The Inner Voice of Who Knows What

the pilgrimage: Henri Nouwen and my own topsy-turvy little heart

Archive for the month “May, 2008”

Motorbike Makeout!

If Vietnam is a country, not a war – then Vietnam is not just a country but a diverse mix of different people and places and ways of life all bound by the same national borders. After all, North and South Vietnam were not even that friendly towards one another for a few years there…

Traveling from Hanoi and some rural areas in the north, to Hue and Da Nang and Hoi An in the central part, and now to Saigon in the south – the distinctions between these regions of Vietnam are inescapable. Dialects, geography, aesthetics, cultural history all transform as one travels the country.

I have to wonder what places in Vietnam are the target of most tourism… and I have to wonder if the type of tourism varies from place to place. In Hanoi, we saw many European (and a few African) visitors wandering the streets, with their hip travel gear and chic backpacking attire. In Hoi An, a town devoted to tailoring, we came across tourists who were there especially to shop. We made friends with some fabulously eccentric older Australian visitors who were more than ready to stock up on their tailored wardrobes. Some of them were veterans from the 60s and 70s, coming back to wrap up the hurt loose ends and see Vietnam in a different light.

The impact of the American War, and Vietnam’s civil war, is certainly seen differently as we have traveled the country. Stopping at My Lai in the central part of the country and going through the demilitarized zone reminds us of the reality that the ground on which we walk was literally under attack, from one power or another throughout the years. In Saigon today we visited an incredible war museum, reminding us much of the fighting between the Viet Cong and the Americans happened in the south. It’s tempting to hold the theory that the 17th parallel divided the nation neatly in half, with a bad side on one and a good side on the other – and if we are capitalists, the bad side is the northern Communists. But the reality is that South Vietnam was home to many Viet Cong fighters, and many more civilians not willingly involved in the struggle, so the South sees the effects of war through a different lens.

But the war of years ago seems, at least on the surface, to be irrelevant to the minds of people in Saigon today – especially the young people. Western, modernized, and very very chic, the city is marked by a fashionable and romantic generation who are fond of frequenting a spot that our group has affectionally labeled Motorbike Makeout Alley.

This city is definitely no Sapa.


You buy me!

Saying the words “surprise” and “commerce” in relation to Vietnam conjures up conjures up phrases like “You buy me!” and “Happy Buddha, one dollar, very cheap, very cheap.” It conjures up images of small crowded streets lined with shoes, and shoes, and shoes… or appliances, and appliances, and appliances… or suits, and suits, and suits… or dog meat, and dog meat, and dog meat… Just about everything regarding Vietnamese commerce has come as a surprise, from the way that tipping works to the way that the governmental system effects the economy.

One question that has been on most of our minds this trip is the very HOW of survival of commerce here – from our Western systems of competing businesses that wouldn’t dare choose to locate themselves next to one another, the compartmentalization of businesses we see in the cities gets very confusing. As we spend time in Hoi An, it’s apparent that the town itself is a tailoring town. Aside from some lanterns, Oreos, and of course bottled water – the town is all about clothes. It’s such a huge difference from the states, where an economically healthy area is marked by its diversity of products. It makes me wonder if the competition somehow looks very different, and is something we just cannot see through our Western lens… Or perhaps this is where Communism’s rejection of a market economy and capitalist system really comes into play…

In Hanoi we encountered some larger corporations in the midst of all the mom and pop shops, mostly electronics or fashion. Even in the big city, they seemed out of place somehow. It almost seems like a total reversal of US systems – in cities like San Diego, NY, and San Franciso, the shopping districts are known for their brand names that light up the streets, and seeing a smaller business would be a surprise. Then again, every district seems a shopping district in the cities here. We’ve noticed that whatever we are wanting at the time seems only a block or two away – drinks and snacks, “authentic handicrafts,” ponchos, very cheap DVDs, or any other appealing item to a tourist.

In the rural areas, commerce is an entirely different story. Getting rice from the terraced fields to the markets, to the restaurants or buyers, to the consumers, is a process that I’m sure looks very different from the big city commerce that we can see more readily.

