Tuesday, July 20, 2004; report by Larry Nietzert
Our first complete day in Vietnam began at 8:00 am with a meeting with Le Van Lam, Professor of History. Professor Le gave a talk for an hour about the history of Hanoi and then accompanied us the rest of the day as he guided us to different parts of the city.
Hanoi was founded in 1010 by the Ly Thai To who moved the capital to this place on the Red River, or Cai River as it is called in Vietnamese. Hanoi is already preparing for their 1000 year celebration that will occur in five years. As in most early cities, Hanoi’s location on a major river played an important part in its development. There have been different walled cities in the history of Hanoi and today this city of three and a half million serves as capital of Vietnam.
Our first stop on a tour of the city was at the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh. There was a long line waiting to see the preserved body of the founding father of Vietnam. The line moved very quickly and we reverently moved by the body of “Uncle Ho”. He has been preserved and his body placed in a glass case to be viewed by the people of Vietnam.
As we moved though the line I was reminded of Arlington Cemetery outside Washington DC in the US. There we have the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier which is treated with great reverence and respect in our culture. In both places there are constant uniformed guards that demand quiet and reverence of the crowds.
The inscription from Uncle Ho on the entrance to the mausoleum is: Nothing is more precious than independence and freedom. This idea seems very American – in fact – when Ho Chi Minh wrote the independence statement for Vietnam in 1945 it was very similar to Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence.
Professor Le took us to several different religious and historical shrines. One of the most interesting was a shrine to the first “college” in Hanoi. Here early Vietnamese students in the Confucian manner took their examination. Those who were successful were awarded great honor and served as advisors to the King.
Professor Le joined our group as we had lunch at Koto (Street Voices). It was an excellent meal that is prepared by street and disadvantaged children of Hanoi. Koto is a school whose philosophy is “Know One Teach One”. They take street children of Hanoi and give them jobs and training in this restaurant. If we judge by the quality of the meal that was served, this program is an unqualified success!
It rained constantly until the late afternoon. Everyone was “soaked to the skin”, but since it was a warm rain, it was not unbearable. We forged ahead with slickers, hats, and wet shoes. The rain did very little to dampen our spirits or to lessen the enjoyment of the day.
A major factor in success of the day was Professor Le. What an absolutely delightful and knowledgeable man! At seventy years of age, he possessed a world of knowledge about Hanoi and an incredible enthusiasm for teaching. His English was excellent and his patience for our questions was endless.
We ended our day with a trip to the American Embassy. There Public Affairs Officer Thomas Carmichael briefed us on Vietnam/US relations. We have only have had official diplomatic relations with Vietnam since 1995. Mr. Carmichael was quite informative as he talked about American role in helping with trade, economic development, MIA, educational reform and other relations.
It was an excellent day with much “rain”. There was a lot of water that fell on our heads and bodies, but there was even more information that “rained” on our minds. Without a doubt, our spirits and enthusiasm were raised to a new height as we end our first day in Vietnam and look forward to the remaining four weeks.
Wednesday, July 21, 2004 – reflection by Jan Bernath
This morning we returned to the Hanoi College of Foreign Languages and met with Jason Picard to learn about the literature of Vietnam . Jason is an American who came to Vietnam in 1997 to work for a non-governmental organization and taught English for two years in the south. He became fluent in the Vietnamese language and used his newly acquired skill to work as an interpreter in Hanoi . He returned to the USA , earned an MA in Asian Studies with a focus on the history of Vietnam . This fall Jason will return to the US and begin a PhD program at Berkeley . His enthusiasm for the country, history and literature is obvious, and this was his first opportunity to talk about the literature of Vietnam to a class at length (although this was far too short).
We started the session by learning about the wealth of Vietnamese folklore—rich with aphorisms and legends. Most of these make a more point, for instance: “The water runs and the rock erodes.” Patience—everything takes time! “A good name is better than a fashionable shirt.” Things follow a good reputation!
The Vietnamese were dominated by the Chinese until the 10th century. Therefore, the written language used Chinese characters in scripts coming from the Court. After the Chinese no longer ruled Vietnam , the Vietnamese Court still used Chinese characters until the 13th Century. In the 1701, a French missionary codified the Vietnamese language into the Latin alphabet for the purpose of spreading Christianity.
A particular style of poetry written by the Vietnamese was the 6 – 8 verse. This means that the 6th syllable of a line rhymes with the 8th syllable of the next line. I was struck by the pattern, in that we think that information is most easily held in chunks of 7+ or – 1. Were the poets of centuries ago on to something?
