Travel to Learn: Vietnam

During the last half of my school's spring break, Emilia and I visited Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. In a nutshell, Ho Chi Minh has been one of my favorite cities I've ever visited. Maybe that had something to do with staying at Ms. Yang's Homestay. Emilia and I made the decision not to stay in a hostel, but rather stay with at a highly rated homestay. By highly rated, I mean it has 5 out of 5 stars on TripAdvisor, which I have never seen before. As Emilia and I walked through the doors of Ms. Yang's place, we quickly realized why her homestay had received so many exuberant ratings. She jumped out of her chair from behind her desk and ran over to us like we were long lost friends she hadn't seen in years. On her chalkboard in the main room it read, "We do love here, We do hugs here...etc," and we immediately relished in our decision to stay there for the next 4 days. Ms. Yang was beyond helpful: she gave us a map of the city, circled all of the main attractions, gave us tips on where to get the best Pho, and much more. Every morning when we would come down the stairs, Ms. Yang would get up from her desk, give us a hug and ask us where we were going to go that day. When we would arrive home, she again would greet us with a huge smile and ask us all about our experiences. Ms. Yang was a GEM, but she largely represents the demure of the Vietnamese people. They are, for the most part, extremely kind, especially to foreigners. Being an American, I was hesitant to visit Vietnam. I expected at least some discrimination, maybe even hostility, towards my nationality, and I can honestly say I experienced nothing even close to that. The closest form of discrimination I experienced was while buying goods--whether they be souvenirs or food from a street cart. The vendors in the city recognize that you don't belong and will charge you triple the cost of the item. Coming from Bangkok, I was well-versed in the art of haggling, but I was not expecting to have to fight for a fair price for my food. In Thailand, a fruit cart is going to be between 15 and 20 baht no matter where you go. In Saigon, Banh Bao (a steamed dumpling usually filled with pork and quail eggs, aka MY FAV) would be locally priced at 8,000 to 12,000 dong, but they would charge you 18,000 to 20,000 dong. At one point, I asked for Banh Mi (Vietnamese sandwich) and when the vendor tried to charge me extra, I told him he could either take the price I was willing to pay (it was posted on the outside of the cart that the sandwich should be 15,000, he was asking for 25,000), or I would walk away and he will have just made a sandwich for no one. I happily walked away with my sandwich. If there is one thing I am tired of doing, it's bargaining. Though I love getting a good deal at a market, like my four panel art piece that the vendor asked 2.5 million dong for but I got for 300,000 dong, I can't wait to come back to a country where I can just walk up to a food truck, and their not going to apply the foreigner fee to my food.

For our first full day, Emilia and I visited the War Remnants Museum. We happened to be visiting Vietnam right before its 40 year celebration of the end of the Vietnam War, and consequently, much of our trip was dedicated to learning the Vietnamese side of the story. Before I begin to describe the contents of the War Remnants Museum, I would like to preface the following graphic content. The War Remnants Museum was not a particularly cheery place, but I believe it is a place that every American, and moreover, every person should visit at some point in their life. Was it slanted with Vietnamese propaganda? Absolutely. But the US government purports their own propaganda on the subject. I was raised in a school system that didn't even get to the Vietnam War. My AP US History teacher held an after-school session to teach us as much as he could in 2 hours because he wasn't allotted enough time during the year to get to it. But I digress. I have uploaded photos of my trip to my April photo album, and I encourage you to look through them after reading. The first thing we saw was some of the US weaponry and wartime machinery used during the war. Among the bomber planes, helicopters, and tanks, there were also flame throwers (range: 133m) and long-range ground missile launchers. Then, we walked over to a restoration of an old prison of war camp. Inside, there were shocking tales of prison mutilation, torture, and brutal killings committed by South Vietnamese "puppet" soldiers, who were trained by French and U.S. military officials. One horrible method of punishment was known as the tiger cages. These cages were about 1.5m in length and 40cm in height and completely inclosed in barbed wire. A prisoner, and in some cases more than one prisoner, would be forced to stay in them for days with little to no food or water. The prison camp was lined not only with placards dedicated to these gruesome recollections, but also with quotes from the international community. All of the walls were covered with important international voices pointing to war crimes being committed in Vietnam, they all called for the US Government to end the war, and some even bluntly referred to it as a genocide of the Vietnamese people.

