Thursday, December 25

Christmas in 'Nam!

I should preface this by saying Christianity itself does not have a strong presence in Vietnam. Nonetheless, the commercial industry has embraced the Christmas season, in bizarre but omnipresent ways: techno versions of Christmas carols, lights, and gaudy decorations everywhere. This was especially true in Ho Chi Minh City, but the TBB crowd made sure it followed us to Quy Nhon: upon arrival at our guesthouse at 3:30 in the morning, Lily, Becca and I didn't go to bed until we'd hung up our Christmas lights around the walls and on our makeshift tree (a clothes rack draped by a green hammock).

It's been warm and sunny all month, but of course it rained Christmas eve and Christmas day. We had a relaxing day to ourselves on Christmas eve, but had a nice group dinner followed by a round of Christmas carols on the walk home. We made a time in our schedule to honor other faiths, too, on Christmas eve; we broke out Becca's supply of gelt, lit the menorah, and learned how to play dreidel.

Then it was time for the Christmas eve night service at a local church. For years, my parents have literally had to drag me to church, but this time, I decided to go on my own accord. Lily, Renee and I went, and it was quite the experience. From two blocks away, you could see something festive going on (Lily even pointed it out, saying "you guys, I think there's a carnival"). But it wasn't a carnival, it was the church, which had been decorated to the point where it looked as if it should be in Las Vegas. Lights were everywhere, strung from the steeple to surrounding third story windows. Illuminated doves flapped their wings, and massive Jesus figures decorated the outside of the chapel. At the center of it all was a giant Nativity scene, with plastic Mary, Jesus, and Joseph, where people crowded around to pose for photos. All around the church, women hawked balloons and Santa costumes and glow-sticks.

We made our way to the entrance, where we encountered a crowd that was more like a mob scene at a rock concert than anything I've ever seen at church before. We were caught up in a crowd of hundreds trying to get through the doors, with people pushing and shoving wildly. Unaccustomed to the aggression it required to move forward, we never made it to the doors before the security guard baricaded the remaining parishoners. We, with many others, were turned away from the house of our Lord. I was disappointed not to witness the service itself, though it'd have been in Vietnamese, but just being at the church was an experience in itself. Locals asked to take pictures of us, we bought glow-sticks, and we enjoyed the hubbub.

Back at the guesthouse, much of the group gathered around a laptop to watch a Muppet's Christmas carol. At midnight, we broke out milk and cookies for Santa. Those of us who missed the northeast weather made it snow with styofoam packing peanuts from the ceiling fan.

When we woke up the next morning, Christmas, it was still gray and dreary, but we cheerfully piled onto the bus for a short ride to a beach resort where we spent the day. It was a fancy hotel, nestled in a rocky cove right on the ocean. It was festively decorated, but not too tacky, and given the drizzling weather, felt quite cozy inside. We were treated to the most amazing brunch buffet ever -- having had nothing but noodle soup for breakfasts lately, the fresh croissants, waffles, omelet station, etc were absolute heaven. Once we'd gourged ourselves, we exchanged final secret santa gifts; Lily gave me the spiffiest suspenders ever. We lazed around the rest of the day, playing volleyball, pool, and Boggle. We had an amazing meal for dinner, then made our way back home.

It was the most unusual Christmas I've had, but quite nice considering we're all away from home. Merry Christmas, I hope you've all had lovely holidays, and Happy New Year!

Quy Nhon

We spent a week in Quy Nhon, an industrial town on the central coast of Vietnam. It's right on the ocean, but hasn't been hit by tourism (yet) so as foreigners we were pretty rare. We continued our study of waste management by visiting garbage sorting centers and interviewing workers there. We visited nearby temples, including the bizarre Cao Dai church, which is a combination of all the world's major religions, intended to become the universal faith. There were funky holographic portraits that looked like Jesus from one angle, then Buddha from another.

We took a day trip to visit the My Lai massacre site, a museum commemorating the brutal attack on the Son My village by the US army in '68 in which 504 innocent villagers were murdered. The village itself is no longer much to see, since the US bombed it a year after the fact to hide evidence. The massacre was awful -- in itself it was a catalyst for the anti-war sentiment and protests back home -- but some powerful stories came out of it: one US pilot threatened to shoot his own men in order to save a dozen local people; one soldier shot himself in the foot to avoid carrying out orders.

Another difficult trip was a visit to a local organization that works with children disabled by remnants of Agent Orange. 40 years after the war, there are 4 million people still affected by the chemical that the US sprayed to thin forests and seek out Vietcong troops. These children were severely physically and mentally retarded, with cleft lips and contorted limbs. Their parents were unimagineably patient in caring for them. Sadly, most of those affected by Agent Orange are already impoverished but must face the additional burden of serious incapacitation. This organization has tried to petition the US government to support medical bills, as they do for US veterans ailing from Agent Orange, but to no avail.

We also visited what was essentially a local projects: within the past two years, the government exercised eminent domain and forcibly relocated all the poor residents living on the oceanside (I assume to make way for more profitable hotel industries). The residents we visited seemed fairly content with their new homes, since the government provides them free, temporarily, but since they were fishermen, they’re finding it more difficult to access the ocean.

Quy Nhon is a nice change of pace from Ho Chi Minh City. Outside our guesthouse, if you turn left, you're in the heart of the town, with bustling shops and streetside restaurants and a produce market. If you take a right instead, you're just a block from the ocean, which is quiet and full of fishermen. I'm not sure what the swimming would be like, but it's a great place to run or simply sit on the shore.

Wednesday, December 17

Remnants of the Vietnam War

It's not something I was taught much about in school, but the war is certainly in the not-so-distant past here in Vietnam.  Of course, it's not called the Vietnam War, but referred to as "the resistance to the American invasion," telling of the role the US played.  

Yesterday the group went to the museum in Ho Chi Minh City commemorating the war and its victims.  Some of the particularly interesting exhibits included one on reporters and photographers who covered the war, and one on the remaining effects of Agent Orange, including harrowing photographs of deformities.  

What really struck me about the museum, however, was looking through the guestbook and comments that people from all over the world had written.  There was a very strong anti-American sentiment; the hardly-surprising overtly "I hate all Americans" statements, which are difficult to take really seriously, since they're so generalized.  What really began to get under my skin were the more subtle and legitimate comments about how America seems not to have learned anything from history.  The scariest part of the museum was that this -- war -- is not a thing of the past; the news articles and photographs we saw seemed in many ways a reflection of present-day American foreign policy -- Iraq??

In some ways I'm struggling with how to be an American abroad.  The other day a motorcycle driver asked me if I wanted a ride (as happens just about every thirty seconds) and although I didn't, he struck up a conversation.  He asked where I was from, and when he heard I was from America, he was ecstatic, raving about how great America is.  It's one thing for the Vietnamese to be forgiving of America after the war ... but to be that enthusiastic about the USA?  It's hard for me to understand how he can feel that way.  So many people that we've met have been excited to meet Americans, as we're somewhat of a novelty, but why the popularity among some, when my instinct would be to feel ashamed?

Today we visited the Cu Chi tunnels, about an hour outside of the city, where an entire town of 16,000 people lived literally underground during the war.  They carved out tunnels where they sought refuge from America's bombs, and ventured out only occasionally to gather food or hunt down enemies.  We got the chance to go underground, and most of the tunnels had been widened and lit for visitors; one part of the tour, however, took us to a second layer of rooms six meters underground with no light whatsoever and a winding downward slope -- that became pretty unnerving pretty quickly.  

I've also been reading some books about the Vietnam War -- one, which I'm sure many of you have read, is The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien; the other was The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh.  Both were fictional novels about the war, one by an American, the other by a Vietnamese veteran.  Because of this contrast, they offered different perspectives on the fighting, but what interested me most was where they overlapped.  There was a frighteningly similar description of a man being blown up into a tree by a landmine in both books, and each had the recurring theme of how even distorted memory is reality.  

Tomorrow morning we're off to Quy Nhon, where we'll be doing work on conservation and studying the affects of Agent Orange.  We'll be on the beach for Christmas!

Saturday, December 13

Environmental Issues in Vietnam: Waste Management

We've spent the past week or so studying environmental issues here, going to various sites to see waste management.  We visited a number of landfills -- as raw and dirty as you can imagine.  There's no sorting done, and any recycling is unofficial and inefficient.  Pretty much all of the city's waste, organic and inorganic, gets trucked out to the massive landfills, thrown in, and covered.  The smell is unbelievable, as you can imagine.  The issues there include not only limited space, but also leeching of toxic sludge into the ground water.  

My media group, video, spent four days visiting a non-governmental waste collectors' cooperative in District 6.  Just getting to the site has illustrated how vast and dense this city is -- an hour's drive in rush hour, and you're still in as urban as an environment as downtown.  At the co-op, collectors, mostly middle-aged, and many women, gather all the garbage they've collected from households, and sort it as best they can into organic and inorganic.  Unfortunately, there's just not enough space and time to process all of the material that comes into the sorting center; out of 330 tons each day in District 6, this site receives 60 tons, but has the capacity to sort only 8 tons.  That means 322 tons daily are not sorted at all and end up in the landfill.

Another important part of the work at the sorting center is off-the-clock recycling.  When the workers aren't collecting or sorting rubbish, they're free to pick through it and gather paper, bottles, and tins, which they sell to a middleman who transfers the goods to a recycling company.  The global economic crisis seems to have had a drastic effect on the recycling process; whereas just five months ago, the workers could earn 80,000 dong a day for their work recycling, now they receive only 30,000 dong.  This is income on top of their stable salary, but that is only about 100,000 a day (at 17,000 dong to the dollar).  That means those 80,000 dong were a significant proportion of their income, which has now been drastically reduced.  Nonetheless, the job with the co-op is considered fairly good for those without the education for other employment -- it's stable, and after a couple of years you're guaranteed healthcare.  It's pretty amazing to see how widespread the damage from the economy reaches.  I haven't been home to witness the worst of it, but the consequences are far-reaching and have affected even menial laborers in Ho Chi Minh City.  It also has pretty serious implications for environmental efforts which are too-often considered more expensive than worthwhile.  

Other activities -- lectures with local development workers, consulting agencies, and volunteers; watching movies like An Inconvenient Truth and The Corporation, visiting floating markets and small-scale factories in a river region in the Mekong Delta.  

Unfortunately, we'll also be changing our itinerary.  After the attacks in India, our safety is in question there, so we'll be spending the month in Thailand instead, hopefully working on sustainable agriculture there, too.  It's disappointing not to go to India, but our presence in the rural community we'd planned to visit would be dangerous not just for TBB but for the community, too.  I'm sure we'll have a great program in Thailand, plus the food will be amazing.  

Thursday, December 4

Ho Chi Minh City

We arrived the other day in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon) in Vietnam. We flew in on my birthday ... which was celebrated with delicious cake and lovely surprises like furry sweater vests and Sox tickets and yogurt. (Thank you for all the cards, too!)

Ho Chi Minh is an unbelievably busy city; no matter what time of day, you've got to dodge thousands of motorcycles to cross a street -- and even if it's marked as one way, don't expect it to work that way. Christmast is already everywhere, even in early December; all the shops are heavily adorned with gaudy decorations, and horrible techno versions of Christmas songs blare out of every door. But it's great; I'm glad we'll be spending the holiday somewhere withs lots of Christmas cheer, even if somewhat peculiar.

We're living in a dorm-style guesthouse; the girls in two large rooms, and the boys in doubles. We're working closely with CET, a study abroad program, and their office is fairly near the guesthouse. We've spent the last couple of days at the office, having lectures on Vietnam's history and economy, taking crash courses in Vietnamese (which, believe it or not, seems more difficult than Chinese), and having TBB seminars.

Tomorrow we'll start our work with our local NGO, Enda, Environmental Development Action. Our focus is waste management, and we'll know more about it once we start.

The best part of Ho Chi Minh so far? The iced coffee -- a local favorite, served usually with thick condensed milk. Easily found not only in cafes and restaurants, but also on stools on the sidewalk, it is more abundant even than Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts, a blessing after its scarcity in China.

Monday, December 1

Killing Fields & Genocide Museum

The other day we flew from Siem Reap to Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh... there could not have been a more striking difference between the two. With its proximity to Angkor Wat and constant crowds of tour groups, Siem Reap feels distinctly touristy: everyone speaks English, cafes and restaurants cater to western tastes, and the main street is lined almost exclusively by fancy hotels. In Phnom Penh we found a much more realistic city, full of local people who were as friendly as Cambodia's "smiling country" reputation would make them out to be.

In Phnom Penh, we visited the Killing Fields and the genocide museum, both in remembrance of Cambodia's genocide (1975-1979). We've learned a lot about the event, considering most of us knew very little about it a month ago. We watched a documentary on Pol Pot's regime and I read a memoir called First They Killed my Father. The sites were very powerful, and I think very well done. They were not nearly as crowded as Angkor Wat, and nearly all the visitors were very respectful. The exhibits had simple yet powerful facts and anecdotes about the history, and the photos that had been salvaged from the Khmer Rouge records spoke for themselves.

My first thought when we arrived at the museum was how similar the building looked to the Chinese middle schools, and it turned out that it had been a school before being converted by the Khmer Rouge into a prison detention center, with routine and brutal torture, for the duration of the genocide. I can't begin to imagine what the visit would be like for a Cambodian who's lived through the recent history, whose parents may have been killed, or who grew up in Pol Pot's regime themselves. Throughout the day I found myself wondering how locals percieved us there, as blatant foreigners, paying respect to those killed. What is our place there? We had barely heard of the event; our nation had played a shameful role in creating the situation in which the Khmer Rouge rose to power -- and then neglected to take action to stop it. And yet the Cambodians seemed to genuinely welcome us as guests, not specifically at the museums, but throughout our whole trip, they were extremely friendly.
It was certainly worthwhile to visit Phnom Penh; it was emotionally straining and I think we all found ourselves trying to comprehend the history that made a catastrophe like that possible, but it was a provocative stop on our trip.