Photo by Nguyen Huy Kham / Reuters
This article originally appeared at TheAtlantic.com on April 30, 2018.
Today, April 30, red flags are festooning the streets of Hanoi, the Vietnamese capital, to mark the fourth decade since the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese government surrendered to communist North Vietnamese troops and ended the Vietnam War. But most Vietnamese are too young to remember the day in 1975 when Saigon fell, celebrated in Hanoi as Reunification Day. For the nearly 70 percent of the population under age 40, April 30 is just a day off from work or school.
“No one our age talks about it,” Hien, a recent university graduate from Hanoi who gave only her first name, told me. “Most young people nowadays don’t really care about what happened. They just want to have fun.”
Forty years after millions of Vietnamese were killed in the war, in which more than 58,000 Americans also died, locals I’ve spoken with bear little animosity toward the United States. During the three years I spent in Hanoi, I never witnessed hostility toward Americans. When I told Vietnamese I came from the U.S., they would smile and talk about American celebrities, like the pre-teen who told me she loved Beyoncé or the parking-lot attendant who shook my hand enthusiastically: “Ah, Obama!”
Vietnamese millennials have grown up without direct experience of what they call the “American War,” though many lost grandparents in the fighting. An estimated 300,000 soldiers remain missing, and those whose relatives died still feel their absence keenly. “My parents talk a lot about the war,” said Nguyen Thi Huong, 20, a university student in Hanoi whose grandfather died in the conflict. But she does not take part in those conversations. “Old people often reminisce. We young people can’t relate, so we mind our own business.”
Like Nguyen, I never lived through the war. But none of my close relatives fought in Vietnam. My AP U.S. History textbook contained only four pages about the conflict, and my class ran out of time to cover the 1970s in detail. So I got my information from books like Fire in the Lake and films like The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now.
And unlike me, my Vietnamese contemporaries grew up in the communist country that the war created. That country has changed dramatically over the course of their lives. When Nguyen and Hien were children, Vietnam had just begun to integrate into the global economy following a postwar decade of scarcity and stagnation. Since then, Vietnam has become one of East Asia’s fastest-growing economies, and the government’s staunch communism has given way to a new pragmatism as it privatizes state-owned companies and seeks foreign investment. A recent Pew survey found that 95 percent of the Vietnamese people support free-market capitalism—a higher percentage than in any other country surveyed, including the United States. As a Hanoi secretary in her 30s told me: “The war is the past already. … We care only about money. We don’t care about politics or history.”
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Students in Hanoi learn about the American War for the first time in elementary school, taking class trips to the capital’s Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum—which houses the embalmed remains of the communist leader who led the war for independence against the French—and Military History Museum. In the following years, they study the conflict in the context of the country’s history of fighting colonial powers, from its 10th-century rebellion against China to its war against France beginning in the 1940s. “Each year, we learn the same thing in more detail. America started the war to help France get Vietnam back,” university student Luong Tuan Bach, 19, told me from a bench beside Hanoi’s Hoan Kiem Lake, where he sells Coca-Cola and iced tea to passing tourists to earn spending money.
Luong said he felt these lessons were important, and cited a well-known Ho Chi Minh poem: “Our people have to know our history.” But other young people I spoke with complained that history classes are too dry and tedious to make a lasting impression. “We started learning about the war in sixth grade, but I don’t remember much. History is too boring, just texts after texts,” Nguyen Thi Huong, the university student, said.
Those texts, which, as Hien recalled, depict a “hard but glorious” struggle to defeat the American invaders, present the official Vietnamese view. “We learned that even though the U.S. army was really mighty and their weapons were really modern, the Vietnamese country united and stood up for our freedom,” Thuy, a university student in Hanoi, told me.
One 12th-grade history book I read meticulously detailed the number of South Vietnamese and U.S. planes, tanks, and helicopters that were shot down in each major battle as well as the number of enemy soldiers who were captured and killed. It made no mention of the estimated1.1 million North Vietnamese soldiers and Viet Cong guerrillas who died—a common omission, according to locals I spoke to. “It’s war, so Americans have propaganda and we have it too. It’s inevitable,” retired high-school teacher Le Van Bon, 81, told me.
When these textbooks briefly turn their gaze toward the United States, according to the young Vietnamese I spoke with, they focus on the antiwar movement, crediting American protesters with changing U.S. national sentiment and putting pressure on the government to end the war. They do not inform students that a handful of North Vietnamese also protested the war; the existence of these protesters, and the punishment they faced for their opposition, challenge the narrative of national unity. And unlike my AP History book, the Vietnamese textbook I read contained little information about the Cold War ideology that motivated the United States to enter the conflict. Today, some young Vietnamese recognize that these books may not tell the whole story. As Hau, a university student, told me: “All the history books are written by the government, so they include 80 percent of the truth. The other 20 percent is left out.”
