We began writing about Vietnam in the 1970's. From 1970 through 2014, we lived there, then travelled there often: more than two dozen times. Below are a selection of early articles from the Far Eastern Economic Review plus some more recent reflections.
'The Far Eastern Economic Review' was one of the premier weekly journals on Asia issues from 1946 until 1997. We contributed to the magazine from various locations from 1973 to 1981. In May 1975, after 25 days under 'Communist rule', we left Vietnam via Vientiane and Bangkok for Hong Kong. Together with my colleague Nayan Chanda (later editor of the Review) a series of reports were published. One lighter and popular feature of the Review was called TRAVELLERS TALES.
Far Eastern Economic Review
Reference: Vol. 88, No. 23, 6 Jun 1975, 25
By NAYAN CHANDA and JAMES LAURIE
-- A JOKE among the journalists who thronged to Saigon in the last weeks before the communist victory was: "You may not have seen the Ho Chi Minh Trail but you may get yourself photographed exactly where it ends at the National Assembly compound where Boulevard Le Loi joins Tu Do Street." At the time nobody saw how right on target the joke was. To the communist soldiers, countryboys in baggy uniform and Ho Chi Minh sandals, seeing Saigon for the first time in their life, the National Assembly (a former French opera building) was an essential exhibit. Dozens of them could be seen posing before a Polaroid camera for an instant picture with the National Assembly as the backdrop. As the photos were handed over, they crowded around with amazement as the image slowly appeared on the white paper.
-- SAIGON, the city of vice, is now becoming a city of virtue (in the words of Saigon Radio, "revolutionary, civilised, healthy, joyful and fresh"). Saigon bookstalls, once full of girlie magazines, have either disappeared altogether or started displaying the only official daily Saigon Giai-Phong (Liberated Saigon). Recently Hanoi dailies started hitting the stands. But the newspaper-reading public of Saigon does not appear very interested in reading the papers, which are admittedly insipid compared with the rich fare of rumours and saucy stories so long provided by the Saigon media. Saigon's cinema-going public too (used over the years to kung fu, John Wayne and Raquel Welch) seem scarcely interested in Those Who Open the Route, a well-made Hanoi movie of young men and women braving US bombs to build the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The audiences are thin. A city which was prostituted successively to the French, Japanese and Americans for nearly a century is going through a painful transformation, returning somehow to its Vietnamese roots.
-- ON Dien Bien Phu Day in Saigon (May 7), a ceremony at Doc Lap Palace featured the appearance of half-a-dozen very attractive South Vietnamese film stars: heroines of those tearful romantic melodramas which used to be so popular. The interesting fact about the actress' appearance of course was that all of them are now unemployed.
The most widely displayed film in Saigon these days is The Life of Ho Chi Minh, a documentary prepared with an amazingly large amount of early film. It remains a remarkable testament to this man that, six years after his death, he is still a popular and attractive figure, even among non-communists. It should be noted that in Cholon we actually saw people queuing up for the film on Uncle Ho.
-- IN the new Saigon there developed -- as the Americans had told us all along -- a contest between the bad guys and the good guys. It seems clear that the PRG will strive to reform South Vietnamese society, but in the early days in liberated Saigon it was unclear whether the new troops and soldiers of the Front were about to cleanse the corruption of the city or be corrupted themselves. Crime mounted daily. Few foreigners got off without something stolen by "cowboys," and North Vietnamese soldiers were victims as well. We heard how one giai-phong (liberation) soldier, who had pedalled all the way down to Saigon from the North, put his trust in the people. He left his bicycle with a crowd of Cholon citizens, asking them politely to look after it while he had a cup of coffee. When he returned he found both the crowd and his bicycle gone.
-- SAIGON students have been demonstrating against the "depraved and decadent culture of US imperialism" and have threatened to burn all dirty, decadent literature. But their cultural war is not being fought on clear lines. Some of the demonstrators wore American baseball caps and one even carried a shoulder bag with a Playboy bunny emblazoned on it. A recent visitor to Bien Hoa even ran into a hairdressing salon featuring Richard Nixon on the billboard. The owner explained that the portrait was not due to any love for Nixon: it was to attract customers from the nearby US airbase -- where the men, he claimed, had been "very patriotic."
-- SAIGON'S blackmarket, swelled with an influx of goods looted from various homes and embassies, flourished in the first weeks of May. Watches and cameras were big sellers among soldiers from the North, but we saw quite a few window-shoppers admiring toy American M-16 rifles made in Japan.
-- RECENT travellers from Hanoi, who became the first in many years to drive all the way down the coast to Saigon, reported they were impressed by the business acumen and efficiency of Chinese businessmen in North Vietnam. Their enthusiasm has not only remained undampened by the tough socialist regime, but they have also even learned how to make revolution profitable. Within a few days of the liberation of Hue and Danang, when even Hanoi officials could not manage to organise a trip, Chinese businessmen from the North somehow succeeded in leapfrogging all the barriers and arrived in those places with thousands of National Liberation Front (NLF) flags and Ho Chi Minh portraits. Money thus earned was reportedly spent on consumer goods to be carried back to the North. In Saigon itself the swiftness with which NLF flags were put on sale tended to confirm rumours that enterprising Chinese and Indian merchants had secretly started producing flags more than a week before Saigon's fall.
-- MORE notes on flags: Shortly after the taking of Saigon, all kinds of banners were in abundance. A French flag flew alongside a liberation flag on the old Continental Hotel. And Chinese flags were hoisted along with the NLF flag over many shops in Cholon. Within a week, the new Government ordered that only the liberation flag could be flown. Then a week later it ordered that both the liberation flag and the flag of North Vietnam be flown side-by-side.
-- REPORTERS, ever an impatient lot, began to get a little restless after three weeks in Ho Chi Minh City. Those with news film of the takeover were particularly anxious to get their stories out, but the new Saigon authorities did not seem to have the immediate means to provide the transportation. The impatience resulted in a number of hairbrained schemes to bring a plane in from the outside. The BBC contacted an Asian airline in an attempt to arrange a charter to go into Saigon. An eccentric French adventurer in Saigon sent a letter to Hanoi with a visiting delegation of Soviet journalists in which he offered Aeroflot a considerable sum of money if they would "liberate" the foreigners.
In the end, of course, the Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG) handled affairs in its own way. An Ilyushin from Hanoi of Hang Khoan Dan Dung (People's Airways) began ferrying foreigners to Vientiane for US$ 120 a ticket (about double the previous International Air Transport Association [IATA] Saigon-to-Vientiane fare).
The chartered-aircraft story did not end there. One American TV network NBC -- with film of the communist take-over of Saigon, hired an aircraft to fly the film from Bangkok to Hongkong. For the first time in the history of Cathay Pacific Airways, a Boeing 707, with a crew of nine including four flight hostesses and 37 hot meals, carried a passenger load of one ragged reporter and three film bags.
REVIEW CD-ROM Edition (C) 1998 Review Publishing Company Limited. All Rights Reserved.
My early writing on Vietnam after the Communist victory, focused on what was apparent: a remarkably orderly transition. Our perspective of course was shaped by events in neighboring Cambodia, where the radical Khmer Rouge regime turned the nation upside down, creating conditions of millions of deaths and untold suffering. The observatons below were based on interviews during the first 24 days after 'the fall of Saigon." They were published after I left Vietnam. Some items in the 'Revew' published while I remained in Vietnam simply appeared as 'from a Correspondent,' to avoid the possibility of problems with Vietnamese authorities.
Far Eastern Economic Review COVER STORY
Reference: Vol. 88, No. 23, 6 Jun 1975, 14
Vietnam: Getting back on the rails
By James Laurie
Saigon:"The road to reconstruction," Lt-General Tran Van Tra told his audience, "will be a long and difficult one requiring participation of all."
As chairman of the Saigon Military Management Committee (MMC), General Tra has possibly been the only official spokesman on matters of future policy in the now one-month-old Government of South Vietnam. He has held two press conferences and given only the barest hints of the kind of programme the Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG) intends to follow in the months of reconstruction ahead.
In the first weeks following the taking of Saigon, most observers were impressed by how quickly internal communications, roads, trains, sea and river ports were restored and began functioning -- in many cases better than they ever had. But very soon the talk in the streets shifted to the two principal subjects of concern: the banks and employment.
Financial transactions in South Vietnam came to a halt several days before the fall of Saigon and while the PRG has ordered bank workers to report to work each day, the banks have not been open for business. The Government has issued only one directive on banking. On May 10 it established the National Bank of Vietnam as the official reserve bank and authorised the use of the old Saigon-regime currency. However, the use of foreign currency, gold or other precious metals and cheques in any transaction was forbidden.
In the absence of official information, speculation is rampant about the banks, which, it is said, will open shortly; and when they do, the people will be given a short time to exchange all their old piastres for new North Vietnamese dong.
