Daily Journal of Vietnam
To be completely honest, it has still taken me awhile to absorb the fact that I am in Vietnam. Aside from being surrounded with signs that are in Vietnamese, it almost feels like we’re in America. Maybe this is due to all the traveling or maybe the fact of the matter is that I cannot see or feel something about surrounding has really changed except there is a great amount of Asians walking around me. Maybe the other thought is that I keep thinking I am in Shanghai or China and that everything the group is questioning is just another factor of them being outsiders or of having never left the country.
I really like the idea about green bamboo representing the symbol of the Vietnamese people – a unity amongst the people is stronger than an individual presence. I think this idea describes the strength of the Vietnamese people, their ability to survive and withhold their own identity from foreign invaders. Bamboo is green and strong as a group – it is white inside when it is stripped of its defense. However it is still tough to chew and peel. I feel like this would embody the Vietnamese communist spirit – the loss of the individual to the group.
I am starting to realize how difficult and strong the people are. They’ve been fighting and constantly on defense from the Chinese, French, and Americans. I mentioned this concept to thay Trian and he said that it is because of the location of Vietnam. It is near ocean and also accessible through lands. The country is vulnerable to invading forces trying to conquer it constantly. It is interesting that has only been 25 years of peace since today and that this country is constantly changing. I feel this in the air as I walk around the country. I wonder what it will be like in 10 years and what the young people are thinking about their future. This country has promise only if we (western world) as well as themselves (Vietnamese and Asia) will allow it to grow and break out of its imperialistic roots.
Tonight, I had the most intense and probably most memorable experience on this trip. Tom and I decided to visit the night market in Hanoi, alone, without any identification, nor directions back to the hotel. This mistake did not hit us until we were a good 10 km away from the hotel. As we walked through the market, Tom and I received strange looks. We appeared to be an inter-racial couple. The gravity of our carelessness began to hit us when we started to make our way back to the hotel. On our way back, Tom was almost pick-pocketed by a handicapped man. When we approached a group of taxis, a young taxi driver who looked very earnest approached and hailed us into his cab. I had an umbrella that was of the hotels, believing that it had the hotel’s name and address on it. The two of us didn’t factor into the lack of papers or maps that laid forgotten on our hotel dressers. Upon realizing my faulty assumptions, we proceeded to drive around for a good 45mins-1hr around Hanoi. The driver did not speak English and we did everything to figure out a way to communicate to him our hotel name. We, consisting of both the cab driver and Tom and I, began to panic. We stopped at random places and were approached by visitors who spoke very little English and lectured us about how falsely it was to assume Vietnamese people spoke English; 3 men outside Funky Monkey who tried to sell us drugs and hijack our cab car; and then finally stopped at the first hotel within the chain hotel “Hong Ngoc” after a long extensive game of charades with the driver. (we were mimicking the idea of a hospital visit and drawing things on a notepad to communicate with the driver). There at the Hong Ngoc ONE, we finally spoke with a very fluent English-speaking manager, who then called the chain up and found our reservation and directed the very patient driver to the correct hotel. After finding a fluent-English speaker manager, we realized that we should return to our hotel as soon as possible since the meter has been ticking. We left the market around 11pm and arrived at the hotel’s doorsteps at 11:55pm. We both however were quite amazed by the cab driver’s patience and kindness to help us through every single step. I’m sure he found this whole situation amusing and beneficial to him, since he probably made about 15$ for a night. Tom and I realized our helplessness, which was totally our fault, and ignorance towards our own traveling experience. I am very glad to be back at the hotel and also very ashamed of this experience. However it is a very good lesson to be learned and came into contact with very many locals and experienced Hanoi at night.
I have been begun asking myself this question: what does it mean to consume and capture? What is the difference between that and embody? Every time our group goes around with 16 cameras through Vietnam, are we capturing to embody the Vietnamese culture? Or are we just capturing to consumer? Every time our group goes to visit the Buddhist temples, are we understanding and taking pictures to appreciate and remember or will all of it be forgotten if the tangible “evidence” are not gathered at the moment? The eye of the camera is a very interesting thought process.
I am not as shell-shocked as the rest of the Bates group. Yet I don’t know what I find shocking about Vietnam. Maybe I am not giving it more time to absorb or realize what is different about my surroundings. It feels like the same story over and over again as I walk around Vietnam. I understand the childish nature of the young people and people here seem almost light-hearted and innocent. However the older generation seems to be more determined to make a living, as if searching for money in a group of westerners will give them the money for dinner. It is the same repetitions of feelings as when I went back Shanghai – as westerners we are moving forward in the midst of farmer rice hats, streaking the trail with our high tech cameras and sensitive dietary restrictions.
I feel like I have some type of label that is floating on my forehead, questioning who I am and where do I belong. We are constantly being asked where we are from by both locals and tourists. However these questions are never directed at me because everyone has their judgments and reservations about me. Kimal, who originally from Jamaica, must feel like he’s living a zoo – I feel like I am in a freak-show, constantly being judged. I can understand his frustrations as he moves around.
In America, I was once asked which group do I identify myself with. I didn’t have an answer for them because there is no clear-cut answer – or at least an answer that would be satisfactory to either the questioner or me. I am too western in the eyes of the Asian culture and I am too Asian in the eyes of the westerner. I can see how many of the locals wish they were in my spot, getting the amount of wealth and opportunities they seem to believe I am getting (which I am aware that I am completely getting). As I talk with Giang, our female local tour guide, and Thao, another young lady who attends the National Musical Academy, I realize how different of a youth/upbringing I have gotten in comparison to them. However, I feel like I do not completely understand them because I cannot understand Vietnamese. At least in Chinese I can hear / understand the criticisms being made in front of me about me. Here, they do not say anything that might bother them about our western/American lifestyles. Instead they seem almost patient and willing to answer any questions that we have. I don’t like getting ignored by westerners as much as being noticed by the locals. I really do feel trapped in two worlds.