This inspires some to seek alternative sources of history. Pham Duong, 34, owns a jewelry store and grew up hearing war stories from his grandfather, who fought against both the French and the Americans during his two decades in the army. “When I was young, I learned that the Americans were bad and the French were bad,” Pham told me. Today, he has “a lot of” American friends, and has sought out a broader perspective via the Internet—specifically American-made war documentaries on YouTube. “I had the chance to look at both sides. I realized that in war, the winner can say whatever they want.”
But he doesn’t think many of his peers are interested in such research. “Not many young Vietnamese want to think about it. They think it’s too complicated,” Pham said.
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While the specter of communism drew the United States into the war, and communist forces ultimately won it, political ideology meant little to ordinary Vietnamese even during the fighting. At the time, some Northerners told me, they didn’t even know what the word “communism” meant. The country has remained officially communist, and many veterans express continued loyalty to the ruling party. But as the Pew survey demonstrates, it’s not clear whether that means much to young Vietnamese.
“I don’t care much about capitalism or communism. What will leaders do for our country? Will it develop more?” said Hoa, 23, who works in marketing.
This attitude separates millennials from their parents and grandparents. “Older people might put communism on a pedestal, but for us it means very little. Young people care more about their own dreams, their own careers,” Nguyen, the university student, said.
Luong, the soda vendor by the lake, hopes “to become a successful businessman” in the construction industry. Had he started his career 20 years ago, he might have strived to work for a government-run company. But state-owned businesses—once the cornerstone of Vietnam’s economy—have declined in recent years, weighed down by bad debt. Between 2000 and 2013, the number of state-run enterprises halved. Many have been privatized as part of the government’s ongoing economic-restructuring efforts, although officials still often refer to this process as “equitization” rather than “privatization.”
Government agencies are also drawing fewer young employees. “Private-sector jobs pay a lot more than government jobs,” Trang, 28, explained to me. An event organizer for an international company, Trang never considered following in the footsteps of her parents, former government employees and Communist Party members who gave up both their jobs and political memberships when she was young. “My mom has her own grocery shop at home, so she doesn’t care about policy or the party,” she said.
Like Trang’s mother, many Vietnamese have taken advantage of 1980s-era reforms that allowed them to open their own businesses. Today, Hanoi teems with entrepreneurial ambition. Vendors fill the sidewalks, selling everything from pedicures to pet goldfish. Families have converted parts of their houses to cafes, hair salons, and PC gaming parlors, imparting this same enterprising mindset in their children. Ray Greiner, an American war veteran who returned to Vietnam in 2011 to teach English, said most of his students wanted to own their own businesses. “That’s a huge difference from the young people I know in the U.S.—and a huge difference from my generation as well,” Greiner told me.
As the growing middle class flocks to new malls like the palatial Vincom Royal City, a few Vietnamese entrepreneurs have reaped enormous profits. They include Pham Nhat Vuong, the country’s first billionaire and CEO of the company behind Royal City, and Dang Le Nguyen Vu, who funded Trung Nguyen Coffee and whose wealth, estimated at $100 million, inspired the nickname “Coffee King.” Nearly 400 people have made millions investing in the stock market, according to a local newspaper, some of them born after reunification. American fast-food franchises like McDonald’s and Starbucks opened their first branches in Vietnam in the past couple of years, and have been interpreted by some as a sign of the triumph of American-style capitalism.
But this blatant embrace of the market economy does not mean that Vietnamese feel equally strongly about political reform. Unlike in Hong Kong, support for capitalism has not translated into a visible pro-democracy social movement. Vietnam remains a one-party state. While government sources report extremely— perhaps implausibly—high turnout for National Assembly elections, none of the young people I spoke with had much faith that voting matters.
The lack of a pro-democracy movement in part reflects the realization that advocating radical political change would be risky. Few want to share the fate of the bloggers arrested for criticizing the government, although the Internet has made it more difficult to repress dissent. “In my time, just speaking out one time could put you in jail,” said a Hanoi man who was imprisoned in the 1970s for starting an organization to protest the American War. He asked that his name not be used. “Now, it’s easier for young people to get information and speak out their opinion. … Maybe one or two times is OK, they just warn you. But if you do it over and over and make it seem like you’re trying to gather people, they can still put you in jail.”
But more than that, young Vietnamese I’ve met see the potential for producing social change outside the formal political system. “We have activities to raise awareness about the environment and underprivileged people,” Trang told me. “But we don’t care about the government or any political stuff. The government controls everything.”
While Trang’s generation is not rebelling against Communist Party leadership, its members are finding ways to communicate their views to the government. Young people have started using social media to express their concerns about development issues, such as a plan to build a cable car through the world’s largest cave. And sometimes the government is even responsive. A Facebook campaign to stop Hanoi from chopping down thousands of old trees drew 20,000 supporters in one day, motivating city authorities to reverse the decision.
“We are the new generation, we are the change,” blogger Duong Vu Hoang Anh told me during the campaign to stop the cable car, which seems to have had some success so far. “Vietnamese youth have participated in this issue like nothing else before. We realize that this decision should be ours.”