VIETNAM HAD HAD A LOT OF EXPERIENCE with being poor and with seeing its leaders use harsh means to accomplish revolutionary goals. One of the harshest—land reform—began in 1955, at the end of the French War, and continued for a decade, until the beginning of the American War. In the process of breaking the power of the landed gentry and dis-tributing land to 2 million families, Ho Chi Minh’s cadre executed as many as 50,000 North Vietnamese, usually by firing squad, immediately after conviction by village tribunals. There are indications Ho disap¬proved of the methods his zealots used, and the Party did acknowledge “a number of serious errors,” but the campaign still tarnished the revolu¬tion’s image, confirming, to some, the hcartlessness and hypocrisy of communism once it was put into practice. In her book The Sacred Willow: Four Generations in the Life of a Vietnamese Family, Duong Van Mai El¬liott writes of that era:
After they [the cadre] arrived in a village, they linked up with the poorest of the poor peasants. The moved into their hovels, lived and worked along¬side them to win their trust. Once they had become accepted, they would draw out the peasants’ unhappiness over their wretched lives and their grievances against the landlords. Then, they told the poor that if they joined in the land reform, their problems would come to an end. By bring¬ing the resentment of the poor to a fever pitch, they created a groundswell for land reform. Finally, together with the most militant of the peasants, they took over the village. They arrested landlords accused of having ruth¬lessly exploited and oppressed the poor, and sealed their assets.
They tried the landlords in a kangaroo court, carefully staged to make it look like it was the will of the people. About a dozen poor peasants who had suffered the most and who harbored the deepest hatred of the land¬lords were chosen and coached in advance to denounce them at this trial. While these peasants took turns denouncing the landlords in front of this tribunal, other poor peasants would shout: “Down with the landlord!” to reinforce the atmosphere of hostility. If the sentence was death, the land¬lords would be executed on the spot. If the sentence was imprisonment, they would be led away. The property of landlords found guilty of crimes— including land, houses, draft animals, and tools—would be seized and dis¬tributed among the most needy peasants.
The Hanoi leadership didn’t do much better than its predecessors in managing affairs after the American War, and by 1986, the year Ho Chi Minh protege Le Duan died after twenty-six years as the chief of the Communist Party, Vietnam was poorer than it had ever been. Almost all its 6,000 state-run companies—they ranged from heavy industry to ho¬tels, shoe factories, cigarette plants, even beer halls—were losing money. Starvation threatened and rice imports grew. Personal freedoms had van¬ished for all but the communist elite. Food was rationed. A pair of shoes was beyond the means of most families, unless they were prominent Party members. Isolated by international sanctions and the leadership’s xeno¬phobia, Vietnam had become a lost frontier, like Albania or North Korea, surviving on its wits and the Soviet Union’s treasury. Ho Chi Minh’s most quoted credo was, “There is nothing more precious than independence and liberty,” but surely this wasn’t the independence and liberty he was talking about.
“Even when I came south from Hanoi with the army, I carried a sketch pad,” said Ngo Dong, who today makes a good living painting reproduc¬tions of Monet, Van Gogh, and other masters in his studio in Ho Chi Minh City. “During lulls in the battle, I’d draw pictures of flowers and rice paddies and dream of being a great artist.
“After ’75, no one could survive as an artist. I got a job painting store signs. At night I painted for pleasure. My parents, my children lived in the apartment where I painted. Three generations. If I had an idea for a painting, I had to submit a rough sketch to the government. If I got ap¬proval, they’d give me a canvas—maybe it would be torn, maybe not— and a packet of paints made in Eastern Europe. The paint was old. It was often rock hard and unusable.”
Dong told me he no longer needed to submit proposals to the culture ministry for approval. He had ample canvas and paint. He saved Sundays to work on his originals, but the other days, from eight in the morning until six in the evening, he was on Pasteur Avenue—one of two streets, along with Alexandre de Rhodes, whose French name survived the com¬munist takeover of Saigon—churning out his reproductions. An Italian businessman had just commissioned thirty reproductions of paintings by Fernando Botero, the Colombian artist. Each would take Dong about a week and earn him a handsome return: $75. “You could say this isn’t real art, but I think I’m helping the Vietnamese appreciate the great painters,” he said.
Up and down the streets around Pasteur stood dozens of studios, with doors that opened onto the street, filled with young artists duplicating the masters. Much of their work drew praise from art critics. A generation earlier graduates of the Indochina Fine Arts Institute, which France had set up in Hanoi in 1925, had been pressed into wartime duty as propagan¬dists to paint posters and design leaflets in the name of nationalism and communism. Now they were part of a flourishing tree-enterprise mini¬industry, and because their work did not end up as “originals” in the inter¬national marketplace and they didn’t sign the originator’s name, no one paid much attention to copyright infringement.

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