Amid the pomp, Lt Gen. Le Thanh Tam, chairman of the HCM City Veterans Association, followed the party line on hostile forces. He identified these forces as people ‘who use democracy and human rights as a pretext to sabotage Vietnam.’
But absent from the celebrations was a man of much greater standing, one who has his own take.
For the first time anyone could remember, Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap failed to attend any anniversary celebrations. His presence over past years had evolved into a comfortable and welcomed familiarity, not unlike the affection reserved for the Old Hacks on the rooftop of the Majestic Hotel. CPV officials said the 98-year-old legendary war hero was too ill to attend. Health problems have dogged the general in his later years. But behind the scenes other issues have festered, in particular China.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
‘Critics of the government, who include such national luminaries as Giap, see the government as betraying the sacrifices of the past in exchange for economic gains they argue bring Vietnam no lasting benefit,’ Greenwood says.
As the architect of victory over the French colonial forces at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and a chief strategist of the war that ended in unification of the two Vietnams in 1975, Giap is a rare force capable of standing up to Nong Duc Manh. Indeed, Giap has led a chorus of veterans in accusing the government of Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung of kowtowing to China and of selling out to Beijing and to capitalism.
Greenwood says such opposition to China, which has stirred nationalist sentiment throughout Vietnam, was triggered by a government decision in 2007 to award a major contract to the Chinese resources group Chinalco to develop a bauxite mine in the Central Highlands.
‘While some of the opposition may reflect the project’s economic or even environmental aspects, few doubt the strongest motives reflect anti-Chinese sentiment,’ he says.
It’s a point not lost on Greg Barton, a professor and Southeast Asian specialist at Monash University in Melbourne.
‘In the English-speaking world the rivalry between the English and the French is imagined to be one of history’s greatest love-hate stories. It is, however, but a very minor, recent affair, alongside the epic, millennia old, bitter-sweet relationship between the Vietnamese and the Chinese,’ he says. ‘The Vietnam-China story began before the time of Christ and represents a story of love and loathing, imitation and rejection, without parallel.’
That story, Greenwood says, has its roots in a time when the various component kingdoms that now comprise modern Vietnam were vassals of the Chinese empire.
‘This hold was broken through a long period of warfare, although Vietnam’s resilience was much aided by China’s military and political weakness in the period between the Tang (618-906) and Song (960-1279 AD) dynasties.’
Vietnam found its peace in the 10th century, but was subjected to French colonial rule from the mid-19th century and then turned into a superpower battleground as the US-led West lined up against the Communist East.