Salaam to Long Roads
Our month in Vietnam began with gray and ended with green. Hanoi was cool when we arrived, under a consistent fog that condensed pollution to mouth level, and its southern, urban counterpart was brightened by the flow of motorbikes across the streets into the sidewalks, the heat and roundabouts that blended color with movement.
Mid February to mid March is enough time to learn how to bargain for mango prices, to transition and fall into step in a new time zone, to feel versed in the corners of a city, and learn about patterns. And yet, one month has its limits. I simultaneously loved our time in Vietnam and felt ready for the next step of the journey when it started to come to a close, when I woke up to run past the red bridge and the rice paddies and rode on the back of my host uncle’s motorbike, on our last morning, to the bus stop.
Our group traveled around a substantial amount in that month, experiencing as individuals and as a collective, and lived with host families in Hoi An for about two weeks. We learned about Vietnam and its challenges in adaptation to and mitigation of the impacts of climate change, manifesting themselves in different regions and on varying levels (I wrote a piece for TSL about coastal erosion, also pictured above).
As such, those final days in Ho Chi Minh City (spent debriefing, wandering, packing and repacking, and enjoying our final night on a rooftop) were also crucial for processing a certain part of Vietnam’s recent history beyond conversations and speculation.
“It is a harsh way for America to learn.”
This is what a Vietnamese doctor said to American War correspondent John Mecklin about the sudden death of photographer Robert Capa. They’d found Capa after an explosion, capturing what he had imagined to be a “beautiful story,” according to Mecklin’s account in the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. “Bitter Rice,” the plaque read, was the intended title for the project.
Visiting the War Remnants museum during the last few days in Vietnam, after hearing snippets about the war in discussions about climate change, trips on buses, and visits to ancient cities, felt haunting and wrong, ironic. There is an evidently different angle portrayed on the walls of the open-air museum than the common narrative that’s told, or untold, in the U.S.
As I’ve learned from a few history classes I’ve taken in college and on this program, the Vietnam War is both erased and ever present, in ways that the American public doesn’t necessarily acknowledge. Its legacy of war reporting and foreign intervention carries on in the Middle East and on our television screens, but the underlying, pained feelings of shame linger and have the power to shut down deeper understandings of the United States’ intervention, of the desire to maintain power and political-economic interests.
“…All republics and democracies in history have something in common,” Adam Gopnik writes in a recently published piece in The New Yorker. “They are fragile… Democracy remains more delicate than we imagine.”
The opposition to American involvement, framed in photographs of signs and protests in India, Brazil, England, Chile, France, South Africa, and many others, spans the first floor of the museum. There are photographs of horrific violence and brutalities against soldiers and civilians on both sides. The museum exposes the story of a war, in images and manifestos and political documents, that unnecessarily barreled out of control.
It’s not a beautiful story; and it is still happening. America hasn’t learned yet.
This was an important way to conclude Vietnam, for reinforcing the importance of thinking through histories that can so easily slip into the vague space of past violence. In the initial transition between Asia and Africa, it’s been interesting to see how these stories overlap and intersect. Morocco and Vietnam are both former French colonies.
Now, in Rabat, Morocco, my friend Sophie and I speak a combination of English, French, and Darija with our host family. Each night, over khobz (bread) and tangim (a shared dish of vegetables and spices), we exchange and repeat short new phrases in the Moroccan dialect of Arabic, which itself has a fair share of French and Francophone influences. Our group has a survival Arabic class each day, in between guest lectures and class at the Center for Cross Cultural Learning, an old, multi-story tile house repurposed into a language center in the medina.
Though we’ve only been in Morocco for about a week, I feel that this portion of the journey has thrown me into the mix of things in a way that Vietnam did not. I’m thoroughly enjoying Rabat and getting to know the medina, traveling with my host family, exploring nearby Roman ruins and running along the city’s coastline. I’ve been looking forward to traveling to Morocco for a long time, but ultimately, I had no idea what to expect. I’ve learned that this, the jumping into the unknown and keeping one’s expectations out of the equation, is one of the things that I love most about traveling and experiencing new places.
