In the last six months in Asia, I’ve struggled with the usual bouts of daily living that one would expect to experience as an American abroad. I’m always blasted by culture shock when walking into a restroom without soap or toilet paper that caters not only to customers, but to people who prepare food. Other times I’m frustrated with my terrible Thai language communication skills or agitated that I got ripped off, again, because I still cannot bring myself to bargain or haggle, despite knowing there’s an expectation to engage in such behavior.  Sometimes I marvel at just how unimportant I am to this place that I live in. I provide a wallet. That’s all, really.

Thailand provides Americans with many opportunities to be annoyed, perplexed, or cast as an outsider. I’ve made peace with these obstacles, mostly, finding them novel (remind me to tell you about the customs office experience) or solvable with the effort on my end. And though I am not extensively well-traveled, my general experience with difficulties outside my passport country center on the same sorts of issues I face in Thailand: language, transportation, etiquette, etc.

Vietnam was hard in an entirely different way. I was not prepared for it.

 Model prisoners in the Hanoi Hilton. 

I have a degree in Geography, and while I was earning that degree, I focused on globalization, development economics, environmental justice, urbanization, and international development. One of my major regrets in college was missing the opportunity to study abroad and observe with my own eyes all that I studied in an international context. In fact, that regret was a major factor in moving overseas. A lot of my courses centered on the challenges faced by developing countries, and I spent a lot of time just… fretting, stewing, meditating, and feeling powerless over how the problems of the country where one was born can determine so much a person’s life trajectory. I involved myself emotionally with social ills foreign and domestic, being slunk into a depression about Hurricane Katrina and losing sleep as I worried about all of the helpless babies in Africa with AIDS.

Thailand assuaged some of that angst. Though categorized as a developing country, or as a newly industrialized country (depending on who you ask and what factors are considered), life is relatively good here for a lot of Thai citizens. Obviously there are social, political, and environmental problems here (that I’m not going to address today), but the quality of life is quite nice, as evidenced by all of the westerners who have fled their developed homes in favor of Thailand.

That old angst flared up upon touching down in Vietnam. The little irritations like traffic, language, and cab drivers eager to rip us off were ameliorated, like always, with a retreat back to the room and cold bottle of water, but a low-level feeling of unease followed me throughout the duration of the trip.

The first of many sunflower seed and tea vendors on Ly Thai To.

Looking for breakfast that first morning in Hanoi was not unlike stepping into a diagram from my college development and globalization classes. Relics of colonization in the form of wide and grandiose French boulevards crisscrossed the city before ending abruptly at the straight-out-of-National-Geographic old quarter. The gap between rich and poor could not be ignored for one moment, as a Rolls Royce would narrowly avoid hitting a stooped-back vendor selling oranges on a bicycle next to a shoe shiner without proper shoes of his own chasing after well-heeled businessman’s patronage.  The ridiculous Ho Chi Minh mausoleum and rampant propaganda evidenced the single-party government’s devotion to propping up Uncle Ho’s cult of personality and party pride over providing responsible governance to Vietnamese citizens. Young adults dwarfed their elders, who probably survived multiple famines and periods of scarcity. The government owns (or tightly regulates) newspapers, but foreign-owned industries seemed limited to a few draconian Foxconn factories or luxury brand stores limited to only the richest of the rich. This long paragraph, this first Vietnamese experience, illustrates many of the theoretical indicators of a developing, versus developed nation.

And in the middle, parks. Glorious, public parks! And smiles. And people all clumped together eating sunflower seeds, playing chess, drinking tea, smoking out of bizarre, rainstick-like tobacco pipes, and generally enjoying life.

For the most part, I was the only person who seemed to have a problem.

Rather than chilling with some bia hơi  and spring rolls like a normal person, I instigated my own emotional trauma by reading about Vietnam’s modern history without objective detachment and visiting museums and monuments devoted to war tragedies. For example, instead of enjoying the parks and boulevards, artifacts of France’s colonial rule, I meditated on the resources hoarded by the Western powers to construct them. I thought of the people who suffered, directly and indirectly, because some foreign leader wanted to turn this place with its own culture and heritage into something comfortable for him. I struggled because I liked the European elements mixed in among the Vietnamese, meaning I’m not all that different from the person who made them.

