdrew from both the government and the country, purportedly for medical reasons. Cambodia was renamed the Khmer Republic and, the Khmer Rouge filled the leadership void. These folks started out their reign believing that they could not be intimidated by anybody, but they soon learned better.

During this time the country formerly known as Cambodia was renamed Kapuchea, which uniquely had neither banks nor currency. Pol Pot stepped into the breach and with a fervent nationalism, opposed the North Vietnamese with a vengeance. The New York Times in an interesting quote stated, "Pol Pot’s army captured the capital on April 17, 1975, after a devastating five-year civil war. During it, the United States dropped more bombs on Cambodia in its campaign against the Vietnamese than it had unleashed on Japan during World War II."

Pol Pot was portraying himself as a modern Moses that could recreate the glory of the ancient Angkor civilization, and he began his quest by leading his people from the cities. National insecurity, coupled with misguided objectives, led the country into numerous other absurdities, the most disastrous being the fatal assumption that the leadership of Pol Pot would somehow help the country consummate its return to greatness. Secondarily, this snippet of a country actually became convinced (at the urging of China) that they could take on and defeat one of the great military powers of the decade, Vietnam.

Mr. Pot totally indoctrinated his illiterate followers with the concept that one Cambodian was a match for no less than eight Vietnamese. When the smoke had cleared, Cambodia had been sent back into the Stone Age. They were only saved from total devastation by the arrival of the monsoon season, just as the Vietnamese began partitioning the country.

Ultimately on April 30, 1975, the Vietnamese entered Saigon, and for a while chaos ensued. Nevertheless, in spite of all the bloodshed, Ho Chi Minh had been goading his people on with statements such as "When the war is over, the country will become a land 10,000 times more beautiful than it had been before." The United States on the other hand, was left to lick its wounds, which included 58,022 servicemen, and woman who died during this war. "The war festers like a canker in the minds of many of the 2.7 million Vietnam veterans and 750,000 Vietnamese who live in the United States. The 3,600 members of National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia somewhere in the impenetrable Annamese cordillera. What-might-have-been gnaws at some of the draft dodgers who fled to Canada or into the National Guard. Certainly, the war prompted career choices for young men who joined the Peace Corps or enrolled in graduate school to study out of the Army. " ()

The above figures don’t include the 2,303 U. S. Servicemen that have been listed as missing in action. Loved ones seem to believe that they are still alive and are keeping the Vietnam pot boiling. Sightings of the missing are extremely common but in all cases without substantial confirmation. However, whatever the pain, the only war that the United States had ever lost had ended without glory and we were left to lick our wounds. However, the fact that the Vietnamese had admittedly won the war was overshadowed by the fact that this small country had lost over one million people in the fighting. Moreover, for the Vietnamese it was not over at all. It had become necessary for them to attempt the pacification of Cambodia whose leaders had the strange impression that Vietnam represented an easy target. For the next ten years, Vietnam, a hated enemy, controlled the Cambodian cities, while the Khmer Rouge controlled the countryside, and Thailand played host to the refugees from one of the great miscalculations of all time.

The Vietnamese communists had been paranoid and hard-line for so long that in spite being fairly benevolent to their southern cousins in victory, were authoritarian leaders. The Hanoi Government was not aided by the fact that most of the Western World considered the Vietnamese to be a nation of global pariah. Communist leaders felt that it was necessary to use strong measures to gain control of the people. "To reduce the likelihood of rebellion, communist troops were sent into the south to "break the machine." This meant ending traditional village social and political organizations.

Thousands of people of Chinese ancestry were driven from Vietnam, and millions of Vietnamese were moved from part of the country to another. Many Vietnamese found they rugged discipline unacceptable and attempted to leave the country. The only way out was by sea, and almost a million people chose that route. They would purchase whatever type of boat they could and escape by night. This group soon became known as "boat people." People vanished in droves and the population of Vietnam, inconceivable showed a drop of population from 70 million at the end of the war to 45 million when a census was taken in 1990.

Others were sent to "reeducation" camps, where they were incarcerated, most for a few months but many for years. Middle and upper class Vietnamese in the South were subjected to official acts of discrimination. They were forbidden to practice certain occupations, denied ownership of printing presses and typewriters, and refused admission to institutes of higher education." Primarily for this reason, the society stagnated for many years while the government remained isolationist. As the years passed, the hard line communists that ran Vietnam began to realize that there may be a better way, and in what was a surprising move to many, made a U-turn towards the acceptance of hated capitalism.

This was caused by a combination of facts. Vietnam had run out of food when their rice crop failed in 1979 and many villages in the north rebelled when they were given nothing to eat at all. Relations with their neighbors had reached rock bottom as relations with both Thailand and China had become cold as ice. While Thailand was more passive in their derision, China was openly helping the Cambodian Khmer Rogue, which in turn was sapping substantial strength from Vietnam’s recovery effort. The country’s gross domestic product had become the lowest in Asia and without Russian aid of over $1 billion per year, the country could not have survived. It became obvious that the country’s leadership that had successfully led them through a series of debilitating wars, was not able to right its economic ship and in 1979, new party officials were elected, that were hopefully better able to coup with the disastrous economy.

In a major public relations event, France’s President Francois Mitterrand in 1993 became the first Western leader to visit Vietnam since 1975, the year the war ended. Mitterrand even toured the battle sites where the French had been bloodied such as the fatal, Dien Bien Phu. Having first opened a closed door, Mitterrand was soon followed by American General John W. Vessey who had been invited to discuss the more than 2,000 missing American servicemen. ON the heals of this comparatively constructive visit, American President Clinton reversed a longtime trade embargo that the United States had placed on the country. Vietnam was now open to business and increasingly, businessmen and tourists () found their way here and brought with them, much needed hard currency.

The Vietnam had used to hopeless flawed Communist strategy of collectivism to rebuild the economy after the Americans left. Farms and industries were created and the people were totally de-incentivized. While this was the reason for blatant failure in the entire Communist scenario, Vietnam had yet to be told that the system didn’t really work and for a time had believed the benefactors. Obviously, Vietnam needed a free economy and during the ensuing years, much tinkering was done with the Vietnamese economy to make it work more effectively. However, it wasn’t until 1986 that strategic planners in Hanoi realized that without a free market, Vietnam was going to "Hell in a hand basket."

They adopted a form of perestroika called "doi moi. () However, in 1991, just as they were starting to get things right, Russia who was quietly enduring enormous economic pain, informed Vietnamese officials that they were cutting aid to that country substantially. They were literally hit by another blow almost immediately, the Soviet Union collapsed and all of their obligatory satellite trading partners vanished into the mist preferring to do business in Europe rather than going half way around the world. No longer would shoddy goods be tolerated. Inefficient factories, lazy workers, intractable bureaucrats and high prices products could no longer be endured. A fix was needed and it was needed now.

