Between Old Saigon and Ho Chi Minh 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.” Following our 30+ hour flights across the Pacific and a fourteen-hour time shift from Montana, we checked into the Victory Hotel where Saturday morning Mr. Nguyen Tuan Khanh from the University of Social Sciences and Humanities oriented us to Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh City with an overview of the geography, history, and the current government structure of Vietnam.
Mr. Khanh’s 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.”
Following some time to debrief our first day together in Vietnam, we enjoyed a group dinner with a wide array of traditional Vietnamese food at the Nha Hang Ngon Restaurant, located in an old French Villa in the old center of Saigon.
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. [See the next blog entry by Zach Bauerle for a discussion of the effects of Agent Orange on Vietnam’s biodiversity and efforts at restoration of mangroves at Can Gio Nature Reserve.] 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.
Monday morning we began our formal program in Ho Chi Minh City with a visit to the US Consulate where Economics Officers Nathan Lane and Jonathan Quan as well as Public Affairs Office Anna Dupont gave us an excellent overview of US policy toward Vietnam, focusing on both the promise of Vietnam’s economic development to lift Vietnam into the ranks of middle income nations in less than 30 years, as well as ongoing human rights concerns, particularly about labor rights, transparency in the rule of law, and freedoms of expression.
A highlight of our time in Ho Chi Minh City was a visit to The International University, set up by Dang Thao Huong, who visited the University of Montana a few summers back on a State Department sponsored exchange and has greeted all four UM groups that have visited Vietnam since then. The International University was founded in 2003 as the first English-speaking university in Vietnam, with 5200 students who take all their courses in English. After touring their impressive facilities and talking to several engaging students, we hear excellent presentations on “Pesticides and Environmental Problems in Agriculture by Dr. Le Quoc Tuan, Dean of the School of Science and Environmental Studies at nearby Nong Lam University, and “Benefits and Problems of the Flood Control System in the Mekong Delta by Dr. Pham Tho Hoa of the School of Biotechnology at IU. Huong presented some of her own research on “Management of Natural Resources in Restoring Mangroves in the Coastal Zone of Soc Trang Province.” Huong 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.
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. 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.
And now we have left Ho Chi Minh City for the quieter environs of Can Tho City and province. Yesterday we drove through miles of lush green rice fields and endless canals of the Mekong Delta to reach this Delta hub; today we began our formal program focusing on Climate Change in the Mekong Delta with our hosts at Can Tho University. We are excited by what we have learned so far and energized to dig in further in our remaining time here.
Please check back to this blog regularly to join us in this adventure!