Wednesday, March 31, 2010


It's been a while. Lots to update on:

A few weeks ago was spring break. I spent the week with 5 of my friends on an island off the south coast of VN called Phu Quoc. It's basically your stereotypical beautiful tropical island: clear blue water, white sand, bungalows on the beach, really bad sunburns, the works... It was really touristy, but I had a great time there. There are some great coral reefs off the coast of the island, and our group took a boat out and went snorkeling. The reefs were beautiful, and there were lots of really neat fish and some terrifying sea urchins with huge spikes. I had a great time swimming around until I saw a huge jellyfish (maybe a foot wide) about 10 feet away from me, at which point I swam back to the boat as quickly as I could. The rest of the week was mostly spent reading and eating some really good food. There was one restaurant that we went to a lot. It was almost always empty, but the food was amazing, and there was this adorable little girl who would run around and alternately play with us or just be super super shy.

We've gone on a bunch of fieldtrips in the past few weeks. The first was a trip to the Mekong Delta, where we got to walk around a "handicraft village" (products they made included coconut candy, puffed rice, rice paper in several different forms, and bricks and ceramics). We also spent a morning helping out with the harvest in a rice field, after which we had lunch at the farmer's house. This was a particularly great experience because it was the first experience I had where I really felt like I gained a truer understanding of the daily life of normal people here. We were staying at a guest house along one of the waterways. It was such a peaceful and relaxing place to be.

Last weekend we went to the Cao Dai Holy See and the Cu Chi Tunnels. Cao Dai is a strange Vietnamese religion that was created in the 1920s, combining a whole lot of different religions, as well as having a few historical figures as their fairly odd list of saints- for example, Victor Hugo. Yes, that's right. Victor Hugo. The Holy See is a fairly large, extremely colorful temple complex. The inside is beautiful (though a bit gaudy), and we got to see part of a service. It was basically just a lot of chanting for a really long time, but it was incredibly interesting to be able to observe some of the rules and traditions of practicing the religion, and not just the art and architecture that surrounds it. After lunch, we drove to the Cu Chi Tunnels. The tunnels were an extensive, complicated maze in which the Viet Cong lived and traveled to avoid US bombs. We got to see some of the original tunnels, as well as learning about how life in the tunnels functioned. On our way home from the tunnels, we stopped at an animal rescue center. I got to see a leopard, and a bear tried to attack me through the bars of its cage, which was quite a surprise. Luckily it didn't get me though.

While I'm in Ho Chi Minh City, I mostly am busy with classes and homework. Other than my main school classes, we have some extra-curricular classes, including bamboo flute and chinese calligraphy. The calligraphy class is my favorite. It's calligraphy with a brush,not a pen, but we're writing english characters, not chinese. It's not enough to just write the word, the lines must be drawn in a specific way. We spend 2 hours every monday night just practicing a few letters over and over, and I find it oddly relaxing. Last week I started to write whole words and not just letters, and I'm really proud of how my work is turning out.

I've been having a great time hanging out with our roommates. Usually I have class in the morning and they have it in the afternoon, but I almost always go out to dinner with some of them. Often we'll just go to restaurants near our guesthouse, but the best is when we take motorbikes to a restaurant in another district. The whole city seems different when you're sitting on the back of a motorbike, you become a part of the chaotic traffic in this city and have an odd connection to all the people on motorbikes around you, while at the same time being in your own private world. The city at night has a different feel as well. It is so much cooler once the sun goes down, and it feels so much more relaxed while still being an extremely lively place.

I only have two and a half weeks left before I head home. It's a little crazy for me to think about; I get homesick a lot, and I'm ready to see my family and friends again. At the same time, I'm finally feeling really comfortable in this country and I really enjoy living here.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Greetings from Saigon

So I stopped updating for a while there. My bad. As a result, you'll get a really brief overview of our central region tour, and then I'll tell you about Saigon, and maybe if you're lucky I'll go back sometime and give a more in depth description of the central region. But probably not.

Day 1: Hue. The day before Tet. We went to a beautiful old Pagoda, and went to an orphanage, and toured the Imperial city and some emperor's tombs.

