A Travellerspoint blog

The difficulty with parting ways


4_friends.jpgAnyone who has traveled knows that the end of any trip comes with mixed feelings. One is glad that they are headed home, but one is also saddened by the ending of the bonds of friendship one has with their fellow travelers. Even if you are going to see those people later on, it is never the same as during the travel experience. These mixed sentiments are stronger on this trip than just about any other trip I have taken before. The reason for this is simple: our guides and compatriots--Tra and Huong. Without either of these wonderful guides our trip would not have been nearly as fruitful nor as educational.
During our travels Tra and Huong went from being students to becoming colleagues. Each of them served a very different role in our trip, but the role was incredibly important for the overall success of our visit. Tra was our guide. She led to us to places we would never have found on our own and she navigated us through cab rides and dinners we could never have negotiated on our own. Huong was our sounding board. She asked us questions about the goal of what we were doing and how we hoped it would enhance our proposed study course. Both of them added immensely to our experience.
Anyone who has led a study-abroad travel trip knows that some groups are memorable and others one cannot forget fast enough. I am afraid that this trip is the former, and for that I am forever grateful to Huong and Tra. Richard, as always, made traveling enjoyable and pleasant. I think we work well together. However, Richard and I will travel together again. I rue the fact that Tra and Huong will not travel with us as they did this trip again. I am truly sorry about that. I do know, however, that we will see them again when we visit Vietnam again. For that I am grateful.
So, Tra and Huong, thank you. You have given me (and Dr. Swanson) a gift we will not be able to repay you. Safe travels on your own travels.F0577F0C2219AC68176DACF7659755D7.jpg

Posted by MJMullin 09:36 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Lessons from Cu Chi

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Our last major visit on this trip were the Cu Chi Tunnels, about 1.5 hours outside of Ho Chi Minh City. Our guide and the hotels suggest that residents prefer the city to be called Saigon, but until I learn more I will most likely call it Ho Chi MInh City. Those that read the last blog entry, "Same, Same--only different," will notice I interspersed the two terms. Saigon actually referred to a village 5 kilometers south of District I of Ho Chi Minh, but when the French set up their control over southern Vietnam, they usurped the name Saigon for what became the present city of Ho Chi Minh. Richard noted earlier the complexity of the current name since "city" is western in terminology. What was great about our visit to Cu Chi was it can be used as both an entry and a culminating experience for any student trip to Vietnam. The question is why can it be used as either a starting point or a concluding experience? More importantly, what are the lessons one should learn from a trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels?
Years ago one of the "must see" documentaries was Hearts and Minds. It has been a while since I saw the film, but what I remember was its thesis--that America failed to win the hearts and minds of the average Vietnamese citizen. That was the theme of the Cu Chi Tunnel experience. The focus of the tunnels was on Cu Chi's resistance to American and ARVN forces. Many of the demonstrations at the tunnels and our guides explanations (and he was a very good guide) focused on this aspect of the story.

As we moved through the exhibits I think the thing that struck me is how committed the citizens of Cu Chi were (or are at least portrayed). What gave me this belief were not the explanations, or even the tunnels themselves, but the replicas of Cu Chi experiences during the war. The life-size figurines gave one a real sense of just how different the Viet Cong experience was from the American soldiers. The primitive, though thoroughly effective, weapons, the hand tools used to defuse bombs or make shoes were, in my mind, really effective in conveying the tenacity of the participants. When we visited Vin Moch it was easy to appreciate what the citizens of the village endured, but Cu Chi was different. This was right next to an American military base. It would have been easy (or easier?) to have feigned neutrality, but the citizens of this region did not. They went to war instead. Whether they were really fighting the Americans or the South Vietnamese government is less clear to me. Though the focus is on American involvement, the residents of Cu Chi were opposed to French occupation earlier. What the exhibit really seemed to encapsulate was the desire of the citizens to be left alone. What is equally apparent is that no discussion of the post-1975 period takes place here. Were the hopes and aspirations of the citizens realized by "liberation" or was the communist takeover yet another disappointment. What Cu Chi represents is a world that American and S. Vietnamese officials failed to understand. I am not sure I understand it today.

Posted by MJMullin 10:48 Archived in Vietnam Tagged tunnels cu chi Comments (0)

