We live in uncomfortable times. We spend our lives in grey areas, in ambiguity, in considering a multiplicity of truths, recognizing that we have moved past an era of absolutism.
But at many of the monuments we visited, and perhaps this is testimony to how vividly history came alive on this tour, we seemed to return to a coveted siècle of certainty.
Thus, the memories of my travels in China and Vietnam that stand out to me still, the ones that unravel in my head long after unpacking, are the times when I could feel a quality of reverence reverberating in my surroundings, whether it was for a person or a cause.
In China I felt this way when visiting the tombs of Ming emperors and the Forbidden City – all associated with China’s long and lavish rule of dynasties.
The Ming Tombs comprised of a path mantled with weeping willows on either side that we delighted in one afternoon in Beijing, surveying the ornate sculptures that marked off each tomb. The Forbidden City was the Chinese imperial palace to 14 emperors over the years. Walking a few of the 9999 rooms the stone steps seemed to echo with the footsteps of wily bureaucrats, lonely concubines, and subservient eunuchs of years gone by.
Similarly in Vietnam that feeling returned at the Temple of Literature in Hanoi, a temple dedicated to the philosopher Confucius, and the grand tomb of Emperor Tu Du in the city of Hue. In both countries there was a celebration of a gentle but unwavering devotion to the divine, which often linked to an allegiance to monarchy because of a dynasty’s association to divinity.
We re-lived more recent history with our visits to the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, and to the mausoleums of Mao Tse-tung and Ho Chi Minh, in Beijing and Hanoi respectively. In the War Remnants Museum one felt the strength of the Nationalist call in Vietnam: a belief in self-determination so strong that it withstood unprecedented cruel tactics employed by American adversaries.
The crowds gathered with us, to visit the lambent embalmed bodies of Mao Tse-tung and Ho Chi Minh, were testimony to the reverence people in China and Vietnam still have for their respective leaders. In Hanoi, Vietnamese paid tribute to Ho Chi Minh and communism and the point where the lines between the two blurred. In Beijing, old Chinese grannies, with the poverty of their provinces carved into their faces, bought yellow carnations for their moment of stillness and silence with Mao. Beyond being symbols, Mao and Ho Chi Minh were men and that’s a lot harder, and there seemed to be a quiet understanding of this in each person that visited these masoleums.
Altogether the moments described above have made me question what in the world I am loyal towards, something I think is a valuable thought to grapple with for everyone; to quote activist Sheena Duncan in a 1975 address to Woodmead School, “I do not know the answer but I would like to know that we were asking the question.” I thank the teachers and students who accompanied me on this trip for helping me reach that moment of reckoning, Travel & Sport for their care, and my parents for affording me the opportunity to attend this tour.