Today, after wandering through the Metropolitan Museum of Art and visiting the standard exhibits which have lured me there during the past 17 years (i.e. the Temple of Dendur, the Medieval armor hall, the Christmas tree), I ended up in front of a new exhibit of art created around the world in 1 AD.
There was a model of ancient Rome, old Caesarian coins, Chinese swords, Guatemalan drums, among other things. By each mini-exhibit was a blown-up picture of a particular country, and as I passed by pictures of the Coliseum, the Great Wall of China, and the Egyptian pyramids, something caught my eye. A photograph of Halong Bay, Vietnam, drew me back to memories – – of pho, cyclos, Vietnamese smells, 21-hour-long train rides, meditating for over two hours in a monastery while surrounded by nuns, sleeping on the top of a boat in Halong Bay, a place depicted in the very picture in front of me.
And suddenly, I wasn’t simply standing in front of a picture – – I was there, again.
Last year, after becoming fascinated with the history of Vietnam, I decided I wanted to actually visit the country. I found a program called ‘Where There Be Dragons’( 800/982-9203 ; www.wheretherebedragons.com), a youth-travel organization which takes groups of nine to 16 students, age 15 to19, to various places in Asia.
The trips ranged from the fairly comfortable Thailand “cultural odyssey” to the intensely rigorous “Dolpo trip,” a journey in which the group remained secluded in the middle of a Napalese region for almost two-and-a-half weeks, seeing no other people, eating nothing more than rice, and sleeping in the open air.
The Vietnam trip, as with all of their trips, was formed very flexibly. Upon the students’ arrival in Los Angeles in late June, the leaders knew barely more than that the group would be traveling from south to north, with a few definite rest spots in between. The students basically had complete control over the program specifics.
Convincing Your Parents
Before two representatives came to my apartment from the company to give a slide show, my parents were fairly skeptical, as I expect any parent would be with a child who voiced a desire to travel half-way around the world to a country where, for all they knew, Americans were still hated since the end of the war in 1975; to a place where unexploded mines were set off by innocent children playing along the Mekong Delta; where mosquitoes carried the deadly Japanese encephalitis; a disease in which the victim could die within hours. Still, after talking to these incredible people, my parents agreed to send me.
The program is very well organized and safe. The group leaders are in constant communication with Where There Be Dragons’ home base in Colorado, and are themselves incredible people: former Peace Corps volunteers, many fluent in more than three languages and some native inhabitants of the region they would be touring.
And so, on June 26th, 2000, after an orientation night in Los Angeles, I got on a plane bound for Tokyo, Bangkok, and finally Saigon (now called Ho Chi Minh City.) My leaders had armed me with only one book, a guide book from a series entitled “Lonely Planet,” and at that moment I questioned if I was really ready to handle such a lonely place, a place so out of touch with the world I knew.
Good Morning Vietnam
The first thing I noticed upon stepping off the plane- after having been almost two days in transit- was the air. I realized where expression ‘hot and heavy’ had really come from. The wet air molecules dragged down my entire body, making it almost impossible for me to lift my huge backpack. (This feeling followed all of us throughout the entire trip.) Although the heat became more bearable by the third week or so, none of us could do much between the hours of 11am and 4pm.
The smell could be described as nothing but Asian, reminding me of Shakespeare’s “Tempest”, when he calls the Indian air “spiced.” In the cities, the noise was overpowering, hitting you in the face when you stepped outside in the morning, following you inside before you went to bed, cascading down upon your eardrums in a jumble of horns: boys clanging metal together, the yelling of the harsh Vietnamese language at a decibel level unheard in all the Western World, and above that, the delighted shrieks of young children who had never seen foreigners and would scream at the top of their lungs all of the American words they knew (“Goodbye how are you American mother f***er Hello my name!”)
Ho Chi Minh, For Me, Saigon
Of the cities we visited, Saigon was probably the one farthest from the comforts of home, something which made it hard for the nine of us to adjust easily. The amount of garbage filling the streets and sidewalks made me nostalgic for New York’s much maligned Department of Sanitation. The smell of rotting vegetables in the hot sun at the markets made us crave the air-conditioned King Kullens of home. The confused and dangerous travel system made us dream of a simple invention: the traffic light.
When crossing the street, instead of looking to find a passageway through the whizzing motorbikes, cyclos, and occasional car, we found it easier to close our eyes and walk a swift yet steady pace, silently praying to God or, rather, Buddha, to save us from injury.
When not dodging traffic, we tasted pho for the first time (a Vietnamese staple of beef broth and noodles), rode on cyclos (a vehicle made of a bicycle seat for the driver with a seat resting on the front bridge for up to three people), and wandered around on our own.
Remnants of the War
Since the primary reason I had joined this trip was to learn more about the War, I visited the legendary “War Remnants Museum,” a place which has just recently changed its name from “The Museum of American War Crimes,” to give you an idea of what was housed inside.
Photographs lined the walls – the walls and the pictures both yellowing and falling apart. The photos commemorated the horrible incidents of the My Lai massacre, and American GIs shooting innocent families. The effects of Agent Orange were further embellished by two jars of preservative containing the remains of two babies affected by the defoliant. The babies were deformed, with swollen heads and stumps for limbs, a vision which, once registered, made me faint and sick to my stomach.
One room housed a diorama which depicted an American soldier, a lit cigarette dangling out of his slightly relaxed mouth, carrying a rifle magazine on his shoulder and emptying another from his M-15 into a group of cowering Vietnamese men.
