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.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Nothing too interesting

Today the weather is pretty much perfect. It's nice and warm, enough to break a sweat while walking (or at least while crutching), but sitting here on my balcony it's the perfect temperature. There's a nice cool breeze, the sun is out, the rooster that lives across the courtyard is being noisy (only ever in the afternoon though, never in the morning when it's supposed to)...

I didn't do anything super exciting today, I woke up, did my homework, talked to my parents on Skype for a while, went to lunch, went to a coffee shop, went to class. It's one of the first days that I've spent more of the day around the neighborhood than in the guesthouse, and it's done wonders to make me feel more like a real person and less like a gigantic walking, talking cast. It feels like I shouldn't let my ankle control my life as much as I do, but until you have to use them I think it's hard to understand exactly how limiting crutches are, especially in a country as foreign as this one.

That's all I have to say. Basically the point of this post is to say to my dear friends in cold, rainy Portland: I'm living in a wonderfully warm, tropical country. I win.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Week One

So it's been a week since I got to Hanoi. That seems kind of hard to believe, yet at the same time it feels like it's been a lot longer. But I suppose that's how things always work. I'm still definitely feeling some culture shock. It's not nearly as bad as it had been, but I think as long as I have the crutches I'll feel at least a little bit uncomfortable here. I have an appointment to (hopefully) get the cast off next saturday, I'm very excited. I've also had a kinda bad cold for the past few days, so all in all I haven't had that great a time here so far, though i think that'll change really quickly once I'm feeling better and can walk again.

Today was our 5th day of vietnamese class. It's an incredibly difficult language, at least when you're first learning it. There are 12 vowels and 6 tones, so saying a word slightly wrong will completely change the meaning. Luckily the grammar is fairly simple- you don't even need to include verbs in some sentences, there's a structure of topic-explaination. For example, you could say "my name Laura", and it's completely grammatically correct, which is quite nice seeing as how I hate grammar. So far we can introduce ourselves and where we're from, count, and say a few other basic phrases.

Other than our language class, we're taking Intro to Vietnamese Studies, Modern Vietnamese History, and Environmental Sustainability. We've only had one class each of History and Vietnamese Studies (we only have them once a week), and Environmental Sustainability won't really start until we get to Saigon, so the class load isn't too bad, and it mostly doesn't actually feel like school.

We're starting to meet a lot of other westerners here. A big group of kids from Connecticut College moved into our guesthouse 2 days ago. Most of them are a lot more preppy than the people I'm used to hanging out with, but it's nice to have other college kids around. There's another American who lives on my floor who has been here for about a year and a half. She has a mohawk and is altogether a rather cool person, and she takes classes at the same school we do. Most of the other westerners I've met are also students at the school. There's a surprising number of Americans there, and I'm starting to recognize some of them and have introduced myself to a few people.

Today was the first really sunny, warm day we've had in Hanoi. "Sunny" might be giving it a little too much credit- there's so much smog here that the sky can barely be called blue. It's definitely the result of all the vehicles on the road- anything you've heard about motorbikes and traffic in Vietnam is completely true. Almost nobody here owns a car, the motorbike is the main form of transportation. I'm sure there are traffic rules that you have to know to get your license, but nobody follows any of them. To cross the street you just sort of go, and hope the motorbikes successfully avoid hitting you. I usually wait until the traffic is a little less heavy, but the Vietnamese people usually won't wait, and they always make it to the other side.

I've been on a motorbike three times so far. The first time was last Wednesday, when Ruby (my roommate) took me out to go shopping and see the city. We bought a lot of fruit from curbside vendors, most of which I'd never seen before. I'm not sure we even have names for them in english, if so I've certainly never heard of them. They are all delicious though, I hope I can find them somewhere when I get back to the US.

On saturday, our trip leaders set up a game they called The Amazing Race to help us get to know the city. It was a series of missions that, together with your roommate, you had to complete in order to get the next clue. Because of my broken ankle, they gave me the option of either playing by taxi (which no one else was allowed to use) or being one of the people giving out clues, so I chose to help with the clues. Ruby and I were placed at a restaurant downtown, and in order to get the next clue from us they had to crack open roasted watermelon seeds that had been dyed red, a traditional snack for Tet. We had a lot of time to relax and eat lunch while everyone else ran frantically around the city, trying to figure out where they were supposed to go. Personally I think we got the better end of the deal.

