Tuesday, April 20, 2010

A Reflection of my First Two Months in Vietnam

It’s funny how memory works. When set in a firm routine, two months can pass by with little notice. School and studying often set you in a rhythmic and hypnotic march towards the next big thing—finals, midterms, summer, winter. Then suddenly you’ve got that bizarre, twilight zone feeling that it was just yesterday when the semester began. You know it was a long time ago, because all the details are fuzzy, but the important things vividly clasp to your consciousness like something two minutes removed, not two months. I’ve been in Vietnam for two months now, and am currently experiencing that same, unsettling phenomenon of time relativity. It feels like ages ago that I stepped off the airplane in Ho Chi Minh City, but I can tell you exactly how I felt struggling out of the airport with my two huge overweight bags through the masses of Vietnamese people waiting for the emergence of their loved ones returning for Tet Holiday. Big experiences like that, ones that truly connect with the emotions and overload sensory perception, are ones that will always stick with a person. Fortunately, for the rest of my experiences, I’ve kept a detailed journal. I plan to write this entry without referring back to my journals so that I can really talk about these “big experiences” that have surprised me, thrilled me, made me laugh and cry, made me happy and even angry and guilty. These are what Vietnam has done to me—are doing to me still. They are my moments and my reactions to these moments. They are distinctly Vietnamese moments also. I’m just an observer in a place where there is still magic and wildness amid a flourish of modernization and globalization. These are moments I’ve shared with Vietnam and with its people, and this is an attempt to reflect upon them.

The first of my big experiences in Vietnam has been my reaction to the geography, the climate, and the natural beauty of the country itself. Vietnam is a country of dichotomies. Its distinct natural beauty contrasts the urban sprawl of the biggest cities in the developing nation. Ho Chi Minh City and Ha Noi, the two largest cities would never be called conventionally beautiful. They do not possess a striking skyline and soviet architecture has ensured that many of the buildings are concrete and dreary. Although they are working on sanitation issues, many streets are still urinated upon frequently giving them a distinct and unattractive smell. These two cities, plus up and coming cities like Can Tho and Da Nang, are truly developing and as such, contain a kind of charismatic beauty of their own. Their massive traffic congestion, narrow streets, pushy vendors, loud noises, hidden obstacles, exposed wires, and nasty smells are off putting at first. But these things can also be considered part of the country’s appeal. The traffic, narrow streets, and exposed wires become adventures in navigation. The vendors become opportunities to practice the language or gain a friend. The smells I notice now are wonderful- pho, bo, ga, ca, com—delicious foods available for next to nothing. Ha Noi’s old quarter in particular is a place that offers a truly Vietnamese experience. The main streets are packed with tourists, but turn down one tiny ally and it’s all locals.

By this point of the trip, I have almost been numbed or desensitized to the strikingly beautiful natural landscape of Vietnam. I’ve seen dry rice fields and endless canals in the Mekong Delta. I’ve seen mountains and valleys in Da Lat. I’ve seen the oceans, beaches, and caves in Da Nang, mountains and rivers in Hue. Northern Vietnam has revealed lush wet fields, mountains hidden in mist, and claims the gems Hoa Su and Ha Long, where Dr. Seuss mountains shoot straight up out of the land and sea. The variety of the geography of this relatively small country is astounding. There have been moments in each place that I’ve visited that have taken my breath away.

Perhaps the most important part of my time here in Vietnam has been my ever-deepening understanding of the Vietnamese people. As I have said repeatedly in my blog, I have come to love the Vietnamese people. I have been welcomed to their country with generosity, friendship, and partnership. Again, this has struck me as one of the biggest surprises about Vietnam. I’d heard about the positive character of the Vietnamese people from friends who had visited before, but I didn’t truly comprehend it until I got here. The Vietnamese value of hospitality is one that people around the world could benefit from adopting. I was particularly struck by my experiences in the Mekong Delta. I will never forget meeting families too poor to own land or put 4 enclosed walls around their home that welcomed us like family and gave us food and drink. We with our hundred dollar cameras and our desire to see “real” Vietnam before heading back to our comfortable hotel—but none of that mattered to these people. We were simply human beings—people visiting their homes, and as such, we were to be treated with the utmost generosity. I’ve been welcomed wholeheartedly into two different homestay families, which were experiences far more rewarding than any that I could have hoped to have gained. I participated in the most sacred of the Tet rituals on my first night with my homestay family in Da Lat. I was given a bed and mattress in my second homestay, even though there weren’t enough to go around. However connected the globe is today, the thought of not seeing these people who have been such wonderful aspects of my life again makes me miss Vietnam before I have even left!

Being an American in Vietnam is another distinct experience that I’ve had since I’ve been here. I was surprised to find that there are no overt or even subtly overt negative feelings towards Americans. There are of course remnants of the war that happened so many decades ago evident not only in the museums dedicated to its memory, but also in the people and landscape of Vietnam. Agent Orange is a hideous reminder of what our presence here did and has continued to do to Vietnam. Visiting the victims and viewing the devastation that is still evident in many areas of Vietnam should be enough to make any American sick to their stomach. Yet even visiting the Agent Orange education center, where I should have been feeling the most terrible, I was welcomed with open, loving arms. The time when I was most overwhelmed was during my visit to the War Remnants Museum. While I was trying to balance myself between regret and disgust, I said “It sure makes me feel bad about being American” to which my homestay brother and friend Son said to me “war is always a terrible thing.” His response somehow made me feel better. He wasn’t blaming me, he wasn’t blaming my country; he was blaming the hideousness that is war. Son’s comment is not unique; this is the sort of response that I’ve received from most Vietnamese people. I get the feeling that although they haven’t forgotten, they have forgiven. They see the war as a violent part of a violent history that has passed its way out of relevancy.

My educational experience in Vietnam has been truly unique. Co Thanh and Vy have run my group through the gauntlet. We’re tired, cranky, and sick of each other, but how else could we have learned what we have? Vietnam as a nation would like to be perceived as a country working towards their dream of development. Our interdisciplinary course covered a wide spectrum: agriculture, history, culture, tourism, gender, economics, religion, education, politics, health care, communism, capitalism, mass media, migration, rural development, and so much more. We’ve learned from experts and we’ve studied in the field. We’ve had a lecture from a monk in a tiny pagoda outside of Hue. We’ve debated our opinions over sidewalk smoothies and in long bus rides in the Mekong Delta. Co Thanh and Vy have put us in places and situations where we have been able to understand what Vietnam truly is. We have a better understanding of where it is headed in its path to development and what obstacles it still needs to overcome. We understand it’s struggle over the desire to develop and the need to maintain and preserve Vietnamese culture. Now they have set us up to dig deeper into a topic of interest. Our independent research period is just beginning—a new chapter of this semester, and one I am particularly excited about.

So what sticks out in my mind during these past two months? Here’s a little free association: the humidity and noise as I exited the airport that first night…walking an extra block to find a cross walk the first day…the smell of the streets…the constant motorbike noise…always sweating…my first motorbike ride through the city…the first real poverty I saw on the way to Da Lat…praying with my homestay at midnight on Tet…tearing up at the beauty of the monastery…the delicious food my wonderful sisters Nguyen and Long (Men) made for us…seeing my homestay father cry when we left…eating the wrong street food and throwing up all day…being visited by Long and Nguyen in the hospital...assuring Long that I didn’t need her mother to take the 7 hour bus ride to Ho Chi Minh City to take care of me…being welcomed into the home of the laborers in Hoa An...drinking the coke they gave us, eating the watermelon they cut for us…catching fish with bamboo poles…building the brick wall for the biodigester connections…eating lunch with the family we’d built the biodigester for…miming “chicken” to 50 strangers at a cultural exchange…meeting my second homestay family…living day to day with my homestay family…staying up late with Son, building a friendship…Toi men cao…my 30 minute motorbike ride to and from school…the time I got hit by a car on a motorbike…the engagement party I attended…the photos I was in…the gifts my homestay family and friends gave me on my last day…marveling at ancient Champa ruins…standing in a beam of light cutting through the hazy darkness of the caves of marble mountain…dancing with a little girl at the Agent Orange Center…driving a motorbike for the first time…receiving a watermelon from a monk…being followed by a throng of children screaming “yeah!” through a quiet village…feeling cool for the first time in months…riding a boat through a mountain cave…sleeping under the stars on a boat in Ha Long Bay…the sunrise the next morning.

