Life and adventures from a high school perspective
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.
For the last three days the class has been staying in a rural Tay ethnic village in northern Vietnam, staying with a host family. The students stay on. The second floor, in an attic of sorts. It has been about 80 degrees during the day, but cools down nicely to about 60 for sleeping every night. The house is really fascinating. It is decently large, and actually built around a large boulder Falling Water style. I’ve been particularly enjoying embracing some of the differences from Western style living. The patio, bathrooms, and kitchen are all barefoot environments. In the kitchen, there is a two burner propane stove and a perpetually burning hearth with cooking pots of rice, a smoky aroma lingering in the air. The bathrooms themselves are also interesting. Apparently in Asia the “wet bathroom” is commonplace. Basically there is no separate shower area. There is a shower nozzle hanging over the toilet. The entire bathroom gets wet. It’s very simplistic, and very interesting. I’m not sure that I prefer it to the western style, but it is certainly entertaining. These bathrooms, as well as the bathrooms in Hanoi utilize a water “bum gun” for the post going to the bathroom cleaning. I’ll leave that one up to your imagination.
These physical differences are interesting, but I’ve appreciated more studying the lifestyle differences of our host family. They have lived in this village for a long time. The accepted culture here is to stay and build on the family wealth / land, not to leave and make your own way in the world, a more western notion. These people work incredibly hard too. Over the past three days, all of the students have had the opportunity to labor in the family field. On day one, we harvested tapioca root and cleared brush. In the afternoon we used hand powered rotating machines to grind the tapioca into shreds and then spread it on the roof to dry. Some of this is used as fodder for the family’s animals, and some is sold at market. It took 18 of us nearly 3/4 of a day to get this done. It’s absolutely staggering for me to think of just the husband and the wife doing this. In the evenings, the wife weaves at a loom her husband made for her for about an hour. To try and grasp the economic benefit of her efforts, we asked her how long it took to make something and how much she could sell it for. A scarf takes over 10 hours, and she can sell it for ~$9 US or about $200k Vietnamese. That is absolutely astounding. Yesterday, it took us the entire day to rotate the soil in the field by hand. I’ve got a few blisters on my hands to speak for my efforts. Today we are going to plant corn.
Out of all of this I have found a deep respect for these people. I am unaccustomed to such hard work, day in and day out. Speaking for myself and those in my social network, we are accustomed to a 40 hour workweek with two days off. We whine on Sunday night when we have to return to school or work, dreading the next 5 days in class or at a desk. Our host family does not take breaks. While we stopped to drink water and rest in the shade, our host mother toiled away. While we take plenty of time to eat dinner and enjoy each other’s company, she is working at the loom. They are up before us to prepare our breakfast and prepare for the day. Out of this experience the greatest lesson is realized. I find myself more thankful for my life of relative comfort. When contrasting my life with the life of these people, I cannot help but be grateful for the opportunities automatically given to me. I really hope that I will never lose this sense of gratitude.
Today was another big day, involving a visit to the John McCain memorial, a crashed B52, the Women’s Museum, and a visit with one of our tour guides grandmothers. But I really want to dive in on the visit with Viet’s grandmother.
Throughout the trip, breaking bread or sharing a drink has taken on a new meaning. I have always felt the value of sharing a meal or beverage with each other, but in the language barrier magnifies the experience. When you can’t speak directly with one another, food becomes the point of connection. When 18 of us were crammed into Viet’s grandmothers small salon drinking tea, laughing, and enjoying each other’s company, I really felt this connection. To jump forward a few days at our first home stay, we had a similar experience, (sorry I’m jumping around a bit, at the time of writing I don’t have internet.) Our host family serves us three meals a day. We sometimes help cook and clean the dishes. Every time, I feel that the barrier between us is diminished. Food knows no language.