By Helen Jarvis
HANOI, September 2 — September is the time for typhoons in Vietnam, and Hanoi has this week been lashed by the fifth typhoon this season, severely curtailing the preparations and rehearsals for the long-awaited 50th anniversary of Vietnam's declaration of independence. This morning, as the officials took the dais in front of Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum on Ba Dinh Square, where he read the declaration 50 years ago, the skies darkened, and as President Le Duc Anh began to speak the heavens opened.
But none of the tens of thousands of troops and colourful contingents for the people's parade were deterred, and the international guests and diplomatic corps huddled under umbrellas and plastic sheets as the speech was read and the parade kicked off.
Le Duc Anh recalled the tremendous suffering endured by the Vietnamese people since that day 50 years ago. "Our people have been fighting with valour while building the country with countless hardship and sacrifice, and recording great victories of historical significance." He paid tribute to the late President Ho Chi Minh and "to the souls of the predecessors, revolutionary martyrs, compatriots, comrades and combatants, who gloriously sacrificed their lives ... to the families of the war dead, the invalids, those credited with service to the country, to the veteran revolutionists and to Vietnamese mother heroines".
Greetings were sent to Vietnamese people living overseas, and gratitude was extended to "the brotherly and friendly countries, to the communist and workers parties, the peace and justice-loving peoples, the international organisations, the personalities, the intellectuals and the progressive people the world over for their precious support and assistance to the cause of national defence and construction of the Vietnamese people". The speech concluded with the words, "President Ho Chi Minh will live forever in our cause".
One of the highlights of the parade was the float re-enacting the declaration of independence, with a young Ho Chi Minh standing at the microphone. For one and a half hours the parade passed by. Consistent with the continuing emphasis on the long war for independence, it began with the military salute, and contingents of the different armed forces including women and minority units. They were followed by floats and contingents of 350 people from each of some 100 major industrial units and social and political organisations and gymnastic and dance troupes.
Helicopters flew overhead bearing red flags and banners, and the final section was a historical pageant of ancient and modern periods — elephants bearing kings, the declaration of independence, the red flag with the yellow star being raised over the Dien Bien Phu bunkers and the red and blue NLF flag fluttering high.
Heavy showers throughout the day dampened but did not extinguish the revelry as thousands came out to watch dragon boat races on the famous Hoan Kiem Lake in the centre of town, and to besiege the city on motorbikes and bicycles alike. The international contingent was rather small, with only some 20 guests invited to Vietnam by the government for the occasion.
I was fortunate enough to be invited to join the Australian contingent — Tom Uren and Brian Day (national president and secretary of the Australia Vietnam Society) — for the parade and for other events of the celebration: the opening of a national exhibition by Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet, a cultural performance at Hanoi's exquisite Opera House, watching the fireworks from the verandah of the People's Committee building alongside the lake, and a meeting with VCP leaders, including the general secretary of the Communist Party, Do Muoi, and Vice President and well known wartime spokeswoman Nguyen Thi Binh.
Vietnam is celebrating its 50 years of survival against frightening odds, and the leadership is reaffirming its course of "doi moi" (renovation) launched at the Sixth Congress of the VCP in 1986.
Economic gains have been impressive, with over 8% annual growth in GDP since 1992 and particularly rapid gains in oil, steel and electricity output. The statistic most talked about is the 1994 rice production figure of 23,526 tons. Vietnam is once again a rice exporter.
Foreign investment is not proceeding at the expected pace, partly because of the long delay in normalisation of relations with the USA, and partly due to uncertain legal circumstances: there is no commercial law to regulate activities. Inflation of 15% and a woeful infrastructure are problems, and Vietnam's economic indicators are still below most other countries of the region.
1995 marked some important turning points in Vietnam's international position, most notably its entry into ASEAN and the eventual establishment of full diplomatic relations with the USA. It was extraordinary to attend an "Indonesian fashion show and pop music — on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Vietnam and Indonesian Independence Day" staged by the Vietnam Women's Union and sponsored by the Bakrie Group, one of Indonesia's biggest conglomerates.
Amidst all the pride and reaffirmation of the correctness of party policy, there was little examination of the course Vietnam is taking, what costs might be being paid and by whom, and of whether a more open political system might be possible or preferable. Environmental problems abound, AIDS and diseases such as dengue and malaria threaten large numbers of the population, and even the loved and admired old quarter of Hanoi is being threatened by uncontrolled development.
Restrictions remain on freedom of expression, with many political, religious and cultural figures under detention. Hundreds of prisoners were given amnesty last week, but it was not disclosed whether any political prisoners were included.