Vietnam, long-overdue

After spending a full semester studying the culture, geography and history of Vietnam, May 9th finally arrived, and we depart Charlotte-Douglas Airport at the crack of dawn for our destination. Our group is made up of 21 students and 2 professors. The following posts to come will document our expectations and experiences from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City.

There and Back Again

Back towards the turn of the 20th Century, Mark Twain took a trip around the world on a steamship. Upon his return, he wrote a book called “Following the Equator.” On the opening page, there’s a dedication that says: Be good and you will be lonesome. It seems to me that this applies to our journey to the other side of the world as well.
Our final stop in Vietnam was Ho Chi Minh City. So far, it is the closest thing to America that we’ve seen. Originally structured to house around 1.5 million people, the city’s population is now around 8 million. I’m almost positive that we’ve seen about half of that population cruising around on motorbikes as we toured the city.
Our tour stops consisted of the War Remnants Museum, which gave us a perspective on the Vietnamese view of the American War, a few temples that helped us expand our knowledge of Buddhism, and a stop at the U.S. Consulate to meet with the Assistant Director of Youth Education and discuss Vietnamese/US relations.
Over the past three weeks we’ve not only learned about Vietnam, but also about ourselves. We’ve seen things that we had only before read about in books, eaten things we didn’t even know were edible, and have become so incredibly close that we’re not exactly sure what things will be like when we have to go our separate ways at the Charlotte airport.
It’s sad to leave a culture that we finally seem to be getting a grasp of (Can I get a “Cam On”?!) but we are excited about applying all that we’ve learned here to our everyday lives. Traveling in a developing country, you tend to realize all the that we, as Americans, seem to take for granted every day. In the US you don’t have to brush your teeth with bottled water, because the water from the tap is filtered . You can order a drink with ice cubes and eat the raw vegetables on your club sandwich. It’s the small things like these that really make us appreciate how good we have things back at home.
Throughout our journey, we’ve come up with a list of things we will never forget about Vietnam and the experiences we have shared together.

We (as a group) will always remember:
· Scrambles
· COMMIT!!
· Squatty potties
· Doing cartwheels in Hoi An
· The man walking his water buffalo
· Snake wine
· The Hanoi Hilton
· “I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell”
· The night on the junk
· Travis’ laugh
· Lizzie trying to row the boat in Halong Bay
· The shower window in Hue
· Playing pool at Hole in the Wall
· Eating KFC in HCMC
· Cam on!
· Michael crossing the street
· Meeting Rachel and Daniel
· Tiger cages at War Remnants Museum
· Café 29
· Allison’s mastery of the Vietnamese language
· “Shoulders”
· Climbing mountains with Dr. Mullis
· Drip coffee at the Avril Lavigne café in Mai Chau
· Silk bathrobes in Saigon
· Allison knocking the flower pot into the fountain at the temple
· Jon’s guy
· Travis’ orange silk boxers
· 17 Saloon
· Seeing Ho Chi Minh’s body
· Michael’s snoring
· The plane landing in Hue
· Wes getting lost at the Big C
· Yen
· The “Bus Bitch” aka Vanessa’s Boo
· Crouching Eagle Hidden Guns
· Landfill drinking us all under the table
· Travis’ love of all things Jimmy Buffett
· How damn hot it was
· Allison’s Dramamine consumption on long bus rides
· Dinner conversations with the boys
· Tiger Beer
· The Mai Chau Marathon
· Travis’ slipper fetish
· The smell of the markets
· Swimming laps at 6AM
· The sunrise at Mai Chau
· Allison and Lizzie’s Scooby Doo and Shaggy moment
· Jon losing his passport
· “Gee whiz!,” “Golley Gee!” and “Holy Smokes!”
· The Forbidden Door to Narnia
· Chicken fetus
· “Hey Canada, You’ve got a lotta French in that toast.”
· Tam Tam Happy Hour
· Wizzie Withgow
· Mot, Hai, Ba YOOOH!
· The Lotteria joke
· The steps at Lake Hanoi
· Sitting on the roof of the Rex Hotel
· The honking horns
· Getting locked in the bathroom in the middle of the night in HCMC
· The sunset on Halong Bay
· MFK
· Timmy and Michael playing footie with the locals
· The Soccer Star at the orphanage
· Getting “curfewed”
· Playing Keep-it-up and 500 at every pool we went to
· The “woman” at Café 29
· Wes and Timmy waking up on the top of the boat in Halong Bay
· Hanoi street food
· Hole in the Wall

