The Furtive War by Wilfred Burchett
It was a relief to leave the relics of war behind and visit a big state farm that now cultivates most of the former battlefield of Dien Bien Phu. It was fascinating to discover that most of the workers were from a demobilized regiment that had taken part in the battle.
"We started literally from nothing," said farm manager, Pham Ngoc Khanh, a lithe, bronzed former battalion commander of the 176th regiment of the VPA. "In April, 1958, our regiment was ordered by the Defense Ministry to return to Dien Bien Phu and start farming. The valley had to be turned into a food silo for the Northwest. So we marched back—all the way on foot—from the Delta, and started work"
He said that soldiers were needed for it was a frontier area still heavily mined and de-mining the fields was soldier's work. "We came with our military equipment," Pham continued, "but no farm implements." Although many of the men objected to being shifted from soldiering to farming, when the importance of their task to the national economy was explained, they soon settled down and later really became enthusiastic over their work. To get crops the first season, no time could be spent in building houses or waiting for farm equipment. Fortunately, the local Thai people were hospitable and let the new farmers bunk in with them. There was no lack of shell cases to be pounded into hoes and spades. Mines were a terrible problem; in the first year eight men were wounded in the fields and with deep plowing the toll will be heavier, Pham Ngoc Khanh told me.
"The first season, after two months back-breaking, hand-blistering work," he recalled, "we managed to get 600 acres sown to rice, every acre of it broken by hand. We didn't even have enough seed, but the locals helped us out: 'You chased the enemy away,' they said. 'You're clearing the mines away. The least we can do is give you some seed. You can pay us back later.' Which of course we did. After the first season we built houses, the government sent us tractors and other implements, and things went easier."
When I was there in 1962, the ex-soldiers had 5,000 acres under cultivation including coffee, cotton, and sugar cane—all new crops for this area. As we toured the state farm, the ex-battalion commander identified various landmarks of the battle of Dien Bien Phu. The "southern airfield" was under rice, and the sugar cane section is farmed by the same 2nd company of the 970th battalion which took the area from the French.
I remarked that the young women in the fields all looked like film stars and that in general I had never seen such fine-looking Vietnamese girls as on the various farms and construction projects along the road to Dien Bien Phu—with color in their cheeks, milk-white teeth and ready smiles. Almost all of them were migrants from the Delta, a fair sprinkling from Hanoi itself. The drab, chocolate-colored dresses, almost a uniform in the Delta, had practically disappeared in favor of blouses of white, green, pink, blue and other pastel shades and loose black silk or cotton trousers.
"It's true," he agreed. "The climate favors them in the Northwest. But it's not only the good air and more plentiful food on the farms. It's also the break with old feudal, social pressures that inevitably still exist in the older parts of the country. The first thing a girl does when she arrives is to clean the black lacquer off her teeth. Gleaming white teeth are now considered beautiful, not polished black ones. She lets her hair flow free instead of rolling it up in a tight turban. Brighter clothes come next, blouses no longer buttoned up tight around the throat."
I suspected that competition from the attractively-dressed, graceful Thai women also had something to do with abandoning the drab, chocolate cottons. But in general, at Diem Bien Phu and along the road, one had the impression of young people, free and unrestrained, plunging into a future with a confidence they themselves had won. The new farms and migrant workers breathing a spirit of exuberant youth with all its ardor and energy, freed from colonial and local feudal fetters.
"Why did you come to Dien Bien Phu?" I asked one of the dazzling beauties hoeing the sugar-cane. "The glory of the name itself attracted me," she said. She had been a schoolteacher in Hanoi. How did she feel so far from home? She waved her hoe at the feathery grace of the bamboo copse, the blue mountains that completely enclose the valley: "Who wouldn't love it here?" she said. "It's simply beautiful. There's plenty of room here. The air is wonderful. We are all one family of young people. There's plenty of work. It's as healthy and satisfying a life as you could wish for." Wasn't it a waste of talent to be hoeing sugar-cane when she was qualified as a schoolteacher?
"No," she replied. "Half my time I teach. The rest, I work in the fields. I could teach full-time if I wanted. But I love being out in the fields, close to nature. I've never felt so useful in my life."