An Unexpected Discovery

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I am not a veteran; I am not responsible for the decision's my government made nearly 50 years ago. I am, however, a citizen of that country, and that means I have made an unexpected discovery. I feel guilt when I encounter a beggar my age in a uniform, and I have found more than a few here in Ho Chi Minh City. I have been asked for assistance, in English, more times than I can count since I have arrived in town, and I do not remember being asked all that often in Hue, Hanoi, or Hoi An. I am sure I was, but not often enough to register in my mind. So why do I feel guilty?
Let me be the historian for a moment. Following the American Civil War, the federal government made it clear that it would not be responsible for Confederate Veterans. States would have to fund those costs, and they were staggering. Mississippi, for example, spent 20 percent of its total budget on prosthetic devises for its war veterans in the years immediately following 1865. I do not know enough about Vietnam War uniforms to know if the people I am encountering are actually dressed in military uniforms, which I doubt, or in some other uniform easily available. But if these are veterans of the South Vietnamese army, are they eligible for disability payments from the state? After all, the communist party controls all provinces in Vietnam. ARVN troops were the enemy and are, according to every museum visited, on the wrong side of history. Are ex-ARVN troops eligible for anything from the state? We have heard that all ARVN troops spent time in re-education camps and are still forbidden from discussing politics in public. Is this a legacy of the American Phase of the war? What I have discovered, then, is that as an American--even one who has no direct connection with the Vietnam War--I feel guilty whenever I find myself being asked by one of these men. If I knew the language, things would be easier. I could ask them directly. Until that time, however, I will continue to wonder what the story behind the hand-held hat is.

Posted by MJMullin 02:06 Archived in Vietnam Tagged begging Comments (0)

Same, Same--only different

Walking the "old city" of Ho Chi Minh City

all seasons in one day
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Today was meant for exploration. Almost anywhere you go in Vietnam you will see a tee-shirt that says "same, same," I have no idea where the saying came from, though given the number of "Good Morning, Vietman" tee-shirts for sale I assume the "same, same" shirt came from a movie too. Huong was lucky enough to have a chance to see her brother and sister, so Tra, Richard, and I decided to do the Lonely Planet walking tour of "Old Siagon." We had done a similar walk for Hanoi and that had been time well spent. Since we had seen some of the tour earlier in our stay, we decided to start at the Ben Thanh Market and end our walk at the Cathedral of Notre Dame. I certainly expected 'Old Saigon' to be fairly similar architecturally to Hanoi. It was not.
Driving from the airport I had seen a number of Western stores that I had not seen earlier--Starbucks, Victoria Secret's, GNC Nutrition, etc.--so seeing a "California Yoga" sign should not have been surprising to me, but it does seem out of place. These theme that Ho Chi Minh City is more westernized than the other places we have been was certainly on display on our walking tour. What the tour suggested to me, and I think to Richard, was the fact that Saigon did not suffer from the war the way Hue or Hanoi did. Thinking about the Reunification Palace (or Independence Palace as it was called before 1975), Ho Chi Minh City was an island of tranquility compared to places like Cu Chi or Vinh Moc. This does not mean that Ho Chi Minh City was peaceful. I have a feeling that it was similar to Damascus today. The residents of Damascus suffer from car bombings and occasional attack on their city, but the war against the "rebels" seems elsewhere. News reports suggest Damascus maintains an aura of denial about what is happening in the country at large. That is my sense of what Saigon was like for most of the American phase of the war. The Tet Offensive challenged that illusion, much as the rebels attack on the Syrian Army Headquarters did a few years ago, but the war seemed/seems elsewhere. The result is that Ho Chi Minh City has the feel of city unlike any other we have visited.
The difference between Ho Chi MInh City and Hue or Hanoi was manifested itself at the Fine Arts Museum. This is the third Fine Arts Museum we have visited on the trip--Hue and Hanoi being the others. The Ho Chi MInh Museum was different in so many ways. First, there was much more art devoted to the 20th century, and so much of that art seemed removed from the War itself. You do not escape the war, but the focus of the war is different. Look at the picture below:
In Hanoi, this picture would focus on the soldier, but here, the title of the picture "White Reed" asks you to pay attention to the nature around the soldier. This does not mean the war, and its aftermath is ignored, as the following two pictures indicate.Memory_of_1968_Image.jpgUnfortunate_Woman.jpg
The first photo references the Tet Offensive of 1968, and the other is entitled "unfortunate woman." The first photo is one you would find in Hanoi or Hue, but it was the second picture that I was drawn to. The sculpture "Unfortunate Woman" strikes me as something Kathe Kollowitz would have done following World War I. There is something universal about the woman's loss. Is she a beggar, or has she lost a family member to the war? This was a sculpture that I could see in almost any museum in the world today. As we moved through the museum, an earlier article that I had read came back to me. The article challenged Vietnamese artists to become more original and less imitative. As I moved through the museum, I saw references to Salvador Dali's persistence of memory, the aforementioned Kollowtiz and many other Western artists. In Hanoi's fine arts museum we were informed that during the early the early 20th century Vietnamese artists engaged with western art to challenge imperialism. I am not sure that is what happened here. Still, the museum offered both more of the same, only something different.
If we start in Ho Chi Minh City for our course, the museum offers two images which students will have to engage with as we move northward because we have encountered both sculptures repeatedly on this trip. In Ho Chi Minh City, however, the impact carries a very different resonance than in the north. It is truly "same, same, only different."Handful_of..h_Sculpture.jpgGrasping_anti-tank_weapon.jpg

Posted by MJMullin 21:24 Archived in Vietnam Tagged market city museum arts ben chi ho minh fine thanh Comments (0)

What is the Message Being Told Here?