Last weekend, my host family asked Sophie and I over dinner if we would like to accompany them to a nearby village the next day, where there might be snow. Happy and very grateful for the invite, we said yes and didn’t think much of it, since our host mom said that we’d be leaving at an unspecified “good hour” the next day.
As it turns out, good adventures begin with unexpected wake ups. Around 5:20 a.m., we woke up to knocks on our door and a ten-minute warning to get out of bed and on the road. Quickly, our day evolved into a long car journey without acknowledgement of any ending or stopping point. We watched Rabat turn into green and rusty, rocky countryside; then, into the arid desert that our host dad told us was “the Texas of Morocco,” and the foot of the Atlas Mountains.
For hours, we drove and listened to Moroccan radio as small mountains emerged in the distance beside the winding roads we passed along, and eventually reached what seemed to be a hub of domestic tourism. In a valley where there is usually skiing when it’s completely covered in snow, people ran up and down its sides, sliding and singing and taking videos among the patches of slush. We explored and went up onto the hills with our family, slipping into mud, laughing and still kind of wondering what was going on.
The only context we had for what we were doing, five hours outside of the city with no map or names, was the place we were at; and it made for an exciting day of wandering beyond our control. The day continued with stops along mountain roads and driving farther into the more rural regions of northern Morocco; our little sister helped us spot furry monkeys in the trees.
We ended up spending the night out in the mountains with our ‘rents, sister, and grandmother and going to a Hamam, a public bath-house where people come to clean themselves for prolonged periods of time. This particular hamam used sulfur as its cleansing substance, so we soaked ourselves and breathed in the eggy scents (ultimately, we were very content, and happily amused by the situation—and as it turns out, sulfur baths are a cool thing)…
Then, we had the chance to get henna drawn on our hands with our sister and grandma, and went to bed with socks slipped on over the drying ink. We returned to Rabat the next day, and less than twenty-four hours later, half-watched the road return to the awakening city.
It was an unexpected journey for a Sunday, but ended up being a roll-with-it adventure in the best kind of sense. Part of being on this trip is trusting whatever happens, and also realizing that there are different perspectives on space and spontaneity. This is something I really appreciate; Moroccans are incredibly warm and loving, and live much less dictated by strict and set ideas about the future. Space is communal and shared by those who pop in and out of houses, who arrive and depart periodically.
Space, in the form of land rights and claims to territory, is one of the primary issues that Morocco faces on both the political and environmental fronts. Just a few days before our departure to Morocco, there was a protest of approximately 1 million in Rabat against a statement that United Nations Chief Ban-Ki Moon made about Western Sahara, the region south of the country. Since 1975, it’s been a disputed territory, but Moroccans still view it as a part of their country, as their “southern provinces.”
Ban-Ki Moon referred to Western Sahara as “occupied territory,” and Moroccans reacted strongly against this. Many feel strong claims to the land and space of the south, due to history and ancestral connections.
In other ways, too, Moroccans are creating and shaping new ideas of space in the political sphere. The February 20th movement, during the 2011 Arab Spring, demanded a space for peoples’ voices to be heard, separate from the interests of the Makhzen (the king and surrounding elite/advisors). According to a journalist we spoke to about oppression in Morocco, the Feb. 20th Movement was a rally for victims of discrimination— with the common goal of freeing the press, creating a new constitution, and increasing recognition of human rights—regardless of political affiliations.
While our program explores many of the same themes in each country, Moroccan lectures and site visits are more geared towards human rights, land issues, gender dynamics, and the challenges that come with environmental activism within the country’s political structure. It’s a fascinating place to be, if not always with dynamics that I’m used to, and I’m very happy to be here.
This weekend, I’m headed to explore the northern, fountain-filled city of Fes with a few friends before our group will spend about a week in the Atlas Mountains. All is well here, and I’m looking forward to the next three weeks of exploring, learning Arabic, and a few days off for spring break in April. Onwards!
