Vietnam: struggling to win the peace
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
A local joke has it that a directive came down from the Soviet Union some time ago urging the Vietnamese to tighten their belts.Skip to next paragraph
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The answer from Vietnam went back: ''Send us belts!''
The joke has now been modified: ''Send us belts - and pants!''
Vietnam depends heavily on the Soviet Union. From the Soviets, the Vietnamese get not only their arms and ammunition but also much of their oil and food. According to American estimates, Vietnam costs the Soviet Union more than
But for the Soviets, the gains obtained from Vietnam are considerable. They now have major influence in a part of the world - Southeast Asia - where their presence was once minimal. Their use of air and naval facilities in Vietnam is of strategic importance.
Over the past several years, Vietnamese government officials have indicated that they do not like being as dependent as they are on the Soviets. They have also indicated that they would like to have diplomatic ties with the United States. This might help to reduce at least slightly their dependence on the Soviets and open the door to more Western trade and technology. The Vietnamese clearly view American technology as superior to that which they obtain from the Soviet-bloc nations.
But a series of obstacles stood in the way. At first, it was a Vietnamese demand for war reparations, a demand the Vietnamese later dropped. The exodus of refugees and Hanoi's ever-closer relations with Moscow were cited by Washington as additional problems. The establishment of US-China relations complicated matters. The current obstacle is the Vietnamese occupation of Kampuchea (Cambodia).
Visiting Ho Chi Minh City on a transit visa, on the way to Cambodia, this reporter was unable to obtain from Vietnamese officials their current views on the subject of relations with the United States.
But from what little I saw and heard, I got the impression that the Vietnamese are not willing to go far toward a compromise on Kampuchea, a country they consider of vital importance.
In Ho Chi Minh City, the casualties and hardship caused by Vietnam's occupation of Kampuchea do not appear to be high on people's lists of complaints.
Of course, a foreigner visiting Ho Chi Minh City for just a few days is in no position to make definitive generalizations about the rest of Vietnam. Vietnam is a nation of some 54 million people. Ho Chi Minh City contains some 3 million of them.
Its inhabitants, at least in the past, often did not fully reflect feelings or thinking in other parts of the country. Travelers, both Vietnamese and foreigners, who have visited other parts of Vietnam recently indicate that many of the people in the south of Vietnam, and that includes Ho Chi Minh City, are still better off today than many of those living in the northern or central parts of the nation.
People in Ho Chi Minh City complain, nonetheless, about shortages of food and clothing. Electrical power blackouts in the city are frequent. Unemployment is widespread. Hundreds of young men seem to do nothing all day but earn small fees by pumping up bicycle tires.
The children of ill-paid government employees suffer in some cases from malnutrition. A foreign physician remarked that he had seen more malnutrition in Ho Chi Minh City recently than he had seen in Kampuchea, where the threat of starvation has been much more widely publicized.
Vietnamese government officials have for some time been openly admitting that mistakes have been made. One example: Thousands of people from the cities were forced into ''new economic zones'' and told in some cases to grow crops that turned out to be unsuitable for the soil.