I started the morning off with a basic breakfast of toast, eggs, and bacon since I was running a bit late and then got on the bus to go to UEF. At UEF in the morning, I learned about the history, philosophy, and culture of Buddhism, both in Vietnam and around the world. There are actually two types of Buddhism, one deriving from the other. The main difference between the two is that in Theravada Buddhism, the older of the two, there is only one Buddha and one can only achieve Nirvana, or ascension from the suffering of mortal life, if you take up the journey on your own as a monk. Mahayana Buddhism, on the other hand, there are many Buddha’s, similar to saints in Catholicism, and anyone can achieve Nirvana , which sounds a little more appealing. The government of Vietnam does not promote or discourage any one religion anymore, but religions do find it hard to grow in the communist country.
Once given a basic knowledge of Buddhism, the lecture ended and I headed to a Buddhist pagoda, or temple. Before going to the larger structured pagoda, we stopped at the spot and memorial where the Buddhist monk self-immolated to protest the South Vietnamese government’s persecution of the Buddhist faith/beliefs. Being in that spot felt strange because of its huge historical importance, but it was also just like any other street, but with a monument dedicated to the event.
Once we finished at the memorial, we walked a few blocks to the Xa Loi Pagoda. The building was breathtaking . We approached to a medium sized gate, walked in, and were immediately greeted with a statue of a female Buddha, and a beautiful tree garden. Taking a few moments to admire, we then headed up the steps to enter the main altar area of the pagoda on the second floor. As I was walking up, I noticed a swastika on the roof of the pagoda, but it was slightly different than those used by the Nazis. The arms bent in different directions, and one laid parallel with the ground rather than being tilted like the German version. I later asked our Buddhist expert and lecturer what it means in the context of Buddhism, and he said it represents the cyclical nature of birth, life, death and reincarnation, a main dogma of the Buddhist philosophy. I thought it was interesting how that symbol had meant one thing to Buddhists for so many centuries, and it took 1 government that was in power for 20 years to completely ruin it for the rest of the world.
Inside the pagoda was absolutely stunning. The first thing one sees is the giant golden statue of Buddha on the back wall, looking back at you, smiling softly. As I entered, I noticed more and more of the beautiful artwork and craftsmanship that goes into the building, including a “stations of the cross”-esque series of paintings, depicting the Buddha’s life. In the back, behind the giant statue, were some shrines to Vietnamese Buddhas throughout history, which while not as impressive in artistic value, deeply intrigued me because of how many there were. Leaving the main temple area, we headed down to the garden where many little Buddha statues intermingled with the nature. The entire complex was gorgeous and I wish I had a little more time to take it all in.
After the pagoda, we took a little siesta to cool off since it was so hot and humid today, after getting a bite of traditional Vietnamese sandwiches for lunch. Once nap time was done, it was time to go to the Vietnamese government run War Remnants Museum. What was inside was completely disturbing and utterly appalling. The things American soldiers did and government officials approved made me feel guilty that I was even allowed to enter this country. I saw soldiers playing with decapitated civilian heads and 3rd generation children with birth defects due to the toxicity of Agent Orange/Dioxin and other chemicals the US rained on Vietnam. There is no reason for any of our crimes to have been forgiven, but for some reason, they have been for the most part.
I will note, the bias in the information was evident. The museum claimed US army purposefully targeted women and children, and while individuals within the military may have, the policy of the US was shoot on site in war zones as a matter of individual self defense for soldiers entering those zones. They also claimed that american POWs enjoyed their time in captivity, saying they had opportunities to write letters to their children for their birthdays, and some even returned to relish in their fond memories from their time there. Not true, even in the slightest, and it made me a little angry to hear that because that is what Vietnamese children will grow up learning. But I also grew up learning that the Gulf of Tonkin justified our involvement and that the US was doing their best to fight a “moral war.” After all of the war history in the past few days, I have come to the conclusion that everyone messed up and caused a near holocaust level of destruction to both life and land for no good reason other than we disagreed on how much money the government should take from its people.
After that American guilt trip, I headed over to the Ben Tanh market, a famous flea market here in Ho Chi Minh City. Bartering was fun, but difficult. Many of the vendors knew enough English to negotiate prices and make a sale, but I definitely could not have made it through without the help of the UEF students. I briefly tried to use the Vietnamese numbers I learned in class to negotiate a price, but as I stumbled, I almost immediately reverted back to English, and the vendors did not seem to mind too much. I feel like I struck some pretty good deals, and with the help of the Vietnamese students and some ruthless “business kids,” I walked away with some pretty good stuff for pretty cheap.
Overall today was PACKED, and I am exhausted. With a long day behind us, and an early morning in front of us, its time for a chill night of hanging out in the hotel and getting some sleep. Signing of here in Saigon.