We were on the final approach to the Hanoi airport when the young western diplomat broke off our conversation and said: "Have a look at the bomb craters as we go down."
There they are.
Just a few at first. Then tens of them. Tens more. Then hundreds in every direction. Brown water-filled mudholes, round like those plastic backyard swimming pools. Five years later and unfilled.
The arrival lounge is a shed. Passport control is lax. Customs is perfunctory. If no one is at the airport to meet you there is no way to get to Hanoi -- some 30 miles away. There are no buses or taxis.
I was met by Nguyen Canh Tan from the press office of the Foreign Ministry. He would be my interpreter, guide and escort for a three-day stay in Vietnam. On the second day I would ram into the language barrier:
Tan, I said, "Thank you for arranging today." "It is not going to rain today," he replied.
On the tarmac at the airport are Soviet-made Mig fighter aircraft and captured American F5s. Vietnamese officials will state that some American equipment is working and some not. A colonel will explain that Soviet military equipment is being used by the Vietnamese army, whereas most American equipment is supplied to the militia. Western intelligence sources say that 40 percent of the American aircraft captured five years ago still is serviceable, a remarkable percentage.
In an interview with Nguyen Co Thach, Vietnam's foreign minister, he hints darkly that a few years ago representatives for American firms approached him and offered to buy the captured American arsenal of tanks, heavy artillery, helicopters, planes. He provides no names. It is well known that the firms of other nations have sought to buy the equipment. Despite rumors, there is no evidence that Vietnam has sold its war booty. Thach says flatly: "We do not want to be an arms seller."
The evidence of war, not just the last short war or the last long war, is ubiquitous. My interpreter was wounded by shrapnel during a B52 raid on his army unit; his father was killed fighting the French. My driver's brother was killed in the war against the United States. As the driver takes you across the one-lane bridge leading to Hanoi, you are reminded it was repeatedly bombed. On the road north from Hanoi, bridges still are down. There are some isolated anti-American war signs. But the bulk of the wall painting now are anti-Chinese -- the new enemy.
Hanoi, itself, is remarkably unscarred. It is a rich little poor city. Its wealth is in architecture: a southern French villa style with an oriental patina. Parts of Hanoi are stunningly beautiful. Most of French Hanoi is varying shades of yellow and green. Lush, subtropical growth complements the architecture and the color of French Hanoi. The best villas have been given to Vietnam's friends -- the Russians, East Europeans, Cubans. Neo-socialist construction has been held to a minimum; Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum and the new parliament building, both on Ba Dinh Square, are the two best -- or worst -- examples.
On Dien Bien Phu Avenue, where some of the most fashionable villas are and nearby to the Foreign Ministry, is the Army Museum displaying the military equipment used and captured in three wars.
A Scandinavian student on his way to Hanoi to visit his diplomat parents for the holidays notes: "Well, here we are, a nation of rice, army and bicycles." He is right.
Bicycles are to Hanoi what automobiles are to Los Angeles. So essential are they to the transport economy of this poor but proud nation that the man who pumps air into bicycle tires earns more than a university professor and as much as a doctor.
The army, too, is everywhere, but not seen. Maybe this is so because, like China, must men wear the same khaki or blue clothes as do the military forces. Red lapel patches are the giveaway -- most often.
Rice is something else. It is in short supply. Vietnam is hungry.
Three typhoons over the past year are partially to blame for the food shortage that is afflicting Vietnam, especially the north. Rations have been cut, even for the military. There is a thriving black market where meat, for example, sells for 10 times the official price per kilogram. But it's not always available. A Vietnamese says: "Sometimes fresh vegetables cannot be bought no matter how much money one has."
Cloth is short, too. Tan's ration is for five meters, but he has been able to purchase only three and one-half meters. His mother can get some cloth. She trades one of her private chickens to the government for it. And the biggest department store in Hanoi is virtually empty, its shelves mostly hollow.
The shortages promise to get worse. Just how much worse is anyone's guess and anyone's perspective. During a chat with a group of diplomats one evening it became appareant that those from the West are more pessimistic than those from an Asian nation. Westerners here think that there will be severe malnutrition next year.One says "famine." An Asian diplomat challenges both assumptions. He thinks Vietnamese hunger is relative. "The Vietnamese," he says, "may not have all the good food they want, but they have all the basics."
Several miles out of Hanoi the Swedes are helping to build a paper mill. However, the work is being slowed because the Vietnamese laborers are too weak from hunger to do their best. Against the wishes of the authorities, the Swedes have decided to import rice and wheat, open a canteen at the plant site and supplement the diet of the Vietnamese workers. Rumors in Hanoi have it that now the authorities plan to reduce the workers' rations by an amount equal to the Swedish supplement.
The Vietnamese concede they have shortages but do not characterize them in dire terms. They explain patiently, if not without exasperation, that Vietnam has had troubles before, it is not a new challenge, and that they will persevere. Meanwhile, they count on the Russians to bail them out.
