Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Vietnam: Closing Thoughts



Blog Entry #44: Vietnam: Closing Thoughts

Monday, October 31, 2011

How to wrap up my thoughts on these six days in Vietnam and Cambodia?  A rich, confusing, exhausting, inspiring, and overwhelming time.

Barge on the Saigon River; Ho Chi Minh City skyline behind
In my Global Studies discussion group this morning, I asked the students to reflect on their time in Indochina with the following questions.  They may be a helpful way for me to organize my thoughts as well:

1.     What were you most anticipating about your time in Vietnam [and Cambodia]?
2.     What surprised you the most?  Why?
3.     What did you experience, and what were your 2 or 3 most important experiences?
4.     What feelings did you experience, both during and now after Vietnam and Cambodia?
5.     What questions or new insights do you have?

Oil Tanks & Refinery along the Saigon River in Ho Chi Minh City
Bustling street scene in Ho Chi Minh City
Motorbikes everywhere
I’m not exactly sure what I most anticipated about visiting Vietnam; some of this I have reflected on in entry 40.  I know I anticipated seeing evidence of the robust and growing economy, the “Vietnam miracle.”  And we did – everywhere, it seems, Ho Chi Minh City is growing and bustling.  Every imaginable consumer good is available in every color, size and shape, and the U.S. dollar remains strong here; our students (and a few faculty) flocked to the Ben Thanh Market for everything from tailored suits to T-shirts to pirated movies.

New high-rises sprouting in Ho Chi Minh City
I had expected to see more of the old Saigon I remember from photographs growing up, but that city seems to be fading quickly away, being replaced by skyscrapers, banks, and highrise apartments buildings.  One can still see vestiges of the old French colonial past, but this, too, is disappearing.

The Rex Hotel from old Saigon days
Continental Hotel
I had also expected to see more signs and symbols of the war years, but apart from the powerful displays in places such as the War Remnants Museum and the Reunification Palace (formerly the Presidential Palace), these, too, seem to be fading.  Still it was fascinating to see old landmarks such as the Rex Hotel and the Continental Hotel (setting for much of Graham Greene’s compelling novel of 1950s Vietnam, The Quiet American) in the heart of old Saigon where the foreign press and dignitaries often stayed during the war years – now largely eclipsed by the shining skyscrapers of the Park Saigon Hyatt, the Sheraton, and the Caravelle Hotel. 
New Hotel high-rises in Ho Chi Minh City


Many of the students had visited the Cu Chi Tunnels, the now legendary 200 km network of tunnels only 20 miles from Saigon that facilitated Viet Cong infiltration of the south during the war, and found them deeply moving.  But for the most part Vietnam seems to have moved on: having at least achieved its independence from foreign and colonial control, and now reunified into one country, it’s face is firmly forward, negotiating trade agreements with countries like the U.S. and integrating itself fully into the global economy.

Boats in the busy Ho Chi Minh City harbor
With statue of "Uncle Ho" & child
With 350.org students at Nong Lam University, Ho Chi Minh City
I had been told by many that the Vietnamese hold no personal grudges against visiting Americans, and though I expected this, it was still humbling to experience the warmth and hospitality we did from people who had been defined as the enemy throughout my childhood.  From vendors along the street to our meetings at Nong Lam University to the lovely traditional tea ceremony arranged by the student, Huong, people went out of their way to greet and welcome us.

With V___ in Phnom Penh
I was not expecting to be as deeply affected by the Cambodia trip as I have been.  I have been exposed to the trauma of genocide before, especially in taking my students yearly to Guatemala, but something about the scale and brutality of the Khmer Rouge toward its own people has shaken me deeply.  The warm laughter and gentle self-deprecation of our guide, V_____, contrasting with the story of his family’s experience of those terrible years will haunt me for some time.

Simply having time to walk and explore Ho Chi Minh City with Pat was a treat, as was sampling the amazing Vietnamese cuisine.  My favorite restaurant during my Des Moines years was a small neighborhood Vietnamese restaurant; how amazing to now be able to sample so many different regional dishes in the heart of old Saigon.
Communist Party billboards in Ho Chi Minh City
Our travels around Ho Chi Minh City included an hour-long trip in a “cyclo”, a “tri-shaw,” that gave us constant exposure to HCMC’s chaotic traffic and never-ending stream of motorbikes.  Crossing HCMC streets is an art form that challenges the faint of heart!  Even here subtle reminders of the war were evident, as Pat’s elderly cyclo driver’s right hand had been maimed during the war.

Pat with "Cyclo" driver in Ho Chi Minh City
Reunification Palace, former Presidential Palace in Saigon
Banquet Room Presidential Palace
Helicopter rooftop pad, Presidential Palace
We also walked through the Reunification Palace, originally South Vietnam’s Presidential Palace, and built in the mid-60s to replace the original French Governor’s Palace, built in 1871, but bombed and heavily damaged in 1962 coup d’├ętats attempt against President Ngo Dinh Diem.  Here is where the famous pictures of North Vietnamese tanks crashing through the gates on April 30, 1975 brought an end to the South Vietnamese Republic and the reunification of Vietnam.  The Palace has been left in its original state in 1975; it was fascinating to walk through and see the command rooms for the war in the basement, and the heliport on the roof to ferry the President away.

Large suspension bridge across the Saigon River, Ho Chi Minh City
One thing that was fascinating to me is how far inland Ho Chi Minh City is from the South China Sea, but navigable all the way along the Saigon River.  It took as 4 hours once we left the city center to reach the sea, and for the first two hours nearly we saw the evidence of Vietnam’s economic growth on both sides of the river.  Yet eventually industrial zones gave way to rural countryside and occasional huts among the mangroves.
Ho Chi Minh City skyline rising over mangroves along the Saigon River

And there we suddenly there we were: at the end of the Saigon River as it empties into the South China Sea, past the final islands of the Vietnam coast (ironically with a tall stature of Jesus above a contemporary Catholic Church as one of our final images), and now on to Hong Kong and China.  No closing insights, but many new and lingering questions and images, and a hope that I will one day return to this fascinating land.
Mountains at the mouth of the Saigon River where it enters the South China Sea

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