Checking in with Max Keyes in Vietnam

Hi all.

Max on one of the two remaining tanks in Dong Ha (where many American military bases were located during the war).

We asked Max Keyes, one of our two student summer research award winners, to tell us a little about his fieldwork in Vietnam. Here’s his update:

After spending some time in Indonesia and Thailand, I arrived in Hanoi last week…only to find out that I was actually very sick. So that was a bummer, and I was bed-ridden for several days, but after recovering I was able to explore the city and visit several museums. At first I was a bit overwhelmed by the city and all its crazy traffic and bustling people, but after a while Hanoi really started growing on me. To my surprise, there weren’t actually any museums or monuments in the city dedicated solely to the war, so I didn’t get any interviews with tourists as I had planned. However, many museums had sections concerning the war, so I was still able to learn a lot (the Women’s Museum had an awesome and fascinating exhibit on women in war – apparently women made up 20% of the North Vietnamese army, and led many important battles). I was surprised by the hints of propaganda evident in the exhibits and the rhetoric used to describe them; it seems the government is still very much trying to inspire a communist nationalism in the Vietnamese people, even in establishments that attract many foreign tourists.

After about a week in Hanoi I decided it was time to move on, so I booked a night bus (which was just like how I imagined the knight bus to be in the third Harry Potter…) to Dong Ha. Before the bus though, I experienced probably the most terrifying ten minutes of my life on the way to the station: the owner of the hostel I was staying at told me that a shuttle would come to pick me up, but then a guy about my age showed up on a motorbike last minute in the middle of a thunder storm (when it rains in Vietnam, it rains hard) and after a heated exchange between the two I was handed a poncho and shuffled onto the bike. We then drove very unsteadily with all my luggage and snacks (of which there were many) through torrential rains and flooded streets (the water came up almost to my knees in the deepest parts) on  a tiny bike, and when we got to the station I was hurried onto the bus so by the time I got on I and all my luggage was thoroughly soaked through.

I made it to Dong Ha though, which I expected to be tourist central due to its close proximity to the De-Militarized Zone (the border between the North and South where some of the heaviest fighting occurred). Apparently I was wrong. I think I was the only white person I saw the entire time I was there. I received a private tour on the back of a motorbike (not as terrifying, but there were still some scary moments…) which was very interesting and informative, but I only saw white tourists (who I’m trying to interview) once as they were getting into a van for their group tour from Hue. Now I’m in Hue for a night, which it turns out is where most tours to the DMZ depart from. My goal for the night is to hunt down tourists who have been to the DMZ or are planning on going, and if not get a structured interview from them, at least talk to them a bit. I’m not really sure how I’ll do that though – as I’ve found out it’s off-season for tours and hotels so there isn’t much going on around Vietnam. I spotted a DMZ bar when I was walking around today though, so I figure that’s my best bet (if I don’t get any interviews in, maybe I’ll at least fit a game of pool in). Next stop after Hue is Son My, the site of the infamous My Lai massacre. I’ve learned a lot in the past couple weeks about the war and the way tourism functions in Vietnam, but I’m starting to get nervous because I still have no interviews with English-speaking tourists, which is what my research is supposed to focus on. I hope these next couple weeks will work out better for me!

Good luck with your project, Max, and please check in again when you get the chance.

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