The literature written following 1930 and the French occupation was that of
- critical realism—“reportage”—describing the harsh lives of people
- romantics—assuming the French notion that developing individualism was important
Literature from the early 1940s comes from prison diaries. From 1945—1975, literature reflects both the French and American Wars. During this time, literature was in service of war, e.g., idealization of the soldier and farmer, sacrifice of the woman. Soldiers are writers and writers are soldiers. The Solidarity Newspaper is the longest running newspaper in Vietnam .
Much of the literature of South Vietnam has been lost. Nothing was archived. This is important because 50% of the population of Vietnam was born after the war, and 60-70% of the population has no memory of the war.
From 1954-58, there was a modest amount of freedom for writers. However, in 1958, all presses became controlled and produced propaganda. In 1958—59, the Ho Chi Minh trail was begun. From 1959—75, social realism was the genre. For further information about this period, refer to http://www.talawas.org. Also, the Vietnamese-Americans in California are attempting to collect literature from this era and archive it.
When Cambodia invaded Vietnam , and Vietnam ultimately occupied Cambodia , the economy was negatively and severely affected. In 1986, the policy of Doi Moi (liberal reforms) began. With this liberalization, literature also opened up from 1988—1994 and some of the best literature was written addressing such questions as, “What are we doing?” and “Where are we going?” Works such as The Sorrow of War, The General Retires, The Stars on the River were written during this period.
In 1995, the US normalized relations with Vietnam , and government hardliners were not supportive of this. In 1997, an economic crisis in Asia further diminished the previous liberalizing position of the government.
In the afternoon, the Fulbright group followed their interests. Many visited the “Hanoi Hilton” where many Americans were held during the war. John McCain’s flight suit is on display. Previously, the French imprisoned Vietnamese revolutionaries, and a guillotine used in that era is on display. Those of us who visited the prison were very sobered by the harsh realities of this prison, and all of us left silently.
In the evening we attended a performance of ethnic music at the Hanoi Music Institute. Many styles of music were performed—demonstrating great skill by the performers. Our general impression was that an effort to preserve the diverse musical heritage of Vietnam is flourishing and a great gift to the world.
July 22, 2004 – reflections by Andrew Kemp
We have seen how Vietnam ’s 86% Kinh majority are living in the lowlands of Hanoi near the Red River . Our visit to the Museum of Ethnology has now given us a preview of the 14% ethnic minorities who have receded into the less resourced highlands. The 54 ethnic groups in Vietnam have molded the less hospitable environments of the mountains to meet all their needs.
Terraced rice cultivation is the center of the life and landscape of these people. Their mastery of agriculture and animal husbandry has given them life and allowed them to develop rich cultures. People are universally impressed by the beauty of the art and architecture of these different ethnic groups. The complex artistry is immediately evident in the traditional clothing of the varied groups which are on display at the museum. Women produce these ornate pieces of clothing from growing the fibers and dye plants through the weaving and stitching processes. Most of these fabrics and finished articles are characterized by a wide variety of colors and by the intricate stitching which makes up the decorative patterns symbolic of each group. Women spend months making a single garment.
Vietnam’s Institute of Ethnology was founded in 1968, and has been an important factor in the preservation of these cultures. The ethnic minorities’ ways of life are increasingly influenced by outside cultures. It seems that the encroachment of government agriculture projects and tourism have threatened the purity of traditional ways. There are many paradoxes in the proposition of simultaneously preserving a culture and teaching the outside world about it.
One of the most impressive displays is a traditional Hmong communal house. It was almost too late when the Institute decided to undertake the project of building this structure. Hmong villagers were hired to come to Hanoi to design and build the house. In this case, it was difficult to locate elders who had the knowledge and skills to build this structure. The Hmong have adopted a style of architecture which relies on modern products such as corrugated metal roofing. The museum had to show the Hmong architects photographs taken by the French almost a century ago. This demonstrates some of the difficulties of attempting to preserve culture. It is important that the museum is here to share these cultures with the world because tourism has become a factor in the ways of life of many of these groups. What are the effects of the introduction of cash into these traditional lifestyles? I don’t think there are obvious answers but it is clear that while it increases their “standard of living” it also changes the way these people spend their days.
Hanoi Fine Arts Museum – reflection by Carol Laurn
Today was a spectacular day. We visited the Hanoi Fine Arts museum. Our guest speaker was Nuyen Thai Hoc, who is a passionate advocate for Vietnamese art and its preservation. He was particularly interested in the excavation of a bronze drum because the artifact epitomizes the perfection of design. Mr. Hoc stated that because of 800 years of war it is difficult to preserve artifacts which reflect the history of Vietnam . Many Vietnamese artifacts have been transported to France because of their hundred years of occupation of Vietnam . Much of the art which remains in Vietnam today is integral to religion. An abundance of art is found in temples. Following Mr. Hoc’s lecture, we viewed the art work on display.
