In the clear now, so no worries, but earlier in the week, I had started to notice my right ankle swelling up and aching a lot. At first I was confused about whether it was a bruise or a mosquito bite, but as the pain and swelling grew and reddened, I quickly realized it wasn’t anything quite like I’ve experienced before. We did a lot of walking around the city, and I’d notice that the pain, sometimes dull and sometimes sharp, would dissipate if I walked a bit. But the second we’d stop or I’d stand still, the aching would return. I figured that it was probably some type of spider bite and the venom would diffuse through the bloodstream, ameliorating the pain when I stayed mobile. I heeded Dr. Robert’s advice, “Don’t be a hero”, and later in the evening told our assistant coordinators, An and Tuan, about it. Tuan said he could take me to an international clinic the next day if it felt worse, since CET doesn’t allow local clinics to provide treatment to us students. Luckily the next day, after some Benadryl (which made me incredibly sleepy) and Cortisone, the swelling and redness started to subside and in 2 days, it was all over. Whew!
Long post here fyi
This summer, I've been considering more deeply a career in urban planning. From an early age, I've always been interested and influenced by how cities are designed and how public spaces shape local identities, expanding beyond the infrastructure/engineering aspects of development to the way planning impacts human realities in a social, political, and philosophical sense. To learn more about whether I really want to pursue this in the future, I’ve visited planning grad schools and shadowed with professional planners at architecture/engineering firms before this trip, trying to soak up as much information as possible. So coming to Saigon, I already had these thoughts on urbanism floating in my mind.
Just flying into the city, you could see the streetlights and urban activity sprawl for miles on end -- HCMC is gigantic. Yet it seemed like there were few obvious gridded patterns in the way streets or squares were laid out, preferring webbed and interwoven networks radiating in and out of urban centers. And with so much rural-to-urban migration and undocumented living, the slums stretch on and on. Only the hearts of the districts bear semblance to any kind of central development. In Vietnam Rising Dragon by Bill Hayton, he describes in detail the processes by which the central government raided and evacuated thousands of residents to make room for Communist officials in the most desirable parts of town. This became hyper-obvious viewing Saigon from the Sky Deck in the Bitexco Financial Tower (the tallest in the city, inspired by the shape of a budding lotus flower). On one side, you’d see fancy hotels with golden adornments, and on the other, you’d see vast jumbles of shacks stacked upon haphazardly upon each other. Walking up to the Bitexco tower, you could see big name designer stores like Louis Vuitton, Christian Louboutin, and Hermes, among others. Our professor, Dr. Christophe Robert, uses the term “uneven development” to describe postwar Vietnam. And there’s still SO much ongoing construction on new skyscraper office buildings and luxury apartments, undoubtedly displacing many of those voiceless in the planning process. And if we only did one thing during our time in Vietnam, it should be to listen to the stories of these subaltern voices (as my former professor Catherine Admay would encourage me to do!).
(Update: After our lecture, it's really been eye-opening learning about how huge of an issue infrastructure is in this country. And much of it is due to American warfare. For example, right after the war, there were massive transport issues because the American military destroyed all the bridges to hinder mobilizing armies. Vietnam's ongoing progress on these infrastructural issues is not solely driven by the government, but by the hard work of the everyday citizens who have developed devastated streetscapes into fully functioning neighborhoods.)
Saigon can also be described by an amalgamation of foreign influences. Walking down a major street to dinner, we would see Chinese, French, Korean, Japanese, even Brazilian restaurants and stores lining the sidewalks. There are also many references to New York City such as in the names of buildings like Time Square Saigon or Union Square. Of course, French and European influences are apparent from the design of beautiful villas and the baguettes that can be found in any bakery.
Yet at the same time, there is a strong underlying presence of the Communist party in every aspect of the Vietnamese life. Hayton says that Vietnam has largely opened its doors to capitalism and Western cultural exchange. But the presence is undeniable. We’d see Ho Chi Minh’s face plastered on posters encouraging people to exercise. We’d see policemen in intimidating green military uniforms every which way on the streets. We’d see the bombing of the presidential palace as a victorious feat rather than a terrorizing attack. We’d go to a café styled as a Viet Cong military bunker. Then there is the ubiquitous flag, with its single yellow star on a red background. Many Vietnamese Americans, like my mom, find that flag disgusting and offensive (and somewhat taboo). Seeing it everywhere is somewhat shocking to me, yet it’s a lived reality for millions of Vietnamese citizens, and it’s a constant reminder that Communism won.
(Update: while perhaps a constant reminder to an outsider like me, Dr. Robert assures us that modern Vietnam is a mostly young population unconcerned with the war or with communism. Rather, the real issues today are education, healthcare, environment, and urban-rural and income inequality.)
But it’s also easy for us, as foreigners, to see things that aren’t there. For example, when the DJ at the nightclub denied Grant and Jared’s request to play “Every time we touch”, we would automatically think Oh maybe it doesn’t align with Communist ideals when really they just didn’t have the song. I look forward to learning more about the history and context of Vietnamese Communism and its role in the nation’s rapid urbanization.
