War & Peace by Jon Swain and Gavin Greenwood

As Vietnam celebrates the 35th anniversary of its defeat of the US, Jon Swain remembers the adrenalin rush of being a young reporter in the biggest war story of his life. Gavin Greenwood reports on how the old guard struggles to hold the socialist line.

A few weeks ago, a group of Vietnam Old Hacks returned to Saigon; I can’t quite bring myself to call it Ho Chi Minh City. They came back to mark the 35th anniversary of the end of the war that defined the 1960s and 1970s and which took the lives of so many of their friends and colleagues.  Quite rightly, the reunion had sombre moments;

73 journalists and 135 photographers were killed covering the conflict. But the gathering was marked, too, with a good dose of joyous enthusiasm and banter. I wonder if today’s generation of reporters, who cover Iraq and Afghanistan with distinction, will be gathering 35 years hence in downtown Baghdad or Kabul – by then, hopefully, cities at peace – to mark the end of the wars that dominate these early years of the 21st century and have characterised war reporting for a brave new generation of journalists.  I suspect not. For Vietnam unlike any other place took over a man’s soul in a way that those other conflicts never can. The proximity of death amid such beauty gave to me, at least, a quality of life unattainable elsewhere.

I have covered many wars since then but decades after the war ended Vietnam’s potent spell still dominates my life.

For five years I lived in Vietnam in my very early 20s and I look back on it now, not so much with nostalgia, but with wonderment that such a place existed. I feel privileged to have known and been a part of it. Journalistically, Vietnam was the best and most important story there was...

When the road from Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) reaches My Tho in the Mekong delta it soars across the Tien River on an elegant new 120-ft high bridge. Gazing across the flat terrain from the lofty central span you get a snapshot of Vietnam’s progress from peasant past via wartime destruction to industrial future. The Rach Mieu Bridge bridge opens Ben Tre province to direct road traffic from HCMC some 50 miles northeast up Highway 1. For almost its entire length the highway is lined with new factories, small businesses and housing. To the south, Ben Tre’s famed coconut groves and orchards give way to construction, the line of advance clearly etched in the red earth.

The river port of Ben Tre entered the lexicon of warfare and popular culture in February 1968 when during heavy fighting AP correspondent Peter Arnett quoted an unnamed US officer saying “it became necessary to destroy the town to save it”. Ben Tre was rebuilt and its future is now linked to the bridge, and the changes it has brought were evident barely a year from its opening in late 2008. The sprawl of new shops delineates the city and many others across the delta and along the coastal plain. Rapid construction, often on low-lying farm land, will draw in the rural population, with implications for the country’s important agricultural base: the delta is Vietnam’s rice bowl, producing around 20 million tonnes of padi (unhusked rice) in 2009, or more than half the country’s output, and a major source of export revenue. But for Ben Tre and other similar towns the bridge and other infrastructure may offer shortterm economic stimulus at the expense of long-term sustainability.

Such development a generation or more after unification may produce a mixture of satisfaction and concern among the inner cabal of the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV), which marked its 80th anniversary last February and, on April 30, the 35th anniversary of victory in the war with America. Satisfaction would reflect the progress made since the country emerged from more than 40 years of conflict – between December 1946, when communist-controlled Viet Minh forces attacked the French, and 1989, when the last Vietnamese troops withdrew from neighbouring Cambodia – and the pariah status acquired by besting a superpower – the US. The concern stems from how the party can manage growing expectations while remaining relevant and retaining its authority. While the April 30th anniversary was celebrated with a military parade through the capital, where thousands lined the streets waving red banners, the government basked more in its economic achievements than its defeat of the United States. Signs of the burgeoning market economy are everywhere – Communist flags vying for attention with corporate ads and logos….


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