I’ll warn you.  The first half of this post is pink and fluffy.  The second half is not.  I will separate the two with ” *     *     * ” so you can decide if you want to read an angry American coming to terms with our imperialist foreign policy, or not.

Anyway.

Part one:

Listen,

I was tired when I arrived in Vietnam, and I continued to be tired for a couple of days. I couldn’t figure out how to be a proper tourist. I wandered around Saigon, and spent all day doing nothing. Is this what I should be doing? I don’t know.

What am I supposed to do with all my time?

Before, I had it figured out. I was reading, going on buses, meeting people, exploring, etc. It was all so exciting, and also so relaxing to just fill my days with whatever. But then I did my divemaster, and worked every day with purpose and schedule. And I exhausted myself, while becoming exhausted by Southeast Asia and tourism at the same time. And now, I am supposed to be a tourist again, but suddenly I don’t know how. I remember the days back home when I used to say to myself, “ugh, I have so much to do today.” Days were full, but I can’t remember with what. Now my days are kind of confused; I never know what day it is, or what time it is, or anything. Direction and purpose have gone, and now I am that weird person who sits on buses with her headphones blasting Turkish phrases in my ears while I repeat them aloud, ignoring the confused stares of other backpackers.

So I did something I’ve never done before, and never thought I would do:

I booked an all inclusive tour.

I couldn’t be bothered to put forth any amount of effort at “seeing” Southern Vietnam. I concluded that I needed some time to figure out how to travel again, but since I don’t want to sit on my ass and do nothing while figuring that out, I booked a tour so that I could be passively shown the country while assuming no responsibility for my time and direction whatsoever.

And you know, it was awesome.

They do absolutely everything for you besides wipe your ass (probably the only reason they don’t do this is because there is no toilet paper in Southeast Asia, otherwise…).

I mean, this is what I did:

I sat on a bus with a group of mostly septuagenarians and overweight Russians. I put in my headphones every time the tourguide started talking, mostly because I didn’t like his voice and it was hurting my mind to try and understand what he was saying through his accent. When the bus stopped, I got off, and followed the herd of white people wherever they went. We would get on a boat, travel on the river, stop for lunch (which was always just waiting for us in enormous quantities), and then get on a bus somewhere else.

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It was ridiculously easy and completely thoughtless.  I didn’t have to argue about bus fares, or explain to a taxi driver that I wasn’t born yesterday.  I didn’t even have to know how to pronounce the names of the towns I went to!

I mean, it was the least authentic experience possible, of course, but when you aren’t striving for authenticity or cultural awareness, it’s perfect. You literally are just ushered from one place to the next without needing to have the slightest clue about where you are or what comes next.  I found it entirely hilarious and wonderful. Oh, and did I mention the 5-star hotel with the breakfast buffet? Phew.

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We went through Southern Vietnam, and the focus of the first day was on the Mekong Delta. The Mekong Delta is a trading hub–The Mekong is the river that runs through mainland Southeast Asia, and supplies the locals with absolutely everything: fish, fresh water, fruits, and a trade route. It looks just like dirty, brown, nasty water, but in fact it is the essence of life here and it supports the communities alongside it. Which is why, as a sidenote, the use of Agent Orange in the Vietnam war was so devastating for people not even directly in the war zones: the chemical spread via this river, and contaminated the water supply for hundreds of kilometers. People who continued to eat fish from the river years after the war were suddenly developing terrible health problems and giving birth to children with devastating physical defects.

I’ll get to that later.

The Mekong Delta tour was lovely.  The scenery was beautiful, the towns were quaint and simple, and the people were kind.  I became good friends with one of the tourguides, who explained to me that he has only two children because it is too expensive to have any more.  He doesn’t let them play in the streets or rivers because it is too dangerous–with only two kids, he can’t take the risk of losing one.  He said he and his wife are very nervous about the future.  He could lose his job at any moment, and the government only pays a percentage of your salary for 3 months after you lose your job.  He makes only $120 per month now, so if he lost his job they would be in serious trouble.  He says since there is no social security or safety for employees in Vietnam, they are always worrying about what might happen.

$120.00 per month.  I couldn’t believe it.  Especially because I spoke to an International School in Saigon, inquiring about how much I might make if I taught English for a year.  They quoted me at $3,200 per month, including accommodation, flight home, visa, and 1 month paid vacation.  Because I am White, and English is my first language.  They didn’t even know I have a Master’s Degree in Education.  They didn’t care.

I met a motley crew on my tour from Utah, who had come to Vietnam for a couple of weeks just for fun. I’m certain they never drank water in my presences; no matter if it was 6:30 in the morning, or 8 in the evening, it was beer o’clock. I asked how they all knew each other, and they told me they all frequent the same bar.

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They were a very funny bunch. I joined them for meals and shared stories on our long boat rides. One of them, the oldest, told me that this was his first time to Vietnam in 45 years. I asked if that meant he was in the war. He said yes, that he was drafted into the army when he was 18 years old, only two weeks after graduating high school.

I’ll come back to him in a minute.

But we spent the night in Can Tho, the biggest city in Southern Vietnam besides Saigon.  It was a really nice city, and again, the food was incredible.  The next day, we toured the floating markets and then I bid farewell to the 2-day tourists, and continued on to the border of Cambodia with 2 others who had also booked the 3 days to Cambodia tour.  We spent the evening on the border, in a small town, and then had another brief village tour in the morning before getting on a boat to Cambodia.

Soon, this musing turns from pink and fluffy to quite the opposite.  It has to do with my thought processes during this tour, and my conversations with the Vietnam Vet after having visited the War Remnants Museum in Saigon.

