4.19.2009

Vietom nom nom nom

So it’s been a very long time since when left Vietnam but I’m going to do my best to summarize all that we did and the big things that I took away from my experiences there.

We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, on March 22nd. Coming into Vietnam, I really didn’t know too much about the country. I knew a little about the Vietnam War but other than the bare essential facts I really had no idea what the country was like now or what to expect when we arrived. 

A bunch of my friends and I had signed up for an FDP, so around noon we boarded the busses headed out to see the Cu Chi tunnels and enjoy a Vietnamese lunch. Upon arriving at the restaurant we were met with what would be pretty much our standard meal in Vietnam. Unlike the States, most of the food in Asia is served family style, everyone taking a little of each plate. We were given really tasty fried spring rolls, other little appetizers, soup, and pineapple. After eating our fill we got back on the bus to head to the Cu Chi tunnels. On the way we stopped at a cemetery for those who lost their lives in the Vietnam War. The cemetery was very open and airy with rows of matching, white marble graves. In the center was a large sculpture of a man holding a dying woman in his arms. It actually reminded me of both a small version of Arlington national cemetery and the quiet Jewish cemetery in New Jersey where my grandfather is buried. After a short stroll around we were herded back onto the busses and finally arrived at the Cu Chi tunnels.

Located right next to Westmoreland’s base from the war, the Cu Chi tunnels had been in use since the mid 1940s. They were cramped, tight, underground passages where men women and children lived for years when at war. They were used as a base for the Viet Cong from which they could launch strategic attacks and then seemingly disappear into thin air. We watched a video about the tunnels and then were taken around the compound as we learned more about what life in the tunnels was like and the various military campaigns perpetrated on both sides. There was a range where you could shoot military weapons and we were shown the various traps that were set to catch American G.I.s. Most of them involved very sharp spikes and looked like something I would not be pleased to find underfoot.

Finally we were given the chance to go into the tunnels. We climbed down inside and followed one another through the underground labyrinth of passages. The tunnels were tiny, hot and cramped. We crawled on our hands and knees through the dark and dust, finally making out way back out into the sunlight. After maybe 10 minutes in the tunnels we were dirty, sweaty and thankful for clean cool air. The Vietnamese would spend up to two years underground living in these spaces and we later learned that the tunnels we had crawled through had been enlarged 40%. Yikes.  

After out adventure in the tunnels we headed back to the ship to clean up and go out for dinner. After a really awesome shower we met up and took the shuttle to the Rex hotel at the center of town. We walked for a little while and after grabbing a tasty meal decided to explore Saigon and find a place to go out. One of the faculty members from the ship, Bob, was playing a concert at a Jazz club called Sax n’ Art and a bunch of us decided to go watch. The club was small with a stage to the left with just enough room for a piano, drum set and mics for a sax, guitar player, bassist and a singer. Bob played a few songs with their local backup band and then asked if the students who he usually jams with on the ship wanted to come up and join him. A bunch of my friends who play with him every night in our piano lounge hopped up on stage and played for a crowd of SAS-ers and locals.
After a little more jazz we decided we wanted to go dance so we headed back to the center of town near the Opera House to a club called Apocalypse Now. Seeing how it was a weeknight the club was filled with mostly SAS kids. There were a few locals however and everyone was together having a good time on the dance floor. Being on the ship the only time we really get to hear new music from the US is when we’re in clubs or bars in port so everyone was excited to hear new songs and have a good time dancing. At the end of the night we grabbed cabs back to the ship and turned in.

The next morning Taylor, Hannah and I got up early for a service visit to a school for the disabled. After a short bus ride we arrived at the Truong Dan Lap Da Thien School. We were met by the principal who explained to us a little about what the school does and the kinds of children who attend it. Most of the kids are from rural areas and through a government program are able to attend the school. Some are deaf or hearing impaired and the rest have either Down’s syndrome or another kind of mental disability.  They had a wide age range with children as young as 5 who attend the kindergarten, and children in the hearing impaired class who were as old as 14 or 15. After learning a little about the school we were able to split into groups to meet the kids and visit their classrooms. The school was actually really nice and the kids were great. They were so friendly and excited by our visit. Also, in comparison to the visit I did in India, the children at Da Thien were given a lot of attention and care.  Their teachers were patient and engaging and it was really great to see the program functioning so well. We visited a few of the classrooms and the students showed us what they had been learning, like songs, reading and writing. My mother knows a little bit of sign language and I know even less but I did my best to sign to some of the little girls and was able to spell out my name to them.