Modern Saigon? All I could think about was how American influence kept the country at war longer. Cu Chi tunnels? War Remnants? Even though I knew these were littered with propaganda, it’s hard to see images of bodies blown up or traps designed to kill Americans brutally. Images of children with birth defects, be they the fault of agent orange or simply congenital, are not easy to look at, and I carried the images with me.

Of course, heady highs popped up even among the lowest lows. I jumped 30 feet into Ha Long Bay and ordered pigeon and sampled all of the Vietnamese brews. Both times I ventured out by myself, I had wonderful conversations with local students all of whom I believe were not trying to scam me. I’ll get to posting about those soon; hopefully they’ll be fun to read and not a giant pity party of first world liberal guilt.

11 Responses to Getting Emotional in Vietnam

  1. Christina says:

    Ah, this sounds so much like me! I am constantly thinking about things like this when I travel. Sigh.

    Sometimes all you can really do is keep your head up despite how deary the big picture is. It’s freakin’ hard… and I appreciate you writing this post. I also look forward to all the rest about Vietnam.

    • Susan says:

      You’re back! I missed you on the interwebs. I felt like writing shiny, happy, look-what-I-did-on-vacation posts wouldn’t be true in this case, even though this post just drips of liberal, first world guilt. Unfortunately, my travel companions weren’t as sensitive to all of this, and I think I dragged them down a bit.

      • Christina says:

        Eh… it happens. I guess you can only be positive all the time for so long, right? Then when reality strikes (and all that info on globalization, development, environmental justice from your schoolin’ days comes flooding back) and you start to wish you were an art or English major or something… OR NOT! Haha. Glad you’re right there with me!

  2. Caity says:

    Wow, what an amazing experience you are having! It’s incredible going to other countries and realizing how different they are and how much one’s personal scope of the world expands when traveling.

    • Susan says:

      I sure hope my personal scope of the world is expanding! I think the lesson I need to take is that people are resilient and enjoy life and living anywhere. I mean, I have observed that, so I shouldn’t let myself get down…

  3. Katie says:

    Very nicely written! I’m guessing you would probably feel this way no matter where you encountered anything resembling poverty. The Appalachian mountains back home might bring out the same feeling. Or a run down inner city block. Of course, this was also coupled with the war effects to compound it. I think it means you have a compassion. You are feeling your compassion and that’s a good thing. If everyone felt that way the world would be a better place, for sure.

    • Susan says:

      I told some people who were on our boat in Ha Long Bay that I had seen more abject poverty in the USA than I had in Southeast Asia. I think two days later I revised my opinion when I saw whole communities of houses made out of scraps right up along the beaches where tourists go. For the most part we were very well isolated from poverty, I just had the unfortunate tendency of reading so much into every remnant of a foreign power, etc. Which was stupid. Do not recommend!

  4. Erica says:

    Though it sucks to go through something like this, especially while on vacation, I think it just shows the type of person that you are- that you choose to think about/internalize and to not gloss over these issues in favor of observatories and shiny statues. It not only says a lot about you, but it gives us some hope that there are people who are not willing to let things slide. The most heartbreaking part of history is when it repeats itself, the offenders refusing to learn from the past.

    • Susan says:

      Thanks, Erica. However, I do think it would be helpful to just feel bad for a day or so, and then go about enjoying yourself!

  5. Bevo says:

    Can understand your emotional reaction. Hard to be upbeat when you see people living in cardboard homes especially when they are surrounded by the wealth of colonialism and the consequences of recent wars. Yes, we do tend to be isolated from poverty even though there are those in our midst living in cars and under bridges.

    • Susan says:

      I think I’m accustomed to the American sort of inequality. In Vietnam, the rich people seemed very Western and the poor very Vietnamese. Of course, there is a growing middle class, and there are plenty of very Vietnamese families and people who do well for themselves.

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