September 11, 2008

Semester at Sea - Vietnam

I think the country I was most suprised by was Vietnam. One thing I wish I had done before I visited each country was to write my expectations. I can't remember exactly all that I thought Vietnam would be but I know I was really shocked. One thing I do remember is thinking that it was going to be really dirty and ugly but it was gorgeous - really lush and beautiful. Our entrance into Vietnam wasn't like the other countries - vast expanse of ocean and then pull into port in the middle of the night. Instead, we got to cruise up the Saigon River all morning. Classes were suspended and we had a BBQ and sat on deck watching everything we could along the banks before our arrival in the early afternoon.

Before our arrival, we were all warned NOT to ride on the local motorcycles. There were very few rules (outside of obvious common sense, courtesy and safety) that we were asked to abide by, but this was one of them. Motorcycles are one of the public forms of transportation and are much cheaper than taxis. So, of course, Lauren and I immediately rode on one. And of course, when I got off, I understood why we weren't supposed to ride them. These aren't big Harleys - these are more like mopeds and with three people, the poor bike chugged along. It was such a cool way to see the city though. Anyway, I got off and my leg pressed right against the exhaust pipe - or whatever it is. I remember hearing my skin sizzle. And then I remember the driver try to brush off the dead skin. Worst idea ever. I wore it proudly though - my 'Nam wound. I didn't go to the nurse for a while because I knew we weren't supposed to ride the bikes and I didn't want to get lectured, but once some bugs stuck to the pus constantly oozing, I went to retrieve ointment and bandages.

Lauren and I went to a tailor where I had a gorgeous little black dress made for only $20! Custom fit! I had a pair of pants made too. I am terrified to try them on - last I knew they fit me and I'm going to leave it at that.

I took a few trips with the group - the first was outside of Ho Chi Minh city to see the Cu Chi tunnels. The Cu Chi Tunnels were an intricate, underground network the Viet Cong built so that they could travel without being noticed. The entrances were built into the ground and if the Americans were approaching, they simply jumped into the hole and disappeared beneath the ground. The tunnels existed for years without the Americans knowing - there was even an American base built unknowingly on top of the tunnels. The Vietnamese are tiny people - there is a tourist network of tunnles so that people can catch a glimpse of what it was like but Westerners are so large that it had to be widened. The entrance is actually not much bigger than the length of my size 7 foot.

On our way to the tunnels we had stopped to see some women making rice paper and to see rice fields - super cool. Several of us had to use the bathroom and we were led to a local house. I was excited about maybe getting to go inside the house and see what it looked like but I was so naiive. The countryside of Vietnam does not have the pleasure of plumbing. In lieu of a conventional toilet, the house had a small pond. There was a wooden ramp leading up to a small platform with three walls. This was the toilet. And catfish lived in the pond. This is common among many rural Vietnamese homes and the saying is "Feed the catfish in the morning, eat them at night". In some instances, the catfish have a Pavlovian response to the sound of footsteps on the ramp and they can be seen huddled below the platform. I went on the side of the road behind a tree.

While Lauren explored the peaceful beaches of Nha Trang, Kaycee and I took a trip to the Mekong Delta. We walked through the beautiful trails along the river and had tea and the best fruit I have ever had. It was so ripe and perfect. I even had spicy kiwi, something I had never heard of. I vaguely remember a slight cinnamon kick to it. We were given some entertainment in the way of two men playing instruments while a young girl sang.

When Kaycee and I returned we did some great shopping. I bought myself and my mom and my friend Meghan some funky pictures - the pictures were made by piecing together broken eggshells and then lacquered over (or something like that). They were so cool It's hanging in my bathroom now. I tried to buy a beautiful piece of art from every country if I could and it's something I try to continue. Bootleg DVDs were immensely popular and I bought 50 for $50 even though I didn't own a DVD player. I still have them and the poorly translated English descriptions are worth every cent even if the DVD didn't work.

Towards the end of our trip, Kaycee and I decided to visit the War Remnants museum in Ho Chi Minh. The Vietnamese refer to it as the American War and the museum was really simple - three buildings filled with artifacts and photos from the war. The museum was clearly set up to show the atrocities experienced during the war and I believe it was meant to inflict a lot of guilt. And it should have. I wasn't alive during any part of that war but still felt guilty. From all I have studied, the war was unnecessary and a bad decision. There was no doubt after the visit to this museum. There was no censorship. No polite signs warning you that the content would be graphic and that it would be best for adults and not for the faint of heart.

And as in your face as it was, I felt it was my American responsibility to go and soak it in. The image I remember most (as much as I can - accuracy of the description is not guaranteed because this is where I teared up a lot) was a photo of an American soldier carrying a Vietnamese man, apparently that he had just killed. He was blown to pieces but parts of his body was still in tact. The soldier was holding the body by the ankle and walking away. His leg was connected to his upper body by a long piece of flesh, or muscle. His other leg was missing. And his head was still attached - it felt like he was looking at me.

There were three buildings that made up this museum. Kaycee and I could only make it through one and then had to leave. We didn't speak but I think we both cried. Through our entire visit I don't think we encountered one unfriendly local. The war seems to be behind them and they are trying to carve their way into the global market once again.

I still have the brochure from that museum. I don't open it because it is graphic - the pictures are emotional and draining. But I'm glad I went. It will continue to disturb me but I think it was a valuable lesson and a HUGE reason why travel is so fundamentally necessary for every single person on this earth. When you go somewhere and meet people and connect to a culture, even for a few days, a part of you changes. A part of you is forever linked to that place. And when you have that kind of connection, you will always think twice before you lash out in anger, or war. You remember families that you met and you could never think of doing them harm. If everyone travelled and had those experiences I believe violence would be less and the world would be a happier place. I hope to be able to raise my children as avid travellers.

What a fitting post for 9/11...

http://www.flickr.com/photos/14203806@N00/sets/72157607045650924/

Posted by karen at September 11, 2008 06:12 PM
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