Day 2 & 3: Hoi An- a really touristy town, near the beach. The only academically interesting thing from our time there was our visit to the My Son ruins, which were pretty awesome. We also had a great cooking class, along the river in a totally surreal location. Other than that we spent our time swimming, eating, and walking around the beautiful town.

Day 4: Long bus ride along the Ho Chi Minh trail (now a highway) through jungle still visibly damaged by the war. We spent the evening in Pleiku, a fairly uninteresting city in the highlands and well off the normal tourist path. The highlight of the day was walking around a minority village while taking pictures of the beautiful scenery. (The dirt there is redder than in Utah, and contrasting that with the green of rice fields makes for some intense color.)

Day 5 & 6: Ho Lak. After visiting a museum and a beautiful temple, we drove to Lak Lake, the largest freshwater lake in Vietnam. We stayed in a traditional longhouse at a resort, and saw a performance of traditional dancing our first night there. The next day we rode elephants (I felt a bit guilty- I doubt they were humanely treated) and then walked around another minority town, in which we were chased by children who screamed and ran away whenever we looked at them. Then, best of all, we learned how to properly make a cup of Vietnamese coffee.

Day 7: Bus ride to Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon), which took 12 hours.

I've been in Saigon for about a week and a half now. I have a new roommate named Yến, who I get along with very well. I'm starting to know my way around the city. Classes are in full swing now, which sucks because we have so much less free time, but oh well, this is supposed to be school after all. We live in District 1, the downtown area of the city, so we're in a more expensive part of town and it's fairly touristy, which has its good and bad sides. We're actually about 2 blocks away from the US, British and French consulates which is kinda neat. The traffic here is crazier than in Hanoi, which I would not have thought possible. It hasn't been as hot here as I was afraid of. I definitely need the air conditioner on in my room, but it's never so bad outside that I don't want to leave my room. Overall, I really like the city so far.

Last weekend we went to a resort town called Mui Ne to get to know our roommates better. We spent the whole morning on the beach/in the hotel pool, and in the afternoon we went to a sand dune area nearby that made me feel like I was in Africa or on the moon or something. I ended the day extremely sunburned.

Well, that's all for now. I'm sure there are many more interesting things I could tell you about, but I can't think of a single one at the moment. So, goodbye for now.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Happy New Year!

Today is Tet, the first day of the new lunar year. Like on New Year's Eve in the US, fireworks were shot off at midnight. The noise of them woke me up, and I watched from the balcony of my hotel in Hue, which looks out across the river to the old imperial city, which is where the fireworks were being shot off. There was a thin layer of low cloud, through which I could still see the fireworks, but between that and the distance between me and them, the fireworks had a certain beautiful fragility to them. In the street beneath me, an old woman was burning paper offerings to her ancestors.

As beautiful as the moment was, it was not simply a moment of pure joy for me. I could not help but think that 40 years ago, waking up to the sound of explosions would have been a reason for fear, not for celebration. In fact, Hue suffered fairly heavy damage in the Tet Offensive in 1968. Thinking about this gave the moment a certain poignancy for me, and as I stood on my balcony, half asleep, full of a sense of amazement to find myself celebrating the new year in Vietnam and a sense of sorrow and regret for the past, a few tears slipped down my cheek.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Last week in Hanoi

This week was pretty great, though unfortunately it's my last week in Hanoi. They kept us a little too busy for my taste, but most of it was pretty awesome so I don't mind too much. On monday night we went to a lecture/performance of a type of traditional theater called Chèo. It was just our group there, and the performance was on the roof level of a publishing company, of all places. Instead of doing a whole play, there was one man who would tell us a little bit about the performance style, and then we'd see a scene, and then he'd talk more, and we'd see another scene. I liked this better than if we had seen the whole play, because I got more of an understanding of the background of the art form than I've gotten from other performances we've seen.