For the first couple of years, the 1,500 regimental troops did the pioneer work and cleared the mines in soldierly, bachelor solitude. Then they were joined by 1,200 volunteers from the Delta, all but 300 of them women. For many of the bachelor troops, their problems were solved. Marriages were celebrated thick and fast. The farm now has a splendid crop of 1,200 babies. Each of the farm's 14 sections has a scrupulously clean creche filled with fat, rosy babies—all under two years of age. The farm has a 60-bed hospital where obviously the main clients are mothers and mothers-to-be.
I asked the farm manager whether there was any friction between the newcomers and the Thai and other minority peoples. His answer was no, except for some difficulty created by wandering Thai water buffalo playing havoc with the crops. This was solved by setting up fences with the barbed wire that the French had left behind in such profusion. The Delta people have gained the friendship of the Thai by teaching them the two-crop method which doubled their income and by creating a small local pottery industry which saved the Thai from having to make the 120-mile journey to Son La, which in the past was their closest available source of rice-cooking pots. Education and public health were introduced, together with fertilizer and new techniques.
From Lo Van Hac, an energetic figure with the good looks of the Thai race to which he belongs, and Chairman of the Administrative Committee of Dien Bien Phu, I learned that 28,000 people lived in the valley and surrounding mountains, not including the state farm. Of them, 1,089 were Khins (Vietnamese), the rest split up among a dozen minority groups. By far the most numerous were the Thai (16,000), followed by the Meo (almost 5,000). Altogether there were 4,400 families of which 3,500 worked together in 135 agriculture cooperatives. The Thais, as valley rice-growers, were virtually all in co-ops; the Meo, cattle-raisers, hunters, and "ray" cultivators, dispersed on the mountain summits, had not the same material or organizational interest. Of their 920 families, only 140 had entered co-ops.
Next day the road led back over the mountains again towards the Delta, along valleys where majestically broad, green-felted steps led up to the threshold of flower-bedecked villages and on and up in an ever-narrowing bronze and green staircase till the terraced fields were pinched off at the sky-line. One day tourists will come from all over the world to rejoice in the beauties of the road to Dien Bien Phu. They will also come from south of the 17th parallel to pay homage to those who fought and died for all Vietnamese.
Among various facts and figures given me by the chief of Nam Dinh province in North Vietnam was that of cinema attendance for 1961. For a population of 1,100,000, there had been a cinema attendance of 3,260,000—a figure he quoted as evidence of rising living standards.
And then I stumbled on an interesting fact: "One of the mobile cinemas is especially popular," the provincial chief said. "A single person will buy up to 30 tickets for one showing." At my astonishment, he continued, "People say the extra tickets are for love of My Tho'. You see, every province and town in the North has 'adopted' a province and town in the South. We put something by for them to hand over after reunification. Our province had adopted My Tho province. The mobile cinema was bought from funds contributed by our people. It is called the 'My Tho' unit and it will be handed over at the moment of reunification, with whatever has been earned by its operation. It's the most popular unit in the province. We refloated the Kham San, a very nice river freighter that had been sunk in the Song Dao river. We have renamed it the 'My Tho' and it will also be handed over together with its profits. Factories and even small handicraft cooperatives have all adopted some enterprise in the South and there will be really lots of things to hand over— when the day comes."
At Haiphong, the big industrial port and second city in North Vietnam, I found the same thing. It had "adopted" Tourane, a major port in Central Vietnam. A big coastal freighter formerly belonging to a private Chinese line had been refloated a few months previously and named "Da Nang," the Vietnamese name for Tourane, for later transfer there. A high school in Haiphong is named after a famous Tourane resistance hero. All the graduates from this school expect to work in Tourane after reunification. Also at Haiphong I found there were eight schools with a total of 3,900 pupils from the South, mostly children of regroupees but also a fair sprinkling sent by their parents at the time of the re-groupment in order to give them a socialist education. Another 1,000 were engaged in higher studies including 250 at universities and institutes in the socialist countries.
I visited School No. 4, a higher elementary school for girls. They left no doubt as to what they wanted—to study hard and put the fruits of their knowledge at the disposal of their people in the South as soon as possible. One eager, bright-eyed girl with the red scarf of a pioneer, said she wanted to become a doctor, "because after all the suffering in the South, they will need lots of doctors." A tall husky lass, whose home was just south of the demarcation line said she wanted to specialize in rice-growing: "We will have to build up the level of rice production in the South." Another from the same area wanted to be a teacher: "Education has been so shamefully neglected in the South. I want to study hard and be ready for reunification." Others wanted to be anything from cosmonauts to tractor drivers—the latter popular because of the big southern plains, very suitable for mechanized agriculture.
