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International solidarity rebuilt postwar Vietnam

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During the Vietnam War, the city of Vinh was almost destroyed by US bombing. Socialists around the world helped rebuild it. Today, Vinh’s architecture stands as a monument to that internationalist solidarity.

Possibly the single most heavily bombed city on earth is somewhere you’ve very likely never heard of, unless you’re Vietnamese. Vinh, a town on the north side of the Cold War border between South and North Vietnam, was bombed so consistently by the United States air force between the mid-1960s and the early 1970s that by the end, there was almost nothing left — most of its built fabric had long since been destroyed and its residents evacuated, and so the bombs were raining down on nothing but rubble; the insane culmination of the air force’s declared aim to bomb North Vietnam “back into the stone age,” bombing for the sake of bombing, terror for the sake of terror.

But by the early 1980s, the center of Vinh had been completely rebuilt as a series of social housing blocks in parkland, designed by East German architects working on site. This is the story told by the American anthropologist Christina Schwenkel in her book Building Socialism: The Afterlife of East German Architecture in Urban Vietnam.

It is too often forgotten today how much the regularly ridiculed anti-imperialist movements in Europe and North America in the ’60s were motivated by disgust at what was being done to places like Vinh — what Kristin Ross in her book May ’68 and Its Afterlives describes as “the reality at the centre of third-worldism, a reality nowhere mentioned” by the United States’ polite liberal apologists: “the three thousand bombs dropped every minute on Vietnam by the United States for three years.”

But this reality meant something quite specific for those countries — nearly all 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 states of Eastern Europe all sent machinery, experts, weapons, and food at various points during the consecutive wars against France and then the United States, but within this they were often keen to prove that they weren’t just giving charity, but something more concrete: solidarity. As Schwenkel points out, the country whose help is most remembered today in Vietnam is one which no longer exists, and is routinely demonized — East Germany.

While Chinese and Soviet advisers were often found to be haughty and imperial, the East Germans built a lasting connection in their projects in Vietnam. They were clearly dedicated — when most foreign “experts” fled as China invaded in 1979 as punishment for Vietnam’s overthrow of the genocidal Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, most experts fled, with only the East Germans and the Cubans insisting on staying.

Schwenkel explores the main built legacy of this alliance, the Quang Trung housing estate in Vinh. It’s unfortunate that her book is marred by excessive academic citations in the current American style, because the story she has to tell, and the research she has undertaken in several years living on the estate, are so much more interesting than whether the buildings prove or disprove the theories of Michel Foucault or James C. Scott. She begins with the horrific “techno-fanaticism” of the US bombing campaigns — extensively documented in the museums of Vinh — then moves from the buildings’ design to their construction to their very swift decline, and the complex way in which they’re seen by residents of the town today. It’s informative, surprising, and often very moving.

Why East Germany? Schwenkel explains that their close involvement had something to do with the North Vietnamese’s identification with the DDR as a small, divided country, lacking the arrogance of the giants like China and the USSR, but also with German experience of terror-bombing by the RAF, constantly stressed in East German propaganda — the link was incessantly made between Dresden and Vinh. She does not romanticize the East Germans — there were Stasi informants among the experts — but she does make clear that the solidarity and enthusiasm were genuine, and were understood as such by their Vietnamese partners. A lapse into casual racism would get an East German expert instantly reprimanded and sent home, a striking and obvious contrast with the conduct of the Americans.

The way the estate in this collaboration was designed — under the slogan “Việt Đức,” (“Vietnam-Germany”) emblazoned as a logo on some of the blocks — was complex, entailing a dialogue that wasn’t always easy between the utopian ideas of the Germans and the Vietnamese need to rehouse and rebuild their devastated town quickly, in a manner that would be at least in some way familiar to its residents. The Vietnamese were always on watch against any lapse into charity. When one German expert wept on seeing the scale of destruction, she was told by her Vietnamese interpreter “we need your solidarity, not your pity. Go home if you are here to cry.”

Quang Trung estate looks superficially like a typical Eastern European concrete panel housing estate of its era — five-story walk-ups, rectangular, in green space with day care centers and schools interspersed with the flats — but was actually built of brick, by a mainly female, rural workforce. Some of the original ideas were dropped, and there was some tension between the Vietnamese planners and the German architects, but the main problem with the estate was how wildly overambitious it was for such a destroyed country, whose basic infrastructure had been torn to pieces.

Food was scarce, so residents kept pigs on their walkways, in bathrooms, and on balconies. Water supply was sporadic, with lower floors much better served. Rubbish collection was so bureaucratically organized that most formerly rural residents ignored it and chucked trash out of the window into the green spaces. Divides emerged between the socially mixed groups in the blocks — mostly workers, but with a large contingent of cultural and political elites. Rather than being celebrated, the blocks are part of what the rare Western travelers now lament as the ugliest Vietnamese city, a depressing stop on the train 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 instance, the balcony extensions residents have built onto the five-story flats, she finds an astonishing diversity of different spaces, from computer rooms to bedrooms to even a small poetry museum. Public spaces might not have been used exactly as the Germans imagined they would be, but they are in constant sociable use.

She finds that the blocks remain popular with their original residents — less so with more recent incomers — and that they strongly oppose their privatization. As the estate was a “gift” from the East Germans, they frequently ask, how can it be bought or sold? The place is by now extremely dilapidated and under pressure from developers, but as she ends the book, public pressure has resulted in a more careful mix of rebuilding and renovation. Most recently, she writes, “some advocate valuation of the blocks as a heritage site, similar to Hanoi’s Old Quarter, to commemorate East German solidarity and the built environment that emerged from that period.” Or as one resident puts it, “the issue is not use value, but value to humanity.”

That preservation might be unlikely now. But with the rising interest in recent years in modernist social housing, the architecture of the “socialist world” and the building projects of the non-aligned movement, maybe eventually the time will come when this monument of solidarity is given the respect it deserves, and the way that resistance and comradeship stopped the effort to throw Vietnam back “into the stone age” is properly remembered.

By Owen Hatherley – Jacobin – May 17, 2021

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