Tuesday morning, we went on a field trip to the old Citadel of Hanoi. Most of the citadel was taken down by the French and replaced with their own buildings, which became a headquarters for their military. When the French were kicked out, the People's Army took over the area, and it was their headquarters during the American War. We got to go into some of the major meeting rooms and offices and the underground tunnel system that protected them against American bombs, as well as seeing the parts of the original citadel that are still standing today (mostly just the outer wall). Our trip was led by a man named Le Van Lanh (I think), who is a fairly famous scholar here in Vietnam. We had a lecture with him on monday, and he's very smart and funny and just a really good teacher. During our tour of the citadel grounds, our group gained a bunch of hangers-on, and we were often stopped by people coming to shake his hand and greet him, and even without understanding what they were saying you could see just how much respect they have for him. It was amazing to be taught about history on-site with such a respected and knowledgeable teacher.

Wednesday morning: nothing too notable as far as the trip goes, but quite a wonderful personal achievement. I gave away my crutches! The cleaning lady on my floor has a sister with a broken leg, and asked if I'd give her my crutches. So I did! Yay!

Thursday morning: weirdest. fieldtrip. ever. We went to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and viewed the corpse of the man himself. Sure, that was pretty weird in itself, but the security and ceremony surrounding it is also rather intense. There's a dress code to rival that of the Vatican, you can't bring backpacks into the complex, cameras are okay until you get too close, and then you have to leave them at a drop-off spot and pick them up on the other side. When inside the mausoleum, you can't even have your hands in your pockets. And then, of course, you see the dead guy for about 20 seconds, from about 10 feet away, and you start to wonder what all the fuss is about. It's still kinda cool though. Once you see the body, you can go see the house where Ho Chi Minh lived, and see a bunch of old cars he used and whatnot. Then you move on to the Ho Chi Minh museum, most of which seems more like a collision of modern art and historical artifacts than an actual informative museum. And of course, throughout all of these different sites are scattered many little gift shops that seem all too capitalist to be at the tomb of a great communist leader. Oh well.

Oh, there was another rat in my room! I was washing my hands in the bathroom, and all of a sudden a rat appears out of nowhere and starts running frantically around, trying to find a way out of the bathroom. The best part was when he fell in the toilet. I was incredibly amused, though still a bit freaked out that I was stuck in a room with a rather frantic rat.

Now it's Friday night, and in four hours we'll leave Hanoi. It seems too soon to be moving on- I'm only just starting to really get to know all of the roommates, and there are so many parts of the city I have yet to explore. Tonight we had a great karaoke party to say goodbye to the roommates, and there have been many gifts exchanged and many tears shed. I'm ready to go see other parts of Vietnam, but at the same time I love Hanoi and I love all of our roommates and it will be hard to get on the plane tomorrow without them.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Lots of cool things happened

So. I haven't updated in a while, and I've been really busy, so this might be a really really long blog post. But it'll be interesting, I promise.

Two weekends ago (Jan. 30 & 31) we had a free weekend. A big group of us went on a tour of a few different sites outside the city, organized by the sister of one of our roommates, who happens to be a travel agent. This means that not only were things really really easy to set up, but we got really good deals on things as well. Our first stop was at a beautiful place called Tam Coc. Here, you can take a boat along a river through amazing rock formations, rice paddies, and several caves. The people who row the boats are so good at it that half the time they row with their feet! It was great to get out of the city and see more of the gorgeous countryside.

Next we went to a place called Hoa Lu (I think...), which was an ancient capital of Vietnam. All that's there now is a few pagodas and the tomb of a king on top of a hill. It seems to be a major field-trip destination for Vietnamese schoolchildren, because the place was packed with them when we arrived, and about 20 minutes later they all left, leaving the place nearly empty. We walked around the pagodas for a while, and then everyone else climbed up to the old tomb. Since I couldn't climb a mountain, I sat at the bottom with some old vendor ladies who tried to communicate with me for a little while before giving up. They were very sweet, and made sure I was sitting in the shade and drinking my (somewhat overpriced) soda, and they gave me a place to sit at their little table. It was the first time I think I felt truly comfortable in this country without having anyone else around to help me.

