Thursday, May 28, 2015

My Vietnam Reading List

During my trip in 2011 and while living in China in 2013, I kept track of what I read during my travels. There is an abundance of literature out there about Vietnam and South East Asia and I dove into that genre in the months before we arrived. The obvious theme so far is that it's difficult to escape the shadow of the Vietnam war in the literature and history - it permeates everything. There are still plenty of books on my reading list and some of them should handle other topics, but the shadow of the war will always lurk, I'm sure. I definitely want to read more books written by Vietnamese authors. Looking over this list, I see that Western writers are over-represented.

As I read more, I'll update this list. This is what I have for now.

The Mekong: Turbulent Past, Uncertain Future
Milton Osborne

Bryn got me this book for Christmas and thus began the transition from graduate school to preparing for our move to Vietnam. Bryn and I actually made it to the upper reaches of the Mekong while we were in China in 2013. Later that year we took a boat from the border of Vietnam up the river to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. We joked about how the Mekong was basically the Mississippi river and Saigon was New Orleans. This comparison (which I'll certainly have to lay out in a future post) only goes so far and this book clearly sets the boundaries of the metaphor. Osborne outlines the history of various powers trying to exploit the riches of the Mekong river. However, much like being a youtube celebrity, the Mekong appears to be full of opportunity, but exploiting that for material gains is tricky. Like the Mississippi, the cycles of flood and drought raise and lower the river's surface continually; shifting, exposing and concealing sand bars and other hazards. The river reaches all the way up to China but, unlike the Mississippi, it's only navigable for the first few hundred miles. Once it reaches Laos, waterfalls and shallow rapids have rendered it impassable. One of the more interesting parts of the book tells the story of an entrepreneurial French explorer who tried to set up a portage system to get around the falls, but it was ultimately unviable. Ultimately, the river has only served as a transport route for the final quarter of its course, servicing extremely poor Cambodia and a sliver of southern Vietnam.  Vietnam actually only plays a bit part in this book, basically as just a launching point for French explorers in the 19th century. Aquaculture generates a meager revenue, too. Today, ironically, the Chinese may be figuring out that the most profitable way to exploit the Mekong may be to block it. As the Mekong descends from its Himalayan source, it flows through deep gorges that are very suitable for damming and hydropower generation. While China's maritime operations in the South China Sea may be catching the headlines, its more subtle operations on its back porch in Yunnan province are also serving its regional power projection.

Ho Chi Minh: A Life
William J. Duiker

At 720 pages, I'm pretty sure this book deals with every aspect of Ho Chi Minh's recorded life. It is excruciatingly detailed and, I have to admit, I skipped around a bit. Especially in the early years, it relies heavily on Ho Chi Minh's own quasi-autobiography. Ho Chi Minh wrote a story about a "friend" of his who is commonly accepted to be himself. It's tricky being a great leader: you have to connect with the people while remaining a bit mysterious.

The most interesting part, to me, was the evolution of Ho Chi Minh as a communist and the constant struggle he had with other communists over the independence of Indochina. Ho Chi Minh ran in French communist circles but he faced an uphill battle to convince his comrades that Vietnamese independence was a top priority. Mainstream communists were more interested in European labor issues and criticized Ho Chi Minh for being overly nationalistic. I can really only recommend this to people who are very dedicated to learning more about the genesis of Vietnam's independence movement and its complicated relationship with communism.

Understanding Vietnam
Neil L. Jamieson

This has been my favorite book about Vietnam, so far. It was a welcome relief after the tedious sifting through mountains of details about Ho Chi Minh because it remained very much high level. Jamieson also avoided getting sucked into writing another commentary on the war. "Understanding Vietnam" covers 20th century Vietnamese history through the lens of Vietnamese literature. From the vehemently pro-Western writers of the late 19th century to the battle between self and family in the 1930s to the nihilism of the 1970s, Jamieson takes the vitals of each decade through a sampling of novels, poems and short stories. My favorite excerpt from the book discusses the evolution of Vietnam adopting Roman script. No other country in South East Asia uses Roman script, but newspaper editors here in the lat 19th century started adopting it because it was easier to work Roman alphabet presses than use the Chinese character script predominant at the time. Those same editors argued that Vietnam could attain higher literacy rates through adopting Roman script, which could be learned in a matter of weeks, rather than maintaining the traditional Chinese characters, which took a lifetime of study to learn. I have to agree with them. While Chinese characters are certainly more artistic and visually interesting, they smack of intellectual elitism; made for a world in which only a dedicated Mandarin class was ever meant to read.