Talking in Power Terms
There is my home stay family’s rooster, who croaks and lets loose short morning calls in the hours before 5 a.m. The crickets. The whir and rubber roar of motorbikes. The traditional Vietnamese music from a nearby coffee shop that echoes throughout the house from 8 to 10 p.m. on Tuesday nights. The primary school kids across the street, up early and energized in the morning.
From city to city, this is a thing I’m noticing. Vietnam wakes up early and announces itself in sound.
The bulk of our month here, similar to the rest of the program, has been spent in cities and transitioning between. We’ve had the chance to see a range of places; first 4 million motorbikes and counting, chaotic Hanoi, then sleepy, riverside Hue, and now, Hoi An, a city of 90,000 in central Vietnam where I am living with a wonderful host family (who I spend a lot of time laughing with about my attempts at Vietnamese and the language barrier, in general). These three cities offer three pretty different jump off points for exploring and traveling, and I feel like I’m getting to know each place as completely separate from the others despite their commonalities.
Hanoi=deer in the motorbike headlights, smog, first impressions. Hue=rain, pagodas, and learning about bodies of water–aquaculture, mangrove forests, hydropower on rivers. Hoi An=bikes, the sun after a while away, more substantial conversations with our home stay families.
Today, though, something our lecturer made a statement about got me thinking on the linkages between cities, in the context of Vietnam:
“We are not going to survive in mega cities with sea levels rising.”
This is what community activist Đặng Hương Giang said when I asked her about what big urban centers in Vietnam, such as Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, could do to make progress in sustainability and community organizing for environmental improvement. We met with her earlier today to talk about her work on projects to create public spaces and increase organic farming with an NGO in Hoi An (and over the past five years, she’s seen major change and initiative taken by young people).
Her statement, in some ways, shocked and fascinated me. Urbanization is historically recognized as problematic on environmental and social levels, but more often than not it’s thought about in terms of adaptation.
It is easy to imagine the world in terms of cities, perhaps unintentionally, by geographically and economically thinking in terms of centers of power and governance when possible. More often than not, I ground my future life into place by thinking about cities for reference and starting points. My peers debate east versus west coast and grumble about New York, but a friend recently told me she is simultaneously mesmerized and completely turned off by the big apple. People orient themselves in new environments through the mention of urban centers. For better or worse, human beings have been drawn to creating places where life functions on an artificially vibrant level, long as they might for green and space.
Ms. Giang’s statement tied together so many of the ideas the past couple of weeks have made me think about. I tried to picture Hanoi slowly separating into smaller parts around its central lake as she argued that climate change is more solvable in small and medium sized chunks, as the country becomes increasingly vulnerable to climate change and unpredictable weather patterns (according to the World Bank, Vietnam ranks first in the world in vulnerability to rising sea levels).
As an activist, Ms. Giang has found it difficult to find hope in her time working to make change with the people of Hanoi. People are not interested in investing time or energy on these issues, she says. In a video project where she interviewed people about the question “whom does Hanoi belong to,” the majority of people said that the city does not belong to them. It is a place to work and earn money, and a place of development.
This urban narrative is nothing new. But what about when both cities and smaller towns, places, and homes don’t belong to the people who live there?
To avoid coal energy production and imports, Vietnam has significantly increased its energy production from hydropower dams in the past few decades. Though this has helped in providing electricity access to almost 100% of the population, an estimated 190,000 farming communities in close proximity to sites of construction will be displaced by current and future projects.
Late last week, we visited the Binh Dien Hydropower and spoke with the dam’s managers. Through a translator, they stated that the company has been successful in providing electricity to homes in Hue and its suburbs, while also providing compensation and land that resettled communities have been “fine” with. The dam was built to serve as a flood regulator, maintain water flow, and provide electricity to the provinces surrounding Hue.
Some of the locals we spoke with that were resettled by Binh Diet and other dams agreed that hydropower has had a positive impact in providing electricity to people in surrounding areas, but are deeply frustrated and affected by the government’s lack of attention to displacement. The government typically promises resettled communities better lives in new places, but has not kept many of its promises.
