PEOPLES INFORMATION BUREAU (PIB) 2.10.2010
Our native city of Ha Noi is celebrating its 1000th anniversary. To mark this glorious occasion, we are publishing a chapter from Wilfred Burchetts VIETNAM NORTH, written 1966 when Hanoi was the most bombed capital in the world...
HANOI—CAPITAL WITH A QUESTION MARK
As one walks the quiet streets of Hanoi it is difficult to imagine that 10,000 miles away it is being decided whether to wipe it out or not. Children play with wooden guns around I the air-raid shelters. The few young couples still left stroll arm-in-arm or sit head-to-head on the seats around the Petit Lac in the center of the city; the stream of cycle-borne traffic at midday, the flower-stalls spilling out on to the footpaths. It would doubtless be fascinating to snatch a glimpse at the "pro" and "con" data being fed into the computers, and at the thought processes of President Johnson as he ponders over whatever advice the computers pass on.
Hanoi is not a glamorous or exotic city. To many visitors from the West, socialist countries included, it is a drab, grey city. It is in fact a poor city; at best the government has succeeded in stabilizing poverty and avoiding misery. The changes for the better that mark the countryside have left little impact on the capital, superficially at least. No efforts have been made to make it a prestige showplace as is customary for a capital city. Perhaps this was a mistake. More effort should have been made, a bigger investment in paint and repairs at least. It is a mistake hardly likely to be corrected now. The few luxury shops that existed to serve a privileged section of the population in the past disappeared with the privileges. This was to be expected. The privileged in the old days were the foreigners, top government officials and rich merchants.
Government officials are, if anything, the under-privileged these days, the President and Prime Minister themselves setting the example in austerity and frugality by living in the former servants quarters of the former French governor-generals palace. This is not demagogy. It is a continuation of their life, and that of the thousands of other devoted cadres, of the first resistance. It accords with the economic situation of the country. When President Ho Chi Minh was about to read the Declaration of Independence, on September 2, 1945, it was realized at the last moment that he had no suitable clothes. He had come from the jungle with old khaki shorts and a pair of automobile-tire sandals and little else. A hasty shopping expedition produced a khaki suit and a pair of manufactured rubber sandals, Ho Chi Minhs concession to protocol.
The rich merchants and the privileged officials and many who lived off them left in any case for Saigon, when the separation of combatants took place after the 1954 Geneva Agreements. The foreign community also left. Another foreign community arrived from the socialist world with neither the tastes nor ready cash to form a clientele for the bars and restaurants and luxury shops—or to finance by their patronage the neon signs, or even the paint, to maintain the color and glamor common to most Asian capitals. The Government certainly had neither foreign exchange nor any interest in importing the sort of goods stocked in the former luxury shops, even if customers could be found. Hence, useless to pretend otherwise, Hanoi has presented a drab, austere face to the outside world these recent years and it has grown drabber and more austere as the war clouds gathered over the border in Laos and south of the 17th parallel.
To even slightly raise the living standards of the peasants meant cutting into the standards of the urban middle class. Economic policy aimed, if not at egalitarianism, at least at greatly reducing the differences between salaries and wages and between urban and rural living standards. The few automobiles on the streets were used by top-ranking government officials, usually ministers and vice-ministers, on very strictly official business, or by visiting delegations and the diplomatic corps. Traffic is sufficiently sparse to insure that every automobile has individual attention from the police at street intersections. There has been virtually no rebuilding inside the city at all in 12 years of socialist power. Goods on display are sadly lacking in variety and quality, apart from a few shops selling traditional art and handicraft work, lacquer paintings, ivory carvings, silver-work and a variety of woven baskets, table mats and other items mainly bought by foreigners.