Children from the South got priority treatment, because of the enormous gap in educational levels between North and South and the urgent need there will be for specialists at the time of reunification.
The school itself seemed to be run on very down-to-earth lines with much emphasis on practical work. Although a girl's school, it had carpenter's shop and forge, and a small farm where new methods were being tried out for growing crops like maize and sugar cane suitable for the South. No one seemed to doubt for a moment that reunification would come. They were about as eager and enthusiastic a crowd of school children as I had ever seen. Teachers confirmed what was evident—that they studied with a very special elan, conscious of the extra call the southern part of the country would have on their services.
It was the same at a special school outside Hanoi for national minority people from the South, 1,300 of them there at the time of my visit. Four hundred others had already graduated and were attending technical and higher schools, 40 were at university and two who had graduated as doctors were continuing higher medical studies in the Soviet Union. This is a tremendous thing for the minority peoples in general and those in the South in particular. Y Ngong, from the Rhade minority and director of the school, also a freshly-graduated doctor and very handsome in his red and black national costume, said that in 80 years of French rule not a single pupil from the national minorities had ever finished the 10th grade (Junior High School). "This is really a big thing that we have such a school here and later can graduate doctors, engineers, and teachers," he said. "Our adult population are not as developed as the Khins (Vietnamese) but our children will have the same level of education. With the teachers we are turning out, we will be able to have schools everywhere in our minority regions just as they have in the North now."
Although most of the pupils were children and young people, there were adults too. They attended special courses of general education, something impossible to acquire before and were looking forward to return to their villages, the vanguard of a minorities' intelligentsia.
Y Ngong remembered the many difficulties the school faced in teaching the 43 different nationalities a common tongue. Vietnamese. Many of the adults came to class armed with cross bows, poisoned arrows, and spears not yet feeling certain that no enemies were around. It took some time before they came without their arms, but now they sit in the classrooms, unarmed away from home the first time in their lives. Many came North to "study under President Ho," leaving their families behind, a real tribute to their faith in both President Ho and reunification from minority peoples whose family bonds are especially strong.
The school provided general education up to the 8th grade, supplementary studies for those who had finished 7th grade, in social services and natural sciences, teachers' training classes and a small class of political studies for those between the ages of 25 and 50. After the 8th grade, pupils with suitable qualifications could go on to ordinary Vietnamese schools and institutes for technical studies.
"Although we teach in Vietnamese here, each minority learns his own language so they can work in their own villages and districts," continued Y Ngong. "Most of the minorities here had no written language, but we are developing these as well. One of our main aims is to train teachers for secondary and higher schools, so they can start work immediately after reunification."
It is not only in training young people from the South as future specialists and teachers, or by "adopting" southern provinces and towns that North Vietnam looks towards the South. In long-range economic planning the needs of the whole country are taken into consideration—not just the needs of the North. The fact that there will be reunification on some basis or another before many years is an article of faith not only for children yearning to be reunited with their parents, husbands with their wives, but for government leaders and economic planners. There is no sign at any level of passive acceptance of the permanent division of the country. The right to reunification, the steps to be taken to bring it about, are written into an international document signed by the great powers of East and West. The people of Vietnam from President Ho to a Jarai tribesman, who sends his child to study in Hanoi, expect that reunification will be brought about. Life in Vietnam is planned on that basis. Dean Rusk and Diem may have other ideas—as did Bidault and Bao Dai in their day. Bao Dai is a discredited monarch in exile; Bidault, at the time of writing, is a classified traitor in hiding. Both were thrown aside by history because they failed to understand the realities of history; they hung on too long to concepts rejected forever by the majority of mankind.
For a glimpse into the future, I went to Thai Nguyen about 50 miles north of Hanoi. It was a collection of thatch-roofed adobe huts when I visited it five years previously. Now there were 300-feet-high stacks of coking furnaces pointing skywards, the profiles of blast furnaces etched against the horizon, convoys of ten-ton trucks trundled along with machine parts and pre-fab construction elements. Thai Nguyen was being converted into a great heavy industry center on an all-Vietnam scale. The sleepy township of Thai Nguyen in a few years would be an industrial city with a population of 120,000 and still expanding fast. And, another object lesson in contrast with the South, all the preliminary work had been done by elements of 80,000 army men, demobbed in the North in the previous few years.
