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Meeting Vietnam

My memories of Vietnam begin in childhood. Rice paddies, in black and white. Strange skinny faces, unlike any I’d ever seen in my little hometown. Those funny round pointed hats. And, of course, helicopters, fascinating and frightening beasts, the blast from their rotors flattening the tropical grass as they came in for a landing, and then the soldiers, one hand on their helmets, the other carrying their M16s, jumping, running, disappearing into the jungle. It was quite a show, almost every night.

A few years passed, and childish fascination gave way to righteous adolescent rage, tinged with fear as the time drew near to register for the draft. By then it was 1972, I was a college freshman and the war was so unpopular it seemed it must soon end, but still my friends and I were tense as we gathered in my dorm room on draft lottery day. My number came up 342, so high that any fear of being drafted was finished. That year I took part in the tail-end of the antiwar demonstrations, and even managed to get tear-gassed, to my great satisfaction. Then came the 1973 Paris Peace Accords and the withdrawal of our troops, and I, along with the rest of America, pretty much stopped thinking about Vietnam.

Until 1975, that is, when North Vietnam invaded the south, and we were all briefly transfixed again by images of helicopters, this time lifting off from our embassy roof in Saigon, carrying the last Americans away in abject defeat, and a desperate few of our Vietnamese allies into exile. And with that, my involvement with Vietnam came to an end, revived only every now and then by movies like “Apocalypse Now” and “Platoon.” But still, for my generation, few words hold more powerful and complex associations, meanings, and memories than the name of that far-away country, that symbol of American defeat, that place I never hoped to be: Vietnam.

Fast-forward almost 40 years. I work at the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Lab in Ashland, part of the US Fish and Wildlife Service. The Lab’s mission is to provide scientific support to federal wildlife crime investigations, and the evidence we receive spans the world, from Oregon eagles to African ivory. Recently, we’ve been hearing more and more about Vietnam. The country has emerged as a rising economic power, with a new wealthy class willing and able to spend money on luxury goods. Unfortunately, “luxury goods” in Vietnam (as in China and other Asian nations) include a wide variety of wildlife products, including ivory carvings, tiger bones, and rhinoceros horn.

Vietnam has received intense international criticism for its role in the illegal wildlife trade, particularly involving rhino horns from Africa. This trade has exploded in the past few years, threatening the extinction of the critically endangered black rhinoceros and reversing the recovery of the white rhinoceros, whose numbers had shown encouraging gains thanks to conservation efforts in South Africa.

Therefore, by 2012, Vietnam was on my mind again, but still I was completely unprepared when my boss came into my office one day and asked “How would you like to go to Hanoi?” He told me that the government of Vietnam had asked the U.S. State Department for help combating the illegal traffic in rhino horn. The State Department in turn had put out the call for a scientist with wildlife law enforcement experience to work in Vietnam through a program called the Embassy Science Fellows. And so (to make a long story short), on June 14, 2013 I found myself getting off a plane in Hanoi. For the next two months, I worked in partnership with the Vietnam government office concerned with wildlife trade (officially, the Vietnam Management Authority for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora; let’s shorten that to CITES MA, shall we?). This work was mostly in the fascinating city of Hanoi, the political and cultural capital of Vietnam, but also involved visits to Ho Chi Minh City (you may remember it as Saigon...), the Mekong Delta, and the coastal city of Nha Trang, as well as the Chinese border town of Lon Sang and the tourist center of Halong Bay. So, come along: let’s meet Vietnam.

First Impressions. My first reaction to Vietnam — like those of almost every other first-time American visitor — was surprise: surprise at the economic dynamism of the country, at the friendliness and youth of the people, at the seemingly complete physical and psychological recovery from the war. Upon deeper experience, I revised these initial impressions somewhat, but there is no question that today’s Vietnam reveals the remarkable energy, work ethic, and resilience of its people. Vietnam seems to be far less haunted by the war than is America. This makes sense, I guess — they won, after all. But when you learn more about the damage done by the war, especially by the American bombing campaign, the recovery is astonishing.