All of this, and I still have two more months here?? For anyone still wondering “Why Vietnam?” This is why Vietnam. This is what Vietnam is to me.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

End of Homestay, Central Vietnam, and the First Taste of Hanoi

Well, I’ve made it to my home away from home for the next month and a half: Hanoi! I apologize that I’ve been MIA for the past few weeks, but fortunately for me and for everyone reading, I have been keeping up on my journal! The experiences covered in my last blog about the Mekong Delta seem like they occurred ages ago, and Dalat even longer still, so I know I have a bunch to update!

My homestay finished up on a really high note. I am happy to say that I’ve truly gained a friend through this experience. I feel like we really became very close during the homestay period, and I will always count him among some of my best friends. I am already sad that we live so far apart. As far as the actual program is concerned, we had a lot of Vietnamese language class during this two week period, had many interesting lectures, and toured some fascinating places in and around Saigon. Some of the highlights from this week include the War Remnants Museum, the Cu Chi Tunnels, an engagement party, meeting Bao Ngoc, May’s niece, and mastering the motorbike ride from school to home during rush hour!

Son was the one who took me to the War Remnants Museum. It was a pretty dramatic experience for me—the place really makes you feel bad to be an American. It had the most graphically disturbing pictures on the walls I’ve ever seen. Despicable things that are just too disgusting to even try to remember. The Agent Orange photos and fetuses were almost nauseating. Of note was the picture of Bob Kerry (from NE, ran for President, etc) describing how he had committed this horrible atrocity in a small village. All the placards in the entire place were extremely anti-American. There were signs on the walls describing us as war criminals. There is no attempt to be balanced in any way; there is no other way to view this place as exceedingly anti-American. I’m not surprised, because of the hideousness of the war, but it was really uncomfortable to be there. There were tons of foreigners there (the most I’ve seen in Vietnam in one place). Not all were Americans, but I could tell there was a feeling of discomfort in the entire place. Son was nice when I said something like, “It makes me feel bad to be an American” he responded that it was war, and war is a terrible thing. I asked him if he had family who had fought in the war, and he said that he had a relative that had hid soldiers in his house. Very interesting, and sad place to visit, but I think that it was important to see this place.

Bob Kerry's Photo at the Warm Remnants Museum

One day we took a field trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels located about an hour and a half from our school, right outside of Saigon. We made the drive in a small van, and when we arrived, Co Thanh gave us the solemn warning not to stray off the path because there were still unexploded landmines in the forest. That put everyone in a really solemn mood as we made our way to meet the Vice-Director of the Cu Chi Tunnel Park. We met him and he showed us to a room where we were briefed on the Cu Chi Tunnels. Basically, these tunnels are almost 100 miles long, and contain living, cooking, fighting, and planning rooms. They are littered with gruesome booby traps and were ingeniously designed to be able to protect the soldiers from bombs, gas, water, and foreign “rat soldiers” who attempted to climb through the tunnels to kill the VC. The VC could even cook down there, and the smoke was filtered out slowly so that smoke could not be seen above ground. They had multiple escape routes, including into the Mekong River from underground. This area was where from which the Tet Offensive was planned and orchestrated. I was amazed to see these tunnels knowing that these were really the places the Viet Cong used to fight the Americans. As we walked around, you could still see huge holes in the ground where B-52 bombers had bombed the area in hopes of destroying the tunnels.

We entered the tunnel through a tiny whole camouflaged perfectly in the ground. The whole is about a foot and a half by a foot and a half, so you really have to squeeze yourself in and through. The guide said that once we were down we could either go left which had been widened and improved for tourists, or we could turn right and head down the natural tunnel. Thinking I could handle it, I turned right. Even though this section of the tunnel was only about 400feet, it seemed like it went on forever. We were in nearly complete darkness for most of the time, and the tunnel was so small that I had to squeeze my shoulders together and crawl on my hands and knees after a while. It kept getting narrower, smaller, and hotter. I was starting to feel extremely claustrophobic when something hit me on the head—yah it was a bat. By the time I was out of the tunnel I’d had about 3 bats in the face and hair. People were screaming around me—it was really intense. To get out, we had to climb basically straight up and out by hoisting ourselves up onto the ground. I of course fell and slid all the way back down to the tunnel in through the dirt, and when I finally got out I was literally a mess, and glad to be out.

An entrance to the tunnels


As we were walking through the forest, looking at the horrible booby traps as well as the other important places in the tunnels (wells, hospital, VIP meeting room, sleeping quarters, etc), there was a huge boom. My heart nearly stopped, and I was sure that someone had hit a landmine. Everyone screamed, but it turned out that one of the guides had lit off a M80 firecracker as a joke—some joke, everyone nearly passed out! What an experience at Cu Chi—bats, claustrophobia, sweat, dirt, and M80’s—I think one visit is defiantly enough for my lifetime!

One night I met Bao Ngoc at her family’s restaurant. She is the niece of May, our friendly alterations lady at home. They were so kind to treat me to a fantastic steak dinner at their restaurant, Tony’s Steakhouse! Very fun to meet May, her sister, and her brother-in-law. Bao Ngoc was very friendly and nice and we had a nice dinner and drinks. Later I found out that she’s been accepted to a work-travel program in the US so hopefully I’ll see her again in Lincoln around Thanksgiving time when she comes to visit May!

Bao Ngoc on the right, with her sister and husband, who own Tony's Steakhouse

I ended my homestay with a really nice gift exchange. I realized that the shirts I’d brought wouldn’t fit Son or his dad, so I bought Son some nice cologne from a store, and a bottle of wine for the dad. I gave all the shirts to Minh (since this is my last homestay), and gave both Co Ha and Co Hai some nice perfume that I’d brought. They gave me a nice paperweight from the University of Economics, and then I was surprised by Heo, Khanh, and Tuan who gave me 5 traditional Vietnamese figures with our names written on the bottom so that I would never forget them! What nice people I’ve been surrounded with. I feel so lucky and was so sad to leave my new friends, especially Son!

With my homestay family: Co Hai, Minh, Son, and Co Ha (missing father, Chu Thai!)

Son, Heo (to my left when looking at the photo), and Khanh (Kaka) plus other girls involved in the engagement ceremony

Thus began our excursion to Central Vietnam: Hoi An, Da Nang, and Hue. We had an extremely quick flight to Da Nang (1 hour) where we made it just in time to watch the international fireworks competition from the rooftop of a building with a bunch of locals. We loved being outside in the COOL weather overlooking the river sparkled with floating lanterns and decorated boats watching an hour and half of beautiful, amazing fireworks! It was literally the breath of fresh air that we needed after two weeks in Saigon! The break from the heat and the pollution was a welcomed relief! We took a bus to Hoi An that night to our beautiful hotel, Nhi Nhi, which is a small boutique hotel that is really clean and nice, with incredibly friendly staff! We had rose petals on our bed and a really nice mosquito net was all set up for us! I think this was our reward for surviving the two week homestay in Saigon! Everyone thought they were in heaven!