The last place we went was the most amazing place I've ever been in my life. It's a little village up in the mountains called Mai Chau, a traditional village of the H'Mong people. They build their houses on stilts, and most of their income is from selling textiles to tourists. The place is surrounded by rice paddies, it's absolutely drop-dead gorgeous. We did a "homestay" there, meaning we had a huge room in one of the houses that we all stayed in. The room was wonderfully airy, and all that was in there was a few cabinets and stacks of bedding. When we got there, we could see some dancers performing for a group of French tourists outside our window. After dinner (which was some of the best food I've eaten here), we had our own dance performance right in our room. It was amazing- they performed all sorts of traditional dances, and at the end did the stick dance where they tap sticks on the floor and the dancers dance through them, and we were invited to join. Then we all danced in a circle around a pot of rice wine, which we drank through a bunch of long, hollow reeds.

Before the show, one of the musicians had told us that there would be dancing and bonfires outside the town that night, so we decided to go check it out. We started to walk down a lane between rice paddies, and as we got further from the town, we began to hear strains of Numa Numa floating delicately through the air. As it turned out, the "dancing and bonfires" turned out to be about 5 bonfires, 2 sound systems blasting dance tunes, and around 150 university students from Hanoi, all of whom spoke really good english and were very excited to find some americans in their midst. We danced for maybe 20 minutes until they stopped the music, and then found ourselves surrounded by people asking us questions and trying to get us to play guitar and sing with them. When we finally left and got back to our house, mosquito nets were up and our beds were all set up for us.

The next morning we got up early, rented some bikes, and rode to a nearby town to go to the market. We only had six bikes for 9 people, so some of us sat on the back of bikes while other people rode them. The first market we went to only had food, not clothes or souvenirs, so everyone kept riding to the next market. My foot really hurt, so my friend Anya dropped me off back at the village before rejoining the group. I spent a little while walking around the village and taking pictures, and then went back to the house and just sat and looked out the window for about half an hour. It was so calm and peaceful and perfect there, I didn't even want to be doing anything else. When everyone came back, we had lunch (still the best food ever), and then went for a bike ride up into the mountains. This time, I tried biking and discovered it didn't hurt my ankle at all, so I got to ride my own bike. We rode to a neighboring valley, where again we could hear dance music drifting across the valley. At this point it was really hot and we had to leave pretty soon, so me and a few others turned around and went back. A few people went further to investigate, and apparently the music was from a massive party where a big group of young vietnamese people were absolutely smashed for no apparent reason at two in the afternoon on a sunday. After being given several shots each of very strong homemade rice wine, my friends managed to escape and return to our village, just in time for us to head back to Hanoi.

Last week, only one thing really happened that is worth commenting on. Wednesday (Feb. 3) was the 80 year anniversary of the Communist Party of Vietnam. I went downtown to get dinner with my friends Jake and Connor, and right by our bus stop to go home there was a stage set up where there was a performance going on to celebrate. For the most part it was good, though there were some guys in outfits straight out of the 70s (tight white pants, bright orange shirts) and not all of the dancing was great. But right behind where we were standing for the bus, there were a bunch of veterans of the American War (as it's called here) lined up to go on stage. One of them noticed me and asked where I'm from using gestures. I told him I'm american, and he said "ohh, America!" and then, with a big playful grin on his face, pretended to punch me. I definitely found it a bit weird, but wasn't too bugged by it, but one of the other veterans saw and got really annoyed at him and shooed him back into line. It was definitely a little bit awkward, and the first time I've had any interaction with anyone about the war outside of a museum or class setting. I think Jake and Connor were more freaked out by it than I was, but we all agreed it was rather weird.

Last weekend our whole group went to Halong Bay. The four hour bus ride there was awful, we literally had just enough seats for everyone (and no leg room/luggage room), but once we got there, it was so worth it. We rented a junk (it's a kind of boat) for the weekend, the kind with the orange sails that you always see pictures of, and we cruised around the bay for a few hours until we got to a place where you can walk up the side of a mountain to a huge cave. After walking through it, we returned to the boat and traveled a little ways away, where we dropped anchor and a bunch of us went swimming off the side of the boat. The water was cold, but not too cold, and some of the more brave (and less injured) of us jumped off the top of the boat. I was a bit sketched out about going in the water because earlier I had seen a huge jellyfish in the water, but there was no sign of any when we were swimming, and being in the water felt really nice. That night I spent a few hours talking to my friend Cody on the deck of the ship, watching the sun set, and when we went back downstairs we discovered that a karaoke party was going on, an event which I will definitely NOT be telling you details about.

