Behind the Bamboo Curtain

June 27, 1955

Well folks, since I last wrote you, your globe-trotting son and brother has made a wee excursion behind the “Bamboo Curtain”!!

Yes, last Thursday morning I flew up to the city of Hanoi in the land of Ho Chi Minh. It was a very strange feeling, going back again to Hanoi, the scene of my first days in Indochina. But the Hanoi of today is certainly not anything like the Hanoi of last September!!

Dad, I was met at the airport by none other than your friend, George Bevan. It was a pleasant surprise, to say the least! George had typed up a memorandum for me to help me out during my stay. I thought this was very helpful and I thought you’d be interested in knowing how well I’m being taken care of in this strange land of Indochina.

My first glimpse of a Communist regime in full swing was when I stepped off the plane at the airport in Hanoi. The Viet-Minh Police were standing right at the the door of the plane marking things down in little books. I suppose it was sort of a traffic check or something. One thing I notice about the Hanoi Airport. At one time, Hanoi had one of the busiest airports in Southeast Asia. Today it is deserted! Only our Commission plane are allowed to land in Hanoi from the Free World.

Driving from the airport to the city of Hanoi, you have to cross over a great long bridge. On the airport end of the bridge you are greeted by a huge picture of “Uncle Ho” (Ho Chi Minh) grinning his welcome to Hanoi. In spite of all the propaganda you hear about how happy everybody is under the influence of Communism, I was struck with quite the contrary picture in Hanoi. I have never seen such a sad-looking people.

Hanoi Long Bien Bridge (current)

On practically every street in Hanoi, there are hung great RED banners with Vietnamese writing on them. I am told that these banners simply welcome the peasants to the “happy city of Hanoi”. Perhaps you will remember a picture that appeared in the Star Weekly last August of the Hanoi Opera House? This Opera House is now decorated with a two-storey high picture of Ho Chi Minh and also great banners and flags all over the place.

Hanoi Opera House and "Uncle Ho"

Hanoi Opera House and “Uncle Ho”

Everybody in Hanoi is dressed in one of three fashions: (1) the peasants and common people wear black pants and brown shirts. (2) the “workers” are dressed in blue uniforms. (3) the soldiers (of which there are many) are dressed in drab khaki uniforms with brownish-yelloe (sort of a mustard shade) running shoes on their feet and khaki sun-helmets on their heads.

All the Commission vehicles are driven by Viet-Minh soldiers, and all the Commission buildings (including the hotels the Commission occupy in Hanoi) are guarded by these soldiers. In addition, you will find little soldiers all over the city, just standing on corners or lurking in yellow sentry boxes. They all carry machine-guns or bayonetted rifles, to say nothing of hand-grenades in their belts. If one of these soldiers happens to be standing in your way, he will not budge an inch! No sir, you just have to go around him. These little men have the most annoying habit of pointing their guns at you all the time, a fact which made me just a little uneasy during my first day.

I was given a room at the Hotel Splendide. This is a very nice hotel, but it does have one little drawback. Namely, it is used for the twice-daily compulsory lectures!! Everyone in Hanoi must attend these lectures. Twice daily!! The people are told what they are supposed to know, then follows a great sing-song in Vietnamese. I was told that this wee tune is the workers’ song and it is all about just how happy everybody is! I suppose if you keep telling a person that he’s happy all the time, that person will come to believe it, no matter how miserable he might be! This is the first example of brain-washing I have ever witnessed and I hope it will be the last. It is pitiful!

Under the new regime, the people of Hanoi are rationed in their rice supply. A child receives something like 17 lbs. of rice per month; an adult receives about 27 lbs. per month, and the select “few” highly-favoured government workers receive about 57 lbs. of rice per month. Now when you stop to consider that these people rely on rice for three meals a day, 17 or even 27 lbs. per month is certainly not very much.