Two Museums in Ho Chi Minh City

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After an uneventful transfer day from Hoi An to Danang to Ho Chi Minh City, our travel party is fully together for the first time this trip. Tra arrived from Hanoi last night, so we are now a traveling group of four. It should be a fun next couple of days--students and faculty experiencing Ho Chi Minh City and its museums. Tra and Huong will give us a good idea about a students perspective on the museums and Richard and I can concentrate on figuring out what is a "must" at the museum and what we can do without. Two museums which were on our itinerary were the War Remembrance Museum and the Reunification Palace. The question I asked myself before seeing either museum is whether these museums will work for our class?
Our first stop was the War Remembrance Museum, and this museum was everything I hoped for and more. We have been discussing among ourselves about whether the course should start in the south and move north, or vice-verse. I think this museum suggests we must start in Ho Chi Minh City. Divided into three floors, with an important story of how political prisoners in South Vietnam were treated on the outside of the building, this museum begs you to spend more time than you think you can at it. Floor One was a divided into a section on the 60th anniversary of Vietnam's victory at Dien Bien Phu, a recurring theme on this trip. The images of how the war was viewed from around the world completes the first floor. What was most interesting was a small section on an officer (E. Thomas?) who worked with Vietnamese guerrillas in fighting the French. Although there is little analysis here, it would be worth calling the students attention to it because it marks one of those "what if" moments. What if the U.S. had remained a committed partner of Vietnam rather than a committed friend of France? How different might our countries relationship today? I also saw an interesting picture that had an American soldier questioning America's involvement in the war, That soldier, though not named in the translation, was John Kerry, currently America's Secretary of State.
Students and faculty were agreed that the the second floor was the heart of the museum, and one that should really be seen by all visitors to Ho Chi Minh City. Broken into sections, and showing a number of Life Magazine issues, the pictures document America's increasing involvement in Vietnam. In the midst of the narrative special attention is given to My Lai and a operation conducted in 1969. The latter operation involved a future Senator of Nebraska--Bob Kerry. Unlike the museums in Hanoi, this narrative though clearly anti-American in tone, was not as strident in its interpretive presentation. Students might find it difficult to read and/or see, but we are not in the United States. The tone matters; it tells students that there are many ways to look at America's presence in the world at large, and not just in Vietnam. How students will respond to the notion of "War Crimes" will be interesting. It will likely require some serious discussion afterwards.
The third floor took the American conflict beyond the battlefield and into the present. Sections on "Agent Orange and its Aftermath" and "historical truths" show how the impact of the dioxins on Vietnam continue to influence whole regions of the country. Assuming we can do it, this section will give students some inkling into what they will encounter when we visit Friendship Village outside of Hanoi. The historical truths section raises the question of proportionality and warfare. We would likely have to point out the charts of the exhibition concerning soldiers, munitions dropped, etc. Most students tend to gloss over those types of facts.
What is missing in the museum, and I understand why, is any discussion of the South verse North Vietnamese aspect in the pictures. Many of the photos shown are not American troops, but S. Vietnamese soldiers. That fact is ignored by the narrative. It is too early for a true discussion of the civil war that was part of the Vietnam War to occur.
This is not to suggest that the violence done by S. Vietnamese officials/soldiers to those who supported the North goes untold. The pictures that accompany this posting are from the exhibit on that topic. In many ways the recreated jail on the grounds of the museum mirror what we saw at Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi. What is different here is that the S. Vietnamese replace the French as the imperialist/colonial lackeys.
The theme of colonial puppet was subtlety on display at the Palace of Reunification. Whereas a visitor to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Museum are repeatedly told of "Uncle Ho's" modesty, the Palace is displayed in its formal luxury. Every room suggesting that Diem and Thieu were removed from the average Vietnamese citizen. Perhaps they were, but so too are American presidents. One walks through the Palace-even its name suggests an imperialistic undertaking--and is asked, not told, to consider the luxury one sees with what one knows of Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s. The Palace stands in stark contrast to what one sees in Hanoi. Any visitor to both museums will recognize the different message each museum exudes.
This message is driven home when one visits the Palace's "bunker." Anyone who has visited the British War Museum will recognize what the bunker is, but here the story is one of cowardice. Especially when one remembers Ho's "Stilt House" in Hanoi. Despite, maybe because of, the message one does think about the disconnect between what they are seeing and what the countryside looks like. In case one does not see the disconnect, the tanks parked outside the Palace, but on the grounds, including tank 390, remind the visitor that the Palace was overrun, just as the Versailles came under the influence of the Revolutionaries during the French Revolution. Perhaps this is why most exhibits start modern Vietnamese history in 1975, just as Robespierre declared a new calendar when the Jacobins came to power in 1793. Today's visit confirms that the two museums are a most stop for our emerging course. The question is whether our students will understand that message from the beginning, or only after they have visited the North?

Posted by MJMullin 01:33 Archived in Vietnam Tagged palace city vietnam museum war chi ho minh remembrance reunification Comments (0)

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