In many cases, the government has promised roads, schools, and access to health care in new locations, but allocated only small portions of guaranteed land that have made it difficult or impossible for displaced communities to farm on; two people that I interviewed said that people in their commune were promised 2 hectares of land, but only received 1/2 hectare per household.
Many people have had to take wage labor jobs in cities and resort to buying food, rather than growing their own crops because the land is not suitable for agriculture or forestry. Young people are generally less, if not at all, interested in remaining on farms. The majority of farmers are older people; younger generations head for the cities.
For the individuals I spoke with in a couple conversations, making a livelihood in the resettled communities is much harder, even if there is better accessibility to health care and education. Their attempts to hold the government accountable have gone unanswered thus far. They have organized to learn about new agricultural methods and adapt to growing other crops, but the land still acts as a barrier that didn’t exist before.
I’m still trying to imagine a world with shrinking and potentially dissolved cities, and I don’t know if that’s the answer, or even a fathomable possibility. But it’s a question to raise in beginning to address the contradictions of climate change in a country where cities are growing, as linked to rural communities that are isolated from the land they’re dependent on.
First Perceptions and A Bit of Vietnam
A little water-color, a lot of blue. The bruise that bloomed over San Francisco on Sunday morning seemed to ignite from the Bay Bridge, separating the blue above the hills of Marin. I ran along the pier in the early morning before my group’s departure to Vietnam, and up the winding stairs to Telegraph Hill’s Coit Tower to watch the sun rise. It was a beautiful, quiet send off in the hours before we, a herd of 31, hacky sacked and grooved out during our trek through the San Francisco airport.
The following fourteen hours above undisturbed darkness came as a welcome transition in our program’s shift between the initial two weeks in San Francisco and our month long stay in Vietnam. This trip felt surreal for much of the time preceding it, but there we were, crammed on a plane and breaking away from the backbone of knowledge about climate change and one another’s lives established in the States.
We, a group of 31 students from Stockholm, Vermont, California, Wisconsin and everywhere in between, have spent the past couple of weeks living and learning intensely—while also having a blast. I came to San Francisco on two hours of sleep, haphazardly packed 39-pound suitcase in hand, without much of a clue about what our time in the city would entail. I wasn’t left waiting long; IHP swept us up into a varied rhythm of classes, lectures, and site visits that kept our schedules packed tight for the first leg of our journey.
My fellow students are from colleges and universities all across the country, and we bring a wide range of academic focuses and different stories about where we come from to the program. This makes our perspectives different, in the best way possible, and we’ve managed to have a pretty fantastic time together so far: adventuring throughout San Francisco, taking over the lounge in a hostel with fellow travelers over shenanigans and bottles of beer, and now, (narrowly and laughably) escaping motorbike catastrophes each day when crossing the street in Hanoi.
We have class every day from about 9 am to 3 or 5 pm, depending. Often, it’s a mix of different types of lectures, interspersed with time for questions and occasional team building activities. Some absolutely incredible people have come to speak about their work, with case studies, data, and stories pointing toward injustices and corruption, the contradictions in our democratic system that have contributed to climate change, and the ways in which they’re fighting against environmental degradation.
How can humans play a role in fighting global warming, and effectively create change in the environment? How do we begin to change systems of injustice, and move forward with intention? Our class talks about these things—and our privilege and position as American students—a lot. We’re a group of primarily white twenty to twenty-two year-olds traveling to three continents, using gas and airline miles and fossil fuels to make these vast jumps in place. It’s absolutely important to acknowledge this, to realize how unusual and privileged this opportunity is, to experience the discomfort that these discussions provoke. And then, to do better by using our experiences to make real change, to have conversations, and to move forward with this new knowledge in tow.
In San Francisco, a walking tour of the Mission covered the city’s environmental history and how the geography of groundwater and aquifers has shaped development and industrialization. Our guide talked about how the city government is willing to spend millions of dollars on the marketing campaign that is Super Bowl City, but hesitant to fund affordable housing projects and support San Francisco’s homeless population. Throughout my time there, this became increasingly clear; more than any other city I’ve spent extensive time in in the United Sates, homelessness is an ever-present and un-escapable reality. It has become a sad, and very real, part of San Francisco’s landscape.