The prices in Hanoi are ridiculous. I was walking down the street with one of our fellows up there and we saw some Gillette razor blades in the window of one shop. The price was marked as 800 dongs. We entered and the fellow asked for a package of blades. The price was suddenly 1500 dongs!! And there isn’t a thing we could do about it!!

Incidentally, I am enclosing a 500 dong note for you to keep as a souvenir. I think I’m pretty safe in saying that the dong is one type of currency that you won’t see floating about in great abundance! You will note the picture of Ho Chi Minh on the front, along with some soldiers pushing a cannon. On the back of the dong you will see some of the happy workers out in a field. Quite a change from the colourful Cambodian piastres with the pretty girls and flowers all over them!! Another interesting thing you will see on the back of this dong is the date which appears at the bottom-centre of the bill. 1951!! And the dong only came into existence at the end of 1954!! I guess Ho Chi Minh must have been pretty sure of himself!

Well, my stay in Hanoi was a very quiet one indeed. I moved to the Hotel Azure where the NCOs live after one day of political rallies at the Splendide. The NCOs accommodation is excellent. Far better than we have here in Phnom Penh. The only drawback being, of course, the presence of 3 or 4 armed guards 24 hours a day. But after a while you just get to ignore them completely. I spent a great deal of my time in our office in the Burmah Shell Building. I was utterly amazed at all the changes that had taken place since I first helped set up shop there last September! It is really a smooth-running office now.

Both the officers and the NCOs have their own mess in the Burmah Shell Building. It is the only place in all of Hanoi where anybody can go in the evening. I divided my attentions between the two messes and it was indeed pleasant to meet old friends and to see new faces also. I was told a rather interesting and sad thing in the NCOs mess. They have a boy working for them (a local Vietnamese boy) who has picked up a little bit of English over a period of time. He is a very clever chap and a hard worker, but he is just a little bit confused. You see, he was telling one of our chaps one day about what he had been told about the Canadians before he took the job. It seems that he had been told that the Canadians are murderers of widows and old men, and that the Canadians EAT small children!!! After working with the Canadians for some time he has discovered that really aren’t such a bad lot after all and, as I said before, he hardly knows what to believe anymore! The most shocking thing about all this, of course, is that this is the sort of lies that the Communists are feeding the poor, ignorant people!! It surely makes a person wonder, doesn’t it???

I don’t recall if I mentioned this to you in one of my last September letters, but Hanoi used to have a streetcar line with a huge sign on the side of each streetcar advertising a soap called “CANADA”! I noticed that the streetcars are now painted red with big yellow stars on their sides! Also, you will remember the picture I sent you in my album of a pagoda in Hanoi that is situated in the middle of a lake. This rather attractive Buddhist pagoda is now surmounted by a big red neon star!

The Perfume Pagoda (current)

Two other things I noticed in Hanoi were the presence of only RUSSIAN films in the cinemas and also the presence of “InformationCentres” that hand out booklets, etc., to the people. Also, outside these Information Centres there is a loudspeaker that pours out propaganda to passers-by all the time!!

So this is how Communism works! You really have to see it to believe it, I assure you.

On Saturday, I had lunch with Mr. Lett, Major-General Megill, and Saul Rae at Mr. Lett’s villa. We chatted a good deal and needless to say, Dad, your name came into our conversation a good deal. Mr. Lett sends his very best wishes to you and Russ.

Commissioner Sherwood Lett and Saul Rae (Bob’s father) in Hanoi, March 1955

One thing about Hanoi that relieves the monotony for our fellows is the local Cercle Sportif swimming pool. There are so few Europeans left in Hanoi now that it is almost exclusively used by the Commission people – mostly Canadians.

Well, I came down to Phnom Penh again yesterday and my adventure behind the “Bamboo Curtain” was over. It was surely an eye-opening trip, believe me!

That about does it for this week. Things are going on around her as usual, and since Errol Wyse arrived last month, it has relieved me of a great deal of work. You’ll be hearing from me again next week.

Till then, lots of love,

Dave

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