May 9, 2013
I just returned from an interview with one of the top local architects in Vietnam. This meeting comes just days after I toasted rice wine with the labor union chairwoman of an impoverished ethnic minority village. Although the surroundings have always been quite unfamiliar, I still feel the same thrill of being somewhere new and enjoying the experience for all its worth.
I have spent the past four months travelling Vietnam on SIT’s “Vietnam—Culture, Social Change, and Development.” This program has spent time throughout the nation, visiting bustling Ho Chi Minh City, historical Hoi An, royal Hue, cultural Ha Noi, mountainous Sa Pa and gorgeous Ha Long Bay. Each area has afforded a new perspective on an amazing nation. Each has allowed me to see a separate facet of this incredible culture. I have loved every second.
Early on, we toured through the Mekong River Delta, the second largest rice-exporting area in the world, and studied among the rural poor and ethnic minorities. This component in particular focused on service learning opportunities. I helped construct a natural biogas producer that reduced women-specific household burdens and fostered environmental preservation. I studied everything about rice a human could possibly want to know (please ask me about floating seven-yield varieties next time you see me), and I took all this information back with me into some more touristy areas.
Despite the rural poverty of the Mekong Delta, one thing has been clear to see: Vietnam is a country on the edge of becoming a major world player. I have spent the majority of my time here in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon)—the center of business and the most populous city. While here, I could imagine myself being in any nation. Back-alley backpacker areas quickly yield to Taiwanese-owned skyscrapers, which flow into Ph? street vendor stalls and motorbike-taxi drivers whose smiles scream, “I’m going to kidnap you.”
In Ho Chi Minh City, the nine of us on this program have attempted to learn Vietnamese—a language that includes 60 different vowel pronunciations. We have studied development economics and revisionist history. We have attended Gender Studies courses that only one private university offers in Vietnam. We have listened to professors complain about their lack of academic freedom. They may only publish on government-approved subjects, and they control a mere 20 percent of their syllabi. Even these candid discussions have not been the norm in Vietnam. All BBC News channels run on a five-minute delay so that censors may black out any negative coverage of their country. Some newspapers have been manually redacted (with a Sharpie) to prevent unfavorable coverage. The Vietnamese government even banned all sales of The Hunger Games, because a tale of poorer districts rebelling against the wealthy District 1 didn’t sit right with the terribly corrupt central government.
But now we have concluded our classes and gone our separate ways. The hallmark of any SIT program is the Independent Study Period, when students conduct their own research on their own terms. I’m currently back in Ho Chi Minh City examining for-profit urban areas in a socialist country. Today was the first day I have been completely alone. It was all going great. I checked into my hostel (into a comically small bedroom with walls that do little to block out the 7 am Edward Sharpe wake-up call) and went out to a local bar. I struck up a conversation with a few Vietnamese business students and talked to them for half an hour, i.e. how long it took them to ask me where my friends were. Luckily for this loser, I still have three weeks in one of the most dynamic cities on earth. I plan to enjoy each minute.
When I found out that I could write 400-500 words for The Spectator’s “Where In The World” series I thought, “That’s four to five times the amount I had to write for my 100 word platform when I ran for Senior Class President.” I lost that election, so I can only imagine this will be four to five times more detrimental to my success. Let’s find out.
“Vietnam is not just a country,” I wrote in the first draft of this letter. But really, when you think about it, when is a country ever more than just a country? When you redefine the word country to meanssomething entirely different? When it invades Poland? I guess both of these. Vietnam IS just a country, but of all the countries I’ve been to in the last three months, it’s my favorite.
I’ve had a great time here, there’s no doubt about that, but I’m not going to fall prey to Abroad Syndrome: I haven’t found myself, I do not understand the plight of the Vietnamese farmer, and I will not come back with an affinity for wearing scarves in the summer or tell you stories that hint at how much more cultured I am than you. And to say that Vietnam is the best country in the world would be, very plainly, a statement that is pugnaciously subjective and, especially in places like Cuba or Southeastern Poland, one that would be regarded as false.
So let’s backtrack. I’ve been in Vietnam with SIT for three months now, and I can honestly say that it has been dissimilar to my past semesters in Clinton, NY. For example, though we have Vietnamese restaurants in Utica, there are no Utican restaurants in Vietnam. I tried not to take this too personally, but then I started thinking about how many items in the US say ‘Made In Vietnam’ and how few items say ‘Made In The USA’ in Vietnam. Then my mind started going around in circles angrily and aimlessly, almost exactly like the SIT logo.
I needed to blow off some steam and I was feeling homesick so I went and ordered a bacon cheeseburger at Club Vuvuzela, a Vietnamese Hooters with cheaper beer. I don’t know what it was that they tried to pass off as bacon in my burger, but whatever it was, it was the last straw. I decided then and there to speak out against these injustices because, if I’ve learned anything from Robert McNamara, you don’t need to know much about a country to insist that they’re doing things the wrong way.
So, Hamilton, you want to know where I the world I am? I’ll tell you. I’m in Viet-goddamn-nam*, fighting for progress.
* More specifically, I’m in the SIT office on time-out cause I ‘don’t play nice with others.’ All in all, it’s been the best semester ever.