The other overwhelming first impression is how you just can’t escape Ho Chi Minh. Statues of Vietnam’s great revolutionary leader seem to stand in every city center, and his face is on every denomination of Vietnam’s currency, the dong. Upon his death in 1969, Ho’s body was carefully embalmed and it has been on public display since 1975 in a mausoleum that dominates the heart of Hanoi. To this day, a long line forms every morning, citizens from every corner of Vietnam come to pay their respect to the man who is truly the father of their country.

My most memorable encounter with Ho Chi Minh came in Saigon, the capital of the regime he defeated, the city his soldiers conquered and renamed in his honor. There, Ho’s black granite statue sits with his back to the ornate building that was the center of French colonial administration of Indochina, the first object of Ho Chi Minh’s revolutionary struggle. “Uncle Ho” is depicted with his arm around a young child, who gazes up at him in adoration. Ho looks resolutely forward, undoubtedly envisioning the utopian socialist future. In fact, the square is now the heart of Ho Chi Minh City’s luxury shopping district, and Ho is surrounded by Burberry and Gucci boutiques, and he is looking straight toward an international bank.

Every night, after the adoring hordes depart, Ho must be turning over in his mausoleum.

A Tale Of Two Cities: Hanoi And Ho Chi Minh. Spend any time in Vietnam’s two great cities, and comparisons to New York and Los Angeles inevitably come to mind. Like New York, Hanoi is its country’s proud capital of high culture. It’s also Vietnam’s political capital, whose no-nonsense insiders can cop an attitude that any New Yorker would respect. Ho Chi Minh City (or HCM, as it’s commonly called), on the other hand, exudes a vibe that manages to be both laid-back and frenetic, friendly and mercenary. While “world brands” have made few inroads into Hanoi except for the occasional KFC, HCM revels in Starbucks and Benneton, Pizza Hut and Esprit. Most American visitors, I suspect, will feel more at home in HCM, but Hanoi preserves more of the unique flavor of Vietnam.

Food. And speaking of flavor…One of the great rewards of a visit to Vietnam is the extraordinary cuisine. Though the apartment that I shared with two earnest young Embassy interns had a small kitchen, I did almost no cooking, because a fantastic meal could always be bought on the street for a couple of dollars. Every morning I walked out my door and bought banh (wonderful pointed buns, sold by women who peddle their laden bicycles through the dawn streets) and the day’s supply of fruit (those mangos! those pineapples!). You can find street markets everywhere in Hanoi, and a morning visit is part of the daily routine. The Vietnamese take great care over the freshness and quality of their food, and they almost always cook with ingredients bought that morning. It was striking that one of the most frequent complaints I heard voiced against Vietnam’s age-old foe, China, was that the food they export to Vietnam is unhealthy and loaded with chemicals. That, the Vietnamese could not forgive.

What were my favorite Vietnamese dishes? I must admit that I never really fell in love with pho, the complex and aromatic soup that is perhaps the most famous Vietnamese specialty. This may be because I don’t eat beef, and chicken-based pho just isn’t the same. But there is so much else: bun cha, a classic street lunch of pork with rice noodles and cilantro; cha ca, grilled fish with lime, shredded carrots, and dill; goi xoai, sublime green mango salad with chilies, fish sauce, and prawns… and that’s not to mention the many dishes whose names I never learned. Not every new dish was what I expected, but each one was an adventure.

Culture. Whether you’re immersed in the roar of the motorbike-choked streets or the silence of a country temple, every moment spent in a country as foreign as Vietnam is a cultural experience. There is no better place to begin your education than Hanoi’s Old Quarter. It’s all here, in this cacophonous maze of streets and alleys, established in the 13th century as the “36 Streets,” each one given over to a traditional mercantile guild: the silversmiths and the cobblers, the silk dyers and the spice merchants. This segregation endures today to an amazing extent, though some of the traditional guilds have been replaced with new ones, such as the street of motorbike-helmet sellers. The Old Quarter is also home to two of Vietnam’s most distinctive cultural treasures: water puppets and the traditional music known as ca tru.

