Youth Culture and Reappropriation of Public Spaces of Memory

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During my fieldwork, Vietnamese youth in Hanoi expressed little interest in visiting historical sites or institutions associated with the war, such as museums or the mausoleum discussed at the beginning of the chapter. All had visited such places at one time or another, mostly on group fieldtrips, and few were inspired to return. Many cited a lack of time, while others felt bored by what they saw as repetitive and non interactive exhibits. Perhaps not surprisingly, respondents preferred to spend their limited free time with friends and family in parks, cafés, or newly built shopping malls. Phuc and Thang, two male students who came to Hanoi to study English at Hanoi University, explained: Phuc: We are very busy and don’t have time to visit museums. When we do have free time, we usually go home and visit our families in the countryside. I went to the Ho Chi Minh Museum once and enjoyed it. Thang (nodding): Nowadays we are more concerned with fashion than we are with the war.

Yet despite such generational distance from national history, the youth are not wholly detached from the war and its legacies. Phuc lamented: “If the United States had not invaded Vietnam, we would now be rich and strong like the rest of Asia.” Thang agreed: “We wouldn’t be so poor today.” Signs of poverty, mass death, environmental devastation, and other enduring effects of the war are still visible on the landscape, from demining operations to national monuments and martyr cemeteries. In recent years, some of these sites have been transformed into international tourist attractions, reconfiguring postwar memoryscapes in new and decidedly capitalist ways. Young Vietnamese at times also journey to these public spaces, yet they do so to engage in leisure and recreational activities rather than to interact with and learn about history.

Anthropologists have shown how public spaces, such as parks and plazas, are socially produced, shaped, and experienced by diverse individuals and social groups. The aesthetic, historical, and cultural meanings of such sites are always dynamic, “changing continually in response to both personal action and broader sociopolitical forces” (Lowe 2000:33). In Vietnam, youth often engage in social activities and spatial practices that reflect new uses and meanings of pub�lic space. The stone monument on Thanh Nien [Youth] Street at Truc Bach Lake marks the site where militia forces shot down John McCain’s A-�4 Skyhawk in 1967 during a bombing mission over Hanoi. U.S. aerial bombardment commonly targeted the city, killing thousands of civilians and destroying a quarter of all living spaces (Thrift and Forbes 1985:294). For older Hanoians, the monument at Truc Bach Lake, though recalling a triumphant act, is also a painful reminder of catastrophic suffering and loss. Young couples, however, are drawn to the site because of its sweeping views of the lake. They sit closely together on park benches adjacent to the monument, not far from crowded restaurants, holding hands and sometimes embracing, demonstrating how postwar generations have reappropriated spaces of war and violence, and transformed them into romantic settings for social intimacy. At the Cu Chi tunnels tourist park, an hour’s drive from Ho Chi Minh City, a similar reappropriation of public space has taken place. Cu Chi, declared a national historic landmark by the state, attracts hundreds of international tourists each day who crawl through a maze of deep and narrow underground passageways built by guerrillas during the war.

Vietnamese youth also travel to Cu Chi; however, the attraction for them lies not with the tunnels per se, but with the on-site recreational facilities that provide a respite from the bustle of urban life. Pool tables, food stands, and outdoor cafés are sites where youth gather to eat, drink, talk, relax, and make new Figure 10.1. Hanoi youth posing on a war monument at Hoan Kiem Lake, 1999. Photograph by C. Schwenkel. friends. Cu Chi is a site of entertainment as well as a site for love, especially on the weekends, when the area is converted into café ôms, or hug cafés, for young couples to spend time together privately. In a country with few places for lovers to be alone and where public affection is generally discouraged, hug cafés offer the privacy of an individual cubicle in the city, and in more peripheral areas such as Cu Chi, segregated nooks for lovers under the trees (Schwenkel 2006:18). Not unlike the lakeside setting of McCain’s crash and capture in Hanoi, the battlegrounds of Cu Chi have also been recreated by youth in ways that appear to disregard state-intended meanings.



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