Cheap facsimiles of $100 bills waft in the tropical breeze, littering Ho
Chi Minh City's sidewalks with Benjamin Franklin's face. Elsewhere in
Vietnam, US President Richard M. Nixon has become a gritty fashion icon,
giving politicized street cred to "urban wear" clothes.
years ago, victorious Communist North Vietnam's troops fought their way
into South Vietnam's southern port of Saigon and renamed it Ho Chi Minh
City to honor their dead, charismatic, wispy-bearded leader. Ho's
ubiquitous portrait, however, now competes with symbols of America, one
of his worst enemies. Today, on the chaotic streets of Ho Chi Minh City
and the northern capital Hanoi, virtually anything linked to the US is
prized, including iPhones, Pepsi, and made-in-Vietnam Converse shoes.
short, it appeared during a recent visit to Ho Chi Minh City, on
Vietnam's streets as well as its ministries, it is engaged in a forked
relationship with the United States that can't just be described as
love-hate. It appears more complicated than that. Three and a half
decades years after the war ended, both countries are still trying to
come to terms with the other. Despite Vietnam's feverish adoption of the
US's cultural symbols, other American political landmarks – a free and
unfettered press, universal suffrage – remain too difficult for the
one-time Communist regime.
London-based Amnesty International
and other organizations criticize Vietnam for an array of human rights
violations. Last September, the Committee to Protect Journalists cited
Vietnam for continuing interference and arrests of Web-based journalists
and political bloggers. Reporters remain in jail for reporting on
corruption and political harassment. Wary of allowing too much
American-style freedom, the one-party government heavily censors the
Internet and is now targeting online games.
"Game designers will
be instructed to produce healthy online games relating to history and
cultural traditions," the Vietnam News Service reported in August,
outlining new measures issued by the Information and Communications
Since diplomatic relations were established in 1995,
“bilateral ties have expanded to the point where leaders on both sides
describe each other as partners on a number of issues,” according to a
study for the US Congressional Research Service by Mark E. Manyin that
was published in July, eclipsing the horrors meted out by the Americans
from 1965 to 1975. Those are now enshrined in museums that display grim
evidence, weaponry, and portraits of devastated Vietnamese from a time
when US soldiers called their burnt napalm victims "crispy critters."
decide on a water torture," says the caption of a black-and-white news
photograph in The War Remnants Museum which documents five American
soldiers, including one pouring a canteen onto a horizontal victim's
cloth-covered head. "A rag is placed over the man's face and water is
poured on it, making breathing impossible. Members of the 1st Air
Cavalry use water torture on a prisoner in 1968."
captured U.S. weaponry including an F-5A jet fighter, A-37 light attack
aircraft, M-41 tank, a UH-1H Huey and a CH-47 Chinook helicopter,
alongside other pieces. The museum's gift shop sells what looks like US
soldiers' metal identification "dog tags" including one issued to B. P.
McKenna, serial number B407854 USN, a Protestant with A-Positive blood.
forgers have made a fortune reproducing the tags and selling them to
tourists since the 1990s, so it is difficult to determine their
authenticity. Genuine or not, their sale at The War Remnants Museum, and
at the nearby Ho Chi Minh Museum, symbolizes how Vietnam regards booty
linked to the US military's defeat.
Around the corner from The
War Remnants Museum, however, a shop boldly calls itself The Death, and
showcases Goth-themed shoes, dresses and handbags, indicating a younger
generation's different attitude toward the West. The Death shop's sign
on Le Quy Don street, in inexplicable broken English, reads: "bitchy me
passion over you."
Within sight of Death's door is the former
South Vietnamese President's Palace – now Reunification Palace – where
the war's final showdown occurred. But that U.S. failure to protect an
ally is largely ignored by today's Vietnamese who eagerly watch
Hollywood's newest films, subtitled in Vietnamese, including "Inception"
at the MegaStar Cineplex in Hanoi, and "Salt" playing at Ho Chi Minh
City's Dong Da theater.
While an increasing number of Americans
now refer to "Vietnam" as shorthand for the US military's confusion,
quagmire and countless killing of innocent people in Afghanistan, the
one-party regime in Hanoi is looking toward Washington to improve
commercial, cultural and military ties. Today, the US buys most of
Vietnam's exports, and Americans are the biggest investors in the
country. In 2009, two-way trade topped more than US$15 billion.
the rhetoric emanating from the war museum, Vietnam continues to seek a
closer embrace, having applied for acceptance into the US General
System of Preferences, participating in negotiations for a bilateral
investment treaty with the US and working towards membership in the
Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership, a trade group the US is
also considering joining.
And, 15 years after the two countries
normalized relations, they conducted joint naval exercises in the
strategic South China Sea for a week during August. In what has to be
considered a symbolic gesture for both countries the destroyer USS John
S. McCain, named for the father of the 2008 Presidential candidate who
spent five-and-a-half years in a Hanoi prison after his plane was shot
down over North Vietnam, was also allowed to dock in central Vietnam's
former US-occupied port of Danang.
America is influencing Vietnam in other ways.
students like to learn English, and it is the number one foreign
language which we want to know, so that we can get a good job and
progress," said Tu, a young waitress at a new but empty middle-class
restaurant. "The second favorite language for young Vietnamese is
Japanese, but it is too difficult," she said.
meanwhile, worship dead ancestors by performing a Chinese-influenced
ritual of burning small, paper, look-alike items – such as tissue-thin
dollhouses, clothing patterns and other symbolic necessities. Believers
say the smoke rises to heaven, where deceased family members can grab
the goods to make life easier in the afterworld.
years, many Vietnamese have chosen locally-printed facsimiles of $100
U.S. currency notes, sold in funeral shops. The practice is so popular
that unburnt fake $100 bills, apparently blown away during spontaneous
curbside rituals, occasionally appear underfoot on sidewalks, amid other
The late, disgraced President Nixon is also wedged into
modern Vietnam's pop culture. Step inside Mai's, a trendy gallery on
Dong Khoi street – which links the colonial French-built Catholic
Notre-Dame Cathedral and the Opera House. Designer Mai Lam offered a
new, bulky, olive green U.S. army overcoat with a large embroidered
American flag on its back, partially obscured by the vividly stitched
face of Mr. Nixon wearing a black suit and tie while speaking into a
microphone, angry and defiant. Price: $3,500.
celebrated vintage US army flak jackets, beautified for urban wear with
embroidered Buddhas and embellished with precious stones [are] a
poignant healing symbolism for someone who has suffered during the war,"
Mai's Facebook page said. Other distressed fashions bear a portrait of
Ho Chi Minh.
Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist
who has reported news from Asia since 1978. His web page is