dateline vietnam

A family at home on the banks of the Cai Tau River in the Mekong Delta

Food and Will
Published in The Texas Observer, February 27, 1981

By John Spragens, Jr.
U Minh District, Vietnam

Five years later. It seemed an important time to check on what was happening in Vietnam. Even if there had been no boat people. Even if there had been no split between China and Vietnam (“Close as lips and teeth,” Mao had said). Even if Vietnam hadn’t overthrown the murderous government of Pol Pot in neighboring Kampuchea. Even if Vietnam had stayed out of the headlines, it would have been important to gauge the changes five years after the final American pullout in 1975.

More simply, I wanted to get back. Vietnam had been the focus of a decade of my life. I’d lived there for three years in all, first in 1966 when I taught English in a Mekong Delta high school, last in 1974 when I was a freelance journalist. I wanted to see what familiar places looked like now. I hoped for a chance to talk with old friends. I wanted to learn whether life had improved since the end of the war. I’d followed the news reports, but it’s not the same as seeing for yourself.

In September I flew to Hanoi via Vietiane, Laos, staying three weeks with a one-week excursion to Ho Chi Minh City and the southern provinces. I didn’t go with exaggerated expectations. I recalled my history lessons, which had pointed out that five years after the end of World War II Japan was just beginning to recover, with the help of the Korean War. (Between 1950 and 1953, Japan received $4 billion in military procurement orders.)

As the Soviet-made turboprop from Laos approached Hanoi, it passed through clouds covering the tip of what American pilots had called Banana Valley, then broke into the open over the mountain-rimmed Red River Delta of the north. Vast stretches of the countryside were brown with floodwaters from Typhoon Joe. It had dropped 20 inches of rain in three days on Ha Bac, a flooded province just northeast of Hanoi. Officials there said in 10 days of non-stop work, the people had shored up the generations-old dike system with 72,000 sandbags and latticeworks of bamboo poles. I found work crews 150 strong bailing floodwaters from the fields with traditional bamboo basket “pumps.” Elsewhere there was a rush to replant rice fields wiped out by the torrents.

Before I left the country, rain from another typhoon added to the flooding. Then in September six more provinces were hit by Typhoon Ruth, said to be the worst in more than 20 years. It was the fourth year in a row Vietnam’s crops had been hurt by abnormally severe weather.

It was a sobering beginning to a three-week trip which brought a mixture of pleasures and frustrations. I had a chance to drop in on my landlady from 1974 and on the little restaurant where I’d eaten then visits I’d thought would be impossible in security-conscious Vietnam. But there were no private skull sessions with old friends from the Vietnamese peace movement; government cadre were always part of the group. I was able to go all the way south to U Minh a first for an American journalist. But there wasn’t enough time in the schedule for a visit to Tra Vinh, the Mekong Delta town I’d once called home for a year and a half.

If I’d had three months instead of three weeks, perhaps I could have come closer to my dream itinerary. The three weeks were good, though. I was chaperoned, but not led around by the nose. I had time to myself to wander the streets and browse the bookstores of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. And an overseas Vietnamese friend later offered the consolation that government officials weren’t suspicious of my having extended private conversations with Vietnamese just because I’m an American. It happens to Russians, too.

U Minh

It could only have been instinct that prompted me to switch on my tape recorder as I tumbled under the mosquito net and began tucking it in around the ends of the reed mat spread out on the wooden slats of the bed. It couldn’t have been anything approaching logic. I had accepted too much hospitality for that. But I wanted later, if not now to have some impressions of this night I was spending deeper in the Mekong Delta than I had ever been before.

U Minh district, Minh Hai province. The southern tip of Vietnam. The U Minh forest has earned its place in the lore of war in Vietnam since the days of Viet Minh guerrillas fighting against the French. Forbidding, impenetrable the images I’d formed were based on photographs of triple canopy jungle in the mountains of central Vietnam. Instead, the land here was absolutely flat, except where people had thrown up dikes or the mounds which keep houses above the water. The forest, which covers 400,000 acres of Minh Hai and reaches north into Kien Giang province, is open and airy. In a year, they say, the forest yields a pint of wild honey per acre.