Something that’s been on my mind especially is the perception that some may have observing Vietnamese economics – some may think that poverty is what marks the country’s commerce. I have to wonder if we are judging by our own perception of poverty, based on an American framework that demands upward mobility and the search for “betterment,” however that gets defined. I’m just not sure that search for success is so important here – providing for a family, sustaining what is already there, getting by with enough, may be enough. In that case, commerce takes on an entirely different meaning and significance to life.

Things come together.

I will soon crawl through tunnels where young boys were killed fighting for a democracy they hardly understood…

I swim in the waters that my country graced with destruction in hope of salvation…

I read Shane Claiborne’s plea for creative and humble nonviolence in a world where violence has become the most powerful currency…

I walk among the ruins of My Lai, a product of rage from a war of colonization disguised as

I sing the Beatles’ words that cry out against the death of Vietnamese Prudence and the complacency of allowing strawberry fields to become the norm…

I see Ho Chi Minh’s loving face and the sickle’s reassuring strength in every town, Communism that we so fear but gives so much comfort…

I ride from foreign land to foreign land to foreign land to foreign land in a vehicle dependent on democracy’s next guise…

And all I can say is, xin loi.

I am so sorry.


From my journal on May 19:

“Today can only be categorized as absolutely bizarre.

We rode another night train and arrived in Hanoi around 5:30 am – walked around the strangely empty city without motorbikes – stopped into a pagoda service and Catholic mass – wondered if the people realized that the hymn they sing sounds horribly mournful to Western ears – stopped in for some tai chi and communal street aerobics – encountered multiple towels that can only cover about one shoulder – had a very awkward lunch complete with fish body, skin, eyes, and extra eggs, as well as a few chicken heads – again was attempted to be set up with a random Vietnamese man at least thirty years old – started off on an innocent “walk” through the rice paddies that transformed into the need to take off my mud-soaked shoes and instead trek for a very very long time barefoot in the alternating sensations of squishy mud and sharply painful rocks – had another awkward meal in which the presence of French fries was more redeeming than ever before – participated in a “cultural exchange” where many singers graced us with their lovely tonal and entirely unintelligible vocal skills.

New favorite song: Vietnam! Ho Chi Minh!”

Into the Country

From my journal on May 17:

“I love contrast.

Yesterday I spend much of the day walking around the busy, humid, and very very warm streets of Hanoi – riding on a motorbike downtown in rush hour, where we ran into entire streets roped off for pagoda anniversary celebrations, eating in a little hole-in-the-wall pho place that would be shut down immediately if seen by an American health inspector.

Now, we find ourselves in Sapa, possibly the most gorgeous mountain town I will ever encounter. The scenery is absolutely lush, the culture is traditional Hmong, the women are beautiful across their agespan, and the fog makes things so much cooler. I can’t wait to see the mountains when it lifts.”

Getting to Sapa after some crazy Hanoi times was certainly an experience of contrast… the difference between urban and rural Vietnam is immeasurable. But beyond the obvious contrast in weather and setting, time in the rural areas, especially in the Thanh Thuy District, gave us insight into an entirely different way of life. I wonder how different the definition of “community” would be between the two ways of life…

In Hanoi, it seems that community is defined by whose homes and businesses you find yourself next to – all the shoesellers are friends perhaps. In the rural areas the framework of community may be defined partly by locale, but the connection would have to stretch farther than one’s next door neighbors. The immense rice paddies make it a little difficult to visit a friend by simply walking down the street – I wonder if that makes for a more meaningful relationship when a muddy trek is necessary for interaction.

The way the communes are set up provides a foundation for connecting at least the leaders of each village or small unit of people. It’s interesting to see the different ways that political participation happens in the urban and rural areas – although Communism is very much an influencing factor in both areas, it takes a different form for each. In the city, clean-cut official-looking skyscrapers mark the places where politics happen… in the country, the official buildings were much more user-friendly, down-to-earth, and in tune with the surrounding simplistic rural areas. Ho Chi Minh is everywhere, in every place… But in the commune areas, his bust is placed at the front of each official building and gathering place, reminding the people continually of how the political system operates on a level that directly affects their day-to-day life.

