Living history.

I heard a rumour that a few of the xe-om drivers (motorbike taxi) who occupy every street corner are actually very well educated doctors, lawyers, engineers etc, who had their credentials, qualifications and citizenships taken away from them in 1975 when the communist north won the war. Why? As punishment for supposedly supporting the American forces or for being part of the AVRN (the Vietnamese Southern Army). I wasn’t sure if this was true until yesterday.

I got a xe-om to a meal I was having with some friends. The driver was about 60 and although I started talking in Vietnamese (OK, slight exaggeration, I told him the address in Vietnamese and haggled the price) he replied in perfect English. This carried on for a while, I tried to speak in Vietnamese, he replied in English. Eventually as the journey continued I found out he’d learn English in 1965. Already my history geek alarm bells were ringing; “Ooo ooooooo during the war, DURING THE WAR”. He said he learnt from American soldiers and also from university. By this point I’d assumed he must have supported the South because if he was rich enough to have attended university and spoke good English, he would not be a motorbike taxi driver unless he had no other choice. This was confirmed when I asked him what Saigon was like in the 1960s and he started to describe it. We drove past Liberation Palace (formerly the presidential home) and he referred to it as ‘Where the president lived before the communist forces took over’, this might sound innocuous but it’s actually really significant. Most people would have said ‘before we got our independence’ or ‘before the city was liberated’ or another positive affirmation of the unification of the country. Instead he chose to say ‘communist forces’ as if they weren’t related to him, as if they were an invading force.

The government image portrayed in the war museum, in the liberation palace and taught in schools is that all Vietnamese people wanted to be unified and communist. However this is not always the case; watch youtube videos of the Fall of Saigon or the harbours at danang, or read about the massacres in places like Hue, with thousands of Vietnamese southerners trying to escape the northern forces. I have an American friend at work whose parents escaped as ‘boat people’ and who now live in ‘Little Saigon’ a part of California with the most Vietnamese people out of Vietnam. This community is full of people who fled the country.

My friend Linh, who is teaching me Vietnamese and is the most open minded Vietnamese young person I know. She really, really hates people from the North though. Her dad fought for the AVRN (the army the Americans were supporting and helping to train) against the North and lost both his legs, luckily this happened a few years before the war finished so by the time the NVA came he escaped retribution. She said that after the war, the new government, who were mostly from the north stripped many wealthy southerners of their houses and assets as they claimed they got them by betraying the country and working with the Americans, even if they’d had nothing to do with them. She said there is still a noticeable rivalry and that her mum once went to a coffee shop in Hanoi and was charged double all the other customers. Why? Because the owner claimed she was from the South, so ‘She was rich’.

I’m aware I am very naive about what actually happened at ground level. I just think it’s really interesting how much living history you learn from actual people here and their experiences. Those are the bits of history I like the most.

The driver who I started this post with was so interesting and intelligent, when he dropped me off I said ‘see you again’ in Vietnamese and he replied ‘I hope so’. Lovely!

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