Something that I feel people failed to mention me prior to embarking on this whole -whatever- was how exhausting traveling is. The uncertainty of plans, the constant awareness of the time crunch and the pressure to be constantly enjoying yourself despite the 90 degrees of humidity or frigid wind. I cannot stress how tired I am, like all the time now. So why keep traveling? Well when you have only a finite amount of time in a place you may never return to the weekends become so much more precious. And no one wants to be the person who goes on this big adventure only to do nothing there. I spent the three weeks ago with my class on our educational field trip to Vietnam, two weeks ago on Huangshan Yellow Mountain, and Wuzhen, a water town, last weekend to attend the listening summit-a student conference on climate change. All I want to do is sleep. Nonetheless, I can sleep when I’m dead, which will most likely be the return flight in the spring.
The entire week we were in the country I had “Fortunate Son” playing on repeat in the back of my mind, probably because my subconscious is the worst.
Vietnam feels much much more foreign than Shanghai does. This is to be expected really since Shanghai is just so damn westernized. But the contrast was different than I expected since while the general culture of the vietnamese feels very foreign the whole city of Saigon is highly tourist centric. The museums, massage parlors, trinket shops all of them were for tourists and tourists alone. An strange dynamic for a country that after this last week, I can definitely tell still harbors significant resentment towards American peoples. With good reason, but still an odd choice for a vacation destination. A large portion of our trip centered around the regrettable past that Vietnam and America share. Our first day after arrival we visited the Presidential Palace where Ho Chi Minh and his wife lived that came fully equipped with enough grand conference and war rooms to be straight out of a Bond movie (Bonus of children playing on the out-of-commission tank on the front lawn). The rooms were just outdated and lux enough that we kept waiting for Octopussy to saunter out around one of the many, many columns.
I’m sorry, but this next part is not going to be very funny.
Following the museum we went to the most impactful part of the weekend, the Vietnam War Remnants Museum. Keep in mind that up until this point we had basically made every single Forrest Gump, Austin Powers, Tropic Thunder terrible reference you can imagine from a gaggle of 19 year old idiots, but everyone got a whole lot quieter as soon as we entered. The museum was deeply affecting, there’s no way around it, it was a propaganda piece, but that doesn’t make its messages any less real. It was three floors of brutal photographs, statistics and artifacts. Half of one floor was dedicated to the effects of Agent Orange on the people and the last two generations. The appropriately-colored orange fluorescent lights cast deeply unsettling, sickly glow over the many black and white images. Upon entering the exhibit there was a quote from the Declaration of Independence:
“We hold these truths self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator certain unalienable rights. That among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”
Vietnam is not messing around here.
There was the effects of the numbers in terms of how many ounces it takes to kill with the deadly exfoliant and how many millions of gallons was sprayed over the country. About how many civilians were killed in this process. In the center of a room there was a tank with an obscured subject and it wasn’t until you were right up to it you realized that the glass was housing a embalmed stillborn fetus, deformed from exposure to the chemicals. As soon as a friend of mine saw this she simply couldn’t stomach any more and had to leave immediately. We sat outside the hall on a bench trying to put to words our disillusionment.
I don’t claim to know anything about war or any more than the bare minimum about what happened almost fifty years ago. But it seemed wrong how little about these occurrences we had been told, despite repeated teachings throughout our public school educations.
The majority of the weekend was a blur. We rode boats on the Mekong Delta, visited a floating market, bought souvenirs at the night market. Some of us went to a club named “Apocalypse Now” one evening, there were many, many working girls there. We visited a temple that was one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen and then the tunnels in the jungle used by the guerrillas to spy on and escape from the enemy camps. There was a shooting range, I got to fire an AK-47. It was all very fast paced. I think there may have been maybe one or two times the entire weekend when I was not sweaty due to the constant 90-degree humidity.
So for the “How was Vietnam?” question: Vietnam was great, and eye opening and hot. I learned a lot, especially about differing historical perspectives and how much I appreciate deodorant.