I am in constant amazement of Vietnam’s scenery. When we went Huong Son Scared Mountain, I was amazed by the natural beauty mixed with the poverty that seems to grow the further we got out of the city. I was really taken away by the whole day. I’ve never been somewhere so sacred to all. The persistence of the people, the constant desire of wanting to help, but with the overwhelming amount of sellers, who does the consumer choose? It almost seemed like they were files, milling around our tour bus. I felt it was all very difficult to intake because I wanted to help but at same time, it was like giving into one of the files while attracting the whole swarm. However I found the women who rowed our boat to be very interesting. The villagers seemed to be in awe of us and I’ve never gotten so many stares in my life. But somehow, I felt immune to how odd we stuck out, like I had accepted that were oddities in this country, unlike the rest of the group. It was almost easy to ignore them after awhile to the point that I didn’t even realize the villagers were laughing at us. I felt almost desensitized and instead of worrying what other people thought about us, I turned the table around and observed the scenery and the holy atmosphere of the temple.
I don’t know how I feel about the Buddhist religion because I have always viewed it more as a way of life or ideology than a religious western practice of faith. Going to Huong Son made me wish that my family was more Buddhist or religious somehow because I really wanted to know. I felt so calm when we were in the monastery, walking amongst the private monks’ quarters. Watching thay Trian meet with the abbot was almost surreal. I had mixed reactions about the whole experience. I felt grateful for the experience and yet wished I had more of a background about the Buddhism faith (not just the place that we were going to). Watching thay Trian bow before the goddess after the long hike was also very special. Despite the amount of tourists milling around and capturing the scenery, it was real and almost unnerving to see our own professor, a man whose been taking care of us, bow down and reveal a whole different side to us.
I like getting lost. Kimal and I went a different route from the rest of the group while going up to the caves and found alternative pathways. Walking together with Kimal, I began experiencing what he must be feeling in Vietnam. The stares and laughter increased greatly. People could not take their eyes off of us. I’ve also never been that tired or sweated that much in my life. Overall I am glad that we got lost and saw more of the place than the rest of the group and got a real natural pilgrimage than the rest of the group. It might have taken longer but it was definitely worth the trip. I can see the difficulty of the journey for early monks traveling up the pathway. Coming back the mountain was the easiest thing. Kimal and I again got separated and unknowingly found a shortcut down the mountain.
I feel like my experiencing hiking represents the Vietnamese culture and people. It looks easy on the surface but really it is intimidating. I feel you cannot take the people or the culture for granted. Nor can you really understand it all at once. Like Chinese culture, there are many unspoken rules and mannerisms that I have taken for granted. Also it has been clear to me that I am not one of them that my face may mistake me for being Asian but I will always be foreign. Vietnam is beautiful and strong. Like its wild landscape, it is not to be mistaken for an easy victory. I like sense of independence and survival coursing though the people and the landscape.
My late night experience has made me wish I had a superpower that allowed me to understand any language ever spoken. I don’t think I ever felt that isolated in a country, where my face advertises me as Vietnamese but my tongue betrays me and cannot understand the language. I just want the power to understand or listen. I feel almost helpless when I cannot relate to the locals walking around me. I feel very lost and divided as I walk around Vietnam.
Coming to Vietnam has also made me rethink my understanding of the western perspective of Asia. Being part of our group has made me very divided. Not only do I feel more of a stranger within the company of American kids, but isolated in an Asian country. When I am walking around with Bates kids, I am aware of what they see, their cultural shock and reaction towards what is going on, and dealing with leaving their comfort zone. I have undergone all of this when I first returned to China. But if I am not American or western, then what am I? I am a westerner but have an Asian face. I am uncomfortable in both groups. The surroundings are different yet I feel as if I had visited this country before. The rush of being in Asia has disappeared and the judgments have slowly diminished. At least the judgments and comparison to American life has diminished. I think in my mind I am constantly comparing the country to Hawaii or China because there seems to be such a cross. I also feel like everyone is starring at me whenever I walk passed people. Should I assume the western lens/attitude of wanting to take and capture/consumer? Or should I relate and sympathize with those around me because my physical features seem to tell me I should?
What I find interesting about Vietnam so far is the amount of green and nature that one cannot escape from. Although Vietnam does not seem a vast of a country as its neighbors (China or Thailand), it is still very natural. The amount of resources the country has available is overwhelming. The list of cash crops/natural resources seems endless: coal, rice, coffee, electricity, minerals, corn, etc. This sliver of land is bigger than the west gives it credit. However I see the same battle that many developing countries and the Southern part of United States are undergoing. The country is struggling to decide whether it wants to be agricultural or industrial. In many ways, it seems almost impossible for a developing country to pick just one choice without losing the benefits of the other.
I decided something about the visits to Buddhist temples. When I find or hear about a particular altar or temple that I like, I will light an incense and make a wish. I feel like that will be my own way of following a tradition without insulting it too much. I wish I could understand it more or rather follow it more so that I can absorb these visits a bit more. At the same time, I feel discouraged because if I was to mention that thought to my family back home, I doubt they will understand my desire. I have found a new respect towards the Buddhist religion, finding a sense of tranquility and beauty in the architecture and way of life the monks lead.
I can also understand Professor Trian’s amazement and almost sadness when we visited the temple that he had stayed in for weeks. It is difficult returning “home” and to discover how things are not how they were left originally behind. The image that you originally left with has been gone and you feel a sense of loss. In many ways, I can relate to this sadness, this feeling of loss without physically having lost anything. I relate this idea to the feeling I get every time I return to Hawaii and things always seem somewhat same but you are not in the equation anymore.