We visited the Champa ruins the next day, which is an ancient civilization that occupied central Vietnam before the Viet people first moved south. These were the coolest ruins I’ve ever seen—stuff from the 1st -7th centuries that were special Hindu temples for the upper class people. The Champa people were conquered by the Vietnamese and eventually all the people converted to Buddhism and Islam, so their civilization isn’t there anymore, but UNESCO has named these ruins as a World Heritage Site, so it was really cool to see. There were tons of ruins that were left, all nestled in a huge mountain valley obscured in mist—I was thinking El Dorado or the lost monkey city from the Jungle Book the whole time. Such an amazing place to visit, and definitely worth going back to!

Ancient Champa Ruins

We were also able to explore Hoi An a bit. I bought a beautiful oil and canvas painting, a set of lacquer coasters, and I had two pairs of pants tailor made for me. Everything is really cheap, but still I’ve almost spent more money in the past two days then I have on this whole trip! I’m finding really beautiful things though! Hoi An is a really interesting town—they keep it looking like old Vietnam for tourists sake. It’s really touristy, and there are tons of foreigners in the streets, but it really is beautiful, especially at night. One was some kind of festival, so they had thousands of lanterns floating down the river. Walking along the river, hearing the traditional Vietnamese songs and seeing the lanterns in the water was another wake-up call moment—hey I’m in Vietnam right now. Wow.

The next day we left the Nhi Nhi hotel and headed for the Marble Mountains in Da Nang. The Marble Mountains are five Dr. Seuss-like mountains right off China beach (the famous US Military Base during the war). Each of the five mountains were discovered to have different kinds and colors of marble, and have been historically used for beautiful marble. There are many legends about the mountains as well. One, which we visited, was used for ancient Hindu and Buddhist religious practices, as well as a central location for Viet Cong, later. We climbed up the steep steps of the mountain, and stopped half way to pray at an outdoor pagoda. We then climbed back and up literally into a cave where there was an ancient female Buddha and pagoda that had been carved into the cave. There were monks walking through chanting and praying—such an amazing, ancient place!

We then climbed all the way to the top of the mountain where we were able to see all of the other four mountains including China Beach and the old American Airfield. The top of the mountain was claimed by American forces and there was a spot where we stood that was an old helicopter pad with the remnants of a gun turret. Meanwhile the caves and lower mountain were all VC territory during the war, so literally the top of the mountain was American while all the VC hid below! Amazing history.

We climbed back down the beautiful mountain and down into one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. It was a cave pagoda that was located in a cavern with huge ceilings 200 feet high that allowed beams of light to shoot in, piercing the darkness of the room. The thick incense smoke made the beams of light so distinct it was like spotlights hitting the floor and lighting up the room. I prayed towards the pagoda and the giant Buddha statue carved into the wall. The incense and silence and monks walking by and rhythmic drum beat of the special spot on the wall you can hit to make noise—everything was so surreal in this place. They even have special magic water that drips down in one area that I was able to touch, which will hopefully make me very fertile! We were told that even though the roof of the cave had large openings, because of the air pressure, it was impossible for rain to enter, even during the wet season, so this place always stayed cool and dry. What a special, magical, and peaceful place. The group all decided to stand around one of the beams of light and hold hands in a circle just to soak in as much of this beautiful place as possible. This was definetly one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen, and I really hope that I can take Mom and Dad back there once they arrive! Wow!!!

Pagoda in the caves of Marble Mountain

After that we drove to the Blue Sea Hotel in Da Nang to check in. We had lunch at the hotel (one of the least nice places we’ve stayed) and then we went to the offices of a local Da Nang newspaper to learn about the city’s development. We arrived and were surprised to find that they had made an entire banner welcoming us! We walked in and were basically accosted by a ton of people from the media. They took us to a big room where we sat at a big official table. The editors of the newspaper were all there, including other reporters. There were even television crews there to report on our arrival on the television news! Kind of crazy, none of us were expecting this huge fanfare! We had a lecture from the editor of the newspaper on Da Nang’s development which is really interesting. I think that Da Nang was really devastated during the war, so it looks pretty meager when we drive through it. But these guys showed us a really intense master plan to revitalize the city. Mostly through foreign direct investment and local support, they are planning on making Da Nang a major tourist destination within the next 10 years. The plans they showed us made it look like Dubai. I really hope the plan works out so that the city can redevelop!

When we got back we headed across the street to walk along the beautiful beach. It’s not a tropical paradise, but the beach is really nice and has beautiful sand. Felt good to put my feet in the water! We had dinner literally on the beach! We had fresh squid and fish and coconut! Beautiful meal followed by a beautiful walk on the beach, but had to avoid the multiple giant jellyfish that had washed up!

Our last day in Da Nang was wonderful! We visited an Agent Orange organization is basically a school for people from age 8-30s who suffer physical and/or mental disabilities as a direct result of Agent Orange-whether acquired genetically or from the environment. Most kids looked like they had something like Down Syndrome, but all varied in the extent of their disabilities. Some were more physically deformed than others, and some were definitely more mentally impaired than others. Walking in was like walking into the greatest welcome home party ever. The kids literally were jumping up and down with the biggest smiles on their faces, waiting in a huge line to greet us! They all forgot the line and ran to give us all hugs and words of welcome! It was so overwhelmingly emotional to see these kids who were all so enthusiastic to see us, knowing that their conditions were caused by Agent Orange. We sang and danced with them for a few hours, and they performed a fashion show as well as a number of traditional Vietnamese dances! We performed a few children’s songs for them (Row Your Boat in a round, Lean on Me, Twinkle Twinkle, etc) and they loved it. Then we danced together—one little girl kept wanting to dance with me, so I danced with her most of the time. She was so cute, she kept smiling up at me and when I’d spin her she would smile a huge wonderful smile. A few of the kids only experienced deafness from the Agent Orange, so they performed their breakdancing skills for us—really impressive! That didn’t stop those with more serious disabilities from trying to breakdance too! What a fun time! The school is a really cool place because it is such a positive atmosphere. Even some of the staff and teachers are Agent Orange victims, so they are really showing that these kids can have a future. When we left everyone gave us more hugs and waved us off until they couldn’t see us anymore! Everyone was touched by the heart that each of these children had.

Here I am with two friends I met at the Agent Orange Center

Agent Orange Students Performing a Vietnamese Dance


Ate lunch that day at a place owned by Americans who employed only deaf Vietnamese. They provide training, education, and housing for these kids too. The food was American and excellent! Afterwards, we headed to the beach and went swimming for the rest of the day and evening! Really fun to get some body surfing in! One thing I should mention about the beach is the swim attire. The men wear clothes comparable to an American beachgoer if not European (some trunks were a little tighter than others), but the women are in a whole different category. Whether its cultural or related to their desire to maintain pale skin, I’m not sure, but the Vietnamese girls wear long sleeves and pants in the water. Some even were wearing jeans. The looks that the American girls were getting in their bikini’s, especially from the men on the beach were hilarious, and the clash of the cultures was extremely evident here!

The next day we left for Hue! We drove over the beautiful mountain pass to get there—some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen! There is a tunnel that goes under the mountain and takes less time, but we wanted to get the full experience! Hue is a beautiful city surrounded by mountains and the Perfume River. There are flowers and beautiful architecture everywhere. I’ll talk about the highlights of Hue:

We went on a tour of the Royal City—surrounded by a Citadel, the walled city is huge, and and you must enter through the gate. The royal family lived there for centuries all the way until the last King of Vietnam, Bao Dai, abdicated the throne in 1945. The city was mostly destroyed during the war, so the place is really kind of run down and there isn’t much to see unfortunately, beyond the main, ornamental gate. They are trying to rebuild it now, but it’s really not very impressive unfortunately, thanks to the war—mostly open fields, but you can imagine the grandeur of the former imperial city.