But I digress. Jamieson's title might be a little too ambitious - it will take a lot more than this book to "understand" Vietnam - but it's a great start.

The Man Who Was Thursday
G.K. Chesterton

This was my fun airplane read on my trip across the Pacific. I had never heard of G.K. Chesterton until this article in the Atlantic absolutely convinced me that I needed to check him out. Reading "The Man Who Was Thursday" was gratifying in the same way as reading P.G. Wodehouse who, now that I see their symmetrical names written out on the same page, must have been buddies with Chesterton. As I was reading, there was no doubt in my mind where the plot was going, but the language was just fun to read. I could tell that Chesterton didn't really care WHAT he was writing about just so long as he had an excuse to keep playing with the English language. Admittedly, "Thursday" has absolutely nothing to do with Vietnam. It's about a cell of anarchists in Victorian England who are all actually secret police trying to infiltrate the European anarchist movement. In 2003, a similar situation played out in real life when a German court failed to ban the Nationalist Party of Germany (descendants of the Nazi party) because too many of the party members were government agents who had infiltrated the movement! I wish Chesterton had lived to see his ludicrous story come true.

A Rumor of War
Philip Caputo

Caputo's classic was one of the first books about the Vietnam war from the perspective of the US infantry soldier. Lesson: try to avoid fighting wars in South East Asia. After reading "A Rumor of War" and spending a few weeks in Vietnam, I realized that the primary enemy that US forces faced in Vietnam was the climate. Between the scorching sun and flooding rains, Vietnam pushes the limits of toughness engrained in US marines. The heat and disease that this country is capable of unleashing on an invading force cannot be overcome by drilling and physical fitness. Like General Winter in Russia, General Heat and General Monsoon are Vietnam's two most capable military leaders. Caputo plays out the scenario over and over again: US troops go out on foot patrol all day in the sun while opposing forces hide in the shade of the forrest and snipe from the cool cover. I'm reminded of this every time I go walk the streets in the afternoon. Vietnamese reclining in the shade no longer fire rifles at me, but they still shoot looks of disbelief that I would be silly enough to go out walking in the brutal heat. Vietnam is a nocturnal country. During the daytime, all you can do is try to survive until the sun goes down. Fighting a war in daylight here is far too exhausting.

The Sympathizer
Viet Thanh Nguyen

I just finished this book this morning. Nguyen had great timing on the publication of this book. It came out earlier this year, just before the 40th anniversary of the fall/liberation of Saigon in April, 1975. I liked "The Sympathizer"primarily for two reasons: first, it is a kind of spy novel that does not romanticize the life of a spy. After reading this, you definitely do not want to go sign up for the clandestine services and I think that's important. There are too many LeCarre, Fleming and Furst novels that make spies out to be dashing, all-knowing, clever operatives who shape history from the shadows. I'm sure those have existed, but Nguyen's informant narrator is probably much more representative of the average 20th century spy.

I also like this book because it tells the story of the retreat from Saigon AND the immediate aftermath once refugees made it to the US. The recent documentary "Last Days in Vietnam" does a great job of telling the story of the evacuation from Saigon, but it leaves it at that. What happened to all of those South Vietnamese who fled their homes to seek refugee status all around the world? Nguyen sheds some light on their lives after they were the newspaper headlines. It's depressing, and painfully graphic at times, but still an important historical novel about the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam war and the people who left their homes to seek a kind of refuge in the US.