"Since then, economic change in Vietnam has come at an ever accelerating rate. By 1993, the country had what could be called a semi-market economy, and the trend toward capitalism seemed to be irreversible. The main short-run economic challenge to get the economy performing at would be called a bare minimum level has been accomplished. Most people had adequate food, basic education, rudimentary health care, and sufficient, if modest, housing. Some also had a few luxuries, such as television sets. Although the Communist Party has taken credit for the recent economic gains, successes in Vietnam are mostly the result of a lack of government interference. For example, the average Vietnamese farmer was given a 30 year lease from the government, could grow what he wanted, and sell his crop to whom he wanted, at the price he wanted. Not cot coincidentally, Vietnam became the third largest exporter of rice in the world. () Crop produced for industrial use also have great potential." ()

Being smart at war, they felt they could be equally adroit at economics, and their brain trusts read all the right books on how to achieve success in the global marketplace. They started out by offering all of the logical things, tax incentives, new construction guarantees, and a solid infrastructure long with adequate transportation; and low and behold, people came. "With increased freedom, many Vietnamese, including many women, started their own businesses. New stores and factories – where wages doubled under private ownership – prospered. The tourist industry began to flourish. Some officials estimated that Ho Chi Minh city () needed to create 10,000 more hotel rooms to accommodate the expected 1 million tourists annually. Pristine beaches along Vietnam’s 2,000 mile coastline, attract travelers from throughout Asia. And Vietnamese émigrés from the United States, France and Australia were retuning in increasing number for short visits." ()

Vietnam has over 45 million people, is strategically located and because of its central location in the Pacific Rim, Vietnam can be used to trans-ship materials for use in other neighboring countries, as well. The multinationals bought into the story, and soon large manufacturing facilities were being erected in downtown Ho Chi Minh City (the communists renamed Saigon after their victory). Nevertheless, Vietnam remained a rigidly Communist state with the people having no voice in government affairs. Moreover, Vietnam is still one of the poorest countries in the world, having an average per capita income of only $200 per hear. The labor force is still highly concentrated in farming and fishing which normally are not economy boosting activities. The people are highly singular in their geographic, political and economic beliefs and change comes slowly in spite of much governmental prodding. The country still has little infrastructure and amenities such as sewers and acceptable drinking water are for the most part, nonexistent.

The decision to embrace capitalism was sadly for the Vietnamese made at just about the worst time possible. The economies of the Pacific Rim had just collapsed, brought about by Japanese bankers loaning money without restraint in countries that had been totally agrarian only a decade earlier. Making things even worse was the fact that Vietnam had a non-convertible currency called the "dong," and as such, the government could peg its value at whatever level it desired. On the other hand, the Government steered a course that has made the dong one of the most stable currencies in the region.

However, substantial economic breakthroughs were accomplished in substantially diverse industries and money started flowing in from companies domiciled throughout the region. Ventures successfully got off the ground in telecommunications, electronics, breweries and automotive production. Furthermore, it is believed by numerous oil executives that substantial hydrocarbon reserves lay untapped off of Vietnam’s southern coast. Vietnam’s economic program, in spite of continuing regional financial problems, was reasonably successful and the country is now growing at an 8% compounded rate. These goals have been accomplished in spite of a highly mobilized Vietnamese army, which represents a substantial drain on additional economic and human resources.

Vietnam still maintains the third largest standing army in the world. But, the Vietnamese leadership, approximately fifteen member of what is called their Politburo, do not even have a high school diploma between the lot of them and whatever strides have been made so far have been made for two reasons. The fact that labor is cheaper and more incentivized in Vietnam than almost anywhere else in the world and the strong work ethic of the farmers who are showing how much they can produce when the land and the profits belong to them. Unless there are changes made in Vietnamese leadership that can cope with external nuances, the growth will soon come to a screeching halt.

The Pacific Rim economic crises started with a bang in 1997 and countries like Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia were devastated by a combination of economic and social events. This made Vietnam’s recovery even more difficult because they had hoped that the goods that they had formerly sold to Russia’s Eastern European satellites could be instead, marketed in the Pacific Rim. That was not to be. While Vietnam’s currency remained stable, the same cannot be said of all of Vietnam’s neighbors whose money was substantially battered. We are certainly well aware as to what has happened to the Thai, Philippine, Indonesian and the even the Taiwanese currencies during this period. Everything had gone into free fall, and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to determine that when with a drop of over 50% in the value of their currency, Vietnams newly created economic competitors were in the drivers seat in what was fast becoming an economic war; something brand new for the leaders in Hanoi. Vietnam’s highly vaunted economic labor advantage was shot right in the foot at birth.

Moreover, another unforeseen problem arouse, the black market. This was something that Vietnamese had never put on the drawing board because, no one had disposable income in the country and could not purchase anything but the most critical necessities. Anyone in the region with stable currency would have had the same problem, as the black market goods wind their way from Thailand through Cambodian jungles and unto waiting boats in Vietnam rivers that are crossed in places where no border guards would ever go and expect to come back. Because of currency translations, name brand products soon became less expensive to purchase from the jungle pirates than to manufacture in Vietnam, which continues to pursue strict currency controls.

The difference between countries like Taiwan, Singapore and China and the former colony of Hong Kong and Vietnam is simply the fact that they have duties, which can be enforced (because goods for the most part move in and out of their countries through ports, not invisible jungle paths). Vietnam has the Ho Chi Minh Trail, now being traversed by an unending human horde, where it is as impossible today to collect duties as it was during the war to stop the unending horde’s advance. It may well be that Vietnam has finally met its match in a most dangerous opponent, itself.

What is even more startling is the fact that imported products placed on shelves in Ho Chi Minh City sell at a major premium over similar goods made in Vietnam, simply because of the much the much higher standards attributed to the world class manufacturers who are producing there. The Vietnamese people are just sick and tired of communist goods. They just don’t believe that anything that is made in their country can be competitive.

Vietnam, a country that had mastered warfare and had even learned the exigencies of economics, has yet to realize the nuances of the global neighborhood where the economic warfare can be equally vicious. While the Vietnamese obviously learned their military lessons well, today’s engagements are learned in business schools and corporate boardrooms, not in a jungle encampment where lessons are more psychological than economic. With the determination exemplified by Vietnam over the past 50 years, we know that they will not give up the fight. However, it appears that this new type of battle is not something which the Vietnamese communists been able to cope with. There is not much question the will of these people are immeasurable, and even more importantly, time to them has little meaning.

Ultimately, they will learn their economic lessons well, just as they have learned the military ones. However, in spite of fits and starts, the Hanoi Government has shown itself to be a quick study. They have joined the Association of Southeast Asian Nations as an observer and believe that they soon will granted full membership, their relationships with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have improved dramatically since American resistance to those relationships ceased. Vietnam’s relationship with China is substantially better than in the past, but still has a long way to go because of numerous territorial disputes. Solid relations were resumed with Japan, France and in 1995, the United States which established full diplomatic relationships and removed all embargoes.