And last, but most certainly not least
· Our nicknames: Eagle Claw, Royd Rage, Dragon, Godzilla, Sned, Slippers, Tucker Max, C.O.D., Easy Skankin’, Wyan We, Confucius, Mai Chau Mary, Pepto, Frank the Tank, Canada Dry, and Jack

–Allison and Lizzie Lithgow

At Home in Hoi An

En Route to Hoi An
So far you’ve heard about the chaos and traffic of Hanoi, seen the beauty of Ha Long Bay and Mai Chau in Ryan’s pictures, and read about the heart and heritage of Hue. Our fifth stop in Vietnam is Hoi An.

The ancient town of Hoi An (formerly Faifo) lies on the banks of the Thu Bon River. During it’s heyday about 200 years ago, when trade with China and Japan flourished, Hoi An became a prosperous little port. Much of the merchants’ wealth was spent on family chapels and Chinese clan houses, which remain little altered today. Hoi An is now seeing a late but much deserved revival. The river may be too shallow for shipping, but it is perfect for tourist boats; the silk merchants may not export any goods, but all they make leaves town on the backs of satisfied customers (myself included).

The Chinese, along with some Japanese, settled here in the sixteenth century and controlled trade between the islands of Southeast Asia, East Asia (China and Japan) and India. Portuguese and Dutch vessels also docked at the port. During the Tay Son rebellion, the town was almost totally destroyed, although by looking at it no one would ever guess it now. By the end of the 19th century the Thu Bon River had started to silt up and Hoi An was gradually eclipsed by Danang as the most important port in the area.

Hoi An, in my opinion, is entirely different from the other cities and towns we’ve visited so far. Its tranquil riverside setting, its low-slung houses, shops and temples (you can touch the roofs of many houses), its friendly people and its wide array of shops and galleries create a cozy, welcoming feeling.

Waking up in Hanoi was like waking up in New York City. With its bustling traffic and honking horns it was difficult to sleep much later than 7:00 AM in Vietnam’s capital city. And yet only a few hours south, in this quiet harbor town of Hoi An, I could have slept all morning. Waking up in Hoi An, reminds me of waking up back in the dorms at Queens. In the dorms, if the sunlight tearing through the windows didn’t wake you up first, then the sound of children laughing and playing at the school next door would.

For the past three years I have heard the children of Myers Park Traditional Elementary School walking behind the dorms on their recess break and now, in Hoi An, I am awakened by the same noises—school girl giggles, kick-balls bouncing, and faint music playing over the school’s sound system. It is comforting to me to hear such familiar sounds on the opposite side of the world. Until waking up the first morning in Hoi An, I hadn’t missed being at home much. I’m not one to succumb to feelings of homesickness, and I most certainly didn’t let these little reminders of home bog me down.

As you can all tell from reading this blog and looking at our photos, we’ve been terribly busy and having quite a bit of fun. All this continued in Hoi An, where we visited the My Son Temples, went on a walking tour of the old town, ate in a French bistro and even spent a day on the beach.

On our last afternoon in Hoi An, while purchasing a croissant at Cargo (the French bakery), Michael and I met Rachel Goldberg a 20 year old Tennessee native. We talked for a while about where we were from and what we were doing in Vietnam. Rachel told us that she has been traveling around Southeast Asia for the past five months and had been staying in Hoi An’s old town for the past week. With some more shopping to do, Michael and I invited Rachel to join our group at Tam Tam that night for Happy Hour (which interestingly enough lasted two and a half hours).

