Exploring the Wonders of Vietnam

January 29, 2006
Chuc Mung Nam Moi

Happy New Year! The new moon has arrived and, with it, the Year of the Dog. Touring Viet Nam during the weeks leading up to Tet gave us a chance to see the Vietnamese enjoying themselves and splurging a little. There were flowers everywhere, red and gold decorations hanging on many homes and businesses, and a general air of celebration. In the North, it seemed that the thing to do was to take home a kumquat tree, trimmed cone-shaped like a Christmas tree but naturally covered with bright orange fruits. People would strap the 4-foot high trees to the backs of their motorbikes and zip along home. It looked like fun.

More than once, we saw signs declaring in English, "Merry Christmas—Happy New Year." The ability of the Vietnamese to adopt other cultures and flavors is remarkable. Their blended culture and experience with the West will surely give them a leg up as the globalization of Southeast Asia continues apace. This is not to suggest that Vietnam will compromise its cultural integrity, but these are nimble people who have dealt with a lot of cross-currents in their history. They take what they need and leave the rest.

We're home now, back to our lives in the States. I'll go back to work tomorrow morning, happy to see folks I haven't talked with in 3 weeks. I'll have many stories to tell and souvenirs to share, but the world of Swarthmore College—indeed that of the United States—won't be quite the same to me ever again. I suspect this will be true for most of the Swarthmore travelers. Being in Viet Nam and Cambodia has given us a new perspective on the world. I'll be reflecting on this for months to come, but here are some initial thoughts about the experience.
  • There is definitely a Third World. It's difficult to define exactly what this means in terms that can be understood here. It has to be experienced. But the constant struggle for sufficient food, clean water, sanitation to prevent disease, decent shelter, enough fuel, and minimal health care defines the difference between our world and theirs. We have these things in great measure, and they often do not. We worry about where our kids will go to college, and they wonder how they will obtain their next meal.

  • Viet Nam is a Communist country in a formal sense only. Yes, the instruments of government are those of a Soviet-style state: one-party rule, a political elite that controls domestic and foreign policy and limited freedom of expression in mass media. But in practice—and now beyond the control of the Party—is a thriving economy built on private initiative and growing capitalism. There is also remarkable candor about the mistakes that the Communist regime has made and the endemic corruption of the system. Will this lead to American-style democracy? Probably not. Although the Vietnamese seem to have traded significant personal and political freedom for peace and prosperity, it is a bargain they are willing to make after a century in which millions died in the struggle for independence.

  • The Vietnamese love their country and are proud of its history, but they are not dwelling on the past. The American War is over, as are other past struggles to hold onto their independence as a distinct society and culture. Viet Nam is tending to the memory of its dead and looking to the future. Given their tenacious nature and national spirit, these people will accomplish much over the next 10 to 20 years. It would be wise for other countries to stay out of Viet Nam's affairs; intervention can only lead to disaster.

  • The tourist trade is growing because Viet Nam is an interesting place to visit—and quite cheap. The Vietnamese are wonderful hosts: friendly, hardworking, sophisticated, eager to give and get. One aspect of the tourist trade, however, is truly disturbing. Several of the hotels we stayed in seemed to be celebrating—even emulating—the colonial experience. Their walls were decorated with sepia photos of the French colonists inspecting native delegations or building European-style institutions. Tourist literature encouraged guests to hark back to the days when governors in pith helmets rode elephants and hunted tigers. The stench of empire pervades this odd conceit and, in stark contrast with the reality of a fiercely independent contemporary Viet Nam, it seems ironic and hypocritical.

  • Ho Chi Minh is revered throughout Viet Nam. His portrait is everywhere, from the main post office in Saigon (excuse me, "Ho Chi Minh City, "although not even the Vietnamese call it by that name) to wall calendars in restaurants. The ubiquity of Uncle Ho is a little like that of Uncle Sam in the U.S.—except Ho was a real human being. I know because I saw his body. He was very dead but still much alive.

  • What does Viet Nam need? Foreign investment will bring jobs and capital to develop new industry and allow the government to continue building new infrastructure. Tourism will also provide dollars for both individuals and government institutions to make improvements. Building is booming. Homes, offices, factories, planned communities, roads, airports, and power lines are appearing everywhere. Yet will Viet Nam remain a cohesive culture, preserve its past, avoid environmental degradation, and equitably distribute its newfound wealth as the new capitalism takes over? No one really knows, nor do we know what will become of Viet Nam's poor, most of whom still live on the land.

  • Would I want to go back to Viet Nam? Emphatically, yes. It was good to travel there for the first time in a group—especially a thoughtful, questioning, interesting group of Swarthmoreans—but this adventure has given me new confidence in my own ability to cope with travel in a land where the language and culture are radically different from my own. The welcome we received in Viet Nam and Cambodia was genuine, and the people we met were as interested in learning from us as we were from them. This is the way the world ought to be: learning, caring, looking forward, finding common ground. I can't wait to go back to see what these people have accomplished 5 or 10 years from now.
Finally, I am grateful to Swarthmore College and to my boss, Dan West, for making it possible for me to accompany the Alumni College to Southeast Asia. Whatever writing and photography I do to document this trip and to celebrate the alumni who also participated cannot entirely repay the College for its generosity in providing me this extraordinary experience.

About This Site

In January 2006, a 40-person contingent of Swarthmoreans is traveling to Vietnam as members of the Alumni College Abroad. The trip, led by Associate Professor of Religion Steven Hopkins, will focus on the history, religion, and the vibrant culture of contemporary Vietnam. A smaller contingent will accompany Hopkins to Cambodia, including a tour of the famous temples of Angkor Wat.

Jeffrey Lott, editor of the Swarthmore College Bulletin, has joined the trip to write about it for the magazine. This site is a series of reports filed by Jeff from Vietnam and Cambodia during the trip. Your responses are invited.

Vietnam 2006 Itinerary

List of Travelers

Respond to these posts

Blog Entries

Leaving Tomorrow: Jan 9, 2006
From 35,000 feet: Jan 11, 2006
Ho Chi Minh City: Jan 12, 2006
Museums of Vietnam: Jan 14, 2006
Temples and Tunnels: Jan 16, 2006
Stories and a Poem: Jan 17, 2006
Skipping School: Jan 18, 2006
Dateline Hanoi: Jan 19, 2006
Three Days in Hanoi: Jan 20, 2006
Winding Down: Jan 26, 2006
Poor Phnom Penh: Jan 27, 2006
Chuc Mung Nam Moi: Jan 29, 2006