14
Jul
13

What is Vietnam

IMG_0771

After returning home and editing photos for the last few days, I have started to synthesize this fantastic trip and along with my reading in preparation for teaching Vietnam at War this fall, I have a few preliminary conclusions about the trip.  This is not exhausting, but I think accurate- at least in my mind.

 

Vietnam is Benedictine
IMG_0924

In the Yin and Yan of Vietnamese life, one thing you recognize here is the idea of balance. Some food is “hot” other food “cold” there is a balance between respect for and use of herbal medicine and western medicine; there is an understanding of the long history of Vietnam and the forward looking character of the people who see the future as one of opportunity and prosperity. his particular issue has really impacted me. I expected in the unofficial Vietnam to feel an air of hostility, unforgiveness or outright hatred for Americans given the absolute carnage of the American war. e Vietnames suffered in that war horrors that one cannot even imagine. While on the trip I have been reading Nick Turse’s “Kill Anything that Moves” a book that chronicles American war crimes in Vietnam. After visiting My Lai, and other areas, I would expect even more a Vietnamese suspicion if not hostility toward Americans
IMG_0601

The Vietnamese I spoke to on the street gave no indication of anything other than a smile and a welcoming attitude. I spoke with regular folks who were part of or children of the war, and I felt no animosity. Some told me parts of their stories, and yet the retelling while emotional, was not vindictive, or unforgiving. In essence I felt welcomed as a stranger is welcomed by the monks as described in the Rule.

Vietnam is Benedictine
IMG_1095
Work is valued here. Hard work. we visited a factory in the Hanoi area and although I do have some concerns about wages and environmental standards- the wages are terrible and the environmental damage will be a significant problem in the future. Nevertheless, the reality in this world of global capitalism is that the factories are going to go somewhere. In terms of the deep culture of the people, there is no fear of hard work and I applaud that. In the photo above, this woman works 10-12 hours a day and makes about 4 dollars US per day; she has a family and children and what she earns is enough with her spouse to keep a roof over their heads and live a little above sustenance, but they do not make enough money for the education of their children etc. Most farmers are living at or below subsistence and most of the population are farmers. Yet in the urban areas where people have taken risks, the ability to work hard and see it rewarded with a fairly significant prosperity is also a reality. Viet, our tour guide in Saigon, owns the tour agency and he is doing remarkably well. We went to dinner with the founder of Vietnamese Language School which teaches students and foreigners Vietnamese and English to Vietnamese along with her husband, an executive with an import/export company and they are the face of a new and growing middle class. Everywhere we looked, one thing was clear regardless of you position on political economy; the Vietnamese value and find honor in work and are trying to find ways to honor that in a changing economic climate.
IMG_1244

Vietnam is Benedictine
There is a commitment to monasticism

Venerated monk we met in Chan To and his mentor and founder of the temple in the background.

Venerated monk we met in Chan To and his mentor and founder of the temple in the background.


We visited many pagodas and temples in this country and in Hue we visited the center of Buddhist monasticism, Thien Mu pagoda. As we met with monks in several temples including a woman monk near Hanoi, it became clear to me that in the changes that have happened to Vietnam over the centuries- Chinese domination followed by French colonialism, Japanese oppression, wars against the French, the Americans and the Cambodians, one thing remained constant, Buddhist monasticism and ancestor worship. I think this presence of the monastics and the worship of ancestors has brought a framework of thinking in the country that allows it to understand its long history and in so doing, place these years, centuries of war and carnage in a perspective that allows the people to still look forward; to still see the future as one that can be lived in peace and harmony. A future that honors the sacrifices of the past. I believe the monastic presence brings a stability in the culture that is important. It holds and promotes the critical values that form the foundations of the culture.
IMG_0186[1]

Vietnam is not Benedictine at all
The corruption in this country is outrageous. We heard stories about school teachers who hold back on curriculum because their pay is so low they give ‘tutoring’ to kids who pay after school so they can get the rest of the curriculum. Have a problem with the police- bribes. At every level of the society corruption is everywhere. There are those who clearly are working to expose it and get reforms, but right now, the popular belief is that it works. Only when it is clear corruption is holding Vietnam back, will it be stopped- or at least lessened. Vietnam has dismantled almost all of the social safety net. There is no universal free public education, no universal healthcare etc. the gap between rich and poor is growing rapidly and the uneven growth and abandoning of the poor is not Benedictine.
The Communist government and its officialdom is not Benedictine. The government allows some religious expression, but Catholicism for example, is very circumscribed and monitored as is Caodiism- the reason is not religious, it is political- to manage dissent and have the ability to control those groups exactly for that purpose.

Caodai Holy See

Caodai Holy See

Protestants may gain an official recognition in Vietnam, and six denominations have, but they can only perform religious ceremony for ex-pats. Preach on the street or pass a track to a Vietnamese citizen and you can be arrested and deported. none of this is Benedictine.

What is Vietnam? It is beautiful
IMG_0390
It is family
IMG_1220
It is Industrious
IMG_1092
It is Young
IMG_0641
IMG_1221
It is poor
IMG_1005

It is a country that is much more complicated than I thought, more beautiful than I imagined, more scarred by war than I knew and more welcoming and future looking than I expected.
I look forward to building relationships there and broadening my understanding of this wonderful country.

07
Jul
13

Still more to come

I have arrived home safe and sound.  I do however, enjoy posting and I want to make some conclusionary remarks.  So stay tuned!!

