Saturday, July 14, 2007

Cadre Camp

"Cadre Camp" has been a running joke throughout this trip. In our imaginations, there's a dark, sinister Vietnam underneath the friendly captialism of Hanoi--where people go to labor camps to be "re-educated", or where urban youth march around the countryside to become one with the worker. It was, of course, a silly fantasy. Such places no longer exist.

But this weekend we found ourselves at Cadre Camp. We'd driven two hours northeast into the extremely rural Bac Giang Province. After driving into the well organized, brightly painted provincial capital of the same name, and checking into a nearly empty "government hotel", we made our way deeper into the countryside. The landscape was completely dominated by flat rice fields surrounded by bushy hills. Thousands of workers tilled the fields, replanted rice sprouts and bossed around their water buffaloes. At first the roads were lined with new, four-story housing developments, like the ones found in Hanoi. But as we entered Yen Dang District and the village of Lao Ho, the van shuddered over the uneaven red dirt and the houses tended to be simple one-story brick hovels. I learned later that Lao Ho is the poorest town in the poorest district of Bac Giang, which in turn is one of the poorer provinces in Vietnam.

As we roled into a narrow gate, we still had very little sense of what we were about to do. We had a vague idea that we were going to help the locals by building some sort of road and that we'd be joined by other student volunteers. The van came into a small concrete courtyard surrounded by grim, windowless buildings. Young Vietnamese in blue uniforms swarmed around the entry of the main building and ushered us in to the front of a small auditorium. An ancient, rusty fan hung by a chord from the rafters and pushed around the soupy air. Beside a handful of socialist expressions, a bust of Ho Chi Minh looked out at the audience.
A young official began the opening ceremony by going through a roster of who was here. "...and we thank the Social Science Department of the Hanoi National University...and we thank the International Studies Department of the Hanoi National Univeristy...and we thank the delegates from the Hoan Chi District Youth League...and we thank the students from Princeton University..." Several speakers exhausted every possible form of greeting to each represented group, Desaix gave a speech in Vietnamese and then Mr. Bien, a serious official, took the podium. Mr. Bien is the Deputy Party Secretary of Yen Dang District, and a member of the Central Committee, the closed-door body that runs Vietnam. He delivered a very martial speech entreating the youth intellectuals to unite with the rural proletariat through hard labor. It was at that point that Mark leaned over to me and whispered, "Oh my God, I think we're actually at Cadre Camp." I looked around, thought about it and completely agreed.

The next part of our journey into the twilight zone were three visits to local war veterans and their relatives who are afflicted by Agent Orange. We packed into the one-room houses which became overcrowded with dozens of uniformed youth, cadres and a television camera that filmed the entire day, likely for a propaganda story on the state news channels.

The first house was inhabited by a crusty old veteran who fought in the 1960s until he lost his leg in combat. At one point he pointed and burst out laughing as he revealed a dented plastic prosthetic. Throughout the short interview and gift ceremony, his 27-year-old son sat beside him silent and dazed. His back was contorted in hunch, an effect of Agent Orange poisoning. Despite his distressed circumstances, the old veteran was proud and cheerful. He pointed to a framed certificate above his family's shrine and announced that it was an official recognition of his father's martyrdom in the French War. Above that hung a tattered poster of Uncle Ho.
In another house we visited a fierce looking veteran whose five year old grand-daughter stuck to his side, silent and awkward, little more than a small human shell poisoned by Agent Orange. Her face was strained and her limbs flailed uncontrolably. Two weeks ago she took her first steps and it was grounds for celebration. In the last house the situation was even worse. A mother, herself afflicted by Agent Orange, stared sadly at her visitors as she cradled her limp son.

After paying homage to these families, we went to a nearby elementary school which is now being used by the various Youth Unions working in Lao Ho. We joined about fifty uniformed students at a row of food dishes on the ground, and ate sandwiches stuffed with various pork products. The youth were all chattering loudly, obviously enjoying their time together. During the school year they study together and in the summer they go on more-or-less mandatory two week labor trips in the countryside. Since summer jobs are unheard of, there's not much better to do, and nobody seemed especially angry about spending their summer sleeping on hard floors and doing intense labor in the middle of nowhere.

