The Vietnam program takes place in four different locations: Hanoi, Da Nang/the Cham Islands, the Mekong Delta/Can Tho, Ho Chi Minh City. I feel a strange tension being an American tourist in Vietnam but also not looking traditionally American in the sense that I am a person of color. We have discussed several important topics related to climate justice and they have informed me of how little knowledge I have learned about what environmental/climate justice looks like outside of a Western framework/perspective. In Hanoi, we were introduced to the subject of Agent Orange, a chemical defoliant sprayed over most of Vietnam during the Vietnam War to decrease the tree cover to spot Vietnamese soldiers. It resulted in developmental deformities in children that continue to this day. I was able to go to the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, and although it was extremely hard to see, there were so many pictures that showed how horrific these deformities were, and I was taken aback at how recent some of the photos were with dates such as 2000, 2004, etc. It’s easy for me to relegate the War to something of the past, but this experience made me realize how that is not true and to think that demonstrates my privilege in being able to learn about it versus actually having to live during it/with the effects. I also think it’s important to consider that, according to my program director, many Vietnamese people consider the War to be a civil war between the North and the South and as a struggle for unification/the creation of a national identity rather than a war against the United States. Perhaps it is my Western education and the guilt I associate with my identity of being an American at times inserting themselves into how I feel about being here in Vietnam when we talk about the war and the consequences of it.
We visited the Cham Islands for a couple days to conduct a research project by interviewing citizens about certain topics of interest. I was in the tourism group. This project was pretty contentious only because many people felt that it was extractive in that we were taking information from people’s narratives without genuinely forming connections with them before doing so and using this knowledge to inform our experiences and make assumptions/draw correlations for our benefit. My major takeaway was that people are dependent on tourism for their livelihoods. They have shifted away from fishing into running services that appeal to tourists because they have found them to be the most profitable–from running homestays since there are currently no hotels to operating walking/boat/snorkeling tours to owning restaurants or bars. This project raised some questions for me about how one goes about conducting ethical anthropological research when there is a language/cultural barrier.
We stayed in the Mekong Delta in a city called Can Tho. The Mekong Delta is extremely vulnerable to climate change impacts such as weather uncertainty, sea level rise, salinity intrusion, prolonged flooding and droughts, and erosion. It’s interesting because we have talked a lot about the environmental impacts of climate change, but it was hard for me to comprehend the extent to which it impacts people whose livelihoods depend on the land or water in that sense. I was looking forward to our Hydropower Dam and Resettlement Village site visit which would have shed some light on governmental role in these sensitive conversations and insights from people who were forced to move to make place for the dam. It was cancelled however. Being in a communist country for the first time, I often find myself reflecting on how we are presented information, by whom, and to what extent may that be the “truth” and what would be gained or lost by being taught in this manner. Often, our local faculty joked that they were censoring themselves because we were in a formal educational setting. I enjoyed hearing from Hong Hoang, founder of CHANGE Vietnam, an environmental NGO that focuses its work on Climate and Energy, Wildlife, and Sustainability because she continues to push back against the government due to her passion for the environment. A lot of their campaigns were incredibly creative such as Buy 1 Get 15 or the Plastic Karma campaigns. I’ve always felt drawn to the NGO realm, and Hoang’s work inspired me to think about how to raise public awareness and mobilize people through unconventional approaches and campaigns that initiate a cultural/mindset shift in how people think about the environment and their relationships to/with it.
It’s interesting to see the way that the coronavirus outbreak has impacted our program. Before we even came to Vietnam, our program directors informed us of the potential risks and precautionary measures we should take. One of my peers was not allowed to fly with us because he has a Chinese passport and we had a layover in Taiwan which banned Chinese people from entering. Our classes in Da Nang were cancelled because the government shut down classes and conferences from taking place. We’ve been wearing masks when we travel to new places or are in formal educational settings, and yet the act of wearing a mask is not something I have grown accustomed to and I’m sure that sentiment comes from a place of privilege. It’s strange to be traveling at a time when this is happening, and although I recognize that it is spreading, I feel less concerned than I feel like I ought to be.
It’s hard for me to consolidate all that I have learned in class, at site visits, and experientially during personal excursions. Also, I feel as though I am learning so much about myself and how I exist in different spaces, how I learn, how I build relationships with people and where I feel the most comfortable. I am looking forward to seeing how being in Morocco builds upon, shifts, or perhaps completely transforms all the different ways that I have been learning and living as a student, as a traveler, and as a human being.