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Lessons from Vietnam: No Pretensions of a Vishwaguru

A. J. Philip A. J. Philip
18 Sep 2023

As the G-20 Summit concluded in New Delhi on September 10, my wife and I, accompanied by our dear friend C G Daniel, embarked on a thrilling adventure to Vietnam. Our week-long journey promised to be a captivating exploration of this enchanting Southeast Asian nation. Little did we know that an unexpected encounter with history would await us at our destination. 

Upon our arrival at Hanoi's bustling, modern airport, we were warmly greeted by our knowledgeable guide, Dongnt. He wore an unmistakable air of excitement, a sparkle in his eyes, as he eagerly shared a remarkable tidbit of news with us. It turned out that none other than the President of the United States, Joe Biden, had made a stopover in Hanoi during his journey from New Delhi to Washington. 

For Daniel, our American companion, this news was nothing short of a delightful surprise. In a light-hearted moment, he couldn't resist injecting a touch of humour into the situation. He promptly sent a message to his daughter, playfully suggesting that he and President Biden were both residents of the same city, if only temporarily. The notion of sharing a city, even briefly, with the leader of one's nation was an amusing thought indeed. 

However, despite the guide’s evident enthusiasm and Daniel's jests, the city of Hanoi seemed surprisingly unfazed by the presence of such a prominent visitor. Life continued to unfold in its usual rhythm, with the ebb and flow of daily activities undisturbed by the visit of the American President, whose office was at one time the most hated object in the whole country. 

The anticipation and optimism surrounding President Biden's visit to Vietnam were palpable among the Vietnamese people. Our insightful guide, expressed the widespread sentiment that this visit could pave the way for a significant milestone in their economic relations, with bilateral trade expected to soon surpass the impressive $300-billion mark. 

However, as we ventured through the bustling streets of Hanoi and explored its vibrant airport, I couldn't help but notice a striking absence: there was not a single image or poster of President Biden or his host to be found. This marked a stark departure from the scene in New Delhi during the G-20 summit, where the Indian capital seemed to be awash with images of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It was as if the entire city had been adorned with a mosaic of Modi's visage, with posters featuring the Prime Minister's multicoloured portraits stretching from airport to the G-20 venue and beyond. 

Of course, along the route taken by President Biden, we couldn't help but notice the electric posts adorned with flags, a poignant symbol of the strong diplomatic ties between the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and the US. 

In the realm of public perception, historical Communist leaders such as Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and Kim Il Sung were often recognised for their pronounced penchant for self-promotion. However, it struck me as rather remarkable that during my ongoing visit to Vietnam, I encountered not a single photograph or public display featuring either Vietnamese President Vo Van Thuong or party general secretary Nguyen Phu Trong. 

This stark absence of their imagery in the public space conveyed a distinctive style of leadership and governance, one that opted for a more understated presence. It left me pondering that perhaps there's a lesson to be gleaned here. It appeared that the Vietnamese leadership had chosen a path less reliant on high-profile self-promotion. 

This observation brought to mind the approach of Modi, who, in contrast, has embraced a more vigorous and visible style of leadership, often accompanied by a significant publicity blitz. The juxtaposition of these leadership styles serves as a thought-provoking reminder that political success can indeed be achieved through various means, and the efficacy of leadership doesn't always hinge on a high-profile public persona. 

There are indeed valuable lessons that Modi could glean from Vietnam's unique history and development. It's often noted that Ho Chi Minh, the revered Vietnamese leader, leaned more towards nationalism than strict Communism. He tactically employed Communist ideology as a means to, first, resist the French colonial rule and, later, the American intervention. 

I vividly recall the day — April 30, 1975 — when Saigon fell to the Vietnamese Communists, a moment marked by a modest celebration at the India Press Agency where I worked. Our editor, the late Nikhil Chakravarthy, brought a packet of laddus, and we shared it in this historic moment. 

In less than five decades, Vietnam has made great strides in progress and development. As I explored the countryside, I encountered a statue of the Soviet cosmonaut Gherman Titov, who first captured the iconic photograph of Earth from space. He was taken by none other than President Ho Chi Minh to visit the largest cave in Halong Bay.

While Vietnam hasn't embarked on lunar missions like India, its strides in reducing poverty are evident. Their success in fighting poverty has been far more remarkable than that of India. One striking aspect of Vietnam, particularly in cities like Hanoi and Saigon, is their visible cleanliness, a far cry from the bustling and often chaotic streets of Delhi, where cows and stray dogs are a common sight.

Nonetheless, the Vietnamese currency system can be perplexing, as I discovered when a simple request for a touch of milk in my black coffee led to an unexpected price hike. Yet, despite these quirks, the cost of living remains notably lower than in Delhi, with a cup of coffee being nearly half the price. This affordability contributes to Vietnam's appeal to Indian tourists, and it's astonishing that there's now a direct flight connecting Kochi and Hanoi, highlighting the growing ties between the two nations. 

In the face of these experiences, it's evident that Vietnam has much to offer and that its unique blend of history, culture, and progress holds valuable lessons for leaders like Modi. The Vietnamese exhibit a nuanced approach to nationalism that is truly intriguing. 

While they officially renamed Saigon as Ho Chi Minh City, it's noteworthy that for the majority of the populace, the city still goes by its historic name, Saigon. This dual nomenclature reflects the complex tapestry of their history and identity. 

