Hello from Saigon, where I am spending my last day in Vietnam on the ship, grading student assignments. What to say about our visit here? I know the boys are detailing what we did so maybe I will comment on the emotional side of things. First, even our pre-arrival was emotional. Prior to arrival, we had an evening where we heard from several faculty members: two who served in Vietnam, and one who did not have his draft number come up. Their stories were very emotional and powerful, and set the stage for the visit, albeit from a distinctly American angle.
Saigon (officially Ho Chi Minh City) was our first stop. We entered the Mekong Delta and then sailed up the Saigon river. The initial views of rural agriculture gave way to a really busy urban scene in Saigon. The first day here we took a small orientation tour, then had a day to ourselves to explore. Frankly, none of us dealt very well with the chaos. Crossing the street here is harrowing, and traffic lights (or a traffic system of any kind) are few and far between. The advice we were given was to follow the locals across the street, and to walk confidently into the traffic and never hesitate. This advice worked pretty well until we were faced with a 6 lane road with no traffic signals (and no locals) that we had to get across to return to the ship. After some hesitation on our part, an elderly man came out from his shop to lead us all across the road, simply walking straight out into 3 lanes each way of crazy jumbled bus, scooter, and car traffic. After getting us safely across, in a bizarre reverse boy-scout helping the elderly cross the street move, he smiled and calmly walked back out into it to return back. We were hot, culture-shocked, and tired.
But then we flew up to northern Vietnam to visit Hanoi and Ha Long Bay. Our guide (Bik) was incredible, and honestly, she made the visit for us. She told us the history of Vietnam through the eyes of her family. Her grandfather worked for the French in the north, living in a huge house that is now the German embassy, with 5 kids, including Bik’s mom, who lived in luxury until she was 9. Then the house was taken by the communists; the family had to walk south for 2 months when the north was divided from the south and had to leave one of the kids behind with family because she was too young to walk (this girl was Bik’s mom). Because Bik’s grandfather was one of the few literate people (Vietnamese people had 99% illiteracy under the French) the Americans had him on a list, and he had to work for them. When they left, he had tickets for the American airlift helicopters, but decided to stay and help build the country. Bad mistake: he ended up in a re-education camp. After 3 years in a camp, he was released and along with one son became one of the “boat people” who eventually made it to Hong Kong, after 45 days at sea. He spent years in a refugee camp, and was eventually accepted to the US. Now he (at 95) and the entire family lives in California, except Bik’s mom, who still feels betrayed to have been left behind in Hanoi. But they are allowed to come and visit her… what a story! Now, born in 1980, Bik is in the first Vietnamese generation since the Chinese arrived about 1000 years ago to have lived entirely without war. Let’s hope that always remains the case.
I’m including some pictures that show the calm and grace, along with the chaos and confusion, that make up the country. I finally learned how to shrink the size of the pictures to be able to email-blog with pictures – hope the quality looks okay to readers.
On another note, although it seems ages ago, it hasn’t been that long since we left Japan. The ship’s videographer came along with my Consumer Behavior Field lab as we took our learning to a Kobe beef farm and a sake brewery. If you are interested in viewing it, there is a 2.5 minute video here: