In reporting on the festivities surrounding the 25th anniversary of Vietnams reunification on 30 April 2000, Swedish and other international news media were at pains to point out that the general public was not admitted to the ceremony, as Swedish public radio stated. The image conjured up was that of a remote elite enjoying itself in an exclusive enclave, while the subservient masses huddled outside.
But that image does not conform with the first-hand observations of two U.S. citizens with long experience of Vietnam. Chuck Searcy, a U.S. army veteran, is currently the Hanoi-based representative of two organizations working to heal some of the wounds of war. Lady Borton has lived and worked in Vietnam since the days of the war as international affairs representative of the American Friends Service Committee.
Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund; Asian Landmine Solutions
I was in Ho Chi Minh City for the 1995 celebration of the 20th anniversary of reunification. It was restricted to the city blocks around the Catholic church and the old presidential palace, now Reunification Hall. This was for security reasons, according to the Vietnamese.
At the time, I thought that the restrictions reflected some sort of paranoia; but I have since learned differently. It turns out that there have been more than threats: Light weapons, time bombs, ammunition and gunpowder have been confiscated from groups of Vietnamese exiles who have smuggled them from Cambodia, fully intending to wreak havoc on some public event in order to embarrass or create a crisis for the government.
Despite the security precautions, however, the parade was a delightful occasion. Representatives of all the major industries, working groups, and professions marched and waved. Military units-- only one carrying weapons, most of them parading in dress uniforms and white gloves-- marched past the reviewing stand, and floats depicting historic scenes rolled by. It was a warm and pleasant day, with a holiday atmosphere.
I was in Ho Chi Minh City again last year for the 25th anniversary, and it was much the same as before. Yes, it was confined to a much smaller area-- the grounds of Reunification Hall inside the walls of the old palace compound. This was due to increasingly serious threats and reports of planned violence from a number of sources, some of whom were discovered, arrested, and confessed.
The government was extremely concerned about the possibility of any incident that could result in the death or injury of innocent citizens or the national leadership. For this reason, they cordoned off a large area around the palace, and did not admit anyone who was not authorized or who had not passed a security check. The event took place without incident, and by all accounts was very successful.
I was inside the palace grounds for an interview with Vietnams national TV channel at the start of the proceedings. Within minutes of finishing the interview, I had received more than twenty phone calls from people all over Vietnam saying, "Mister Chuck, I just see you on TV!" This, at 6:30 in the morning! The size of the audience was estimated at over twenty million households.
The parade was much the same as in 1995, with representatives of all the major organizations and occupational groups in the country. The warmest reception and the biggest cheers went to an older group of women from the Mekong Delta, clad in black and wearing distinctive scarves. They became famous during the war as the "long-haired army" which defied the troops of the Diem and subsequent regimes while their husbands and brothers were off fighting or in prison. The children's groups were also great favourites of the crowd.
The last float at the very end of the parade was a huge model of the earth, surrounded by children. As the children sang, the globe opened and scores of white doves flew out, rising in lazy circles into the sky while everyone cheered. It was very moving.
The millions of Vietnamese who would gladly have attended the parade if it had been possible watched it on TV, instead. Then they spent the day strolling through the streets, visiting cafés and the riverfront, relaxing, talking, enjoying a delightful holiday. That night, there were free outdoor concerts on huge, gaily decorated stages, followed by spectacular fireworks.
It was a festive occasion and a time of remembrance, with so many recollections of just how bad things were before 30 April 1975, and how difficult the situation continued to be in the following years-- understandably so, given the devastation that the country had suffered.
As foreigners, we sometimes have a tendency to impose our own critical bias on situations that we are only able to observe at a cultural and psychological distance. We may perceive official control, restrictions, or manipulation of events which are, in fact, something very different.
As far as the celebration in Ho Chi Minh City is concerned, I have attended presidential inaugurations in Washington where official credentials were needed to get anywhere near the proceedings, and the entire city was jammed with police barricades. The security situation for the 25th anniversary in Vietnam last year did not even come close to the official restrictiveness, bordering on oppressiveness, that I have experienced in the United States.
American Friends Service Committee (Quaker Service)
The 25th anniversary parade in Hanoi last year was a fascinating experience. The parade began with a group of veterans from 1945, then came the kids, followed by representatives of all the people's organizations. All the religious groups, all the artistic professions, businesses, government agencies, youth groups, etc., were there.
All the while, there was a huge group of about 400 kids sitting on stools in front of the viewing stand. They had an assortment of cardboard squares, which they turned from time to time to so as to form the flag of Vietnam or quotes from the Declaration of Independence.
The parade went everywhere throughout the city. I abandoned my bicycle a half-kilometre from the central route, because I knew it would not be possible to push my bike through the crowds. At night, there were bandstands all around town and a huge stage in front of the Municipal Theatre. The streets were jammed all around the theatre, even for several nights in advance when the performing troupes were rehearsing.
All of these events were open to the public, and the celebrations all over the country were televised nationally.