Today was a very full day for us here in Ho Chi Minh City; we took to the streets and bargained at the Ben Tanh Market, we learned about Buddhism and visited a pagoda, and we visited the War Remnants Museum.
The Ben Tanh Market is an indoor maze of bright colors, sounds, and smells. There are seemingly endless rows of small shops, loaded with not only souvenirs, but also food, clothes, meat, flowers, watches, and purses. The shop keepers will often beckon or start speaking as you walk by but you cannot stop or you will get roped into them trying to convince you for something you don’t need. Once I found something that I liked I tried to be a little disinterested about it, and asked the price it was 150.000 for a small square painted plate. I said it was too expensive, and from there we began the back and forth, I wanted to pay 80.000 for each or less and so I held firm on 80.000 whenever she asked for more. My Vietnamese student, Thomas, would often interject our bargaining with some choice comments about the price in Vietnamese and I would have to scowl to get him to let me bargain again. I finally said “well, I don’t know if I want it… we can come back for it later” and she dropped to my price very quickly. Thomas wanted to continue bargaining, he thought even 80.000 dong was too expensive for the plates- I was thinking along the lines of American money so at that point it was only a couple of dollars either way. As we went on Thomas became more and more helpful because I easily gave in on prices that I perceived as pretty good after a couple of minutes of me bargaining on my own whereas he very adamantly wanted a fair price- needless to say the shop owners were annoyed with him by the end (although I appreciated it!).
After the market we went to class and learned about Buddhism and also had our last Vietnamese language class, and tried to cha cha cha with our Vietnamese professor. We learned about the peaceful nature of Buddhism and understood how it could easily fit into the communist government, seeing as it values maintaining ethics and traditions similar to how the Vietnamese government wants to keep ties to Vietnamese traditions. After learning about Buddhism and the morals that guide it, we were able to visit a pagoda. The pagoda was beautiful with lots of reds and ornate carvings on the buildings. When we went inside Bunny, one of the students gave me incense to pray with and showed me how to pray with it. I’d light the incense, stand in front of the Buddha statue and then wave the incense at him (up-down direction not left to right direction).
Our last visit of the day was to the War Remnants Museum, and it was easily the most difficult part of the trip so far. I knew about the innocent Vietnamese civilian casualties in the war, my US history teacher had been blunt when he said the things some soldiers did in Vietnam and how disgusting that part of our history was, but I was horrified to get more details. Hearing women and children were massacred is very different from seeing mangled bodies on the streets, reading their names and ages on the walls and seeing the United States actions described as genocide. They often described those fighting on the North Vietnamese side as patriots, and people fighting for their independence at the museum, wording which I had never heard before but that made sense from their point of view.
Our country got involved in this war to “spread democracy,” but we spent millions of dollars in the following years to keep South American dictators that had thousands of dissidents disappeared in power over communists that the general public voted for or wanted. Because of that history, no matter how much I want to believe the United States really did want to help avoid Vietnam citizens being denied freedom of speech or denied democracy I can’t help but think it had more to do with a cocky attitude and a desire for containment more than anything else. This museum did not change my mind about the war, or really open up anything new for me. It was just so graphic and disturbing that it cemented my opinion that the war was wrong.
This is not to say I don’t appreciate those who fought in the war, I do appreciate their service and understand that the Vietnamese also did some terrible things to our troops as well. This is not to say that individual soldiers did not fight themselves to help the South Vietnamese people, most did. But the people who decided to send these soldiers to be involved in the war, the people behind those decisions, I cannot believe they truly just wished to spread democracy and contain communism to help the Vietnamese. Especially when our track record with South America suggests we didn’t support the most stable government or most beneficial to the people government but rather just the government that isn’t communist. I wish the Vietnamese weren’t still suffering the aftereffects of Agent Orange, or finding unexploded bombs; I also wish they lived in a society where criticizing the government couldn’t get you killed or imprisoned and where they had more than one party to choose from for all their officials. But that’s not what happened in the war and not the way it is now, it seems like the Vietnamese really drew the short end of the stick.