Next we toured an ancient pagoda. It is situated right at the edge of the Perfume River with a beautiful backdrop of the surrounding mountains. We got to observe some child-monks praying and chanting in the pagoda (so cute but very disciplined). They also have on display the car that the monk (who was from this pagoda) drove to Saigon to protest the Nguyen regime’s lack of religious freedom. When he got there he lit himself on fire—the photo is really famous, and we saw both the car in the photo and the pagoda which he came from. The dynamics between religious leaders and politics in this country are sensitive and contentious, even to this day.

We met a bunch of Hue University Students for dinner at a humble but delicious Hue food restaurant. All are very nice (again I love meeting the local students!) and they showed us around Hue on their motorbikes. After dinner we all went for some Karaoke, and I entertained the whole group by singing my favorite Vietnamese song, Rock Saigon! Very fun night and so cheap (the room and all the beers for 15 people was 150,000VND or a little over $7)!

The next day we visited the tomb one of the kings of Vietnam—it was like a beautiful paradise, so far removed from where all the tourists go! There were beautiful lagoons and bridges and pagodas surrounded by mountains and a thick cover of trees! While we were there, there was a group of actors filming a traditional Vietnamese movie. The Hue volunteer students were all excited because I guess the actors we saw and met were really famous in Vietnam—really funny! The tomb was beautiful and ended up being my favorite place that was actually in Hue—I hope to take mom and dad back there!

That night (after the girls went to have their ao dai’s made) we went out on a late river cruise! We had drinks and Co Thanh found some wonderful French desserts for us to eat. We had a performance by a traditional Vietnamese musical group that had 4 singers, and 4 instramentalists! They were beautiful and used instruments that I’d never seen before, so it was fun to hear the different sounds, melodies, and rhythms. We sang for them too! Our go-to Lean on Me, then Mika and Arielle sang a beautiful song and everyone had a great time. The instrumentalists were really amazing-I took a video so that people could hear them! After the performance we released lanterns onto the river as we listened to their last songs. Beautiful night, thanks to Co Thanh!

The next day we traveled about an hour outside of Hue to a tiny little village. We walked along literally one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen—a huge lake sized lagoon that was surrounded on most sides by mountains, and connected to the ocean. The lagoon is sectioned off for fish cultivation and other aquaculture so there are gondolas and boats everywhere—beautiful! We walked a little further to a hidden pagoda that only locals ever go to. It was located on top of a hill a little back from the water. It is very simple and not flashy like others that we’ve visited. We were met by the head monk of the pagoda—a young guy in his 20’s who had volunteered to take over the workings of this local pagoda. He exuded kindness and warmth and love, and his smile made each of us feel so lucky to be there! He talked with us about his pagoda and about the local people—even a little about sustainable eco-tourism in the area. I had another wake up moment during his talk because here we were, listening to this wonderful Buddhist monk, sitting on the floor of the pagoda looking out over the water and mountains—this was one of my favorite moments in Vietnam, definitely a reminder for all of us about why we came on this program. When else can we ever have another class like this?? After the lecture we had a discussion on our ISP papers (I need to start focusing mine down more) and then had a vegetarian lunch provided by the monastery as a gift. Apparently, Co Thanh had donated some of her money in the past for some project that the monk was working on, so from then on he has welcomed her and SIT students to his pagoda. He told us that besides our group, and one other SIT group there have only been a handful of foreign visitors to this pagoda in all his time there. We felt really special to be so welcomed in this place! The lunch was delicious and amazing, prepared by local people who the monk had asked to help (there are only 4 monks and 2 novices living at the actual pagoda). After lunch, the monk opened up the special back gate to climb up to the watch tower-something that is normally closed even to the local people except for special holidays. We climbed up and had one of the most spectacular and beautiful views of the area I’ve ever seen. Mountains and water as far as you could see, spotted with squared off sections of aquaculture, boats, and paddies. So beautiful! I loved this place—one of my favorite places we’ve been in Vietnam! By that time, the local children had figured out that a bunch of foreigners were at the pagoda, so literally about 40 kids met us back at the pagoda. We played Frisbee and soccer with them for a while and it really lifted our spirits even higher—these kids were so excited to play with us! Even the novices joined in and played in their monk robes! Brady and I kept saying “yeah” whenever we caught the Frisbee, so pretty soon, 40 kids were all yelling “yeah” at us and to each other, and soon everyone was laughing hysterically! The head monk gave each of us a gift of fruit or tet cake when we left. I made sure to take my watermelon with two hands and say “Cam on thay” which is Thank you, teacher/monk, and he was really pleased that I remembered how to say that! Walking back through this remote village to our bus was such a joy because everyone came out of their houses to say, literally “hello” to us! Meanwhile, the crowd of kids followed us most of the 20 minute walk back yelling “yeah” as we went. Looking around and smiling and joking with the locals is an experience I’ll never forget—I love the Vietnamese people! I love Vietnam!

Class in the Pagoda

View from the top of the Tower, with Vy, our wonderful Assistant Director

A beautiful gift of fruit and rice cakes from the Monk

The locals who came to play!

Playing Frisbee with the local kids and the novice monks

With one of the novices by the ocean inlet

We had our last dinner on the bank of the Perfume river at a beautiful restaurant. I am so grateful to Co Thanh for giving us such wonderful experiences. She really doesn’t get enough credit for all she does. We flew back to Saigon and checked into the 1B Guest House! Home sweet home! Son already called that night to invite me out with his friends, but I told him I’d come by the next day (since we got back late). The next day was our 3rd day off in 2 months, so I needed to go to bed early and sleep in!

Spent the next week in Saigon. It was fairly low key, we had a number of lectures on different topics and finished up our Vietnamese class with Co Tuy. I worked a lot on my ISP proposal and have decided to switch to educational reform policy after a lecture by the Vice President of Vietnam National University. He was also a member of the National Assembly for 10 years—really cool guy. Co Thanh seems to be on board and I think the people at Emory will be fine with it. We had a great cultural exchange on Friday with a bunch of the University of Economics students, including Phat and the BELL club, the folk club, and a bunch of other random students who we’ve met and not met during the semester. We sang two songs: Ain’t No Mountain High and Wagon Wheel. We were a little bit more prepared for this exchange, and Mika played mandolin. Everyone seemed to like it and we had a great time watching Co Thanh, Vy, and Phat sing a traditional song too (Co Thanh decked out in full ao dai). The Bell Kids performed, and so the group from the Netherlands sang a Karaoke song from Aladdin. This week was a real wakeup call to how long we’ve been here, and how relatively little time we have left. We finished our Vietnamese class, took the final, and was pleased to find that during the spoken section, I could understand our wonderful teacher Co Thuy, (of course when she speaks slowly), and I can understand the written language even better. I will miss Co Thuy’s positive reassurance “and don’t be ah worried!” and endless patience with us! It’s hard to believe how far we’ve come!

I spent a lot of my time this week with Son! One night it was Tuan’s 19th birthday, so we went out bowling and drinking with Kaka and Heo and I ended up spending the night at Son’s house. On Friday night we had a goodbye dinner at a fancy hotel with a bunch of the homestay families. Son, Minh, and Kaka came and we had a great time eating a ton of delicious food (and some not—a full toad with the skin still intact). I was sad to leave HCMC because I’ve become so close to Son, but I know I’ll see him again and we’re still planning on going to Cambodia after the program! Otherwise, the week was pretty relaxed—a nice last week in Saigon.