These are the aspects that first impress visitors from the West, especially those who knew Hanoi before, when it was the bustling capital of French power in Indochina with brightly lit streets, bars in every block, shops full of French consumer goods, the streets jammed with limousines, not to mention officers staff cars and military traffic in general. For Vietnamese, however, the picture seems different. The goods in the state shops correspond to their needs and their pocket books, and besides they are now all made in the country. Thermos flasks, bicycles, textiles, flash lamps, electric light bulbs, enamel ware, cigarettes and matches, soap, all sorts of household tools and modest kitchen gadgets, plastic raincoats and footwear, the daily necessities of life are there and at reasonable prices—ridiculously cheap if priced at official exchange rates, but reasonable also in terms of peoples low earnings.
The improvements that had been made in peoples lives were not all visible, like shorter working hours, paid holidays and pensions and other benefits not expressed in shop windows and neon lights.
Although there are almost no new buildings in the city itself, when one drives into the outskirts the picture is more impressive. In one direction, are many newly built factories, turning out the electric light bulbs, thermos flasks, cigarettes and the other consumer goods to be found in the shops; in another direction, bigger plants turning out machine tools, electric generators and transformers, diesel maritime engines and motors for pumping stations. If one takes still another turn there are the new institutes for Economics and Finance, Medicine and Pharmacy, Economic Planning, National Minorities, Agricultural Science, Theater and Cinema, and others—most of them modest, two- or three-story buildings. Well spaced, often surrounded by rice fields, they stretch for many miles from the capital. These were impressive by any standards, not so much the buildings but what they represented in investment for the future. They help to balance the drab, provincial aspect of the capital.
Oddly enough it is the occasional visitor from Saigon who is the least critical of Hanoi. The contrast between the calm and normality of life there with the feverish war-torn atmosphere of Saigon, even before the great American invasion, seems like balm to the Saigon visitor. No traffic noise, no screaming sirens of police and military cars, no tanks churning through the streets, no security patrols, no lurid sex and crime movie ads. No payment expected for smiles in hotels and restaurants. No touts, pimps, beggars, prostitutes, no inflation. And even for hardened topers the very absence of a half dozen bars in every block was more of a relief than a hardship. Many a foreigner stationed in Hanoi begins to take a fresh look at the city after his first ten minutes with a visitor from Saigon. (Because of the International Control Commissions commutation between both capitals, such visitors were not so rare).
Within its austere, frugal framework, Hanoi in fact has its charm and the Hanoi-dwellers have their quiet, modest pleasures. The Petit Lac in the very center of the city is a gem, bordered by huge, shady trees and with an ancient pagoda rising up out of the water, linked to the shore with a stone bridge. Around the lake, small stalls sell drinks ranging from fresh coconut milk through various soft drinks to Hanoi beer (very good and very cheap). Disputing the space with the refreshment kiosks these days are the air-raid shelters which completely surround the lake. The central parts of many of the wider streets are also taken up with air-raid shelters, and the footpaths of narrow streets are lined with individual cylindrical shelters with covers, the latter being removed by air-raid wardens or "clients" as soon as an alert sounds. Most of the communal shelters are covered with earth on which flowers and sometimes vegetables flourish. In a street near the hotel where I stayed one big shelter was sprouting maize.
One end of the Petit Lac leads into the European part of the city, built by the French, with plenty of broad leafy avenues and solid double-story villas, the best of them now occupied by diplomats. The other end of the lake leads into the ancient Vietnamese section of the city. Here the streets are laid out as in European Middle Age cities, on a craft basis. Thirty-six such streets remain, many of the crafts represented by the old names only. Silk street was the best known to foreigners, but there are also streets of the gold and silversmiths, of workers in jade and ivory, brass workers, tinsmiths, leather workers, wooden-chest and coffin-makers and so on. In some of them, the crafts are still pursued, in others the craftsmen were formed into cooperatives and in certain cases they moved into industry. What with inroads in industry, lack of clients for luxury goods—and now the evacuation of non-essential personnel—the craft streets have also lost their bustle and fascination.
