Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Vietnam Day 1: Past, Present, and Future

Blog Entry #40: Vietnam: Past, Present, and Future

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Of all our destinations during this voyage around the world, perhaps no country did I approach with more ambivalence than Vietnam.  I cannot remember a time during my childhood when the Vietnam War (known here as the American War) was not raging, and I grew up assuming that I would have to fight, and possibly die, in Vietnam.  Yet I also knew that Vietnam is in the midst of an “economic miracle” matched by few other places in the global economy, growing at nearly 10% a year, and transforming places like Ho Chi Minh City – formerly Saigon – into bustling, growing metropolises. 
Our first view of Ho Chi Minh City: The growing skyline over fields and boats along the Saigon River
Street scene, Ho Chi Minh City
Our first day I had planned an FDP field trip to look at environmental issues and the projected effects of climate change on Vietnam and the Mekong Delta.  Building on contacts from colleagues at the University of Montana who organize yearly trips for UM students to Vietnam to study climate change, I had arranged to meet with several university students and professors at Nong Lam University, a public university in Ho Chi Minh City that focuses on agriculture, engineering, forestry and environmental issues.
US Planes outside the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City
US Helicopter outside War Remnants Museum
Due to scheduling demands, however, the 21 members of our group began with a visit to the War Remnants Museum, which documents the Vietnam/American War from a Vietnamese perspective.  It may seem odd to have included a visit to the War Remnants Museum as part of a field trip focused on environmental issues, but the war had significant and long-lasting environmental effects on Vietnam, from the tons of Agent Orange and other defoliants dropped on Vietnamese forests and mangroves, to the bombed and cratered countryside. 

In the days prior to our arrival in Ho Chi Minh City, we had heard the stories and memories from several of our colleagues on the ship who were Vietnam War Veterans.  Listening to their stories brought back many emotional memories for those of that from that era – memories we had not thought consciously of for many years.

War Protest Photos in War Remnants Museum 
Walking into the War Remnants Museum past U.S. planes and helicopters used in the war, and then seeing the photos brought this all back.  Many of the photos were famous and familiar, and had graced the covers of Life and Time magazines and many newspapers.  Even knowing that we were seeing only a Vietnamese perspective shaped by their decades of nationalist struggle against first the French and then the U.S., it was impossible not to be moved by the museum.  It was also poignant to see the number of Vietnam Vets in the museum, explaining the photos and artifacts to spouses and children who had accompanied them.

New skyscraper going up
Yet Vietnam has largely moved on from the war.  Over 2/3 of the population has been born since the end of the war, and Vietnam in the past 20 years has begun a process of economic transformation whose pace is dizzying. 
Motorbike Traffic in Ho Chi Minh City
SAS students with students from the Ho Chi Minh City chapter of 350.org
Thiet, leader of HCMC 350.org group & graduate student
It was this younger generation that greeted us at Nong Lam University – perhaps a dozen college students who form part of the Vietnam chapter of 350.org – the worldwide group of chapters begun by American activist and author, Bill McKibben, to work to stabilize the amount of carbon in the atmosphere at 350 parts per million, considered by climate scientists to be the maximum the earth can maintain without triggering dangerous tipping points (alarmingly today it is over 390 ppm); (check out their activities at www.350.org/en/about/blogs/350-vietnam-moving).

Dan talking to the Vietnam 350.org students
We began by joining the students for lunch at the school cafeteria, and then had a chance to speak to each of them to learn what they are studying (everything from environmental studies to forestry to veterinary medicine to foreign languages), and why they are concerned about climate change. 

Banner welcoming us to Nong Lam University
We divided into several small groups to tour the university and then moved to one of the main lecture halls where we met Dr. Nguyen Phu Hoa, PhD in Aquaculture and Aquatic Resource Management, and Vice Head of the International Relations Office.  She introduced us to the programs at the University, before introducing our two main speakers, Dr. Nguyen Kim Loi, Director of the Research Center for Climate Change at Nong Lam University, and Dr. Duong Van Ni of the College of Natural Resources Management Cantho University, and an expert on environmental changes due to climate change in the Mekong Delta.

I won’t reproduce their talks here, which were detailed, fascinating, and sobering – suffice it to say that Vietnam is predicted to be one of the world’s five most affected nations by climate change, both in terms of critical weather patterns, and by rising sea levels.  Much of the Mekong Delta that makes up most of southern Vietnam is only 1-2 meters above sea level, and already rising levels are affecting this.
Dan & Pat with Research Scientists on Climate Change at Nong Lam University
With Huong at Tea Ceremony
Traditional Vietnamese Tea Ceremony
Statue of Ho Chi Minh in front of People's Committee Buildng
Our day ended later that evening when Huong, one of the students who had accompanied us throughout the day, and who in the summer of 2010 had spent 5 weeks at the University of Montana with a student delegation from SE Asia, invited us to join her for a traditional tea ceremony.  What a beautiful occasion this was!  We went to the Tra Viet tea house, where a tea master prepared for us a pot of tea made in the blossom of the lotus flower, in an elaborate ritual.  A most lovely and calming ending to a very full first day.
Ho Chi Minh City at night

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