It is 1969. In a boarding school under the austere authority of French-educated Filipino nuns, I heard the chapel bells toll. That’s when the second formation of American fighter jets returning from Vietnam would fly overhead.
The chapel glass windows would reverberate nervously as if on the edge of cracking, their sound drowning out the voices of the girls in mid-song as they prepared themselves for Holy Communion to the tune of Pater Noster.
My sleep had been interrupted at daybreak by the sound of the jets on their way back to Clark Air Base in Pampanga province north of Luzon. The Americans kept their bases there for more than five decades. It was one of America’s enduring outposts in the Pacific established at the turn of the 20th century. In the mid-60s when America invaded Vietnam, their Philippine bases would provide strategic support for their soldiers and their aircraft.
“The Mass is over, go in peace,” the priest blessed us at the end of the morning ritual just as the third formation of jets would pass overhead. I looked up as I had done many mornings in the last four years. The familiar V formation of six planes darted across the morning sky. The planes were gone before I had removed my veil, their sounds fading echoes against the morning traffic. We would file toward the refectory for breakfast.
“We should have a debate about this war,” my literature teacher, a smart slim graduate from an American liberal arts school who turned out modernized Filipinas like herself, proclaimed one morning when four sets of fighter jets returned at 4 o’clock, rocking the skies and the earth with supersonic booms.
The debate took place. I adopted the anti-American position and got into a passionate, unreasonable, almost hysterical verbal match with my pro-American classmates. Henry Kissinger’s theory of the domino effect easily won the argument while I yet had to master the position of self-determination.
It was an unpopular, un-winnable, if not unknown position. Filipinos in the 1960s didn’t live out their lives hungry for sovereignty nor did they question the value of the US-Philippine alliance. The American bases, universal public education and the influx of “stateside” goods lulled us into pro-Americanism. My literature teacher provided me with the only link to critical thought and a very early desire to visit Vietnam.
Fast forward to 2009 as I stood outside the National Museum of Culture in Ho Chi Minh City in late January, a week before the Tet New Year. A bridal couple stepped out of a 1950s black sedan for a photo shoot. She a Vietnamese bride, her hair decked with fresh jasmine buds; he a Westerner in tux and spit-polished black shoes.
Vietnam is no longer at war. Thirty-five years after the Vietcong stopped the American fighters it is a unified, sovereign nation. In my hand was a ticket that allowed me a promenade back into my teenage past and the ability to share the festive feelings of the week as the city prepared for the Lunar New Year.
We reach the second floor of the museum. On the right side is a life size lacquer frame in bold tomato red, hanging strategically to catch the visitors’ attention one last time before the exit. Etched in gold is Ho Chi Minh’s letter to the Vietnamese people shortly before his death in 1969. Our two Vietnamese guides, Thui and Phuong, both fresh graduates from the Ho Chi Minh University of Science and Technology, read it quietly, with as much respect and gusto as eating a passion fruit. Slowly they digested his words of nearly four decades ago.
Phuong’s father, I learned that morning, served as a fighter in the North Vietnamese army, first against the French, later the Americans. He joined when he was 18 and by the time the two wars ended, he was a 40-year old man with a bullet still lodged in his pectorals.
A soft smile, almost undetectable, lined Phuong’s delicate face, as if she heard Ho Chi Minh speak to her father as he fought for his country non-stop for 20 years. The passion fruit’s multiple seeds were Ho Chi Minh’s words to this next generation of Vietnamese. They were masticated into a delectable paste and reached the labyrinthine guts of the consumer. Once finished, they were filled with the pleasure of having eaten of the fruit of historical knowledge.
It was a moment of profound understanding. The true victory of Vietnam, I realized, was in its unforgettable history, thanks to a generation of parents who refused to let die the memories of resistance. A new generation of young Vietnamese like Thui and Phuong carry the memories of their parents as they navigate the modern world of completed university education and market consumerism. They are stubborn about a victorious past as they are hopeful of a celebratory future.
Except for the Museum and the Palace, all traces of war in Ho Chi Minh City, once known as Saigon, are gone. The famous US Embassy helipad from which the memorable image of the last US helicopter fled to safety was destroyed in the reconstruction of the building to obliterate its past. Four Vietnamese soldiers stood at the corner in their smart fatigue uniforms and white gloves, guarding the heavy gates of their former enemy.
Shops fill every available space in the city. Four-story 100-meter wide buildings house a cellphone shop, a backpackers hotel, a silk tailoring shop, and an antique arts outfit. These narrow buildings line nearly all of Ho Chi Minh City’s streets, a congested view where commerce is brisk and fast-moving with the Vietnamese in a hurry to enjoy the benefits of economic growth.
That evening, we attended a dinner party hosted by the University of Science and Technology, a premier institution that churns out the country’s engineers and scientists.
As tongues lolled about in rapid-fire Vietnamese, and shrill laughter penetrated the cool January air, a Chinese-made videoke machine arrived. It was hooked up to a huge television screen onstage, heralding heavy partying, Communist Vietnam style.
One by one, students took the mike. The first modulated his voice, testing the power of the microphone and his ability to sing within beat. A romanticized setting of some Asian city was projected on screen with well-dressed women walking around in stylish clothes. Lyrics appeared and a singer’s challenge followed the beat. At the end of the song, the singer was given a computerized score. The closer the singer was to a 100 points score, the greater his or her promise. A more courageous lady took to the stage and belted it out in Vietnamese. She garnered 92 points. Singular flower stems were plucked from the wreaths and handed to her by three men. There was hooting and clapping and shrieking. This was better than American Idol.
Like Ho Chi Minh’s letter in the Museum, videoke singing did its part in keeping alive the spirit of victory and the country’s romance with the war. A new generation propagated the revolutionary sentiment through pop culture and electronic gadgetry in a repackaged, enduring revolution while the traditional weapons of war remained firmly encased in the downtown museum.
Then the finale -- John Lennon’s patently anti-war song, Imagine. He was a pop hero among the Reds in the East, long after his death, an unintended gift from the capitalist West. Many filed onstage to sing along somewhat off key, hardly pronouncing the English words correctly.
That year, I made several more trips to Vietnam: Hanoi, Hue, Danang City, to Lao Bao-Dansavanh on the border of Laos -- sites of fighting not that long ago. Deep into the countryside where the Ho Chi Minh trail runs, American planes once dropped the defoliant Agent Orange.
The lake fronting the hostel in a weekend training camp for leadership and team-building was as placid as Missessauga Lake in New Hampshire, as though unseen for a thousand years. Surrounded by thickly re-foliaged mountains all around, the idyllic scenery was only marred by my imagination of war and bare-footed guerrillas who fought in this territory just forty years ago.
My young students represented a post-war generation that had no memory or experience.
To them, it was a different type of war, the battle of market forces that pit Vietnamese against each other.
They fought for a position in the emerging capitalist economy with no concept of solidarity or comradeship, only an ethos for personal ambition and hard work.
These new guerrillas were well dressed in fashionable cotton shorts and brand name T-shirts, their feet encased in Birkenstock sandals, ready for warfare in the capitalist marketplace.
Territorial expansion meant a wider coverage of products for cellphones and software; fighters aimed for handsome bonuses through expansion of market share. Demolition meant ad campaigns that annihilated the competitors.
Theirs is the era of the transition economy brats.
(Teresita Cruz-del Rosario is Visiting Associate Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. She was formerly Assistant Minister during the transition government of President Corazon Aquino. She has a background in sociology and social anthropology and specializes in development and development assistance, migration, governance, and social movements. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)