This was my first full day in Hanoi! I’m so excited to be here, the weather is cooler, and the city itself is beautiful, vibrant, and fun—so different from everything I’ve heard about it. I’m excited to be spending more time here! We arrived late last night after a frustrating flight. I of course took all my stuff and ended up having to pay $50 of excess weight fees and deal with all the frustration it caused. When we got there, we took the long bus ride from the airport to the city, and checked into our government guest house, and went out for some late night pho. Brady and I went out for some beer at a random place and enjoyed walking through the beautiful streets of Hanoi. We live right next to the lake in the center of the city. The lake itself is beautiful and there are couples sitting around it all the time holding hands and kissing—a very romantic city, I think! There’s supposedly a huge turtle in the lake that guards an ancient sword. When it surfaces, it brings good luck to those who see it! I hope I see it!

Today, we left early to see the tomb of President Ho Chi Minh as well as the Presidential House. The line to get in was shockingly long but Co Thanh somehow got us into a short line so we got into the mausoleum pretty quickly. You have to leave your camera outside, and be dressed appropriately to enter. They line everyone up in pairs and you must enter silently and with your arms at your side in a respectful manner. You walk through the building and enter a big room with a big pit. In the pit are 4 soldiers guarding a huge glass box that contains Ho Chi Minh’s preserved body. A really weird sight—they followed what the Soviets did to Lenin. The body looks waxy and fake and it’s just lying there like its sleeping. Really weird to see. After the mausoleum we walked across the grounds and viewed the Presidential House, which Ho Chi Minh refused to live in—he wanted to live more humbly. The building is huge and designed with French architecture (it was originally a French colonial building). Today, the President of Vietnam still uses it for his offices. Next to the building is Ho Chi Minh’s two small houses (one was on stilts). Both were very small and humble. The one on stilts has a downstairs open meeting area where much of the Vietnam war was planned by top officials.

Outside the Presidential Palace, where the current President of Vietnam works

One Pillar Pagoda, a symbol of Hanoi

One of the Turtles at the Temple of Literature

After that we had lunch at the best Italian restaurant I’ve ever eaten at outside of Italy. We had wonderful pizza, pasta, salad, and garlic bread. Not sure whether it was really the best Italian ever or if I’ve just been craving it for a long time! Fun either way! Co Thanh is in a markedly better mood being back in her native Hanoi. I think she is spoiling us so we like it the best too! After a nap break, we had a drop off. Emily and I were assigned to visit the pagoda in the middle of the lake. It’s a beautiful temple dedicated to an old Vietnamese war hero and also to the turtle of Hanoi lake. Funny place, but really gorgeous. I want to go back to do some reading there sometime during the ISP! After the drop off, Vy took the few of us who are staying in Hanoi around to look for places to stay. I found two options located in the backpacker district which are really great: $15-$20 per night and I have a great bedroom, bathroom, AC, internet, TV, and breakfast. I’m getting more and more excited for the ISP period!

We’ve seen the Temple of Literature, which is an old confucist “university” where people would go to study, learn, and take their national exams. Those who passed were immortalized forever by having their names inscribed on huge tablets that sit on stone turtles—a symbol of age/wisdom. We went to a slightly bizarre water puppet show last night which is very traditional in Hanoi.

I had dinner with a few of the girls, then we met Co Thanh and Vy to debrief the dropoff at Fanny’s a delicious ice cream place located near the lake. I had a rum ice cream drink and I’m going back there for sure! Long day, but I’ve loved Hanoi so far! It seems even more unique than Ho Chi Minh City, and they understand my Vietnamese better here (we’ve been learning the northern accent the whole time), woohoo!

I found out that I can use my blog as part of my final project for our class section. So I’m going to try to spruce it up a little by adding some photo and maybe some video soon!

Friday, March 19, 2010

Rural Development in the Mekong Delta

Hi everyone! Sorry not to have posted in a long time, but I literally never have a single free moment! Co Thanh has scheduled us completely solid, so it’s been really hard for me to find any time to write more than my journal! Anyway, I spent the past two weeks in the Mekong Delta! We headed down south to learn about Vietnamese agriculture and rural development! It was the perfect place to go because the Mekong is the epitome of a developing agriculturally based economy! It’s going to be impossible to write down every single thing that happened, but I’m going to try to talk about some of the highlights of the past two weeks! Here goes!

We drove 4 hours south from Ho Chi Minh City to Can Tho along the brand new highway, which is Vietnam’s first. Everyone in Vietnam seems to be very proud of this thing, like it is going to bring them more prosperity as a result. We were able to drive much faster than on the road to Dalat since it’s 4 lane. Drove past beautiful rice paddies the entire way. Crossed huge bridge over Mekong River, then had to take a ferry to cross the 2nd part of the river. Co Thanh says we are some of the last to use the ferry since a new bridge is almost completed. Never used a ferry before, so enjoyed the experience! We arrived at our hotel, which in Can Tho which is a really nice place. We had a lecture from a renowned professor from Can Tho University on agricultural development. A lot of it pertained to my potential ISP topic, so I was very interested and made sure to get his email address so I could email him in the future with questions. Co Thanh says he is very famous in Vietnam, and I believe it. He was late to fly to Hanoi to meet with some government people about agricultural development in Vietnam. Really interesting lecture!

That night we went to a local restaurant to meet the other SIT Vietnam students! The other program is based in the Mekong and is focused on ecological issues. I think I got the better program because I get to travel all throughout Vietnam! I didn’t talk with them very much because I was at the end of the table with some Vietnamese students from Can Tho University. We talked and enjoyed our dinner, then returned to our hotel , which has a really fun rooftop. Beautiful city (bigger than I expected—millions of people), and they have glowing kites flying clear up high in the sky, much higher than any building—I thought they were UFO’s at first! Two Vietnamese students joined us on the roof and we had a fun time getting to know them! More nice people, I love meeting new friends!

The next day we visited the floating market of Can Tho, with a pit stop at a rice noodle farm! We walked down the street and through a back alley to the bank of the Mekong River. We climbed into a long, rickety, looks-homemade boat, and headed off into the Mekong. It was so cool to see all the houses lining the side of the river and learn how these people live their lives—the Mekong is life. We boated about 15 minutes up the river and through some side canals to a small family house. The family makes rice cakes and sells them at the market. We were taught the process that they do every day. They make 1000 of these rice cakes per day. They look like huge rice crepes, about 1 foot in diameter. The liquid is placed on a big heated drum and spread around into a circle, where it cooks in about 30 seconds. Then a girl takes a big wooden mallet and wraps the crepe around it to move it to the bamboo sheets for storage and transport. I got to try making the pancake—a lot harder than expected. We then toured the rest of their home. The family also raises pigs and sells them. I helped water the pigs, thinking *swine flu* the whole time, but I got the vaccine so I’m sure I’m ok!

We loaded back into the boat and boated up the river to the floating market. Such a cool experience to see all these boats pulled together (some have make-shift engines, some are paddled by Vietnamese standing on the back like a Venetian gondolier. Everyone was selling fresh produce, throwing it back and forth between boats and yelling back and forth. We drove through waving at the locals, smiling at the few other tourists on fancy boats driving through, and buying fruit along the way. We bought watermelon and bananas-delicious! Didn’t spend much time, but its not like you can get out and look around---everything happens in the middle of the river!