Rural life is always slower to change than urban life… Maybe the fashions hit Hanoi and become plastered over each billboard the next day, while the same trend goes virtually unknown in Thanh Thuy. But the presence of young people will inevitably be a variable for change. As more young people in the rural areas take notice that there is a different world out there beyond their rice paddies and water buffalo, the change begins to happen. Sometimes it is demanded. I wonder what that looks like – young people abandoning the communes for city life and leaving the communes to their traditional ways… or the ideas and desires of a younger generation seeping into the rural communities and changing them from the inside.

The contrast is telling, and thought-provoking, and exquisite.

the first two days

Vietnam – it’s a place most often associated with a war that left a bitter taste in the mouth of recent American history. But simply being here reminds me that this country is so much more than a war zone. It is a place with its own incredibly rich cultural and religious and political history, things that are not easily forgotten by the Vietnamese people… it’s kind of difficult to forget one’s presidential past when every day school age children are paraded hrough the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum where they get the chance to see their former president’s embalmed body. (Government history is exciting, right kids?)

Anyway, Vietnam certainly has its own heritage, and self-awareness, and personality, and of course personality quirks.
The first couple days here have been very much marked by these quirks, making for a pretty hilarious time so far! Our very first impression of the country, right as we stepped off the bus, was witnessing a vehicle pass by that looked like it belonged in some sort of psychedelic festival parade… very unfamiliar music playing, very bright flowers waving, moving parts that didn’t seem to make any sense. As a group of twenty Americans coming across this Eastern float, we had to crack up. Turns out the day we arrived was the first day of the UN Festival of Vesak, the week-long Buddhist celebration that we happened to stumble into.

We’ve been stumbling into a lot of things these last couple days – a humidity that makes me wonder if a shower is really going to do much good, gutters that could use some love, streets filled with more motorbikes than I have ever seen in my life, a cacophony of loudspeaker/incessant honking/engines revving/people speaking a very tonal language, a quaint-looking market street that just happens to be dedicated to dog meat, a communal life that happens almost entirely outdoors, and definitely a lot of tourist traps. I have to give them credit though – after years of perfecting the art of snagging naive tourists, they’ve got it down. I’m learning to perfect our art of the counter-attack, mostly an “I’m sorry” in Vietnamese, which sounds like “KA ZOI!” There are others in our group who prefer the more direct “DAT QUA!” complete with astonished hand gestures, a sure sign that the ‘tantalizing’ items are way too expensive.

I guess my most overwhelming response to these first impressions of the country could be one of relief. Thank goodness that not everybody has bought into the concept of the American dream. I was a bit afraid that the people of Vietnam might have done that very thing, and that globalization might have taken its toll in the form of Westernization to the point of not really knowing who the Vietnamese are anymore. But so not the case for this place. Eastern identity has not been stamped out by any means. And it’s not just the pagodas and temples and pho and tofu and incense and cyclos and lotus flowers that make it so, although those have all reminded me of a beauty that is far from my own Western experience. Its Eastern identity is something that I am so excited to learn more of in the next three weeks, getting a glimpse into the workings of somewhere completely different than my comfort zone. I am relieved to see that much of our trip will come as a surprise.

jessica mast is in vietnam.

she smells lots of fish and sewage and incense burned for buddha, hears lots of motorbike engines and horns, sees lots of faces that remind her of her home in southeast fresno, tastes lots and lots and lots of rice, and feels like the streets of hanoi are exactly where she should be right now.

highlight of the day:
the hilarious irony of visiting the very somber and very magnificent ho chi minh mausoleum – in the middle of a crowd of vietnamese children grabbing the back of their neighbor’s shirts, or pants, or skirts, to keep them from getting too distracted and out of line while they toured.

really, what four year old wants to see their old president’s embalmed body inside a soviet-inspired box of marble?

more to come later. i love my life.

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