Life and adventures from a high school perspective
An avid cyclist, rock climber, and all around adventurer, Francis Davis is taking to the internet to share his stories of cycling, climbing, and adventuring.
While perusing Youtube I stumbled across this 1990s interview with Vietnam veteran Bill Ehrhart. It's a super interesting perspective on the war, and I highly reccomend it. He spoke at length in the Ken Burns documentary which I watched last year as well. I enjoyed hearing him speak 20 years earlier. His message has not changed, but his articulation has.
It's been 23 days since my last update and return to the states. Winter break has come and gone, as well as the first week of the second semester of Junior year. I'm not sure why I haven't touched the blog for so long. I was so diligent with my writing in Vietnam that perhaps I wanted a break, to leave something behind. Nevertheless, it is time to mount the saddle again.
I've had some time to reflect on my trip (about 23 days) and I can say wholeheartedly that I'd like to return. I keep coming back to how different the country was than I imagined it to be. The people, food, culture, scenery, and stories all beautiful, it's truly difficult for me to pick out favorite experiences from the trip, but rather remember it as a whole. When I first returned, I felt a strong feeling of happiness to be home, but from the beginning, the happiness was tinged with loss. Now, the feeling of return has worn off, but the sadness remains, stronger. I remember walking in the streets of Hanoi on our first night, the feeling of wonder and novelty that would not really wear off for the next three weeks. I remember the culinary delights, every day a different indulgence with Vietnam's regional cuisines - and the coffee, oh the coffee! I remember working side by side 15 of my peers to cultivate a field and build a concrete and brick wall. I remember the many unique and sometimes difficult interviews that our class conducted.
Interestingly, I still have not talked too much with my family about it. It's not that I am having a hard time to share, but rather we haven't found a good time. There may be some aspect of my family members wanting the trip to be truly mine, I'm sure they understand that some things I will never share, nevertheless I hope to have an opportunity to share soon.
Some garage updates since my last writing: the go kart is getting a new engine and brake re-work (it might actually work this time). I was given a riding lawn mower that I am interested in making to go faster and look at least somewhat like a vintage Lamborghini tractor. On a recent call with my aunt, she informed me about Tim Allen's Home Improvement show. After looking into it I can confirm that yes, mine will be exactly like that. My most recent acquisition with a friend was a 1980 Motobecane moped. The keen reader would know that I also have a 1981 Motobecane moped. I'm over the moon that I have near twins, the paint is almost identical as well as the mechanics. They will look super cool riding together! This one is going to be more of a full restoration, I'm hoping to make it look as good as possible. Some of these high-level projects really interest me, there is a far superior level of care, attention-to-detail, time, and patience involved, but the end result could be spectacular. I'm actually looking forward to putting in some garage time tomorrow morning before the boa constrictor of the busy weekend ensnares me.
As it always does, winter break went by too fast. When I first came back it was really odd. I didn't feel like it was more than half way through December. It seemed I was coming back to the same Cleveland that I had left three weeks ago, but I had changed. I was happy to have a break from everything, to take some time to just relax. Of course there was some fun too. A birthday dinner, a truly fantastic duck for Christmas dinner (see picture below), a New Years sleepover party, and finally, an overnight trip to Peek n Peak with friends. It was my first time skiing in about six or seven years. I'm excited to get back into it this year and next, it was a lot of fun.
Class started last Monday. This semester is interesting, I am taking Hawken's Entrepreneurship class which consumes five of my seven class slots. The other two are filled with math and French. In entre we are working with three local businesses to help them solve a need or problem, studying as much as we can about start-up companies as we can along the way. I hope that this class will be pivotal for me, not just as an experience, but also in starting to inform my aspirations about the college route. 2019 marks the earnest start of the search. School visits, tests, special classes, yada yada yada. One of the goals that I penned at the beginning of the academic year was to fully embrace the college process. I'm happy to inform you that the goal remains in 2019, but with an asterisk that says to make sure not to lose sight of the end goal, or, other aspects of life. I also had a discussion with my French teacher this afternoon about upgrading to French 5 AP senior year. She reminded me that in the winter of 2019 Hawken will an overseas intensive to France that I've had my eye on for a while. It is a highly competitive trip, and my automatic "ranking" is made lower by the fact that I went on the Vietnam trip. Conversely, I have hosted two exchange students during my tenure, and, I was informed that the typically female-heavy application pool may need more boys for balance. This could be another really unique opportunity of which I will keep you apprised!