The district town is just barely a village. On the northern bank of the Cai Tau River is a small cluster of thatch homes and shops walls and roof alike made of overlapping rows of palm leaves lashed to a bamboo or wood frame. On the opposite bank is the district administrative office also of thatch a long shed with a meeting table at one end, four wooden arm chairs clustered around a coffee table in the center, and two small desks with typewriters at the other end. A row of beds for cadre and visitors lines the long back wall. Other walls are decorated with a flag, a portrait of Ho Chi Minh, and posters celebrating the Interkosmos flight which made Vietnamese pilot Pham Tuan the first Third World cosmonaut.

You don’t just drop into U Minh. The good road from Saigon ends at the province capital, Bac Lieu. Between Bac Lieu and Ca Mau, chugholes. It took the better part of a morning to make the 40 miles. Thu Phong, who handled the Mercedes sedan expertly, says driving on the Ho Chi Minh Trail was easier. In Ca Mau my hosts have chartered a river “bus” a long covered boat powered by a shrimp-tail motor, Vietnam’s answer to the outboard.

The pace makes time irrelevant. Is it three hours from Ca Mau to U Minh? Or four? Or only two? In any case, there is enough daylight left for us to follow the river to the edge of the forest where a logging camp is beginning to harvest trees the Vietnamese call tram. “Cajuput” my dictionary translates it. The wood is solid, filled with resin, and so makes lasting pilings to hold houses above the water. Before the war, before defoliation killed off the forest, trees grew so big a man could barely reach around them. Natural pillars. The new growth is so small the fingers of two hands circle the trunks with ease.

Back in the office, as evening fades, district officials outline local history, then answer my questions about the years since the end of the war and their hopes for the future. Nearby, a small generator sputters to life and a single light bulb above the meeting table glows uncertainly. The dinner is country home-cooking, and plenty of it. Then someone appears with the aluminum teakettle. I had expected it, but hadn’t realized I’d be called on to defend the honor of the American people glass for glass against a whole platoon of former guerrillas.

Vietnamese rice liquor is deceptively gentle going down. None of the throatscorching power of Tennessee corn squeezings. But it sneaks up on you. It required an exercise of will to retire from the field of battle while I could still manage it under my own steam and could still remember to switch on the tape recorder.

The sounds on the tape? Tranquility. The kind that people flee the cities to find. Rice paddy frogs sounding like a chorus of crickets. An occasional one-lung boat motor chugging past. No outgoing, no incoming, no pop of flares to light a hostile countryside; the war is gone. The district’s thirty-odd thousand people are back in their homes. (They’d all had to leave during the war, either for the refugee camps of the Saigon government or for the revolutionary base areas.) They’ve opened up about 20,000 acres of new farm land every year. The river, heavy with silt, provides natural fertilizer. Even with only one crop a year, the district has a surplus of rice.

So why is Vietnam hungry?

The hunger is not something I would have felt. The Vietnamese are generous hosts. A foreign visitor is well insulated from such hardships. But the theme runs through interview after interview in my notebooks.


  • Hoang Tung is Vietnam’s top propagandist a member of the Communist Party central committee and editor of the party paper Nhan Dan. “You can talk politics and starve to death,” he says. “We have to solve the problem of the stomach first. We’re not forgetting the head, but without the stomach, people can’t think. If we make revolution forever, but there are no results for the people, they will not support us. They will overthrow us. In 1945 I was one of the people who organized the uprising.” — which set up a provisional government to replace the defeated Japanese. “A month later I was walking through the streets of Hanoi late at night and ran into a coolie, who complained, ‘It’s a month after the revolution and I’m still hungry.’ Now, more than 30 years later, people are still hungry.”

  • Dr. Ton That Tung is one of the country’s leading surgeons. Vitamins are at the top of his list of needed medicines, along with medicines to treat intestinal parasites and medicines to treat anemia. Fifty percent of the country’s people are malnourished, he says.

    The official ration in 1980 averaged 13 kilograms — less than 30 pounds — of staples a month. It may be less this year. About half the ration is rice, on the average, and the other half is manioc, sweet potatoes or wheat flour. Proportions vary from place to place. Even this ration is not always met, a United Nations official tells me. It would take 14 kilos a month for a poverty-line ration, 19 for a “normal” ration that would give people the energy to do a full day’s work.

  • “Things are so very hard,” a teacher in the South tells me. Is he just city soft, not up to life in a small town? There’s not much entertainment out in the provinces, and back during the war I’d heard plenty of teachers moaning about being assigned to some far-flung post. But not this one. No, in the war years he’d had nothing but what he could carry in his knapsack. He’d taught in thatched huts with escape trenches so the children could take shelter during raids. He’d used text books typed out in as many carbon copies as a typewriter could manage, with only enough to pass out to the teachers. He’d been a teacher in Charlie country; moved up to instruct at the National Liberation Front’s pedagogical institute. He knew what hard times were.

