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September 05, 2004

Travelers' Tales - Vietnam

Marc Helgesen
(see also our interview with Mr. Helgesen)

Travelers take pictures. Not just those we shoot with a camera. More important are the mental photographs we use to remember the sights, sounds and feelings of our experiences and adventures. One of my favorites happened in Vientiane, Laos. I was there with an old friend, someone I hadn't seen in a few years. It was evening. We were sitting on the banks of the Mekong River, nursing a cold Beer Lao. That evening we had eaten Lao food -- delicious. Watched Lao dance -- beautiful. Heard traditional music -- interesting (always a loaded adjective). We had just spent a couple days talking to people and making friends in Vientiane -- magnificent. So, there we were, a couple of severely middle-aged guys experiencing this fascinating culture, relaxing on the bank of this important river. Life is good.

“What if we all were clearer about who are, and especially who are not, our enemies? As a teacher, what values am I teaching every day that I don't even notice?”

I'm just back from my first trip to Vietnam. It is a beautiful country. Stunning. The people are wonderful. Go there. You'll love it.

As an American, especially one of my age, Vietnam has a special meaning and a special curiosity. The country was for years torn apart by war. In the process, my own country was equally torn apart, politically and culturally. If you've been following recent politics, you know that that war is not exactly over for many people in the States.

How, I wondered, would Vietnamese feel about Americans? I needn't have worried, or even wondered. "We were taught in school," a Vietnamese explained, "that the American people were never our enemies. Neither were the French people. Our enemies were the armies and the governments, not the people. " I was there shortly after the problems between the Chinese spectators and the Japanese soccer team at the Asia Cup. "We were taught." What, I thought, if Chinese and Japanese were specifically taught to deal with their sad history and then move beyond it? What if we all were clearer about who are, and especially who are not, our enemies? As a teacher, what values am I teaching every day that I don't even notice?

Visitors to Vietnam often use the word "charming" to describe the country. It fits. The nature is breathtaking. The French influence on the architecture and the wide, green boulevards is evident. French bread, I was told, is the omiyage of choice for rural Vietnamese. At the edges of cities, you see vendors selling fresh French bread to students and others motorcycling to their homes in the country.

And, if the French colonial history is part of what gives Vietnam it's charm, the irony is that it contributed so directly to the tears and pain and death and struggle of the colonial era.

I was surprised to learn that Ho Chi Minh's 1945 Declaration of Independence was patterned on America's. And that he wrote President Truman asking for help. Truman never wrote back. What would have happened if he had? Nothing, perhaps. American politicians were busy asking "Who lost China?" For Americans, it was us vs. the Soviets, being played out on a gameboard called Asia. For the Vietnamese, it was about nationalism. People fight colonialism, whatever the guise. Still, one wonders how history could have been altered if there had been dialog. The lesson? I'm not sure. Answer your mail?

The war has been over for thirty years but the reminders are frequent. At the War Remnants Museum, you see documentation of horrors: the tiger cages used to keep Viet Cong prisoners, the guillotine the French used on "troublemakers", left-over bombs, and photographs of the destruction. At the Viet Cong tunnels, you see the ingeniously evil low-tech booby traps made of bamboo stakes and scrap metal. What strikes visitors is the level, on both sides, of savagery. I recall a quote from Harvard theologian Harvey Cox from that period: "The opposite of human is not animal," he said. "The opposite of human is demonic." War is the demonic application of that side of people. Savagery.

The hardest thing for me for me was seeing the burned, melted faces of napalm victims. They were like the character in Edvard Munch's "The Scream." But these are real, living human beings. Like in Munch's famous painting, you hear the scream in your heart.

I realize I am being morose. I shouldn't be. If this piece seems sad, maybe it's because that's the part that makes you think. The positive is brilliant. The rest is hard. Please understand: Vietnam is beautiful. The food is superb. The people are wonderful.

Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) is an exciting international city. Hanoi is more provincial, less modern. I found Hanoi delightful. My wife and son found it a bit funky. The rugged islands of Ha Long bay are spectacular.

One travels for experiences. The things you learn and the people you learn them from can be unexpected.

The street children in HCMC can be annoying. I recall one little boy following me. "Mister, buy chewing gum?" "Mister, buy postcards?" I don't chew gum. When is the last time I mailed anything that needed a stamp? Then he asked, "Mister. Help me?" It's not about whether I wanted gum. It's not about whether I wanted postcards. Would I buy something, not for me to acquire it but to help him get through the day? It's different. You learn.

But if street kids can be annoying teachers, they can also be delightful. The first week I was in Vietnam, I was at a conference. A good friend at the conference, Al, sort of adopted a small group of kids or perhaps they adapted him. There was Vinh, a 10-year with a shy smile. She acted as the "little mama" to a bright-eyed girl named Cho and a little boy called Du. Al took the kids to dinner several times. That way, he knew the money would be well used. Al left Vietnam a week earlier than I. I was going to be back in HCMC the following week, so I told my friend I'd see how the kids were doing.

Rainy season had begun by the time I returned. It wasn't the long, depressing, sunless rainy season we have in Japan. Rather, it clouded up and rained for a few hours each afternoon, sometimes stretching into the evening. Because of the rain, I didn't see Vinh and her friends on the street where they usually stayed, trying to make a little money.

On my last night, I went out specifically looking for them. It must have been obvious that I was searching because two people, a hooker and her pimp (I assume), asked what I was looking for. I explained and the pimp said he knew who I was talking about. He told me to wait. He jumped on his motorbike. A few minutes later, he showed up with the kids - four people on a bike is not at all rare. I tipped him. (If you go to Vietnam, bring lots of one-dollar bills for tips. A dollar is about 100 yen - almost nothing for us but a half-day's wages for a lot of Vietnamese. It helps.)

I was happy to see the kids. They knew I was Uncle Al's friend and were happy to see me. I said I'd take them to dinner. I asked Vee, the prostitute, if she wanted to join us. She shook her head and said she couldn't. She had to earn money. I asked her how much she got for one time. "Fifteen dollars." "How about if I give you fifteen dollars to not have sex? Then you can have dinner with us." She gave me a puzzled look. It was clear this was not a proposition she gets a lot. But then she smiled and said yes. And I thought, "18-years-old and her best offer is $15 to not turn a trick. Street life's got to be a killer.") I don't know what happened to the pimp. He sort of disappeared. But a bookseller - a sixteen-year-old who makes her living selling fake Lonely Planets to tourists - joined us. Her street name was Peanut, because she was small. Her English was pretty good. She made it much easier to understand the others. Peanut would like to go to school. She can't afford it. Her mom and dad are gone. She works to stay alive.

So there we sat, on plastic chairs on a street in Ho Chi Minh City, eating chicken and talking and laughing.

And I couldn't help thinking about all the kids, but especially Vinh. So nice. Trying so hard, for herself and the little ones. And trusting. She trusts Uncle Al. She trusts me. And someday, she's going to trust the wrong person. And then- you know what will happen. She'll be raped. When Vinh and the other little ones were off talking to the mama-san, I mentioned this worry to Peanut and Vee. They looked at me sadly. Their eyes told me they knew. It was true. And so wrong. And there was nothing any of us could do.

All of these kids, Vinh, Cho, Du, Vee, Peanut. What are the chances that any of them will even be alive in ten years? Poverty. Drugs. AIDS. You see street kids. You don't see many homeless in their 20's and 30's in Vietnam. I remembered my image of my friend and me on the banks of the Mekong, thinking "Life is good." Here I was, a few blocks from the Saigon River. For these kids, life sucks.

But we had a nice dinner. And then it was time to go. I kissed them on the forehead and gave each of them some money - I hope it will get them through a few days. And then I went back to my room, their young faces still smiling in the pictures in my mind. And then I cried.



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