Scholars and academics lectured about the intersection between law and policy in climate change, about fracking, extinction, and oil, “the devil’s excrement.” We heard from community activists in Richmond, a historically minority populated city, who have faced vast injustices in terms of access to health care and education, police violence, proximity to the Chevron oil facility, and displacement, and how they are organizing to increase support and educate the community about these issues from the ground up.
We went to an open access garden that centers restorative justice in its mission of food justice and sovereignty: “when we share our seeds, we keep our stories alive,” Phat Beets co-founder Max told us during our tour, explaining how the garden regenerates on its own and through neighborhood community efforts. As it keeps fruits, vegetables, and plants alive, the Dover Street Edible Garden also preserves and carries histories within its walls.
On the mural-painted fence of the garden, there is a portrait of a woman, tinted blue and beautiful, smiling faintly behind a pair of apple trees. It’s an image that sticks and stuns.
She, a young Muslim woman, was shot several years ago in close proximity to the Dover Street neighborhood (in Oakland) when out at night. The garden aims to be a place of healing and solidarity for those who have lost loved ones to violence. People come together and gather there to share experiences and discussions, for and by the communities who are most vulnerable to racial and class related violence. Max, and other members within the community, seek to help individuals through restorative justice methods before they run into law enforcement. It’s an interesting and, perhaps, potential model for new systems of justice; it’s one of the places that has stuck with me the most so far.
In short, the past couple weeks have been incredibly eye opening, thought provoking, and a bit of a whirlwind. I feel very lucky to be here, and I wouldn’t want to be spending these next few months learning in any other way.
Now, we’re here in Hanoi, a city that I’m still trying to fully grasp and get a feel for. The capital of Vietnam, it’s a city of 7.5 million people and, as our tour guide told us upon arrival, almost 4 million motorbikes. On the outskirts, Hanoi is bordered by rice fields that steadily turn into a blend of colored buildings and concrete, a consistent slew of motorbikes and cars that zig-zag and wind expertly through its streets. The city awakens early, when loud speakers emit a lengthy message from the government (Vietnam is one of four socialist republics left in the world). Hanoi is a vast mix of smells and steam and sky that seems to hang low and heavy over the city. There’s a buzz and audible movement in the flow of traffic and humans in the streets.
On our first day here, we went on a mini tour of the city and visited the Temple of Literature, one of the oldest pagodas in the country where Vietnamese philosophers and leaders came to study Confucianism. Most week-days have been filled with lectures from Vietnamese academics and NGO workers, with nights free to sample street food (which is absolutely delicious-think pho, hot pots, spring rolls, variations of meat and tofu, and fresh veggies), dance our way through the Old Quarter, explore around the city’s lake, and wander.
Quite possibly one of my new favorite places in the world is Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO site about four hours away from Hanoi by bus. Twenty of us traveled there for the weekend, and spent an incredible two days cruising through the bay, kayaking, swimming, and absorbing the wonder that is Ha Long: lush islands of rock that emerge individually from the waters of the bay and extend into far away silhouettes. We spent two days out on a boat and one night on an island, with meals and a giant bungalow to house shared among all of us. At night, we danced and went swimming in the stunning phosphorescent water off our strip of beach. It was an absolutely magical weekend, and a relaxing time away from fast paced Hanoi.
We have one more full day in Hanoi before we head south to Hue, a rural city in Central Vietnam, for about a week, and then to Hoi An to spend about two weeks with local families in home stays. Much of our time here in Hanoi has been in the classroom, whereas we’ll be out in the field and starting our independent research projects in central and southern Vietnam.
I’ll leave it there for now, and go more in-depth about Vietnam when I haven’t rambled on for far too long… I’m very excited to continue traveling in this country for the next three weeks, exploring and learning and having a ridiculously good time with the people on this trip. Life is really, really good—so here’s to crossing new streets!