Unfortunately I don't think I have much more to add. As school sets into its usual rigor and pace, I find myself about to enjoy a relatively early night to bed, ready for tomorrow's fun. Good night!
I squatted down on the colorful plastic chair, the vibrant sounds of the Saigon streetscape rising to meet my ears. I looked at the table in front of me, a bowl of beautiful pork and noodles soup looked back. The aromatic steam rising into the humid air, I took a moment to appreciate this time. Here. Now. For it was the last breakfast in Vietnam. With my two companions, Cris, and Viet, I dug into the magnificent bowl with gusto, perhaps trying not to let go of this time or this place. But I have to.
Sitting on the first airplane to Taipei, I feel content. I have realized I’m ready to be home. I haven’t talked with my parents for three weeks - by design. However, I am of course sad to leave such a beautiful place. Pictures and my writing will help me to remember, but only by prompting experiences of my memories. Oh the memories. I won’t regale you with everything, but here is the highlight reel: our first couple of days in Hanoi, navigating a new country for the first time. I was struck by the vitality of the city and the people, the at first glance chaotic thrum of the traffic, and the constant drive of the street vendors. The good food and my first introduction to Vietnamese coffee. Then the first homestay, a firsthand look into the daily lives of rural ethnic groups in Vietnam. The feeling of satisfaction and teamwork working next to the group for two long, hot, and sweaty days in a field. We harvested and processed tapioca root, tilled the field, and planted corn. It was spectacular. Next, all of the museums and interviews. I feel that I have left this place with a greater clarity surrounding how people think about the war, and how people heal after conflict. Museums helped in shaping my understanding, but I want to point attention to several powerful interviews, first with veteran and author Bao Ninh, our first homestay parents, and the village craftsman who helped us to construct the wall, Mr. Hau. These people all candidly shared their experiences and opinions. The trip would not have been nearly as powerful without it. So what did I learn?
The class came here with a few overarching questions, spending the semester studying the history of the Vietnam War and immersing ourselves in American and Vietnamese literature surrounding the war. I wanted to know how the Vietnamese people remembered and memorialized the war, but more importantly how the Vietnamese people have been able to move on from this terrible war. From all of our experiences including first hand interviews and museum visits, I’ve been able to create some synthesis and personal clarity in answering these fundamental questions. As far as remembering and memorializing, there are a couple of competing narratives. The government takes a couple of different lines. At several museums such as My Lai or the Hanoi Hilton, there is a narrative of triumph over the American “invaders”. It is a tangible aspect of many museum visits. In Ho Chi Minh City’s War Remnants Museum however, the tone takes a much more somber turn. Quick to demonstrate the inhumanity and brutality of the war, I saw much less of a victorious attitude. Rather the museum asked the question: did anybody really win? The Vietnamese people remember the war differently. From most the people we’ve talked to, there is a very prevalent attitude of forgive but don’t forget. Fifty years after the war, people are not eager to dwell on it, but rather to look towards the future. Many people extoll Vietnam’s strong relationship with the U.S. Bao Ninh described the feelings of his generation: We fought when we were youngsters, but now in our mature years let us sit together as friends. Mr. Hau is also ready to look towards the future, but lives with the aftermath of his fathers service every day. Reconciling these two narratives is difficult, but I feel that the Vietnamese have been able to do it. On our last day, I interviewed our tour guide Viet, age of 25. He also asked the question why? Was victory at the price of three million Vietnamese lives worth the price? Looking towards the future Viet hopes that both countries have learned a lesson, the relationship now between the U.S. and Vietnam is strong. But Viet also pointed out the difficult topic of U.S. involvement in the Middle East, claiming some similarities between the two conflicts. Perhaps then the fact of the matter is this: Vietnam has worked to heal bitter wounds and invest in a brighter future but the U.S. has not yet learned an important lesson about the price of war.
