Note: I’ve learned not to trust government, and the Vietnamese government is no exception. So this is obviously a harsh and one-side critique, but that was my intention, and likely how I would feel with any government, US foremost, that was in control of where I live. So don’t take it as a condemnation of Vietnam, merely the government. That’s a very important distinction. Vietnam is a unique country with problems and potential I’m only beginning to comprehend. But they’re government, like all governments, is undoubtedly holding them back.
To the future or to the past, to a time when thought is free, when men are different from one another and do not live alone — to a time when truth exists and what is done cannot be undone: From the age of uniformity, from the age of solitude, from the age of Big Brother, from the age of doublethink — greetings!
There’s no name tag that says “I work for the government,” or, better yet, “Communist Party Member.” Yet the Vietnamese government employs millions of people, directly or indirectly, and you often get the sense that many of them are watching. From the thousands of police, of numerous types, to the vendors hocking lottery tickets, to the cashiers at many clothing stores, the city is filled with potential government agents. I don’t mean to say that they’re all out there spying on the people, certainly not, but I think some of them are. And with a government that often seems schizophrenic in their indecision between the past and the future, it’s impossible not to think they take full advantage of this resource. Paranoid? Certainly, but that’s probably healthy here.
There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live—did live, from habit that became instinct—in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.
You can’t work within the government bureaucracy without being a member, in good standing, of the Vietnamese Communist Party, or, as they say, have your “Red Diploma.” This isn’t something you sign up for. If your parents think it’s even possible, as a kid, you enter into a Communist children’s group, where you’re fed government propaganda (in addition to what everyone receives) and trained in party loyalty. Upon high school graduation, a background check is performed, going back three generations, to find any dissent from the government in your family’s history. Your parents fought on the wrong side of the war? Out. Your grandfather worked for a French colonialist? Out. Supposedly they’re loosening this a bit right now, only going back one generation, but that’s a very recent change, and one that many people seem skeptical of. So with your childhood Communist education in hand, a clear family history, and a set of skills the government is looking for, you have gained the most secure job in Vietnam: member of the bureaucracy. Regardless of your job performance, they’re not firing you. Why would they? You’re loyal.
There will be no loyalty, except loyalty towards the Party. There will be no love, except the love of Big Brother.
What these party members are doing is running the bureaucracy, with a hand in much more than the foreign policy, social services and financial regulation that typify a capitalist state. These men have been trained to run everything because that’s what the government wants to do. Slowly, it is relinquishing its grip on the numerous industries it controls, but very unwillingly, and it continues to stubbornly defend the incompetent. My favorite example I’ve heard so far is the car industry. Vietnam doesn’t produce any cars, but more and more Vietnamese are becoming wealthy enough to buy them. So what does a control-obsessed government do, you ask? Well, obviously tax the hell out of cars, a 100 percent luxury tax, making cars in Vietnam as or more expensive than anywhere in the world. But that’s simply not enough.
The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness: only power, pure power.
So where can you get more control? Parts! Every car in Vietnam, within a certain period of time (haven’t figured out how long yet), has to have its parts replaced with Vietnamese-made items. You need new tires for your Audi? Gotta buy from Viettire (I made this name up, although I’d almost bet it exists). So how does your average well-to-do Vietnamese deal with this situation? Simple, buy a car in Thailand, bribe the border guard to get it in the country, and then bribe a bureaucrat to get the proper paperwork. The black market on cars in Vietnam is, not surprisingly, exploding. Eventually, I’m sure, the government will give in and decide to open up the industry, but do so gradually, continuing to waste money and efficiency along the way. It’s becoming apparent that they simply hate being proven wrong, regardless of how often that has happened over the last 35 years. I guess at least they have that in common with every government I’ve ever known or studied.
I tell you that reality is not external. Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else. Not in the individual mind, which can make mistakes, and in any case soon perishes: only in the mind of the party, which is collective and immortal. Whatever the party holds to be truth, is truth. It is impossible to see reality except by looking through the eyes of the Party.