We kept moving up the river to meet a local farmer, Bac Hai at his house. We were dropped off by the boat captain and were welcomed to the My Khanh Village, a large river village with 10,000 people. They are a developing village that is using sustainable and advanced development techniques in their production. We met with The Chairman of the Village’s People’s Committee, The President of the Women’s Association, and the President of the Farmer’s Association in the village. We learned a lot about their different model for rural development, focused on organic and sustainable farming. They have an integrated farming system called VACB which means Garden, Pond, Pigsty, and Biodigester. They are trying to make all the small local family farms use this model for their farming. We got a tour of their little farm. Basically they raise pigs, rinse their feces into a 20 foot container on the ground (mixed with the household excrement), where it decomposes in 30 days into methane gas and organic fertilizer. They collect the methane gas to use for their own cooking, and use the fertilizer for their fish pond to feed their fish. They then harvest the fish and use the fertile silt from the bottom of the pond to fertilize their fruit garden. It’s a really neat system and is almost completely sustainable. SIT has funded and helped build their biodigester and a few other biodigesters in the area, so it was really special to see how helpful the past students’ work was.

Later we drove to Hoa An, which is a small town located in the poorest province in the Mekong Delta. We stayed for a week in the Hoa An Biodiversity Center, living in dormitory style accommodations. We had 2 rooms, with 6 and 6. Guys and girls are put together in the same room. We have bunk beds with mosquito nets around us because the bugs are REALLY bad down here! There is a full staff of experts devoted to agricultural and rural development within the Mekong, as well as a full staff of cooked us delicious food for every meal! The Center is focused on technical training, microfinance, and sustainable development.

We then ventured out into the surrounding area, guided by a director of the center, Phat, who took us down a road through rice paddies and huge grass fields. Surrounding all the rice paddies are trenches dug down each side filled with water. This is where the farmers are raising fish and shrimp. Since it is the dry season, the water is very low. During the rainy season the paddies would be full of water. Hoa An is a ways away from the actual Mekong river, so farming here is a little more difficult because its hard to regulate the amount of water going in and out. The soil is very acidic so the farmers must choose crops that can survive in different soil conditions.

We heard a lecture from the assistant director of the Hoa An BioCenter on the center’s functions, which are technical assistance to farmers and laborers in developing new methods for production, and also microfinance. The microfinance is very interesting they have two projects: one is funded by OxFamUK and is a small program (started at $1500 and is now around $3500) that has set up a group called the Saving Women Groups. These groups consist of 15-25 women on a rotary basis. They are able to apply for micro loans of around 1 million dong that they can use to improve their lives. The other group is larger (about 4million dong per loan) and is a partnership with Michigan State University and Can Tho University. They always provide free technical service to the people who they give the loans to, to try to make sure that their new endeavors are successful.

One afternoon we were assigned to teams of two, given a translator, and told to head out into the field to interview two families each about their daily lives. I was paired with Amy, and Co Thanh acted as our translator. We were heading to really rural homes far from Hoa An Center, so we hopped on the back of some guy’s motorbike (no idea who he was) and were driven down the highway, through the town, and up a gravel road along the river for 15 minutes. We were riding through areas of shacks, but they were all right along the river and it was a beautiful drive. There were bridges we crossed where my legs were literally hanging over the water because they were so narrow. Really fun trip. We were dropped off clear in the boonies and walked over a bridge along the river. We had to cross the river once more, but had to use a monkey bridge, which is basically some tree branches tied together, one to walk on and one to hold as you shimmy across. Seriously wobbly and shaky, and high above the polluted water (15 feet) but I made it across! We walked into the second shack we saw and were greeted by a woman and her adorable children. We were introduced, and using Co Thanh as the translator, interviewed this woman about her life. We all sat on the floor of her shack, which is just open to the outdoors, and she turned a fan on and gave us some bananas and some soda. She was from a few towns over and had originally been landless, but the government had given her the land she was on when her father died. He had been a war veteran and so they had given the land to his wife, who then gave it to her children. She and her husband are laborers and they have 2 children, 4 and 9. They were wonderful to meet. She told me she is very involved in the Saving Women’s Group (from Hoa An Center) and had gotten loans from that group in the past. She raised pigs, fish, and eels while her husband labored in the construction business. We talked about the effectiveness of the local government, about her cultural traditions associated with Tet Holiday, about her children’s education, her other associations, etc. She showed us around her land, and we gave her a present of MSG and other spices as a gift for welcoming us.

We walked to the next house to interview and found out that the woman was the sister in-law of the previous woman. Thus she had a similar story. She gave us some iced coffee and we talked with the woman and her husband. They have a young daughter and a son who was 16, although I thought he was 8 or 9. Not sure if he has some kind of physical problems like malnutrition, but he was tiny. His mother told me he had “lost his motivation” for school and had dropped out that year. They didn’t know whether or not he would be able to go to technical school, although they did want him to get an education so he wouldn’t have to be a laborer forever. I hope he does go back to school! We finished our interview with the other family (who also got lots of loans from the Hoa An Center) and said our goodbyes and gave our gift. Such an interesting experience. Glad to have Co Thanh with us because we were able to fully understand each other!

One day we learned about and participated in organic farming! We were picked up by the river by a “special boat.” It was pretty typical for the rivers around here, put together with old wooden boards and powered by a make-shift motor and small propeller at the end of a long pole. What made it special was a little plaque inside of it that said “Funded by SIT.” Apparently, a previous semester’s class had pooled their money together for this guy to buy him a boat since he had no way of getting the produce that he’d grown to the market. Co Thanh and previous students had built him a biodigester the year before and the students had decided to buy him a boat!

He drove 6 of us in the boat down the river to his house (the other students walked) and we got out at his neighbor’s farm, which was the home of another family that had been given a biodigester by SIT. They had a plaque in their garden that said Biodigester Funded by SIT. Really cool to see how these things have affected their lives so drastically. The pond in their yard was also paid for by SIT students. As a symbol of gratitude, the farmer had us go fishing in his pond for our lunch! We got some long bamboo rods, tied strings to them, and put whole live shrimp at the bottom. We all sat around for about 20 minutes and pulled about 10. We then walked across the long monkey bridge over the river to the other farmer’s house to sit down and learn about the process of organic farming. There are six steps involved. We went through the 6 steps with Phat, one of the directors from the Hoa An Center. After he taught us the steps, we went out to learn how to do it firsthand. We had to create piles of compost. First we made a stack of grass in about a 6x5ft area that consisted of 6 layers of grass about 6 inches deep each. After we made each layer, we would soak it with a mixture of water from the river and a fungus powder. When we had completed all the layers, we put a tarp over the pile that would stay there for 3 months while the fungus broke down the compost.

We then moved to step two, which was to turn the compost into bio-compost. To do this, we took one of the piles that had been sitting for 3 months, broke it apart, and moved it into another pile, again in layers. By then it looked more like dirt. As we created the layers, we soaked everything water mixed with a bacteria. This would turn it into a bio-organic matter that could then be used as fertilizer!

After step 2, we moved into their mosquito-net covered field (since they don’t use pesticides) to learn how to fertilize the ground. I was assigned to hoe the ground and prepare it for the fertilizer. It was such hard work to break up the ground into little pieces, and by then it was around noon so the sun was beating down. Plus the heat was intensified in the net, so the whole job was pretty miserable. When we had sufficiently broken down the ground, the girls came around and threw the fertilizer all over the two rows we’d made. We watched the farmer as he taught us how to plant the seedlings . We then went over and picked some green beans and lettuce that had already grown for our lunch! We had lunch that was provided by the farmers. We ate the fish we caught, plus rice and wonderful vegetables from their garden that we had just picked! Delicious meal and so kind of them to welcome us to their home! They had two sons (11 and ??—I think the malnourishment here makes them so small because I can never guess their ages). After lunch we returned to Hoa An Center. Walked back to the van this time, which was neat because I crossed all these crazy little monkey bridges, and tons of family homes (shacks). It is nice to be able to wave to the familes I passed and say hello (I’m getting good enough at Vietnamese that I can say hello to adults and children and ask them how they are and a few other things—finally)!