Otherwise, recap of the last few days:
First off, Saigon is enchanting. The abundance of neon lights, the thick steamy air, the geckos scurrying across the walls. Even the cockroaches running around our feet (and by across I mean on top of) somehow adds to the mystical allure.
I kid. But only about their mystical allure.
If I can make one negative judgment about Vietnam from the get-go, it would be that crossing the road is an absolute NIGHTMARE. It is an honestly terrifying, near-death experience that no law-abiding citizen should ever need to face. In order to surmount the almost overbearing hordes of motorbikes, cars, taxis, and buses, one must strike that perfect balance between passive carefulness and aggressive IDGAF-ness. There is a popular t-shirt sold in the markets which depicts a traffic light, with descriptions next to each color.
Green: I can go
Yellow: I can go
Red: I still can go
(Vietnam Traffic Rules)
And in addition to the dangerous intersections, the sidewalks themselves are fair game to motorbikers. Broken tiles and debris-littered paths, unexpected carts spilling onto sidewalks, and parked bikes crowding corners also pose potential hazards to the unaware pedestrian.
Okay I’m only slightly exaggerating about how awful it is. It's also important to realize that we just have to trust and accept that this is the way things are in Vietnam. I’m sure we’ll get used to it and by the end of our time here, we’ll be navigating the streets like a champion frogger.
Aside from that, highlights from the past 2 days include:
At this point in the trip I have lost all sense of time and day. After a 13+ hour flight from Chicago, Andrew, Harry, and I were ready to stretch our limbs and check out Dubai on our 12 hour layover. We regrouped with Katrina, Diane, and Austin, who arrived just minutes after us from the West Coast. Stepping out into fresh air was a nice surprise...when the fresh air was actually a steaming oven not even black mold could enjoy. After a solid 15 minutes of confused sprinting around the arrivals area, we finally hopped onto the shuttle for our hotel. I have no qualms about embarrassing myself in front of locals, so I chatted with folks at the currency exchange and transportation info to get more deets about exploring Dubai. It was then that I realized how grateful I was to be in a city where most people did still speak English. Not for long though.
It was brainstorm time. Harry the Navigator, Diane the Mapkeeper, I the Treasurer, Austin the Bodyguard, etc. We each had our roles. I had some 165 dirhams to spend, and we had learned from the hotel desk that the mall and Burj Khalifa would close at midnight. It was already past 10. While waiting for a cab, we checked out our rooftop pool which had an amazing view of the city skyline on one side and the bustling goliath of an airport on the other.
We took the taxi to the Dubai Mall, aka the largest mall in the world (by total area) and most visited building in 2011. It was stunning. The waterfall, the fountains, the lamborghini display, the gold decorations, the high-end designer shops, the waterfront promenade overlooking the city’s crown jewel, the Burj Khalifa. It was simply awe-inspiring. I remarked that I could definitely envision myself wanting to live here one day. Then again, as I understand from my Cultural Anthropology classes, Dubai’s economic progress outpaces its social progress. While less conservative than surrounding regions, things like identifying as homosexual are still punishable up to death.
But it really was in one word: opulent. So much light. So much glamour. Maybe it was only the Burj Khalifa, but the entire city seemed to sparkle. We walked around the promenade and down a path of string light-wrapped palm trees before heading back.
Though we were only here for a short while, we certainly got our taste of the City of Gold.
I just bid my farewells to my last group of friends before the big trip (S/O to Collin aka birthday boy, Natalie, Laura, Danielle, and Brie for a fab brunch). Got my last haircut ($5 Great Clips is the real deal - although I don’t know how expensive haircuts are in Saigon). And FINALLY started packing for the next 2 months of my life.
Given that it’s both my dad’s birthday (too) and my last full day in Columbus, we had a big family get-together with my aunts and uncles on my mom’s side. I guess now would be a good time to clarify and actually introduce myself. HELLO! My name is Jason Ng and I am a rising junior engineering student at Duke University. I love to play cello, read about urban design, drink almond milk, and ride roller coasters. I admit to watching PBS Kids every now and then, and I relish the art of fine typography. Okay now, see, what’s significant is that my mom’s side of the family is Vietnamese, having fled the country in the early 70’s in the midst of the Communist takeover. In fact, my eldest uncle was a former American soldier during the Vietnam War, and after meeting my aunt, helped my mother’s family escape on an intrepid journey by sea. So the fact that I carry this piece of history with me in my genes and heritage makes this DukeEngage program resonate with me on a very deep level.
Each one of my Vietnamese relatives has been warning me about every travel threat possible in Vietnam...Especially my mother...
Don’t drink the tap water! Or drinks with ice cubes!
I heard about a woman who sat down in a movie theater seat and was pricked by a needle containing HIV. People are sick in this world!
They’ll bleach those coconuts to make them look fresh!
If a stranger asks you to carry something for them, don’t help! It could be drugs and foreigners can be executed for carrying drugs!
My oh my! Or should I say (as my mom loves to) trời ơi!
That said, I am nervous to travel abroad for the first time, but excited for what awaits. Cliché I know. Hopefully my blogging skills will improve over the next few weeks. Until then, folks!