Internet cafés have sprouted up like mushrooms in Hanoi, as prices to go on line have continued to plunge. Because the population has gravitated to the Internet like a duck to water, a price war has broken out with signs offering lower and lower prices along with a hodge podge of other attractions. Things have become so competitive that Internet has probably become a loss leader for various other goods and services such as food, hotel rooms and travel. However, most people in Vietnam are still making very low wages and even at bargain prices, Internet access is a luxury. An example of the failing prices appeared in a recent article. "There is one matter on which all agree: the cost of access. They say it started at about 800 dong a minute, or about $3 an hour. It quickly declined to 700 and then started falling faster than the NASDAQ. In the last year, it has slid to 300 dong from 500, and more recently to 200 or 150 a minute depending on the establishment." ()

For a country that up to recently has been closed to the west, the freedom found in Internet access is surprising. There is little or no censorship on Vietnam’s net and because of that, the people are getting an unbiased look at the outside world. Interestingly enough, the price wars indigenous to Vietnam are also characteristic of Laos and Thailand as well. Many of the things that the locals learned on the net were not necessarily of the most savory variety and caused local officials and foreign corporations some alarm.

Vietnam soon determined some interesting facts of life. They found out that some of the most inveterate counterfeiters on earth are domiciled in Western-thinking Hong Kong and Macao. Pirates in Pakistan will supply Windows 98, Microsoft Office, Word, Excel, PhotoShop, Aldus Freehand, Coral Draw and others on demand. (). Some of the most fragile emerging economies of Eastern Europe depend on similar industries: "Recording industry officials estimate that 95% of Bulgaria’s CD production is accounted for by illegal knock-offs being sold throughout Europe." () The Vietnamese had finally caught on and Microsoft estimated that last year, Vietnam had a 99% software piracy rate. As the Asia crisis continued to spiral out of control, the sale of illegal software had become even worse than what has occurred in the past. This may eventually mean that when all is said and done, no one pays for anything. I guess the would be some kind of poetic justice.

The Dust Children

When the Americans hurriedly evacuated Vietnam, they didn't have time to gather together all of the possessions and were forced to leave many things behind. The most lasting memento of the American Vietnamese Expedition were the children fathered by the military and construction people that were sent to subjugate the North. Due to the fact that so many Americans served in this theater and because of the fact that the war seemed to have become almost endless in its nature, the American Government eventually determined to do something about the people that it had left behind. In 1987 Congress  passed the Amerasian Homecoming Act that allowed literally any Vietnamese resident who appeared to be an American and had evidence that they were born between 1962 and 1976,  to apply for and receive a visa.

Since that act has become law, almost 100,000 people formerly living in Vietnam have taken advantage of it and have emigrated to the United States. This includes not only those with American features but their families as well. However, while it was a law passed by a country with a guilty conscience and was well meaning in its intent, the act was so subjective in its nature that criminal elements had become active participants in charging their naive  brethren a healthy  fee for a fix that didn't really exist. Moreover, the way the law is interpreted by the folks on the ground enforcing it is that any doubt will be decided to the benefit of the applicant. Thus, it is almost hard to get turned down, if you are legit. By paying off, you were  only making the decision makers question your credentials. 

When the Amerasian Homecoming Act was originally passed in 1987, Vietnam was still engaged in an extremely strict form of Communism that wasn't exactly a walk in the park for its citizens. Thus, a way out at that time, was considered to be of great value. Moreover, the people who were covered by the Act became known as "Gold Children" because if you somehow become their relative, you had a free passage out of what was then an extremely repressive country. People with little education who had formerly been shunned because of their features now became the winner of an American beauty contest with numerous potential "parents" now standing in line to adopt them. These "Children of Dust" as they had previously been named had indeed become a very precious commodity in a short period of time.

However, everyone doesn't make the cut and once turned down, it is almost impossible to get back into the running. Once an applicant is caught in an attempt to bypass the system, they usually become a pariah and can stand on their head while spitting wooden nickels and not be accepted. However, there is a hope that if the applicant was using the services of the traffickers and is willing to name, names; potentially a deal can be struck. I am not sure that this is exactly what Congress had in mind.

Old Enemies Can Do Business Together

In December of 2001, the United States and Vietnam decided to bury the hatchet and resume trade relations. While the process actually had begun in 1994 when the United States lifted a trade embargo against the country and continued in 1995 with the resumption of full diplomatic relations, signing an agreement to do business with one-another has always been the best sign of a thaw. However, in many respects the deal offered up by the Americans was rough medicine for the Vietnamese to swallow because it required the opening up their economy to "full U.S. participation in service industries, from advertising to telecommunications, the enforcement of intellectual property rights and the liberalization of trade." (FT.Com) All in all, this agreement creates a aura of transparency never before visualized in this tight little county. However, there are still opposing forces tugging at the seams. It is most difficult to visualize how this scenario will play out, with the Vietnamese Government still tightly controlled by Communist Party members whose economic livelihood is based on charging for things that they are paid to do in the first place. Historically though, these people have a reputation that their word is their bond.

However, part of the transaction was assumed to include liberalizing passenger and cargo flights as well, which was a critically important ingredient because over a million ethnic Vietnamese that now live in the United States. Moreover, according to Vietnamese statistics, more than 10% of that country's aviation business is involved with carrying Vietnamese produced goods to the United States or conversely American goods to Vietnam. Since the end of the war this was accomplished by using foreign carriers or American carriers that had sharing agreements with carriers that flew to Vietnam. In any even, eventually, after the trade agreement was finalized and the air carrier portion was successfully put to bed. Indeed, this was the end of an era.  

The remaining parts of the treaty will become folded in during the treaty's remaining seven years in order to protect what little there is of Vietnam's moribund economy. In spite of the public satisfaction expressed by both sides in concluding the various components of the agreement, the leaders of Vietnam, got in the penultimate shot by stating in their own manner, that this hardly evens the score with the United States and there is still a debt to be repaid because of the horrendous damage that was caused to this country during the war. However, the U.S. was having none of it. In this friendly challenge of definitive one-upmanship, the U.S. Congress had the last say by passing what has become known as the Vietnam Human Rights Act which tied non-humanitarian aid to improvements in Vietnam's record on human rights. Vietnam needs WTO like a desert nomad without water needs a drink. The U.S. was holding the cards and these folks are going to have work with the U.S. to get there whether they like it or not.

However, we may have been here before. Vietnam announced in the early 80s that it was moving towards a market economy and most probably because Government just didn't have the tools that were indispensable to pull it off, it appeared to the rest of the world that the experiment was a failure. Many of the multi-nationals that moved in, soon became disheartened with the pace of change and the stultified bureaucracy that seemed pervasive. Numerous important companies pulled out. One of the reasons that success was literally unattainable in spite of Vietnam's innate tenacity and the world's high expectations (Vietnam was expected to become on of the region's "Tigers" sooner rather than later), was the fact that whenever push came to shove relative to availability of "hard currency", the Government's needs always came ahead of those of the private sector. Thus, with extremely limited reserves, international trading agreements became challenging for nascent industries to meet and Vietnam soon became known as an unreliable trading partner. The country after muddling along for another two decades finally seems to have seen the light and their government as now made a substantive commitment to change by enacting enabling legislation that puts both sectors on an even keel.  With a level playing field between government and industry, Vietnam could well achieve some of the destiny that had been predicated for it. But not without a full catharsis.

Among the things going for it, Vietnam has abundant natural resources, protected deep-water ports that make shipping a dream along with an  industriousness population that is confident that it can produce anything and at a competitive price. However, Vietnam is the world Capital of bureaucratic time wasting. If only they can only rid themselves of one the great bureaucratic bon-daggles on this planet, they could have a chance. However, there is even more to overcome; this is a country where the government has always been for sale. An interesting example is the fact that in Hanoi, the police officers either buy their beats or rent them on a yearly basis. The price of the "beats" is based the individuals ability to generate cash flow for the policeman by shaking down anyone that needs anything. These beats are especially lucrative in high rent commercial beats which are still selling at serious amounts of money. 

Not only is the police department a "pay-as-you-go" operation but so are the hospitals. Doctors and nurses nickel and dime patients individually for everything that the hospital has to offer, food, bandages, medicine or anything else. If you don't enter the hospital with lots of money, your chances are coming out in one piece are severely diminished with these shakedown artists operating around the clock. With everything here carrying a price, a total catharsis is going to be necessary to eliminate old ideas that do not fly in a capitalistic system. However, the Vietnamese haven't quite discovered that yet.

However, as industrious as these folks may be, there is going to be a tough road to hoe as their neighbor China, spotted the path to economic success years earlier when they dropped Communist Ideology like a hot potato. The following article from the Wall Street Journal aptly entitled, "In the Giant's Shadow" by Barry Wain tells it like it is:

                 "Visit the Vietnam frontier with China for a glimpse of the future. Almost   every conceivable Chinese item pours across the border, better made and cheaper than it can be produced in Vietnam; furniture, electrical appliances, machinery, clothes -- including jeans of mediocre quality but still a good buy at $2 a pair -- shoes, even ornamental Buddha's. Pirated compact disks of the latest Hollywood blockbuster movie, released only a few weeks earlier in the U.S. go for a quarter of the cost of a local CD,.

And China's membership in the World Trade Organization has only made competition even tougher for their neighbors. Vietnam is not the only country hurt by near impossible conditions under which to compete. China borders on thirteen other countries and not one of the them is going to find easy economic sledding from here on in. Whereas since the time of Genghis Khan, China could never muster the necessary military influence to flex its muscles in the region, from an economic point of view, literally no one stands a chance when facing off with this industrial giant. However, anyone that ever bet against Vietnam has come away second best; just ask the French and the Americans, but in reality, China is a monolith, not a country. They will probably create a scenario in the region where they are the blue-collar workers for the region and the others will act as their breadbasket.

The Asean nations organization, The Association of Southeast Asian Nations stated that "China is sucking in vast amounts of foreign investment at Asean's expense. Moreover, China is climbing the technology ladder at a most alarming rate and it soon will no longer be known as a mass producer of large quantities of lower quality goods. The country could soon achieve the reputation as a high-quality mass producer of upscale competitively priced goods at the price of seconds and maybe they already have. One of the great egotists of our generation and the man that literally pulled Singapore up by its own bootstraps,  Lee Kuan Yew stated the facts rather succinctly: "You imagine Taiwan -- 123 milliion  -- times 50. We'll have to find niche areas where we have an advantage, using our present lead in these fields. If we just stay put, we'll be overtaken in every field." And what will the new kid on the block, Vietnam do in an environment in which China isn't going to give an economic inch? However, just to show you how charitable the Chinese are to those they are about to devour, Vietnam has been a substantial recipient of Chinese aid, but how much longer will they be willing to subsidize a potential competitor? Or maybe, Vietnam is only the fly on the elephant's back and of no real importance in China's grand scheme.

However, the American's too are laying some bucks on the bet that Vietnam will eventually find its niche somehow. Harvard University in conjunction with the Fulbright Program is plucking the most promising students out of Vietnam's Universities and bringing them to the United States for higher education particularly in the nuances of international business.

Vietnam's major exports to the West are seafood, footwear, garments and textiles along with coffee. (Interestingly enough, Vietnam and Brazil are the two largest coffee growers in the world yet Vietnam only roasts a fraction of its production and the rest is exported elsewhere. In an attempt to control the price of coffee that has been deteriorating rapidly, Vietnam is looking for international help in creating that industry and while taking coffee producing acreage out of production.) It may be that in years to come they will narrow to seafood, coffee,  textiles and probably add rice, their national staple. While China has only one or two growing seasons because of a harsher climate, Vietnam through sophisticated agricultural techniques has been able to carve out a third.  Agriculture and tourism would look to become the country's ace-in-the hole.

Moreover, Vietnam has become an International convention center and major a vacation destination. With numerous five-star hotels, reasonable prices, good roads and lots of things to see in the countryside if you are into "war history", they may have found that unique niche we have been talking about. "Walk the Ho Chi Minh Trail" will be the way the commercials will sound and I would certainly be interested in that. Moreover, Vietnam is considered "safe" in comparison to other Asian destinations such as Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.  While the planes are crowded and reservations are hard to come by, airports in both Hanoi and Ho Che Minh City are modern and have the the required amenities at a reasonable cost. Moreover, American Airlines has recently inked a code-share agreement with Vietnam Airlines and direct flights from the "States" are a distinct possibility.

While there is plenty of hotel space in Vietnam which overbuilt in the 90s when they were expecting the world to beat a trail to their door, there is very little housing for executives in the inner cities. Prices have skyrocketed and land costs have risen as well. This is more of a problem relative to the country's almost non-existent banking system. Unless you have cash to put on the barrel head here to buy what you want, you might as well give up because you are probably not going to be able to borrow the money.  The only people that can get loans in this country are literally those who don't need them.  

 

Ho Chi Minh Trail

The Ho Chi Minh trail (also known as the "Truong Son Strategic Supply Route") () was positioned by North Vietnam to move troops and supplies clandestinely into the South during its war with the French beginning in 1959. This elaborate road followed a sophisticated system of mountain and jungle paths along with invisible trails that covered terrain in Cambodia and Laos as well as Vietnam. The Trail started in North Vietnam at a gorge that the soldiers called "Heaven’s Gate" and moseyed through every type of terrain until it eventually came out wherever in South Vietnam the Viet Cong soldiers wanted to be at that given time.

