As a member of a group of American academicians sponsored by the Council On International Educational Exchange Seminar we met with Vietnamese colleagues at Hanoi University and University of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). Seminar theme: VIETNAM”S HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVES (January, 1993). Journal entries provided information for a course I had been teaching for some years, namely, VIETNAM AND THE AMERICAN EXPERIENCE. The following journal entries have an interesting story to share and are indelibly held in memory.
“Wednesday, January 6
This day provided events I had wished to encounter for some years and insomnia the night before proved no detriment in savoring this fascinating day. We boarded our bus and traveled thru town and busy traffic to the square where Ho Chi Minh declared the independence of Vietnam on September 2, 1945. Dominating the area is the grey stone bulk of the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. The entire complex suggests the apotheosis of Ho as the embodiment of the secularist Marxist state. Prior to visiting the mausoleum we gathered in a small building to view a video describing the Mausoleum as to architecture and symbolism. The Mausoleum is an abstract presentation of traditional Vietnamese architecture, built of marble and precious wood drawn from all parts of Vietnam. Begun in 1973 and finished in 1975 it contains the embalmed body of Ho encased in a glass casket on top of a platform in a cold room guarded by soldiers standing at attention at the four corners of the casket. The Mausoleum is closed for two months each year when Ho’s body is sent to Russia for preservational treatment. Streams of Vietnamese march in file two by two in a steady stream as they enter the monument. Noticeable are the many children marched in double ranked file for veneration of Uncle Ho. We were required to leave our cameras on the bus. Lining up two by two we proceeded into the tomb following a wreath with a ribbon emblazoned with the group’s CIEE initials and carried ceremoniously by a soldier to be placed at the entrance prior to our entering the tomb room. I found viewing Ho emotionally moving, especially in respect for his single-minded tenacity in achieving independence for his people through a brilliant combination of political and military strategy and tactics. The evening prior our group thought the laying of a wreath was appropriate for American academicians. Three of our group were of the military and there was question whether they would have exceptions. They did not. Emerging from the mausoleum I purchased a set of stamps commemorating the career of Ho and the battle of Dienbienphu.
After taking pictures of the Mausoleum we walked by the structure that had housed the French Governor General, now a government building. We proceeded to Ho’s home nearby., very Spartan two-roomed quarters on the second floor. There was an open to the outside conference below. In Ho’s private rooms were an old windup clock and a radio of 190 vintage. Ho’s home is located near a large pond and an approach to the pond where Ho would come and clap his hands to attract the goldfish for feeding. I recall a photo of Ho performing this ritual he enjoyed so much. We did the same with success clapping our hands and feeding the fish. In the immediate vicinity is the symbol of Hanoi, the One Pillar Pagoda built in 1049 under the Ly Dynasty, resting on one stone pillar that rises out of a lotus pool. We toured the museum nearby dedicated to the career of Ho and completed for his centennial birthday celebration. Exhibits chart his career with artifacts, displays, documents, letters, etc. Interesting for an American is that from he Vietnamese perspective, even with Ho’s career, American involvement is only one phase and in terms of the history of Vietnam our involvement is a footnote while for us it is an exclamation point. On leaving the museum I had made the prior comment to a military historian and she thought the comment apt.
After lunch we proceeded to Hanoi University for our first sessions with Our Vietnamese colleagues. Presentations dealt with the history of Vietnam particularly focusing on “renovation”, their term for Gorbachev’s perestroika. Basically they are seeking an economic model to make Vietnam wealthy in a manner supposedly consonant with Marxism. (Shades of contemporary China). That evening we shared a banquet with our hosts at our hotel. Eating with chop sticks and sharing conversation proved stimulating. I had an extended chat with a student who had spent time in Australia and was majoring in philosophy. He seemed uncomfortable that Marxism was being taught as truth. He was obviously skeptical. Apprehending truth, I observed, might be a more tentative enterprise and, therefore, the communitarianism of Marxism and the individualism of the Anglo-American tradition might be pragmatically combined. This student had never been to Ho’s tomb as, he stated, Ho wished to be cremated and, furthermore, Uncle Ho should not be deified. Also noted at this banquet was the fact that Vietnamese men are heavy smokers much to the discomfort of many Americans.”
Several days later a colleague and I, both teaching American involvement in Vietnam courses, visited the War Museum. The journal records the following fascinating experiences.
“Before visiting the War Museum we took pictures of a statue of Lenin across the street in an attractive small park. Visiting the Army Museum was emotionally moving. Tracing the military history of Vietnam spanning centuries confirmed the relatively minor role of America in this saga of people’s’ success in repelling invasion and foreign domination. The French presence and ultimate defeat at Dienbienphu and removal after the 195 Geneva Convention brooks largely in the story. Interestingly, however, in aiding historical perspective from the Vietnamese perspective is the placement of a huge tank (American) at the main entrance – a tank used in the 1979 Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia. An inner court has heaped in a gigantic pile the broken parts of B-52 American bombers with a Russian Mig fighter aircraft triumphantly displayed resting on top of the American junk pile. Various artillery pieces, missiles, American armoured carriers are displayed. Touring buildings take the visitor through the French phase, 1946-1954, presenting photographs, documents, and artifacts. Dienbienphu is the key battle described and illustrated. A room in another building treats the American phase commencing with 1955 but concentrating on the period after escalation in 1965. Captions read: THE UNITED STATES AND ITS PUPPETS. Especially poignant is a heaped mound of Pilots’ helmets, flight jackets, various arm patches and insignia. The famous photo of a depressed LBJ in the Oval Office after the Tet Offensive in 1968 hangs prominently on the wall. adjoining this display is another huge room again displaying artifact from the American phase dominated by a tank that crashed through the gates of the Presidential palace in Saigon at the final collapse of South Vietnam in April, 1975.”
See this Bartling Scholarship web site Home Page under Lectures (written works) for the course syllabus of The Vietnam Wars And The American Involvement. Introducing the syllabus to the Bartling Scholarship web page I wrote: “American Involvement was still uppermost in American consciousness in the decade of the eighties. Consequently I felt the need to design and offer a course on the subject. The course was prepared on sabbatical in 1987 at the University of Wisconsin Madison.