It’s funny how memory works. When set in a firm routine, two months can pass by with little notice. School and studying often set you in a rhythmic and hypnotic march towards the next big thing—finals, midterms, summer, winter. Then suddenly you’ve got that bizarre, twilight zone feeling that it was just yesterday when the semester began. You know it was a long time ago, because all the details are fuzzy, but the important things vividly clasp to your consciousness like something two minutes removed, not two months. I’ve been in Vietnam for two months now, and am currently experiencing that same, unsettling phenomenon of time relativity. It feels like ages ago that I stepped off the airplane in Ho Chi Minh City, but I can tell you exactly how I felt struggling out of the airport with my two huge overweight bags through the masses of Vietnamese people waiting for the emergence of their loved ones returning for Tet Holiday. Big experiences like that, ones that truly connect with the emotions and overload sensory perception, are ones that will always stick with a person. Fortunately, for the rest of my experiences, I’ve kept a detailed journal. I plan to write this entry without referring back to my journals so that I can really talk about these “big experiences” that have surprised me, thrilled me, made me laugh and cry, made me happy and even angry and guilty. These are what Vietnam has done to me—are doing to me still. They are my moments and my reactions to these moments. They are distinctly Vietnamese moments also. I’m just an observer in a place where there is still magic and wildness amid a flourish of modernization and globalization. These are moments I’ve shared with Vietnam and with its people, and this is an attempt to reflect upon them.
The first of my big experiences in Vietnam has been my reaction to the geography, the climate, and the natural beauty of the country itself. Vietnam is a country of dichotomies. Its distinct natural beauty contrasts the urban sprawl of the biggest cities in the developing nation. Ho Chi Minh City and Ha Noi, the two largest cities would never be called conventionally beautiful. They do not possess a striking skyline and soviet architecture has ensured that many of the buildings are concrete and dreary. Although they are working on sanitation issues, many streets are still urinated upon frequently giving them a distinct and unattractive smell. These two cities, plus up and coming cities like Can Tho and Da Nang, are truly developing and as such, contain a kind of charismatic beauty of their own. Their massive traffic congestion, narrow streets, pushy vendors, loud noises, hidden obstacles, exposed wires, and nasty smells are off putting at first. But these things can also be considered part of the country’s appeal. The traffic, narrow streets, and exposed wires become adventures in navigation. The vendors become opportunities to practice the language or gain a friend. The smells I notice now are wonderful- pho, bo, ga, ca, com—delicious foods available for next to nothing. Ha Noi’s old quarter in particular is a place that offers a truly Vietnamese experience. The main streets are packed with tourists, but turn down one tiny ally and it’s all locals.
By this point of the trip, I have almost been numbed or desensitized to the strikingly beautiful natural landscape of Vietnam. I’ve seen dry rice fields and endless canals in the Mekong Delta. I’ve seen mountains and valleys in Da Lat. I’ve seen the oceans, beaches, and caves in Da Nang, mountains and rivers in Hue. Northern Vietnam has revealed lush wet fields, mountains hidden in mist, and claims the gems Hoa Su and Ha Long, where Dr. Seuss mountains shoot straight up out of the land and sea. The variety of the geography of this relatively small country is astounding. There have been moments in each place that I’ve visited that have taken my breath away.
Perhaps the most important part of my time here in Vietnam has been my ever-deepening understanding of the Vietnamese people. As I have said repeatedly in my blog, I have come to love the Vietnamese people. I have been welcomed to their country with generosity, friendship, and partnership. Again, this has struck me as one of the biggest surprises about Vietnam. I’d heard about the positive character of the Vietnamese people from friends who had visited before, but I didn’t truly comprehend it until I got here. The Vietnamese value of hospitality is one that people around the world could benefit from adopting. I was particularly struck by my experiences in the Mekong Delta. I will never forget meeting families too poor to own land or put 4 enclosed walls around their home that welcomed us like family and gave us food and drink. We with our hundred dollar cameras and our desire to see “real” Vietnam before heading back to our comfortable hotel—but none of that mattered to these people. We were simply human beings—people visiting their homes, and as such, we were to be treated with the utmost generosity. I’ve been welcomed wholeheartedly into two different homestay families, which were experiences far more rewarding than any that I could have hoped to have gained. I participated in the most sacred of the Tet rituals on my first night with my homestay family in Da Lat. I was given a bed and mattress in my second homestay, even though there weren’t enough to go around. However connected the globe is today, the thought of not seeing these people who have been such wonderful aspects of my life again makes me miss Vietnam before I have even left!