After Saigon, we were given the choice of staying at a monastery for three nights, or trekking through the snake/bug infested jungle, so, being true to my New York heritage, I sped away from the jungle to a Zen monastery in Dalat on a 12-hour bus ride in which I shared a bus fit for 12 with 24. On the highway there, we passed bomb craters remaining from the war, and devastated families working for 15 hours a day in the rice paddies, families who would willingly sacrifice the education of one of their children for the help of a water buffalo.
Zen In Dalat
Although I was far from reaching enlightenment, my stay at the monastery was one of the most meaningful experiences of my life. In the mornings I would teach English to the nuns, or wander around the beautiful grounds, helping farm if necessary, learning meditation techniques, or talking to the Zen Master, the true head of the monastery. I sat silent for two hours every afternoon for meditation, an activity which seemed unbearable to me. I soon learned that each nun rose at 3am and meditated for six hours each day. A world so far from home, yet so peaceful.
On Our Own in Hue
After the monastery, we took a 21-hour-long train ride to Hue, the ancient capital of Vietnam, and the sight of many monumental battles of the American war. When I climbed into the poor excuse for couchettes, second class, I failed to realize that we were in far from the worst conditions on the train.
The next morning, after a restless sleep, I wandered towards the back of the train where people who had to stand for the 21 hours, had constructed hammocks and ledges to avoid this inevitable end.
Staying in Hue for almost two weeks, we were given a guide book and told to be careful. That was it. We all became tremendously independent during those 12 days, riding our bicycles around the small city until we became familiar with it, communicating with vendors with our beginner’s Vietnamese and realizing in the process that we did not miss the comforts of home.
Along with two other friends, I worked in an orphanage on the outskirts of Hue for five days. I’ve always loved children, but this situation seemed a far cry from the work I had done as a camp counselor in East Hampton, where the most devastating problem was a mom who failed to cut the crust off of her 5-year-old’s peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The nuns who ran the orphanage walked through rows and rows of beautiful children, pointing out certain ones, and in halting English explained that this boy had just come to them one month ago, or that that girl was the one remaining member of a family which had been completely wiped out in one of the many floods which periodically inundate the city. Some older children, scared of getting too attached to people whom they knew would leave in a matter of days, had already formed a personal defense mechanism, while the younger children were completely accepting.
I became attached to a young boy of about 1 1/2, a child whose parents had died in a flood the year before. His huge unblinking eyes gazed at his surrogate mothers with a mixture of hope and suspicion, and his independent nature drew me to him. I didn’t break through until the last day when, bringing him markers and paper, I showed him how to draw a sun, and a tree, and a fish. He laughed for the first time when he insisted on drawing on me and not on the paper. When I left, he clung to my hand desperately, confused and hurt that I would leave.
After another 18-hour train ride, we arrived in Hanoi, the capital. The difference between Saigon and Hanoi is shocking. The victors from the North had renamed Saigon after war hero, Ho Chi Minh, as a reminder of the death of the ARVN and a token of the North’s superiority.
While Ho Chi Minh is noticeably run-down, Hanoi’s paved streets, wide boulevards, beautiful architecture and technological advancements reminded me of a Western city with Western comforts. More cars filled the streets, more buildings were air-conditioned, fewer people begged. The residential region around the lakes illustrates clearly why Hanoi was called “The Paris of the East,” and after five weeks of poor conditions, I reveled in our hotel room, which seemed luxurious at $8 a night.
Given a guide book and as much freedom as we desired, once again we wandered the city. I got to know the Old Quarter extremely well, a region of 36 streets all selling a different good. If you want wooden reed instruments, you can find an entire street cluttered with them. If you want clay bowls, there’s another street.
I visited the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, an expansive structure to which people travel for miles to cry in bellowing sobs while prostrating themselves outside of the tomb housing this legendary figure.
To finish our stay in Hanoi, we traveled 7 kms outside of the city to a village that specialized in snake farming for restaurants. I pointed out a snake among a writhing mass of scales, watched it tempted out with a wooden stick, hit over the head and skinned while it was still twitching. I can honestly say I have tasted snake blood, snake bile, and the perennial favorite: fermented snake penis wine.
The last two days were spent on Halong Bay, undoubtedly the most beautiful region of Vietnam. Jagged cliffs rise out of the deep blue water which shimmers at night with phosphorescence, and our lone boat seemed the only thing for miles, save for a few small fishing boats. I slept on the deck one night, feeling the boat gently rock me to sleep, shooting stars falling above me, glowing water beneath me. I could not believe that I had to give it all up the next day.
Five months later, standing in the museum in New York in front of a photograph, all these thoughts and images passed through my head.
When I stepped out on the big stone steps, the harsh cold wind, the beeping of taxi cabs, and the jostling of tourists with maps was almost as startling as it had been stepping into JFK Airport on the night of my return. Everything seemed so foreign, so clean, so unusual, so unwanted, so unnecessary.
Sometimes it is hard for me to put things in perspective, to realize that the benefits I enjoy will be forever denied to countless orphans halfway around the world, or to deal with the fact that the $15 I pay to see buy a CD would be enough money to feed all of the 200 children in the orphanage for two days.
I can only hope that the experiences I gathered in my six weeks in Vietnam will filter through my life as a New York City high-schooler, allow me to get the most out of life, and perhaps return to Vietnam later when I have the discipline to participate in six hours of meditation, the medical knowledge to help in the desperate regions outside of cities, or a mature sense of compassion to enable me to handle the intense feelings I had at the orphanage.
I still do not completely understand the emotional roller coaster I rode this summer, but I know that I am forever attached to Vietnam as the country which expanded my independence, my self-assurance, my intellect, and my appreciation for the size and bewildering complexity of the world.
Author Sophie Brickman visited Vietnam in the summer of 2000 at age 17 with eight other students and three group leaders, on a program organized by Where There Be Dragons, which runs student and adult programs throughout Asia and Turkey.
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