Rachel and Daniel, an Australian staying in her hostel, met us a few hours later across the street from Cargo in one of our favorite spots in Hoi An. Serving a wide variety of Vietnamese and Western cuisine, Tam Tam provided a fun and air-conditioned escape from the heat and humidity of the streets. We all gathered around the pool table and talked to Rachel and Daniel for a few hours, until an hour past closing when we were all kindly asked to take our party elsewhere.

Rachel told us all about her travels and what lies ahead for her on her journey. It absolutely amazed me that she was traveling alone. I like to think of myself as a fairly independent and extroverted person, and yet I cannot imagine what it would be like to travel across an entire continent by myself. I’m afraid that I am not that brave to journey by myself. I asked if it was difficult for her to be away from home and, more importantly, all alone, and although she is enjoying her time abroad, she said that it does get lonely at nights with no one to talk to. She’s made many friends along the way, like Daniel, and recommends taking time off of school to see the world.

What an extraordinary opportunity it would be to travel the world, I thought. How many girls Rachel’s age can say that they’ve traveled to Thailand, Singapore, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Beijing, and Japan? Not a lot. But then I thought about where we are right now, and what we’re doing. I’m sure there aren’t a ton of people back home who’ve been to Southeast Asia, much less spend three weeks on a scenic tour of Vietnam. Talking to Rachel made me realize what a wonderful opportunity this has been for all of us, and how fortunate we are to be given such an experience. I cant wait to see what Ho Chi Minh City has to offer us.

–Lizzie Lithgow

Hue: The Ancient Capital

Until 1945, the small city of Hue was the capital of Vietnam. This city is renowned for its magnificent Citadel known as the Forbidden City. We began our day with a boat ride which conveniently picked us up from the back of our water front hotel. The only draw back of the entire day was that the boat broke down in the middle of the Perfume River about half way through the trip. As we once again were underway, we neared an old Buddhist temple which was to be the first stop on our agenda.

river

pagoda1

We could see the large 7 tiered tower as we climbed the steps from the river to the heart of the temple. As we entered a large pogada, we of course had to remove our shoes and end the photography as a sign of respect. There were people in the temple praying and lighting incense to pay hommage to the Buddha. One member of our group, Travis, even stopped to meditate in front the enormous bronzed statue of the diety. The temples were so elaborate and detailed and we all stood in awe as we imagined the amount of time and manpower it took to create such a shrine. Everything was covered in Chinese symbols and you could spend days looking at the shrine and still not see every small detail.

pagoda2

It is a common theme in this culture, attention to detail. Everything in the temples is even. Evenly spaced, buildings facing directly north or south, symmetrwes1y is everywhere. Nothing is plain or drab. It is beautiful to see the bright red colors of the pillars in the pagodas with bronze Chinese symbols on them. Every statue of a dragon or turtle is true to life and blazing with color. As we walked out of the temple we were passed by three young boys who we were told were in training to become monks. They wore simple brown robes from neck to feet and conical hats as they pushed their bicycles, which must have been built in the 1960′s or 70′s, up the hill to the temple. Our tour guide said that many of the monks in Buddhist temples began their training and devotion to the religion as early as 4 years old. The temple was their home; they ate there, they slept there, they learned there, and most importantly the served their god there. They themselves were just as much a part of the temple as the stone and wood it was built with. I don’t think I have ever been that committed and devoted to anything in my life. Everything they did was for their religion.

Conversation began to build on the bus-ride about freeing oneself from our materialistic, American way of life. These talks began in the isolated town of Mai Chau but seem to always start anew with every aspect of Vietnamese life that is different from our own. It is amazing to me how different our nations are. Vietnam is in the infant stages of development but they are deeply rooted to tradition.

