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Our first full day in HCMC left us dichotomous emotions of eager anticipation and sorrowful contemplation.
We were beyond amazed by the simplicity, variety, and deliciousness of Vietnamese cuisine. Bánh mì (Vietnamese baguette sandwich), phở (noodle soup), bún thịt nướng (cold vermicelli noodle with grilled pork), and freshly made smoothies and juices are just a few things we tried in the short span of a day. On our first full day in HCMC, I got three smoothies, each costing 50,000 dong (approximately $2). At that time, we did not realize the privileges we hold by simply having the currency of dollars. Constantly we were commenting on how cheap something is or how something costs like nothing. Thinking back, I realized that we were inconsiderate of the implications of such statements: Vietnamese goods are devalued. The fact that we were consistently aware of the comparative materialistic value of goods suggests that we were not ready to be immersed in another culture. It wasn’t much later after we spent more time in Quảng Trị that we began to be more self-conscious of our privileges and practice a more frugal spending habit.

We also visited the War Remnants Museum that day. Although I read previous participants’ blog posts about their experience at this museum, I was not mentally prepared for the harrowing reality on this side of the history displayed at the museum.
I was immediately reminded of the war museum I visited in Korea. Fighter jets of both sides of the war lined up the surrounding of museum as if they are still guarding the stories and memories of the distant past. With some prior knowledge of Vietnam war from Ken Burns’ documentary, I thought I was ready to dive deeper into this tragic part of our history. Vu, our residential coordinator, asked us to keep an open mind and warned us of the singular perspective portrayed by the museum. First section was called historical truth. With the reminder of a potentially biased narrative in mind, I was unsurprised by the pictures, quote selections, and rhetoric utilize in the exhibit. However, I was most shocked by the several statistical graphs within this section: how much US aid for the French increase over time, the increasing trend of US army personnel and bombs used in Vietnam, etc… But it was odd that walking through the exhibit evoked no emotion in me; afterall I have no idea what a war is like. I have neither been a part of military training in America nor personally witnessed a war. This feeling of emptiness was scary. This inability to empathize and comprehend an event as catastrophic and ubiquitous as war was worrying.

Next section displayed photographs of the people and the environment during the war and its aftermath. The more I see the more incredulous I become. The degree of violence and inhumanity displayed by the photographs was unimaginable. The fact that the differences in ideology drove human to slaughter their own species is incomprehensible. It also shed light on the pragmatic consequences of war. Innocent people die because of political leader’s agenda to influence; whether it is to seize power among the people or manipulate a disadvantaged group for ulterior motive.

The most harrowing experience I felt was the section describing the impacts of Agent Orange. I personally felt that the use of Agent Orange by US was not only cruel but also hypocritical. The images captured in this exhibit made me difficult to breathe. These images were so vivid that the people who are suffering seem to be imprinted onto my eyelids. These victim’s bodies are so abnormal that they seem biologically impossible. Some have enlarged body parts, some have missing body parts, some have malformed body parts. My heart aches so much for the victims that it felt suffocating. At the time, a group of tourists wearing flowering t shirts, khaki shorts and flip flops exclaimed next to me: “They are so scary!” I felt instantly exasperated of their attitude and inconsiderateness. These photographs are the witnesses of someone’s life, representing a moment snippet of the reality of the victims of war and a microcosm of the impact of Agent Orange. One may feel that they are scary and gross, but one should realize that these moments that evoke displeasure are just ordinary moments in the victims’ lives.

I left the museum distraught and sad. It wasn’t until the next couple of days that I learned that the town we are living in, Quảng Trị, was one of the regions that were affected the most by US bombing and chemical agents. The ultimate cause of the relative disadvantages in the community were the destruction of natural environment for agriculture and the severe injuries and genetic defects of residents in this region. Both directly relate to the Vietnamese-American War. I was dejected after our visit to the War Remnants Museum, but at the same time I think my purpose and my mindset widened. I am no longer just a Duke student, but rather an American that wants to make recursive positive changes in a community that have been significantly impacted by my country until this day.