On an area of over 10 square miles a big complex of buildings was going up to house blast furnaces, oxygen and power plants, steel rolling mills—all the components of a modern iron and steel plant. It would be the first on the Indo-China peninsula, with a capacity of 200,000 tons of pig iron and 200,000 tons of steel by 1965 with a gradual increased capacity up to an annual 1,000,000 tons of steel, enough to share with the South as soon as reunification made this practicable. My informant, Pham Tu Lang, vice-manager of the project and ex-colonel of the VPA, told me that an important problem is the lack of skilled labor, but that this problem is being solved by sending the best workers to the Soviet Union and China, as well as to Hanoi University, for training as engineers. Many of the Hanoi students do their practical work right on the job. The iron and steel combine is being built with Chinese aid and direction, and should employ 10,000 workers by 1965. The first pig iron plant was to go into production this year, 1962.
The giant combine is planned to meet the needs of both the North and the South for heavy industry.
"In building up this big combine," he said, "we are taking the needs of the whole country into account. This is in line with policy laid down at the Third Party Congress in September 1960 that 'the guiding principle must be to consolidate the socialist revolution in the North and in so doing take the South into due consideration.' Priority goes to heavy industry and this has two aspects: to develop small scale industrial industries and power plants with small investments and quick returns; and to invest in long-range, large-scale plants for the future of all the country. The Thai Nguyen State Iron and Steel Combine is the largest of the second category investments."
As an example of how young people were adapting themselves quickly to industry, I had a talk with Do Thi Y a pretty and very lively girl from the Tay (sometimes called Tho) minority. Spick and span in her blue overalls she was critical and amused at the illiterate way I had written her name and that of her village. She decorated them with the indispensable accents before serious conversation could start. A few years previously she had been an illiterate minority girl, growing hillside paddy in a tiny hamlet, with her mother. She went to school for the first time after the ceasefire and a little over two years previously had got a job as cook's helper at the construction site. Soon she was promoted to the clinic as a "nurse." Bright and intelligent as any city girl, she was asked if she would like to have technical studies. "Of course I replied 'yes,' " she said. She and three other girls were packed off to a six month's course at the Hanoi Oxygen plant.
Although the machines and the oxygen flame frightened her at first, and she doubted her ability to master the oxygen compressor, she was back at the work site in six months and was considered to be an outstanding worker. She hopes to continue her studies, and is the apple of her mother's eye who constantly talks of her exploits back in her native village.
A city is being built not far from the works, to house 30,000 workers for a start and a total population of 90,000, linking up with the old Thai Nguyen township. Later it will be expanded to 120,000 to make it North Vietnam's third biggest city after Hanoi and Haiphong. A fitting reward for Thai Nguyen, the earliest resistance base in the long war of liberation.
Many other plants have been built up or expanded to cater to all-Vietnam needs. One is the modern machine-tool plant built at Hanoi with Soviet aid—the first in Indo-China. A large range of lathes, high precision milling, grinding, boring, and other machines are already in serial production there. Orders have been received from more industrially-advanced Asian countries like India for these high quality machine-tools. At present the biggest machines produced weigh less than two tons but the plant is being expanded to turn out ultra-modern multi-purpose monsters of up to 15 tons, of which only few Asian nations are capable.
Another machine-building plant expanded by Soviet aid is that at Campha, at the Hongay open-cast coal mine on the Baie d'Along. Originally a small shop to repair Hongay mine-machinery, it is now being re-equipped to produce spare parts for all types of mining machinery anywhere in the country—north or south of the 17th parallel. A third machine-building plant—also financed with Soviet aid—will produce spare parts for thermal power stations. East Germany is helping the Haiphong Shipbuilding yards to produce coastal freighters of up to 1,000 tons by 1965, with provision for later expansion to build ocean-going ships up to 8,000 tons. Hungary is putting in an electrical-mechanical plant for various types of electric motors, transformers, and electronic-measuring instruments. All this falls within the policy of "socialist consolidation of the North with due consideration for the South.''
