FOR THE LIFE OF ME, I couldn’t figure out why the leadership was afraid of so many things: of people having access to unfiltcred informa¬tion, of the intents of foreign governments, of farmers tired of being ripped off by local People’s Committees, of what foreign correspondents wrote, of the Internet, democracy, religion. Vietnam was stable politically and nationalistic to the core. It had fewer dissidents in a population of 8o million than most backwoods Michigan towns had in a single block. Even the few malcontents who surfaced from time to time had no radical goals; they just wanted to help build a better country. True, the collapse of the Soviet Union had given the politburo nightmares, but Vietnam wasn’t divided by religious or ethnic gulfs as was Moscow’s former empire. And true, Suharto’s fall from power after thirty-two years in Indonesia sent a signal that no one was immune, but the former general had stolen a Rockefelleresque fortune, let his soldiers kill thousands of citizens, and presided over a patched-together country of 17,000 islands where various groups often had little in common, historically, culturally, or linguistically.
Vietnam’s government was of two minds about having people like me around. One group of old-line conservatives would have been happy to see Hanoi’s small foreign press corps—there were about twenty of us: Americans, French, British, Russian, and Cuban—pack up and leave, sparing Vietnam its nosy questions, its pursuit of issues that officials didn’t want to talk about, and its notion that communism was more a detriment than an asset to the country’s development. But however big a pain we were, most officials, I think, realized there were benefits to our presence. Foreign investors wanted access to information that wasn’t si¬phoned through official channels. Potential tourists wanted assurances Vietnam was stable, welcoming, and worth visiting. Overseas Vietnamese who had fled their homeland needed to know-—but didn’t always ac¬cept—that the Dark Years were over and that Vietnam had made progress in human rights and economic development. And Vietnam itself liked being reminded that a few newspapers still considered the country important enough to base a correspondent there and distribute his or her articles to an international audience.
I knew the government kept track of me, though I doubted that my of¬fice was bugged or that I was followed, as some colleagues insisted. I knew that my assistant—an office manager-interpreter-translator- facilitator-mindcr hired from the government—had a dual role: first to make my job easier, which he did, and second, to report every Saturday to the press department on whom I had seen during the week and what sto¬ries I was working on. It was a childish game because everything I knew and did was printed in one article or another in the Los Angeles Times, and anyone who wanted to know what I was up to could have simply read my clip file of stories in the bureau or on the Internet. But letting Western correspondents snoop around their country was a new experience for the Vietnamese, and their uneasiness was understandable, particularly given the cantankerous nature of the press as a whole. The key to professional survival, I found, was attitude. If government officials who dealt with the media thought you tried to be fair and balanced, were respectful of Viet¬namese culture and history, didn’t swagger with Western arrogance, and wanted the best, not the worst, for Vietnam, they would cut you a lot of slack and accept their share of critical stories. Their approach with us was more sophisticated than the overbearing one they used on their own re¬porters, and I never had any trouble when it came time to renew my visa every six months.
The government, of course, is destined to lose the campaign to keep its people like-minded and uninformed. Thousands of Vietnamese students have been exposed to a free exchange of information abroad. Party offi¬cials have given up their attempt to stamp out Internet cafes, and scores of shops in the cities are jammed with young Vietnamese hunched over computers, the websites of the world at their fingertips. Short-wave radio brings news from the BBC and VOA. CNN plays in hotels and the homes of Party officials. Technology is making censors irrelevant. The beneficiary is the Vietnamese people; the loser, the Old Guard that secs another pillar of the past being dismantled.
WHEN PHAM VAN DONG, the political architect of Vietnam’s victories over France and the United States, died during the third year of my as¬signment in Hanoi, blind and frail at the age of ninety-four, only one of Ho Chi Minh’s first generation of revolutionaries still remained—Gen¬eral Vo Nguyen Giap. Though widely regarded as one of the twentieth century’s leading military strategists and revered by the Vietnamese as the nation’s last hero, Giap had long since been removed from the corridors of power, shunted aside by other ambitious men, among them the late Le Duan and Le Duc Tho. One by one he was forced to give up his posi¬tions, as commander in chief, defense minister, central committee mem¬ber, politburo powerbroker. His last position, from 1984 to 1991, was chief of the demographics and family planning commission.