Reflections on Điện Biên Phủ

Like generations of Vietnamese school children, I was taught from a young age that the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, where Viet Minh forces defeated the French Empire, “shook the globe”. As children, we are all familiar with the sense of pride as we see the famous photo of the flag of the Viet Minh flying over the headquarters of the French forces in the valley at Dien Bien Phu. It was, after all, possibly the most prominent example of an indigenous army in a colony defeating an imperial power in a conventional modern battle and marked the end of the First Indochina War and the collapse of French Indochina. The war was not kind to Vietnam – in addition to the military losses, the French also made an effort to destroy priceless cultural relics that had little military value, beginning with much of the Imperial City of Hue (including the priceless scrolls in the Imperial Library) upon reoccupying the country in 1946 (aided by the British, who were tasked with disarming the Japanese south of the 16th parallel) and ending with the One-Pillar Pagoda in Hanoi as they withdrew – the pagoda had been constructed in 1049. More than simply smashing the myth of French military supremacy – after all, the French Empire was defeated even when 80% of the French war effort was being funded by the United States – the First Indochina War was the final nail on the coffin for French claims of cultural and moral superiority; after all, such wanton destruction inflicted by a losing army seeking to reimpose control over a colony spoke not of dignity or cultural refinement, but rather of a desperate moral bankruptcy.

But I write this not as an attempt to list the crimes of French colonial system; the sins are self-evident and have been enumerated by much better scholars. The legacy of Dien Bien Phu extends much further than its influence shaping the political future of Vietnam. Paradoxically, I never truly understood Dien Bien Phu’s impact on the rest of the world until I left Vietnam. Even as we commemorate almost sixty years since the battle, the memory of it lives on beyond our shores. I still remember the first moment I realised this, when I talked to an old Algerian couple on the shores of the Red Sea in Egypt. When they had heard that I was from Vietnam, they immediately recounted to me their memory of receiving the news of Dien Bien Phu on that fateful day in May 1954. The man told me he still remembered waking up to the news as a teenager and what it symbolised for Algeria. The French Empire in all its might was defeated by some indigènes in Indochina! The names Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap were on everybody’s lips. If it could happen in Indochina, it could happen in Algeria! Dien Bien Phu became a beacon for decolonisation all over the world. I felt pride mingled with humility and awe with this realisation. We fought to liberate ourselves, yet our actions had great repercussions for the rest of the world. Even as we struggle in our corner of the world, we do not stand alone, and our struggle carries meaning beyond our borders. We were the fabled city on the hill, and I only hope that since then, we have managed to live up to our reputation.

It wasn’t until later that Dien Bien Phu began to carry even more meaning to me. In Vietnam, Dien Bien Phu is often talked about as the moment when we gained our political freedom. However, as I progress further in my studies and my travels, Dien Bien Phu has taken on new meaning. As I became exposed to post-colonial studies, I often found that despite coming from a former colony myself, the social structures and attitudes described in these texts often seem very foreign to me. The remaining deference to the white man despite independence did not seem reminiscent of the people I grew up with. Yet, as I travel to other former colonies, vestiges of the colonial system still lingered in many places, internalised by post-independence elites, whether through the continued use of the colonial language, the maintenance of the colonial political system, or the implicit elevation of the white foreigners above natives. It was through this experience that I realised that Dien Bien Phu did not just liberate us politically; more importantly, it liberated our minds. How could we continue to perceive Europe as superior if it could be defeated so utterly in open battle? How could Europe claim to be morally and culturally enlightened when its actions in defeat spoke of such terrible moral corruption? Through Dien Bien Phu, we as a nation found the courage to break the bonds of colonialism and smash the colonial system to reclaim our destiny. Perhaps on that day in May, we gained not just our political independence, but also a psychological freedom that allows us to perceive ourselves as an equal member of the global community. It is a freedom so complete that millions of us who grew up with it do not even realise the incredible privilege that it has brought us. We see the right to be masters of our own fate as a birth right and our self-assurance as equal to anyone in the western world to be self-evident. The rest of the twentieth century was not kind to us, but nothing could take away our dignity and our sense of self. We have been through destructive war and crushing poverty, but we remain confident in our ability to stand on our own two feet and stand proudly as an equal in the world.

Today (7th May, 2018) is the fifty-fourth anniversary of the battle, and while we commemorate the great losses we suffered during the French War, we must also remember that we freed our minds that day. That hard-gained freedom is priceless, and as we look towards the uncertainties of the future, I hope that independence continues to be an anchor for us to remind us that we are privileged in being the sole masters of our own fate.

The Great Schengen Adventure

In the previous post, I complained at length about my visa struggles. However, the one visa that is the bane of my existence (and thus deserves special mention) is the Schengen visa, which allows entry to the Schengen Zone (EU minus the UK and Ireland, but plus Norway, Iceland, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein). While the US makes an effort to expedite applications of those who have been to the US before and will grant longer-term visitor visas, the Schengen countries will give you just enough for your visit and make you reapply again. And again. And again. The requirements are also quite elaborate and seem to be at the whims of the visa officer. The insurance letter, for example, MUST state a very specific combination of words (never mind synonyms), and be prepared to give your last three pay stubs, bank statements for the last three months, flight reservations, and accommodation reservations. If you want to stay with a friend or family, be prepared to deal with the letter of invitation. As I usually stay with my aunt in France, she has to provide me with an Attestation d’Accueil, which is essentially a form that says that she has a house and is willing to host me. To get this form, she must go to the local mairie, fill out a form, pay a fee, wait for a week before picking it up, and then mail it to me. Yes, snail mail (this may be France-specific, as I recall reading that the Austrians let you do this all online). Then I must take the form to my visa appointment, which usually has to be planned at least a month in advance. If something happens to your visa application and you must reapply? Too bad; once the Attestation d’Accueil is used in a failed application, you have to get a new one. From France. By snail mail. Maybe I’ll just go to Las Vegas and see the Eiffel Tower there…

The consulates also vary in their policies. The French consulate in New York is wildly inconsistent in attitude (here is their Yelp page for reference), while the French consulate in Los Angeles was a delight to deal with (and seemed very short-staffed, so I really appreciated the effort). Also, last I checked, for whatever reason, Vietnam is in a list of countries that requires extra time for processing, so lucky us (we’re mysteriously on this list only in New York but not at other consulates in the US). I’ve heard the French are moving some of their visa procedures online, but as with most things related to French bureaucracy, I’m not keen to try it out unless I have to.

You also have to carry all these papers with you when you travel. This happened to me, my mother, and my sister as we were going from Cairo back to Paris to catch a flight to New York. A German guy with CSA Czech Airlines (to this day I don’t know what his official capacity is) refused to let us board because we didn’t have our insurance letter with us, even though this insurance was a necessity for getting the visa in the first place. We tried to explain this to him to no avail – he did not speak English or French, and the Egyptians could not help us since he also did not speak Arabic. Goodness knows what he was doing there. And because European airlines are especially awful, we had to buy a new ticket with Cypriot Airways, and, armed with our insurance paper, went back to the airport the next day where the Greek guy at the counter asked for…nothing. I have also never been asked for this form since, but I still always carry it. Arbitrary bureaucracy at its best. Don’t expect to get sympathy from many Europeans either – when I told a Dutch cyclist I ran into in Uzbekistan about this, he sneered and told me that it was necessary to “keep out the migrants”. I suppose transparency and efficiency are too much to ask for.

As harrowing as these experiences sound, they are far from uncommon. A Vietnamese friend studying at a well-known university in the US wanted to do an internship in France for the summer, so she went to the French consulate in New York. No such luck, since her US visa expires before she leaves France, even though her round-trip ticket was from Vietnam (where she would also be renewing her US visa). No matter, she thought; she tries to apply for it in Vietnam, only to be told that since she spends more than six months out of the year in the US, she cannot apply in Vietnam since she is not a resident (never mind that she is a citizen). It also doesn’t seem to be limited only to the French – a Chinese friend of mine had to shuttle back and forth from central Virginia to Washington, DC because of some paper technicalities demanded by the German embassy. Such is life.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The US, as already mentioned, allows visa renewals to be done by mail. The UK will give six months automatically. Australia allows online applications. Canada encourages people to apply for longer visas, and in my experience, their consulates have been unfailingly polite. Of course, all this has enormous implications for my travel patterns, and I’d imagine the travel patterns of lots of other Vietnamese. This summer, for example, my mother wants to treat herself and take her first proper holiday in many years. She really wants to go to Greece, but decided not to based on the onerous visa requirements (which would have meant that she had to go to Hanoi to do an interview). Instead, it looks like we might go to Sri Lanka and the Maldives, both of which offer visas on arrival for us. So long, Santorini, I guess. Europe has made its priorities clear, so we have to make our choices accordingly.