In 1965, the Soviet Union will build a tractor plant and within a year or so after that, the girls at No. 4 Higher Elementary School will have more than realized their ambitions, by driving Vietnamese-made tractors. If reunification comes earlier, they will have to be content with Soviet, Rumanian, and other models for which spare parts, however, will be produced at a Soviet aid plant just north of Hanoi.
As for what had been achieved since the ceasefire and what was being planned, a few figures given me by Dong Viet Chau are illustrative:
|Maximum Output under French||1961||1965 (planned)|
|Sugar (tons)||few 100||30,000||45,000|
|Steel (tons)||Nil||Nil||200,000 (by 1966)|
|Pig iron (tons)||Nil||13,000||200,000|
These figures are far from giving the real picture of what had been achieved since the ceasefire. Maximum output in various branches under the French occupation bore no relation to the situation at the time of take-over. Actual capacity of electric power, for instance, was only 15,000 kilowatts. Coal production throughout the resistance years had averaged around 640,000 tons and the French had removed key equipment from the Hongay mines when they left. The Haiphong cement plant had been run to a standstill, all raw materials exhausted or removed together with essential spare parts. Production for the first year the French left was only 8,500 tons. There was not a single Vietnamese specialist at the cement works—the highest-ranking technicians were some fitters—but it was the Vietnamese workers at the plant who got it running again and it is they who manage it today—plus one Rumanian chemist.
Just as Thai Nguyen was being built up as the country's main heavy industry center, so Viet Tri was being developed as a new light industry center to supplement those at Hanoi and Haiphong. On the junction of the Red and Clear rivers, about 40 miles northwest of Hanoi, it used to be an important French military post, headquarters of the First and Fifth Foreign Legion regiments and the Third African regiment. When I visited it first as the French pulled out in 1954, it was a filthy, depressing mess of a place. Concrete forts like fat, malignant spiders squatting in webs of barbed wire which completely enfolded them, at every road junction or high point; the streets littered with debris as if they had not been cleaned for a century; barbed wire—by far the most plentiful symbol of French occupation—everywhere and behind the barbed wire were mines, 4,000 of them in the half square mile which represented the center of Viet Tri.
"It was a town of three streets under the French," said Luu Tarn Giap, member of the town council, "a town of bars and brothels, as typical a French Legion post as you could find. There were 300 shops for the compulsory purchase of alcohol, and there was a tiny plant for making paper pulp for the French paper factory at Dap Cau. And that was all."
Viet Tri is a very different place today. A long row of cream-colored factories lining the Red River waterfront; two and three-storied apartment houses going up in a parklike residential quarter, everything spick and span and sparklingly clean. Bamboo rafts, piled high with purple sugar cane, were tied up below the first two of the line of factories. As fast as the cane disappeared into the sugar refinery, the bamboo rafts were broken up to be digested by the adjacent plant and transformed into paper. After the sugar had been pulped out of the cane, the latter also was passed along to the paper plant. Third in the line, a chemical plant was producing soda—among other products—for both sugar and paper mill. A rice-husking mill alongside, turned out byproducts for a plastics plant—the bamboo rafts also made a contribution to the latter. Finishing touches were being given to two more plants for insecticides and pre-fab concrete building elements. Raft-loads of haricot beans were being swallowed up by a food-flavoring factory. Apart from the pre-fab plant built with Bulgarian aid, and some Soviet turbines for the electric power plant, the whole project was being done with Chinese aid. This is the sort of thing the Americans could be doing in the South if they were not so intent on killing "Viet Cong."
"It's all a very harmonious project of inter-related factories," said Luu Tam Giap after he had shown me around this thriving center, the rivers below us a-bustle with tugs, small river freighters fussing about, and red-sailed fishing boats weaving their way through convoys of bamboo rafts. "We will continue to develop it that way."
Division of the country and the fact that trade contacts are absolutely banned by the U.S.-Diem regime, has produced some stupid and some surprising results—mostly to the detriment of the South. Haiphong cement, judged by experts to be of very high quality, equal to the best British-made, is exported to almost every country in Southeast Asia—with the exception of South Vietnam which buys inferior quality at a higher price from the United States. As with Haiphong cement, so also with Hongay coal which is exported all over Asia—including Japan—but not to South Vietnam. On the other hand, the North has been forced to start producing rubber, an exclusive product of the South before, and coffee, almost exclusive to the South, on a large scale.