That same night Ruby was meeting up with two of her friends for dinner, and invited me to come along. We ate a dish called a Hot Pot, where you get a boiling pot of broth on a stove, a plate of raw veggies and a plate of (in our case) raw seafood, and you cook the food right there at the table. It was quite yummy, and I ate a lot of kinds of fish I never thought I'd touch, such as squid. After dinner we went and ate ice cream on the steps of the Opera house, which is a popular hangout spot for Vietnamese teens.

That's all for now, I'm meeting the rest of my group soon for a big week-one check-in dinner.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Welcome to Vietnam

Chào các bạn! (Hello friends!) I suppose this will be a rather long post, since a lot has happened in the past few days, so hold on to your seat and get ready for a wild ride!

To get to Vietnam, I had a lovely 15 hour flight from SF to Hong Kong, followed by a 2 hour flight to Saigon (officially called Ho Chi Minh City). Now, under normal circumstances that would be a very long flight, but with a broken ankle, it's pretty much hell. The only good part was that I got to speed to the front of all the security lines, which was pretty great. We got to Saigon at 11 pm local time, where it was exceedingly hot and humid even that late at night. We had to get up at 6:30 the next morning, at which point we all went out to breakfast, followed by orientation, followed by a flight to Hanoi. And let me tell you, an airplane was pretty much the last place I wanted to be.

The Hanoi airport is about an hour outside the city, and driving through the countryside you can see that you are in a completely different country from the US. Rising up out of unfamiliar trees are tall, skinny buildings 2 or 3 stories tall, all with colorful fronts and plain concrete sides. The buildings are the same in the city, though more often than not they're connected so you see a row of buildings with different colored fronts, each only about 10 feet wide and none of them the same height.

We are living in a guesthouse, which is kind of like a dorm but not limited to students or associated with a school, in the university district. I'm on the second floor (everyone else is on the fourth, and I'll probably move up there once I get my cast removed). Across a courtyard from us are Vietnamese houses, and across the street is a men-only gym with a big sports area in the middle. There's chairs and tables along the walkway outside our room, which is where I have to sit to use the internet because the signal doesn't reach into our room.

Everyone on the trip has a Vietnamese roommate. My roommate is named Ruby, and she's actually the program assistant for Hanoi. The first day she led us on a walking tour of the area around our guesthouse, but since I can't walk very far with the crutches I got to ride a cyclo, or bicycle taxi. It was really cool, but I felt like a major tourist and couldn't really hear a lot of what Ruby was saying on the tour.

We met the rest of our roommates at a big dinner that night. It was quite exciting and fun to talk to everyone, but most of us were very jetlagged and not feeling very sociable, though we tried our best. We've had other meals since where many of us went out as a group, and those have been much better for helping us get to know each other. Everyone is very friendly and outgoing, and they're all being extremely helpful to me since I have so much trouble getting around (Not only is it very hard for me to walk far, but the sidewalks are uneven and there's construction along the street in front of the guesthouse).

I'm getting rather cold right now, since I left my sweatshirt in my room and it's surprisingly cold and cloudy in Hanoi, and like I said I have to be out on the balcony to use the internet. I'll update tomorrow or the day after and tell you about my classes and more of what I've been doing and all that sort of thing. Goodbye for now!

Friday, January 8, 2010


Hello, and welcome to my blog!

So for those of you who don't know, I'm spending next semester in Vietnam. Don't ask me why, I don't have a better reason than "because it sounded cool". Besides, all that really matters at this point is that I'm going, and this blog is here to help me keep in touch with everyone. Hopefully I'll update fairly regularly, but I make no guarantees.

Oh, the other thing you might want to know is that I broke my ankle three weeks ago. Not the worst timing in the world, but it's pretty close. It could have been a whole lot worse, I narrowly escaped needing surgery, but it means the first three weeks of this trip are gonna be on crutches. Not fun. Also, that'll be way more of an adventure than I was bargaining for, and I'm not too happy about it. Oh well, nothing I can do to change it.

I don't really have a whole lot else to say right now. I'm leaving tomorrow and have a hell of a lot of things to do before I leave (such as packing, which I haven't really started), so I guess I should do that now.