Wednesday, April 15, 2009

March 3, 2006: Vietnam...the end of the trip

Vietnam...a word that reminds me of numerous movies, classes taught in high school and college, papers written in retrospect, a word that I could never fully comprehend and although I've now seen a glimpse of what it encompasses, I can only begin to imagine what Vietnam means to the thousands of people from the US that were involved in the Vietnam War.

We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) by sailing up the Mekong River. The landscape alongside the river at first was green jungle/trees as far as the eye could see. Muddy brown water lapping up on the visibly vacant muddy shore.

 There were little blue fishing boats moored in the river, presumably awaiting the fishermen that lived amongst the large expanse of jungle along the shore. As we reached Saigon, there were more fishing villages, large factories, transport ships, and barges rushing up and down the river taking exports out of Vietnam and to neighboring cities.

Our first day in Saigon, we took a tour through the city, visiting the large market where the people sold all sorts of foodstuffs and handmade items. Who knew there were eight different types of sugar and fifteen types of mushrooms that would have been unrecognizable to any but someone from this region of the world. It was a fascinating stop on our tour. Chinese medicinal herbs were sold ...all sorts of things that most of us couldn't even recognize! We saw the Rex

Hotel, which was a frequent stop for US military and journalists during the war...they are in the process of renovating it right now. The most striking thing was the amazing number of people in the city. There are 7 million people that live in Saigon...and apparently 3.5 million of them drive motobikes. People were everywhere! Apparently the number one cause of death in the country is traffic accidents, which certainly wasn't surprising. And I thought we were justified for road rage in Los Angeles...we've seen nothing compared to trying to maneuver through these streets!

Now...the thing I found most difficult to keep in mind was that Vietnam is a, for all intents and purposes, communist country. And the majority of people who work for the government or who have a job in a factory or something are paid accordingly ($80-100 per month on average). A doctor that goes through 6 years of medical school (only 1% of the applicants even get in), graduates and must work in a government hospital for the first 5 years. They make on average $20 per month! Only after five years can they open up there own clinic and earn any sort of real money!

However, compared to Cambodians, the Vietnamese are very entrepreneurial people. Our guide spoke English very well and told us a lot of about the "flexibility" of the Vietnamese government. Apart from his job as a guide, he also had a dry cleaning service to offer the hotel guests a more economic dry cleaning option as well as he had met a tourist from Michigan who had a boutique at home, and he acted as a middle man purchasing silk embroidered purses for her and took part of the profit selecting them and sending them to her to sell in the US. And apparently the government doesn't intervene at all in his businesses. Our guide told us so much that I can't even begin to reiterate in this e-mail, but basically the average age of a Vietnamese person is my age ....between 27-30 years old. And the majority of them want to make money, they strive to be successful, and they recognize that a Communist society will defeat those goals. However, they are able to live and accept a life of duplicity...a contradictory one at that. 

They are ruled by a Communist government but operate under Capitalist ambitions. This is what they call "flexible".

The most affecting experience we had while in Saigon was our visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels. For anyone who has ever read about or seen the depictions of these tunnels in movies or documentaries, it can't be understood until it's been experienced. The Cu Chi tunnels are a small fraction of the existing tunnel infrastructure that was constructed by the Viet Cong presumably during the French occupation of Vietnam. Apparently there are approximately 250 km (150 miles) of these tunnels built all around the country, but no one "knows" exactly where. Very suspicious. I went with a small group of eight people to visit the tunnels and it was a very emotional and educational experience. The tunnels are run by the Vietnam army and the "museum" portion of the location is told from the Viet Cong perspective which was very hard for all of us to experience without reacting negatively. There are no words to effectively explain what we saw and what it was like to go into these tiny see the "traps" that the Viet Cong used to trap American soldiers or the tricks they had to evade our soldiers finding them. It was unimaginable. And the location of the tunnels was amidst dense forests/jungles, horrible heat and humidity and I came to understand just being there what "guerilla warfare" must mean. Going into the tunnels in present day made my heart beat faster and caused a lot of anxiety amongst our group, but I couldn't even imagine what emotions it caused 30 years ago for soldiers that were my age and younger. I can only show you pictures later of these tunnels and the size of the real openings for I cannot do it justice in this e-mail.

After our visit to Saigon, we went to Nha Trang yesterday, which is a very pretty beach city in the middle of the Vietnam coast. Apparently it's where a lot of our soldiers went for R&R during the war. It was a very pretty area with a lot of fishing villages, wide boulevards reminiscent of the French occupations (same in Saigon) and a gorgeous beach area. The funny thing about the Vietnamese girls is that they don't like the sun. Most of the girls drive around on their motos fully covered (faces, arms, hands, everything)...apparently the whiter you are, the more successful/wealthy you look.

Now we are on our way to Hong Kong which we will get to tomorrow and I fly back to the US tomorrow afternoon. It has been an amazing trip, and I am sorry that it is over, but I obviously am living vicariously through my parents. We've met many fascinating people on this trip, and I have learned so much about an area that I didn't know at all before. There is so much more that I could write, but I'm sure most of you have lost interest already...all I can say is that this (Southeast Asia) is a place we should all see if possible in our lifetimes because it will only keep changing and growing.

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