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Children in North Vietnam with fishing nets, 1967 ~ pc TASS / Valentin Sobolev

What was it like to be living in Hanoi or another area in North Vietnam? It’s been nearly 45 years since the end of the Vietnam War. Yet there is little help from the historical scholarship to answer this question. 

For a start, there have been many memoirs on the military experience but few (if any) on the more ordinary aspects of life. While material deprivation might be noted frequently in passing, there are not systemic studies of deprivation per se. A more fundamental reason, I think, is a lack of interest to study the history of daily life. Scholarly attention continues to focus on diplomatic, military, political, and intellectual history. Far less is paid to social history and the history of daily life. 

Perhaps there will be a change in the near future, starting with studies that still focus on the state but are more approximate to the realm of social history. One example is Olga Dror’s recent monograph, Making Two Vietnams: War and Youth Identities, 1965–1975 (2018), which is the deepest study thus far about the educational system in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). Although this book focuses on the state, there are clear implications for the lived experience among schoolchildren that, hopefully, other scholars will explore in some depth. Similarly, her ongoing work on the cult of Hồ Chí Minh should tell us more about the Communist Party’s promotion of this cult. Hopefully, it too will lead to studies on the cult’s impact has had on ordinary Vietnamese in wartime North Vietnam and in postwar Vietnam.

A more direct instance is an article that the historian Harish Mehta published two years ago. This article says quite a bit about the black market in North Vietnam, but also a larger pattern of the experience among ordinary people. Broadly speaking, Mehta argues that the “relationship between state and society fluctuated as popular support for the [Communist] Party and the government waxed and waned between the mid-1940s… and 1975.” It is a big statement, and it counters the Communist Party’s old but questionable assertion of unity among Vietnamese during the war. 

Using evidence from the archives in Hanoi, Mehta shows convincingly that many ordinary citizens and even Party cadres frequently subverted the economic policy of the state. The subversion occurred as early as the early 1950s, when the Communist Party instituted land reform. It grew further under collectivization, when peasants, the putative beneficiaries of land reform, actually lost more autonomy to the state because they were now required to sell their rice to the state. Collectivization extended to most aspects of economic production and fueled the growth of the black marketeers, who devised many ways to slip beneath state surveillance.  Moonshiners, for example, concealed illegal transportation of rice wine and other types of alcohol by pouring them into large balloons, basketballs, etc. Or, peanut sellers reacted to state surveillance and arrest by changing their route and time of departure to the black market. 

Illegal activities went well beyond peasants, fishermen, and subsistence laborers. A number of cadres, for instance, engaged in theft and embezzlement of government property. Such behavior was not merely illegal but also went directly against the socialist model promoted by the government of the DRV.  For another example, there were a number of cases involving illegal purchase and use of alcohol among cadres.

More seriously and systemically, the illegal activities contributed to the “mimicry” among ordinary citizens and would-be subverters of state policy. Taking a cue from the critical theorist Homi Bhabha’s now-classic The Location of Culture, Mehta explains that mimicry

sprang from the power wielder’s desire to create a reformed and recognizable other because the original other was not civilized enough. The problem for the leadership was that they desired to create obedient subjects who would replicate their moral values and follow their nation-building policy. Although they wanted subjects to mimic them, the reform process resulted in creation of ambivalent subjects whose mimicry was never very far from mockery because it parodied what it mimicked. Many peasants, for instance, turned to crime by following the example set by corrupt Party cadres. In this way, peasants gained some agency, and were not necessarily disempowered completely.

The criminalization of peasants only led to further gap between state and society. Other factors included the “highhandedness” of officials, the ineffective communication from the upper-level cadres to lower-level cadres to ordinary citizens, and news about the mismanagement of state resources. 

Not surprisingly, the height of the Vietnam War meant the harshest restrictions on foodstuff among the citizenry. By then, even children of cadres engaged in the black market and other illegal activities. The hierarchical stratification of the Communist Party, however, made it difficult for non-Party members to file formal complaints about such behavior. Mehta notes the large-scale arrest of cadres involved in the Anti-Party Affair in late 1967. Those punitive measures, however, had to do with politics rather than economics.  

More common were arrests that sent adults and juveniles to re-education camps for a period of time. Even as the Vietnam War was approaching its end, the police and officials struggled to contain break-ins and robberies, many of which were committed by young citizens. A report in 1975 showed that two-thirds of the criminals were under 30 years old. There were also an increase in the number of officials and workers committing economic crime even as there were fewer jail sentences handed out to offenders. 

Mehta’s article focuses on criminal aspects of the economy in the DRV, but its value exceeds the general gist of argument. For it offers a clearer perspective on the economic difficulties as experienced by ordinary people in North Vietnam. Moreover, the difficulties occurred frequently enough to qualify as a history of daily life. In addition to rice, alcohol, and peanuts, materials that were illegally produced or eagerly sought by citizens included salt, soap, seeds, fertilizer, sweet rice cakes, and votive paper ingots for purposes of worship. 

Let’s hope that there will more scholarship of this type so we can understand better the experience of ordinary people in the DRV. 

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Children returning to Hanoi after a bombing recess ~ photo by Lee Lockwood

Citation: Harish Mehta, “‘Moonshiners, Black Marketers, and Thieves among Us’: Economic Crime in Wartime North Vietnam,” The Historian 79.3 (September 2017): 523-559.