Vietnam: A Study in Contrasts

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Vietnam is a mixture of old and new, the simple ways of villages and the cutthroat competition of modern global capitalism, ugly nightmares from an ancient history filled with devastating wars and current struggles to recover.

We arrived in Hanoi on Christmas Eve, 2007. The streets were full of holiday decorations, and carols blared from loud speakers. Because the moon was full, an important time in the Buddhist calendar, people were also burning sacrifices on the roadsides, including actual paper money.

On Christmas day, we ventured on foot into the busy, noisy streets – horns honking and motor bikes everywhere. The drivers went wherever it was convenient for them, on both the left and the right sides of the road, even up on the sidewalks. We learned to cross the chaotic streets by sticking together like sticky rice with other pedestrians. It was easier said then done. There were bare electric wires overhead everywhere, and I wondered that we didn’t see more evidence of fires.

We took a tour by pedi-cab. Reminders of the Vietnam War, known in that country as the American War, became apparent when we passed the lake where Senator McCain’s plane had been shot down. A monument has been erected there to honor him. He was honored for his courage in refusing to be released from the prison known as the Hanoi Hilton because other Americans would not be released at the same time. Next, our pedi-cab took us to the Temple for Literature, the site of the first university in Vietnam. There I bought a copy of Norm Chomsky’s, Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance, which the bookseller told me is not approved by the U.S. government. 

Our next stop was the Ho Chi Min complex, which includes a mausoleum, the presidential palace built by the French, and Ho Chi Min’s traditional Vietnamese house on stilts, next to an artificial lake. The grounds were beautiful and serene. Although Ho Chi Min had lived simply and did not want his body preserved in a lavish mausoleum, a lavish mausoleum was built for him anyway, after his death. People line up to see his body every morning. The mausoleum is only closed for six weeks a year, when the body is worked on and preserved.

Over the following days, our group visited several sites near Hanoi. One trip that I found especially enjoyable was our trip to Halong Bay. There, we boarded a junk to sail out into the bay, which is part of the Gulf of Tonkin, a place that was severely bombed by the Americans toward the end of the war. What I saw before me that day was spectacular scenery, relaxing and refreshing. Many dramatically high-peaked hills surround the bay. I don’t think I could ever tire of the beauty of that place.

Later, we flew from Hanoi to Hue, which is the only city in the southern region of Vietnam (the region “defended” by the Americans) that the Viet Cong (the “communist” supporters of the north) managed to occupy for a short time. In Hue, we visited the Citadel, Vietnam’s Forbidden City, a complex of about 160 buildings protected by a series of fortress walls, styled on China’s Forbidden City in Beijing. The Citadel was built in the early 1800s to protect Vietnam’s royal Nguyen dynasty. Large parts of it were destroyed during the Tet Offensive, a series of surprise attacks launched by the Viet Cong in 1968. During their month-long occupation of Hue, the Viet Cong killed anyone who had had anything to do with the Americans. They killed thousands of people, even a seven-year-old boy who had retrieved golf balls for the American soldiers.

Veterans from two sides of Viet Nam War - photo by Joan B. ForestThe most moving experience during our time in Hue occurred when we met an older Vietnamese gentleman, dressed in an officer’s uniform decorated with ribbons, who told us that he had been on the Ho Chi Min Trail, fighting for the North Vietnamese Army. A member of our group then introduced himself as having been a captain on the American side during the war, and he said that he had also fought on the Ho Chi Min Trail. The two men shook hands. Perhaps they had shot at each other during the war.

We later visited the Thien Mu Pagoda, which displays the car that the Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc rode in on June 10, 1963, in a procession of hundreds of Buddhist monks and nuns. That procession stopped at an intersection near the Presidential Palace in Saigon, where Quang Duc emerged from the car and set himself on fire, in front of the international press that had assembled there. Quang Duc took that extreme action in protest against the ruler whom the Americans had put into power in South Vietnam. Behind the Thien Mu Pagoda lies a huge graveyard, which extends as far as the eye can see.

Next, we headed south toward Ho An. As we traveled, we noticed piles of bricks along the roadside and learned that homeowners buy bricks when they can afford to do so, collecting them until they have enough to add to their houses. The houses in central Vietnam are lower and better built than elsewhere in the country because the area is often hit by typhoons, and the houses must be built to withstand them. 

The city of Ho An is a world heritage site and holy to the Chan people who moved there from India and Indonesia to practice their Hindu faith. On a walking tour of the city, we passed through China Town and Japan Town, which are linked together by a bridge that has an altar in the middle. We passed through an ancient Hindu spiritual ruin that dates back to the fourth or fifth century. The site is quite close to the Ho Chi Min Trail, and we saw bullet holes in the monuments and damage to the temples, primarily inflicted during the Tet Offensive.