Next, it was off to the Citadel. A large effort has been started to rebuild the structure after hundreds of years of decay and neglect and most obvious, to repair the damage from American bombs during the war. The Forbidden City was similar to that of an English or French Castle from medieval times. A large moat surrounded towering walls erected to protect the home of the emperor. We walked into the archway under a huge portrait of Ho Chi Minh, always watching over the nation he helped build. A large section of the wall in the entrance has been left intact to show the bullet holes left from American M-16′s.

group1

The city is enormous. Large koi fish swim in the inner moat and we fed them as we crossed the bridge to get to the heart of the city. And when I say city, I mean city. At its peak it had everything it needed to be fully self-sustainable.

There were homes for the royal family, the emperor, of course, having his own. Lodging for soldiers and workers, buildings for places of worship, education and for food preparation, sections devoted for agriculture and livestock and even housing for the emperor’s mistresses. A view of a scale model of the city showed that it is almost perfectly halved and quartered throughout. The emperor’s dwelling is nearly in the exact center of the city. It is difficult to grasp the methods used in ancient times to be able to construct something with such precision and accuracy.

Hue is a wonderful city, nothing like the monster that is Hanoi in the north. There seems to be more structure, more methodology, and respect for the city they live in. I saw more trash collections in one hour in Hue than the entire 5 days in Hanoi. The people are much friendlier and the lifestyle is less conservative. Across the river from the Citadel are American style bars, French cafes and fashion boutiques galore. We ate dinner at the DMZ restaurant and then had a night cap at the neighboring DMZ bar. In Hanoi, everything shut down between 10 and 11 p.m. Hue stayed active hours later. If its any precursor to what Ho Chi Minh will be like, the city that holds the name of Vietnam’s most cherised icon should be like that of any American city.

By: Harrison Fidler

A Night in Paradise

We took a break from the air pollution and crazy streets to enjoy the picturesque views of Halong Bay.  We spent two days and one night on a junk, a Chinese-style boat, relaxing and exploring all that Halong Bay has to offer.

Our JunkThe trip started with a six course welcome meal that consisted entirely of seafood as we sailed further into the limestone islands.  After a few hours of taking in the sun, we disembarked from the boat to explore Surprising Cave. We were all in awe of the world-famous stalagmites and stalactites throughout the cave. There were two smaller chambers before we reached the most “surprising” one, which was indescribable.  The hike up and down the stairs left us yearning for the beach and cool water. Thankfully, our next stop was to Titov Beach, where we spent an hour swimming, playing volleyball and soccer with the locals.  Our day ended with another impressive (and completely seafood) dinner on the junk. We all enjoyed the top deck and watching the sun set over the islands.Sunset on Halong Bay Eventually, we made our way to the cabins below, which featured ice cold AC and wonderful water pressure. However, a few of our group members chose to sleep on the top deck, and were awoken by the sunrise.

Limestone Islands

The next morning, we enjoyed a nice (and non-seafood) breakfast as we made our way back into port. On our way back in, we stopped at Hang Luon Grotto, where we boarded boats to explore the grotto and search for monkeys. Unfortunately, it was too late in the morning and the heat kept the monkeys away. But the view was beautiful,  and Dr. Mullis and Lizzie had the opportunity to row the boat.

Hang Luon Grotto

Our trip came to an end after another lunch (where we requested minimal seafood because half of our group got sick), and we began our trek back to the port. Our trip didn’t end there though, as we took a four hour bus ride back to Hanoi, to board our flight to Hue. We got to the airport way too early and ended up waiting for another four hours at the gate, where we watched Vietnamese soap-operas (Travis’ favorite).

We finally arrived in Hue last night at about 8:30, after a hair-raising landing, where we almost slid off the runway.  S0 far, Hue is vastly different from Hanoi, and we are excited to explore it over the next several days!

-Vanessa & Liz

A picnic at Hanoi Hilton

So far, words can’t describe what we have experienced in Vietnam and pictures won’t do it justice.

Both Travis and Dallen have mentioned the traffic Hanoi has to offer, but I just want to say it’s crazy!!! Every time we cross the street we yell “COMMIT!” and hope the 15 motorbikes headed our way dodge us.

Today was a day to learn. This morning we went to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and celebrated his 120th anniversary with thousands of other Vietnamese. When I say thousands, I mean thousands! We stood in line for about 45 min. in Vietnam’s amazing heat and humidity.

It was interesting because Vietnamese people of all ages were there to honor Ho Chi Minh’s dead body (which has been preserved since 1969). In contrast, the United States doesn’t idolize ONE specific person as they do.

This afternoon we toured The Temple of Literature and the Hanoi Hilton.  Touring the Hanoi Hilton was my favorite part of the day, but it came as a shock. For any of you who do not know the history behind the Hanoi Hilton… First it was used by the French as a place to take the Vietnamese political prisoners. Then, during the Revolution, the Hanoi Hilton was taken over by the Communists. When the war began with America, several Americans were taken there and held captive.

Display in Hanoi Hilton 3

Display in the Hanoi Hilton

According to the information the Hanoi Hilton provided tourists, the French were monsters to the Vietnamese prisoners. Ironically, however, it was a picnic to any American who had the opportunity of visiting during the Vietnam War. Again, according to the information, the American prisoners were able to decorate Christmas trees, receive letters from family members, have Christmas dinners, play basketball, receive the needed medical care…and so on. While some of this might be true, I can’t imagine any American soldier saying “YIPEEE” when on the way to the Hanoi Hilton.

Display in Hanoi Hilton

In general, the information that was given made me feel that the Vietnamese are good at pointing fingers (French), but not so good at owning up to their own mistakes.  Not once was a picture taken or words written that took ownership for what happened to American soldiers in that prison.

Display in Hanoi Hilton 2

Overall, Vietnam is absolutely amazing!!! We do not know much of the language, but have definitely gotten one phrase down, which is “Cam on” (thank you). Actually, it has become a joke and “Cam on” is used ALL the time! I think anytime we go in public, the locals are probably thinking “stupid Americans,” because we walk the streets shouting “Cam on!”….. But what can we say?!?!!? We just want to fit in!!

-Allison Gaskin

In Hanoi Hilton

In the Shadow of Giants

By now, you have read about the controlled chaos that is Hanoi. I know Travis mentioned the ridiculous traffic in his post and he’s absolutely right. Imagine the old videogame Frogger and you have a sense for what crossing the street is like. The traffic never stops; you just have to step out and pray you don’t get hit. Dr. Mullis mentioned the “warm, humid climate.” That’s the understatement of the year. It’s so hot and humid that as soon as we walk outside we immediately begin sweating. We’re hot, sticky with bug spray, glistening from sweat, and still trying to recover from our 35 hours of travel, but we’re loving every second of it.

Yesterday we took a break from the hustle and bustle of Hanoi to make the three and a half hour trek to the small mountain town of Mai Chau. After braving the curvey mountain roads and crossing a bridge that was barely wide enough for our bus to squeeze through, we arrived at our destination.

Road to Mai Chau

If Hanoi is Interstate 85 during rush hour, then Mai Chau is a Sunday drive along an empty country road. The bulk of it consists of small villages consisting of houses perched on stilts. One of these houses is where we slept for the night. We all crammed in to the one room building and slept on mats on the floor. It was a little hot and just a tad uncomfortable, but it doesn’t get much more traditional than that.

With our guide on the way to Mai Chau

For all the mothers out there worried about their babies getting malaria, you can breathe a sigh of relief. First of all, we bathed in bug spray the minute we got there. Second, I don’t think I saw a single mosquito the entire time we were there. Malaria ended up not being as big of a risk as we thought, but we still made sure to use plenty of bug spray!

Landscape near the village

Most of the stilt houses had stores underneath them that sold handmade goods. We could buy lots of cool stuff from purses and bracelets to pipes and slingshots. It was also fun to try out our bartering skills. Often times we could get people to drop their prices by 10,000-20,000 dong. Sure that only equates to about $0.75 but when else are we going to get to haggle like that?