After visiting the classrooms everyone was brought into the common area and we were given toys, coloring books, bubbles and games were allowed to let loose and play.  It was really fun and we had a great time with the kids. We taught them head, shoulders, knees and toes and the hokey pokey and they sang us a song about Ho Chi Minh. I grabbed a bottle of bubbles and one of the little boys came over to join me. He sat on my lap and I showed him how to blow bubbles.  He was seriously into the bubbles and I think we spent the next 20 minutes just blowing bubbles, popping them and trying to catch them on the wand and start again. After a little while I joined some of the older kids drawing pictures. They were actually really good at drawing and were making graffiti writing and DJs and all sorts of really legit drawings.  Finally I hung out with a little girl who had a sticker book. We picked out stickers to give to the other kids and she gave me one to put on my cheek. After a little more time playing a few of us went into the kitchen to help set up and serve lunch. The kids were fed in their classrooms and they set up two tables in the common area for us.

At this lunch we were introduced to the Vietnamese concept of “make your own spring rolls,” which we would re-visit at most meals from that point on. We were given bowls of water, stacks of rice paper, plates with lettuce, herbs and some pineapples and a whole cooked fish. What we learned (after some serious trial and error) was that you wet the rice paper in the water so it’s workable, put the greens, pineapple and some fish meat inside and then roll it up. It actually tastes pretty great once you get it all together but it definitely took a little while for us to put the rice paper and the water together resulting in a lot of people snacking on some very dry rice paper. Oh well.

After our visit to the school we headed back to the ship and re-grouped to figure out the afternoon. Taylor and I wanted to find a place to get dresses made and Nate and Jordan wanted to get fitted for suits. Hannah, who had gone to a tailor the day before came with us and we headed in the director of her tailor shop. Earlier that week my friend Steve, who is an art major, had sketched out a dress for me and I brought the drawing along as a template. Hannah’s tailor had too many orders to take anymore to Taylor and I ventured next door to ask if they could make our stuff. The woman said that she could make my dress and Taylor’s suit. I showed her the design and she took my measurements and I picked out fabric. The dress Steve designed was three layers with the bottom two visible on top and bottom.  I chose a bronze, brown and cream fabrics and Taylor chose an olive-colored fabric for her two piece suit. Taylor and the boys were going to head to the market but Hannah and I wanted to do something more cultural since Hannah had gone to the market the day before. We decided to split off and take a cab to the war remnants museum.

We arrived at the museum and made our way inside to look at the exhibits. Formerly called the Museum of War Atrocities, the War Remnants Museum is operated by the Vietnamese government and chronicles much of the devastation suffered by the Vietnamese people during the war. Upon entering the first room we slowly made our way around the exhibit, examining the photographs and reading the explanations. There were photos of American soldiers holding guns to the heads of Vietnamese men and women. Photos of villages burning, bodies in piles, and miles of scorched jungles. The descriptions chronicled the raids, burnings and the war of attrition carried out by the American soldiers. There was an area of the exhibit dedicated to a raid that took place in a small rural village where, among others, two grandparents and their three young grandchildren were killed and their village was burnt to the ground.

As we moved through the exhibit we reached the section that detailed the devastation brought on by dioxin and Agent Orange.  During the war 4.8 million Vietnamese people were exposed to Agent Orange resulting in 400,000 death and disabilities and 500,000 children born with birth defects. There were photos of men and women who had been badly disfigured or affected by the diseases brought on by exposure to dioxin, as well as those in the next generation who were born with birth defects or mental and physical disabilities. There were fetuses that were badly disfigured and testimonies about the chemical makeup of Agent Orange. There was also a section about the American soldiers who were affected by it and the summit that was held on the topic in Ho Chi Minh City in 2007.

There was another section of the museum on weaponry and another which displayed art by local children, expressing their thoughts on peace, war and cultural harmony. Finally, another section of the museum displayed a timeline of events in the war and gave a short history of Vietnam from its occupation by France all the way through until gaining their independence.

Honestly, a lot of what was in the museum was hard to look at. It was hard to come to terms with the things that our country did and our often blatant disregard for human life. It was hard to reconcile why we were there at all and the fact that we literally burnt their country to the ground. Granted, we understood that the museum presented a very biased view of the conflict. There were atrocities committed on both sides and to say that the Vietnamese were the sole victims would be both ignorant and absolutely disrespectful of the Americans who fought and died there. But the things that stuck with me after leaving the museum rested in our reasoning for being there in the first place and the cultural and historical legacy that Vietnam has now in our country.

