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APRIL 17, 2000 VOL. 155 NO. 15

Lives Reshaped by History
Though the war ended 25 years ago, its legacy continues to affect the lives of Vietnamese--and a few Americans

The rumblings of a long-ago war can still be heard in Vietnam--in the passionate writings of a controversial female novelist, the charitable impulses of a former American G.I. or the vibrant memories of a Viet Cong fighter pilot. The war's aftermath left deep scars--but also opportunities to set things right. Here are how five individuals are coping:

John Stanmeyer/SABA for TIME
Undeterred by a ban on her books and the seizure of her passport, Duong Thu Huong attacks the Hanoi regime for betraying the revolution.

The Novelist

Duong Thu Huong may be small, but she refuses to be intimidated by anyone--not the Communist Party apparatus, not the secret police, not even prison. She speaks about her persecutors with a broad smile and a hint of mockery, maybe even pity, in her sparkling brown eyes. Huong, 53, is one of Vietnam's best-known authors, though her books are effectively banned in her country. She is also one of the most scathing critics of the society that has emerged in the past 25 years. "In the war the Vietnamese were brave," she says, "but in peace they are cowards."

In 1991, while imprisoned without trial for her writings, Huong was told by an interrogator: "You will be smashed into dust." But the author of Novel Without a Name, Paradise of the Blind and three other works of fiction is still in one piece. She lives in Hanoi, unbowed and determined to speak the truth as she sees it. "The system in Vietnam is a combination of feudalism and Stalinist communism," she says, arguing that the country's leaders have exploited the memory of the war to justify their authoritarian rule. "They have built the war into an arch of triumph. But behind that arch are mountains of bones and rivers of blood shed by Vietnamese people."

Huong speaks from bitter experience. She traveled south from Hanoi in 1967 to lead a troupe of singers, entertaining North Vietnamese soldiers in jungle camps. Many of her comrades were killed over the next seven years, and Huong had to carry several of their corpses. "I didn't mind when they were still warm," she says, "but sometimes they were already cold." Huong lost hearing in her right ear when a bomb exploded, killing the girl sitting next to her. She rejoiced when Saigon fell. But a few weeks later, she saw the city's affluence and well-stocked bookshops, confirming her doubts about North Vietnamese propaganda, which said the war was aimed at liberating the south from oppression and suffering. "Other people were talking and laughing in the street," she recalls. "I sat alone and cried. I had to ask myself what I had been struggling for."

COVER: Moving On
Twenty-five years after communist troops entered Saigon and reunified the war-torn country, its people are eager to forget the past and catch up with the rest of the world
Lives After Death: The war left a deep imprint on many
Saigon, Mon Amour: A Time correspondent returns to the city he had to leave behind a quarter-century before

JAPAN: No News Is Bad News
After keeping the country in the dark about former Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi's stroke, Japan's powerbrokers turn to a status quo figure to nurse the country back to health
Mr. Simplicity: Obuchi's secret was to lower expectations
Mr. Fix-It: Mori is a safe, if uninspired, choice

E.L. Doctorow's enthralling City of God examines religious faith at the end of a bloody century

Looking Back
A sweeping new work asks yesterday's philosophers for today's answers

Back in the north with her two young children, she wrote screenplays to order for the Vietnam Film Co., winning popularity and five state prizes for a series of love stories. But Huong, fluent in French, spent most of her free time reading "deviant" literature, including critiques of the Soviet system. In the mid-1980s she began to write the serious novels that have earned her recognition abroad (including France's Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres) and trouble at home. "Foreigners may feel that there have been changes in Vietnam over the past 10 years, but those are only superficial--more buildings, more hotels, better-dressed people," she says. "This country is still governed by a dictatorship of a few powerful figures, with the assistance of the army and the police."

In 1995 authorities confiscated Huong's passport; it hasn't been returned. Plainclothes police follow her around. But she won't be silenced. Most of the leadership is "not very well educated," she says, while the people keep their opinions to themselves. The result: "Everyone makes the same speech." Everyone, that is, but Huong and a few dissidents for whom peace alone--and even rising living standards--is not enough.