There is White Bamboo lake, a bustling place on a Saturday and Sunday with its little dinghies gliding over the water and a much-patronized open-air restaurant, specializing in shrimp fritters (the shrimp passing literally from lake to frying pan) washed down with beer, which has become a national beverage over the past few years. One of the attractions of Hanoi is its many lakes, including the big Unity lake recently built by VPA men and members of the Labor Youth Union in their spare time, complete with well-kept flower beds and enough stone seats around the shore to accommodate a high proportion of the citys young couples. But, compared to previous visits, they seemed mainly occupied by old people now.
Ba Dinh square, in the heart of the European quarter and within a stones throw of the former French governor-generals palace, is today to Hanoi what the Red Square is to Moscow or the Tien An Men to Peking. It was here that Ho Chi Minh read the Declaration of Independence, written, as he said, "with the blood and tears of patriots, shed during more than 80 years." The Declaration was based on an eight-point document that Ho Chi Minh had submitted to Woodrow Wilson, Clemenceau, Lloyd George and other world leaders at the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919, when Nguyen Ai Quoc, as President Ho Chi Minh was then known, raised for the first time the question of Vietnamese independence. It incorporated passages from the American Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.
It is worth recalling today that within four months of independence having been proclaimed, general elections were held throughout all of Vietnam—there was no demarcation line along the 17th parallel in those days. Ambassador Cabot Lodge in an interview with the Columbia Broadcasting System in Saigon on April 22, 1966, explaining his extreme suspicion of elections in Vietnam, even those promised by Premier Nguyen Cao Ky, said that they were an "untrod path." He then made the singularly uninformed remark that the Vietnamese people "have never before had elections on a national basis and a national question. It has never happened in their whole history."
The nationwide elections which took place on January 6, 1946, gave the Vietminh candidates 230 seats in the National Assembly. On March 3, 1946, Ho Chi Minh was elected president of the Republic and three days later France, through its representative in Hanoi, M. Jean Sainteny, recognized the DRV as "a free state having its own government, parliament and finance." On September 14 of the same year a modus vivendi was signed between the governments of the DRV and France, at Fontainebleau, confirming the March 6th agreement. One of the most respected American academic specialists on Vietnam, Ellen J. Hammer, wrote of the 1946 elections that even "had the elections been conducted to the strictest of Western forms, a few more conservatives might have been chosen" but the outcome would have been the same (The Struggle for Indochina, Stanford Un. Press, 1954). Strange that Ambassador Cabot Lodge should be so ill-informed, especially as it was precisely the fear that the results of the 1946 elections would have been confirmed, perhaps even more decisively, in 1956 that prompted Washington to avoid at any cost the elections which, according to the Geneva Agreements, should have taken place in July that year. In the eyes of most observers, the decision not to hold those elections is the single, most fundamental reason for the present conflict.
Ba Dinh square these days is adorned with a modest, wooden tribune where leaders and distinguished guests greet the Hanoi population on Independence Day and on other occasions for celebration. It is one of the capitals showplaces for history-minded visitors.
For visitors with an interest in more ancient times there is fascinating exhibit in Hanois history museum which provides direct link between military tactics of the Vietnamese today and those of their ancestors. When Ngo Quyen destroyed the fleet of the Southern Han invaders in 938 A.D. and Tran Hung Dao destroyed the 400-odd warships of the Mongols invaders in 1288, they employed tactics and techniques adopted since by the NLF forces in the South against helicopters, parachutists and other marauders, and by certain anti-aircraft gunners against US planes in the North.