This was all before we had even gotten into the main building.

Finally entering the building, we followed the suggested route through the museum, taking our time to read every inch of information offered. Some rooms were filled with details on the weapons, others on the stories of the Viet Cong. One of my favorites was the collection of photos from the wartime reporters. There were photographers from every inch of the world: the US, Australia, Japan, and many Europeans. Almost every reporter died in action. The trickiness and danger of reporting on the war was that every inch of the country was a battlefield. The Viet Cong were fighting using guerrilla warfare tactics, so soldiers and reporters could be walking through a rice paddy or the jungle or even near their own bases, and the Viet Cong might have either attacked them or set up traps or land mines for them. All of the photos told a very personal story of the Vietnamese people, the US soldiers, and even the reporters out in the field. Fear and anguish did not discriminate. You could look at one photo of a US field medic desperately attempting to save a soldiers life while suffering from a head wound of his own, and then to a photo of a young Vietnamese mother pulling her children across a river to escape the fighting. Both photos would fill me with complex grief I had never experienced before. My own knowledge of the Vietnam War, of course coming from a US perspective, would compete with these juxtaposing photos. I would look at one soldier and wonder, "Was he a draftee? Was he able to make it home alive, to ever hug his parents again?" and then I would look at that family, thinking, "Was she able to escape to safety? Were the Viet Cong able to save and hide her and her family?" The entire photo collection was tragic and uplifting and brutal and beautiful all at once. I learned more from the candid emotion portrayed in each photograph than I ever could have from any book.

There were many jaw-dropping, tear-provoking exhibits, but all hailed in comparison to the room dedicated to the disastrous effects of Agent Orange on the country and people of Vietnam. Between the photos debilitated and deformed men, women and children, stories of hopeful Agent Orange victims seeking compensation or at least recognition from the US Government, and the monstrous-looking preserved aborted fetuses, it is safe to say that the Agent Orange exhibit was the most eye-opening of all the rooms in the museum. Agent Orange, known as dioxin, still affects Vietnam to this day. The problem with the chemical pesticide, used to wither millions of acres of jungle in an attempt to smoke out Viet Cong hiding places, is that once a person has been exposed, dioxin chemically mutates the DNA of its victim. Therefore, as the exposed person goes on to have children, they pass down the mutant gene to their children, and if their children are lucky enough to survive and have kids of their own, they will pass it down to their children. Estimates of three to four generations must pass before the gene is not prominent enough to be selected for, with conservative estimates at five to six generations. And it is not just Vietnamese who suffered from dioxin poisoning. The room also displayed stories of US soldiers fighting to gain recognition and compensation by the US Government for having poisoned them and their family for generations to come. While the US Government eventually conceded to some reparations for the soldiers, no money or support will pass on to their children. No money at all is being given to the Vietnamese. I read a letter from a young Vietnamese girl to Pres. Obama, pleading for some aid. She explained how hopeful she was when she read about the love he has for his daughters, and how he wants ever child in the world to have the same opportunities to grow and thrive. She, too, wanted to have opportunities to make a life for herself, but her affliction left her with stumps for legs making it difficult for her to work. Guess what though? She does work. This young girl has figured out a way to make use of what she does have, and generates an income for herself. She received no letter in response.