Ca tru is a highly stylized and refined musical form recognized by the United Nations as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of World Significance. Traditionally, it features three performers: a singer (who punctuates her performance with staccato raps on a bamboo bar), a player of the dan day, a long-necked stringed instrument; and a “scholar” who strikes a drum as a sort of commentary on the performance. The concert I attended was in a converted Confucian temple, and the incense-heavy atmosphere enhanced the mysterious power of the music. There was no “tune” discernable to my ears, but the emotional force of the singing, pushed from the singer’s chest through almost closed lips, was staggering. This was art of the highest order.

Water puppetry is a unique form of performance that originated in the Red River Delta of northern Vietnam in the 11th century. The “stage” is a waist-deep pool (originally, a flooded rice paddy), and the painted wooden puppets are controlled by rods beneath the water, manipulated by puppeteers hidden behind a screen. The stories range from the mythical, as magical creatures like dragons and firebirds enact heroic tales, to the broadly comic, as simple peasants flounder through the misadventures of everyday life. In keeping with the cultural ambitions of the two cities, the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater in Hanoi presents the form as high art, with live music and historical commentary, whereas the little water puppet theater in the History Museum of HCM is for kids, with a slapstick “Punch and Judy” style that kept the large audience of schoolchildren shrieking with laughter. I loved them both.

And Then There’s The War... American visitors to the bustling commercial centers of Hanoi and especially Ho Chi Minh City may wonder where the war memorials are — I know I did. But do some searching away from the glitzy shopping streets, and you will find sites that may teach you more than you wanted to know about the War of American Aggression, the Vietnamese name for what we know as the Vietnam War. Two of these sites in particular made an indelible impression on me: the Military History Museum in Hanoi and the Cu Chi Tunnels outside of Saigon.

The Military History Museum is a celebration of Vietnam’s long, long history of military conflict, from its recurring centuries-long wars with China to the successful anti-colonial struggle against the French to, of course, the War of American Aggression. It’s a big museum.

For American visitors, the most sobering exhibit is the outdoor display of shredded U.S. warplanes, piled up into a tower surmounted by the vertical tail of an F-111 fighter, its nose buried in the mass of wreckage. The statistics of the air war we waged in Indochina (Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia) are stunning: over 5 million sorties flown; 7 million tons of bombs dropped (over 3 times the total tonnage dropped in both European and Pacific theaters in World War II); over 1700 U.S. warplanes shot down, including 17 B-52s. In the final massive bombing raids of the war in December 1972, we dropped over 20,000 tons of bombs on Hanoi in less than two weeks, more than were dropped on London during the Blitz.

In a screening room in the museum, you can sit and watch grainy black-and-white footage of the city’s defenders bravely manning anti-aircraft guns as bombs rain down; of dazed survivors wandering down flattened streets; of the faces of the wounded in military hospitals. All of us have seen similar presentations on the Battle of Britain or Pearl Harbor, presentations designed to instill patriotism and pride in our fighting men — and revulsion toward the merciless enemy. I found it profoundly uncomfortable — and instructive — to sit through these newsreels of the Hanoi bombing raids surrounded by Vietnamese schoolchildren, who now and then stole a glance at me, then quickly looked away.

The Cu Chi Tunnels offer an even more intimate confrontation with the reality of the war. This complex of 75 miles of tunnels on the outskirts of Saigon was a crucial center of the Viet Cong resistance, allowing them to launch attacks on the capital of South Vietnam despite being subjected to continual carpet bombing. Today, a small part of the complex of underground tunnels, command centers, and hospitals has been restored and opened to tourists. The tunnels have reportedly been enlarged to allow for the larger size of foreign tourists. Well, I am by no means a large American, but my shoulders brushed the walls and my head scraped the ceiling as I crouched and shuffled along a seemingly endless (perhaps 100-yard) tunnel to reach the stairs at the far end. So eager was I to escape that I rose from my squat a few inches early, and managed to gash my head on the ceiling as I exited. Sitting at a first aid station as an elderly Vietnamese medic stopped the bleeding and applied a bandage, it did not escape my attention that I now bore a scar of the Vietnam War, 40 years after it ended.

