47. Vietnam and China: No Love Lost

Vietnam is not one of China’s biggest fans. The reasons may be rooted in a long and combative history, but they extend today to a perceived lack of respect.

A fierce dragon greets visitors to Ho Chi Minh City’s historical Chinatown quarter, Chợ Lớn. (JGA photo)

If you are of an age that you followed world affairs in the 1950s and ‘60s, you’re familiar with the “domino theory.” It was a key factor in the American involvement in the war in Vietnam, promoted heavily by General Dwight Eisenhower, the U.S. president from 1953 to 1961.

Following Mao Tse-tung’s revolution in China in 1949 and Ho Chi Mính’s rebuff of French colonialism at Dien Bien Phu in 1953, Eisenhower believed strongly that the advance of communism had to be stopped in Southeast Asia — lest the renegade philosophy take over the world. Under U.S. President Richard Nixon (1969-1974) at the height of the Vietnamese civil war (known in Vietnam as the American War), the perceived threat posed by the domino theory was rekindled by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

In the end, the belief in dominoes was mostly misguided. Although the government of Vietnam (with minimal support from China) became fully communist upon the country’s reunification in 1975, communism spread no further than the former French colonies of Laos and Cambodia … despite political crises in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines that might have given it a foothold.

If mid-20th-century American politics were tagged to an assumption that Vietnam would be riding the coattails of the huge country on its northern border, that conjecture was very wrong. Even today, 46 years after U.S. troops exited Saigon, the Vietnamese don’t like the Chinese very much. Indeed, surveys suggest that fewer than one in five Vietnamese has a positive view of China. (Four in five, by contrast, are fans of Korea and Japan.)

China’s claims in the East Sea are a point of friction. (map by BNN Bloomberg from CSIS)

History

Why? It starts with more than 2,000 years of history. Although a Taoist and Confucianist ethic (instilled by centuries of Chinese occupation) prevails today in Vietnam, especially in the north, the Southeast Asian country has thrown off the yoke of Chinese imperialism at least four times. Vietnam first won its independence in 938 A.D.

More recently, it did so during the Sino-French War of 1884, a conflict that ushered in the era of French colonization. That didn’t last long. In the frenzy that followed World War II, China administered northern Vietnam until France could regain its footing. That never happened, of course; even though they contributed baguettes (banh mì) to the culture, the French were soon history.

Gratitude for Chinese support quickly evaporated when China aligned itself with Phnom Penh’s Khmer Rouge government during the Cambodian-Vietnamese War of 1978-1990. Vietnam thrust back the Chinese on two fronts — on both sides of the border in the Mekong Delta, and in a particularly bloody confrontation on its northern border — before settling into an uneasy and distrustful peace.

Military posturing continues today, especially in the East (South China) Sea, where China has made no secret of its designs on the Trường Sa (Paracel and Spratly) island groups. The Chinese have built naval airfields on atolls that Vietnam has for centuries claimed to safeguard offshore natural resources, including oil, along its long coastline. (The Philippines and Malaysia also claim the Spratly group.)

Now Vietnam perceives China as using underhanded methods to achieve a greater economic presence. According to the Indochine Counsel, headquartered in Hanoi and with sources in Vietnam’s Ministry of Defense, China now controls well over 100 companies in border and coastal regions, illegally employing Chinese in Vietnam on tourist visas. “In some cases,” the sources report, “firms have disguised themselves as normal companies to commit high-tech crimes and even produce and/or trade in narcotics. Other firms have evaded taxes and caused severe environmental pollution.”

Chinese couple visiting Hoi An in 2019 (iStock photo by Yumi Mini)

Arrogance

As an overseas American, I have heard many criticisms of my countrymen as travelers — that we are arrogant, that we don’t try to speak the local language, that we expect to get special treatment wherever we go. It’s not just Americans, of course, but our presence is unmistakable, and I mostly concur.

In Vietnam, these comments are mostly directed at the mainland Chinese: “They are smelly. Noisy. Obnoxious. They throw trash all over the place. They look down on locals.”

“Chinese think they are better than Vietnamese,” says Professor Nguyễn Hải Hoành. He has published a long article in which he maintains that Chinese regard Vietnamese as an inferior nation, not worthy of being accepted for who they are.

As paraphrased by the Indochine Counsel, Nguyễn writes that “Chinese see Vietnam as poor and backwards, undeveloped and damaged. They do not look at the people or the culture … They look down on the quality of Vietnamese goods, food, manufactures, services. They judge Vietnamese for the corruption of their government, which is little worse than China’s own, and for the value of its currency.”

What is more, China continues to export its poorest quality goods to Vietnam, failing to recognize the consumer culture — which, as I quickly discovered, is substantial. People, especially young Vietnamese, love to spend money. And they expect quality in return. This is no longer a backward Third World nation, as it may have been two generations ago.

Black chicken, rich in antioxidants, is served at a Chợ Lớn restaurant. (JGA photo)

Food culture

In North America, Chinese restaurants have been popular for more than 150 years, ever since Asians first crossed the Pacific to mine gold and build railroads, and Hop Sing was in the Cartwrights’ kitchen on Bonanza. Today, many food-conscious Americans know the difference between Cantonese, Mandarin and Szechuan cuisines.

But here in Vietnam, you’re hard-pressed to find a Chinese restaurant of any kind, except perhaps for those serving Singapore-style dim sum. In Ho Chi Minh City, for instance, there are far more Korean, Japanese, Thai and Indian restaurants than Chinese.

Saigon’s traditional Chinatown, Chợ Lớn (District 5), was once a city in its own right and clings to some heritage, especially in the classical architecture of its temples and in a smattering of herbalists’ shops. But Chinese characters are fading away, to be replaced by the modern Vietnamese alphabet.

A few restaurants here serve traditional Chinese specialties, such as black chicken, an herbal dish praised by aficionados because it has more antioxidants and fewer calories than regular chicken.

But popular culture? Music and film comes from many countries — the United States in particular, but also Europe and Japan — and especially from South Korea. There’s a lot of Seoul in the subtitled soap operas and cheesy K-Pop offerings.

Taiwan? OK, fine. But nothing from mainland China, thank you.

A temple god receives incense and offerings at a Taoist temple in Chợ Lớn. (JGA photo)
Chinese and Vietnamese flags (iStock-Getty Images photo by Oleksil Liskonih)

Published by John Gottberg Anderson

Writer-photographer specializing in travel and food subjects ... member of the Society of American Travel Writers for more than 20 years ... former editor for the Los Angeles Times and France's Michelin Guides, among others

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