Being an American in Vietnam is another distinct experience that I’ve had since I’ve been here. I was surprised to find that there are no overt or even subtly overt negative feelings towards Americans. There are of course remnants of the war that happened so many decades ago evident not only in the museums dedicated to its memory, but also in the people and landscape of Vietnam. Agent Orange is a hideous reminder of what our presence here did and has continued to do to Vietnam. Visiting the victims and viewing the devastation that is still evident in many areas of Vietnam should be enough to make any American sick to their stomach. Yet even visiting the Agent Orange education center, where I should have been feeling the most terrible, I was welcomed with open, loving arms. The time when I was most overwhelmed was during my visit to the War Remnants Museum. While I was trying to balance myself between regret and disgust, I said “It sure makes me feel bad about being American” to which my homestay brother and friend Son said to me “war is always a terrible thing.” His response somehow made me feel better. He wasn’t blaming me, he wasn’t blaming my country; he was blaming the hideousness that is war. Son’s comment is not unique; this is the sort of response that I’ve received from most Vietnamese people. I get the feeling that although they haven’t forgotten, they have forgiven. They see the war as a violent part of a violent history that has passed its way out of relevancy.
My educational experience in Vietnam has been truly unique. Co Thanh and Vy have run my group through the gauntlet. We’re tired, cranky, and sick of each other, but how else could we have learned what we have? Vietnam as a nation would like to be perceived as a country working towards their dream of development. Our interdisciplinary course covered a wide spectrum: agriculture, history, culture, tourism, gender, economics, religion, education, politics, health care, communism, capitalism, mass media, migration, rural development, and so much more. We’ve learned from experts and we’ve studied in the field. We’ve had a lecture from a monk in a tiny pagoda outside of Hue. We’ve debated our opinions over sidewalk smoothies and in long bus rides in the Mekong Delta. Co Thanh and Vy have put us in places and situations where we have been able to understand what Vietnam truly is. We have a better understanding of where it is headed in its path to development and what obstacles it still needs to overcome. We understand it’s struggle over the desire to develop and the need to maintain and preserve Vietnamese culture. Now they have set us up to dig deeper into a topic of interest. Our independent research period is just beginning—a new chapter of this semester, and one I am particularly excited about.
So what sticks out in my mind during these past two months? Here’s a little free association: the humidity and noise as I exited the airport that first night…walking an extra block to find a cross walk the first day…the smell of the streets…the constant motorbike noise…always sweating…my first motorbike ride through the city…the first real poverty I saw on the way to Da Lat…praying with my homestay at midnight on Tet…tearing up at the beauty of the monastery…the delicious food my wonderful sisters Nguyen and Long (Men) made for us…seeing my homestay father cry when we left…eating the wrong street food and throwing up all day…being visited by Long and Nguyen in the hospital...assuring Long that I didn’t need her mother to take the 7 hour bus ride to Ho Chi Minh City to take care of me…being welcomed into the home of the laborers in Hoa An...drinking the coke they gave us, eating the watermelon they cut for us…catching fish with bamboo poles…building the brick wall for the biodigester connections…eating lunch with the family we’d built the biodigester for…miming “chicken” to 50 strangers at a cultural exchange…meeting my second homestay family…living day to day with my homestay family…staying up late with Son, building a friendship…Toi men cao…my 30 minute motorbike ride to and from school…the time I got hit by a car on a motorbike…the engagement party I attended…the photos I was in…the gifts my homestay family and friends gave me on my last day…marveling at ancient Champa ruins…standing in a beam of light cutting through the hazy darkness of the caves of marble mountain…dancing with a little girl at the Agent Orange Center…driving a motorbike for the first time…receiving a watermelon from a monk…being followed by a throng of children screaming “yeah!” through a quiet village…feeling cool for the first time in months…riding a boat through a mountain cave…sleeping under the stars on a boat in Ha Long Bay…the sunrise the next morning.
All of this, and I still have two more months here?? For anyone still wondering “Why Vietnam?” This is why Vietnam. This is what Vietnam is to me.