Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Ha-Long is 3 days

If you're in North Vietnam, it's virtually impossible to escape a tour of Ha-Long Bay. Everywhere you go, and I mean everywhere, they will try to rope you into one of these tours. And judging by Jack's comment this morning, on the last day of our 3day cruise ("well this doesn't look like what we saw in the brochure")you will have pretty much no idea what you are getting into.

Strangely, almost everywhere you go in Vietnam will involve relinquishing your passport. Sometimes this is used to extort things from you, mostly not. It is to be expected though. So don't be surprised when you are taken on board a strange boat with strange people (most of whom do not speak any English) and carted around to various places all under the coercion of "you'll be able to get your passport back wehen this is all over." It'll all be over in 3 days.

Admittedly the scenery is spectacular.

Let's try a little free-association game. I'll say a word and you tell me the first thing that comes to mind. Ok Ready? Go! First one-- ok, "America." Did you say "fuck yeah?" Apple pie? Democracy? The world's worst liars for politicians? Ok, let's try another one. Alright ready? "Christmas!" Just tell me the first thing that comes to mind now. Santa Claus? Candy Canes? Pine trees? Snow? Ok last one-- "Vietnam!" What do you think--what comes to mind? Napalm? Jungle? Agent Orange? Well think again!

To debunk one of your preconceptions, there are not a lot of people you can talk to who even remember the Vietnam war. Unless you speak Vietnamese, which is probably even harder than Chinese and I'm doing a pretty crumby job of learning even that. It has 7 or 8 tones instead of 4 and is dictated by sounds that English tongues really don't make. So when you go to Vietnam, learn the local word for "passport" before you learn the word for "war." It will be more useful.

So if studying war history is not your priority, what can you spend your time doing?When I say "Vietnam" surely you would not have free-associated "climbing." If you are in the dark about this though, you are overlooking what could definitely be described as a treasure trove of limestone cliffs and karsts, most unclimbed, all of very high quality-- a place ready for adventure and rife with possibility.

Be ready for some drama in getting there, but rest assured you will get some good use out of those rock shoes you brought all the way through the jungle and across the ocean, because Ha Long Bay is a climber's paradise.

Said Nate, "it really is a good place to sit down and write your novel." When you finish, they will give you back your passport.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Let Saigons be bygones

I teach the novel Brave New World, and often students don't understand some things about it. Notably, the main character Winston Smith is charged with the task of rewriting historical documents in keeping with the constantly changing party ideologies and shifting political alliances depicted in the novel. He literally rewrites history to match what “Big Brother” wants citizens to believe in the present. When students don't understand this concept, I will have to add the Hanoi War Museum and the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum to the ever-expanding list of actual real world examples.

First of all, what we in America call the Vietnam War is called here the "War of Resistance Against the American Imperialists" and "the War Against the US and Saigon Regime" and of course the "War to kill all capitalist pig-dogs and purge the glorious motherland of polluting bourgeoisie petty fascist colonialist parasites (hahaha)." I jest, but only a little bit. Another museum, in Saigon, which I did not visit, details the American war in Vietnam and is called the "war crimes museum." It's clearly a matter of perspective.

We strolled among charming colonial era buildings painted a typically French shade known as "Monte Carlo” yellow to find a very soviet looking construction which housed the mummified body of Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh. Despite his request for a simple cremation, in keeping with communist leadership precedent, they preserved the poor guy and now you can visit "Uncle Ho" as he is affectionately known, and admire his wispy Vietnamese beard which has not changed one bit, despite his being totally and completely dead.

A friendly fruit seller accosts us and asks us if we would like to take her picture. If she was upset with us being from the nation that destroyed her homeland and killed 3 million of her friends and relatives, her only reaction was to smile and over-charge us for pineapple slices.

You can visit Ho Chi Minh’s house as well, but don’t expect much. This was one very unhypocritical communist, for the “house” in which the father of modern Vietnam spent a good deal of his life looks as if it could have been built for about 20 dollars in lumber. “If you had a party here, you would have to call it a ‘Hodown’” says Nate. Jack and I agree, although it was hard for me to picture the Vietnamese president engaged in any “fun” of any kind. The pictures in the museum depict a studious man, writing letters in French, Chinese, Vietnamese and English lobbying for Vietnamese freedom. This separated him from his contemporaries in the US who were doing blow with strippers and hiding the truth of their political malfeasance from the American Public. But “Hodown” was a good joke anyway.

Elsewhere in the war museum we see samples of his speeches which preach that “revolutionary ideals must inspire the messes.” And what greater mess than the Vietnam War itself, which was prefaced by centuries and centuries of strife in Vietnam. In fact, the American War in Vietnam is just a funny little footnote in the epic tome of Vietnamese conflict. Pretty much they had been displacing invaders since long before forever, as the war museum indicated. When you first walk in, the pieces in the museum might remind you of Genghis Khan style warfare, chariots and swords and the like.

Departing from the American style “War is Kind” museum tradition, in Vietnam the articles on display were quite visceral. Some big knives in glass cases boasted captions like “this knife killed four enemies.” There was an old French helmet blasted full of holes, it’s wearer having suffered a horrible fate which I couldn’t help but envision. The caption read “steel helmet evidence of the failure of the French.”

Out back they had a huge pile of airplane fuselages burned and destroyed, remnants of the jets that had been successfully shot out of the sky by the NVA. They had turned the detritus into a sort of grotesque sculpture, the whole thing kind of crumpled and melted, like a Salvador Dali clock.

If I were to add museums like this to my list of examples of historical revisionism, I would have to ponder the idea that our government was likely to have fabricated the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which began our escalated involvement in the war. Yet today it would seem that we read this as historical fact—that we were indeed attacked while innocently cruising around Vietnam, provoking attack. I would also have to consider the angle from which a story is told. From my angle, I have only heard about what the war meant for America. The war meant the tumultuous 60’s, internal strife in America, a divided nation, lies and political deception, racism and the civil rights movement, noble veterans dishonored by their discredited cause. All of the movies I have seen and books I have read depict these issues. For the Vietnamese, we were just another aggressor, and our war is remembered as such.