In Danang, some banks have reopened on very restricted hours, with depositors being permitted to withdraw only one-third of their savings. Liberation Radio continues to place the blame for the state of the banks on ex-president Nguyen Van Thieu, who, it is said, took most of the country's gold with him when he fled to Taiwan.
The absence of normal banking operations is beginning to create hardships, especially among city people. All businesses, including foreign companies, have been ordered to continue as before, and the laying-off of employees has been forbidden. However, workers have not received pay cheques since the end of April and an increasing number of urban people are becoming desperate for cash.
However, the new regime has begun some moves towards alleviating the problem. Workers in several Government agencies were last week paid a month's wages, depending on their work and their politics. The highest new salary for a bureaucrat was said to be about VNP 10,000 (about US$10). Reports from Nha Trang and Can Tho suggest the PRG has begun paying Government workers in a combination of currency and rice. Workers in Can Tho are said to have been receiving about VNP 1,000 a month and about 20 kilograms of rice. This suggests that salaries are far less than under the Thieu regime, with prices about the same or as much as 20% higher than before the takeover.
The second immediate problem the PRG must tackle is unemployment, which, including roughly 1 million ex-soldiers, runs close to 3 million from a total population of 21 million. Unlike Cambodia, the PRG does not appear to be forcing large numbers of people into manual labour.
Although there are many sceptics in the still fairly large Saigon-French business community, it appears, at least for the time being, that the Government wants the operation of foreign firms to continue. Several French business leaders were recently invited to Independence Palace and advised that some French firms would be asked to stay on indefinitely. Heading the PRG list was the Michelin and other rubber plantations in Dau Tieng and Tay Ninh provinces. Other major French firms in Saigon, such as Brasserie Glacier Indochine (BGI), Denis Freres and Lucia, will, apparently, also be allowed to operate. The import-export firm, Lucia, distinguished itself during the first week after the takeover by actually making money in the sale of thousands of bicycles, which the company apparently had on hand ready to take advantage of the petrol shortage.
Some conversations with lower-echelon southern cadres suggest that the new Saigon leadership might like to pursue a dual approach to the South's economy. It would emphasise a rigid communisation of agriculture, while encompassing a rather more independent commercial and industrial sector. The latter effort might include the encouragement of tightly-controlled foreign investment in order to rapidly build the rubber, timber and other industries.
Implementation of any of these policies depends, of course, on a Government structure which is still rather hazy.
There remains little indication of what personalities will have the most say in the new Government. The formation of a functioning civilian government to replace the military committees may have been delayed because of squabbling among factions advocating various timetables for the reunification of North and South. Disagreements on economic policy may also have caused a set-back.
At a reception on May 18, several North Vietnamese and PRG leaders made plain that both economic and reunification issues were linked and both, as Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs Madame Nguyen Thi Binh put it, were "under active discussion." There were also strong indications that the issue of reunification was the top priority.
It is always assumed in Western circles that the Hanoi leadership will have the final veto power over any programmes the southern communists might initiate. In fact, those that appear to be the leading southerners in the PRG seem to be very northern in thought. Both Pham Hung, a leader born in the Mekong Delta province of Vinh Long and listed as No. 1 in a roster of leaders printed in Saigon's Liberation Daily, and Nguyen Huu Tho, the Cholon lawyer most visible in the southern leadership, take the Hanoi line on reunification.
This line is, of course, that unification will be pursued as quickly as possible. However, optimism has been voiced by some former Third Force Saigon intellectuals and elsewhere that Hanoi will listen to Saigon's views. The hope is that even with reunification de facto or official, the North may give the South some latitude in deciding its own development.
REVIEW CD-ROM Edition (C) 1998 Review Publishing Company Limited. All Rights Reserved.
From 1976 to 1979, repeated requests for visas to return to Vietnam were declined. With the assistance of Nippon Denpa News in Tokyo, I received a visa to return to Vietnam in February 1979. Contacts developed in Hanoi in 1979, permitted me to return often until the 1990's when it became easy for journalists and tourists to visit the nation. Coming Soon: recollections of those visits.
Familiarity with Cambodia and Vietnam is both a blessing and a curse. There is satisfaction in watching these countries develop and see new friends and family prosper in the past ten years or so. But there is also great sadness in the recollections of Indochina’s tortured past, the loss of friends, and the realization that some of the more pleasant vestiges of the past are fast disappearing.
For a further LOOK at Vietnam see: