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.