I don’t want to look down long enough to write this for fear I’ll miss a spectacular little piece of culture. Right now we're on our way back from Trang Bang village and the Cu Chi tunnels and between the wall of houses catch glimpses of rubber tree groves and rice patties where water buffalo soak and rust coloured oxen and cattle eat less than their fill. It’s all so beautiful. Not breathtakingly so but in a simple sort of way. The traditional huts, canopy-roofed cafés and corrugated tin roofs are suddenly interrupted by tall and skinny western style houses that momentarily take me back to California. I suppose western was the look they were going for, but I long for an uninterrupted stream of rusty tin and dry star. I love the dilapidated brick houses that creep through the foliage. I love the geese dogs and children who wander harmoniously through the hardened dirt roads.
If I were to describe this country as one thing it would be harmonious. It may be that I’m an outsider and don’t see the discordance, but I watch cars, busses and thousands of motorcycles overflowing with people co-exist with pedestrians in streets that for the most part lack crosswalks and traffic lights. At first it all seemed like chaos but from observations made over two days of culturally diverse breakfasts I understand traffic flows like a river, avoiding pedestrians like rocks. The only rule on the road is forgiveness; the motorcyclists are forgiving to cars and pedestrians and simply move around them. In this way, the rules of the road reflect a central aspect in our interaction with the Vietnamese: forgiveness. Having visited the village of the naked, burned girl (Kim Phuc) who in the famous photograph expressed the fear of all civilians impacted by the Vietnam war, I am astonished at the lack of animosity towards Americans. Here, American supplied planes dropped American made bombs that flung fiery petroleum jelly at the Vietnamese on the ground, who at this point were mostly children fleeing the temple they feared would be bombed. In other cases Americans raped and massacred women and children on the slightest hint they might be communist. Villages like Trang Bang were bombed up and down the country because of slightest suspicion that there might be communists there. We killed so many innocent civilians purely on a whim and it never ceases to amaze me that their people have so much love for America and western culture. When we talked to Kim’s sister and sister in law they all gave off a ‘forgive and forget’ vibe. They all said it was in the past. They couldn’t change what had happened and anger wouldn’t do anything about it. This attitude might have something to do with their religion. As it was explained to me the Cao Dai religion centers around the belief that god appeared three times: first as Buddha, again as Confucius, and third as Jesus and Daoist. It was created by a Vietnamese man who traveled to France and came back to create a religion that embodied the best of all religions. If I had anything to convert from I would convert. Its such a cool concept and I like the premises its based on. I am definitely going to do more research when we come home. Cami and I were so interested in it that we have decided to go on a quest for the temple in California.
The whole day had a sort of Throwback theme. I started the morning with a run and 80s style Aerobics in the park to a synth remix of Taylor Swift’s 2008 hit you belong with me. The day continued to center around the Vietnam war first with Kim Phuc’s village and then the Cu Chi tunnels. After we left the village it was another 45 minutes of storefronts and green fields until we arrived at a “grade B amusement park.” During the war, tunnels were dug to provide hiding places and transport for the Vietcong and their ammunition and weapons. We took a tour around a small part of the area where the tunnels were dug and saw simulations of how the Vietnamese took unexploded US ammo and re-worked it to make their own land mines and grenades.
To be continued… (Yes, there was more to the day.)
Those of us who were feeling adventurous lowered ourselves into what we now know is the hardest tunnel there and set off with phones as flashlights unaware of the bats and bugs that lay ahead. It was dirtiest tunnel of all and as we turned each corner a new set of wings would flap past our heads into the darkness behind. It was a tight fit too, which proved too much for anyone slightly claustrophobic. A bit scarred from our first experience it was a relief to hear that the next tunnels were much wider and sans leaves and bugs. A guide took us through the longer and more complicated tunnels where this time those of us with shorter legs were comfortable because we could walk, albeit at a ninety-degree angle. As we emerged from the tunnel, either walking or squatting, we were greeted by Uncle Ho’s picture as well as his treasured communist flag. We were then given the chance to shoot a gun just as Ho’s Vietcong soldiers had once done. The shoes the locals wore especially fascinated me. The idea was that the shoes make the same foot print whichever way they are facing so the enemy would have no idea which way they had gone. This was one of many things that made me appreciate how hard fighting this was for the Americans who were fighting on unfamiliar terrain against locals who knew the land best. The final exhibit of the tour was an anti-American pro communist video that made the local people heroes and gave figureheads to the feelings ordinary citizens might have had about the “evil” Americans who bombed their cities and killed their children.
Throughout the day we learned about the horrors of war and the impact they had on civilians on both sides of the war while surrounded by stunning scenery. I’m so glad to be here and as my half broken headphones sing: “There’s no place I’d rather be.”