Eventually, the trail became extremely sophisticated and a war’s end contained sub-sections, branches, weapons depots, hospitals, fuel-storage tanks and shelter. The highly integrated system was highly effective against the French, who usually automatically panicked when guerillas would appear as if from nowhere to attack French fortifications and troop movements. The "Trail" that the Viet Cong used against the French was said to have encompassed over 12,000 miles and was the Viet Cong’s most effective fighting tool, being able to support several hundred thousand troops at one time. However, in the beginning the "Trail" was a month’s journey to the South due to the fact that there were poor stretches of road, rivers without bridges and a lack of re-supply bases. Eventually these logistical problems were addressed and, along with Rome’s Apian Way, the "Trail" went on to become one of the most important logistical military arteries in the history of warfare.

Eventually, the Americans entered the war and they did not fair any better than did their predecessors, the French. The "Trail" seemed impervious to the American bombing that ensued after the French had capitulated. The Americans felt that if they could defoliate the trail, the North Vietnamese would become sitting ducks. Thus, chemicals such as Agent Orange which were used to destroy the cover under which the trail had been created and they only had two lasting marks, the first was the desecration of a virgin jungle and the second was a new generation of deformed Vietnamese children. When it turned out that the defoliants were not doing the job fast enough, rain-inducing techniques were used to cause the "Trail" to flood, with the Americans hoping to drown anyone caught on it during a deluge and to put the "Trail" out of commission for a period of time. These tactics also caused lasting anguish to the people living in the vicinity who had the unfortunate experience of being in the vicinity when the various and sundry chemical death pellets were dropped in their laps.

The Americans spent whatever amount of money that they felt was necessary to develop infrastructure in a country that literally had none when they arrived. It was necessary to move men and material from one inhospitable district to another, something that had never quite occurred to the French. The United States spent over $4 billion on building to order their own Vietnamese infrastructure, which included seven deepwater and several smaller ports, eight jet air bases with 10,000-foot runways, 200 smaller airfields and 200 heliports, besides millions of square feet of covered and refrigerated storage, hundreds of miles of roads and bridges, oil pipelines and tanks. In other words, everything that the Americans believed was necessary to fight a modern war in a very backward, uncongenial country was made available. As it eventually turned out, they would have been just as well off fighting with clubs and rocks.

"The American Soldier was also well taken care of, if you consider that fighting a war half way around the globe from his home, taken care of. In a story that appeared in the book, War in Vietnam, it tells an amazing tale: "The soldier in the field received lavish logistic support. By means of helicopter supply, troops in contact with the enemy were often provided with hot meals; most of the wounded were promptly evacuated to hospitals, and serious cases were moved by air to base facilities in the Pacific or the United States. Medical evacuation, combined with advances in medicine, helped to raise the ratio of surviving wounded to dead to 6:1, in contrast to a World War II ratio of 2.6:1. Logistic support of army forces was organized under a single logistic command having a strength of 30,000 troops and employing 50,000 Vietnamese, U.S., and foreign civilians. Ultimately there were four or five support personnel for every infantryman who bore the brunt of contact fighting with the enemy."

As abruptly as the Americans upped the anti, so did the North Vietnamese, but even though the Viet Cong logistics were much simpler; their infrastructure consisted of small dirt roads that wound listlessly through the Vietnamese jungles, ultimately bringing the GIs a lot more Viet Cong than they were able to handle. Each time America raised the price of admission, the Viet Cong raised it back, and the price of poker kept spiraling out of control. Construction of the Ho Chi Minh Trail was expanded from one level of sophistication to the next. Eventually, by war’s end heavy trucks and tanks were able to traverse through the underbrush without being detected. In addition, the Vietnamese had a few added tricks going for them, as their supplies were for the most part coming from neighboring countries (which were not under the same degree of siege), their needs were logistically modest and their highly motivated and obedient population was extremely regimented and used to austerity.

By 1974, the "Trail" had become paved in many spots, and it was this modernization that allowed the Viet Cong to overrun the South in 1975. Inconceivably, by this time the American military had dropped twice the number of bombs on the Ho Chi Minh Trail as they used during all of World War II on both the European and Japanese Fronts. During the war, over 4 million tons of explosives were dropped on various parts of the trail. When the war ended, the Trail had become four north-south routes through Laos and Cambodia and fifth within Vietnam itself, all linked by 21 cross tracks and numerous detours under a cover of jungle that was so thick the sun could not penetrate the canopy.

In spite of this, the United States unleashed a bombing attack that was designed to destroy the "Trail" in its entirety. The campaign was even giving the name "Rolling Thunder" and was pitched to the American public by a big public relations campaign. The war would soon be over, the people were led to believe. In spite of the press, Rolling Thunder was no more successful than anything else the Americans tried during this period.

That result was nothing new. In 1964, the U.S. began Operation Barrel Roll to attack communist supply lines along the northeastern border of Laos, and in 1965 President Johnson authorized Operation Steel Tiger to terminate traffic on the trail. In 1967, electronic sensors were planted along the trail to help monitor the enemy’s traffic, and when one went off, the generals would send a fully loaded chopper to take the enemy out. This operation was code named "Igloo White," and the American Command thought that this was the best idea that they had come with to this point. American exuberance over their envisioned success was extremely short lived when Viet Cong traffic on the Ho Chi Minh Trail doubled the following month.

One of the unusual methods used to foil the American idea was to have buckets of urine placed in cross proximity of the detectors, making them spin wildly out of control. Another trick that the Viet Cong learned early on was that the detectors went into unconstrained convulsions when a friendly water buffalo was sent meandering near one of the devices. American Intelligence people on the other hand, received hopelessly garbled data indicating either that an army of millions of soldiers was approaching the outskirts of Saigon or that worker ants were attaching a competing colony for control a distinct patch of jungle. A lot of good that these terrific ideas with catchy names ever did. These operations were followed by Operation Tiger Hound, which was meant to send the offending Viet Cong back into the Stone Age. One of the commanders of American Forces in Vietnam said, after we had lost the war that the fact that the Americans had made of up such lousy names for their military operations was on of the contributing factors in our losing the war. Many in the field agreed with this statement although it was never proven that the offensive names given to these pathetic operations had anything to do with anything.

In spite of all of the military actions of one sort or another that were conducted, the "Trail" withstood every onslaught. Vietnamese Major General Do Xuan Dien was in charge of an engineering company responsible for expanding and improving the Trail even though he was only 27 year old. He gave a short synopsis of what he and his group had accomplished from the time he took over construction at the time when it was only a muddy path on which it took four months to travel from Hanoi to Saigon:

"As the years passed, the trail was expanded to encompass five roughly parallel routes and a network of 21 crossroads that covered 10,000 miles by the end of the war – including all the major battlefields – and linked a system of clinics, shelters and training facilities. Another 2,500 miles of access roads led to supply storage sites. An 870-mile gasoline pipeline stretched to within 60 miles of Saigon, the South Vietnamese capital." Ho Chi Minh Trail Builders, by Paul Alexander/Associated Press.

