Paying Our Respects to Bac Ho’s City
The first four days of our program in Vietnam found us immersed in Ho Chi Minh City, known as Saigon prior to the triumph of the North in 1975 following three decades of the “French Indochina” and “American Wars.” Named after the founder of the Vietnamese Communist Party, Ho Chi Minh is beloved by many Vietnamese as “father of the nation” and referred to affectionately as Bac Ho, Uncle Ho. Following our 30+ hour flights across the Pacific and a fourteen-hour time shift from Missoula, we wasted little time before starting our program with a two-hour briefing at the US Consulate in downtown HCMC. Economics officer Brian Neubert, Consular office Ted Diehl, and Public Affairs officer Thomas Tanner were very generous with their time and insights in helping us to understand the current context of U.S.-Vietnam relations: very positive in terms of bilateral trade and increased cooperation in security and military patterns, but more challenged in areas of human rights as the U.S. continues to have concern over the Vietnam Communist Party’s “narrative of control” expressed especially in the lack of freedom of the press and lengthy criminal sentences given to journalists perceived as threatening the security of the state. Vietnam, like China, continues to walk the tight-rope of a single party communist government embracing a full throttle market economy in what scholar Jonathan D. London terms “Market Leninism.”
The consulate briefing was very helpful in setting the historical context for our afternoon immersion in the War Remnants Museum, that graphically portrays a Vietnamese perspective on the history of the “American War” and the extensive damage and suffering it inflicted on the Vietnamese people. The section on the effects of Agent Orange on both the civilian population and natural landscapes is particularly poignant and hard to absorb. According to Wikipedia, “between 1962 and 1971, the United States military sprayed nearly 20,000,000 US gallons (76,000,000 l) of material containing chemical herbicides and defoliants mixed with jet fuel in Vietnam, eastern Laos and parts of Cambodia, as part of Operation Ranch Hand. The program’s goal was to defoliate forested and rural land, depriving guerrillas of cover; another goal was to induce forced draft urbanization, destroying the ability of peasants to support themselves in the countryside, and forcing them to flee to the U.S. dominated cities, thus depriving the guerrillas of their rural support and food supply… Vietnam estimates 400,000 people were killed or maimed, and 500,000 children born with birth defects as a result of its use. The Red Cross of Vietnam estimates that up to 1 million people are disabled or have health problems due to Agent Orange.“ [See the next blog entry by David Schaad for a follow-up on the ongoing effects of Agent Orange in Vietnam.]
The terrible legacy of the war on both Vietnam’s civilian population and natural ecosystems has made all the more poignant the warm hospitality we have received from everyone we have met. Saturday afternoon took us to Nong Lam University to meet with students and faculty involved in climate change and environmental issues through the student 350 Vietnam club [see blog entry to follow by Sara Anderson for more on student environmental groups in Vietnam]. Driving under a banner that welcomed the delegation from the University of Montana, the warmth an excitement among our Vietnamese hosts was palpable as we got off the bus and entered the conference room. One shy student said she had not been able to sleep the night before she was so excited by our visit.
A highlight of the visit was a talk by Dang Thao Huong on her master’s research on the potential for sustainable use native bamboo as a biofuel in order to protect native bamboo forests and habitat from further deforestation. Huong visited the University of Montana a few summers back on a State Department sponsored exchange and is wild about Montana; she was our primary host during our days in Ho Chi Minh City, and in addition to presenting her research, she arranged for us to participate in a traditional Vietnamese tea ceremony, a traditional water puppet show, a visit to a Buddhist pagoda, and celebrating New Year’s Eve last night in downtown Ho Chi Minh City.
On Sunday we took a break from the intense energy of Ho Chi Minh City and drove two hours east to the Can Gio Mangrove Nature Reserve. We were fortunate to be hosted by Dr. Nguyen Van Be of Can Tho University who is an expert on mangrove forest ecology and has been working in Can Gio since 1985. Can Gio was nearly completely deforested by Agent Orange during the Vietnam War; it was a sign of hope to see how much it has recovered through intensive restoration and conservation projects now spanning several decades.
Two highlights of our visit were visiting a family sustainable shrimp farm and being hosted by them for a traditional rural Vietnamese meal, and then helping to plant mangroves as part of the ongoing restoration work in the reserve. [For more on shrimp farming and aquaculture, see the entry by Rennie Winkelman later in the course. For more on mangrove ecology and restoration, see the entry by Aimee KellyDickinson next week. For more on issues of wildlife and biodiversity in Vietnam, see the upcoming entry by Milo Anderson.]
Our time in Ho Chi Minh City culminated on New Year’s Eve when we joined hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese citizens to ring in the new year – half of them, at least, cruising the downtown in an endless stream of motorbikes that defies the imagination of how they can negotiate the traffic and pedestrians with virtually no accidents. Ben Simonson and Harper Kaufman were picked out for interviews by Vietnam TV, which added to the fun. The joy and exuberance throughout the downtown seemed in many ways to exemplify the dynamic and entrepreneurial spirit for which Saigon and the southern Vietnamese long have been known. [For more on social relations in Vietnam, see the upcoming entry by Ben Simonson.]
And now we have left Ho Chi Minh City for the quieter environs of Can Tho City and province. On New Year’s Day we drove through miles of lush green rice fields and endless canals of the Mekong Delta to reach this Delta hub; tomorrow we begin our formal program focusing on Climate Change in the Mekong Delta with our hosts at Can Tho University. Check out this blog for additional entries by Hailey Jorgenson on Agriculture in the Mekong Delta, Ellen Brandell on Food in Vietnam, Rebecca Singleton on Responding to Climate Change and Madison Matthews on Climate Change Education; Michelle Harkins on the famous floating markets of Can Tho, Milan Vinks on water rights and management, Harper Kaufman on the place of Buddhism in Vietnam, Ada Montague on ecotourism and possibilities for fly fishing, and Justin Harkins on Vietnam’s National Parks. We are excited by what we have learned so far and energized to dig in further in our remaining time here. Please join us in this adventure!