HANOI – A headline in a local paper here seems to say it all: “The Main Method is to Use Love.” The story: Women and Children trafficking activities along the Vietnam- China border.
One of these “love methods” went something like this: A man from the city seduced a young woman from a village, then took her across the border to China after their wedding. When they got there, the honeymoon turned into a slave trade: the groom sold his naïve bride to a brothel, then promptly disappeared.
Or it can be “familial love method:” The destitute widow whose farmer husband died in an accident decided to sell her daughter. What the daughter thought was going to be a shopping trip across the border to China to buy new clothes turned instead into a nightmare. The young woman was sold into a brothel and eventually resold to an old man as a child bride.
In both cases, the victims were undone by loyalty and love. For them the central theme that defines their lives is, inevitably, betrayal.
But betrayal is not simply the story of trafficked women and children, which has reached epidemic proportions. In a sense, it has become the story of Vietnam itself. Empires rose and fell, colonizers came and went, civil wars fought, and lives and lands devastated, but that central theme of being tricked, of being betrayed, continues to frame the history of this country.
There are, of course, many kinds of betrayals. Thirty-five years ago, the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) was abandoned by the United States and its arms supplies dwindled to a few bullets per soldier at the end of the war, while the northern Communist tanks came rolling southward.
Yet, betrayal is not restricted to those who lost the war. It plays itself out with even deeper irony among those who supposedly won. The Viet Cong –- guerillas in the National Liberation Front based in the South –- quickly found that they did not exactly “win” when Saigon fell. Within months, their units were dissolved or integrated under Hanoi commands, their own southern leadership forced into retirement. Though, of all factions, they suffered the highest casualties, the Viet Cong found themselves losing their autonomy and ending up playing underlings to northern leadership.
But many northern communist officials themselves were not saved from being betrayed either. Among a handful of well-known dissidents in exile is Colonel Bui Tin, the highest-ranking officer from Hanoi to enter Saigon at the end of the war to accept South Vietnam’s official surrender. Tin, as it turned out, fled Vietnam to France a decade or so later. The cause: he was dismayed with peacetime Communism in which re-education camps and new economic zones were created to punish the south, while untold numbers died out at sea as boat people. It was not what he’d expected when the North was trying to “liberate” the South from the Americans during the war. Tins’ books, “Following Ho Chi Minh: Memoirs of a North Vietnamese,” and “From Enemy To Friend: A North Vietnamese Perspective on the War,” became a powerful testimony of Vietnamese corruption and arrogance, coupled with a passionate plea for democracy.
And even Ho Chi Minh, father of Vietnam’s Communism, it turned out, wasn’t safe from betrayal either. According to a few in Vietnam who knew the inner working of the party, Uncle Ho apparently spent the last few years of his life under house arrest, his lover murdered and children taken away from him. It is what the novelist Duong Thu Huong, now living in exile, wrote about in her latest book, “Au Zénith,” a novel based on the unofficial history of Ho Chi Minh’s last years. Huong herself knew betrayal intimately. Once a member of the youth brigade in the Communist movement, she later was under house arrest for her books criticizing Communism, especially in “Paradise of the Blind.” Government officials called her “traitor slut.”
Vietnam in the present tense is a Vietnam at the far end of Orwell’s dystopia, as parodied in Animal Farm, where “all animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.” Corruption is rampant, and according to Asia Times Online, “land transfers have become critical issues in Vietnam. Some observers predict that, as in China, questionable state land reclamations could lead to widespread social unrest and derail Vietnam’s socioeconomic development.”
While Marxist Leninist theory is still being taught in schools and colleges, the poor farmers are often driven off their land for a pittance of compensation so that the rich and powerful can have their golf clubs. While impoverished women and children in rural areas are now commodities to be sold across the borders, often with the help of local officers, the city glints with new wealth, and high rises continue to sprout like mushrooms.
One needs not look far to see it in Saigon. Billboard advertising for Chanel perfume and Versace bags are now overshadowing all the old Communist slogans romanticizing laborers and farmers and socialist paradise. Massage parlors are but a stone’s throw away from Ho Chi Minh’s cheerful bust in downtown Saigon, a city that’s renamed rather inappropriately after a man who championed austerity.
One recent evening out in the new part of Saigon’s district 7, at the ultra chic 3-storied restaurant called Cham Charm – built to resemble Angkor Wat with black granite and flowing water running down both sides of the sleek staircase –- there were Mercedeses and Lexuses and even a Ferrari and a Rolls Royce or two dropping by with paparazzi snapping photos at the entrance. It was the famed singer Hong Nhung’s birthday and wealthy friends -– mostly those connected to the current regime – were throwing a private party for her. Champagne flowed, wines were poured, and a splendid spread of oyster and sushi and lobster were served to a guest list of 350 VIPs. At one point, Nhung called her “comrades” to join her on stage, many of whom are now either multi-millionaires themselves, or married to them. Together they sang a Communist propaganda song –- something about marching to respond to the call of their nation. While waiters in bow ties served champagne, the projector showed images of Nhung’s past: A youth in Communist uniform, singing. No one sang songs about betrayal at the golden gala, of course, but still one could cut the irony with a silver spoon.
Not far from the gala, one aged musician in his ramshackle apartment said he was profoundly bitter: “Xa Hoi Chu Nghia (Socialist Republic) has turned into Co hoi chu nghia – (the society of opportunists.)” He once knew Uncle Ho and served him with devotion but now, in failing health, had become a vocal critic of the Hanoi regime. He is especially pained that Vietnam three years ago had ceded land to China along its northern border and even signed a multibillion dollar deal to plunder Lam Dong province, its once pristine verdant slopes for bauxite, destroying the ecosystem in the process.
More worrisome, the disputed Spratly Islands have fallen into China’s hand as well, leaving Vietnam’s waters vulnerable to Chinese domination. Rare mass protests in Vietnam have taken place but to no avail. “The government officials are corrupted to the core,” the aged musician observed. “All they bow down to is money. I wore my uniform and went out and protested. I’m sad to watch the government deceive its people year after year. If you give away land to China, you might as well sell the blood of the people.”
Which may explain why, in a world whose motto is “to make money is glorious,” and whose moral compass is thereby broken, children could be sold by their mothers, wives sold by their husbands, precious land on which precious blood spilled sold by the government.
It would follow that in such a world those who hold on to old virtues suffer the most. It was reported that the girl who was sold by her mother, when rescued, said she didn’t blame her. She was willing to suffer for the family’s sake, she told social workers. And the patriotic old musician, once an idealist, now cries in his sleep. And the exiled dissidents watch in dismay as Vietnam is swallowed up by materialism.
The rest are rushing ahead at breakneck speed. Because to survive in Vietnam, so goes a new law of the land, one must first and foremost learn to betray the past.
NAM editor, Andrew Lam, is the author of Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora and the upcoming memoir: East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres due out in September. He recently visited his homeland, Vietnam.