Letter Home from Vietnam
Upon arrival in Hanoi, we went to a restaurant that served us many different foods and everyone had to brush the dust off of their chopstick skills. Some food was dropped into soy sauce and many laughs were shared at the struggle of getting used to our new utensils. We then went to our hotel and had free time to explore the city, eat some street food, and recover from jet lag. The most interesting aspect of getting used to the city that day was crossing the street. There are hundreds of motorbikes and little to no room on the sidewalk so we just had to commit to crossing the street and hope that the motorbikes would dodge us.
We spent most of our time in Hanoi in our classroom learning a lot of information in preparation for our future site visits in the central part of Vietnam. Other than classroom time we also had a weekend that we had free to explore. A group of us traveled to Ha Long Bay and went on a boat cruise to an area where we could kayak while looking for monkeys, then to another area where we were free to jump off the back of the boat to swim. Then we went to a private island where we had a large bunk room to ourselves, a private beach, delicious food, and a night full of fun and festivities.
In Hue, we had a chance to synthesize all of the lectures we had in Hanoi and see how they connected to real life through site visits. We toured the Citadel and Imperial Palace our first day there, getting a sense of the historical context of the city. The Imperial Palace has been gradually restored over the past 40 years, but ruins from the “American War” still remain. Being American students looking at the wreckage highlighted one of the central contradictions we work through together: how past historical legacies of war and colonialism connect to our presence today.
Over the course of the next few days we visited a hydropower dam and talked to people who were displaced by the dam’s construction. Those conversations illuminated the negative consequences a renewable energy resource may have, reminding us to never forget the social implications. Our next site visit was to a farmer who has implemented an organic composting system. Through the help of the Center for Social Research and Development, our host organization in Hue, this farmer transitioned from using chemical fertilizers and pesticides to composting for fertilizer.
Hue was rainy and muddy, but the sun came out when we got to Hoi An, another small city along the central coast. Hoi An has recently been named a UNESCO World Heritage site, and brings in millions of tourists each year. The city’s economy relies on the industry, and many young people are drawn to the service industry for secure jobs. Everything, it seemed, was catered to European and American tastes. Every block is just shop after shop of scarves, toys, and snacks (mangoes were a group favorite and iced white coffee. Lots of iced coffee). As we toured local farms and beaches, we saw the positive and negative impacts of ecotourism juxtaposed. Hoi An officials have been able to capitalize on the fact that environmentalism is “in vogue;” the city boasts many guest houses on organic farms, and the city has begun composting and recycling initiatives that are far more progressive than any other city in the country. But at the same time, luxury resorts are being built along the coast. We stood on a beach that had about three or four meters of sand, and were told that just two years ago the beachfront was 100 meters. This beach erosion is caused by increased development along the coast and throughout the region. In Hoi An, we considered these contradictions, questioned authority, and grappled with the economic and social systems that have bolstered Hoi An’s development. All the while, we ate well, slept well in our homestays, and learned how to navigate the hectic Vietnamese traffic patterns on our fleet of blue cruiser bikes.
In Ho Chi Minh city, we got to experience what heat truly is. Although the biggest city in Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh has wider sidewalks, more green space, and more diverse food options than Hanoi. I was even able to go to Mass in Vietnamese at the Notre Dam cathedral in the middle of the city! Many students also visited the War Remnants museum, which displays photos capturing the atrocities committed during the American/Vietnam War. As environmentally oriented students, the display on the effects of Agent Orange was particularly poignant and difficult to see. Ho Chi Minh boasts an amazing mix of culture, cuisine, and fun and it was a wonderful way to finish our time in Vietnam!