FACES OF VICTORY The proud Communist victors in the Vietnam War have deepened old frictions with many southerners by virtually writing America's South Vietnamese allies out of the nation's hisitory.



THE DEFEATED Many of the tombstones in an abandoned military cemetery in Thu Duc, near the former Saigon, have been defaced or uprooted. The dead there fought with the South Vietnamese forces and were buried with honors before the end of the war in 1975.



 A War Story's Missing Pages: Vietnam Forgets Those Who Lost



By Seth Mydans , April 24, 2000


HU DUC, Vietnam -- The eyes of Cpl. Le Van Nao have been gouged out of the enamel portrait on his tombstone in the abandoned South Vietnamese military cemetery where he was buried with honors 31 years ago.

Wandering cows tear at dry tufts of grass where acres of similar tombstones lean this way and that, many of them smashed and vandalized, some uprooted and lying on the ground beside empty graves.

Just across a nearby highway lies the carefully tended grave of Capt. Nguyen Xuan Truong, who also died in 1969 at the height of the Vietnam War. He is one of thousands of soldiers on the victorious Communist side who are buried in what is known as a "martyrs' cemetery," their tombstones surrounded by raked gravel paths and beds of flowers.

On official holidays formal ceremonies are held to honor these fallen Communist soldiers. But just 10 miles away to the south, many people in Ho Chi Minh City -- formerly called Saigon -- do not even know of the existence of the abandoned graveyard across the road.

This, in summary, is the story of the war as told today by the victors. It is a tale of heroic nationalists who triumphed over American interlopers in a decade-long war that ended 25 years ago on April 30.

America's South Vietnamese allies, who lost, have been virtually written out of history. Indeed they have mostly been forgotten by both the Vietnamese and American governments, who are engaged now in an emerging effort of reconciliation.

But there has been little effort by the Northern victors to embrace their fraternal enemies, who seem to be remembered, at least by the older generation, with less generosity than is accorded to the Americans.

"I think they have all run away to the United States," said a Communist army veteran, echoing the dismissive attitude of many in the north. "Even those who were kept in camps have left. They are all gone."

This willful blind spot is one sign of continuing frictions between the north and south of Vietnam despite the economic and political integration the government has worked hard to foster.

Among some northerners, suspicions persist that they have not truly won the hearts and minds of everyone in the south. Among some older southerners, resentments linger over lost lives, lost homes, lost careers and lost hopes.

The first years of what is officially known as national reunification were harsh for the people who lived in the defeated south.

More than a million southerners fled the country after the war ended. Some 400,000 were interned in camps for "re-education" -- many only briefly, but some for as long as 17 years. Another 1.5 million were forcibly resettled in "new economic zones" in barren areas of southern Vietnam that were ravaged by hunger and extreme poverty.

These postwar scars linger too.

"For Vietnam, 1975 was the year of national reunification geographically and 1976 was the year of national reunification legislatively," said a Vietnamese journalist in Hanoi. "But for national reunification psychologically it will take several decades more."

Not only are the graves of the southern soldiers left untended, their parents' sacrifice is ignored as well. Only the mothers of Communist soldiers are accorded the title of "hero mother" and are entitled to a small monthly pension.

And while the Communist government helps the United States search for the remains of the last few hundred American soldiers listed as missing in action, and while the Americans share information that could help the Hanoi government track down its own 300,000 missing soldiers, no one has even tried to count the number of soldiers who are missing from the southern side.

One veteran of the South Vietnamese Army, still bitter at heart, was asked how old soldiers like him manage accept these inequities.

"Because we were defeated," said the veteran, who lost not only a war but also his career and social position. "You know, we have accepted that. And we don't have the right to say anything. It has been so for many years. From year to year we forget."

What, then, for people like him, is April 30, the national holiday that celebrates the northern victory?

"We used to call it the big day of mourning," he said.

"Now it's just a day off from work. And this year it falls on a Sunday, so we don't even get our day off."

These are the resentments of the older generation, however. The war is not even a memory for more than half the population, born after 1975.

For them, the greatest passions on display do not differentiate between north and south. These are the wild celebrations -- sometimes beyond the control of the police -- when the national soccer team scores an important victory against a foreign competitor.

For some others, the bitter resentments of the past are mellowing into humor.

"Are you red or yellow?" one man teased another as they drank whiskey the other day at a sidewalk stall in Ho Chi Minh City. The colors referred to the wartime flags of the North and the South.

"Today," said his friend, "we are orange."

Foreign scholars debate whether Vietnam is one historical entity that was divided by war or whether the the regional differences among the south, the center and the north are more deeply rooted.

It was only in the 18th century that the southern region, formerly a part of the Khmer civilization of Cambodia, became an integral part of Vietnam, said Robert Templer, the author of "Shadows and Wind: A View of Modern Vietnam" (Little, Brown, 1998). The French colonialists of the next century set the country's borders and divided it by historical region into three parts: the south, center and north.

The "reunification" of 1975 was in fact the first time that Vietnam was an independent nation within its current borders. Since then, the government in Hanoi has taken great pains to maintain a geographical balance in the central leadership.

The first decade of reunification, some scholars say, was a period of "northernization" of the south, when property and farmland were seized by the state and northern officials took over most of the administration.

The free-market reforms that began in 1986 have led some people to refer to the second postwar decade as the "southernization" of Vietnam.

Today, the south is the nation's economic engine, producing two-thirds of its wealth and helping to support the north by sending nearly 90 percent of its tax revenue to the central government in Hanoi. More than $1 billion a year in foreign currency floods into Vietnam to the families of southerners who fled the country.

These are statistics people in the south like to mention when they recite their grievances.

But the years are passing and, as the South Vietnamese Army veteran said, "The wind blows, and it blows away your memories."

He has a 15-year-old son who is more interested in soccer and his friends than in the conflicts of his father's generation.

"The young people, they don't know about us," the veteran said. "They don't know about our past. We don't tell them who we are. It is better for them not to know."

Some day, he said, he may tell his son his story, as well as the story of his own older brother, who also liked soccer and who died as a soldier for the south in 1974.

At a weed-covered shrine on a hill overlooking the abandoned South Vietnamese cemetery, monsoon rains and mold have mostly worn away a heroic inscription: "They died for their country; they sacrificed for their people."

Clusters of old incense sticks sprout from the ground in front of a memorial plaque where someone, not too long ago, wrote in blue marker pen the words: "With respect."

On hot afternoons, a young man named Nguyen Minh Quang likes to rest here in the quiet shade of the shrine. He is a laborer at one of several tiny brick factories that are digging up the thick yellow soil around the graves to bake in their kilns.

Mr. Quang is just 24 and said he never bothered to learn the history of his cool refuge or of the graves that lie beyond it. But he said people do come by from time to time to kneel in front of the memorial plaque and pay their respects.

Others -- perhaps overseas Vietnamese who have returned for visits -- sometimes pay the brick workers to maintain the grave of a brother or a son.

In fact, the young man said, his own father, a wounded veteran who was a sergeant in South Vietnam's Special Forces, visits the shrine once or twice a year to pray.

"He likes to come up here and light incense, but I don't know what for," said the young man. "I only see him come and light the incense. He told me he fought with the Americans. I never asked him why."

Go to: Vietnam Medal of Honor Citations


© 2000 by Neil Mishalov