As we exited Hanoi's bustling airport, we encountered a symbol of this nuanced perspective -- the bridge across the Red River, a testament to the Vietnamese republic's early years. It's a significant structure, being the first bridge built by the Vietnamese government. However, what's particularly remarkable is their decision not to discard the bridge constructed during the French colonial era, even though it had endured repeated bombings by the Americans. 

This bridge, designed by the same architect responsible for the iconic Eiffel Tower, stands as a tangible reminder of the enduring threads that connect Vietnam's past with its present. This coexistence of historical and modern elements within Vietnam's landscape is a testament to the country's ability to preserve its heritage while forging ahead with progress and development. It's a powerful reflection of their unique national identity, which embraces both tradition and change. 

Exploring Hanoi's historical sites with our knowledgeable guide revealed another layer of Vietnam's unique blend of history and modernity. It's fascinating that the first modern hospital in Hanoi, originally established by the French and named after St. Paul, has retained its Christian name even though it is now government-owned. This decision reflects a respect for the historical legacy of the institution. 

Similarly, the first high school in Hanoi, set up by the French, has not undergone a name change. These institutions stand as enduring symbols of Vietnam's complex history, where elements from the French colonial era coexist with contemporary governance and culture. 

The prevalence of French-era bungalows repurposed as government offices adds to the rich historical diversity of the city. One notable example is the Vietnamese Ministry of External Affairs, housed within such a bungalow. This juxtaposition of historical architecture and modern functions highlights Vietnam's ability to blend its past with the demands of the present, creating a unique and captivating urban landscape. 

The Vietnamese approach to their colonial history is indeed distinct. Unlike Indian leaders who place blame on colonial powers for various issues, the Vietnamese seem to embrace their history without assigning blame. This nuanced perspective may stem from their desire to focus on progress and development rather than dwelling on past grievances. 

It’s also remarkable to note the rapid growth and modernisation in Vietnam, epitomised by Saigon's impressive 81-storey skyscraper, the tallest in the country. In contrast, India has yet to construct a building of such towering height, showcasing the divergent trajectories of these two nations in terms of urbanisation and infrastructure. Parts of the Statue of Unity came from China! 

Indeed, punctuality, cleanliness, and basic honesty are foundational qualities that contribute significantly to a nation's character and reputation. The Vietnamese appear to excel in these areas, embodying these virtues in their daily lives. These qualities help create a positive and orderly environment that benefits both residents and visitors alike. 

While the Vietnamese may not have aspirations of becoming a global leader or "Vishwa Guru," their focus on providing excellent service, even on domestic flights like the one between Hanoi and Saigon, is commendable. Offering a pre-meal drink and more leg space demonstrates their dedication to ensuring a comfortable and pleasant travel experience for all passengers. Daniel says Vietnamese Airlines was adjudged one of the best. 

These small but significant gestures contribute to Vietnam's reputation as a country that values the well-being and satisfaction of its people and visitors, making it a unique and welcoming destination. Their commitment to building expressways, skyscrapers, modern apartment buildings, and iconic bridges demonstrates their dedication to economic growth and urban development. 

What’s particularly striking is their approach to historical and societal matters. Vietnam seems to prioritise harmony and peaceful coexistence, rather than engaging in divisive actions such as name-changing, rewriting history, or marginalising minority communities like Muslims and Christians. They don’t treat Canada’s Justin Trudeau differently from America’s Joe Biden, while mouthing “guests are gods”! 

This commitment to inclusivity and respect for diversity contributes to social stability and a more harmonious society. The freedom women enjoy and the economic independence they have must be seen to be believed. This approach aligns with the broader global goal of fostering tolerance and understanding among communities, ensuring that people from all backgrounds can live peacefully alongside one another. 

In the tapestry of history, the threads of friendship often weave nations together in surprising ways. Such is the case with Vietnam's Father of the Nation, Ho Chi Minh, and India's first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. These two visionary leaders, separated by geography but united by their shared ideals of freedom and self-determination, formed a bond that transcended borders. 

Ho Chi Minh's journey from a young revolutionary to the revered figurehead of Vietnamese independence was one marked by determination and sacrifice. His unwavering commitment to the cause of liberation not only inspired his compatriots but resonated with leaders across the globe, including Jawaharlal Nehru. 

Nehru saw in Ho Chi Minh a kindred spirit, a comrade in the fight against colonial oppression. Their friendship was more than a diplomatic alliance; it was a meeting of minds, a convergence of ideologies that shaped the course of history. Nehru's support for Vietnam's quest for independence was not merely political; it was rooted in a shared belief in the fundamental rights of nations to determine their destiny. As he famously said, "The cause of Vietnam is the cause of India." 

Their friendship was a testament to the power of unity in the face of adversity. They exchanged ideas, shared their experiences, and lent each other moral support during trying times. In an era when the world was divided by ideological differences, Ho Chi Minh and Jawaharlal Nehru showed that genuine friendships could bridge even the widest chasms. 

Today, as we look back on the struggles and triumphs of these two great leaders, we can't help but marvel at the small wonder that their friendship became. It was a friendship that transcended borders, cultures, and languages -- a friendship that left an indelible mark on the history of two nations. 

In the end, the story of Ho Chi Minh and Jawaharlal Nehru serves as a powerful reminder that friendship knows no boundaries, and the pursuit of justice and freedom can bring together kindred spirits from across the world. They were not guided by GDP but by their common desire to improve the lot of their people.

 ajphilip@gmail.com

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