September 22, 2019

Jewish Vietnam

If you’re thinking of taking a trip to Vietnam, you won’t have a chance to see a thriving Jewish community or eat at a kosher bakery. Yes, Jews migrated to Shanghai in World War II to avoid the Holocaust and there are some Jewish institutions in Thailand. Although many Jews went to Vietnam during the war and a few have worked in Vietnam since the war, you won’t find Hebrew as useful as English in your travels. There are plenty of Buddhist temples, a few prominent Catholic churches and even a few exotic indigenous religious groups, but there are no synagogues.

The Torah, like all sacred books of the world’s major religions, remains semibanned in Vietnam. While the Constitution formally allows individuals to practice their religion, promoting religion remains a state crime. Translation: you can’t bring any prayer books or holy texts into the country. The State Department warns tourists of possible deportation for leading prayer groups.Israel staffs a consulate in Saigon and an embassy in Hanoi. While diplomatic relations were started with the PLO in 1982, Vietnam didn’t open relations with Israel until July 1993. Cold War politics have died slowly in Southeast Asia.

“Vietnam, Jews, and the Middle East: The Unintended Consequences” (St. Martins Press) by Judith Apter Klinghoffer, a Rutgers professor of history, argues that Israel is still blamed as the Western ally that closed a potential second front against the United States by rapidly winning the Six-Day War in 1967. According to this provocative theory, a second front would have drained Washington of military resources used in Vietnam. The PLO originally modeled itself on the Viet Cong in 1964.

Many Jewish activists also joined and often took leadership roles in the mass movement against the war in Vietnam in the United States.

So while there’s not exactly a Jewish angle on Vietnam, the curious traveler with a penchant for history, art, culture, and fine food will probably find a trip quite rewarding.

“The Jewish Travel Guide 2000” (International Edition) lists nothing for Vietnam. Thailand, in contrast, has two pages of listings, including two synagogues, a kosher bakery, a Jewish community center and Chabad House.