Russians are everywhere in Vietnam and everywhere in Vietnam the Russians are not liked. Indeed, some Swedes living in Hanoi have taken to wearing T-shirts that say in Vietnamese, "I am not a Russian," to avoid animosity.
In Hanoi, the Russians live in their own compound. At night they rarely, if ever, wander outside their compound.
In Saigon -- or Ho Chi Minh City, as it now is called -- it is unsafe for Russians to wander around the city at night on their own. Within recent weeks two western diplomats in Saigon were mistaken for Russians, surrounded by a group of children and subjected to a chorus of "Af-ghan-i-stan, Af-ghan-i-stan."
The view is that the Russians -- technicians and others -- are heavy-handed and humorless. In short, boors.
On a different scale, there is heavy speculation among Russian-watchers in Hanoi that in a half dozen years or so they'll be invited out of Vietnam. The Russians appareantly think this, too. This explains, says the Russian-watchers here, why the Russians over the past half year have been increasing their aid and presence in Cambodia and Laos.
One bit of evidence is the fact that the Russians now have a direct flight to Phnom Penh, the only other nation to have such. Hitherto, Aeroflot had to stop in Hanoi before flying on to Cambodia. Another bit of evidence is that the Russians have increased their presence in nearby Laos in such numbers, says a Western diplomat, as to worry Vietnam. Parenthetically, the Russians in Laos are paid in U.S. dollars.
On Friday morning, there is a simple and elegant ceremony in a magnificent old French building on Ba Dinh Square next to Ho's mausoleum to mark the signing and promulgation of Vietnam's new constitution, passed the day before after years in the making. The ceremony is attended by parliamentarians, presidium members, provincial leaders, generals, etc. The decree is signed. There is a toast in apricot wine by one and all, including members of the press corps, which consists of reporters from Cuba and China, Russia and Hungary, Czechoslovakia and the Communist L'Humanite from Paris. The lone noncommunist correspondent in Hanoi was unable to file a story about the new constitution the day before because he had only three hours of electricity and it was the wrong time for transmission.
Vietnam's new constitution is modeled after that of the Soviet Union. It calls for a socialist economy. Moreover, said one prominent Vietnamese, editor: "We need the new constitution to complete the last stage in the struggle to socialism."
That night in Hanoi there are outdoor concerts to celebrate the new constitution. We tripped upon one outside the State Bank building where a combo of two saxophones, a flute, a trumpet, a set of snare drums, three violins, an electric guitar and male and female vocalists were entertaining a large crowd. In the crowd were several youngsters with long hair and a whiff of western dress.
Western dilomats will tell you that there is a bit of a youth rebellion going on in the north. Nothing for the Vietnamese authorities to be alarmed about, but a new trend nonetheless. However sketchy the evidence, there does seem to be enough to suggest draft-dodging, desertion, buying out of the draft and even an occasional case of a self-inflicted wound to avoid military service.
Vietnemese officials concede corruption, but think they can contain it. Eastern observers, on the other hand, think the corruption will increase as the economic conditions in the north worsen.
What aplies to the north doesn't always apply to the south and the other way around. Thus, for example, whereas the north is critically short of food the south is less so. From all reports, conditions there are better. From talks with a half dozen recent visitors to Ho Chi Minh City, for example, it is apparent that the south is far more affluent and less controlled than the north. This does not mean it is in rebellion. It is not, although there is a continuing insurrection, albeit not serious, around Pleiku and Dalat. Travel there has to be in heavily armed military convoys, according to serveral diplomats in Hanoi.
Still, the south is the place to go to buy radios and calculators, or Chivas Regal and Sun-Maid raisins, all openly displayed on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. There is apparently no shortage of luxuries in the city. And there is little doubt that sales earn the three taels of gold or the equivalent $3,000 per head it now costs to buy one's way out of Vietnam. (In Laos, the going rate for escape has fallen from $300 per head a few months ago to $150.) It is little wonder, then, that some of the more privileged people in Hanoi now travel south to shop.
Having said all this, it also should be said that the Vietnamse people are exceedingly friendly, even when they learn -- or maybe especially when they learn -- one is an American. They smile -- adult and child alike -- at the drop of a smile, the show of a grin, the whisper of friendship.
They are caught in ironies they prefer not to see -- deserters going to China; draft dodgers escaping to another country; their own invasion of a smaller country, Cambodia, and fighting against Cambodian guerrillas; the use by these same guerrillas of a sanctuary in another country from which to conduct hit-and-run jungle war against Vietnamese occupiers.
They want to be liked. They want American help. They apologize for the poor conditions in their country and express the hope that it will be better when the visitor returns.
Finally, some of their officials eloquently desire a respite from war so that they can get on with rebuilding.
As one Vietnamese official put it in aphoristic terms: "The tree wants quiet but the wind doesn't stop."