America's Longest War
George Herring

This is a great introduction to the political and military history of the Vietnam war. Published in 1979, it asks the question still very much raw at the time: "how the hell did we end up in such a mess?" and goes from there, detailing the US decision-making process at every significant turn. There are, of course, hundreds of books more or less on this same topic that have come out since 1979, most of which were written with the benefit of having more access to declassified information. But I like the way that Herring deals with the war as very much a contemporary issue. He was writing in the years immediately following 1975 without the benefit of years of hindsight. When looking at US involvement in the Vietnam war from a macro level, it's easy to belittle and ridicule the decision-makers at the time. But when you break it down, step-by-step, the whole debacle looks much more plausible.  Herring especially highlights how, particularly in the early days, the US's vietnam policy was dictated by other, seemingly more pressing challenges like the Berlin crisis and the creation of NATO. By the time Vietnam became front page news, the US had already been forming an unintentional policy for over twenty years. That kind of precedence and momentum is very difficult to reverse.

Vietnam: Rising Dragon
Bill Hayton

This is one of the most popular books on contemporary Vietnam. I appreciated it for its attempt to go beyond the war narrative and look at Vietnam a generation after hostilities. Hayton was a journalist in Hanoi and the book is a review of the major headlines of 21st century Vietnam. It feels like each of his chapters is a long or compiled version of his newspaper articles. The stories are all tied together by his thesis that the Vietnamese Communist Party has more or less given up the ideology of socialist revolution and is now selling itself as a club to join in order to increase the chances of promotion. In other words, the Party is big "c" Communist - it doesn't adhere to the small "c" communism of Marx or Mao anymore. I imagine he must have enjoyed breaking out of the word and space limits of print journalism and writing this book. That being said, it's a contemporary book. It won't go down in history as a definitive work on Vietnam and, in all likelihood, it will probably be obsolete in another 5-10 years. But that's fine. I leave it in the guest room for our visitors who want a peak into the contemporary life in Vietnam they see on the streets.

Fire in the Lake
Frances FitzGerald

Fire in the Lake is all about US involvement in Vietnam during the war and how badly we miscalculated everything. In doing so, she goes to great lengths to explain how Vietnam works and how different it is from the US. It is interesting to think about her proposition that Vietnam's confucian background primed it for socialism - or, better, that the National Liberation Front was better able to exploit Vietnam's confucian past to usher in socialism. The book is also a great account of Saigon in the 1960s; a crazy, messed up place if there ever was one. I found myself coming back to two different ideas that I first encountered in A Passage To India by E. M. Forster: the first idea is that you can send in an army to fix one problem, but it will cause a hundred others in its wake. You can apply this to just about any modern conflict, but I feel like it's especially appropriate for the Vietnam War. US forces certainly achieved their mission by preventing The Republic of South Vietnam from falling into communist control, but in doing so, we destroyed it so badly that it wasn't fit for any type of political system - much less constitutional democracy. The other idea from A Passage to India is that life, especially in the tropical regions, is so persistent and encompassing. It's amazing to see Vietnam now, just 40 years later, and find so few traces of the war. Life has reclaimed the destruction wrought by the war - not completely, but it has been impressively thorough. I lived in Dresden, Germany in 2005 and there were still very visible remnants of war there 60 years after it was firebombed at the end of World War II. Vietnam, according to FitzGerald, received more US ordnance than all of the Axis Powers combined but you have to look hard to find evidence of it. I think that says a lot about Vietnam and how resilient of a country this is.

Asia's Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific
Robert Kaplan

The prologue to Asia's Cauldron was by far my favorite part of this book. Don't get me wrong, this is a very helpful introduction to the South China Sea issue, with profiles of the major players and what their major challenges are going forward. However, I had a special, personal connection with the prologue. Kaplan begins his book with a reminder that, while today China is the ascending power in Asia that everyone is worried about, India is a major historical player. Kaplan highlighted this fact with a monologue on India's role in shaping Vietnam - reminding us that there is a good reason that the French called it "Indochina". Southern Vietnam was once a hindu kingdom heavily influenced by Indian culture and you can see that heritage in the Champa ruins that dot central and southern Vietnam's landscape. Kaplan specifically cites the Vietnam History museum's collection of Shiva and Linga statues.

