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Thriving Vietnam buries its wartime ghosts

After leaving Uncle Sam to lick his wounds, Vietnam is now considered an economic miracle

Richard Fang, Hong Kong

Richard Fang, Hong Kong

Updated: May 04, 2020 06:17 AM GMT
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Thriving Vietnam buries its wartime ghosts

Motorcyclists in Hanoi wear face masks on April 29 next to a poster marking the next day's 45th anniversary of the fall of Saigon as authorities halted all public events due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo: Nhac Nguyen/AFP)

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Forty-five years after the end of the Vietnam War, or what the Vietnamese logically call the American War, Hanoi is where Washington wanted it back in 1975 — a free-market consumer society.

Vietnam walked that path unhurriedly over four decades, keeping its own timetable and on its own terms. Every April 30, the day marking the end of America's war in Vietnam, every Vietnamese is proud of their achievement.

For America, the war left no honor, only national disgrace, international ignominy and a dark past, which the US has yet to come to terms with.

The Vietnam War was a new challenge to the US military, which was built and trained for a mechanized war like World War II.

Many US veterans never overcame that war, which became a defining moment of their lives. Some still experience the trauma of what they experienced in a faraway Asian land.

This jungle warfare of Vietnam was not something the US military were prepared for. The ruthless tactics of the Viet Cong communist guerrillas added to their nightmares.

In a military escapade that cost it at least US$84 billion, the US lost more than 50,000 men in uniform.

For the Vietnamese, the war brought untold suffering and wholesale death besides martyrdom and triumph. It claimed the lives of some four million people.

The impact of nearly 8 million tons of explosives dropped by America on Vietnam's urban centers and countryside — is still felt.

As 10 percent of bombs did not detonate on impact, they have caused more than 100,000 injuries and fatalities since 1975, according to the Vietnamese government.

The nearly 20 million gallons of Agent Orange, a herbicide and defoliant chemical sprayed by the American military, covered 12 percent of Vietnam's countryside.

Its toxic elements are still felt on food crops, wetland mangroves and paddy fields.  It caused disabilities to an estimated four to five million Vietnamese and counting. 

Uncle Sam's jungle stories

There were dark corners of the jungles in Vietnam where not even local guides would tread. They would talk about "ma" or phantoms in certain parts of the jungle. Initially, the US commanders were quick to dismiss such stories.

Later, in 1965, reports arrived at the US command that patrols were seeing ghostly figures in the jungles with "fangs and black eyes."

Some troops even went missing. A soldier was saved from a creature that was impervious to bullets, according to unconfirmed reports that reached command stations.

Caught between hell and the deep sea, the US Army was left with no choice but to resort to the use of Agent Orange and flame throwers, according to war veterans.

"Operation Wandering Soul" was a desperate attempt at psychological warfare by the US.

In Vietnamese culture, it is believed that if a human body is not buried properly, then the soul will wander aimlessly.

The US Army set to work, figuring out how they could use this belief to their advantage. Engineers succeeded in creating an eerie tape called "Ghost Tape Number Ten." The tape, played through speakers outside US bases, contained the ghostly voice of a Vietnamese man who lamented his death and asked his comrades to surrender.

But the ploy proved to be a disaster as it made it easier for the Viet Cong to target US soldiers at will.

The US Army hastily returned home to nurse its wounds.

Vietnam 2020

Even after the war ended, the US extended a trade embargo it had imposed on North Vietnam. It caused considerable damage to the Vietnamese economy until the curbs were lifted in 1994 by President Bill Clinton, a year before the normalization of relations.

In 1986, a decade after the war, Vietnam decided to move to a free-market economy, moving away from a government-controlled system. It gave the new economy a new name  — a socialist-oriented market economy.

Today Starbucks, McDonald's, Dunkin' Donuts and Popeyes are dotting Vietnam's retail landscape, while Pepsi and Coca-Cola vie for the wallets of the thirsty.

Vietnam was among the poorest nations in the world just 25 years ago with a per capita income of US$277 per year. Today it is considered a bona fide Asian economic miracle.

Vietnam is one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. The World Bank last year reported a GDP growth rate of over 6.8 percent in Vietnam, the second highest in Southeast Asia and 13th in the world.

The Vietnamese are enjoying unprecedented economic well-being, continued optimism and access to knowledge, experience and resources. They have buried the past behind them.

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