Probably the most Machiavellian thing of all about the "Trail" was the fact that at times it became a maze leading only to a dead end where an ambush would await American Forces. After all, this road wasn’t designed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, rather, it was constructed by Viet Cong guerrillas to fight a war being waged against a much stronger enemy, and the only thing that the Viet Cong had going for them was the cover of the darkness of the jungle. They were not about to give roadmaps to their enemies or send directions to the American Automobile Association. No less than two million troops and logistical support people actively used the "Trail" during the American component of the Vietnam War, while at the same time, this jungle trail was able to allow the Vietnamese to deliver each month, 20,000 tons of arms, food, medicine and other supplies to their troops in the field. While this would not have been enough to support a lean American rifle company, this material was enough for the Viet Cong military, as they utilized less than 20% of the material per soldier than that used by their adversaries in the field.

There were even more ominous parts of the trail than the blind alleys leading to ambushes. The Viet Cong were unbelievably talented tunnel builders and were able to create these deadly monstrosities wherever they pleased. Interestingly enough, these tunnels were built only with the size requirements of the Viet Cong soldiers in mind believing that they would provide sanctuary with the Americans not being able to follow them in. Because the tunnels had became an integral part of the war, a storage depot for arms, a hospital for wounded, a shelter, a kitchen and a war room, it was no longer good enough, not to attempt some eradication of this new horror. In addition, the Americans could never figure out that after their most intensive bombing raids, the enemy would seem to pop right out of the ground as soon as the bombing had ended and for the most part were both unscathed and in tip-top fighting condition. There was always a friendly tunnel nearby the highly populated Ho Che Minh Trail.

Army intelligence thought that by blowing smoke into the tunnels or pouring endless amounts of water, that the residence of these underground communities would soon have to surface. Neither would work well because the while the Vietnamese had scant resources, they could do amazing things with what they had. Water drainage holes were created every twenty or thirty yards. In addition, water traps were dug every hundred yards and these would block the effects of smoke bombs. An even more logical decision for the Viet Cong was just to pop out of the tunnel some distance away through a secret exit and come back after the water had been absorbed by the earth or the smoke had dissipated. The only way to great rid of these monstrosities was to blow them to kingdom come. However, that was only a successful solution for a matter of days until a new tunnel was constructed. However, more often than not, these were highly complex affairs. The After-action report of the 173rd Airborne Brigade published the following:

"The fortification system with the area of operation was the most extensive and intricate one the Brigade has encountered. It included mutually supporting trenches and bunkers, and a maze of multi-level tunnels, some of which were constructed of steel and concrete. These tunnels were protected by command-detonated claymore type mines and the approaches and entrances were heavily booby-trapped. Many of the trench systems were capable of accommodating a VC battalion. The tunnels had been constructed over and extended period of time and were not vulnerable to artillery and air strikes – except for direct hits. They were of such great length and contained so many entrances that complete destruction would require large numbers of troops at least one month using great amounts of riot control agents and demolitions." ()

If for any reason, the Viet Cong did not want to leave the tunnel, each tunnel had at least one other exit and the Viet Cong had them constructed so that the smoke would blow harmlessly out the other end. In addition, the Viet Cong would also provide multiple exits from the tunnels, perhaps miles apart and the smoke that was exiting could not even be found. Furthermore, the integral parts of each tunnel were self-sufficient and the components were sealed off similarly to that of a submarine. For the most part, American would often find the tunnels, but the defenders were easily able to escape by going to a nearby compartment and sealing it off. The U. S. Military Assistance Command in Vietnam found even more problems to write home about:

"These complexes present a formidable and dangerous obstacle to current operations which must be dealt with in a systematic, careful and professional manner…Prisoner interrogation has indicated that many tunnel complexes are interconnected, but the connecting tunnels, concealed by trapdoors or blocked by three or four feet of dirt, are known only to selected persons and are used only in emergencies. Indications also point to interconnections of some length, e.g., 5 – 7 kilometers, through which relatively large bodies of men may be transferred from one area to another, especially from one "fighting" complex to another. The "fighting" complexes terminate in well-constructed bunkers, in many cases covering likely landing zones in a war zone or base are…. The presence of a tunnel complex within or near an area of operations poses continuing threat to all personnel in the area. No area containing tunnel complexes should ever be considered completely cleared." ()

For every action the Allied soldiers thought up, the Viet Cong were able to combat it and ultimately, a new corps was formed in which Viet Cong sized American soldiers were conscripted to haunt the tunnels. This was not exactly Rest and Relaxation. More often than not, the soldiers were a tad to large for the tunnels and became hopelessly stuck. When that happened, the entire mission had to be called off until the soldier could become unglued. This strange group of Americans became known as tunnel rats. They never knew what they were going to run across in their unearthly travels and more often then not were greeted by enormous rats, moles and large snakes. This was certain not a job for the claustrophobic or the timid. These tunnels were carefully placed logistically in locations that would be the safest for the enemy and the foliage at the entrances was changed no less than every three days to insure freshness. A captured Viet Cong document showed what the strategy was:

"If the duration of use (of the tunnel) is long, we should grow viable plants. Change dried leaves before dark, and blot out all suspicious traces before daybreak. Give a contrast to the camouflage by using high and low plants. Do not show a dull and prominent heap of earth. Plants and branches must be picked far from the fortifications and the troop locations. When an emergency repair is necessary, never pick up branches and leaves between the enemy and us, and especially do not gather a great number in one place." ()

A informant gave the American Intelligence some clues as to what the thinking was when they were created.

"Experience had shown the VC cadre that when friendly forces discovered any sort of hidden place they were inclined to destroy it and move on without further intensive search …tunnel and cache entrances located in residential areas were often placed under a cooking place, and if feasible, in a pig pen, the latter being more desirable because Americans hesitated to look in such places. A large corner post of a building or roofed animal shelter would sometimes be used to conceal the entrance to a tunnel or cache site. " ()

War materials were transported by differing methods, utilizing bicycles; trucks, oxen and even elephants were commonly used as delivery systems within the complex maze of roads that the trail’s creators had constructed. In terms of pure volume, the vast majority of all material that found its way into the South were delivered in 100-pound packs by straining human carriers. A most interesting Viet Cong hero was Nguyen Viet Sinh, a former schoolteacher who, although a wisp of a man, was able to transport his weight in cargo a distance equal to the circumference of the globe in six years. For this feat of extreme valor, he became a "Hero of the People’s Army." Another account of his feat was contained in the book "The Ho Chi Minh Trail," published in Hanoi in 1982. This description of his feat stated he carried a total of 55 tons over a distance of 24,615 miles during a four-year period. Somehow, we just don’t think that this one flies unless Sinh was made of kryptonite and wore a large red "S" on his long woolen underwear. On the other hand, many Americans that fought the Viet Cong may just think that this is possible.