Friday, July 23, 2004 -- reflections by Kim Lamb
What an incredible day! Waking up aboard the night train was only improved when we saw our surrounding region. We were greeted by mountains, the Red River , water buffalo hard at work and rice paddies galore. The region only seemed to improve as we reached into the clouds towards the town of Sa Pa.
After a quick breakfast and poncho shopping we were off to trek to villages of the Hmong and Zay people. Unfortunately, the rain had made our path impassable and we were forced to return to town. For the rest of the day we were free to explore this northern region. Some in our group went for crepes and coffee, others went toward the Internet café, while others went looking for bargains in the market. I went off looking for an accessible ethnic minority village to explore. After taking a short motorcycle ride and hike, I had made it to the Hmong village of Cat Cat.
I felt so blessed observing these people’s lives. How fortunate I am to have the opportunity to interact with these beautiful people. My students will benefit so greatly from this experience I am receiving. A very gracious family actually allowed me to enter their home and tour their house. This multiple-bedroom home was designed for maximum use. Their livestock were right outside the front door.
It was the people who really touched me. They spoke enough English to talk about our families, jobs, and hobbies. Regardless of where we live, we are so similar around the world. They had incredible farming practices and took advantage of all of their land. It was such a powerful experience that I wanted to share it with someone else. This desire led to Andrew and me going 14 km by motorcycle to Ta Phian to the village of the Red Dao. The cycle ride was fantastic, and wet! It was just a great day to be alive! The air, the fire aromas, beautiful smiles and enchanting region were all captivating. The knowledge and experiences of the two villages will clearly come home with me.
When returning to Sa Pa , everyone got together for supper and fellowship. Except for the few mosquitoes in the air, everything about the day was perfect. It was my favorite day up to that point. Everyone seems to get along so well and each of us has received something special out of a day that was literally almost a washout.
Carol Laurn – Market Day at Sa Pa
Our visit to Lao Cai province and to the hillside town of Sa Pa is one of the highlights of our trip. Our ride up the mountain was an unbelievable sight. Just try to visualize enormous mountains, deep valleys, homes nestled throughout the hills, mist enveloping everything it touched, crumbling rocks, and narrow dirt roadways. The majesty of this landscape is awesome. Sa Pa is a beautiful town the French built high in the mountains. It has become attractive to tourists because of its market. As you walk through the streets of Sa Pa , people of ethnic minority groups approach you to purchase their goods. Frequently they are quite persistent and, to be honest, it is difficult to say “no.” Most of these women spend their lives weaving, embroidering and dyeing indigo jackets with embroidered surfaces. Their handmade work is unique. You can purchase anything in the Sa Pa market from flowers to wallets, jewelry, caps, scarves, shoulder bags, blankets…and the list goes on and on. The women and children of Sa Pa are beautiful. Their hairstyles, costume, and jewelry is unique to the area.
Wed. July 28 2004 - Reflections by Judy Huynh
We left our hotel at 8 a.m. and took a bus to the Hoa Sua restaurant, where we leaned about their program to train disadvantaged youth such as orphans, street children, children of war invalids, ethnic minority youth, and hearing-impaired and disabled youth. Hoa Sua was established in 1994 to provide vocational training to enable disadvantaged youth to find jobs and become productive members of society. One hundred percent of their graduates find jobs after they finish training at Hoa Sua. They have two restaurants in Hanoi and one in Sa Pa where students receive training.
We then visited the school to see how students were trained. At the bakery area, students were learning to make fancy French pastries, which we sampled. At the kitchen for Vietnamese cooking we sampled spring rolls, and at the kitchen for European cooking we sampled flamed bananas and flamed pineapple. Very good!
The laundry area provides training for students who may enter hotel work or domestic work. The sewing and embroidery areas provide training for hearing impaired youths. They have a shop in Hanoi which I hope to visit tomorrow. It was interesting the see the alphabet embroidered in sign language on the wall of the room. It’s very similar to the manual alphabet in American Sign Language, but not quite the same.
We returned to the Hoa Sua restaurant for a fabulous lunch. We had asparagus soup, steamed rice pancake with grilled pork, spinach and tofu salad (my favorite), grilled fish Hanoi style, glutinous rice doughnut, young rice cakes, and black sticky rice pudding. It was all prepared and served by the students, who did a wonderful job of serving the meal. Our group took up a collection and made a donation for scholarships for future students. We are all interested in supporting this very worthy organization, and I’m sure when we return home we will find ways to involve our schools and others in supporting Hoa Sua.
In the afternoon we saw a documentary film by Tran Van Thuy entitled “The Story of Politeness.” It was an excellent film about kindness and the importance of serving others. It started with a quote: “A man’s spirit is a hundred times heavier than his body and is too heavy to carry by himself. Therefore, we need to help one another by sharing each others’ burdens.”
Erin Rumery – reflections Hoa Sua school and restaurant.
All I know is that today after an amazing traditional Vietnamese lunch, everyone was trying to figure out how they could support Hoa Sua and this was even after we took up a collection to sponsor students through the Hoa Sua school. Kim is planning to sponsor a student by raising funds with his East Asian Studies class. Dee is thinking about what the ISD in her area may have to offer. Margaret got the contact information from Hien, the training manager of the school, and I want to b ring my students to Vietnam to see Hoa Sua in person.
Hoa Sua is a Vietnamese non-profit organization aimed at reducing poverty by offering disadvantaged young adults free vocational training in the hospitality professions. The training specializes in Western and Asian cooking, housekeeping and laundry services, hospitality, and sewing and embroidery.
Of course there are amazing programs in many countries and cities that fill gaps in the community, but for me to see Hoa Sua and its student cemented in my mind that innovation, resilience, and determination of a small group of people can make a great difference.
July 29 Hue - Margaret Holtschlag reflection
Dinner on the floating restaurant
Red, yellow, and blue costumes and dinner on the Perfume River-travelers arrive in the city of Hue . From the American perspective of the Vietnam War, Hue is the site of the Tet Offensive in 1968, but we soon learn about the long history of the Vietnamese people as we explore Hue ’s historic sites. Hue , population of 286,400, is the site of the Citadel and several tombs of Nguyen emperors. After checking into the Thanh Noi Hotel, we board a boat on the Perfume River for dinner and music. For this evening’s meal, we eat Nem cha, Bans Lot, Banh Xeo, quail egg soup, eggrolls wrapped in rice noodle, fried chicken, and rice in lotus leaves. Three musicians play traditional Vietnamese music during the dinner, with singing accompaniment by four young women. They play the dan nguyet, a 2 stringed instrument with a “moon’s face”, with the sound and shape similar to the banjo. Next, the dan tranh is a 16 stringed zither, played with plucking and strumming. The third instrument is the dan bau, a single-stringed instrument plucked with a thin stick and a wide range of sound. The women sing and add percussion, even with clacking tiny teacups. Their final song is lovely, as two musicians sing a love song back and forth, laughing with each riddle verse.
Friday, July 30, 2004
Reflection by Dennis Burin
City of Hue and Surrounding Area
The day began with a boat ride up the Perfume River to visit a pagoda and visit two Nguyen emperors’ tombs. The boat appeared to be the same one that we ate our delicious traditional Vietnamese dinner on the night before. The sky was sunny and it already felt like it was about 95 degrees and it was only 8:00am .
Our first stop after a short 20 minute boat ride was the Thien Mu Pagoda and Buddhist temple. After Hoang, our tour guide for this trip, gave us a brief introduction to this site, we set out on our own and in small groups. The magnificent pagoda just off the Perfume River was being restored and was surrounded from top to bottom with very primitive looking scaffolding. Therefore, its true splendor could only be imagined at this time. We moved on to the Buddhist temple just beyond the pagoda where we were required to remove our shoes and hats before entering. The sweet smell of incense filled the air as a very serious looking Buddhist monk rang what appeared to be a large urn. Just beyond the temple we saw a car on display that was driven to Saigon in 1963 by a Buddhist monk just before he set himself on fire in the street as a protest to President Diem’s treatment of Buddhists in South Vietnam . Many of us recognized the very famous picture of this incident next to the car on display.
We then proceeded to board our covered pontoon boat with dragons in the front to the tomb of Tu Duc. This tomb is actually a number of structures that Tu Duc lived in including his beloved building on a lily filled pond where he often wrote poetry or recited verse to his concubines. The exact location on the site where he is buried is not known. In fact, the 200 people who interred him were beheaded to keep it a secret!
Our next stop was the seldom visited tomb of Minh Mang which is in a state of disrepair when compared to Tu Duc’s tomb. We nevertheless marveled at the temple and peaceful lily filled ponds and other structures on this site and imagined what it must have looked like in the early 1800’s when it was built.
Our two hour boat ride back to Hue while viewing mountains, villages, fishing boats, and lush green tropical forests was made even more enjoyable by the delicious traditional Vietnamese meal we ate along the way. The conversation flowed as we all shared stories of our adventures in our first two weeks in this beautiful and friendly country. At one point we even saw elephants on the side of the river! The scenery was magnificent as we waved to men, women in traditional conical hats, and children on their fishing boats.
