Saturday, July 30, 2005

Illness and observations

So I've been here for 4 days now. I've seen the major sights, and I'm headed off tomorrow morning for a 3-day boat tour on the Mekong Delta. How much would you pay for transportation and hotel? How does USD14 sound? They don't cover my meals, but that's ok. I thought about going for the full-on 4 day tour with a 1 night homestay with a random family somewhere on the delta, but after wasting a day recovering from a hangover I decided I need to get a little back on track, there are more exciting adventures awaiting me further north.

I've been to a fair number of countries, and everytime I've gone to the more third world ones, like Morocco and now Vietnam, I typically last about 4 days before getting really ill. So, like clockwork, my stomach's been rumbly and I've not been feeling well. I'm a little worried since on my trips to Morocco I only felt ill in-country and as soon as I got back to Spain (only a few days), I started feeling a lot better. This time I've still got 3 weeks to go. I hope I don't feel bad the whole time.

When I was packing for my trip, I was pretty worried about what I would do with all that free time I'd have with no one to talk to. So I figured I should take a book to read and went out and spent quite a bit on a book in Spanish so it'd last me the whole time. Well, guess I wasted that money. Here, kids walk up to you on the sidewalk and try to sell you little, copied versions of various books. Just about ever book ever written on Vietnam is here, as well as almost the entire set of Lonely Planet guides pertaining to Asia. But they also have recently popular books like the latest Harry Potter and Bill Clinton's autobiography. Guess I didn't need to order those earlier, either. I feel bad about purchasing some of them, especially since I'm only choosing the most interesting books. I got When Heaven and Earth Changed Places, which I've finished already, and a couple other books I haven't gotten to yet. Heaven and Earth is a fascinating story of a farm girl who lived near the border between the two Vietnams and how she managed to keep herself alive and wrangle her way to a life in the US. It's very good because it's an honest view of both sides of the Vietnam War: the initially noble and idealistic Viet Cong, who quickly turned to terror in order to maintaing their hold on the village; and the corrupt and brutal Republicans. She also describes her experiences - both good and bad - with American troops. She eventually married a civilian contractor who took her to San Diego. The chapters of her life alternate with her modern tale of returning to Vietnam in the mid-80s to visit her family, completely unsure of what sort of reception she'd receive. It's uplifting and heartbreaking at the same time.

Yesterday I went to Cu Chi tunnels, a highly touristy attraction tailor-made for foreign tourists. First we watched this insanely propagandistic film about the heroic peasants who "held a gun in their right hand and a plough in the left," or something like that. Basically, it builds up their sacrifice without describing the tragedies that befell their families after they lost their relatives. Some families were completely obliterated, or reduced to one pitiful old woman. It's interesting to see the simple ingenuity the VC used to evade detection by the US troops, and a trip through a mockup of the tunnels was so claustrophobic I only did half of the entire 100m distance, and that tunnel had been built wider than the real ones. I couldn't fathom living or hiding down there.

Today was a visit to the "War Remnants Museum," Formerly called the "Chinese and American War Crimes Memorial," or something as unwelcoming to wealthy tourists. Guess they make more money this way. It's actually quite a well-put together exhibit, although rather one-sided. It has a great series on photojournalists on both sides, many of whom lost their lives to bring the horrors of war home to America. There's also an exhibit on the various Geneva-prohibited weapons that were used by the Americans, though I don't know how many of the weapons displayed really were prohibited. The section on Agent Orange and the horrors it still wreaks on the innocents, civilians who weren't even born at the time of the conflict, was quite gruesome. I couldn't stand it after a while and had to get out for a bit. Of course, they don't mention the atrocities committed by the Viet Cong, but it's still good for showing that war is brutal and should be avoided at all costs, and that the people who suffer most are the people who want it least - civilians caught in the middle.

I'm still forming opinions on Vietnam, and they alter with every account I read. My current book, Shadows Wind, is a rather negative portrayal of the Vietnam regime and seesm to comdemn tourists to Vietnam and just about anyone who's ever written a book about the country. The author likes to stand on his high horse and say no one's described the real Vietnam, and he will do that for us. We'll see. The next one I got was Robert S. McNamara's account of how we got into the war. After watching the documentary he made earlier, I'm very interested in delving deeper into it. I think it's something that will be pertinent well into the future, and something our current leaders would have done well to read. He describes the Vietnam War as a colossal and horrific misunderstanding. We saw it as a struggle to prevent the spread of Communism whereas the North Vietnamese saw it as just another fight against another race of imperialists (in reverse chronology, they French, the Japanese, the French before that, the Chinese, and probably some others I missed). So in failing to understand the adversary, a terrible wound was inflicted.

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