International solidarity rebuilds post-war Vietnam
The most bombed-out city in the world may be a place you’ve probably never heard of, unless you’re Vietnamese. Vinh, a town on the north side of the Cold War border between southern and northern Vietnam, was bombed so regularly by the United States Air Force between the mid-1960s and the early 1970s. 1970s that by the end there was almost nothing left – most of its built fabric had long since been destroyed and its inhabitants evacuated, so that the bombs rained only on rubble; the insane culmination of the Air Force’s stated purpose of bombing North Vietnam “to bring it back to the Stone Age”, bombing for the sake of bombing, terror for terrorism.
But by the early 1980s, the center of Vinh had been completely rebuilt as a series of social housing blocks in a park, designed by East German architects working on site. This is the story told by American anthropologist Christina Schwenkel in her book Building socialism: Beyond East German architecture in urban Vietnam.
It is too often forgotten today how much the anti-imperialist movements regularly ridiculed in Europe and North America in the 1960s were motivated by disgust with what was being done in places like Vinh – which Kristin Ross in his delivered May 68 and its survivals described as “the reality at the center of Third Worldism, a reality nowhere mentioned” by polite liberal US apologists: “the three thousand bombs thrown every minute on Vietnam by the United States for three years”.
But this reality meant something quite specific to those countries – almost all of them in the so-called “socialist camp” – which gave aid or arms to North Vietnam in its struggle against the Americans. China, the USSR, Cuba, and the Eastern European states all sent machinery, experts, weapons, and food at various times during back-to-back wars with France and then the United States. , but in this context, they often wanted to prove that they were not just giving charity, but something more concrete: solidarity. As Schwenkel points out, the country most remembered for aid to Vietnam today is a country that no longer exists and is regularly demonized – East Germany.
While Chinese and Soviet advisers were often haughty and imperial, the East Germans made a lasting connection in their plans in Vietnam. They were clearly devoted – when most of the foreign “experts” fled during the 1979 invasion of China to punish Vietnam’s overthrow of the genocidal Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, most of the experts fled, only the Germans of the East and the Cubans insisting on staying.
Schwenkel explores the main built heritage of this alliance, the Quang Trung housing estate in Vinh. It is unfortunate that her book is marred with excessive academic citations in the current American style, for the story she has to tell and the research she has undertaken for several years living in the field is so much more interesting than if the buildings prove or refute the theories of Michel Foucault or James C. Scott. It begins with the horrible “techno-fanaticism” of the American bombing campaigns – widely documented in the museums of Vinh – then moves from the design of buildings to their construction, including their very rapid decline and the complex way in which they are viewed . by the inhabitants of the city today. It is instructive, surprising and often very moving.
Why East Germany? Schwenkel explains that their close involvement had something to do with identifying the North Vietnamese with DDR as a small divided country, devoid of the arrogance of giants like China and the USSR, but also with the experience German terrorist bombing by the RAF, constantly emphasized in East German propaganda – the link was constantly made between Dresden and Vinh. It does not romance East Germans – there were Stasi informants among the experts – but it makes it clear that the solidarity and enthusiasm were genuine and understood as such by their Vietnamese partners. A failure in occasional racism would immediately have an East German expert reprimanded and sent home, a stark and obvious contrast to the conduct of Americans.
The way the domain of this collaboration was designed – under the slogan “Việt Đức, ”(“ Vietnam-Germany ”) emblazoned on some of the blocks – was complex, involving a dialogue that was not always easy between the utopian ideas of the Germans and the Vietnamese in need of quickly relocating and rebuilding their devastated city , in a way that would at least somehow be familiar to its residents. The Vietnamese were always on the alert against any abandonment of charity. When a German expert cried seeing the extent of the destruction, his Vietnamese interpreter told him: “We need your solidarity, not your pity. Go home if you are here to cry.
The Quang Trung estate superficially resembles a typical Eastern European concrete panel housing estate of its time – five floors without elevator, rectangular, in a green space with nurseries and schools interspersed with apartments – but has was in fact built of brick, by a predominantly female rural labor force. Some of the original ideas were scrapped and there was some tension between Vietnamese planners and German architects, but the main problem with the estate was how extremely ambitious it was for such a destroyed country, including basic infrastructure. had been torn apart.
As food was scarce, residents kept pigs on their aisles, in bathrooms and on balconies. The water supply was sporadic, with the lower floors being much better served. Garbage collection was so bureaucratically organized that most of the former rural residents ignored it and threw the garbage out the window into the green spaces. Divisions arose between socially mixed groups in the blocs – mostly workers, but with a large contingent of cultural and political elites. Rather than being celebrated, the blocks are part of what rare Western travelers now complain about as Vietnam’s ugliest city, a depressing train stop between Hanoi and Hue.
But Schwenkel is keen to complicate the familiar story of utopia and decline. Looking at one of the most obvious images of dilapidation, for example, the balcony extensions that residents have built on the five-story apartments, she finds an astonishing diversity of different spaces, from computer rooms to bedrooms on the way. by a small museum of poetry. Public spaces may not have been used exactly the way the Germans imagined, but they are constantly used for society.
She finds that the blocs remain popular with their original residents – less with newcomers – and that they strongly oppose their privatization. As the estate was a ‘gift’ from the East Germans, they often wonder, how can it be bought or sold? The place is now extremely run down and under pressure from developers, but by the end of the book, public pressure has resulted in a more careful mix of reconstruction and renovation. More recently, she writes, “some advocate the enhancement of the blocks as a heritage site, similar to the old quarter of Hanoi, to commemorate East German solidarity and the built environment that emerged from this period.” Or as one inhabitant put it, “the problem is not use value, but value for humanity”.
This preservation might be unlikely now. But with the growing interest in recent years in modernist social housing, the architecture of the “socialist world” and the construction projects of the non-aligned movement, perhaps the time will come when this monument of solidarity will receive respect. it deserves, and how resistance and comradeship stopped the effort to bring Vietnam “back into the Stone Age” is well remembered.