Yet, Communist party members represent a very small piece of the puzzle that is the broad spectrum of Vietnamese government influence. Most of them likely work in Hanoi, or live in well-to-do communities rarely frequented by outsiders. They are an elite class to themselves, not one based on wealth, although they do fine, but on status and power. You certainly don’t want to mess with a Communist, that’s been made clear. Then again, the vast majority of people, and, for that matter, government workers aren’t Communists. They likely revere Uncle Ho (if you say Ho Chi Minh, everyone will think you’re talking about the city), probably support their government, and often agree with the party line, but talk to them about their lives and their dreams and it’s quite obvious they view the world from a winner-take-all capitalist perspective. It seems communism is a nice idea for the very secure and the very poor; everyone in between is, like in most places, out for that almighty dollar (literally, actually; they love to get dollars here instead of the Vietnamese Dong, and know the exchange rate obsessively).
If there is hope, it lies in the proles.
So where does the government intersect with my life here? In some places, it’s what you would expect; like most countries outside America, your hotel or landlord registers with the authorities your passport. In Vietnam, this is compulsively followed. Now, I have no idea who these authorities are, where they are stationed, what they do with the information, or, for that matter, exactly how much they know. But I think the ten police officers that lounge along the street within two blocks in either direction of me likely know where I’m registered and that, for the moment, my paperwork is in good order. An ever present part of life in Vietnam is the realization that you are being monitored. How extensively, how effectively, to what end? You just can’t know. In a country of 87 million people, how much could they actually keep track of? My guess is they know everything and nothing.
Underneath the spreading chestnut tree, I sold you and you sold me.
But the reality of being monitored, especially for someone used to and in love with the idea of liberty, can lead to some crazy thoughts. I was on the toilet one day, my fourth trip of the afternoon, and I suddenly pondered, “I wonder if they know how many times I’ve flushed today?” Which led to, “what could they do with that information.” I decided they couldn’t really do anything, unless, of course, there’s a flush quota. I guess it’s reality that paranoia comes from some absurd directions. But once you start wondering, there’s no end to where the mind can take you. (On a side, fairly ironic note, this day was the only time I’ve had digestion problems, and it was from hamburgers I cooked for the 4th of July. Another conspiracy?)
Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimeters inside your skull.
I always smile at police or security guards. Of course, I smile at just about everyone who makes eye contact, including the numerous people that stare at me unabashedly; children being the most obvious, often giving me the impression they’re thinking “look at that hairy, sweating monster.” But the police I smile at as a protective measure. One reason is because it’s very difficult to tell what a police officer’s job is here. There are numerous different types of security personnel. In tourist areas, you’re most likely to see the “tourist police,” ostensibly employed to help the hapless foreigner cross the street and make sure they don’t get their pocket picked. Of the hundreds of these men I’ve seen, only once have I seen them guide anyone across a street, and it was a group of Vietnamese children. I think their real job is simply to maintain a government presence, remind everyone, Vietnamese and foreigner alike, who is in control.
The object of power is power.
Of course, being in control doesn’t mean enforcing the law. I’ve had prostitutes proposition me right in front of police officers, motorbike riders mumble “marijuana” in similar situations, and seen locals ranging from younger than 10 to 80 selling illegal non-government numbers game lottery tickets completely openly. No, the police don’t want to enforce these laws; they want to monitor them, not let them be violated too flagrantly, and, more than likely, take a cut somewhere in the process. I still think it’s best to stay within the laws, though, because if they do decide to go after you, they have virtually unlimited power. Perhaps the embassy could help me if I got in trouble, but certainly not immediately, and the stories I’ve heard of people getting arrested usually involve beatings and harassment. So I smile to the police.
…what was in Room 101? I told you that you knew the answer already. Everyone knows it.