This had a particularly strong effect on me because I started reading this book within a few hours of visiting that very museum earlier in the morning. The hindu statues were staring me right in the face as I read Kaplan's appeal to not forget India's influence in the region. What's more, without having any idea that Kaplan's book would touch on India, I started this book as I was flying from Saigon to Chennai, India, for a five day jaunt around Southern India. I felt really interconnected to this prologue due to my particular personal circumstances, but it stands alone as a great introduction regardless of whether or not you happened to visit the same museums or were on your way to India.

As with most of Kaplan's other books, I finished this one with a new, expanded reading list. No doubt that this post will continue to grow.

The Quiet American
Graham Greene

I read this classic novel the first time we came through Vietnam in 2013. However, at the time, I was reading a bootlegged version with tons of typos and hadn't yet become familiar enough with the geography of Saigon and southern Vietnam to really enjoy Thomas Fowler's description of the city. Reading it for a second time, with a better appreciation of the city and the history, I was very impressed by Greene's ability to capture the American naiveté that led us into Vietnam. He was writing this book in the early 1950s but he could already see that the French war was quickly turning into an American war. It's a nice little snapshot of Saigon right before the Americans took over the war effort from the French. That being said, Vietnamese barely play a role in the book at all. Like all of the American war novels and movies that would flow out of Vietnam in the coming decades, "The Quiet American" uses Saigon as an exotic locale to showcase the political and moral wrangling of the western powers and individuals. Reading it just makes me want to get the Vietnamese perspective even more.

Dumb Luck
Vu Trong Phung

Dumb Luck is a satirical work poking fun at how empty progressivism can be. It takes place in French colonial Hanoi in the 1930s. It chronicles the rise of "Red Haired Xuan", a street hawker and panhandler who, through a series of bizarre events and interpretations, ends up as the toast of the town.  Part Peter Sellers in "Being There", part "Slumdog Millionaire" it charts Xuan's rise through society thanks to those around him projecting their own desires onto him and some seriously "Dumb Luck". It shows how progressivism for the sake of progressivism can hollow out a society and leaves you thinking that maybe there are some values in social norms, after all. The part that resonated with me was the observation on how arbitrarily success comes along to people. Sure, you can position yourself well for success, but you can never predict everything and chances are just as likely that someone in the right place at the right time has the most advantage of all. It's also a fun read because this was pre-communist Vietnam, when writers could be a little over the top and fanciful. The party doesn't approve of those literary qualities these days.

The Sorrow of War
Bao Ninh 

One of the most famous novels to come out of modern Vietnam. The Sorrow of War follows the life of a Vietnamese war veteran. One thing that strikes you early on is how similarly he describes his experience to Philip Caputo's in A Rumor of War. Some of the scenes in The Sorrow of War seem to parallel so perfectly with Caputo's memoir that you have to imagine that the two warrior-writers must have crossed paths in the jungle at some point. The major difference, however, is that despite how bad Caputo had it, he still went home after his tour of duty to a more-or-less functioning society that provided him basic services. Ninh's Vietnamese soldier could only go home once the war was over, and even then about the only support he had was a local bar where other veterans would hang out and comiserate.

The book is excruciatingly sad. Its story is the epitome of loss, regret and pain. I just finished it a few days ago and it's still affecting me. I can't think of any other book I've ever read that has had such a sad affect on me. It is a very important read to understand the Vietnamese perspective and to see how much their lives were wrapped up and, in some cases, suffocated, by the ten year conflict with the US.

