Saturday, July 14, 2007

Hue to Hanoi

Now that I've left behind the CIEE group (with the exception of Tom Huminski of Portland Community College, who happens to be following a similar itinerary for a few days) I have a little bit of time to reflect and catch-up on the writing. It's about 3:30 on Saturday afternoon in Hue, and I'm taking a break to cool off and rest after walking around the citadel and other sights in this beautiful city.

There's so much to process even with almost a week to go in my trip, from the dusty, frontier feel of Siem Reap, to the seductive and faintly dangerous vibe of Phnom Penh, to HCMC's manic energy and profusion of stuff and people, to Hue's elegance (and heat!). I've been down the Mekong River and into the jungle to visit a former VC special forces camp in the jungle, to the floating villages on the largest lake in SE Asia, the Tonle Sap. I've taken my life in my hands (or found the zen of it, depending on your point of view) and crossed the street in Ho Chi Minh City, and learned to act cool on the back of a motorbike as it weaves through traffic, often by driving on the wrong side of the road or the sidewalk.

It's now Sunday morning in Hue, as I pick up where I left off yesterday. I leave in a few hours for Hanoi. One of the things that's been so striking about this trip is the contrasts between the two countries as well as among the places I've been with them. It was striking, for example, to see how much more wealth there is in the Vietnamese countryside around Hue between the coast and the Lao border than there is outside the cities in Cambodia. And wealth is a relative term here, of course, but I'm talking about houses with doors and windows. They're still one-room structures with a lot of people in them -- Vietnam has a lot of people -- but they are much better off than rural Cambodians. You'll see rows of these simple houses, often with stalls selling a jumble of wares spilling out the front of them, and then suddenly a huge Frenchified plaster monstrosity will hove into view. You don't really need your guide or driver to tell you it's the home of the local Party official. There were a number of houses like this in the town closest to the Lao border, where I suppose business is brisk in border management.

There are also big differences in the national narratives you hear from people, which I'll write more about after I am out of Vietnam, and it's often difficult to figure out how much they believe in the story they tell you or are aware of its contradictions. This interplay of narratives is especially evident at the official sites, though of course these are exactly the kind of places where the dominant discourse is intended to drown out the other voices and erase the contradictions. Here's a relatively benign example: At the Independence Palace, which was formerly known as the Presidential Palace, you are required to tour the place with an official guide, in our case, a polished multilingual young woman dressed in the traditional ao dai. Her explanations of the building were fluent and well-rehearsed, and she used the adjective "puppet" over and over in her characterization of the regime that once governed from the building and its relationship to the US. At the same time, however, she pointed out with apparent pride that luxurious furnishings favored by the puppets. She suggested we take photographs of the preposterous platformed, silk-uphosltered chair framed by six-foot tall elephant tusks in which the puppet would sit to receive official visitors. I accidentally stepped on the edge of a huge and elaborate rug in the atrium, and she reacted as if I'd trampled a holy relic. I suppose visitors would say the same thing about these types of ossified historical sites in the US. They might wonder, for example, why we revere Thomas Jefferson and dutifully haul school children to his home without seriously engaging his troubling and complicated relationship to slavery. They might also wonder about things like the Johnson Ranch and the Nixon Library.

Have to pack up my ever-expanding stuff and get to the airport. I should mention that for some reason I can't open my own blog, so I can see from the inside that someone's left a comment or two, but at least for now, I can't read them. So, I'm posting this anyway, but I can't see if or when it actually appears. Thanks for reading!

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