The next morning we woke up early and went kayaking through the islands in the bay. I spent most of the time closely examining the cliffs for potential awesome climbing routes, of which I found no shortages. Cody, who was my kayaking partner, wanted to swim again, so we pulled up on a tiny stretch of sand along one of the islands. While Cody was swimming (and being swarmed by fish), I explored the tiny beach, which was covered in shells and coral, and I saw what I think is some kind of marine flatworm, which at first looked like a leaf moving by itself and freaked me out. We eventually went back to the boat, waited while some lost kayakers were found, and then returned to port, got on the tiny little bus, and returned to Hanoi.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Life is far from perfect, but I'm having fun anyway

Okay, so remember in my last post when I said I'd seen no evidence of rats living on my floor? I totally and completely jinxed myself by saying that. The past two nights I've heard a rat running around my room trying to eat my food. And two nights ago I could even see it, which was actually better than not seeing it because I could definitively see that it was on the opposite side of the room from me. Needless to say, however, I was still rather freaked out by this. Last night was significantly better because it only woke me up once. Unfortunately this was because our shower broke a few hours before I went to bed, so it was noisily running all night. We couldn't get it fixed until this morning, at which point they worked on it for three hours. And now, upon returning from class, they're working on it again. So basically, I have the most unlucky room ever what with things breaking and gross creatures running around.

For the most part this week has been uneventful. Class has been a bit better than usual- we went to a few museums downtown as part of our history Vietnamese studies classes. For my Vietnamese language class today we took motorbike taxis to a market and had to bargain with vendors for a good price, which was easily more fun than sitting in a classroom trying to understand, well, anything. Vietnamese is fairly simple as far as grammar goes, but the pronunciation is really really difficult. Also, everyone in my class seems to experience a phenomenon in which we can understand everything the teacher says until he asks one of us a question, at which point it all turns to gibberish and that person's brain tries to melt out their ears. It's very annoying, and makes us all feel very stupid.

Last night we cooked dinner for our roommates. We found a grocery store that sells western food, and rented the kitchen at our school for the evening. (Our school has a kitchen, but our guesthouse doesn't. How weird is that?!) Because the ingredients we could find were somewhat limited, and ovens just don't exist here, we ended up cooking a lot of breakfast food (chocolate and banana pancakes, bacon and eggs) in addition to our dinner food (pasta with marinara sauce, mac n cheese, mashed potatoes). We also had some Norwegian rice pudding for dessert, because one of the girls on our trip is from Norway. It was delicious and wonderful and tasted like home. I think our roommates really liked most of the food, though I definitely saw some weird combinations of things being eaten (such as mac n cheese on top of a pancake). It was also great to get to cook again, since we can mostly only go out to eat here.

Monday, January 25, 2010

An Eventful Weekend

Last weekend was quite the adventure. I think it all starts Friday evening, when I went to a wonderful restaurant called Highway 4 in the old quarter with our trip leader Bruce, our trip assistant Caitlin, and our teacher/program coordinator Alyce. It has the most wonderful menu of completely exotic foods. It's rather expensive by Vietnamese standards, each dish runs for about 80,000VND. However, this translates to being about $4, so it's not actually expensive. The restaurant also distills its own fruit liqueurs, and has a whole variety of amazing and entirely unique flavors (I tried the Rose Apple liqueur, it was absolutely delicious!). Between the four of us, we ordered some really unusual things: cricket spring rolls, ostrich and potato croquettes, and roasted bull-of-the-bog, which despite sounding like some kind of frog is actually a bird called night heron. I think the night heron was hardest for me to eat- you could distinctly see bits of bird-shape on the serving plate. It didn't taste bad or anything, it was just too close to still being an animal for someone who until recently was a vegetarian for 4 years. I think the best dish we had was fish and pork that had been soaked in fish sauce and was really really tender and delicious. Overall it was one of the best (and weirdest, and cheapest) meals I've ever had in my life.

After dinner the whole group of LC students went to see an ex-pat production of Beauty and the Beast. It was definitely community theater at its best- it wasn't a great show, but it was fun and for charity and it was cool to see people from so many different countries all in a show together. But the weirdest part was also the reason we were there: the girl who played Belle is actually a recent LC grad living in Hanoi for a year to escape the recession. She was a senior when I was a freshman, and I recognized her in that naggingly-familiar-but-you'd-never-actually-figure-out-how-you-know-her sort of way. She's friends with Caitlin, which is how we found out about it and how we got tickets.

Saturday: a day that will be joyously remembered for months to come. I woke up all too early for a saturday morning, got a cab downtown, and went to the international clinic to get my cast off. The whole time I was there I just could not stop smiling! It took a rather long time for them to actually cut through the damn thing, the cast material that is used in the US is much harder than what they use everywhere else in the world, and the saw that they had here was rather old and prone to overheating (it was basically a really weak version of the kind they have in the US that somehow, magically, doesn't cut skin). My ankle is still a little bit swollen, and really not flexible, and that whole leg is really really weak, but I can almost sort-of walk! I think I'll be using crutches at least until the end of this week, at least for going longer distances, but already I can hobble across my room with no crutches, and putting weight on my foot is feeling better and better each time I try. The slightest little things can make me happy, like carrying something across a room or standing up or other little silly things like that which you normally don't even notice. It's wonderful.

Saturday afternoon we went to see a Vietnamese Water Puppets show. I absolutely loved it. The water puppets are controlled by puppeteers standing behind a screen, waist deep in water. The playing space was a pool of water maybe 15x15 feet or so. The puppets are on the end of long poles, and while some parts of them are animated by the puppeteers pulling strings or some such device, mostly their movement is simply through interaction with the water, either with movable joints or with a rudder-like device under the water. The show was a series of short vignettes depicting country life, historical moments, and the dances of supernatural creatures. There were nine puppeteers running the whole thing, and it was accompanied by a 6-person band playing traditional music. I'm not sure I've really done a good job of describing what it was like, but it's the sort of thing that you have to see to really know what it's like, so I'm not really sure I could do a better job of explaining it. Anyway, I thought it was really cool and really pretty, and even though it seemed a little bit like a cultural tourist attraction type thing I thoroughly enjoyed the show.

On Sunday our whole group, LC students and Vietnamese roommates, went to see the Perfume Pagoda. To get there we had a two hour bus ride to a town near the mountains, followed by an hour-long boat ride through amazingly beautiful scenery and rice paddies. The boats were similar to canoes, with 4-5 people in a boat, along with the rower. We had lots of fun talking to each other, singing, and just enjoying the scenery. Unfortunately my camera battery died right when we got to the water, but Bruce was nice enough to let me borrow his camera for the rest of the day. Once the boat ride was over it was a long hike to the top of a mountain (or in my case, a cable-car ride), at which point we walked through a little village precariously built on the side of the really really steep hill to a cave, at the bottom of which is the pagoda. The cave itself is amazing, seeing some of the rock formations really made me understand why people would believe that the gods were there. The altars in the cave are full of gold statues of gods, and people have made offerings to them of money, fruit, and even boxes of cookies. While we were down there a priest held a small prayer-service type thing and was singing and playing a small drum and gong. It was beautiful. Cody, one of the students on our trip, is Buddhist and was meditating during the prayer service, and I don't think I've ever seen anyone look as happy and peaceful as he did on our way back. Then it was back to the boats, back to the bus, and back to Hà Nội.

Oh by the way, for contrast here's today's adventures (truly a Monday worthy of the common "I hate Monday" sentiment): This morning, I sat down on my bed to do some reading, at which point, with a loud crack, my bed broke. As if that weren't bad enough, mere minutes ago I turned on a light in my room, and a big bug, like 1 1/2 inches long, went scuttling across my floor. I do believe I just killed my very first cockroach. It was big and disgusting and I feel bad for killing it, but there was no way I was letting that thing live in my room. (And in case you were wondering, which I'm sure you weren't, yes there are rats in my building as well. I've seen no evidence of them on my floor, but I've seen some huge ones downstairs.) Vietnam: awesome or sketchy? My vote goes to both.