Riding my bicycle across Vietnam
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.