Here’s a story from the Vet:

He was flown over to Saigon, and then bused out to the countryside, where he served for two years. I asked him what it was like. Of course, he said it was terrible. The countryside was flattened by bombs, and certainly looked nothing like it looks today. I told him I thought it was very brave of him to come back here, and asked if it was hard for him. He said he was nervous coming back, and but that it is so different now that he doesn’t feel like it is the same place. One thing he told me became so important in my mind because it was so incredibly unbelievable. He told me that on the flight home, the plane he was on dropped tons (literally) of bombs shortly after they took off. But they continued to drop the bombs for hours, even after they had passed the borders of Vietnam. It was common for US planes to do this on the way back; they needed to save fuel and lighten the load on the way home, so they just indiscriminately dropped bombs. I read about this, after he told me, and I was horrified to learn that it is not only true, but it was incredibly destructive to the neighboring countries of Laos and Cambodia. We call it “carpet bombing,” where the plans just dropped loads of bombs with no specific target. It is truly unbelievable. The US dropped more bombs in the Vietnam War than the total number of bombs that have been dropped by all countries combined in all previous wars. Can you imagine that?

OK, I guess now is where you can stop reading if you want.

*     *     *

Part two:

After having gone to the War Remnants museum in Saigon the day before, war history was fresh in my mind throughout the lazy tour. I was so enjoying the tour, though, in that I didn’t have to think about anything, besides whatever I wanted to think about. Logistics were not my job.  I sat on the buses just thinking about everything I’d learned Talking to the day before, and looking around me at the country that my friend Huong, from Saigon, said is cursed by war.  Right after the French left in the early 40′s, Vietnam was at war again with the Americans.  She told me that they think, in the near future, Vietnam will be at war with China.

“This land is cursed,” she said, “because we are not powerful, but and we are always in a war.”

Talking to the Veteran really woke me up to the total picture. The Vietnam War, or the American War, as they call it here, was just awful.  The Vietnamese suffered, and the US soldiers suffered. The museum in Saigon tells the story from the Vietnamese perspective, which doesn’t sugar-coat their view of the Americans at all.  They explain that the US imperialists came and destroyed their country for 25 years in a terrible and unjustified way. It is the truth, really, in that the US had really no reason for being in Vietnam, yet they continued the war for 25 years. The War Remnants museum calls it “imperialist aggression,” which is not how I was taught to think of it.  Imperialism was always something I thought belonged to other countries, like England and the Roman Empire.  But the US?  In the last 50 years?  I had never seen it this way.

The fear of the spread of communism, this was the reason we went into that war. Of course it is horrifying for me to come to another country so dramatically affected by US foreign policy and hear their side of the story, especially when the stories makes so little sense.  Growing up in the US, I learned that the war was unpopular and largely unnecessary, but being here, I am learning that it was much more than that. It was gruesome and “over the top” for lack of better way of describing it. They used a chemical agent to literally handicap the “enemy.” The enemy were Vietnamese, who were fighting a civil war in their own country, and had no qualms with the US in any way. There was no reason–no threat to the US in any way besides an ideological one.

Imagine if, during the Civil War in the US some random foreign country came in because they thought if they didn’t side with the Yankees that slavery would spread throughout the world. And then they spent 25 years fighting the Confederates in a brutal and devastating way. But why, you might ask? It had nothing to do with them.  The answer is because they were afraid of something so deeply, and with fear comes irrationality.

And you know what the most devastating aspect of learning all this was, for me? It was the realization that we’ve learned nothing from this colossal mistake. Twenty five years after this scar on US history, and we were back at it again, invading Iraq–against the voices of every other nation in the world–for no good reason. This is what we do, and this is just one of the many reasons that there is such a negative opinion of the US throughout the world. Do we wonder why people are burning our flag and calling us terrorists? Is it really that unclear to us as Americans how we are perceived throughout the world, and why?

America has redefined war in the past century, and most recently we are continuing to do so with our drone initiatives. War is no longer something that we engage in because of a truly imminent threat, against which we must protect ourselves. We are a powerful nation protected by oceans on both sides and nonbelligerent bordering countries. What have we truly been threatened with? What can possibly justify dropping an atomic bomb on Japan, carpet bombing Southeast Asia, and 10 years in Iraq and Afghanistan? There are so many countries in the world that don’t wage wars all the time like we do.  So why are we OK with the fact that the US chooses so blatantly to wage war after war after war, in the name of some ridiculous cause like “fighting communism,” or “fighting terrorism,” which are ideologies, not enemies. Why is it OK?  And why, when millions of Americans rally in the streets and protest these decisions by our government, doesn’t anything change?  I thought we are being democratically represented?

I was discussing this with some German friends the other day.  I told them that we have this slogan in the US, “Freedom isn’t free.”

“What??”  they said, in disbelief.

“Yeah, I don’t know,” I admitted.  ”I don’t know if anyone really knows what that means.  It’s as if we have to go to war all the time to protect our freedom.  This is what they tell us.”

They were dumbfounded.

I am too.  I really am.  When did it become the case that our constitution and bill of rights–the sources of our “freedom”–are threatened by other countries that are much less powerful than we are.  Really, how does it make sense.  We have our freedom (somewhat), and we don’t need to kill to protect it.  I would argue that if this is indeed what we need to do, then we really need to rethink what we wish to call “freedom.”

It was a sobering experience for me, that’s for sure.  It made me really angry and simultaneously sad to see the US from the eyes of a foreigner and to see our really abusive approach to so many countries in the world.  I don’t know what to do about it, except to understand it fully and without the false idea that the US is some sort of world hero, spreading freedom and democracy throughout the world.  It’s simply not the case.

Well.

It seems I have a bus to catch, now.