Thursday, September 20, 2007

Vietnam (part I)

Saigon, Vietnam

Saigon, a.k.a. Ho Chih Minh city is a big city full of motorbikes and pho. In case you are unfamiliar with pho, it is a Vietnamese noodle soup (usually with some kind of meat) that is eaten at all times of day in this country. Since we were coming directly from spending almost a week in Phnom Penh, Saigon seemed pretty easy. The hassling by beggars and street vendors decreased by ten-fold and we felt a lot safer walking around in the evening. And when I say the city is full of motorbikes, I mean it is actually crowded with them. The motorbike is the dominant mode of transport in most Asian cities, but in Saigon you will regularly see crowds of motorbikes waiting at traffic lights and it looks like a crowd of people. Crossing the street with motorbikes everywhere is another experience, and it involves walking INTO moving traffic. Some intersections (more in Cambodia than in Vietnam) do not have any sort of traffic lights or stop signs, so it becomes a free-for-all. Whomever is most skilled at weaving through traffic will get through the intersection the fastest. Faren and I were so amazed by this that we had to take a video of the craziness, and for the first time, I actually felt grateful for the traffic cops and all of the traffic rules in the U.S.

Another thing to be noted about Saigon, and Vietnam in general, is how incredibly sweet the people are. Everywhere we go, we are greeted by a chorus of “hello’s!”. In Thailand and in Cambodia, most of these “hello’s” were from people who were trying to sell you something or give you a ride in their tuk-tuk. In Vietnam, the greetings are usually genuine, and smiles are almost always returned. I suppose that in Thailand, most of the Thai’s are fed up with tourists (can’t really blame them), so they are not as friendly. And in Cambodia, the people are so poor that everyone simply sees you as a walking wallet (not that this doesn’t happen all over S.E. Asia) rather than as another human being. But in Vietnam, we have been pleasantly surprised and impressed by the character of the people.

Similar to how I devoted time in Cambodia to learn about the Khmer Rouge, a significant amount of time in Vietnam has been spent learning about the Vietnam War, which has been heartbreaking. I visted the Cu Chi tunnels, a vast network of underground tunnels outside of Saigon, and an integral factor in the Viet Cong victory over America. They are more than 250 km long and three levels deep. A bit more history:

"The district of Cu Chi was the most bombed shelled, gassed, defoliated, and generally devastated area in the history of warfare. It was declared a "free fire zone" which meant that artillery fire fell on it at night, and that bomber pilots were encouraged to drop unused explosives and napalm on the area before returning to base. In essence, anything that moved was considered a target and blown away.

While U.S. forces relied on artillery support from fixed "Fire Bases," the Vietnamese used their tunnel system to move their artillery around, making it difficult for the U.S. troops to locate them. In one tunnel complex in Cu Chi the U.S. found two 105 field pieces in perfect working condition. They would be stripped down outside, taken into the tunnels and assembled during the day for maintenance, stripped again, and then taken back through the tunnels to be reassembled in a new location outside and used the next night.

These are only a few of the stories of the tunnels of Cu Chi. Today the tunnels still stand, proof that the determination of the people - and not technology - can determine who wins a war."

During the Cu Chi tour, I was able to climb on a destroyed American tank, see the most brutal boobie-traps ever, climb through the tiny tunnels, and...shoot an M16 machine gun! Although it was definitely counter to my peace-loving, anti-war mentality, curiousity got the best of me. When else in my life will I have the opportunity to shoot a real machine gun used in a war? I had to know what it felt like. Too bad I wasn't that impressed.

After the tunnels, my friend Zach and I were dropped off by our bus at the Vietnam War Remnants Museum. I quickly became very disturbed by all of the war history. For example, there was a large exhibit showing the effects of "Agent Orange," an herbicide that was sprayed over forested areas by the Americans to kill vegetation and expose enemy guerilla forces. This chemical has not only caused diseases and deaths in Vietnamese soldiers and civilians during war times, it has continued to effect the children of those who were exposed in the form of birth defects and illness. Entire families have had their lives severely debilitated or even lost because of Agent Orange, and the effects are still very visible in Vietnam today.