After lunch, the work caravan slowly walked down to the road that we were to be working on. We roled our bamboo worktools in a rickety wooden cart.

I was surprised to find that the road was already paved, which was unusual in this area. Our job was to pack dirt on the side of the concrete strip in order to widen the road with a safety shoulder that could easily save lives. Piles of rocks and dirt had already been placed at intervals along the road, but we had to level them along a 100 meter stretch.

The youth swarmed around the piles of red earth, like ants carrying away a piece of bread. Teams of white-shirted young cadres carried away bigger stones in reed baskets. Older cadres loosened the piles with a pickax while others shoveled earth onto white sacks, which were used as makeshift stretchers to move dirt.

As strightforward as it sounds, the work was utterly gruelling. It was over ninety degrees and the humidity soaked the shirts of people sitting in the shade. Any type of exertion, even the laziest strike of the shovel, created rivers of sweat on every inch of our bodies. The Vietnamese generally sweat very little and have a high tolerance of the sun. The Americans, on the other hand, looked like they'd been dunked in tubs of baby oil.

Yet we managed to work extremely hard, rarely taking breaks through the three hour work-period. Several times I saw Duane lean over as if to vomit, but it passed and he went back to shovelling. Elias had to take take a break because he was about to pass out but he came back before long. I had to stop briefely a few times to sit on a shaded part of the wall, but I still felt like a chestnut roasting on a bunch of coals. Still, I did pretty well because I'd challenged myself to a personal water-drinking competition. My goal was to drink obscene ammounts of water and that day I downed 6.5 liters--more than 14 pounds.

The Vietnamese youth were a bit less gung ho, but I don't blame them. For two weeks straight, they rise at 5 to begin work at 7am. This was their second work shift of the day and I wasn't surprised that they spent more time resting than the Americans.

Throughout the afternoon, groups of locals sat in the shade and watches us, gawking at the Americans and lauging uproariously when we yelled "Xin Chao" ("hello") at them. I learned later, that our visit was causing a sensation in Lao Ho. No foreign service groups had every joined the Youth Union in the province and no foreigner had even been to Lao Ho in modern memory. We were not just off the beaten path, we were off the road entirely.

The locals, I heard, were extremely impressed with their strange intruders. They appreciated how hard we worked and were in awe of our physical strength, especially when they saw the handful of athletes in our group.

But as excited as they were by our presence, they never picked up shovels and helped us out. According to Mr. Bien, these work programs were intended to unite young urban intellectuals with rural workers. But in Lao Ho, the students and workers were not shoulder to shoulder. It seems to me that the purpose of the program was to make the future Vietnamese elite conscious of the daily toils of the peasant class, rather than bonding them to individual farmers. Or maybe it was just meant to give students something to do in the summer so they're less nervous about the lack of summer employment.

Either way, I think it's an amazing experience. The National Univesity students that we worked with were extremely sophisticated. Many will become bankers or ambassadors. Hoa, a lovely girl who we've hung out with in a sheek nightclub, translated the various speeches into impeccable English. She's going on to study at Johns Hopkins. Desaix insists that she'll one day become Foreign Minister. But no matter where she ends up, she'll always be shaped by weeks and months of hard labor in the poorest parts of Vietnam. In fact, the next morning, she worked so hard that she suffered heat exhaustion and had to spend the day lying on a mat.

We left at 5pm to peel off our soaking clothes and take shower. We had an eight course meal at the hotel that cost a mere $20 for 17 of us. Through the dinner, we had a nice time talking to Professor Minh, who was accompanying us on the labor trip. He's a well respected professor who bought an "FBI...Female Body Inspector" t-shirt on a visit to Los Angeles. We thought it was priceless.

Mr. Minh. Distinguished professor by day, Female Body Inspector by night.

