When did you go to North Vietnam, how long did you stay, and how widely did you travel?

Iarrived on the 22nd September, and stayed for 57 days. Originally I’d been invited for three weeks, but I explained to the Vietnamese authorities it was very difficult to get the feeling of the place and the facts right in only three weeks, so little by little they accepted my staying there longer. I was supposed to stay about 50 days, and the extra week was due to the fact that no planes were getting in or out of Hanoi, so I just couldn’t leave. I travelled over 3,000 kilometres by car, quite apart from what I did on foot or by bicycle. I went east to Haiphong, and west almost to the Laotian frontier, where they have a lot of ethnic minorities—Muong, Mans, Thais—and where, on the first approaches to the Ho Chi Minh Trail, I saw the lorries that were obviously going down south that way. Several times I asked to go to the 17th Parallel, but they wouldn’t let me for security reasons, so I couldn’t go further down than Thanh Hoa, beyond the Hamrong bridge. They explained that the risks were much too high, and even after I’d written a few articles and I told them jokingly that I’d done my duty, they still wouldn’t let me go. They put it in a nutshell by saying, ‘Your job is to write and not to get killed.’

But apart from that, the programme I suggested was completely fulfilled. The only restrictions concerned taking photographs. You can get permission to photograph a SAM or a gun emplacement, but I wasn’t particularly interested in pictures—I’m not a particularly good photographer anyway. There was no censorship. When I say censorship, I mean nobody would cut out pieces from an article. Twice they asked me to alter details in articles, which I did very willingly, because they could conceivably have given information to the Americans about a certain type of set-up for a ferry. But apart from that, it’s very remarkable, there is no censorship. Some Russian journalists there even ring up Moscow directly. In fact there’s an almost unbelievable atmosphere of freedom. Frankly, I felt much freer in Hanoi at war than in East Berlin—which may be only three-quarters of a peace, but where there is no war actually going on. The security system, I’m sure, is extremely strong, but there is no police atmosphere in Hanoi—that is very striking. You walk into the Foreign Ministry and there’s just one guard. If you talk to a Minister one afternoon, suddenly in the street that evening you may pass somebody and think, ‘I’ve seen that man somewhere’, and it’s the Minister. Of course I’m sure President Ho Chi Minh and Premier Pham Van Dong and General Giap, and one or two others have guards and are escorted, but not excessively. Far less than in any East European country. That is very important. In the provinces, for instance, when I went around with fairly important cadres, leaders of provincial administrative committees, they were never armed—at times I was almost worried about it. And this even in very remote districts—those districts where the Americans at one stage of the game hoped they could send commando groups—the jungle and forest districts around the Laotian frontier. The relations between the cadres and the people are obviously extremely good.

How has the war affected the lives and work of the people of Hanoi?

Hanoi, with Haiphong, are the only two towns that have not been razed. Haiphong, as I saw during a two and half day inspection—at that time it was the middle of October—has been almost half wiped out. Hanoi has not been wiped out, and the Americans have not yet decided to raze the town, which I think they could do from a military point of view, though they would incur heavy losses. It is obviously a capital at war, with machine guns and guns all over the place, military lorries, militia men and soldiers—in limited quantities—walking through the streets. But at the same time a terrific, a formidable effort is made to keep life going. The atmosphere is one of normalcy. This expresses itself not only in the theatres, cinemas, and cafés that are open, and the surprising, smiling atmosphere of the town, but also in the fact that whenever a street is hit, whenever a house is destroyed by American bombing, the North Vietnamese clear it up immediately. They repair things, they try to keep the town as normal as possible.

Hanoi had more than a million inhabitants before escalation started. Now it has anything from 300,000 to 400,000. It’s still a fairly lively place, though the lights are pretty dim—you know, the 100 watt bulbs in the streets have been replaced by 50 watt bulbs. But Hanoi has not really been evacuated. Anyway, the Vietnamese dislike that expression intensely. They talk about dispersal—because there’s something active about dispersal, something passive about evacuation. Just as they never talk about passive defence, ‘défense passive’, as we do in French; they talk about popular anti-aircraft defence. It’s not a gimmick—it corresponds to a state of mind and a state of affairs.

The war has, of course, disrupted their lives in other ways; apart from the fact that people are constantly bombed out, very many families are now separated. In North Vietnam this, too, is something which is quite striking: the way people take separation very easily. Some husbands and wives don’t see each other for months and months. A lot of children have been sent to the country—although there are still about 30,000 children in town. I wondered about this, so I asked one of the members of the Administrative Committee why this was so, and he said, ‘Well, orders are that all children should leave, but it’s not authoritarian, and some children have to stay behind—sometimes because parents don’t want to separate from their children, sometimes because the children have to be used to watch the grandparents.’ But I suppose that, apart from separation, rationing is one of the most visible signs of war in Hanoi. This isn’t as huge as I had expected it to be. I mean the Americans have not succeeded there either. They’re not starving the country out. You have ration cards in towns, not in the country where there’s auto-rationing; and not many things are really rationed, though a lot of things are scarce. Rice is the main thing. People get anything from 10 kilos of rice per month for small children to 25 kilos for workers. Pork, which is one of the basic ingredients, is rationed. The average ration is 300 grammes a month, which sounds very little. It reminded me of our rations in France in the Occupation when we got 72 grammes of meat per week. Apart from that, some workers of course get up to 2 or 3 kilos of pork a month. Beef is not rationed but terribly scarce. And the Vietnamese don’t eat their buffaloes which are a ‘means of production.’ Sugar is also very heavily rationed. You get 500 grammes per person per month, but there are variations here too. Intellectuals, for instance—‘Comrade Creators’—get 1 kilo 500. Cigarettes are very heavily rationed, and intellectuals and cadres get more than workers or lorry drivers, who get about one or two packs per week. Material is rationed. People in Hanoi are entitled to 4 metres per year, except old people and peasants in the suburbs who only get 3 metres a year, and the government has asked everybody to try and save and only ask for 3 metres. Those are the main things that are rationed. Some things, of course, are scarce. I think one of the things the North Vietnamese suffer from is not being able to get much Ngoc Manh—the fish sauce which they use with almost everything—and the reason is quite straightforward, it’s that all the Seventh Fleet ships cruising 40 miles off the shores of Vietnam prevent the fishermen from working. But the North Vietnamese have invented all sorts of ersatzes to replace Ngoc Manh. In town eggs are pretty scarce too; but people manage somehow because, being a tropical country, there’s such an enormous variety of fruit and vegetables in and out of season, and the peasants come in from the country and sell them. And a lot of the Hanoians also go to visit their children in the country over the weekends, and on the thousands of bicycles you see streaming into Hanoi on Sunday evenings, at the back you’ll see the wife, and on the front you’ll see a basket with fruit and vegetables. So they manage. Things are tough, things are very difficult even, but nobody is starving and—that’s another thing that struck me—people look healthy on the whole. There is certainly a lot of intestinal disease still, but TB is regressing, and this is curious because during a war TB normally rises. And by looking at people also, I was very struck by the fact that I didn’t see, as one always sees in all south-east Asian countries, kids with tracoma or huge bellies, or terrible teeth—though, of course, one does see children with thin legs, here and there. So when the Vietnamese tell you that the standard of living has not gone down in many fields, this is not a propaganda line—this is true. They are certainly eating better in 1967 than they were in 1945.