The Son
Philipp Meyer

This book is a break from Vietnam and a return to my own home country, Texas. It's the story of six generations of family growing up in South Texas. The patriarch, Colonel Eli McCullough, raised by Commanches who killed his family and learned that you had to take everything you needed to survive in life. His son, Peter, who strives to separate himself from the baser instincts of his father in an effort to distinguish himself from the frontiersman and prove that evolution is possible - even if it comes with its own downsides. We don't learn much about Charles, except that he's narcissistic and is proof that you can't copy the success of past generations. Whereas his father, Peter, tries to be more civilized that the Colonel and fails, Charles tries to be like the Colonel, but it does not work in his new era. His daughter, Jeannie, succeeds, though. She succeeds at turning the family's cattle operation into an oil operation, however her wealth does not help her own kids. She learns that want is a powerful force, and denying it to a generation is not as generous as it seems.

Personally, this book reminded me of my own grandfather and the life he built for his family in East Texas. It was nowhere near the scale of the McCullough family - a nearly royal line that governed a kingdom more than a ranch. But on a smaller scale, I know how it is to look up to past generations and marvel at their accomplishments and hard upbringing. The Son finishes, reminding readers that the infinite line of future generations will do the same, until we are forgotten.

Monday, May 18, 2015

A Pilgrimage to Con Dao

Everyone, I think I've found the coolest place in Vietnam. It's the island of Con Dao, about an hour flight south of Ho Chi Minh City. It's a sleepy little place where you feel like you could just disappear for a few years and that would be ok. Personally, I went there to learn how to dive. Con Dao has the best diving in Vietnam simply because there's hardly anyone there. The coral and fish and beaches are relatively pristine (especially by Vietnamese standards) because there just aren't enough people there to destroy it (yet).
Hon Bay Canh: the island next to Con Dao where I learned to scuba dive

However, as I learned when I got there, people do not go to Con Dao to dive. Most don't even go for the beautiful beaches, virgin jungle topped hills or caves. Most of the people who go to Con Dao are pilgrims going to visit the tomb of Vo Thi Sau, a Vietnamese nationalist martyr who draws hundreds of people every night to her gravesite.

Con Dao was established in the late 19th century as a prison island by the French. They sent the most subversive and dangerous political prisoners to Con Dao, where they were kept in "Tiger Cages", tiny concrete cells with iron grated ceilings that allowed guards to observe them from above. In the early 1950s, French authorities found Vo Thi Sau guilty of engaging in guerilla activities and was sent off to Con Dao as a teenager. A few years later, at the legal age of 19, she was executed on the island.

Dilapidated Tiger Cages at the old Con Dao Prison
Vo Thi Sau wasn't necessarily the biggest, baddest guerilla fighter Vietnam had ever known. As a 15 year old, she lobbed some grenades at French soldiers and killed a few, but that isn't why she's remembered. Her name became synonymous with the brutality of Con Dao prison that long preceded her time there and continued for a couple more decades. In 1970, a US congressional visit to the prison island discovered the brutal conditions of the Tiger Cages which, by then, were operated by the South Vietnamese government.

At around 11pm, we hopped onto scooters and rode through the night to the edge of town where the cemetery is. You have to understand that Con Dao is a sleepy place. You can walk down the main street in the middle of the day and be practically alone. But the parking lot in front of the cemetery was bustling with families on scooters and guards directing giant tour buses into impossibly small spaces. This is where the action is on Con Dao.

As we approached Vo Thi Sau's grave, the Vietnamese guy who worked at the front desk and had adopted me for the week explained to that people go visit the cemetery around midnight because the spirits are more active then. I had to smile at this. After nearly a month in Vietnam I know that midnight is a far more desirable time of day to be out and about. The reason why you can walk down the main street in Con Dao in the middle of the day and not see another human is that the sun is a brutal beast in the sky chasing you from tree to tree, sucking your energy and crisping your skin in between shady refuges. The huge, open area where Vo Thi Sau is buried offers no opportunities for shade. Going there during the day would be life-threatening and I can promise that the pilgrims would be much more conscious of the sun beating down on their shoulders than the sacrifices their ancestors had made on that island several generations ago. Granted, cemeteries are much more evocative at night. When shadows cover most of the ground around you and your eyes play tricks on you, it's easier to imagine supernatural forces controlling your surroundings. During the day, the vicious Vietnamese sun bleaches the imagination and denies those spirits their shadowy, natural habitat. In this way, the night makes for a much more convenient meeting time. Us humans benefit from the greatest source of shade of all - the earth's thick center - and the spirits are more free to roam while our vision is impaired by that same darkness. It makes perfect sense.