Also in the museum is an exhibit of paintings done by school children about life during and after the war, which was simply heart wrenching. And learning about all of the brutal murders and innocent lives lost--especially the children--was almost too much for me to handle. I suffered from a knot in my throat and worked hard to fight off tears the entire time I was in the museum, and I wasn't always successful. Eventually, I could not focus or stand up any longer, even though there was still a lot to see. Once I was back in the privacy of my hotel room, I cried my eyes out to Faren. There is so much sadness, hate, and cruelty in the world--from the Khmer Rouge to the Vietnam War--and it is very depressing. It's so easy in America to turn a blind eye because we are not forced to deal with war or genocide in our daily lives. It's not in our face, but it's happening all around us. When my grandparents were young men and women, it was World War II. When my parents were in their 20's, it was the Vietnam War and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Now, there is the Darfur genocide and a war in Iraq. And there are so many day, my children will learn about how awful the war in Iraq was and all of the inhumane crimes the U.S. forces committed in the name of our country. What's more, it kills me that no one stopped the Khmer Rouge regime for 4 years, and it kills me even more to know that another genocide in Darfur is happening as I sit at this computer. I understand that warfare is part of human nature, it has been since the beginning of history as we know it, and it probably will be forever. Most agree that there is not very much we can do to change this fact of life. But it is difficult for me to understand and accept WHY it has to be this way. Man has such an innate will to survive and so much to live for. We love our friends and family so much, so why is it that we are able to kill other people's friends and families? Why do we take our most precious gift--life--away from one another? I am easily depressed by these thoughts, and the only way I can make myself feel better is to truly give thanks and praise for my own life. I was born in the land of opportunity and I can do anything I wish. I have so much gratitude for the charmed life that I lead. And since I am so incredibly blessed, there is nothing that I want more than to share my love and joy with others.

Mekong River Tour

While in Vietnam, you’ve got to see the Mekong! We took a boat tour all around the river, which is so big in some parts that it looks more like a lake. Some of the activities included a floating market, a visit with the river people to see how many of their local specialties are made (lots of free goodies and tea), a bicycle ride on an island, a canoe ride down a smaller stream, and a tour around another Vietnamese market—where I watched a woman slice the skin off of live snakes. It was surprisingly educational and very cool to see how the river people live with the water, which becomes so much a part of their livelihood. Their daily life is so different than that in the city. Experiences like this one often make me feel like I’ve stepped into some other universe or era. I suppose that in some ways, I have! Our tour guides made the day even more enjoyable as Faren and I really enjoyed their innocent jokes and goofy sense of humor. Although we did feel a little guilty since most of the time we were laughing AT them rather than WITH them AT their jokes…

Nha Trang

On the night of our third day in Saigon, we took a night bus to Nha Trang, a small city right on the Ocean—or the South China Sea, to be exact. The beaches in Vietnam look a lot different and perhaps less exotic than those in Thailand, but they do possess their own beauty. We rented bicycles and spent a day exploring the area, with its vibrant markets and sandy beaches. We signed up for a four island boat tour to see more of the surrounding nature. Although the snorkeling was good, it was still not as impressive as the crystal clear water and colorful corals that we have seen in Thailand. The most unique part of the boat cruise was the post-lunch “performance” in which the crew turned into a band by pulling out an electric guitar and a homemade drum set. After singing a few songs, they proceeded to pull members of the audience on stage, one by one, to sing a popular song from that particular person’s country. Of course I happened to be one of the lucky ones (or unlucky, depending on how you look at it) whom he pulled on to the stage. But instead of choosing an American song, he picked a Beatles song. And then later when he found someone on the boat who was British, he said “oh, same same as America!” and didn’t bother to bring her up for a song. I’m not sure how the British people felt about that… ;) The most entertaining part of the day (better than the “concert”) was the floating bar and free red wine! The main tour guide lept into the water, urging us to follow him. Everywhere you looked, bodies were throwing themselves overboard and crew members were tossing intertubes in after them. Our guide floated around with a crate full of wine, serving it in little plastic cups to the passengers, who were sitting with bums in the intertubes to keep afloat. And, to make it all a little more interesting, it was raining. Everyone was holding on to the bar, so to a by-stander, there was a huge clump of people in the ocean—mostly Japanese and Vietnamese—laughing, drinking, cheers-ing, and scrambling to be closest to the “bar.” Every time I turned around, another friendly face was holding their cup up to cheers me. Although we could not communicate in words, we understood each other perfectly. If I ever make a movie based on the travels of myself and others through South East Asia, this scene will be quite crucial in conveying the essence of how truly comical my adventures can be.

No comments: