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!

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