The Colgate Scene
May 1999
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Vietnam revisited

by Lou Frey Jr. '55
Former Congressman Lou Frey Jr. '55 with his wife of 43 years, Marcia
Vietnam is a hard country to understand.

     I had the privilege of leading a delegation of former members of Congress and their spouses to Vietnam last October and we traveled through this land of contrast.

     The trip centered around Hanoi in the north (where we met with Ambassador Pete Peterson, members of the U.S. Embassy, the U.S. MIA office, members of Vietnamese Foreign Ministry and Assembly and other Vietnamese organizations and business leaders) and Ho Chi Minh City in the south. We had meetings with American and Vietnamese business leaders and traveled through the Mekong Delta. We also had time to visit the cultural and war museum and spend some time on the streets observing Vietnamese people and their lifestyles.

     I had been in Vietnam briefly in 1969 and 1970 and at the time wrote in a newsletter to my constituents, "There is no such thing as a good war or good place to fight a war. Vietnam is no exception. The rice paddies in the Delta and the mountains in the north make conventional warfare difficult, if not impossible. It is my opinion this war can go on for five, 10 or 15 years. The only reasonable solution under the circumstances is to withdraw our troops as quickly as possible and replace them with ARVN troops. The lesson that must be learned from Vietnam is that we have no right to commit America's finest young men and resources to a war of this magnitude if we are not prepared to give them our full support."

     Vietnam was also important to me on a personal basis, as my close friend and sometime-roommate in the Navy, Rob Doremus, had been shot down in '65 and ended up spending more than seven years in captivity, a good part of it in the "Hanoi Hilton."

     I was prepared on the October trip to find a great deal of anger toward us from the Vietnamese people. I was also interested in my own emotions in returning to a country where so many young Americans had been lost while I was in the United States Congress.

     There is no question that Vietnam is a poor third world-nation with minimal infrastructure and tremendous economic problems. Still, the contrasts are striking. It has a communist government whose importance seems to diminish the farther you are from Hanoi. The average yearly income in the north is $300 (U.S.), and in the south, $1,000. Nevertheless, a great many people in Vietnam own motorbikes that cost from $1,000 to $2,500. Obviously, there is a large underground economy. The Vietnamese seem to want foreign investment, especially from the United States, but the many rules, huge bureaucracy and corruption send a different message. There is relatively little investment from the United States and scant U.S. aid of any kind. While there is dissatisfaction, the economic problems appear to be accepted as a normal part of life.

     In the Hanoi area there is little evidence of the war, aside from the lists of missing in action. The United States is working to help identify the remains of 1,564 Americans still missing. The Vietnamese told us there are more than 300,000 northern Vietnamese missing in action. There is little hope of ever identifying them.

Lou Frey Jr. '55 at a memorial to Senator John McCain, who was shot down during the war and is looked upon as a hero by the Vietnamese
     I was surprised by the attitude of most of the Vietnamese we met. The war was a thing of the past and they wanted to put it behind. They desperately wanted more American investment and more involvement in their country. Part of the reason is that 60 percent of the population is under 26 years of age. They were not even born yet during the war. Furthermore, we are just one in a series of invaders of Vietnam over the last 1,000 years. If they continued to hate, and not deal with those they fought, there would be few in Southeast Asia the Vietnamese could work with. A good example of their attitude was our discussion with the head of the Vietnam US Friendship Society in Hanoi. She said she personally felt friendship toward the United States even though her son was born in a shelter during the bombing raids in '72. It was her opinion that most people had only a wartime vision of Vietnam, but that the country has long since changed.

     I visited the prison, which was called the "Hanoi Hilton" by our flyers held in captivity. In typical Vietnamese fashion, the front of the prison was intact, but behind the facade an office building had been built. The prison museum centered on the French and their inhumane treatment of the Vietnamese during the Colonial period and had little to do with the United States. In the war museum there was an emphasis on the fight with the South Vietnamese government after the United States had pulled out -- not the U.S. participation in the Vietnam war. We heard over and over that the Vietnamese desire was to look forward and build a better future for both countries.

     The trip to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), and the Mekong Delta area was like turning back the hands of the clock. Ho Chi Minh City was as active as I remember it from my previous trips. Today, there are 7,000,000 people, 5,000,000 bicycles, 3,000,000 motorbikes and very few traffic lights. Shops and markets and street vendors were everywhere. The main difference between now and then was the newfound ability to travel throughout the city and suburbs with no worries about safety, even down the Delta, which had been controlled by the Vietcong during the war, partially during the day but everywhere at night.

     We all thought as we navigated the Mekong River how incredibly stupid we were to allow our troops to fight under such extreme conditions without any real hope of winning. Some in our delegation who hadn't been to Vietnam before asked how this ever happened. I wished I had a good answer for them, but I did not.

     Despite the poor economy, we left thinking the Vietnamese people were resilient. There is no question that the biggest asset in Vietnam is intelligent workers. They are ingenious.

     A couple of stories illustrate this point: Several years ago there was a rat epidemic and the government agreed to give a cash bounty for each rat tail brought to the government office. The gestation period for rats is 30 days and the Vietnamese began to breed rats, quickly increasing the population and creating a cash crop.

     We were also told of an antiques scheme. It is supposedly illegal to take antiques out of the country, but some stores tell buyers there is no restriction and offer documentation that is "correct." When antiques are sold, shopkeepers tip off a friendly customs agent, who confiscates the articles, then returns them to the store to be sold over and over again.

     After this latest visit I conclude it makes sense for the United States to pay more attention to Vietnam. Vietnam has the fourth-largest population in Southeast Asia, with 77 million people, and is rapidly growing. As the older members of the government phase out, there is a new breed taking over who want to change the way business is done. They are looking to privatize industry, streamline government, establish a rule of law and have good relations with countries throughout the world. They desperately want a trade agreement with the United States and are helping with our MIA problem.

     Vietnam is difficult to understand. I did not find the anger and hatred that I expected. Instead I met people who were courteous and interested in dealing with the United States. They are realists who feel it is in their national interest to work with us. The visit also reawakened the feeling of frustration and sadness that existed for me in the '70s. The Vietnam era is still painful for many in this country, and that won't go away, but times -- even countries -- change.

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