Vo Thi Sau's tomb: somebody pointed out to me that its red tip makes it look like a stick of incense. 
We laid flowers at the base of Vo Thi Sau's grave and each took a few sticks of incense to place in a sandy altar in front of the grave. Unused to working much with ritualistic incense, I burned my hand trying to stuff my three extra sticks of incense into a very crowded altar. Luckily, I don't think anyone else noticed.

Naively, I thought that once we had seen Vo Thi Sau's grave, we were done with the tour and that we would turn back. Not so. Nearly two thousand prisoners had died on Con Dao during the prison's operation and we had many more grave sites to visit. We walked down narrow paths through trees and fields of headstones just slightly illuminated by little lamps placed by each one. More incense appeared and we lit huge bundles of it to honor more prisoner martyrs. Once we had honored all of the main characters, we used the leftover incense to distribute amongst the less fortunate graves that had no name and whose sandy altars were barren of incense sticks.
Lighting a bundle of incense at one of the altars

It was a wonderfully spiritual experience to be out in the cemetery that night. It was a completely different way of honoring the dead from what I was used to but it just felt right. Being so far away from the mainland, we had a clear view of the stars. The suns residual heat from the previous day was still enough to make us sweat as we walked through the grounds, but at least it didn't burn. It was up to the incense sticks to do that.

I don't think any trip to Con Dao is complete without visiting the cemetery and Vo Thi Sau's tomb. Most Vietnamese tourists who come to the island stay for just 24-36 hours; enough time to visit Vo Thi Sau and maybe spend a morning on the beach. However, I had a few more days and I spent them well. I got my diving certificate, drove all up and down the island and hiked to the opposite side, which was completely undeveloped, save a few miles of stone footpaths connecting various coves and deserted beaches. Bryn and I are already planning to go back later this summer. By then, the sea turtles will have migrated to the area to start laying their eggs. I heard that it's possible to sleep in hammocks out on one of the smaller islands and the marine park staff will come wake you up when the turtles arrive. You can bet that we will make that happen.
I left the walk to the Ancient Tree to our next visit

Monday, May 4, 2015

More Time Traveling in Vietnam

We have been in Vietnam for ten days now - less than the amount of time that we spent here when we traveled through in 2013 - but this time, there is definitely a greater feeling of permanence. I think the yearlong buildup to the move, the months of full-time Vietnamese language learning, reading book after book trying to get a jump on this place and, of course, all those bowls of pho we ate in preparation for the real thing all created an immense build up to our arrival. By the time we landed here last Friday, there's no way our arrival could have matched our level of anticipation.

In 2013, we arrived in Vietnam after four months in China and an overnight bus-ride to the border. We hadn't spent much time anticipating what Vietnam was going to be like. Our first order of business was to check our gmail accounts and youtube without interruption and order a bowl of pho. Relative internet freedom and somewhat more familiar food gave us a high that developed into an outright love affair with Vietnam over the two weeks that we were here. But this time, our arrival didn't achieve quite the same climax. First, we were delayed flying out of Hong Kong; United Airlines iced us colder than a field goal kicker lining up with 5 seconds left on the clock. We spent an extra night in Hong Kong and made our flight into Vietnam the next morning. The 12 hour delay threw everything off. And when we got off that plane, we were wearing formal clothing: a long sleeve shirt with a collar and all kinds of buttons, tucked into snugly fitting trousers that covered me down to my ankles, where socks and leather shoes took over. This climate was designed for flip flops, mesh shorts and tank tops. Anything more than that will suffocate you. (As an aside, anytime anyone back home asks about the weather, I want to play them this clip from "Good Morning Vietnam".) Luckily, our commute is a short walk, so I think I can manage that without completely saturating my clothes.