But these tourist police are only a small part of the security apparatus. There are also what we might think of as regular police officers, complete with cars and sirens, although they seem few and far between. Of the myriad noises you hear on the streets here, a blaring police siren is rare, and something that will turn a few heads, not an easy thing in a country where no one even bats an eye at the sound of a car horn blaring like an impending deadly collision is imminent. Then there are numerous private security guards, hired by any number of local businesses, from banks to clothing stores, to guard their premises, mostly watching the motorbikes of shoppers; I get the impression, in this respect, Saigon is similar to Berkeley, with bike theft the most common crime (this is probably the only similarity). Every now and then you will see a military vehicle, similar to the American Deuce and Half (if that reference rings a bell with anyone), filled with men in uniform in the rear, always, it seems, with one older, bad-ass looking guy that is obviously in charge, leading a group of younger, fit and well disciplined underlings. What they’re doing, where they’re going, I have no idea. But they are intimidating as hell, and I know I wouldn’t want to be there when they all got out.
It was terribly dangerous to let your thoughts wander when you were in any public place…The smallest thing could give you away. A nervous tic, an unconscious look of anxiety, a habit of muttering to yourself–anything that carried with it the suggestion of abnormality, of having something to hide.
There’s also the men I think of as the Special Police. They can be found in numerous spots, including small one room outposts, where they’re keeping track of something on the wall (what, once again, I don’t know), on some street corners, or, more than likely, similar to every other security personnel, lounging in small chairs in the shade on the side of the road. They seem to get the most respect from Vietnamese passing by, which makes me all the more wary. They also seem the least likely to return a smile, although probably half of them will. And I’ve even had one strike up a conversation with me out of nowhere, initially scaring the shit out of me, and then turning into one of the numerous occasions where a Vietnamese person simply wants to practice some English. But these men, like the “tourist police,” seem to do very little. They are simply a presence, which is why you have to assume you’re being watched.
He wondered, as he had many times wondered before, whether he himself was a lunatic. Perhaps a lunatic was simply a minority of one.
Security personnel are obvious, though, and exist in any country you visit (at least you would hope they do). I find the most interesting government employee to be the Lottery ticket sales-people. The motto of the Vietnamese Lottery, translated, is “The Lottery is Useful for Both the Country and the Individual Family.” A ticket costs maybe 20 or 30 cents, with five winners of $5,000 dollars every day. Run completely by the government, it is probably the most widely promoted commercial product in the country. Yet you don’t buy Lottery tickets from a store. You buy them from one of thousands upon thousands of people employed simply selling a stack of maybe 30 tickets which they offer to everyone, continuously. Walk anywhere in Vietnam, from Saigon to a small beach town to the east, and you will be offered a Lottery ticket within 5 minutes, literally almost without fail.
The Lottery, with its weekly pay-out of enormous prizes, was the one public event to which the proles paid serious attention. It was probable that there were some millions of proles for whom the Lottery was the principal if not the only reason for remaining alive. It was their delight, their folly, their anodyne, their intellectual stimulant. Where the Lottery was concerned, even people who could barely read and write seemed capable of intricate calculations and staggering feats of memory.
Now, at first I saw these Lottery sales-people as a ridiculous inefficiency. They could employ a quarter of the people and everyone would still get all the tickets they wanted. Then it finally dawned on me, from the Lottery ticket sales-person to the security personnel to the 10 sales people in the government owned clothing stores, the jobs are not there to maximize sales, security or profit. The jobs are there to be jobs. The government wants people employed, so if they have to add a few hundred thousand useless jobs in the process, its worth it; people who work have less time to disagree, organize, or, even more simply, think about disagreeing or organizing. Once you view the system from this perspective, it makes a lot more sense.
The citizen is not allowed to know anything of the tenets of the other two philosophies, but he is taught to execrate them as barbarous outrages upon morality and common sense.
