by Jerry Wadian, retired professor of speech
Some four centuries before Christ, along the Red River on the border of modern China, a culture known as the Viets founded what is known today as Vietnam.
It's been 40 years since I was in Vietnam. Much has changed, yet much is still the same; in fact some things are about the same as they were 100 or more years ago.
The people are much the same – friendly, courteous, and easy to talk to. We saw no animosity toward us because of the war.
The rural areas look much the same with the rice paddies, rubber plantations and the general look of a developing nation.
Even in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon, and still referred to by that name by many Vietnamese) the old French hotels are as re-splendent as ever, and there are many high-end stores.
There is very little physical trace of the U.S. presence. Long Binh (east of Saigon) was once the biggest U.S. military base in the world – miles and miles of concrete. Now, it is com-pletely gone.
However, English is everywhere. All the signage is in Vietnamese and English. Wherever we went, even Hanoi, some people, spoke enough English for us to communicate.
In a reform period in the mid-1980s Vietnam turned to a free-market economy in what was called a "Doi Moi". In effect, it is socialistic capitalism.
A farmer does not own the land, the government does. The government gives a farmer a hectare of land (about 2.471 acres). There is no property tax, education is free through 12th grade, and there is free health insurance. The farmer keeps whatever crops he can grow (a hectare will raise around six tons of rice!) and keeps all of the profits. He won't be wealthy, but he is doing okay financially. And the literacy rate in Vietnam is 93 percent.
In Doi Moi, Vietnam is an entrepreneur's paradise. There are innumerable tiny shops with people selling something. Highway 1 to Xuan Loc was rural when I was there in 1969-70. Now it's a 30-mile line of small shops. Each shop sells something differ-ent, but usually only one type of product.
Politically, Vietnam is allied with Russia and mainland China. However, as with much of Vietnam, not all is as it seems.
Ho Chi Minh was a great admirer of U.S. democracy, even if he did not agree with its economic policies. He lived in the United States for several years advocating futilely for his country.
China, being a bordering nation, was an obvious ally for supplying aid. However, China and Vietnam are not friends historically. China has twice conquered Vietnam, staying once for 1,000 years! Each time, the Viets ultimately drove out the in-vaders by force of arms.
After the war with the United States was over, the Viets helped overthrow Cambodia's Communist regime of Pol Pot (the man who slaughtered millions of his own people) for a more moderate form of Communism. In retaliation, China, who backed Pot, invaded Vietnam with an army of 200,000. China "voluntarily withdrew" after 17 days – and suffering a casualty rate of over 10 percent.
Throughout the Indochina wars against France and the United States, Vietnam also used Russia as an ally, so the Viets would not be solely reliant on the Chinese with whom they have frequently been at war.
In fact, the Viets still protest the Chinese occupa-tion of islands in the Bay of Tonkin that are claimed by Vietnam.
A few weeks before professor McComb and I left for Vietnam, a Chinese gunboat sank a Vietnamese fishing vessel in an ongoing dispute over territorial claims (i.e., fishing and offshore oil rights – if and when oil is found). The Viets are retaliating by buying more Russian jet fighters and a submarine.
So, Chinese influence on Vietnam's culture, is more a result of 1,000 years of occupation than political alliances.
One major aspect of Vietnamese culture is religion. The government allows people to practice any religion openly.
But religion in Vietnam is once again not what it seems. Polls show that only 20 percent of Viets term themselves "religious."
However, I find that the Vietnamese people are deeply spiritual.
The Catholic countries of Portugal and France were the first Western nations to settle in Vietnam; Catholicism still claims about 9 percent of the people, mostly in the south.
If you ask most Viets, they say they are Buddhists. There are two major types of Buddhism, and the Viets practice both.
However, it is not a form of Buddhism that Buddha would recognize.
The indigenous hill tribes lend a major dose of animism (a belief in spirits in people and various inanimate objects), and ancestor worship.
Obviously there is a strong Chinese influence in the forms of Confucianism and the Taoism of Lao-Tse (neither is really an organized religion, but a way to live life).
The Viets combine the teachings of Buddha, Confucius and Lao-Tse into what they call Tam Giao (triple religion), as their brand of Buddhism. It is almost as if Buddha, Confucius and Lao-Tse got together and tried to decide what religion they would like to start.
We visited temples dating back to the 18th century that are still in use today. Vietnamese come to the temples anytime, day or night, to burn incense as offerings, honor their ancestors, and find inner peace and spiritual enlightenment. On the whole, Viets visit temples and pagodas more often than the average Christian goes to church in America.
During my first trip to Vietnam in 1969-70, I was able to visit some small, rural temples and talk with the Buddhist monks. I was most impressed because I found them very kind and gentle with a strong sense of inner peace.
That seems to be the case throughout much of modern Vietnam.