The American Veteran

Not all of the American soldiers who came to Vietnam fraternized with the locals. In 1968, some of Chuck Searcy's superiors in the U.S. Combined Intelligence Center frowned upon the friendships he formed with the people of Saigon--from his counterparts in the South Vietnamese army to neighborhood cyclo drivers. What Searcy learned from his friends was disturbing: they were at best ambivalent about the American presence, they had great respect for Ho Chi Minh and they despised the southern government the U.S. was supporting. But none of this was reported to Washington, says Searcy, now 55. "We were really cooking the numbers," he says. "There was no conspiracy. It was an unspoken imperative--to support the war. In fact, the evidence was totally to the contrary."

By 1970 Searcy was back at the University of Georgia and campaigning against the war. He remembers weeping with relief in front a TV set when, in 1973, President Richard Nixon announced the withdrawal of U.S. troops. "After that I got on with my life," he says, recounting a career spent in business and public administration. "But I never got Vietnam out of my heart and my soul." In 1995 Searcy turned down a high-paying job in Washington, choosing instead to open the Hanoi office of the Vietnam Veterans' Foundation of America. The foundation, 51% funded by usaid, aims to ease the suffering caused by land mines, unexploded bombs and other blights related, directly or indirectly, to the war. In Hanoi, for example, the group has equipped and trained local professionals to make and fit orthotic braces for victims of polio and birth defects. "I can't change anything that happened in the past, and there's no point in expressing guilt," says Searcy. "But there is a point in accepting responsibility for what we did and helping Vietnam to recover."

The war ended in 1975, but for Vietnamese civilians it goes on and on. Minefields are only a small part of the problem. More bombs were dropped on the central province of Quang Tri than on the whole of Europe in World War II. Here, as elsewhere in Vietnam, perhaps one-fifth of the explosives didn't go off. Many lie waiting to be triggered by a farmer's plough or a curious child. In Vinh Chap village, Searcy squats on the floor and talks quietly--in basic Vietnamese--with Luan, 10, who was permanently injured last December when two of his schoolmates picked up an unexploded blu-26, a kind of air-launched land mine that looks like a silver baseball. His friends were blown to pieces. "If mainstreet Americans really understood the enormity of the damage we have done to Vietnam," Searcy says, "there would be an outpouring of support and assistance and benevolence." In the meantime, Searcy is doing what he can to help. And making a lot of new friends along the way.

John Stanmeyer/SABA for TIME
Huynh Trung Tan emigrated to the U.S, then returned to Ho Chi Minh City, where he now runs an American-style chain of noodle-soup shops.

The Prodigal Son

When Huynh Trung Tan's family came to the U.S. in 1975 as refugees from Saigon, they went into the restaurant business. It seemed a logical decision. Their eatery provided jobs--and food--for the 14 members of the clan. "It was the classic immigrant way," says Tan. The decision he made in 1989 was anything but. After visiting Vietnam with some buddies, Tan announced to his startled wife and family that he was returning to Ho Chi Minh City to set up a business. "We had a mortgage, credit-card bills and kids in school," says Tan, "But I really felt emotional about what I saw in Vietnam. I told my wife I'd try it for five years and if it didn't work, we'd come back."

Tan is still there--along with hundreds of other Viet kieu, as overseas Vietnamese are called. More than 2.5 million Vietnamese are scattered in 80 countries around the globe. In 1999, they remitted $1.2 billion to friends and relatives back home, an important source of foreign exchange for the cash-strapped nation. More than 300,000 Viet kieu, bearing gifts and more cash, visited their native country last year, up dramatically from 8,100 visits in 1986.

Increasingly, older Viet kieu are coming back to live on a semi-permanent basis and younger ones are coming to set up businesses, bringing the country investment and technical know-how. More than 200 enterprises are run by Viet kieu in Ho Chi Minh City alone. "It was not easy at first," says Tan. The government set up a two-tier system of taxes, controls and costs--one for Vietnamese businesses and the other for Viet kieu. "We pay more," says Tan. "But still we are not fully accepted."

