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Hanoi: Ups (Temple of Literature) and Downs (Hanoi Hilton)

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Hmmmm… really?

I’ve finally arrived at my last stop in southeast Asia–Hanoi, the capital city of Vietnam. I can’t believe how quickly these 3 weeks have flown by, and how much I’ve seen and experienced. As soon as we arrived in Hanoi yesterday afternoon, I was struck by how busy, narrow, and winding the streets are. Hanoi is only slightly smaller than Saigon (and NYC) at 7.5 million people. And as in Saigon, everyone seems to drive motorbikes and there are very few traffic signs.

 

One of the first things we did in Hanoi was visit a water puppet show. While a few weeks ago I didn’t think I would be interested in this, I am so glad I decided to go last minute…it was so cute! The play was conducted in Vietnamese, so I tried to follow along as best as possible. The traditional music was really nice too. The dragons breathing fire over the water and the story involving the war general and the turtle were my favorite parts.IMG_8448.JPG 

 

After getting a late start to the day this morning after a late night last night, a few of us went to the Temple of Literature. This was by far my favorite part of Hanoi! The temple was the first university in Vietnam and was built in the 11th century as a temple to Confucius. Students would travel from far away to take the entrance exam given once every 13 years (meaning if you failed, you had to wait 13 years to try again). Once admitted, students lived at the temple and studied the theories and philosophy of Confucius, as well as literature. Math, history, and sciences were added to the curriculum once the French arrived in Vietnam in the 19th century.

 

The temple features rows and rows of stone turtles with names engraved on tablets on their shells. These names represent the graduates of the university. If any graduate did something to shame his family, his name was removed from the tablet. Sadly, women were not allowed to attend the university. Apparently, one brave girl dressed like and pretended to be a guy for years, and graduated with honors. Only after accepting a position in the king’s court did she reveal her gender. The king was furious, but allowed her to keep the position. However, he still did not open the doors to women to study (women were allowed to attend in the 19th century).

 

Legend holds that it is good luck for scholars to visit the temple of Confucius and the statue of the turtle, which is a sacred animal in Vietnamese culture, before their exams. As I walked throughout the temple, I couldn’t help but think about my decision to go to law school and how the next 3 years of my life will be so completely different and challenging. I felt a lot of peace about my decision to go to graduate school, and I hope the good vibes I felt in the temple will carry me through 3 years worth of law school exams and the bar exam! Especialy after the visit here, I feel excited and ready for this next page in my life.

 

In the afternoon, I struck off by myself to enjoy some solo wandering around the city. I enjoyed sitting in a tiny child-size chair (which is the norm in Hanoi) and sipping tea, as well as walking around the beautiful Hoan Kiem Lake. I also had some traditional Vietnamese coffee and green tea cake for lunch (so nutritious haha). Vietnam has amazing coffee, and it should be a destination for any coffee lover.

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Kiddie chairs on the sidewalks of Hanoi!
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Hoan Kiem Lake ❤

 

The most shocking part of my visit to Hanoi was the Hoa Lo prison. This prison was used to imprison Vietnamese rebels during the French war, but was also used by the Vietcong during the US war. This is the famous “Hanoi Hilton” where John McCain was held captive after his plane was shot down over Hanoi, as well as many other US soldiers. I have very mixed feelings about my visit to this prison. A good portion of the exhibit focused on the sacrifices of the Vietnamese prisoners during their war of independence against the French. Many exhibits had lifelike statues of prisoners in the dark cells and rooms, and I found myself wishing I had not come here by myself! It was really creepy.

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“Hanoi Hilton”

Towards the end of the exhibit, the materials focused on the US war and the treatment of US war prisoners. According to the museum exhibit, American soldiers “deeply appreciated the humane treatment of the government of Vietnam.” The exhibit claimed “their privacy and personal time were also well respected.” I really had to bite my tongue. The torture that so many American soldiers endured in this prison was not mentioned a single time. It was tough to stomach reading such a one-sided representation of history. Even though most would agree the US made some terrible policy decisions in Vietnam, it seems unjust for the suffering of US soldiers who were willing to fight for their country (even if it was a flawed calling) to be so glossed over. 

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According to the exhibit, US POWs led a life of leisure in the jail.

It was extremely interesting to see John McCain’s flight suit and parachute from when he was captured near Hanoi in 1967. McCain was notoriously tortured at Hoa Lo by the Vietcong, and to this day cannot raise either arm above 80 degrees because of the torture he endured. However, I learned through outside research (not at Hoa Lo of course lol…) that he has spent part of his political career to work towards improving relations with Vietnam, which I find extremely admirable.

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John McCain’s flight suit and parachute on display in the same prison where he was tortured

 

Sadly, Hanoi is the only place on my trip thus far where someone has tried to rip me off. It’s happened twice so far–once in the bar where the bartender just did not bring me my drinks after I paid (he finally did after I insisted), and a second time with a rigged taxi meter (my friends and I paid about 4x what we should have because the meter was running so much faster than it should have been). Although all of my other experiences here have been positive, this of course leaves a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. However, there are so many other things about Hanoi I loved, like the Temple of Literature and Hoan Kiem Lake (but not so much Hanoi Hilton!), that overall it’s been a very positive visit.

