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Vietnam: Recycling An Uneasy History

Discovering world history via a creatively re-bent American icon – a Coca Cola can.

May 22, 2016

Discovering world history via a creatively re-bent American icon – a Coca Cola can.

Danang, with just over one million people, is Vietnam ‘s fifth-largest city. Bustling though it is, it is hard to imagine that the city once upon a time had the world’s busiest single-runway airport and one of the busiest airports overall.

You can detect a hint of history when looking at the decades-old small half moon halls, which once housed U.S. fighter jets and other military planes. They now sit empty.

During its involvement in Vietnam from 1959 to 1975, using Danang as its main airbase, the U.S. military made it into the busiest airbase in the world.

From war airport to beach location for Asia’s rich

Driving away from the airport and across modern bridges towards Hoi An and the beach called “China Beach” by U.S. troops, I saw newly built villas for Asia’s most affluent.

Just 50 kilometers south of Danang, the history of another era beckons the curious traveler – the former port of Hoi An.

In the 18th century, Hoi An, Vietnam was the center of a vast trade conduit between Europe, China, India and Japan.

However, when the mouth of the river which connected Hoi An to the South China Sea silted up and political alliances shifted, the new emperor gave the French almost exclusive trade rights to the port at Danang and shifted much of the trade there.

Historic Hoi An recycles modern history

Today, Hoi An is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the town’s economic activity is geared towards tourism.

The city has a favorable climate that attracts westerners year round. Hoi An is home to resorts, hotels, some eco lodges, excellent restaurants (and food stalls) and clothing stores with excellent tailors.

Walking around Hoi An’s buzzing central market, one sees vegetables and freshly caught fish that are sold next to antiques and Vietnam-themed T-Shirts.

The Coke man

One vendor caught my eye. An old man, easily into his 70s, sat at a street corner where he displayed his wares. But they were markedly different from all the other sellers of food, pottery and jewelry.

The old man was working on aluminum cans, which he cut, bent and assembled into amazingly detailed small fighter planes. They looked like F-100s.

The material he used for the model planes was Coca-Cola cans.

While the artist himself did not speak a word of English, a younger nearby vendor explained that constructing the models from a Coke can each took the better part of a day.

The historical irony of a man producing model American fighter planes with Coke cans who was certainly old enough to remember the war was striking.

Though I did not know the man’s own experiences, he was certainly recycling not just Coke cans in an imaginative manner, but – at the same moment, he was recycling an uneasy history.

“The American War on Vietnam”

Anyone who has visited Ho Chi Minh City’s War Remembrance Museum, which has fighter jets from the Vietnam War – or, as the Vietnamese called it more accurately, “the American War on Vietnam” – could not help having a squeamish feeling looking at the artwork.

Kudos to the old man on the street, for taking two of the most iconic symbols of a nation that invaded his nation (and whose military leaders oversaw the use of chemical weapons and highly questionable tactics, to put it lightly) and producing one of the most historically ironic goods anyone could come across.

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The old street artist used two iconic symbols – the Coke can and the F-16 – of a nation that invaded his nation.

The old man was recycling not just Coke cans, but an uneasy history.