The next day we installed the biodigester at the farmer’s house! We woke up early for breakfast, and quickly got ready to go. We walked about a mile down the gravel road that we’d been down on our forest walk previously. At the end of the road, we hopped into two boats—one was the SIT boat that we’d been in the day before, driven by the farmer we’d spent the day learning about organic farming with, as well as a new farmer who owned the house we were going to work at. I guess all these canals and channels are connected—someone told me that you could take a boat from just outside of Saigon all the way down the Mekong Delta! Anyway we had about a 10 minute boat ride down the river—still love waving to the locals as we ride down the river—everyone stops what they are doing to stare at us. Most of these people have never seen foreigners in person before—I feel lucky to be able to find a place that’s still so untouched.

Anyway we arrived at the farmers house and were introduced to his family—husband and wife, with two kids. They were an extremely poor family—no electricity in their house. They have about 10 pigs, a pond which they use to raise fish, an outhouse, and a small field of rice. We immediately jumped right into the project. The day before, the experts from the Hoa An Center had come to dig the 20 foot trench for the biodigester. They dug it the day before with a large team. Wish they had let us dig the entire thing, but they were worried that because it’s the hot, dry season, that we wouldn’t get it done in time. Anyway, they left some for us to dig, which we did pretty quickly. The soil is basically fully clay, and it was heavy and hard to move. I was happy to have my conical hat in the blazing sun and humidity. When we finished digging, we were taught how to install the biodigester. We went around front and assembled the apparatus, with Bac Bay, the biodigester expert, and Phat, the Hoa An Center manager directing us. It’s basically a big bag with 3 layers, tied around pipes on each end. We made another, smaller bag to hold the methane with 2 layers of thick plastic. We used old strips of tire to make tight seals and wire and duct tape to secure everything. We then placed the bag in the trench, connected the pipes from the bag to the latrine and pigsty, then Lily and I made a brick enclosure around the entrance of the pipes and bag—with mortar and bricks (with the help of Phat, the farmer, and the Hoa An Center experts. We hung the methane bag and connected it to the biodigester. They had to connect the methane bag to the family’s new stove the next day since the stove wasn’t quite ready. Overall, the entire process took us about 4 hours, plus however long it took to dig the trench and however long it will take to attach the stove (which isn’t long). I was amazed by how relatively easy and fast the installation of the biodigester was! These things that cost only $150 and take so little time and expertise to install can help these families so much! Very inspiring to see the reaction of the family as we finished the project—they were so grateful to us for our help! They provided us with a large, beautiful, delicious lunch in their home, cooked by the family and other women that we’d met in the previous days. Fun celebration of our work!

One day we celebrated National Women’s Day by judging a cooking competition that was cooked by a few of the Hoa An staff and a few local farmers! Co Thanh was the official judge of the three teams. The first team cooked some tofu dishes, the next cooked chicken, and the last one cooked eel and dog meat!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! That team won of course, and there were all these celebrations for the winning teams. We then had dinner, and we got to sample all the dishes—that’s right, I tried the DOG MEAT! It was cooked and I dipped the little piece in the sauce. I put it in my mouth and chewed, nearly gagged, but kept chewing and eventually swallowed. Honestly, it was one of the more disgusting things I’ve ever eaten—pretty sure that even if I hadn’t known what it was, I still would have thought it was terrible. It tasted like a mix of teriyaki and bm to me, so I would never recommend it! It was chewy and gritty and muscle-y—gross, but its awesome to say I’ve tried it!!!

After dinner we had our Hoa An cultural exchange! All the farmers we’ve met came with all the Hoa An Center staff to participate. We basically sang songs to each other (we sang a new song I’ve learned and really like on this trip called Wagon Wheel )and they sang multiple songs for us! Then we played this funny game where we each had to do a little performance for them and then the crowd voted which of us was SIT Hero, Miss SIT, and Friendship SIT! I had to act out a chicken, a fish, and a cat. It was very funny because apparently the animals “say” different things in the US than they do in Vietnam, so Chicken was hard for them to get! They kept guessing duck, and I’m awkwardly cockadoodledooing and miming a chicken in front of like 30 people! Anyway, they all thought it was funny and I was voted Mr. SIT! I sat in front with Lily who won Ms. SIT, and Emily, who won Ms. Friendship and we were given homemade crowns (the girls were made from flowers, and mine was made from thatch and snail shells and random thatch grasses) and were given flowers and took lots of pictures with people! The people were so excited to get to celebrate our departure with us, and everyone had a fun time!

After our week in Hoa An, we traveled to other areas of the Mekong Delta. Specifically, we visited Long Xuyen, a city that is smaller than Can Tho but still bustling with activity, and Chau Doc, a crazy little town close to the Cambodian boarder that is the home of Ba Chua Xu, or the Goddess of the Realm—a symbol of the folksy spiritual beliefs that still remain in Vietnam. We also visited Tinh Bien, a tiny little town that is comprised mostly of the Khmer ethnic minority group who originally came from Cambodia.

In Long Xuyen, Vy took Brady and I out into the town to look around. I thought it was a really neat town—a little smaller than Can Tho, but it had a really neat vibe. We explored the outdoor market, which was huge and expansive. They were selling everything from sea food to souvenirs to special pastries. It was fun to walk through because this town definitely doesn’t have many foreigners visit ever. We were the center of attention—everyone was trying to talk to us and sell things to us! I was able to use some of my Vietnamese to tell people I speak only a little Vietnamese and to tell them who I was and why I was there! Fun to be able to start interacting! Vy and Brady and I met Co Thanh for dinner at her favorite vegetarian restaurant in the town. We had a big dinner and drinks for 20,000 dong ($1). After dinner, Co Thanh treated us to some delicious smoothies from a shop on the street near our hotel—so delicious!

The next day We drove to An Giang University’s Center for Rural Development (Long Xuyen is located in An Giang province) and had a talk on the issue of Damns on the Mekong River. They were proud to show off their facilities and kept telling us to come back and study with them—they want more Americans involved in their University!! I’ve never thought before about the consequences of building a dam on the river. Because the Mekong stretches through around 6 countries, there is no single regulatory force to control the river. China refuses to cooperate with the downstream countries, who suffer from irregular water flow, ocean salinity penetration, etc.

After lunch, we left Long Xuyen for Chau Doc, the center of Vietnam’s folksy religion! We checked into a hotel and had a brief lesson about Ba Chua Xu, the Goddess of the Realm. She is apparently some kind of goddess statue that many Vietnamese make pilgrimages to because it is believed that she can provide health, success, happiness, etc. We walked up to her pagoda through a town that I can really only describe as weird—definitely the weirdest place I’ve been in Vietnam—not sure why, maybe related to the folksy religion. We entered the pagoda with the permission of the police. The whole place was packed with people who were praying and making offerings to the Lady of the Realm. The statue was inside (no photos allowed) and it was basically a large, colorfully painted stone lady surrounded by incense and other symbolic objects. Behind her were swirling neon lights and color wheels. The haze of the incense, the people wailing and praying, and falling to the ground, plus the lady surrounded by the swirling colors, it reminded me of a scene from a movie where someone tries acid or something for the first time. Very weird and extremely gaudy—this place was unlike any other religious site I’ve ever been to!