House on stilts at night

The scenery of Mai Chau is breathtaking. It rests in a valley surrounded by mountains with jutting rock faces. In between the multiple villages are dozens of rice paddies with winding paths leading through the swaying stalks. The villages themselves are even impressive because of the stilted houses. Add to that the fact that there was no constantly honking traffic and Mai Chau ended up being a peaceful diversion from the stresses of big city life.

Wes checking out a rice paddy in the early morning

We also made a new friend while we were there. There are dogs everywhere in Mai Chau. There was one who hung out under our house and would always come sit with us while we were eating. Over dinner last night we were trying to figure out what his name was when Travis said, “It’s probably just some random English word like hard-boiled.” We ended up going through a whole list of ways to cook eggs befored deciding to call him Scrambles. From then on, Scrambles would always join us at meals and became a kind of unofficial mascot of our trip and a running joke for us. Unfortunately, Drs. Royden and Mullis wouldn’t let us keep him. Oh well. Maybe we’ll find a new pet in Ha Long Bay.

Scrambles

-Dallen McKinnis

A Brave New World


Vietnam is beyond description; however, I will try to convey its many complexities in this short entry. Hanoi is a chaotic and beautiful place. The people here are friendly and look at us with curiosity. This morning we visited the National Museum of Ethnology where we learned about the many ethnic influences on Vietnam due to invasion and migration. This is helpful, because tomorrow we will be travelling to Mai Chau where we will stay with the Thai minority that makes up the village population. The most amazing thing about the city is the constant movement and activity of the people. Crossing the street is interesting to say the least. Thousands of motor bikes fly past you with only inches to spare. No one follows any traffic laws. However, no one ever gets into an accident. It is very orderly chaos.

After we visited the museum, Dr. Mullis took a few of us to a local temple so we could learn about Vietnam’s unique religious experience. The temple was very ornate and very quiet. The altars were covered in offerings varying from fruit to money. Someone in our group accidently knocked a vase into one of the fountains at the temple. I thought this incident would cause dozens of Vietnamese to swarm us and yell; however, they all stayed calm and we were able to put the vase back in its place.

This afternoon we visited with Vietnamese college students at Hanoi University. They were incredibly eager to talk to us and learn about America. For the most part they spoke great English. I was impressed by their generosity and inquisitiveness. We exchanged emails so we can hopefully talk to them some time in the future.

The thing I have enjoyed the most is the food and beer. All the food is fresher than anything in America, not to mention cheap. The local beers are some of the best I have ever had, especially Tiger Beer. I failed to order the cow penis yesterday; however, I do hope to try cobra blood shots and fried chicken feet. I can’t wait till we get to see the rest of Vietnam. This country is different beyond anything I have ever experienced. At this point I never want to go home.

- Travis S. Mullis

Many Flights, Many Hours, but Finally in Hanoi!!!

We left Charlotte and landed in Dallas and, after a short lay-over, headed on to San Francisco. From San Francisco we made the long 13-hour flight to Taipei, the capital of Taiwain. Most of us slept well on the overnight flight. After a short lay-over in Taipei, we headed to Hanoi, everyone getting more and more excited about finally making it to Vietnam!

Upon arriving, we met our tour-guides and headed for our hotel. Hanoi is a bustling city with tons of motor-bikes, insane traffic, and a warm humid climate. Our tour-guide told us that this year Hanoi is celebrating its 1000th year!!!

After relaxing a bit in the hotel, the students headed out to find restaurants for some authentic Vietnamese food. My group found a nice spot that had a menu in both Vietnamese and English. Some ordered stir-fried beef, others shrimp, and others tofu. No one ordered the more exotic things on the menu such as frog, turtle, cow penis (that’s right folks, cow penis). You can imagine that a joke or two was made about that discovery!

We have another short break and then we will be off to meet the president of the Vietnam-USA society and to have dinner at the association’s headquarters.  I’m sure that everyone will sleep well tonight!

Prof. Mullis

Vietnam–all aboard!

The Vietnam group is heading out today. They have a long day ahead of them but their excitement and delicious airline food will no doubt keep them going until their arrival in Hanoi! Check back here for updates and photos coming soon.