The Jewish Legacy in Vietnam
Written and photographed by Kelsey Eiland
This quarter I studied abroad in Can Tho, Vietnam. In an attempt to understand the idiosyncrasies of a young nation with a rich past, I began searching for a community like Leviathan that felt like home.
Before embarking on this journey, there were two images that came to mind when I imagined Vietnam: one that turned Vietnam into a bamboo- commie-tiger cage holding “our boys” captive for the
cause, and the other that told an exotic tale of young women in ao dais and conical hats serving drinks at the Hanoi Hotel Metropole.
Upon arriving in Saigon, it was clear that these narratives were only a small part of daily life in Vietnam. While a history of war and colonialism are still apparent forty years after Vietnamese independence, there is an emerging Vietnam that is defining itself beyond walls of bamboo and French invasion.
A Vietnamese Sabbath
A few days into our travels, one of my friends asked me if I’d like to attend a Shabbat dinner. We took a taxi to the outskirts of town and began searching for the Chabad center. With no Vietnamese language skills at our disposal, we showed the address to multiple shopkeepers and restaurant owners in the hopes of finding our Sabbath dinner.
A pair of shopkeepers pointed us in opposite directions, one of them showing us to a Catholic church. We eventually stumbled upon a dentist’s office where a young woman at the front desk used her iPhone to translate for us.
Just as we were leaving the dentist’s office, white lightning cracked overhead. The warm rain began to pour from the sky like sheets of satin. Food vendors covered their burning stoves with large tarps, and children who had been selling lotto tickets took refuge under storefront awnings.
Desperate for shelter, we searched for a place to rest. The owner of an Asian-Italian fusion restaurant called us over, and we asked her if she had vegetarian fare.
She said yes, so we hung our soaking jackets and sat by the window. We watched young and old Saigonese dart past on their motorbikes as the rain continued to flood the busy streets. Although it wasn’t the formal Shabbat dinner we had been searching for, we found a space to rest, refuel, and reflect.
I began to wonder if our hopeless search for the Chabad house was part of a greater story. In a nation new to global spheres of influence and sociocultural change, Judaism is an example of globalization, and also of understanding.
For both the Jews and the Vietnamese, suffering is an integral part of their historical narratives. Community spaces provide refuge from a dark past.
Jews in Vietnam
The Jewish story in Vietnam begins in the 1860s, when Jews came to the area in the wake of French colonization. The Jewish Chronicle at the time referenced Jewish settlement in Saigon. By 1939, the Jewish communities of French Indochina totaled approximately 1,000 people.
Nearly fifty French Jews were in the military during Vichy French rule. A year later, this administration implemented a “Statute on Jews” living in Vietnam: Jewish children could not comprise more than 2% of school students, and Jewish employees were let go from professions like administration and advertising.
But in 1945, anti-Jewish laws were repealed as French Indochina began to set her sights on fighting off the Vietnamese. French reign was short-lived; Northern Vietnam achieved independence under Communist revolutionary Ho Chi Minh in 1954.
The French left a legacy of famine, inculturation, and classism. Ho Chi Minh used “for the people” reform as a guise for social control and oppression of the opposition.
Party enemies were executed, farmers were stripped of their land, and civil war broke out. Uncle Ho decimated a nation based on similar lies of “freedom and liberation” as Mao, Stalin, and Hitler.
A cafe owner I met in Da Nang openly reflected on Ho’s legacy when a few friends and I visited her over dinner. She grew up in Southern Vietnam, which was infiltrated by Viet Cong forces during the war. Selling Coca-Cola to the troops helped her pick up English. She became a translator for American soldiers when she was a teen.
In 1968, the northern Viet Cong took over the city of Hue during Tet, or Vietnamese New Year. The Tet Offensive left over 100,000 southern civilians homeless and thousands dead.
The cafe owner witnessed young American soldiers strip down to their underwear and combat boots—giving their clothing to dying Vietnamese noncombatants.
The U.S. sent troops to fight for independence in hopes of freeing the nation from Communist rule. Approximately 30,000 Jewish Americans served in the war alongside white, African- American, Asian, and Native American soldiers. By the end of the war, nearly every foreign soldier had either returned home or had a flag folded in their honor.
In 1986, Vietnam implemented Doi Moi, or renovation.
A growing economy and new policies changed the climate of Vietnam for foreigners. In order for the single-party socialist state to survive, it was imperative to open up Vietnam to foreign investment and tourism.
After nearly a decade of Doi Moi reform, the Israeli embassy opened its doors in 1993. A week later, U.S. President Bill Clinton lifted the trade embargo on Vietnam.
Israeli and American investors, along with other foreigners, began to seek opportunity in Vietnam where land was cheap and technical expertise was needed. Foreigners poured in and the nation was rebuilt.
War is orchestrated by the few and fought by the many. It has the faces of children running from tear gas, young soldiers crying out of sheer terror, and elderly couples starving because they were born on the “wrong side” of the conflict.
But war also creates a story of rebirthww and understanding. A story of war is a story of people. Just as people have the power to redeem, rebuild, and forgive, they also have an obligation not to forget.