Greetings from Hue, Vietnam! After spending the first week in southern Vietnam, we have spent the last two days in the more centrally located city of Hue. As the former capital city of Vietnam, there is a plethora of history to be explored. First, we spent time at a traditional Buddhist pagoda then made our way to the Forbidden City where the former kings of Vietnam used to carry out their daily activities. Both sites provided us with great architectural beauty and an understanding that Vietnam is more than just an economically booming country filled with bustling streets. However, many of us couldn't help but notice how many other tourists surrounded us and thus cause us to question the authenticity and purpose of these historical sites. As we walked through the pagoda, hundreds of tourists walked around snapping pictures while a small number of traditional Vietnamese attempted to pray at the alter and use the pagoda for its original purpose. Have they become too commercialized with the purpose of only attracting tourists or is there still true cultural significance to them? In the rapidly changing country of Vietnam where growing the economy has taken precedent and things are becoming more westernized, our class pondered whether these historical sites are necessary to maintain a sense of national unity in Vietnam and whose responsibility it is to preserve traditional sites and practices. As we learn more about Vietnamese culture and the changes taking place, we struggle to determine what it is that ties the people of Vietnam together. For some Vietnamese people, the Buddhist pagoda and the Forbidden City are crucial in maintaining their culture yet it is hard to deny how tourist oriented both places have become. In this time of many transitions, it will be interesting to see how the Vietnamese people choose to define their culture and preserve it.
On a lighter note, our taste buds were thrown for a bit of a loop when we were given traditional Hue food for lunch. The core of the meal consisted of shrimp served with a gelatin-like tapioca paste making for an interesting texture and taste. Each of these dishes were served wrapped in a large leaf. While not everyone will be going back to the restaurant for seconds, we have definitely still been spoiled by the Vietnamese cuisine.
On Monday morning we packed up our bags and set out on the five hour bus ride to Dong Hoi! We finally made it to Northern Vietnam by crossing the seventeenth parallel. Our first stop of the day was at the Hien Loung Bridge which separated North and South Vietnam until 1972. We were able to cross the bridge and tour a museum that told the story of the DMZ in Vietnam. From there we traveled to the Vinh Moc Tunnels. These tunnels were built by the Vinh Moc people as shelter from the 9,000 tons of bombs that were dropped on their land by Americans during the war. There were about sixty families that resided in these tunnels during wartime with seventeen babies born in them! As we walked through the tunnels we learned just how much those families had to adapt to living in such a way. The tunnels included bedrooms, kitchens, and even a nursery. After spending only minutes in the tunnels, I think it's safe to say that hardly any of us could imagine living in such a restricted area for so long.
The later portion of our afternoon was spent at Paradise Cave in Phong Nha National Park. We all settled into boats that rowed us through one of the most beautiful caves in Vietnam. The water was some of the clearest we've seen so far and the beauty of the cave was indescribable. This area of Vietnam could be considered an entirely different world when compared to the busy and buzzing streets of Ho Chi Minh City.