On my last day in Vietnam I went to a coffee shop called Gloria Jean’s. I felt like I was at home—the shop was small and crowded with tables surrounded by comfy mismatched chairs, there was “coffee shop” music playing over the quiet din of conversation, people were reading the newspaper over a coffee and a scone before work—except when I looked through the windowed front of the shop, there was Vietnam. Across the street was the seamstress where I had my dress made, down the block was the Rex Hotel (a popular hangout for military officials and war correspondents during the Vietnam War, and home of the MACV daily press conference The Five O’Clock Funnies), and a five minute bus ride would take me back to the port and the Explorer. Still, it was nice to sit there by myself for a few hours and read and write like I normally would back home. After my time in Vietnam, I needed some time to sit back and relax. I had done a lot and learned a lot and needed to decide what to do with it all.
Saigon (technically Ho Chi Minh City now, but most people there still call it Saigon) is exactly like what you see in the movies, but at the same time so different from what I was expecting. Everything is green and thick with foliage, but the city is still modern, new, and clean. Well, parts of it. There are more motor bikes than I thought was possible and the weather is even hotter than I imagined. The low on any one day was 78 degrees! And the humidity is amazing. It’s like breathing water. I say Vietnam is different from what I was expecting, but I really didn’t know what to expect. Vietnam, despite the importance it has with regards to American history, is a country that I knew next to nothing about and even with the brief history we were presented with on the ship, I don’t feel like I was prepared enough for it all. Of course, I am mainly talking about the Vietnam War. Since I didn’t know anything about the Vietnam War, I won’t expect all of you to know, so here’s a very simplified explanation. The Vietnam War was fought between communist North Vietnam and the government of South Vietnam from 1955-1975. The United States supported South Vietnam and got involved in order to stop the spread of communism. There was a lot of controversy over whether the United States should have been in Vietnam at all and over certain war tactics or weapons that were used, such as Agent Orange. South Vietnam lost the war and a communist government was established.
On my first day in Vietnam I had the opportunity to meet with a former UPI (United Press International) photographer. His name is Hoang Van Cuong and he is Vietnamese but took pictures for the United States during the Vietnam War. We met him at his house. When we got there he showed us the memorial he built for the over 200 journalists that were killed in the war. We got to sit down and ask him questions for a while and I think he had some interesting things to say. One question asked was why he chose to be a war photographer. He answered that none of us should ever be a photographer! It is too crazy of a job. He only did it so the rest of the world could see the suffering that was happening in his country. Someone else asked if he ever felt bad for just taking pictures instead of helping. I really liked what he said; “Sometimes history happens in a second, and I had to capture it to let the world know what really happened.” Finally, someone asked how he could ever forgive Americans for what we did to his country. He said that Americans are lovely people. They were just doing their duty, their job. American policy was bad, but not Americans. I wish I had known more about the war then. I would ask him so many more questions now, like what he thinks we should learn from the war. Next we went to the War Remnants Museum, formally called the Museum of American War Crimes. The museum is full of pictures and artifacts describing the atrocities that were committed during the Vietnam War. One photo I saw was an American soldier holding up the charred, shredded remains of a Vietnamese soldier—and smiling. There were also many photos of the deformities caused by Agent Orange, a chemical used by the United States to eliminate the foliage that hid Vietnamese soldiers from sight. Agent Orange, however, also caused horrible deformities in people and the effects are still being seen in babies born today. There were even fetuses on display, preserved in a case, showing babies with multiple heads. I understand that the museum is controlled by a communist government and is probably one-sided—the North did some terrible things to the South and Americans too—but just because the information offered isn’t complete, that doesn’t make it untrue. It was hard to see what my country had done to innocent people, but it was harder to walk into that museum completely ignorant of it all until that point. I couldn’t believe that I had never learned about this in school, and after talking to a lot of other students I found out that no one had learned about it. In fact, later in the day I asked my tour guide how Vietnamese people my age feel about the war today, and he said that most of them don’t even know about it! That shocked me. The war only ended 34 years ago. Their parents and grandparents would have lived through it, and the effects of the war—namely Agent Orange—are still being seen today. I think it is great that Vietnam can forgive the United States so quickly, but not if they are forgiving by forgetting. I don’t understand how we are expected to learn from history if we just gloss over the messy parts. It is the messy parts that we need to learn from. Later that night a few of my friends and I met up with a group of Vietnamese students through a tour group called Saigon Hot Pot. This group is led completely by student volunteers who want to show tourists their country. We were taken to one of the students’ home and taught how to cook Vietnamese food. Our tour turned out to be a little bit special—the whole time we were being filmed and interviewed, and will be on Vietnamese television! It is just a plug for Saigon Hot Pot, but it’s still cool. After eating dinner—and mastering chopsticks!—we went to a café for coffee before heading back to the ship and crashing. It had been a long, exhausting day.