    But now he’s 34, the war is supposed to be over, his salary of $25 a month is higher than the average for cadre, and life is still so uncertain he doesn’t think of getting married. Teachers and other cadre are now being encouraged to raise their own gardens, even their own pigs. Every couple of months he makes the four-day round trip to his parents’ farm and brings back the extra supplies it takes to carry him through.

    Facing similar circumstances, many cadre government officials and technical specialists look for something on the side that will bring in extra money. Newspaper reports are very suggestive, and friends fill in some details. There’s the straightforward corruption of bribery. Those who handle industrial raw materials or supplies like fuel and fertilizer can skim a bit and sell it on the side. Not every cadre is corrupt, but corruption is widespread enough to be demoralizing at a time when the government needs to be winning the confidence of the people.


    There have been other problems since April 30, 1975, when the last American officials helicoptered out of besieged Saigon. The 300,000 tons of rice the United States had been sending each year stopped. So did the spare parts for the Massey-Ferguson tractors and International Harvester buses. The imported pulp for the paper mill. The plastic for molding into buckets and basins and children’s toys. The dollars to pay for the Sony radios and Honda motorcycles and other accoutrements of the good life.

    A more crucial shortage is in good leaders among the revolutionary ranks. In 15 years of battling the Americans and their Saigon allies, the southern revolutionaries lost as many as 90 percent of their cadre, says Dr. Nguyen Khac Vien, the French-trained physician who has headed the Foreign Languages Publishing House in Hanoi for years. “Some of the cadre had just come out of prison after 10 or 20 years, the situation had changed, and they were very weak. You’ll find people only 20 to 23 years old who have responsibility for a very broad area. Cadre who only know fighting now have to tackle economic prolems; but if you’re 40 years old, it’s hard to study math.”

    Hoang Tung adds, “There are not enough cadre. And the cadre we have don’t have enough experience or knowledge. It takes five years to train a factory administrator. But if someone is not capable of handling a job and we say, ‘Let someone else do it,’ who is there? We have to use the people we have at the same time that we are training a new generation of leaders.”

    So many problems. Even a simple list can only touch on a few:

  • The mutual suspicion that has allowed talents of many of the “old people,” the Saigon intellectuals, go to waste.

  • The garbage of war which still makes it dangerous to open up new areas for farming. (Our government has refused to provide Vietnam with maps of mine fields we left behind.)

  • The war in Kampuchea which ties down 200,000 of Vietnam’s most talented and energetic young people. (Would it have been better to fight a border war against attacks by Pol Pot’s army instead of overthrowing it? Even in economic terms there’s no easy answer.)

  • The American trade embargo which, among other things, prevents American companies from exploring for oil off southern Vietnam in the South China Sea. Since the December 1978 invasion of Kampuchea, Japan and most European countries have ended aid and restricted trade, too.

  • The end of Chinese aid. The dollar amount was not so very great, but it included all the country’s medicines plus the consumer goods needed to encourage farmers to grow more rice and to sell their surplus into the state’s controlled price network.


    Again, food. Every acre of Vietnamese farm land has to support three or four people. In the northern delta, with successful co-ops, multiple crops and reasonably good water management, they break even on food. But cities produce very little food. And central Vietnam can’t meet its food needs, though its mountains will eventually yield important cash crops. The Mekong Delta has to make up the difference.

    It can, but not if local cadre dragoon people into co-ops or into using new farming methods or planting more crops. Cadre have been told in no uncertain terms that they must demonstrate and persuade. Coercion only breeds resentment and resistance.

    Can Vietnam survive? It can, if there is some tangible benefit for the farmers. Which explains the new emphasis on producing consumer goods in the cities and towns, trying to reactivate old factories and start new ones, recycling raw materials, trying to find substitutes at home for materials they once imported.

    It spells hard work. It spells tight belts. It calls for a frontier spirit, looking beyond the immediate hardships because of hope for a better future. Hopes and high spirits don’t do well on an empty stomach. There is some honest exuberance in Vietnam today, but it’s rare. More common is determination and simple, stubborn perseverance.

    Before this hard time is over, the Vietnamese may be glad for the potency of their rice brew.

    Photo copyright © 1980 John Spragens, Jr.
    Text copyright © 1981 The Texas Observer

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