“Before you learn to read and write, you have to learn to be a human being.”

This quote is printed on the wall in every classroom in Vietnam. It is a quote coined by Ho Chi Minh, the founder of the communist party in Vietnam and the man widely known as the country’s father. I’ve been told that he is to Vietnam what George Washington is to the US, although I can’t quite gauge how accurate that analogy is. His reputation, like Mao’s in China, is a bit confusing, since anyone who publicly says anything less than flattering about him is arrested. Yes, arrested (he’s dead, by the way; has been since 1969). And there are ears everywhere. When I took a tour of his mausoleum in Ha Noi (the capital), guards stood everywhere, telling us how to walk (arms by our sides, either single file or two by two), and our tour guide, a lovely Vietnamese woman named Bick, kept telling us that she had to wait to explain certain things until we were back on the bus, not wanting to say anything controversial in public. To give a brief summary of the good side of the Ho Chi Minh story, he was an incredibly intelligent man who raised himself up out of nothing. He was the son of a teacher in a time when most of Vietnam was illiterate and controlled by the French (who wanted to keep most of Vietnam illiterate so as to be more easily controlled). Ho Chi Minh’s father wasn’t even allowed to educate his son; the latter gained his education by standing under the window of his father’s classroom and listening to his lessons from outside. He continued to educate himself throughout his life, and by the end of it was fluent in seven languages (can’t name them, but WOW; he learned Chinese in prison). He left Vietnam at a relatively young age and came back many years later to lead a movement for its independence; he succeeded and founded the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1945. He had a vision of a Vietnam where everyone would have equal opportunity and no group would be more privileged than the next (like the French had been). Anyhow, bad side of the story: he was a communist leader responsible for the deaths of many of his own people; we fought against him as the leader of North Vietnam (and of the Viet Cong) in the Vietnam War.  

Didn’t mean to go on an entire tirade about Ho Chi Minh, but it’s hard to know what to leave out in these blog posts, and he’s pretty important. Back to the quote, though – after spending about a week in Vietnam, both north (in Ha Noi) and south (in Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City), I’ve learned a little bit about Vietnamese people, and I think that this pretty accurately describes their mentality. I came into Vietnam not knowing too much about it as a country. I had seen bits and pieces of movies about the Vietnam War, but I knew embarrassingly little about the intricacies of our involvement in the war, and even less about the country as a whole. In a way, it’s a shame that the war taints our vision of Vietnam so much – its history goes back much further than the sixties. However, Vietnam, as one of the smallest countries in Southeast Asia, has been ravaged by war pretty constantly since the beginning of its history. War is a part of its genetic make-up, and yet it has managed to remain, impressively, its own unique entity.

Vietnam is beautiful. The morning that we pulled into port, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I got up early to sit up on the seventh deck, outside, as we sailed down the Saigon River. It was sunny and hazy, and smelled hot and dusty, the way I remember Egypt smelling when I was there seven years ago. I breathed it in in gulps, feeling exhilarated and nostalgic at the same time. We passed tropical banks full of endless palm trees in all directions, breaking only for secret rivers seemingly made for the tiny junk boats and canoes flowing by. I hadn’t been so excited for a port yet on the trip; something about it felt so free to me. And it is, in a way. Because Vietnam is so poor, so bent on building itself back up from war, it will do anything to get there. It is technically a “second world country,” and it has a certain feeling about it. For example, because cars are so expensive here (almost twice the American price, because of taxes), everyone rides motorcycles. I was told on my first day that Saigon is home to 9 million people and 6 million scooters. It’s not hard to believe: seas of scooters whiz by on every street, and crosswalks rarely have traffic lights - crossing the street is inevitably a leap of faith, as the only way to do so is to walk out into it, neither stopping nor breaking into a run, as cars and motorcycles swerve around you. Vietnam, moreover, is full of entrepreneurs - everyone does something to earn money; I only saw one beggar on my entire trip. People make and sell whatever they can to earn a living. Vietnam feels free because it is not built on bureaucracy and laws and licenses, no matter how much the government does try to enforce those. People do what they can to make do. In Ha Long Bay, some people even live in a floating village (literally in floating houses) and make money by driving small boats around to try to sell food and souvenirs to tourists on bigger boats (of which I was one the other day). I don’t know, maybe I’m not expressing myself well enough, but Vietnam does have a very special do-it-yourself quality to it; it is unlike anywhere I’ve even been.

What really amazes me about Vietnam – and this gets back to the quote – is its people. For a people that have been through so much, they are incredibly friendly and, seemingly, just plain happy. They smile more than any culture I have ever met, and they mean it. They greet Americans with respect and genuine interest, despite the atrocities we committed on their soil in the not too distant past (though I’ve heard those who are old enough to have actually witnessed the war have a harder time with this). As a largely Buddhist culture, as Bick explained to our tour group, Vietnam lives in the belief that the past is the past – to “move on” is what is encouraged of the new generations, and that’s all they can do. Every family in Vietnam lives with a deeply saddening horror story on its shoulders because of the war (the American war, as they know it). I heard a few, and they tell of a kind of hardship that is still unfathomable to me. And yet they bravely move forward, smiles on their faces.

Being in Vietnam brought up a lot of emotions for me. Throughout my time here, and for the first time in my life, I felt ashamed of my own nationality. Despite Vietnam’s resilience, reminders of the war that we brought here are everywhere. I expected to meet hostility as I walked around speaking English, knowing that I might be blamed as an American for the struggles and sadness that face so many Vietnamese people today. And, though hostility was nowhere to be found, my shame didn’t go away. However, I learned something invaluable: much of learning to be a human being is learning to forgive, and Vietnam does that beautifully.