Hooch and progress in Ho Chi Minh’s country5 min read . Updated: 24 Aug 2013, 12:02 AM IST
There is something attractive about the scholar forced to take up violence
As one travels east from India, it gets more civilized. Thailand, for those of us who have been astonished by its civility, cleanliness and attention, is twice as nice as India for the visitor. Japan on the extreme east is impossibly beautiful.
Vietnam, every time I visit it, seems to be getting more and more as attractive a place as Thailand.
Bangkok as an entertainment centre grew from the time the American soldiers went there for rest and recreation, meaning a break from slaughtering and being slaughtered (on a ratio of 7:1) by Ho Chi Minh and his women and men.
Vietnam is a poor nation and its per capita GDP is about the same as India’s, $1,500 (around ₹ 95,542) or so. But it seems much better distributed. The poverty and hopelessness of India are absent. Some of this comes from their culture and there is dignity in labour here which Hinduism doesn’t allow. Another observation: their traffic is chaotic, but not as mindlessly noisy as ours.
Religion is not very public, and one reason is the lack of Muslims. The other is that 80% of Vietnamese say they don’t follow a religion (though most appear to be animists).
Vietnam is clean and one of the lessons of travel is learning that hygiene isn’t related to poverty. We have no excuse and Indians are the filthiest people on earth. I can write this in Lounge. I cannot in my Gujarati and Hindi columns because it will upset and puzzle readers. Everyone knows we are saare jahan se achcha.
The difference between the first time I came to Hanoi a decade or so ago and now is quite remarkable. One thing is unchanged, the number of two-wheelers. Someone tells me there are five million mopeds in Hanoi for a population of seven million. I don’t know if it’s true but it looks like it’s true. There is no money for public transport, but the roads are superb and there are, unlike India’s cities, broad footpaths for those whose only option is to walk.
Vietnam has over 90% literacy and everyone reads. It also seems to me that perhaps because of this (Amartya Sen being right in my opinion) Vietnam’s economic progress is far more rapid than India’s.
The only beggar I have seen, a middle-aged man with one arm, comes up to me this time and asks for change. I apologize and say I have none. Where are you from he asks. Bangalore, I say. Bad-ship-many-die he says, referring to the INS Sindhurakshak submarine accident reported in the local papers.
Ho Chi Minh was a more competent war leader than Lincoln who, as Winston Churchill tells us in A History of the English-Speaking Peoples (a work I like less and less over the years), stretched on the Civil War with the unsure, vacillating, shuffling of his generals, especially poor George McClellan.
Ho’s mausoleum reminds me of the Lincoln memorial. The structure in Washington is white and its façade has Doric columns through which light comes in (though there are Ionic columns inside). In Hanoi, the structure is more austere, with no light coming in at all. The columns are plain and in grey stone. Ho’s body, like an Egyptian king’s, is embalmed and put on display, which is the reason the light is not allowed to come in. The tomb is air-conditioned and thousands line up to see it. The body is laid out on a plinth which begins below the floor and so the face, which looks fresh, is roughly at eye level. In the pit, four soldiers stand guard, staring into space, faces forward. Two months every year, Ho’s body is sent to Russia for a touch-up.
In the same compound as the tomb is Ho’s house. His cars are on display and he had three, none of them American. Two are Russian, including a large black Zil and one is a pretty Peugeot 404. Was he a ladies man, I wonder. There is something attractive about the scholar forced to take up violence.
Next to the garage is Ho’s study. There is a desk and behind it a small bookcase. Disappointingly, the volumes are placed upside down and tough to identify. In the seconds I have before I have to make way, I press my face to the windowpane to see what the old man was reading. I can make out only that most of the books are in French and one is on travel.
Outside the mausoleum, an old hustler tries to get me to visit his embroidery unit. I shake my head. Where am I from, he wants to know. When I tell him, he says India is a nuclear power and a great nation.
For 15 August, our ambassador Ranjit Rae wrote a piece in the country’s English daily, Viet Nam News.
It is predictable. India’s relationship with Vietnam “...dates back to ancient times... religious and spiritual interactions... Jawaharlal Nehru and Ho Chi Minh... My tenure one of great personal satisfaction (yawn)... Rabindranath Tagore described Vietnam as the land ‘where the heart of India had once beaten under a sunny sky on this shore’." Etc.
The paper, 24 pages in tabloid, costs 6,000 dong, around ₹ 18, about the same as most dailies in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Indian remains the only market in the world where the newspaper is subsidized.
On an earlier trip, my companion, a Scandinavian crime novelist, took me to eat dog, which the northern Vietnamese alone eat. We alighted from the cab in an area next to a sewer-like canal, and walked to a place that announced its fare with a hand-drawn poster of Snowy’s head. It had white fluorescent lighting, and there was a carpet on the floor where customers sat. Each table was a square column rising from the floor, about 3-foot square, around which people sat. There was no menu, and you could only order three types of dog meat: slices which were boiled, sausage, and deep friend innards. The meat smelled of the gutter. It was the most repelling thing I have ever eaten (and I had swallowed a still-beating snake heart the same day for lunch). The only alcohol they served, which every table got, was a half bottle of clear hooch—strong and drunk neat. There were perhaps four other tables occupied, including one where office goers and young women were drinking. Their rough manner suggested this dog-and-hooch meal was some sort of ritual where one could behave in primal fashion.
One day, as we were driving out of town, we passed a mangled iron bridge. I knew instantly what had damaged it. “It was a terrible thing, the Vietnam war," I muttered.
My attractive young translator was puzzled. “Which war was that?" she asked.
“Vietnam war!" I said, “Johnson, My Lai, Tet Offensive!"
“Ah," she said, “you mean the American War."
Yes, actually I did.
Also Read | Aakar’s previous Lounge columns