Unknown in the West, much of the "Trail" had already been in place, as Vietnam had been a smuggler’s haven for decades. The "Trail" was also known to those in the north who had used a more rudimentary system of these routes to defeat the French in earlier years. Building upon this and creating a system of ladders and rope bridges, the Viet Cong were able to transverse territory that their American enemies believed was not passable. In the early stages of the American involvement, the U.S. military was constantly being overrun by surprise attacks coming from literally nowhere and leading nowhere as well. How the Trail was traversed is a story told in "The Ho Chi Minh Trail" by Sarah S:

"The journey down the trail for the Viet Cong was extremely difficult and deadly. A typical day for them was, 3:30 am, wake up, 4:00 am – 1l:00 am – March, lunch from 11:00 am – 12:00, March from 12:00 to 6:00 pm. They rested ten minutes per hour. Walked and took on day off out of maybe every five. The Viet Cong soldiers covered as much as twenty-five km per day, depending on terrain, led by liaison agents. They walked in three man cells in a column with one cell marching fifty meters ahead and another marching an equal distance behind. Sometimes they stopped for the evening at way stations, which were simple clusters of two or three thatched-roofed shacks guarded by a squad of soldiers. They were located as much as one kilometer deep in the forest. They contained rice to replenish the soldiers.

They nights they bivouacked off trail. After they strung their hammocks, dug foxholes and cooked and ate dinner (and prepared rice ball lunches for the following day) they went to sleep, which was usually before dark. One Viet Cong soldier said, "Marches obviously are hard. The heat makes you tired and the rain makes you tired; there are many streams and many ferries….There are many high passes in the mountains: If you move by night, you don’t get to sleep, and if you move by day, you must stay up late and get up early. The trails were very rough. The Viet Cong Solders often twisted their ankles and got blisters from the sandals and their heavy packs. In the tropical climate, the blisters wouldn’t heal and became infected. "

Even more awesome was the fact that the "Trail" was utilized in all of the seasons. During the rainy period, mud became so deep that it could cover an entire truck, which would not be seen again until the following summer when the rainy season had ended. Yet, throughout the years and throughout the seasons, the Ho Chi Minh Trail never stopped delivering its critical military merchandise. When a road became impassable, a detour was hastily created by an army of 300,000 "road support personnel," who were in turn backed up by another 300,000 in reserve (those in reserve were basically farmers that worked in the areas the Trail meandered through, and they were on call 24 hours a day, should there be a problem that needed correction). This number of primary people involved in the day-to-day construction and repair was not less than three times the largest number of people ever attributed to building the Egyptian Pyramids and substantially more than were used in the construction of the Great Wall of China, two of the most amazing feats of mass building ever seen on planet earth.

Nguyen Duc Bao, a retired Viet Cong Colonel now living in Ho Chi Minh City, recounted another chronicle of the Trail: "We got our orders to move south in January 1966; the trail was very secret then. We’d lay a canvas sheet over dirt roads, and the last man across would roll it up so there’s no footprints. We carried our own weight in weapons, supplies and medicine. We set up storehouses for rice. Usually, it was a 20-day walk from one storehouse to the next. In between, we ate roots. At first, the American bombing wasn’t so bad. But malaria, snakes, starvation, drowning and accidents were just as deadly. In the four months it took us to reach the south, 100 men in my regiment died. I counted 24 different ways you could die on the road." And with it all, many say that there was always a way to get a good rest:

"Cynics believed – with some evidence for their position supplied by Viet Cong defectors—that insurgents surrendered whenever they had been in the jungle long enough to warrant a time of rest and recuperation. Since the Viet Cong had no facilities of their own, they simply rallied to the Government of South Vietnam under the terms of the Chieu Hoi program (), got out of the fighting long enough to eat good food and rebuild their endurance. When they had restored themselves, they once more disappeared into the jungle fronds to rejoin their own comrades. There were indications that with decent and circumspect intervals, some Viet Cong changed sides as many as five times." ()

The Viet Cong trucks always had someone "riding fender," as opposed to the stagecoaches in the Wild West where the guard historically rode what was called "shotgun". Riding fender simply meant that an observer would be positioned outside of the truck on its forward most point to observe and listen for any sign of danger. Not unexpectedly, the "fender rider" was usually the first one eradicated in an ambush, on the other hand, the others would usually be able to scamper to safety once put on notice of danger. The life of a "fender bender" in battle was estimated to be approximately the same as that of an American Second Lieutenant on Omaha Beach during the Allied invasion of Europe during World War II.

Many have said that this was not exactly what you would describe as your average job. In the most amazing journey since Sinbad the Sailor, the Chinese were anxious to give Cambodian Prince, Norodom Sihanouk a present for his assistance in furthering their cause and delivered a brand spanking new 60-foot yacht down the Ho Chi Minh trail right to his doorstep in Cambodia. This in itself was an accomplishment that deserved special mention and better yet, the Prince soon reported to his benefactors that his boat had arrived in excellent condition and that he had already taken it for a spin on a lake adjacent to his property. Such was this strange war.

In an article entitled AC-119 Gunships, USAF, The Ho Chi Minh Trail, the article gave the real lowdown of what the roads could and could not handle.

"In spite of constant improvement, the roads were still primitive by Western standards, consisting primarily of 18-foot-wide tracks carved out of the jungle. Although both gravel and corduroy surfaces were sued to strengthen some section, the roads were chiefly dirt and nearly impassable during the wet season. The roads were originally built by manual labor, but as time passed, the North Vietnamese made increased use of bulldozers, road graders, and other heavy equipment. The route network was maintained by units called Binh Trams…Each Tinh Tram had the necessary transportation, engineer, and AAA battalions to ensure movement and security of material and personnel in its sector."

"The process by which supplies were moved southward was extremely complicated, requiring coordination between various transportation elements and numerous transfers of cargo in and out of vehicles and wayside storage areas. Almost all movement was conducted at night in a series of short shuttles, rather than by long-distance hauling. Driver drove their trucks of the same routes night after night becoming thoroughly familiar with their assigned segments. Periods of high-moon illumination, which allowed travel without headlights, and low cloud cover, were exploited to avoid detection from overhead aircraft. Truck movement began shortly after nightfall and normally trailed off about 3:00 a.m. to allow time for the unloading, dispersal, and concealment of supplies and vehicles before daylight.

These tactics, developed in Korea and later refined in Laos, might be considered highly inefficient by Western standards, yet they were the most effective way of moving large quantities of supplies in a hostile air environment. Although the North Vietnamese later made limited use of the waterways and pipelines, their road network and trucks remained throughout the war the heart of their logistic system. Intelligence estimates put the North Vietnamese truck inventory in Laos alone at 2,500 to 3,000 during the 1970 and 1971 dry seasons with from 599 to 1,000 moving per night, each carrying about four tons of supplies. Replacement trucks were drawn from large inventories maintained within the sanctuary of North Vietnam in the vicinity of Hanoi and Haiphong."

The "Trail" builders, designated as Group 559 () were also in charge of the road’s defenses and manned the anti-aircraft batteries that were interspersed at critical junctures. The Vietnamese claimed that this group had shot down 2,458 U.S. aircraft by war’s end, naturally a figure substantially larger than the one reported by the U.S. Military. In either case it was certainly agreed that flying over the trail was far from a walk in the park for American pilots and as time went and the accuracy of Group 559 continued to improve, the planes were forced to fly at ever higher altitudes and thus became substantially less accurate. This so-called Group 559 was also in charge of communications between the North and South and in this regard was consistently replacing potholes and stringing telephone wires. An interesting element of this group’s composition was the high number of women that made up its cadre considering the extreme conditions, the long hours and the backbreaking labor that was involved.

Written for posterity on a monument at National Martyr’s Cemetery were the words of General Vo Nguyen Giap, the Viet Cong’s supreme commander: "The Truong Son Road was the turning point in our struggle, and it is the key to our future prosperity." The graves of the 10,306 (there were at least 9,000 more and approximately 30,000 severally wounded) men and women who died on the trail also share the simple 40-acre plot along with statutes of members of the "people’s army" depicting them in the jobs they did when they were at war, refueling vehicles, carrying materials and aiding bombing victims were just a few. This war monument has special meaning to the people of Vietnam because, as they say here, no matter what was rained down upon them, bombs, weather or pesticides, not one spot in the "Trail" was ever closed for more than two days.

Interestingly enough, during one twenty-four hour period in December of 1970, American Commanders counted 15,000 trucks and jeeps on the trail simultaneously and yet for various reasons they could do literally nothing about it. The Viet Cong called it a matter of will against technology and indicated that it was not even a contest. Tran Van Tra, the Viet Cong General in charge of the taking of Saigon said, "For me, it was very simple. No modern weapon can defeat human will. Committed people can outwit anything devised by man. The Ho Chi Minh Trail proved this time and again." On the other hand, Tran was not exactly fighting the Americans in Iraq. One wonders how strong his will would have been in those highly dissimilar conditions, but there is no question that he has a point. The bottom line tells the story: they won, the U.S. lost; they had the will and the Americans did not.

Towards the end of the American involvement in the war, the Vietnamese started building concrete bridges to span the once almost impassable rivers, and the roads in most spots could now accommodate tanks, along with missile carriers, for most of their length. By Viet Cong estimates, 22 times the tonnage was being carried on the "Trail" at War’s end as was moving from North to South at the time of the signing of the hapless 1966 peace agreement. After all, there were hundreds of trucks and tanks that steamed into Saigon on April 30,1975, leading the way for brigade after brigade of well-armed soldiers. They certainly must have come from somewhere, but American commanders believed that this much ordinance never could have made it down that windy little trail through the jungle’s darkest recesses.

To a large degree, the "Trail" has opened vast areas of Vietnam to agriculture, minerals and forestry. Places that once seemed impassable and under other conditions never would have seen the light of day (mainly because of the vegetation’s thickness and rapid re-growth) became the nation’s highway as war has it own exigencies. Much of the jungle has now been converted to rice farms, rubber plantations, corn, peanuts and other cash crops, and much of thanks for creating this agricultural reality could even go to the Americans for helping to defoliate the surrounding area. It would never have been commercially feasible under any other conditions. However, the war has left a deadly toll of death-creating materials laying everywhere.

There is hardly a day that goes by that someone isn’t injured or killed by a bomb or grenade just lying innocently on the side of the road. Moreover, especially trained crews carrying metal detectors are obliged to scour the country unremittingly, and the bounty of arms they have been able to recover seems almost inexhaustible.

However, recently the Vietnamese determined to convert the Ho Chi Minh Trail into a gigantic four lane super-highway (or even six) connecting the northern capital of Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City in the South. The name of this highway, you guessed it, the Ho Chi Minh National Highway. The highway’s length is ultimately estimated to be about 1,000 miles when completed in 2003, and it is probably the most ambitious road-building project ever attempted in Asia even when you include China who has been using up to 50% of the world’s cement for the last several years. Any potential comparison grows even paler when you consider the percentage of the country’s gross domestic project that will have to be devoted to it in relation to other massive projects.

The World Bank for some odd reason has indicated that it has no interest in participating in the project, and having no other takers, the Government of Vietnam is going to be obligated to going it alone. The government believes that the road will open up the interior of the country to commercialization and that the thoroughfare can be used as an historic landmark to attract tourists who have a desire of historically following the path of the war. The main problem that has divided the country, in a way that the war had never done, is the environmental aspect of the project. The road is scheduled to cut through wildlife sanctuaries, irreplaceable forests and the nesting places for endangered species. "Yet, when completed the road will contain 300 bridges, hills will be razed, tunnels burrowed and narrow dirt roads will be widened, raised for flood control and paved. Unexploded mines and bombs will be defused." ()

No less than ten environmentally protected regions would become endangered, including Vietnam’s first national park and the Phong Nha Nature Reserve in the Central Quang Binh Province, which is world famous for its endangered primates and bird species. UNESCO was so enamored by the Nature Reserve that it has proposed making it a "World Heritage Site" similar to the honor awarded the stately Taj Mahal. Furthermore, conservationists are also convinced that the road will give poachers painless access to sanctuaries that today are literally unapproachable. Many unexploded bombs still lay in the path of the future highway, and who knows when some of these now latent, but fully armed devices may decide to go off and under what circumstances. Critics point to the fact that 300 live bombs were found in a stretch of less than a mile in Quang Tre Province, leaving a number of workers dead. What is certain is this time someone in Vietnam is going to lose this battle over the road.

Another proposal linked to the new highway is a $100-million fiber cable system to be installed along side of it during construction that will link the northern and southern parts of the country. Moreover, the only alternative to the new highway is what is called "Route One", which is only is accessible at certain times of the year. Last year during the monsoon season, floods devastated the central part of the country, 700 people were carried to their deaths by the raging waters, and Route 1 remained impassable for a substantial period of time. Engineers say that putting the money into upgrading Route One won’t accomplish the job and that, in any event it runs directly through high population areas and will never be a viable alternative.

We believe that the building of the "Ho Chi Minh Trail" took a higher percentage of a nation’s resources without the use of slave labor than any other comparable project in modern times. Due to the fact that the Vietnamese worked literally for nothing, the numbers are even greater than those used in the building of the Egyptian Pyramids. Keep in mind that logistically, only so many people could work on a pyramid at one time. A twelve thousand mile "work in process" is a different matter altogether. Moreover, one must consider, however, that there were resources applied in this situation because of the heat of battle, which could have never been employed under different conditions. Although, we in America might not like the result, this project was of Herculean proportions, built by a people of an indomitable will, and this combination of conditions will not be seen around these parts very soon again.

 

 

 

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