After that we walked to Sam Mountain (where the lady was supposedly found) and climbed up the steps that go all the way up the mountain. There are little stands all the way up, a few small pagodas run by nuns, rest stations with hundreds of hammocks overlooking the mountain, and what appeared to be a few homes. We climbed up for about half an hour (the mountain isn’t too tall) to see the view from the top. Gorgeous! The mountain is mostly surrounded by rice fields, so we got to watch the sun set. On one side of the mountain was the border between Vietnam and Cambodia, which was cool to see. We met some Americans, a group of British kids, and a few Germans at the top, which was funny and unexpected in this small town! After sitting for a while, admiring the sunset, I headed to the mountaintop altar, where there was a group of Vietnamese people praying. One lady there turned out to be a medium, and as I got there she started entering a trance. She suddenly flopped down on her knees, and started scooting all around the altar, yelling and singing. She took out some money, got up and ran down a few steps to where Brady was standing and gave him the money. At this point she was laughing like crazy and she started to try to get others to laugh with her. She danced around some more, then grabbed a woman from the audience and suddenly started to hit her. I think she was hitting out bad spirits or something, because the woman did not protest or react, instead she seemed to be going along with it. I was filming the whole thing, but at this point, I started to feel uncomfortable, so I left, and we all walked down the mountain together.

The next day we traveled to Tinh Bien where we stopped at the meeting hall for the town’s People’s Committee. There, we met with the vice-chairman of the People’s Committee, and also with a few representatives from the CARE organization that were working on a project called the Pacode Project, which basically works with the ethnic minorities (especially the women) in the town. Most of the people in that town were Khmer, or people of Cambodian decent. They have remained closed off from Viet culture for a very long time and only now is the government trying to help them improve their lives. The Pacode project is a mix of microfinancing, education, and technical assistance, much like the Hoa An projects. After this we went to Cam Mountain to look at the Pacode implementation process. This mountain is the home to many Khmer people, so we had a very interesting time learning about the help they were giving this community. This was at the top of the mountain, so we piled into SUV’s that took us up the steep grade of the mountain that our bus couldn’t have handled. The Pacode Project’s biggest achievement was the recent completion of a sanitary well that the people could use as a source of water.

After viewing the well we traveled to the very top of the mountain to view the giant Buddha statue that was just recently built to attract tourists to the mountain. There was a beautiful view, lake, pagoda, and Buddha at the top, a nice, albeit, touristy stop. We met with a Khmer lady, and Carol, who’s parents are from Cambodia, was able to talk fluently with her, which was really neat for her and for us to hear.

After Cam Mountain we headed to the Tra Su forest, a national park that had been a “forgotten forest” for decades. This place isn’t even a tourist destination for the Vietnamese—it’s literally in the middle of nowhere—it took us an hour of driving on dusty roads through fields to get to a place where we had to leave the bus, walk to a boat, then walk some more. We finally got into another boat and entered the forest. It was unbelievably beautiful and untouched—it reminded me of swamp scenes in Jurassic Park, because everywhere, there were these beautiful white birds. It was a mangrove forest, so we had to take a boat to get through it. The water was covered in bright green algae—it was like a magical forest! So beautiful! We took a boat through the waterways, we got stuck 3 times on shallow areas and narrow passages, but made it to our lunch destination! It was a beautiful hut overlooking the river and forest with a beautiful meal prepared by the warden of the forest and his wife!! We had a feast in this “forgotten forest” and everyone was really in awe of how beautiful the scene was. The warden and his wife were so nice to welcome us, and he told us to come back to visit again! After lunch we got into some row boats, and a guy paddled us silently through the forest, so we could look at the birds and beautiful scenery in peace. Such a beautiful ride! At one point we rounded a corner, and hundreds and hundreds of white birds suddenly took flight all around us! Of course our two boats were the only ones around, so we felt like we’d truly entered a forgotten, enchanted forest! Wow!

After we returned to Ho Chi Minh City, we quickly began our 2 week-long homestay! I packed up my bags and met my homestay brother, Son, in the main lobby! He’s a great guy! 18 years old, really fun, nice, and great at English! He helped me get all my heavy bags to the cab, and we headed off to the Ban Tinh district, which is about a 15 or 20 minute ride from the UEH! The district seems to be very nice, but mostly Vietnamese—I haven’t seen a single white person in this district yet!! Woohoo!! His house is down a quiet alley and is definetly one of those really tall and narrow houses. He welcomed me into his house, where I met his younger brother, Minh, who I’d met before at the restaurant all those weeks ago, his mother, and his father! The mother, Ha works as a professor of accounting at UEH, and the father, Thai works as a project manager for a construction firm in HCMC. All were kind and welcoming! They have a maid, Co Hai that cooks and cleans and lives in their house like one of their own family! The house is really nice with 3 floors, and I feel very lucky to be here! They gave me my own room and bathroom, but that means that Son has to sleep downstairs on the couch. I’m definitely going to offer to have him share the bed with me, because I feel really bad displacing him!

I went out to meet the neighborhood! Everyone was a little shy to meet me, but soon we were all playing badminton together! I’m so terrible, but everyone thought that was pretty funny!

The family was so kind because they cooked things that they thought would remind me of home, including a salad (which I haven’t had in forever, so I loved that) and then they put out a huge thing of butter (rare in Vietnam) and they had gone out to buy a large bottle of mayo! I didn’t eat much of either because I wasn’t really thinking that they thought that I would love to have those things. Later they said they were confused because they thought that Americans always ate butter and mayonnaise! I felt bad not to have eaten more and quickly tried to add some more butter to my bread (which Son and I had gone to pick up on his motorbike!)

Anyway, after dinner, Son and Minh and I met up with some of his friends, including Can (??) who I’d met before, and we all met up with a few of their friends, and drove all over the town on motorbikes and then went to a beautiful coffee shop that overlooked the city, and was literally at the end of the international airport runway! We had 747’s flying over us all the time, as we sat in the cool breeze and had rum drinks! So fun, and such a surprise to find these kids who like to have a good time as much as American kids do! We had a great time, and we plan on seeing each other again soon!

My homestay family organized a xe om driver to pick me up and take me to class every morning since the family is all gone to school and work by the time I leave. The driver picks me up at 7:45 and we drove slowly, all the way to school through rush hour traffic! What a crazy crazy mess! Probably a little more dangerous than I care to think about, we rush in between motorbikes and cars and busses..there was even a motorbike next to me that hit the bus and went toppling over! I’ve lost count of how many times we’ve hit other motorbikes, or my arm gets hit by another bike’s handle bars. If people think the traffic is bad in the touristy areas (as I did), they would be shocked at how crazy the traffic is and how far it stretches down the long street to the school!

Son and I had to go register with the police that I was staying in their home. We had to make photocopies of my passport, visa, and entry card. It’s a little unsettling to think that I’m being tracked everywhere I go, but fascinating to see the process first hand!

Son and Minh and I have had a ton of fun together these past few days. I really like both of them. We’ve been playing cards, listening to music, helping each other with our homework, driving around the town, telling stories, eating together, going for dessert, and many other great thigns. I’ve been up till 3am the past 3 nights hanging out with Son, watching movies, and just talking. He’s a really great guy, I’m glad that I’m getting to know him better! His friends are all so nice, and every time we see them, they all try to speak in English, even to each other, so that I can be included in the conversation! Toi rat vui, as they say, I am very happy!

That’s all for now, sorry this blog is a little more rushed than my others, but I just wanted to let everyone know what I’ve been doing! It’s been over a month in Vietnam now and the excitement of being here is still present! There are times in class when I forget where I am and why I’m working so hard and long on this difficult language, but then, when I race through the foreign streets, alleys, on the motorbike, smelling all the foods, seeing things I never imagined I could see, it all comes flooding back—oh yah, I’m in Vietnam right now. Everything I know, can relate to, is all literally on the other side of the world. I am just really happy to be living this experience to the fullest!