Back on the road to Delat, we stopped at China Beach in Da Nang, where the first American ground troops landed in 1965. The Vietnam veteran in our party got out of the bus there and stared at the beach for quite a while. He had been among the troops who landed there. He later bought a Viet Cong military jacket, which he wore for the rest of the trip, part of his making peace with what he had experienced during the war.

We had an adventurous five-hour drive through the mountains to reach Delat, along a road that was full of land-slide areas and perilous terrain. At one point, at least half of the road had fallen down into a deep ravine. Our driver carefully and skillfully maneuvered along the narrow stretch of road that remained. Moments later, we encountered a long waterfall that plummeted onto the road, crossed the road, and continued down into the ravine.

As we got closer to Delat, the French influence became more apparent. Greenhouses were scattered throughout the land as far as we could see. Flowers, artichokes, and other vegetables grew in abundance. We had lunch in a French-style bistro across the street from our hotel.

While we were in Delat, we visited the university there and spoke with Professor Hung, who had received his degree from UCLA. He explained that Vietnam lacks enough universities and lecturers to fill the needs of the young people who want to attend college. Currently, college classes in Vietnam consist primarily of lectures and much memorization. Students have little opportunity for discussion or experiential learning. Such interactive approaches to teaching are more expensive, because they require smaller classes and more professors. Currently, each professor must teach at several campuses, and they have no time for research. They must also teach in English because most of their textbooks are in English. Vietnam lacks the resources to keep Vietnamese texts up-to-date.

Next, we visited Ho Chi Min City (aka Saigon). The people of South Vietnam resent the fact that, after reunification, their city was renamed by the government. When not under the influence of the government, the people refuse to call it Ho Chi Min City and call it Saigon instead.

We visited the war museum in Saigon. The pictures displayed there brought tears to my eyes. At least the atrocities of all sides were portrayed. I could only look at about a quarter of the pictures – man’s inhumanity to man. I’m ashamed that our government continues such inhumane practices to this day, like waterboarding.

We also visited the Cu Chi Tunnels near Saigon. Originally, Cu Chi was a little village with only a dirt road leading into it. The Americans built themselves a large base there during the war. Local people who were opposed to the Americans built an extensive system of tunnels in the Cu Chi area, some right underneath the American base. These were the people that the Americans called the Viet Cong. The Viet Cong built similar tunnel systems in many locations during the war. Before we entered the tunnels, our guide asked us to try to locate one of the original entrances. We could not find it. Then a Vietnamese man dressed in a Viet Cong uniform kicked aside a covering of leaves and crawled through a space that none of us could have gotten through. We crawled through the entrance created for tourists and found narrow, low tunnels through which we crawled on hands and knees into larger, more open areas that served as meeting rooms, a dining room, kitchen, clinic etc. The exit for smoke from the kitchen was set at a good distance away from the tunnels, so that it would not reveal the existence of the tunnels to those above. Air holes for the tunnels were created in termite mounds, so as not to be apparent to anyone looking for the tunnels. We also saw booby traps dug throughout the jungle, covered areas with spikes beneath, which impaled American soldiers when they fell through.

Our last excursion in Viet Nam was a trip from Saigon to the Mekong Delta. At the start of that outing, we passed by a casket maker and noticed the decorative trucks that he used for carrying caskets to burials. We learned that some people are buried in the fields, to bring good harvests.  In Vietnam, when you ask a person when their birthday is, they often do not know. If you ask when any of their ancestors died, they will answer specifically, with both solar and lunar dates.   

As we left the crowed streets of Saigon, we passed a “running” market – running because it was in an illegal place, and the vendors can pick up their wares and run if the authorities come. Beyond the city, we traveled on a relatively new highway, built on swampland, passing many ponds and shops and cafes on either side of the road. The Mekong River is the twelfth longest river in the world, 2,600-2,800 miles, running through Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, out of the Tibetan Himalayas. Locals call it the River of the Nine Dragons. The delta is rich in natural biological diversity, and half of the land that borders the river is given over to agriculture, especially to the production of oranges, vegetables, rice, and fish.

Traveling back to Saigon, I thought of my general impressions of Vietnam, a chaotic blend of old and new. The women are beautiful and petite, sometimes wearing traditional dress, sometimes wearing mass-produced fashions. Wherever we went, we saw primitive shacks next to elegant, tall, narrow buildings with columns and balconies, influenced by French or classical architecture, which were in turn built next to modern, high-rise condominiums. The contrast between the shacks and new high-rises is extreme. When the shacks are torn down, the poor will have to leave the city. They won’t be able to afford the new apartments, even though they are subsidized. Thinking of the trip that I would be taking the next day to Bangkok and then home, I began to think about similar contrasts in my own country.  ~~~

Joan B. Forest has a member of Friends meetings for fifty years. She is now a member of Redwood Forest Meeting (PYM) and lives at Friends House in Santa Rosa.