The history museum displays remnants of stout pointed stakes, six to nine feet long that were driven deep into the bed of the Bach Dang river, north of present-day Haiphong, the traditional invasion route for Vietnams enemies in those days. In the place from which the museum pieces were taken—a number of such instances are recorded in Vietnamese history-200 such stakes were embedded over an area 130 yards long by 22 yards wide. The tactic was for the shallow-draught Vietnamese warships to pretend to flee upstream, luring the enemy fleet after them at high tide when the stakes were well covered by the river. When the tide turned and the river raced to the sea, the enemy ships were also forced to race seaward or be grounded on the river bed. The lighter Vietnamese warships then started in hot pursuit, catching up with the Chinese and Mongol fleets, in their respective centuries, as they were wedged in among the stout stakes, the fast-receding waters leaving them high and dry either to capsize or present themselves as easy targets for the Vietnamese fire-arrows. In between the Southern Hans and the Mongols, another Chinese fleet (the Songs) was similarly trapped in 981 A.D.
Helicopter pilots have found to their cost that many of the only landing fields around Vietcong-chosen battlefields are similarly studded with sharp, six-foot high stakes that foul propellers or pierce the fuselage. And parachutists have given up jumping since they found that harmless-looking elephant grass and other foliage that covered ideal jumping areas, in fact, concealed extensive nests of needle-sharp spikes. In the North, ingenious devices have been used to lure American planes to fake targets, most advantageous for the anti-aircraft gunners, and occasionally MIG pilots, to get them in their sights.
One thing which astonishes the visitor from the West is that the pith helmet (casque coloniale), without which no caricature of an imperialist is complete in the former colonies of Asia and Africa, is almost standard headgear in North Vietnam. From President Ho Chi Minh down, soldiers and civilians of both sexes, wear the pith helmet, now produced locally from a sort of synthetic cork. Its advantages of lightness and protection
against the sun have won out over prejudices arising from its colonialist origin. Those worn by soldiers today are flecked with bits of green cloth camouflage.
If there are only few cars in the streets, there are plenty of truck convoys in the outskirts, each truck with a plywood projection of its roof to prevent reflections from the windshield attracting the attention of planes, and roofs and sides heavily draped in greenery. Buses which link Hanoi with the provincial capitals are also heavily camouflaged, their windows blackened and decorated with strips and sheets of paper to prevent the glass splintering from bomb blast. Windows of schools and hospitals still functioning in Hanoi are similarly "decorated"—and the word is not out of place because, with the humor and natural artistic sense of the Vietnamese people, the paper is cut in attractive patterns like the Chinese paper-cuts stuck on to windows and screens in the villages in China, authentic forms of folk art. Ironically enough, the windows of one wing of Hanois TB hospital were decorated with Picasso "peace doves," some others with heroes and heroines of Vietnamese opera, mixed with an infinite variety of pure geometric patterns.
Strolling on the streets of Hanoi, mingling with the invariably good-humored crowd, pairs of Bo Doi (soldiers) strolling hand in hand, the trams rattling along with baskets of chickens and vegetables hanging out of the windows, crowds pouring out of cinemas (which have become immensely popular since non-evacuated husbands and other family members have more free time on their hands) to gather at a street corner while the tally of downed planes is adjusted on the local scoreboard, an outsider is hardly conscious of what is in everyones minds—when will the bombs start falling?
There is no atmosphere of nervousness, but everyone has some family members evacuated or is preparing his own evacuation. Conversation in factories and offices every Monday morning turns on exchanges of experience of those who have been able to visit their children in the villages the previous day. The lives of every family in Hanoi have been turned upside down because of the expectation of bombardment. The noise level of modern jets and the explosive force of the bombs are such that almost daily raids 20 or 25 miles outside the capital are clearly audible.
Hanoi residents hear their fate being discussed over the radio. There is no disapproval of listening to the Voice of America or Radio Saigon—"You can compare their lies with our reality," is the official view. They listen to the differing views of "hawks" and "doves" as to whether their capital should be wiped out or not.