The next day I spent walking around Saigon, shopping, eating, drinking coffee, people watching, and motor bike dodging. I bought a Vietnamese coffee filter and some coffee. Vietnam has amazing coffee, unlike anything I’ve had before! It almost tastes like liquid dark chocolate—very dark and bitter, but thick and flavorful. That evening a few friends and I went to the Drink and Talk café. This place works with the Saigon Hot Pot tours to provide a place for Vietnamese students to practice speaking English with English speaking tourists. When we got there, we sat down with a man from Romania, a Filipino man, and four or five Vietnamese students and just talked! We stayed for a couple hours. The owner brought us a complimentary fruit plate and came in to personally welcome us, as well as see us off when we had to leave. After Drink and Talk we went out for karaoke with some of the students we met the night before.
On my third day in Vietnam I went on a Semester at Sea tour to a Cao Dai Temple and the Cu Chi Tunnels. There are many Cao Dai temples but the one we visited is the main one in Tay Ninh. It’s like the Vatican of the Cao Dai faith. Cao Dai is a religion that developed in the 20th century as a result of so much conflict between religions. In order to minimize conflict, Cao Dai accepts and combines many religions and belief systems like Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Confucianism, Taoism, etc. We were allowed to go inside the temple during one of the four daily masses and watch from a balcony above. The service consisted mostly of atonal music and chanting and bells with all of the people neatly arranged in rows and columns on the floor, bowing similarly to how Muslims bow and pray facing Mecca five times a day. Then we went to the Cu Chi Tunnels. The Cu Chi Tunnels were used during the war by the Vietcong (the communist forces based in the South). There are miles upon miles of these tunnels and the people just lived underground for years! The tunnels are tiny, too. We got to go through one and I, at 5’4”, barely fit through the tunnels that were enlarged by 40 percent for tourists! It was an incredibly sophisticated system, so much so that the American soldiers never could beat them. The Americans tried flooding the tunnels, pouring gasoline in them to light them on fire, gassing them with tear gas, sending special forces of men under 100lbs down called Tunnel Rats—but nothing worked. The Cu Chis also used a variety of what were originally tiger traps to catch unsuspecting enemies. These traps would be pits in the ground hidden by brush and leaves. When the victim stepped on top of the trap, he would fall to his death, impaled by bamboo spikes. It was sobering to go to the War Remnants Museum one day, and then to the battlefield the next.
The fourth day I went to the Mekong Delta. The delta was so much bigger than I expected! The water is brown, but from silt, not pollution. The land surrounding is thick with heavy greenery and fruit and coconut trees. The sky that day was blue with big, white, marshmallow clouds… it was beautiful! We took a boat to an island in the delta and, after a trek through the jungle, were given fruit and tea. Then we boarded small four person rowboats, the kind that the Vietnamese used to use to navigate the small canals dug in the islands. We had two Vietnamese women rowing, pulling us through the mud when the water was too low, and dodging the tons of other boats on the canal. Later we were given lunch. It was about 2PM and I hadn’t had breakfast, and I was starving! They start bringing out the food—and it was a giant, whole, fried fish! Head, tail, scales, and all. But then a server came and showed us how to wrap some of the fish with some greens and noodles into rice paper and dip it in a sweet sauce. It was so good! Another four or five courses followed and I was so full! That night I just relaxed on the ship, though I did go out to dinner—and got french fries! They were so good, I don’t even feel bad.
The last day was the day I went to Gloria Jean’s and just wandered around the city by myself for a while. That night we had a barbeque on the ship with burgers and hot dogs (they treat us every once in a while!) and left Vietnam for Hong Kong.