I visited a big state farm which stretches from the Pacific coast to the borders of Laos, just north of the 17th parallel, where rubber has been grown experimentally with excellent results, a very important success for North Vietnam. The French had made some tests and concluded that rubber could not be grown north of the 14th parallel. But at the Guyet Thang farm, I saw rows of slim young trees, planted after the ceasefire, thin lines of milky latex following the incisions made in the bark, dripping into cups pegged into the trunks. Like most other state farms, especially those near frontier areas, this one was started by the army. For the first years it was run by a regular army unit. Later the troops were demobbed and became civilian farmers.
The difficulties of the sea wind and low humidity discouraged the French from taking the planting of rubber trees in the North beyond the experimental stage. However, the state farm has overcome these difficulties by planting many green plants to increase the humidity and rows of the quick-growing casuarina trees around the rubber trees to protect them from the sea breezes. In addition to the locally produced stock, many trees were flown in from Hainan Island, China. Of the 2,000 workers on the 2,350-acre rubber plantation, almost all were demobbed soldiers. They looked fit and as brown as berries.
At the Ministry of State Farms, I found out that 9,000 acres had already been planted with rubber and that this would increase to 50,000 by 1965. Several rubber products' plants have been built in the North, including a large factory for automobile tires that will go into full production by 1963.
I asked the Vice-Minister of State Farms, Nguyen Quang Xa, if this long term investment in rubber would not mean over-production after reunification. Although he acknowledged that it would have been easier to extend the rubber plantations in the South, there was no question of finding a market for the rubber production of both North and South among the Socialist countries.
The story of coffee is similar to that of rubber except that before the resistance there were a few thousand acres of coffee trees in the North, but these were severely damaged during the war. Now there are 15,000 acres of coffee trees and there will be a total of 90,000 acres of coffee under cultivation by 1965, yielding 7,000 tons of coffee. This is extremely important for North Vietnam's economy, since a ton of coffee is equal in money value to ten tons of steel.
Almost all the rubber, coffee, cotton, and other new crops in the North are being produced in the big state farms which accounted for six percent of all agricultural production in 1961. They were being expanded faster than the cooperatives and are expected to account for 15 percent of farm products by 1965.
"Don't you have difficulties in such rapid expansion?" I asked. The ex-major laughed: "What do you think? We are peasants used to managing plots about one fifth of an acre. Now we have to manage farms that average 2,500 acres each. The fight against pests, for instance, demands technical skill that we don't have yet. By 1965, we plan to have on every farm, one university-graduated specialist in every branch of production."
I asked about the role of the state farms in opening the virgin lands.
"First you must understand that development of our agriculture is made more difficult by the division of the country. It was the South that was the main rice granary in the past. The North used to get rice from the South in exchange for coal and manufactured products. The arable land in the North is far more limited than in the South. There could be a vast expansion of food production in the South without too much effort—and will be later on. They will benefit by the experiences we are storing up here. But even with the country reunified, it is still necessary to open up our own reserves. The amount of land at present under cultivation in the North is one eleventh of a hectare [just over 900 square yards] per head of the population. The average number of working days for a peasant in the Delta is only 100 per year. After all, there's a limit to what one person can do on plots so small, even if he gives personal attention to every rice plant.
"During the five-year plan, about 1,375,000 acres of virgin lands are to be opened up and 500,000 acres of this will be tackled by our ministry. Our role is the vanguard one. We will help the new settlers as well as pushing on with our own program. Immigrant farms will be grouped around ours so we can keep a friendly eye on them and give a hand when necessary."
"Was Soviet experience in their big drive against the virgin lands of any help?"
"Not much yet in the actual clearing, because their new lands were opened up mostly with a vast concentration of machines. At present we still do almost everything by hand. Once we have machines, we will learn much from them. When the land is cleared, Soviet and Chinese experience in soil surveys is very precious for us even now. There are quite a few Soviet specialists on the state farms doing valuable work." He concluded our interview by saying:
"The great day will be when we can share all the experience we ourselves have accumulated and all those brought to us by our comrades from the socialist lands, with our compatriots in the South. This is the moment we are all waiting for—and working for."