When he returned in 1989, Tan--logically--set up a restaurant, Le Mekong, an upscale establishment catering to the big-spending expatriates and tourists who were beginning to show up in Ho Chi Minh City in the 1990s. It was a success, until a downturn in business last year forced Tan to lay off some employees. Now he's concentrating on fast food--not hamburgers and french fries, but pho, the ubiquitous rice-noodle soup that Vietnamese eat morning, noon and night. "People thought I was crazy: an American selling pho to the Vietnamese," says Tan. But his idea is to sell it in clean, trendy eateries that would appeal to an emerging class of young professional Vietnamese. His model is Starbucks, the American coffee chain. Tan launched Pho 2000 last August; he has opened two other outlets since then. Once the formula is perfected, Tan intends to bring the idea to the U.S. and Canada. "Pho," he says, "is not only for the Vietnamese."

The Farmer

As a child, Le Cong Hien was always hungry. He usually ate once a day: yam, cassava or corn. His parents were rice farmers, but their produce always had to be handed over to somebody else--landlords at first and then, under collectivization, cooperatives. Hien, now 48, began working at age seven. He also kept up with school--until the American War. In 1970 District Command soldiers arrived at his classroom with a set of scales. Boys who weighed more than 40 kg were drafted on the spot. At 43 kg, Hien happily sailed through; some of his friends made the grade by filling their pockets with stones. "I felt very proud," says Hien, his slight frame huddling forward from the farmhouse bed that doubles as a sofa. On the wall above is an altar where the family burns incense to a faded black-and-white photo of Hien's father and a lacquer image of Ho Chi Minh.

When Hien returned to his Hung Yun province after the war, he found that many of his friends and relatives, including an uncle, had been killed. Life was hard. He suffered from malaria and barely earned enough to survive. He and his wife had to feed the first of their three children a mixture of cassava and rice. The family raised pigs and made bean curd outside of working hours, but still, says Hien, "we were hungry all the time." Things changed in 1991, when Hanoi's policy of doi moi, or "economic renovation," finally trickled down to Ngoc Nha village. The family was allotted 300 sq m of land to use as it wished. Hien now sells rice, corn, beans and pigs on the open market. Technically the land still belongs to the state, and Hien pays an annual agriculture tax of $14. But the profits--$714 last year--are his to keep. With improved seedlings and irrigation, Hien has raised his annual rice yield fourfold, to two tons.

If Hien feels bitterness about the hardships of his life, he doesn't show it. The improvements of the past decade, it seems, have made up for everything. "No farmer is hungry anymore," he says, "and things are getting better."

The Defector

Early in the morning of April 8, 1975, while most Saigonese were on their way to work, a South Vietnamese pilot named Nguyen Thanh Trung stole an American F-5 fighter plane and dropped two bombs through the roof of the Presidential Palace. It was the most spectacular defection of the war and a harbinger of the North Vietnamese victory three weeks later. "It was a major nail in the coffin, psychologically," recalls Gil J. Watts, a former G.I. who was running a business in the city at the time.

The bombing gained Trung a place of honor in the newly unified communist state--and a successful career. Today, at 52, he is the chief pilot for Vietnam Airlines, flying a Boeing 767 on international routes. Trung claims he planned the bombing for 12 years, to avenge the death and desecration of his father, a Viet Cong member, at the hands of the South Vietnamese army. In May 1969, he had secretly joined the Viet Cong--just a day before enlisting in South Vietnam's air force.

Sneaking away with the F-5 was not easy, since even the smallest sorties involved three jets. "After we had been cleared for takeoff, I gave the leader the signal for electrical trouble," says Trung, pouring tea in the sitting room of his modest home in Ho Chi Minh City. "He signaled back that I should stay behind." When the other two aircraft had taken off, Trung waited 10 seconds and then departed himself. He headed for downtown Saigon and destroyed the center of the palace. (President Nguyen Van Thieu escaped unhurt.)

Mission accomplished, Trung flew north and landed the plane at a Viet Cong-controlled airstrip in Phuc Long province, near the Cambodian border. He was taken by jeep into the jungle, where he changed into a Viet Cong uniform. Two days later he was made a captain and presented with a radio. "I don't feel very proud about my role in the war," says Trung. "I just did the correct thing to end the war and the killing as quickly as possible."

With reporting by Ken Stier/Ho Chi Minh City

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