Finally, instead of relishing the relative freedom of Vietnam (compared to China) and enjoying a nice big bowl of pho upon arrival, we were greeted with mountains of bureaucratic paperwork. Naturally, there were also plenty of perks that came along with arriving in Vietnam as a diplomat in 2015 compared to a backpacker in 2013. We had a ride from the airport in an air conditioned van; a big, furnished apartment in the middle of town stocked with food, and a community waiting to welcome us. I can't imagine any better way to enter a foreign country than by being greeted with friendly faces.

This is all to highlight the differences in our new way of life - I certainly do not have any complaints, it will just take a little adjusting, that's all.

Last week was a particularly interesting time to arrive in Ho Chi Minh City. April 30 marked the 40th anniversary of the reunification of Vietnam. Here, it was a cause for official celebration. In America, I think it passed with more pain and reflection on past mistakes. Here, there was a military parade, numerous floats cruising down streets strewn with banners exclaiming "40 years." Dancers and acrobats performed for dignitaries just a few blocks from our apartment where, in 1975, a North Vietnamese tank entered the presidential palace and declared an end to a divided Vietnam. Just a few hours before that tank entered the presidential palace compound, the last few American Marines departed the U.S. embassy, ending a 48 hour helicopter evacuation of Americans and all the South Vietnamese citizens that they could manage. This past Thursday, on the 40th anniversary, about a dozen of those marines returned to the former embassy grounds (the site of the current U.S. consulate in Ho Chi Minh City) to remember two marines who were killed during the evacuation. It was a solemn occasion and a stark reminder of the legacy that we follow here in Vietnam as U.S. diplomats. The contrast between the celebrations going on over the consulate wall and the somber reflection happening within the wall was striking.

But I really have to stress the word "official" when describing the celebrations. This wasn't a fourth of July type party where everyone was out on the street whooping it up. The sidewalks were mostly empty and shops were closed up in accordance with the letters that went out advising people not to leave their apartments during the parade. The celebrations were televised and that was how the population was supposed to observe them. We were even discouraged from watching from our balcony or windows. This celebration wasn't really FOR the people of Vietnam, it was for the unity of Vietnam.

To be fair, we ended up leaving our apartment and watching the parade from the sidewalk in front of our apartment the morning of April 30th and nobody stopped us. We even took pictures of the soldiers as they marched by. Hundreds of police and military personnel lined the streets but nobody did anything to stop us. There were other Vietnamese people out watching, too, so we didn't just get a pass because we were foreign. I think the "orders" to stay inside were really just suggestions. I can only imagine the negative publicity that would have followed if policemen had forced residents back into their apartments, forbidding them to watch the parade marching by their front doors. By the looks of the thin crowds outside though, enough people heeded the warnings and stayed inside. It was a clever trick by the authorities: issue a draconian order with the hopes that a majority of the people self-enforce. I imagine that tactic is used a lot here.

At first, I compared the April 30th Reunification Day to our own July 4th. But that's not exactly right. Vietnam's independence day is September 2, when Ho Chi Minh declared independence from France in 1945. After having experienced April 30th here myself, I think I would compare it more to our own April 9 - the end of the Civil War at Appomattox Courthouse. I tried to imagine how April 9 was in, say, Richmond, Virginia, in 1905, 40 years after Grant surrendered to Lee. I can imagine that different segments of the population observed the day quite differently; some with triumph, some with weary sadness and some with ambivalence, more eager to forget about it and just move on. That was at least the mixture of sentiments that I observed on April 30 here in Ho Chi Minh City. It's funny, my first blog post about Vietnam was about how traveling through this country was like traveling through the various stages of historical economic development. Here I am, two years later using my experience in Vietnam to look back in time in a completely different way. I can't wait to see what else Vietnam has to teach me about time traveling.