 

Tomorrow, I leave Hanoi for Lima, Peru, with layovers in Qatar and the US. It will be great to be in the US for a few hours!! To everyone who has made my time in Asia so special, I say khob khun ka, arkoun, and cam on…thank you in Thai, Khmer, and Vietnamese 🙂  

Genocide in Cambodia

On Thursday morning, I visited the Chueng Ek killing fields and S-21 prison in Phnom Penh. I cannot put what I witnessed and learned into words, but I feel like it’s crucial to attempt to share this information. This post is quite difficult to write, and please be warned that some of the information shared is graphic and gruesome. However, in the words of Chum Mey, one of the survivors I met, it is important that the world knows what happened.

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Between 1975 and 1979, 3 million Cambodians died under the Khmer Rouge regime. 1.7 million were murdered, and the rest died of starvation. The effects are evident in the demographics of the country today–only 5% of the people are over 65 years old, with 50% of the population under 20 years old. Only 15% of people with an education survived the genocide.

 

In 1975, a man known as Pol Pot came to power in Cambodia. His regime was known as the Khmer Rouge, or the Angkar. He won over the people in the countryside by delivering food and supplies to their villages, and promising a better life through communism for his people. However, his leadership soon turned into a reign of terror, as people were forced out of their homes and into hard labor camps in the countryside. Food was severely controlled and restricted, and many people died of disease and starvation as they labored under the control of Khmer Rouge soldiers.

 

“There are no diplomas, only diplomas one can visualize. If you wish to get a Baccalaureate, you have to get it at dams or canals,” stated one Khmer Rouge slogan.  Although Pol Pot himself had been educated at a university in Paris, he banned all schools and arrested, tortured, and murdered educated people. If one member of a family was educated, the whole family was taken to prison, including the elderly, babies, and children. Teachers, doctors, policemen, and other professionals who could read and write were all targeted, as well as their families

 

From the prisons, the people were taken to a killing field, where they were brutally murdered. Because the Khmer Rouge thought bullets were too expensive, they used hammers, bamboo sticks, and cleaning rods to murder their victims. They would blindfold the victims and have them kneel in front of a mass grave, and then hit them from behind before pushing them into the grave. Many were buried alive. The murderers would bash babies against trees to kill them as their mothers watched. If the murderers noticed a victim was still alive, they would slit their throats with a tree branch.

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I visited the killing field at the Chueng Ek Genocidal Center outside of Phnom Penh, but there were 343 such “killing fields” across Cambodia. Despite excavation, there are still human bone fragments scattered throughout the field, even in the walkways. When it rains, bone and clothing fragments still come to the surface of the soil. There are still blood stains on the tree where babies were murdered. As I walked through, I found myself without words and then asking how God could allow this to happen.

After the killing field, we visited the S-21 prison in Phnom Penh. This is where 17,000 prisoners were held during the Khmer Rouge regime. Out of 17,000, only 7 survived. The guards tortured prisoners with electrical shocks, acid, beatings, and salt water over wounds in an attempt to extract information that would aid the Khmer Rouge. Prisoners were forced to use a small metal box for their bodily waste, and it was only emptied once every 2 weeks. If it spilled before then, they were forced to clean the floor with their tongues. Prisoners often ate bugs and rats that crept into their cells to avoid starvation, and many starved anyway.IMG_7898

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Of the 7 survivors, 2 are still alive today. I was able to meet both Chum Mey and Bou Meng, who have written books about their experiences and now work to educate visitors about the genocide and seek justice. Bou Meng, his wife, and their 2 children entered S-21 in 1975, and he never saw them again. Bou Meng was an artist, and he was able to survive because the Khmer Roge commissioned portraits of Pol Pot and other communist leaders from him. Every day, he was tortured and wondered if it was his last day to live. He did not learn his wife’s fate until 2008, when he confronted his torturer face-to-face at the ECCC trial. He there learned that his wife had been murdered at the Chueng Ek killing field. He still carries her picture in his wallet.

Bou Meng’s story was published as part of a dissertation by a Rutgers student.  The following excerpt stands out to me: “Now, he said, the ghosts of those who died follow him, hovering over him in the dark, still skeletal from starvation, still wearing the black clothes that were the uniform in Khmer Rouge times. They gather in front of his home, calling out to him to represent them and to find justice for them.”

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Meeting Bou Meng

Justice is still lacking. Many former Khmer Rouge leaders and soldiers are part of the modern government. In fact, the US, Britain, and other democratic countries still recognized Pol Pot as the leader of Cambodia until 1991, despite his evil atrocities. Him Huy, who was the head guard at S-21 and personally tortured Bou Meng, still accepts money to give tours of the prison and to talk to journalists. The history of the genocide is not taught to Cambodian students at all in school, because the government is still trying to hide what happened as much as possible. It is our job to be educated about this, to seek justice for these victims, and to ensure that this never happens again in our world.  Cambodia is still recovering from this period of history, and it is very evident in the infrastructure, healthcare, and education systems in the country. We need to do everything we can to help this country move forward and heal, and to ensure its future includes hope and justice.

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