(This is another section that had to be trimmed from “On the Frontlines of the Television War” before it could be published.]
An Asian in Vietnam
One day, I was in a taxi in Saigon and the young driver started to talk to me in what turned out to be quite good English. He explained that he was only driving a cab temporarily while he prepared to go to college. After he learned that I was from Japan, he said, “If there were three people in a competition, an American, a Japanese, and a Vietnamese, the Vietnamese would have an equal chance of winning. Now, if the competition was between teams: three Japanese, three Americans, and three Vietnamese, the Vietnamese wouldn’t have a chance.”
I asked, “Why?”
He explained that his personal opinion was that the basic nature of the Vietnamese people will always prevent them from success. The country is essentially divided into three parts, inhabited by three very different types of people, and they have never gotten along. Even without the Americans or the Chinese or the French, the Vietnamese would fight among themselves, and it was impossible for them to cooperate.
Other Vietnamese friends said that it was the French who understood this essential division of the Vietnamese and used it in a “divide and conquer” strategy to keep them a colony. They’d run the nation as three provinces: Tonkin in the North, Annam in the Center, and Cochinchina in the South. There was continuous competition and feuding between the regions, different religions, and different customs. So long as the Vietnamese continued to quarrel among themselves, the French didn’t have to worry about them uniting to throw them out. It worked for about 100 years until Ho Chi Minh created a united front after the Second World War.
However, the Vietnamese have kept these divisions alive long after the French departed. The people in the North saw the Southerners as lazy and too easy-going and in turn, the people around Saigon thought those ruled by Hanoi were smart but greedy. The people of the Center thought they were clearly the smartest and, if not, the beautiful city of Huế, for a long time the imperial capital of Vietnam, had the most beautiful women. In private—or in anger—they called each other names based on the food they consumed which made sense since the entire nation loved food and were known as the gourmet people. Northerners loved to eat a particular vegetable, a type of spinach named Rau mồng tơi, and so, that’s what they were called. Of course, it was also one of the few things that very poor Vietnamese could buy so it also meant “dirt poor.” People from the Central region cooked with a very hot pepper called “ớt hiếm” which means “dangerous” or “rare” chili so the were known as “ớt,” and in the Southern Delta, people love bean sprouts or “giá đậu” so they are known as “giá.” This can also mean “price” or “haggle.” Most of these names weren’t serious insults, just the sort of thing you’d say in jest like an American might call someone a “city slicker.” In Saigon, there were so many people that all types ended up mixed together.
No one who has ever been in Vietnam, or at least in Vietnam and not on a frontline, can forget the wonderful rice noodle soup from the North that’s called “Phở Bo” when it’s made with beef and “Phở Ga” when it has chunks of chicken. Interestingly, it’s a street food that was only invented around 1925 but the Vietnamese have now spread it around the world. In the Central region, people make a spicy and yeasty rice vermicelli soup with beef & pork together and named after the old capital “bún bò Huế. ” The Southerner have their own noodle dishes, some with lots of seafood, another called “hủ tiếu” which has different types of meat all mixed on top of flat noodles and has spread to Cambodia, Singapore, and even Thailand. Even if they might not like each other all that much, Vietnamese all enjoy food, no matter where it came from originally
The Vietnamese might all look and sound alike to foreigners but they can easily recognize each other by the way they talk because each area has a different dialect and accents. Oddly, no matter where they are, singers always perform with a Northern accent unless they are doing traditional folk songs. I asked my friends why but they just shrugged and said it had always been that way. I guess the Northern accent just is better for singing and broadcasting much like in America where I’ve noticed that very few reporters or anchors have a strong Southern accent.
All Vietnamese have one thing in common: they love to gamble, a feeling shared by most other Asians. Whether they are from the North, South, or Center of the country, both men and woman like to gamble and they really don’t like losing. When my Vietnamese co-workers found out that I loved to gamble as well, they began to let me into their society. Of course, they might just have wanted my money but it didn’t always turn out that way.
When we had spare time, we would usually play cards but it seemed for a long time that I could never win. They played a game called “Russian Poker” where each player was dealt thirteen cards and then you would create three poker hands and place them face down: a back hand with five cards, a middle hand with five cards and a front hand with three. The back hand must be better than the middle hand and the front hand must be the weakest of all. When everyone is ready, you show your hands and if two out of three of your hands are the best, you win. The problem was that a loser could call “Challenge” and that meant that you had to play a “winner takes all” hand for the whole pot. Even if I was winning in the three hands on the table and didn’t think I would get good cards, I always took a challenge bet because I didn’t want to lose their respect, both as a gambler and as a man, unfortunately, I often lost on the challenge hand. It’s as tough to beat the Vietnamese because they were determined fighters in psychological warfare—in gambling and in real war. The Chinese had a long history of being beaten back when they tried to conquer this country, the French lost, and now even the Americans are struggling.
The Vietnamese might compete against other Vietnamese but they will all combine against foreigners. Americans are considered to be chumps at gambling and they are the joke of many conversations that, of course, the Americans can’t understand. The Vietnamese don’t hate Americans, but they don’t have a lot of respect for them and they certainly don’t feel thankful that American GIs are fighting to save their country.
It was different when the French were in charge. Sure, the French exploited Vietnam and stole everything they could but the Vietnamese appear to like them better because, as the Bureau Manager, Mr. Lam told me, the French allowed Vietnamese into their society. The French learned how to speak Vietnamese but the Americans forced everyone to learn English. Why can’t the Americans learn Vietnamese?
He went on to say that, even if the Americans brought aid and assistance instead of exploiting the country, one of the most un-popular practices was the ceremony of giving aid to Vietnamese. For instance, in the local villages, the American administrators would ask villagers to gather in the square and make them watch as their head man took the money, often with a band playing. Then the people of the village would have to cheer. It was as if the Americans were really saying, ” Pay attention! We’re giving you a lot of aid. Now, thank us for our generosity!”
Lam wondered why Americans couldn’t give aid quietly and without a big ceremony? Even though they were suffering and dying in a war, the Vietnamese are a proud people and don’t want to feel that they are now just beggars. Lam explained to me that Americans were too straightforward and they didn’t understand the complexity of life in Vietnam with all of its different cultures and long history. In addition, he said, many Vietnamese are now living in France as French citizens but the Americans, while they don’t steal and indeed bring in all sorts of aid and assistance, never let the Vietnamese into American society.
(Of course after the war, millions of Vietnamese refugees settled in the States—including Mr. Lam—and became American citizens.)
I was a bit angry and said that it wasn’t fair that young American soldiers were being wounded and killed fighting for Vietnam and they weren’t being appreciated by the people they called friends.
Another Vietnamese friend explained it to me by telling me a story. He said that the leader of North, Ho Chi Minh and leader of South, Ngo Dinh Diem met one day.
Ho Chi Minh asked Ngo Dinh Diem, “Why are you making friends with America? They’re all the way around the world from you?”
Ngo Dinh Diem answered Ho Chi Minh. “Don’t you see? History shows that our next-door neighbor, China, has attacked, invaded and occupied our land for centuries. It’s much safer to choose a friend who lives far way from Vietnam. If I were you, I’d watch out for China.”
He said it was just a metaphor but I responded that it might just be a metaphor but it’s not a fair metaphor for America!”