IMG_1370[1]

07
Jul
13

My grand daughter Grace

My grand daughter Grace

She tried to stay up for Poppi’s flight, but I got in too late

06
Jul
13

Good night Saigon

IMG_1354[1]

05
Jul
13

War and Remembrance

IMG_0322[1]
We have had a variety of experiences to communicate the history of the American War in Vietnam.  As someone who teaches a course on the war, there are some critical perspectives and questions that arise in now walking some of the areas where fighting took place, and visiting several museums and other locations that are key to the war, such as the prison at Hou Lo in Hanoi, the DMZ, the village at Vin Loc, Hue and the Citadel in the old city, the Mine Action Visitors Center in Quang Tri, The Presidential Palace in Saigon as well as the War Remembrance Museum, My Lai, and  the tunnels at Cu Chi. 

One thing that struck me at all of the sites was my emotional response, particularly at My Lai, but also at all the other locations.  To me, perhaps because I have served in the military, perhaps because I teach about war, perhaps because I am committed to Martin King’s vision of the Beloved Community, perhaps because I am sensitive to the location; one cannot help but to feel the spirit of the place- hallowed ground.  The understanding that in many of these places, we can still hear the voices of the dead begging us to hear their suffering and remember so that war can be avoided in the future. There is so much suffering in war, and particularly in this war on all sides- one cannot help but be affected and affected to say “never again.” If anything, this aspect of the trip has moved me to deepen my commitment to teaching the war, but not only to highlight my critique of the war and American policy, but to teach this war in a way that gets students to want to end war and work for peace.

 

An American soldier wounded in the war, reflects at the memorial at My Lai

An American soldier wounded in the war, reflects at the memorial at My Lai

Another issue at the sites, however, is the narrative of the particular site. One thing in common, was not an idea that “war is hell.” Rather, the ideology and commitment to the notion of victory really prevents the story of the war, as portrayed by the government, from being one that uses war as away to discuss peace, but instead glorifies war and victory at any cost with a subtext- we will do it again. I find this surprising, because in this war there is no need to propagandize what happened. My Lai needs no propaganda, nor does Agent Orange or any of the other horrible things done in this war to soldiers and civilians. Of course I recognize the
IMG_1225
nationalistic need to keep the narrative the way it is, but that also prevents truth telling from the Hanoi side. Were the only atrocities in the American war done by Americans? Of course not. But because of ideology and the nationalistic “patriotic” idea of victory, we cannot reach a place of forgiveness or reconciliation. Roy Tamashiro and I discussed these issues at length, and one that came up was that to truly heal from the war, perhaps Vietnam and the US need some type of Truth and Reconciliation Commission like South Africa did. There needs to be a place to collect the stories of those on all sides without propaganda and glorification to hear truth and seek forgiveness- whether you were an American who killed civilians, an NVA or PLF fighter who killed civilians or a soldier on any side who killed others. Although the sites were powerful, the propaganda made the sites hollow- not hallowed.
IMG_1263[1]

IMG_1286[1]

Another issue that has become clearer to me now that I am here, is that a war I already knew was complex, became even that much more so. I had not fully appreciated the differences-cultural, linguistic etc. between North and South and until we heard several stories of brothers on both sides and what it was to be a civilian in Saigon, a PLF fighter in the south or a civilian in the North, I just had not fully grasped the internal complexities- the ‘civil war’ nature of the conflict.
IMG_1301

In my next post on the war, I want to deal with a phrase we heard here- the ‘forward’ looking aspect of Vietnamese identity and how I see that in relation to the war.

01
Jul
13

what a day

Today was another one of joy and sorrow, solemn remembrance and joyous visioneering. I am too tired to write about all of my day, so short captions will have to do.

IMG_0690[1]
The day began with an excellent lecture by two of the premier environmental scientists in Vietnam on the state of environmental protection in Vietnam
Then it was off to the Unification museum- the former presidential palace which has been preserved in the exact condition it was in in on April 30, 1975, the day South Vietnam surrendered- on the second floor of this building. In this room
IMG_0707[1]
Next was the War Remembrance Museum, a heart breaking, gut wrenching museum on the war. Yes, the history section has some propagandized narrative, but most of the museum are photographic displays that speak volumes and need no propaganda attached- like the photo below. I will speak more to the war when we get back from the Mekong Delta.
IMG_0761[1]
Then it was off to meet with the Literature and Linguistics faculty of Vietnam National University’s, University of Social Sciences and Humanities Ho Chi Minh City. We heard a fascinating lecture on the modernization of Vietnamese literature- from influences of the Chinese and then the French. A raucous discussion ensued on the question of modern Vietnamese literature and the issue of identity given the issues of the American War, Communism, Doi Moi, and tradition
IMG_0819[1]
We ended the day at Mint Culinary School for a cooking lesson and so much more. Phan Ton Tinh Hai Gave us a lesson on making fried and fresh spring rolls and then we had a great dinner prepared by her students. Hai is a judge on the Asian Iron Chef and is a wonderful talent. Her husband is an ethnomusicologist and gave us a lecture and concert of Vietnamese ethnic musical instruments representing several cultures of the Central Highlands.
IMG_0845[1]

IMG_0863[1]
Now off to bed and we head out early tomorrow to spend two days doing homestays in the Mekong Delta- very excited for that!!!

30
Jun
13

welcome to Saigon

welcome to Saigon

final phase begins today




Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.