Why else would there be a Viettien clothing store two blocks from a Viettien clothing store, two blocks from a Viettien clothing outlet, two blocks from a Viettien clothing store? Each of these employs twice the number of people necessary for an adequate sales staff, with a few security guards out front. Simply, they’re government owned and managed; they can’t go out of business, unlike the other clothing stores, which open and close with the speed of the restaurant industry in the states. They are there to provide jobs, plain and simple. Of course, they also serve another purpose: promoting what I like to think of as the Vietnamese government’s preferred uniform, nice slacks and a button down collared shirt, which is virtually the only thing available in these stores. The Ben Fitzpatrick of, let’s say, five years ago would have fit in very well here, although I don’t know how they can wear so much clothing and survive the humidity (I think people who know me from California may not get this reference). But that’s primarily what is available in the government clothing store, men’s clothes, very boring, and fairly uniform. I think if the government could enforce it, this would be mandatory uniform for all. But they’re realizing more and more that arbitrary rules can no longer be enforced here. They certainly don’t seem to have made as much inroads into women’s clothing, but my speculations on why that’s the case are best kept to myself 🙂
Not merely the love of one person, but the animal instinct, the simple undifferentiated desire: that was the force that would tear the Party to pieces.
Of course, none of how the government works makes sense without the context of the past 35 years. Following “the American War,” as they call it, the North Vietnamese government took control of the entire economy of the largely capitalist/post-colonial south. Owners of large businesses, farms, universities and so on were often sent to reeducation camps, or forced to live in semi-exile in rural parts of the country. Imagine for a moment taking all the industry, business and social continuity of California, eliminating virtually all the upper management, and bringing in a basically untrained, under-educated, and often undisciplined government bureaucracy to take over. You have Vietnam in about 1975. And so the government decided, in true traditional communist form, to attempt to control everything.
Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.
I’m willing to bet you can imagine the disaster. Agricultural control led to rioting and vastly diminished output. Industrial production plummeted as foreign sources for goods outside the Iron Curtain dried up. Poverty, disease, joblessness and homelessness ran rampant throughout the southern half of the country. In short, the nationalization of south Vietnam exacerbated all the social and economic crises that resulted from the wars fought over the preceding 30 years.
So reform was obviously necessary to all, particularly in agriculture, which began in the early ’80s, spreading to other segments of society through the ensuing 20 years. Of course, the massive elephant in the room in this respect was the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, a topic which is glaringly absent from virtually all discussion of progress here. I can’t decide if that’s because it’s looked upon with sadness or if they want full credit for making the necessary changes. Regardless, the fall of the biggest example of communist government in history right in the middle of the time when reforms were being made certainly was, at the barest minimum, a catalyst. Yet, up to around the year 2000, the reforms were slow, uneven, and, more often than not, announced but not enacted. Yes, the government sold shares in industry to private individuals and corporations, but almost never enough to end their almost total control of those sectors. In short, reform was necessary, but too much reform would not only give away the power very much enjoyed by the massive bureaucracy, but also admit the failure of the old system.
The essential act of the Party is to use conscious deception while retaining the firmness of purpose that goes with complete honesty.
The last ten years are when the real change has hit. As the country has truly opened up completely to the outside world, the government has had little ability to control the numerous influences that inundate it from all directions, from large corporate investment to western fashion and movies to, probably most radical in its effect, access to all the accumulated knowledge much of the world takes for granted, but which in Vietnam had previously been unavailable. The government may try to stop you from logging on to Facebook, but they allow the Google, and that’s a revolution in itself. Protests now break out when towns are deprived of electricity, forcing the People’s Committees (who seem to be aptly named only in that they’re made up of people) to quickly change policy. Men will now whisper to you on the streets the stories of their abuse by the government in the wake up the “American War,” describing in vivid detail how the government divided their family, took their home, sent them away, and left them with nothing. Of course, this is what has happened after virtually every civil war in history (ours included, if you read the history closely enough), but you can tell that before they would never deigned to have described it out loud, particularly to someone they don’t know. Simply, the government seems to think change is coming when, in reality, it’s already here and there’s no stopping it.
Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.
I’ve heard about a blogger who wrote a relatively highly publicized piece in which they criticized the government and was then arrested for two weeks. So if you don’t hear fr
Whether he went on with the diary, or whether he did not go on with it, made no difference. The Thought Police would get him just the same. He had committed— would still have committed, even if he had never set pen to paper— the essential crime that contained all others in itself. Thoughtcrime, they called it. Thoughtcrime was not a thing that could be concealed forever.