I apologize, it’s been a terribly long time since I’ve written anything meaningful, we’ve been on the move - hard to sit down and reflect.
Some updates: I left off while the class was helping farm in one of the northern Tay ethnic villages. From there we returned to Hanoi for a night, and then headed straight off to our second homestay, a Mount village (different village). There we helped the local preschool build a concrete and cinder block wall. It wasn’t as physical taxing as the farm work, but nevertheless interesting to learn how to mix and effectively use concrete.
However my favorite part of that homestay was interviewing one of the craftsman who guided us in our wall building efforts. One of the primary goals of our trip is to learn how the Vietnam War is remembered, how it’s story should be told, and how people have or have not healed from conflict. We conducted a fascinating interview with Mr. Hau. My most notable takeaway was Mr. Hau’s desire to move on completely from the war while being reminded of it every day with his father. Mr. Hau’s father served for the North, has shrapnel in his lung as well as traces of Agent Orange. To this day the government does not give him a significant military or healthcare pension. This is most likely because he is part of a persecuted minority ethnic group. The situation was sad, but Mr. Hau remained hopeful for the future, especially the relationship between America and Vietnam.
Coming back to things, from the second homestay we returned to Hanoi for the day to visit the war museum and Museum of the Heroic Mother, two powerful sites. We took an evening flight to Da Nang, and drove to Hoi An, a lovely riverfront town with many shopping opportunities of which I took great advantage. That brings us to yesterday, My Lai.
Visiting the place where American soldiers ruthlessly gunned down and brutalized 504 unarmed civilians is a hard thing. New meaning is given to the question of forgiveness and remembrance. Taking a silent stroll through the restored streets of a onetime hamlet, I glanced to the long ditch at my right side. The same ditch where American soldiers rounded up men, women, children, and the elderly before the execution. It was hard for me to contemplate.
Today we visited the ruins and reconstruction of an ancient Cham Hindu temple. Really remarkable, but rightfully lacking the same gravity of our visit to My Lai yesterday. After some last minute shopping, we boarded our last domestic flight to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), which brings me to my last point. The last several days have been wrought with an insidious nagging of the rapidly approaching end. I’ve tried not to over indulge myself in contemplating the reality of the end, but it is coming, and it’s something I have to come to terms with. I get this feeling at the end of any big trip, biking or climbing or whatnot. But this is different. I will leave in Vietnam a sense of wonder, a piece of me unaccustomed to foreign life but ready to enjoy it, a virgin sensibility of seeing the world outside of the U.S. that I will never be able to reclaim. I will emerge anew, taking with me memories, yes, but more importantly awareness. Awareness of the world outside of my world, awareness of a different people and way of life, and awareness of myself. I will take with me appetite. Appetite to continue my travels, to see the world through lenses that are as infinite as they are attainable.
Back to the present. A sure fire remedy to these melancholic blues of the approaching end is to be in the present. I hadn’t thought about including this but events tonight in Saigon prompted me. When we got off the plane I heard some whispering about a national soccer match between Vietnam and Malaysia. It wasn’t until I stepped off the bus and onto the streets of Saigon that I understood the scale of the situation. Apparently we won. I couldn’t believe my eyes. The street outside of our hotel was absolutely packed with motorbikes in gridlock, people jumping up and down, rippling Vietnamese flags, and a palpable energy in the air. The noise was staggering. A deafening symphony inundated the very air around me. Noisemakers, celebratory shouts, revving motorcycles. The sum was greater than the parts, adding into this energy rippling through the air, the coarse feeling of life. It honestly took my breath away. As I sat there on the streets, admiring something that was so much larger and yet just as personal as me, the troubles of the end were a distant memory, displaced by the sheer energy of the night and the grin on my face.