Photos by Wilfred Burchett
When one ponders over this and tries to visualize just what would happen, it can be considered a blessing for Hanoi residents that their lives were not dramatically changed, in a material sense, in the years of peace. It may even prove fortunate that the government did not rush to build multi-story ministries or blocks of offices and apartments, although this could have been justified for a million-population capital of a newly independent state. From a practical point of view, there are no lifts or subways for people to be trapped in because of power failures in a bombing raid; no thousands of deep-freezers each with scores of dollars worth of food inside to spoil; no lines of automobiles to jam up because traffic lights cease to function—nothing to cause the panic and fantastic breakdown that occurred in New York and other American East Coast cities in the power failures of autumn 1965. Nor are there any skyscraper buildings to come tumbling down in the event of bombs, to trap hundreds of people in their ruins and block off entire streets with their debris. If "the worst comes" those left in Hanoi can be in their flower-topped shelters within seconds.
I have seen Hanoi in varying moods, but for very special reasons the most vivid impressions were the first—because the "first" in this case was the entry of the VPA into Hanoi after the 1954 Geneva Agreements were signed.
Looking back over what I wrote then, I find that in a certain sense it expresses the mood today, as hundreds of thousands of young people take off from Hanoi to complete the work of their fathers and older brothers.
The transfer of power in Hanoi in October 1954 was a block-by-block, street-by-street process, the lightly equipped VPA troops marching in on their famous "Ho Chi Minh" tire sandals, as the motorized convoys of French troops moved out. Backed up behind the VPA troops were Hanoi residents, flags and banners in hand:
"Along the footpaths, the people moved exactly level with the foremost VPA soldier, stopping when he stopped, moving as he advanced, the flood swelling in volume as the transfer penetrated deeper and deeper into the city. Discipline of the population was as perfect as that of the troops. Appeals had been made by the VPA Command for calm and order, to avoid any pretexts for provocations. And so it was. Everything was calm and orderly, but as the VPA took over street by street, block by block, the city blossomed into life. Flags from doors and windows kept pace with the advance, banners right across the streets a few minutes later and within the next few hours, solid welcoming arches covered with peace doves, portraits of President Ho, slogans, banners, lanterns, everything that symbolized peace, victory, jubilation. . . ."
The following day, the ceremonial entry of the VPA took place.
"The whole of the population turned out next day in their best clothes; city women in gossamer-light, pastel-colored silk tunics and trousers; peasant women in their chocolate-colored blouse and broad, black trousers; elderly men in their dignified long black, silk tunics, white silk trousers and stiff round caps; younger men mostly in European-style white shirts and slacks, everyone waving flags and flowers, hurling bouquets into passing trucks, children with flowers rushing out to embrace and be embraced by the cheerful troops, the moment there was a halt in the convoy.
"American trucks, American jeeps, American artillery, American bazookas, machine guns, and anti-aircraft guns passed through the wildly cheering lines of people...
"The excitement was intensified when word passed round, from relatives who recognized them, that the troops taking part in the ceremonial entry were from Hanois own regiment, formed from Hanois young workers, intellectuals, students and other patriots, who fought the French behind barricades in Hanoi in a most heroic episode at the very beginning of the resistance war. They had left almost eight years previously in rags and tatters, armed with a few aged rifles, carrying their wounded with them after two months of barricade and house-to-house fighting. When further resistance was impossible, they capped their extraordinary feat by slipping out at night, under the very noses of the French and crossed the Red River, underneath the two kilometre-long Paul Doumer bridge which joins Hanoi with the suburb of Gia Lam. They moved back to the hinterland to prepare for the long fight ahead.
"Mothers, fathers and wives in the welcoming crowd had difficulty in recognizing their sons and husbands in these noble veterans, spick and span in their VPA uniforms, sitting in neat rows in powerful trucks bearing designations showing they had fought at Dien Bien Phu, manning artillery pieces and complicated anti-aircraft guns, others marching with disciplined swinging steps, battle-hardened veterans, but not hardened enough to prevent tears from rolling down their cheeks at the sight of a beloved face not seen for eight years, the voice of a mother, father, wife or child in a gasping shout of recognition as the trucks and columns of marching men swept on.