Upon arriving in port, we boarded taxis and proceeded to the Citadel in Hue , which is a walled area of the city where the emperors lived. Unfortunately, large parts of the Citadel were destroyed during the bloody Tet Offensive of 1968 during the Vietnam War (or as they call it here, The American War). The Citadel and the entire city were temporarily taken over by the Viet Cong where their flag hung over the Citadel for 10 days before the US Marines and South Vietnamese Army retook the city. Bullet holes are still seen throughout the Citadel and the city. A total of 150 US Marines and over 10,000 others died in this city during the 10 days of fighting. Much of the city has been rebuilt since those bloody days of fighting in 1968.
The day was filled with laughter and great conversation as we toured this very historical city. The evening was on our own as many of us proceeded to take taxis and cyclos (bikes with a seat in the front with a driver that takes you around town for about $2.00/hr.) to restaurants and shops. Some of us merely hung around the hotel while enjoying the beautiful swimming pool and hotel restaurant.
August 2, 2004 -- Margaret Holtschlag reflection
More glimpses of Vietnam, from Hue to HoiAn: two children swinging in a hammock; a bulldozer moving red earth; white and grey clouds swirling the tips of the mountains; steep stairs, yellow and white, up to the temple; a man, loaded with bananas, peddling a cyclo; brilliant green rice fields, with scarecrow flapping, narrow road with so many motorbikes! And the road zigzags up the mountain, passes through Danang, and then we arrive in HoiAn. Population approximately 80,000, Hoi An is a colorful, lovely town, and by the end of our two days here, many of us have made friends with Ky Ky, one of the town’s many tailors. After a lunch of fried wontons, white roses (steamed shrimp wrapped in rice paper), and cao lau (doughy flat noodles mixed with croutons, bean sprouts, greens, and pork slices) at Miss Ly Cafeteria, everyone scatters for a day of shopping or the beach. Some rent bicycles and navigate traffic, others visit the tailors and other crafts people throughout the city, shopping for clothes, pottery, embroidery, and silk lanterns.
We begin the historic walking tour on Monday with bottles of water, hats, and sunscreen, and still we wilt in the heat. Our guide is Uyen, who takes us to several sites throughout Hoi An. First stop is an old house where we learn about trading with the Chinese, Japanese, and others in Hoi An, burial jars and other artifacts, and the Ba Le Well, with special water for making cao lau. As we walk, our guide points out the many sets of two ornate wooden circles on doorways, the “watchful eyes”. Next, we visit the Phuc Kien Assembly Hall, one of five Chinese meeting places in Hoi An. Symbols noted in the assembly hall: Carp-safety; Dragon-prosperity and power; Bat-happiness; Unicorn-good luck; Stork and Turtle-longevity; Phoenix-beauty. Next, we see the blending of two cultures as we visit the Japanese Covered Bridge , built 400 years ago. Inside is a Chinese temple. Our fourth stop is the Phung Hung Old House, over 200 years old. Finally, we visit a handicrafts shop, where people are carving wood, stitching embroidery, weaving mats, weaving silk cloth, and sewing clothes. Several pause here for shopping, and then continue on for lunch, shopping, visiting the beach, and relaxing. It is the hottest day ever in Vietnam , so everyone slows down the pace to match the heat, sun, and humidity.
Reflections on Vietnamese cooking class, Judy Huynh, August 6
Today began with an early trip to the Ben Thanh Market with a chef from the Vietnam Cookery Center . We learned about all kinds of fruits, vegetables, meats, poultry and seafood. The fruits and vegetables were neatly arranged and look very attractive. However, the meat/poultry/seafood section was less appealing. Chunks of raw meat sit out in the stalls with no refrigeration. Most of the fish and seafood was kept on ice. Surprisingly, there were few flies around.
At the cooking school, we were introduced to a variety of tropical fruits grown in Vietnam , such as longan, rambutan, custard apple, soursop and milkfruit. We also learned about some of the kitchen utensils used in Vietnamese cookery. Next was the fun part – actually cooking our own Vietnamese meal! We were given aprons and sat at work stations equipped with two stools and two gas burners.
Our first dish was green papaya salad with pork and shrimp, accompanied by Nuoc mam dipping sauce, which Vietnamese eat at every meal. The second dish was Vietnamese spring rolls, which are made with minced pork, crab, prawns, dried ear mushrooms, taro and seasonings mixed together, then wrapped in rice paper and deep fried. We all became quite adept at rolling the spring rolls, though some looked better than others. We took a short break to sample our first two dishes, which were delicious!