Travelling on a Vietnamese Passport

When I was little, I thought travelling abroad was an impossible dream.  My dearest ambition as a teenager was to have travelled to ten different countries by the time I turned thirty.  Beyond the financial considerations (as Vietnam is still a very poor country), travelling on a Vietnamese passport was not (and still is not) easy. It was beyond my wildest dreams that now, as I celebrate my twenty-seventh birthday, I have surpassed that dream and feel incredibly privileged.

Travelling independently on a Vietnamese passport is challenging at best.  Visa requirements are complex (often with additional complexity as a special “bonus” for us Vietnamese), which drastically changes the preparations needed for travelling.  That last-minute flight deal to Europe? Good luck getting that visa with less than three months of preparation.  Want to pop over to Jordan from Israel? Go without me, because who knows when I’ll get that visa.  Fancy a short hop into Guatemala from Mexico? Have fun, because I can’t figure out what a visa consultada even entails.  Since not many Vietnamese people travel to more “unusual” destinations, finding visa help can also be quite difficult online (although this is changing very quickly).Vietnamese_passport

Because of this, when I came across the page of a Filipina traveller on visas, I felt an immediate sense of solidarity (however, a Philippine passport gives visa-free or visa-on-arrival access to 63 countries, clocking in at 75th in the world, compared to just 49 for a Vietnamese passport, putting us at 88th).  Quite a few countries have special hoops just for us Vietnamese to jump through: we require prior security clearance in both Lebanon and Jordan, require an advanced visa in Macau, must get prior approval from the Ministry of External Affairs to enter El Salvador, and cannot enter Armenia without a special invitation letter (which appears to be impossible to obtain).  I’ve had to change my travel plans multiple times due to visa snags, and the bureaucratic hoops are never-ending.  Neither is there rhyme or reason for these policies: while it is impossible for me to get a visa to Armenia, both Azerbaijan and Georgia are quite open with their visa policies; on the same trip where I could not get a Jordanian visa, the Israeli visa was fairly straightforward; and despite my difficulties entering El Salvador, I can go to Panama and Chile visa-free (along with Mexico and Costa Rica with a valid US visa).  There’s a special place in hell for the Schengen visa, so it’ll deserve its own dedicated post.

Of course, there are a few perks for Vietnamese passports.  Russian visas are quite straightforward to get and don’t cost much (although Russia doesn’t seem to apply its policy of reciprocity to Vietnam, as Russian citizens can enter Vietnam visa-free for two weeks) – the Russian consulate even made sure I got my visa in time and gave back change in cash (however, I just checked the website of the Russian embassy and it turns out that processing times are now 20 days.  So much for that).  We can theoretically stay indefinitely in Kyrgyzstan and don’t need to register with the police under 60 days (whatever the land border officials might try to tell you).  The requirements also have been getting easier – Chile just abolished visas for us in 2018, and many other visas are much easier to get than before.  Travelling on a Vietnamese passport also makes you inherently unsuspicious in a few places, which makes checkpoints much less of a hassle.  We can also travel visa-free around Southeast Asia – however, there may still be problems at borders.  When I tried to cross from Singapore to Malaysia, I was taken into a separate room, questioned about why I travel so much (heaven forbid someone from Vietnam likes to travel), and then allowed in…while they forget to capture my fingerprints, which would have happened had I gone through the regular line.

As nightmarish as this all sounds, it is a huge improvement to what it had been before. My mother, who had first gone abroad in the 1980s as a student to Australia, is still stressed out by the prospect that border guards will arbitrarily stop us.  Because of all this, I always feel incredibly fortunate to have been able to travel.  I suppose all these visa stickers also make my passport more “interesting” to some people (which causes my friend to retort: “what you mean is I’m very good at jumping through bureaucratic hoops”).  So, next time you go anywhere on a whim because you don’t need a visa, spare a thought for our struggles.

Rambles from the Unexpected Life

This is my second attempt at writing a blog – however, unlike my first attempt, which mostly documented my itinerary in detail, this will mostly be about my observations and thoughts in general.  Don’t worry – I ramble just as much in real life.

If you’d like to see some of my travel photos, please visit http://ramblesfromtheunexpectedlife.tumblr.com/

For my first attempt at blogging, please visit https://patlayanpatlican.blogspot.com/