"The tattered heroes of the barricade battle were the nucleus around which was later built the Hanoi regiment, now part of the elite 308th Division. Theirs was the first big battle fought by the young resistance army. The resistance dates, in fact, from the moment Hanois young workers, students and patriots took to the barricades that night, and fought their epic two months battle gaining precious time for resistance to be organized in the hinterland, for roads and bridges to be destroyed to hold up French plans to push ahead and wipe out the resistance bases in the Viet Bac (the northern provinces). They were designated a battalion during their barricade battle and later, reinforced by a steady flow of recruits fleeing the city, were formed into a regiment, one that took part in every important battle up to and including Dien Bien Phu. Now the Hanoi Regiment had come back home and the once powerful adversary was pulling out ahead of them, dragging away the guns and technique which had been defeated by the superior morale of a people fighting in a just cause....
"For many, it was on and past Hanoi to other districts, other tasks. Every soldier and every cadre knew there would be no real relaxation until the whole of Vietnam was liberated and united. For many, it was a question of a quick embrace, a hugging of wife or child in the arms, a few whispered words,tears struggling with smiles, smiles with tears and on to the new tasks. And the miracle was that this was something willingly accepted in a proud, disciplined way. No one who witnessed these momentary reunions could doubt the depth of their emotions, their love of family, their yearning for permanent reunion. One could only marvel at their discipline, their understanding and acceptance of the need for further sacrifices, so that all could enjoy tomorrow what they must renounce today." (From North of the 17th Parallel, 1955.)
How many of them have again said goodbye to wives and children and sweethearts to press on with, what seems for them, the same old task with the same sense of discipline and self-sacrifice? Not only do those who leave seem to accept
it as normal. But also those who stay. I have lots of friends in Hanoi, but I never heard a single grumble, except against the Americans and against those who suggest they should compromise with the enemy.
Will similar scenes be repeated in Saigon? A similar ceremonial entry of the NLF and a block-by-block, street-by-street withdrawal of American forces? Generals Giap and Vinh in the North, and Nguyen Huu Tho, president of the NIA in the
South, are counting on it. If so what will be left of Hanoi by that time? That is a big question mark.
In this connection, I have heard some original ideas expressed in high places in Hanoi, amongst other, the following: "if it is destroyed, so what? We will build it again, better than it ever was. We will build a modern, Vietnamese city. As it is, Hanoi is half foreign, half feudal. We dont agree with what the Czechs did. They opened their frontiers to foreign invaders without a fight because Hitler threatened to bomb Prague. They paid for that with over five years of Nazi occupation. The French gave up half their country to the Nazis and the other half to their own fascists to save Paris. We will never do this. That is a bourgeois concept of fighting a war. We will never cede anything to save the capital."
Even when it is pointed out that Paris and Prague were not foreign but very much French and Czech creations, and not feudal cities but the product of centuries of growth during various stages of society, it was still argued that "no country or principle should ever be sacrificed for a city."
An interesting item to feed into the Pentagon computers when they ruminate over the fate of Hanoi, would be a reminder that the Vietminh fought their first resistance war without having Hanoi, Haiphong or any other major city in their hands and with virtually all provincial capitals and strategic roads in the hands of their adversary. Also: although the two months rear-guard battle fought by Hanois workers in 1945 facilitated the removal of a certain amount of equipment from the capital to the jungle, this was infinitesimal compared to the complete industrial units removed this time and already producing in safe hide-outs. But the key question that should be fed in is: "After destroying Hanoi and Haiphong—what next?" That would really embarrass the computers, since even Defense Secretary McNamara is said to have misgivings now as to whether it would make an iota of difference to his problems in South Vietnam. In having psychologically prepared the Hanoi and Haiphong residents that their cities would almost certainly be bombed, the Vietnamese leaders in fact neutralized what McNamara certainly considered his "ace" weapon in the escalation arsenal.