Next we learned to prepare caramel fish cooked in a clay pot. Fish steaks are seasoned with shallot, spring onion, chili, fish sauce, chicken powder, sugar and pepper, and then cooked in a clay pot over the gas burner. Another wonderful dish.
Finally we prepared sour soup with snake fish. It’s quite an unusual soup, made with fish, stock, chicken powder, sugar, fish sauce, tomato, pineapple, okra, tamarind sauce, garlic, bean sprouts and fresh herbs. It’s very popular in Vietnam , and we’ve eaten it several times here. We then sat at the dining table to eat everything we had cooked ourselves. The chef prepared sautéed banana in coconut milk for our dessert.
The final activity was “graduation” and fortunately all of the Fulbright scholars passed the course and received a certificate signed by the chef. Maybe when we return to Michigan , some of us will decide to leave the teaching profession and open a restaurant.
In the afternoon, we visited the Buddhist Institute where Prof. Minh Chi shared the history of Buddhism in Vietnam and how it influences the Vietnamese mentality and way of life.
In the evening, most of our group went to a Karaoke bar. We had our own room, where we spent the next three hours singing, dancing and having a wonderful time. Dennis was awesome with his Elvis tunes. Eric, Jason and Le sang several Vietnamese songs. The only “100” score was achieved by Le for her solo. Thanks to Jan, we had all the Fulbrighters dancing the twist!
Kim Lamb, reflections on Cao Dai temple and Cu Chi Tunnels
Life is good. After a long night of karioking with Jason and Eric, not to mention eating oddities with Monkey’s father, we were off to Cao Dai temple. The ride was less than comfortable, but Dee got her first cup of So Da Vietnamese coffee, so it was worth it. The temple was ornate and bright, yet simple at the same time. The Cao Dai religion is quite new and incorporates many of the world’s religions into one. We were able to view the ceremony from the balcony and photograph at whim. It made me uncomfortable because I would hate to have people videotape me while I am praying. Most everyone in the group seemed to enjoy it, though.
Due to time constraints, only Barbara, Kevin, Margaret, Dennis and I went to the Cu Chi tunnels. What an amazing experience that was. A wide range of emotions and beliefs were shared among the five of us. These tunnels were dug out of the dirt, just north of Saigon . The tunnels were so impressive and long (over 250 km). From the car we could hear the rifle range in the distance. That, along with the light drizzle, made the experience unnerving and powerful. I was not born when the U.S. had withdrawn, so teaching U.S. history about the war has been based on textbooks. I believe this experience will change that. Craters from bombs littered the countryside and an old burnt out American tank remained behind. Our guide demonstrated the various horrific traps used to kill and maim soldiers. How could the south have won the war when the Viet Cong were willing to line in tunnels three levels deep?
The reality of the experience was how war is so horrible. I can’t imagine, but I need to understand how we, along with so many other nations, were willing to sacrifice so much here in Vietnam . The people of this nation were living in a battlefield.
In large part, the tunnels have become a tourist destination. Buses galore, widened tunnels to fit the modern tourists, and a rifle range with a gift shop selling rubber sandals are placed right next to the maze of tunnels where people lived. We were all taken aback when we went through a small portion of the enlarged tunnels. My heart was pounding and I went into an instant sweat. It was a sobering event in what was otherwise an upbeat day. We all sheared a cup of tea and expressed our own political and emotional views on the experience. Without smiling, we all felt that this was an important experience to have.
The ride home was a blast. Dennis nearly got voted off the island and the word “shower” will never be said the same way again. All two million of Saigon ’s motorbikes were waiting for the train to pass, just like we were. I laughed so hard I needed aspirin to take care of the face and head cramps.
The group dinner was tasty and the company was great, as always. The caffeine in the coffee and ice cream at Fanny’s was even better. Here we all got to talk about our afternoon. Judy and Jan interviewed a teacher for their projects. Others corresponded with family over the Internet and others purchased yet more souvenirs. Carol, we love you but we need to talk about the shopping. Le, don’t worry, we will intervene with you next. I hope you both know I’m kidding – a little.
The night ended for me the way it had the night before. Eric and Jason took Andrew and me out to play pool. Judy’s sons remind me of some of my great friends from back home. I love seeing the city on the back of a motorbike. Eric does not gun his bike nearly as much as Hoang does. Second, we all can not play pool. Even though the night did not last until 3 like the night before, it was still good fun. Did I mention life is good?
One person who I enjoyed sharing the tunnel experience with was Barbara. She is a fantastic person who I respect a lot. Here is her journal entry for the day.
Saturday, August 7, reflection by Barbara Roxas
We packed like sardines into a hot van and drove 3 hours from downtown Saigon to Tay Ninh, a small town that has a large concentration of Cao Dai temples. Cao Dai is an indigenous religion in Vietnam and has only existed for about 80 years. It was founded by Ngo Minh Chieu who sought to find the perfect blend of religious philosophies of both the east and the west. It possesses elements of Buddhism, Confusionism, Taoism, and has borrowed some components of the Catholic church as well. We, along with all the other tourists, filed up to the balcony to watch the 12:00 noon service begin. I felt a bit strange about walking into a religious ceremony with a camera and wondered why the members of this Cao Dai community freely welcomed non-members to observe, take photos and videos at will.
The musicians began to play while individual members formed lines according to their rank and a processional led by the head "priest" brought everyone inside of the worship space. If this can even be a fair comparison, it was like being inside of a large cathedral and watching people worship during a mass. The elders had a space closer to the front and everyone found their respective space behind them. All of the worshipers were then seated cross-legged (lotus style) on the floor during to duration of the 45 minute ceremony. It seemed to be a rhythmic series of chanting/singing and bowing for most of the time. Although I did not understand the exact content, I could feel the spirituality and closed my eyes to focus on the hypnotical chanting.
Next, a smaller group of us decided that we wanted to go to Cu Chi to see the famed tunnels created by the Viet Cong as a means of survival during the American War. First, we were asked to sit in a room and watch a twenty minute video. It started out as a film showing the various means of agriculture in the Cu Chi area and local farmers attending to their crops...until the enemy, that would be the Americans, showed up and virtually destroyed the landscape. It then moved to actual footage (or reinactments) of Viet Cong and local villagers digging out the tunnel systems with simple tools to escape the enemy (the Americans). Although it was a propaganda film for the communists, it was very interesting to see a view that we would most likely not be given in the US. After all, America was the enemy and they, the VC, were doing all they could to carry out their mission.
It was raining lightly as we walked along the path which helped to set a somber mood for what we were to experience during our brief vist. The loud popping of guns ripped through the air from the firing range and further enhanced our feeling of the war experience. Also, we could see large indentations in the earth where US bombs had exploded and trenches where soldiers carried out their war time duties. Many varieties of booby traps were used to catch and wound the American soldiers just like wild animals. Gruesome.
In the main building there was a model cross-section display of the tunnel system which showed architectual ingenuity for creating an underground network of rooms and tunnels connecting the spaces akin to an ant colony. To enter the tunnels, one had to fit in a small hole feet first and arms over your head to make your shoulders push together. There were three levels of rooms and tunnels linked in such a manner that only a very small and thin person could fit through the narrow passages to the rooms dug out for uses such as kitchens, planning rooms, hospitals, and sleeping spaces. Rooms on the first level might be as large as three meters by three meters while the lower level rooms decreased in size.
We had the opportunity to crawl through a 50 meter section of an upper level tunnel that was widened for western physiques such as ours. A five of us entered one by one into the tunnels in a crouched position and instantly were hit with the sensation of feeling cramped. It was hot and dimmly lit as we slowly moved forward in a squat stance. Luckily, before we had entered I had looked over across the way to see where the exit was - a distance of perhaps twenty yards. No problem, I thought. However, while we were pressed in on all sides with no way to turn back (there were others coming behind us) I tried my best to concentrate on moving forward to the exit. Kevin was in front of me and Margaret was right behind. We didn't talk just just kept moving forward. It seemed to take forever to come to the end and see a ray of light shining into the small hole. My heart was racing and my body was shaking with a total sensation of stress and fear. How did anyone have the mental strength to live in this tunnel system during a war and crawl through spaces much smaller and darker than what we faced? I began to really understand what determination must mean. Naturally, all five us us were shaking as we reached the exit at the end of the haunting tunnel crawl. We were glad to have the experience but agreed that once was enough.
On the ride back into Saigon, the five of us only talked about the experience briefly. It was just too haunting to think about the atrocities that wars causes. How could any American GI survive such a terrible, horrible experience? Problems from the war still plague the people of Vietnam daily. Hard not to make a comparison to today's present world climate. We had to turn our conversation into light-hearted commentary about trivial matters in life. It was easier to laugh than to cry. But, we were all grateful to see a part of history that can not be easily understood by reading it in a book.
August 12-13, reflection by Tom Weir, MSU-Can Tho University community development program.
Our day began at 6:15 as we traveled on the Can Tho University bus with the university students, Professor Hong, and MSU professor Chris Wheeler. The hamlets we are visiting are in the Mekong Delta region in southern Vietnam. The homes represent some of the poorest villagers who are involved in the MSU-CTU school/community development project. Our first stop was along the roadside where the home owners proudly showed us their raised-bed organic vegetable gardens which are grown for personal use as well as to supplement household income. We learned that in order for families to borrow money from the local Women’s Union and farmers’ credit union, they must cultivate an organic vegetable garden.
Our second stop was at a villager’s home where he showed us his fish-rearing pond. The fish in the pond eat two types of algae which use liquid pig manure as the fertilizer. The solid pig manure is retained in large plastic bags where the methane gas is collected, transported by tubing and stored in large plastic bags in a shed near the kitchen. The methane gas is then piped through garden hose to the kitchen stove, where it is then used as fuel for the household.
Our third stop was at a local community center where the local school children presented their findings representing door-to-door surveys of the local residents regarding the community’s knowledge of mosquitoes, their life cycle, and the diseases they cause. The children also presented their survey findings of the local residents’ sources of water and methods of purifying the water. This MSU/CTU project has been funded for three years by the Shell Foundation. Another 3-year grant from Shell has just been awarded. Lunch was provided and served by the local villagers.
The afternoon was spent visiting the villagers in the hamlets via small boats to observe their entrepreneurial projects, which include pig raising, methane gas production, and fish farming, as well as rice production and organic gardening. We observed a “town hall meeting” of the villagers, local president of the Women’s Union, and representatives of Can Tho University and MSU, as they tried to identify the needs of the villagers who do not have enough property to supplement their meager income through pig/fish/biogas production or organic gardens.
On Saturday our group joined the Can Tho University teachers and field workers to brainstorm entrepreneurial ideas that will assist the villagers with limited property to increase their household income and become self-sufficient. This was one of those days that we all felt at one with the people in the communities we visited, and shared their love of family, home and life.
Le Tran, Reflection, Aug. 8
Today was a free day to explore the city of Saigon and to work on our curriculum.
I woke up early to enjoy the view from my 5th floor hotel window. Below, I saw Tao Dan Park and Nguyen Thi Minh Khai street. Inside the park were several colorful carnival rides. Just a year ago, my three girls and their cousins were playing in this park… how fast time flies! Although, it was 6:00 am, the city was in full gear. The street vendors were in their usual spot, selling everything from breakfast to clothes. I noticed that the rhythm of the city seems slightly different than other days. The people seemed more relaxed – less hustled as they move about.
The first thing I wanted to do was to attend Mass at Notre Dame Cathedral. Just as I stepped out of the hotel, it started to rain. Carol, Tom, and I took the taxi to church instead. The cathedral was built by the French between 1877 and 1883. It is an elegant landmark in the city. The 9:30 am Mass is for both international and local worshipers. The readings and homily are in both English and Vietnamese. The choir was fantastic! Their voices filled the interior of the cathedral, coloring the atmosphere with a festive and celebratory air. You wouldn’t notice the missing stained glass windows that are a part of the cathedral. At the end of the mass I felt peaceful… a feeling that is almost absent whenever I’m in Saigon.
Later, Carol and I took a taxi to meet up with my cousin and his artist friend. This meeting is another opportunity for us to learn more about current issues contemporary artist are faced with. Mr. Thuan is a sculptor whose subject is Buddhist art. He guided us through a sculpture park and a craft village. We met a couple of young potters working on a mold. We also met an eccentric artist who was glazing a piece of his sculpture. He seemed glad to meet us just as we were happy to meet him. I am definitely going to contact these artists when I get back to the states. Imagine the exchanges we will be able to make!
After the tour, Mr. Thuan, my cousin, Bang, Carol, and I sat down for lunch. We had the most ideal experience…. The open bamboo hut surrounded by the water… the breeze and the delicious food. Carol and I bombarded Mr. Thuan with all kinds of questions. He was more than generous to share his experiences with us, for which I am very grateful. We learned that it is very difficult to earn a living as an artist in Vietnam and most likely impossible for an individual if he/she does not belong to the Party. Mr. Thuan considers himself lucky to be able to receive commissioned work from the Buddhist organizations. My cousin agreed that the same cards are played in the business sector as well. However, both men agreed that things have opened up since the trade embargo was lifted. They never imagined that life could be as hopeful as it is today and both men are absolutely optimistic that the future will be even better. I think it is fascinating to hear them talk like this since both men were in re-education camp after ’75.
By late afternoon, my cousin took us out to buy silk. I can’t wait to show my students silk painting!
To cap off a wonderful day, I invited several people to dinner at my in-laws. For them it was a chance to experience family life and to enjoy another important aspect of the Vietnamese culture….. socializing and eating together.
This was a fulfilling day for me and by the time my head hit the pillow I was exhausted but very happy.