 As a young person, I was angry at myself, at the shipboard administrators and at the American education system for not preparing me for this. I walked out of the museum feeling like I had been uneducated and I felt very ignorant. Sure I had learned about the Vietnam War in AP U.S. History in high school, but it was something we glazed over between WWII and the present day, at the end of the year. I could have taken the initiative to seek out more information on my own, but I didn’t. I had thought that we would learn about the Vietnam War in Global Studies, but the professors speaking to us are from an older generation and when they became emotionally affected talking about the material, the rest of us were left in the dust. Aside from a few minutes on Domino Theory no one really explained to us in detail why we got involved, how the conflict escalated, what happened and how we ended up getting out. For an event that was paramount in shaping the generation before us, we knew so little. I felt uneducated.

It was a feeling shared by a lot of us on the ship, both in Vietnam and China, and we discussed it at length. My friend Dave commented that we learn about the Boston Tea Party and WWII over and over in every history class we take, but we rush over the Vietnam War and even the first Gulf War and don’t really get the chance to understand them.  But the truth is that these events play a far bigger role in shaping the world that we are going to inherit than the sugar tax or the Platt amendment or the invention of the cotton gin. What I took away from the War Remnants Museum was a greater desire to understand the war and our role in it and the hope that our country won’t make the same mistake twice.

Hannah and I spent a lot of time after the museum talking about what we had seen, and our perceptions of the war, America, and Vietnam as we made our way back to the center of the city. We had a map but the museum was off its borders so we walked in the general direction until we found a street with a familiar name and made our way back to the Rex hotel. The shuttle from the Rex to the ship left every half hour and we made a quick stop around the corner to get a bottle of water before heading back to catch the bus. Unfortunately, we must have taken a long time counting our change because when we got back to the Rex the bus had just left. We didn’t want to wait another half hour and just as we were about to try and make a plan a guy on a motorbike taxi goes “Ship? I take you. $1” One of the things I really like about Hannah is that she is always down for an adventure. We took one look at each other, looked at the bike and decided why not? He called over a friend and each of us grabbed a helmet and hopped on the back of one of the bikes.

If there is one thing that is memorable about Saigon it’s the motorbike traffic. The city has very few cars but there are literally seas of motorbikes, all driving and weaving around. Everyone wears helmets and often mouth and nose covers that look like surgical masks. It’s not uncommon to see whole families on motorbikes with children sitting on laps, or in front of the driver. Crossing the street is also an adventure. There are only crosswalks and signs in some parts of the city, and crossing the street is all about taking a deep breath and just stepping off the curb. The key is to go at a steady pace and make eye contact with the drivers. They anticipate you walking so they’ll swerve around you, but if you make sudden stops or run you might get hit.

Hannah and I held on tight to our respective drivers as we headed into the fray of motorbikes. Honestly, I was a little nervous because they told us not to go on the bikes and to be careful about exhaust burns but riding on the back of the motorbike was AWESOME. It wasn’t crazy fast, the breeze was great and it was just really fun. We got back to the ship quickly and cheaply and from then on Hannah and I were hooked on riding motorbikes.

We showered and grabbed some dinner and then met up with some other friends to go out. We decided to walk around downtown Saigon and check out the night market. I hadn’t been to a Vietnamese market yet so it was fun to see what kind of stuff they were selling. They had lots of polos, tee shirts, northface backpacks and jackets, Vietnamese crafts, shoes, clothes and food. We strolled around the night market and decided to grab some ice cream on our way back to the ship. We went into the ice cream parlor and checked out the menu. Most of my friends got vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce but I figured I may as well eat something adventurous so I got a longan ice cream. Longan is a Vietnamese fruit but I had never tried it before and didn’t know what it was going to taste like.

Everyone got their ice creams and after taking a few bites I still couldn’t really decide if mine was good or not. The ice cream itself tasted ok but there was something weird about the longan fruit. I had my friends taste it and we all agreed that there was some kind of aftertaste that we couldn’t put our finger on. Finally my friend Ben tasted it and he said, “It’s like fruit, but with the aftertaste of bacon”. He was absolutely right.  Ew. After realizing that I was eating a baconfruit sundae I decided that I had definitely eaten my fill and once we were all done we headed back to ship for the night. We had a trip to the Mekong Delta scheduled for the next day and knew that we were going to need our sleep.

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