Nature. I visited Cu Chi during a trip to the south that took me deep into the Mekong Delta, where I participated in an inspection of crocodile farms as part of my wildlife-trade work. Captive-bred Siamese crocodiles are raised for leather and meat in Vietnam under permits that are overseen by the CITES MA, and our visit was an inspection to verify that the farms were living up to their obligations. They did indeed appear to be doing so. This positive was overshadowed for me by a sobering negative: the stunning absence of birds and other wildlife from the countryside of Vietnam. It is possible to drive for miles through a lush and beautiful landscape of rice paddies, lotus ponds, and villages shaded by mango trees and hardly see a bird. No egrets in the rice paddies; no kingfishers on the wires; no hawks in the sky.

I’m an avid birder, and the birdlife of Vietnam is among the most spectacular and diverse in the world. So it was a bitter disappointment to learn that almost all these birds are now restricted to a few national parks and the most remote corners of the country. Elsewhere they have been eaten, or if they’re blessed with a pleasing song, caught and caged. Most Vietnamese value wildlife, and indeed all of nature, for its utility — and only for its utility.

A utilitarian attitude toward nature has deep roots in the Confucian philosophy that remains a powerful influence in Vietnamese culture. I found that emotional appeals based on kinship with animals, or moral arguments related to the intrinsic worth of other beings, were likely to be met with incomprehension or indifference. This is a generalization, of course, and during my work I met inspiring exceptions, from the self-taught birding guide I hired on a visit to Cat Tien National Park to the dedicated young Vietnamese staff at conservation groups like Education for Nature Vietnam (ENV).

Still, to be an effective advocate for wildlife in Vietnam required explaining the practical value of preserving nature. Many Vietnamese live economically from day to day, and perhaps empathy is a luxury they cannot afford. Successful conservation campaigns in Vietnam emphasize economic benefits (such as preserving coastal mangroves that serve as nurseries for important seafood species) and costs (such as how rhino horn smugglers were also involved in such socially destructive activities as drug smuggling and human trafficking).

No foreigner during a short stay can hope to understand the complexities of another culture’s relationship with nature. All he or she can do is try to contribute as effectively as possible to the efforts of local colleagues. In this spirit, I taught classes in forensic identification techniques; shared the enforcement strategies and tactics that have been successful in the U.S.; and worked with the CITES MA on developing a campaign to reduce demand for rhino horn.

It is up to the Vietnamese to protect their own species and to stop the illegal wildlife trade passing through their country. In this battle as in so many others in their history, they face long odds. International cooperation can provide information, resources, and personal connections — all urgently needed by the small but dedicated cadre of Vietnamese conservationists. My mission, I hope, represented a small step forward on that long road.

People. I went to Vietnam thinking about history and about nature, but my most lasting memories are of people. Like the people in every nation, the Vietnamese are not all alike, and so instead of generalizations, I offer a handful of closing impressions. The Vietnamese are tough and they are generous; they are intensely proud of their country and they are fascinated by the West; they are bound by traditions and they are eager to learn. Perhaps this last characteristic is their most abiding. Throughout its long and difficult history, Vietnam has survived the Chinese, the French, the Americans, and has learned something from each of them.

One day, as I sat on a bench in the Hanoi Botanical Garden, I was hesitantly approached by an old man who bowed slightly and asked “Parlez-vous Francais?” We pieced together a conversation in the language of our distant memories, mine of a dusty high school classroom, his of French nuns in the colonial past that few Vietnamese now remember. Weeks later, I was having lunch at a sidewalk café in HCM, and three students edged up to me, their notebooks at the ready. After confirming that I was American, they earnestly asked me for five English vocabulary words. The first few I came up with were too easy, but in the end they happily went away to memorize “implacable,” “gracile,” “superlative,” “delectable,” and “pragmatic.” As they disappeared into the throngs of motorbikes, I realized that these words must have welled up from my jumbled impressions of their challenging, engaging, bewildering, and beautiful country. After forty years of trying to forget, I am so grateful that I finally got to meet Vietnam.

A frequent contributor to the Jefferson Monthly, High Country News, and other publications, Pepper Trail is an Ashland naturalist, writer, and photographer.  He is the ornithologist at the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory, and in his spare time leads natural history expeditions around the world.