Most of us rode back to the elementary school base of the Youth Unions for a night concert. Cadres roamed around a stage setting up sound equiptment for a gala preformance. At about 8:30, villagers began streaming in from all over the surrounding villages, forming a thick semi-circle around the stage. Most had never seen a foreigner and hoards of children huddled around us to stare and ask us our names. They were especially drawn to Tim, who is about twice the size of the biggest human being in Lao Ho. He created a big hit by arm wrestling young boys and pretending that he was about to lose.

An enthusiastic cadre came on the stage and read a repetetive litany of introductions and salutations. He welcomed everyone to the night's preformance which was titled "Ho Chi Minh: The Most Beautiful Name." Blue-shirted Youth Union members came up and sung patriotic songs.

All of a sudden the power went out. It was completely dark except for the light from the stars. The Youth Union continued singing their songs without a microphone, but it was barely audible. Then, as quickly as it had gone, the lights came back on and everyone cheered. But it went off again, and on again for twenty minutes, as cadres scurried back and forth trying to fix the problem. It was something that I would expect to happen at Cadre Camp.
The nice thing about the blackouts is was that the kids became restive and I got to play with them. I took dozens of pictures of excited groups and they all laughed uproariously when I played back the pictures on the digital screen. I let a few of them take their own pictures and that too was a big hit. Once the power came on for good, a stern cadre had to shoe the hoard of kids away because a crowd had formed in front of our table and it was distracting the preformers.

The preformances diversified a bit. Women in traditional dresses sang melancholy songs backed by a local band. An older man in Confuscian dress came up and belched a long, heartfelt ballad. Then a cadre introduced the Yen Dang District Hip Hop Club. Eight youths, all from this poor rural district came up and amazed the audience with break dancing moves and various other creative maneuvers. I would say that the entire audience all got served, big time. Ho Chi Minh would have been proud of the break dancers.

After the Hip Hop performance, we were ushered onstage, one thousand pleased faces peering out at us. A local Party bigwig said a few words of praise and then pinned a Youth Union pin on our breast as a recorded drum beat played on the speakers. Then we were handed microphones and began to sing the National Anthem as planned. We were not very good. Desaix later joked that we sounded like the "Whifenpoofs", not a complement coming from a Princetonian. But the crowd enjoyed it. "and the laaaand of the freeeeeee." Cheers. "and the hoooome of the braaaaaaavee." More cheers. The Hanoi University group chanted "Princ-e-ton!...Princ-e-ton!" It was an utterly amazing moment. We had just sung the National Anthem of the United States in front of a thousand North Vietnamese at a Cadre Camp preformance titled "Ho Chi Minh: The Most Beautiful Name."

We ended our time on stage with an awkward rendition of "Old Nassau", which only about three of us knew the words to. No matter. It was also a hit. I'm convinced that we could have sung anything and drawn immense applause.

The last few songs were well recieved. A woman sung a cheerful song and several of the Americans went on stage and danced. A group of blue shirted guys sang a famous army marching song and then rejoined their delighted companions in the front of the crowd. Everyone was pumped for the final song, a patriotic song that's often sung in place of the National Anthem. Everyone, including the Americans, came on stage and sang the catchy song to the excited crowd. "Vietnaaaaam...Ho Chi Miiiinh......Vietnaaaaaam...Ho Chi Miiiinh..." It was a spectacular grand finale to a day at Cadre Camp.

We were back the next morning mingling fluidly with the Youth Union students that we'd gotten to know the night before. We all headed to the war memorial, which I've learned, nearly every village in Vietnam has. About fifty headstones announced lives cut short during the French War or the American War. The American students placed incense in front of the red memorial stone as a television camera rolled.

We got to work tidying up the cemetary, scraping away weeds with hoes and whitewashing the rain-stained walls with homemade paint brushes. It was comparatively easier than the roadwork, but the late morning sun made it no less oppressive.

Mercifully, the workshift ended at about 11 and we retreated to the school to hang out with our new Vietnamese friends and play soccer. Our van loaded up and we ended a weekend at Cadre Camp. We'd seen the archaic underbelly of Vietnamese Communism and found it difficult but not harsh, nationalist but not xenophobic, warm instead of grim.