After the War Remnants Museum, Emilia and I wanted to learn even more about the Vietnamese side of the war. So on the next day, we visited the Cu Chi Tunnels. On our way to the tunnels, our tour guide explained that he was not there to give us the Vietnamese side nor the American side of the story, he was there to present us with the facts of what we were about to see. Throughout the whole trip, he really was unbiased and straightforward. Our guide told us that 60,000 Vietnamese helped to dig the 121 km (75m) system of tunnels. The first thing we saw when we visited was the traps the Viet Cong set. In the town of Cu Chi, the Americans were fighting mostly villagers, not trained soldiers. The villagers used their knowledge of setting animal traps to catch soldiers instead of wildlife. As disturbing as it was for me to see their tools and methods of trapping victims (see photos for some examples), I couldn't help but be impressed with their ingenuity. The Viet Cong didn't have well-trained soldiers, so they used traps and tunnels and other guerrilla warfare techniques to allow every fighter to have a remarkably better chance at survival. Young girls and boys fought in the Cu Chi tunnels, firing from sniper holes in the ground only to dive back under, run over to another sniper hole 50m away, and confuse the US soldiers where they were being attacked from. They didn't have bombs either, so they pilfered dud US bombs to create their own. We also got to walk through the tunnels, which were 120cm tall (I'm about 160cm tall to give you some perspective) and about 60cm across. They set up entire rooms underground: kitchens, bedrooms, nurseries, medic rooms. They would only surface at night, to attend to their rice paddies and what was left of their other crops under the cover of darkness. Some children born in the Cu Chi Tunnels during the war, never saw light until the war was over. At the end of the trip, we were taken to watch a 15 min. video on the fighting in Cu Chi. This was my first experience with heavy handed propaganda. Some of the phraseology was so harsh towards the Americans that I had to stop myself from tearing up as they explained how proud they were of having killed and trapped the young American men, most of whom didn't want to be there in the first place. Then we were back on the bus to go home.

You may be wondering at this point, "But Emma, you said that Vietnam was one of your most favorite places that you visited? Seems like it was pretty depressing." Well, that's true, but being depressed for a few days was part of why I loved it there so much. The knowledge and perspective I ascertained in just 5 short days was overwhelming; I truly walked away a changed person. In fact, Emilia and I were lucky to walk away alive because trying to cross the street in Ho Chi Minh could be an X-Games event. I live in Bangkok, where crossing the street is a bit testy at times, but Ho Chi Minh is a whole other ballgame. Fortunately, the vast majority of drivers are on motorbikes, making maneuverability a key component to how traffic and pedestrians can coexist successfully. While they do have traffic lights and such, that doesn't mean people stop when the light turns red. This creates what I can only describe as "weaving traffic," where motorbikes are weaving in and out of cars and other motorbikes through the middle of an intersection. The only way you are going to get to the other side of the street is if you pray to your God of choice, and take a step forward on to the road with your hand held in a Heisman position--except instead of stiff-arming an 250+ football player, your head on with a 50km motorbike. The motorbike will zoom around you as long as you confidently keep striding across the road, but confidence is key. You basically need to display with body language in a split second whether you are going to let the motorbike go to the front or back of you and STICK TO YOUR CHOICE. After surviving unscathed, Emilia and I definitely earned out Girl Scout badge in crossing the street, and have determined that Ho Chi Minh is the world unfriendliest place for drunk people walking home at night (needing to be alert is a must if you want to live).

Emilia and I had a wonderful time in Ho Chi Minh, and every day was truly an adventure. Before I scare you off from every visiting, I will leave you with some unbeatable pros of Vietnam. 1. Pho - aka Vietnamese beef noodle soup available EVERYWHERE, small sizes ranging from $1, large sizes ranging to about $3 (large is large, like fill up a college boy large). 2. Banh Mi and Banh Bao - also available everywhere, the Vietnamese sandwich and dumpling carts were unbeatably my favorite: filled with pork, pickled veggies and lots of sauce in the case of the sandwiches or stuffed full of pork and quail eggs in the dumplings. If your lucky, you may even stumble upon a cart that also provides Baby Bell spreadable cheese for your sandwich. 3. Bakeries, Bakeries, oh my Bakeries - due to the, *ahem*, French influence on Vietnamese culture, there are plenty of bakeries to fill you yearning appetite for hearty breads and delicious baked delicacies. 4. COFFEE - if you are already a coffee buff, you know that Vietnam has some excellent coffee. Tried and true, their coffee was delicious, but because your in SE Asia if you don't want it loaded with sugar, you must request NOTHING ADDED so they don't inundate the flavor with condensed milk and spoons full of sugar. 5. Night Market - though small in comparison to the grand Chatuchak of Bangkok, the night market in Ho Chi Minh does offer incredible deals if you know how to bargain. I was able to walk away with great stuff and only spent about $20 total. I cannot wait to go back to visit the rest of Vietnam. I will definitely return to Ho Chi Minh and stay with Ms. Yang again, but after all that I've learned, I feel I am ready to see and explore the North next time.


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