Monday, June 25, 2012

Blogging in Beijing

The new group of Duke travelers to Vietnam is wrapping up their first two weeks in the country, and their first week in the town of Quang Tri. In that time, I've been blogging away in Beijing. Because I actually have Internet and a computer here, I've written as many posts in my first two weeks as I did all of last summer. Beijing has almost nothing in common with rural Vietnam, but I'm loving it. The new blog is

Friday, August 5, 2011

Challenge yourself. Change the world.

A few days ago, there were a ton of chickens crammed into a chicken wire cage. Whenever one of them moved, they all moved, and a few of them were definitely getting bullied. Yesterday, the chickens got a little more room to move around in because there was a wedding this morning. We got to watch the women at our hotel plucking feathers off of buckets of dead chickens. Unfortunately, there are still a few chickens in the cage, and they smell rank. Trust me, they smell better dead. Also unfortunate: the cage is right next to where we wash laundry. Let me tell you, you have not suffered through laundry until you have washed your clothes next to a cage of chickens.

May (my roommate) and I always wash laundry together. We call it our team building. It's usually fun, but today May recalled the slogan printed on the back of our shirts here: "Challenge yourself. Change the world." She was dying with the smell of these chickens. It was hilarious. After about 3 minutes, I heard, "'Challenge yourself. Change the world.' Ugh, I only wanted to change the status of my laundry, but it's impossible with these chickens!"

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Happy Memorial Day, Vietnam/ Gosh Dangit, I knew that bush was sharp.

On Tuesday, we were invited to attend a ceremony at a war memorial in town. Of course, when the People's Committee "invites" us to do something, we do not actually have the choice of whether or not to attend. Therefore, when 6 p.m. rolled around Tuesday evening, we were on our way to the service. Rows of people were lined up in columns going from the front of the courtyard to the entry gates. We stood between rows of students from the Youth Union whom we had met at dinner on Sunday. The speeches lasted for only about 15 minutes after we got there. Important guests brought up bouquets and lit massive sticks of incense. Similar ceremonies occurred all over Vietnam on the night of the 26th, Memorial Day Eve.

The memorial itself in Mo Cay town is a female soldier. Apparently, Ben Tre province is famous for having many female fighters. After the ceremony, everybody went up to light incense and candles. Little by little, people filtered out into the entire graveyard surrounding the memorial--soldiers are buried there, instead of in their ancestral graves. Soon, every single white grave had a candle and sticks of incense burning in front of it. The entire cemetery remained lit until it started raining.

Almost everyone decided to leave right before the rain came, but it was pitch black, and we were riding bikes sooo instead we sat down on the porch of Ho Chi Minh's shrine. These men started coming out of it, serving us tea, and then they brought this massive dish full of Ho Chi Minh's fruit out, but I was too creeped out by the thought of Ho Chi Minh's spirit having already eaten the fruit to eat it.

That night was the night I most thought I blended in like a Vietnamese person. It was pitch black, raining, and I was sporting a bright yellow poncho.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Agent Orange

Last Sunday, we talked with some veterans at the People's Committee, which is the local government. The vets focused on the fact that the war is in the past, but the threat of unexploded landmines and the effects of chemical warfare in the form of Agent Orange are still present. They requested that we educate others about the dangers of chemical warfare, protest against companies manufacturing similar toxins, start funds to help those suffering from them, and devote our scientific studies to finding cures.

I did not make it to the room in the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City with photos of people suffering from the poison, but apparently there is picture after picture of people with odd deformities. I have noticed more people here in Vietnam using wheelchair-bike devices, with crossed or blind eyes, or with random growths on their faces than I notice at home, but I do not know whether or not they are birth defects caused by Agent Orange.

The man in charge of the Veteran Union, who was only about 10 years old during the war, was refreshingly kind and forgiving towards Americans. He repeatedly acknowledged that not all Americans are violent and that the War Remnants Museum tells only a scewed, evil side of the story, without examining all aspects of the war. His consideration in making this distinction went a long way with me, especially after having observed firsthand the biased nature of the museum.

Most Vietnamese people show zero bias towards us. In fact, there is American flag and "USA" merchandise everywhere you look. I think I was anticipating a bias because when Americans think of Vietnam, they think only of the Vietnam War. However, for the Vietnamese, the American War was just a small part of their long history of war. More recently than the United States, this country has been at war with Cambodia and China, and just before us, they faced France and China as well. They certainly do not seem to share the same impressions of us that we naively have of them after 40 years.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Dear Dad

Things Dad would not like:
Riding our bikes in the rain. "Put your bike back in the garage. It'll rust if it rains!"
Bare feet at the construction site. "Put some steel-toed boots on when you're in the kitchen. A knife might drop."

Things Dad might like:
On Saturday, our planned excursion was a trip to the soccer field to play the administrators and kids from the local Youth Union. In the second half, my shin collided with one of the boys, and after I had been playing for a few minutes, I looked down and saw the nastiest bump on my shin. I completely freaked and ran off the field. Hoang Anh compared it to a guava at first, a second knee once the swelling had gone down, a mountain later that day, and a hill the next day. She kindly wished that it wouldn't become a valley the day after. If Dad were there, he would have fixed it first and then laughed at me for getting so upset. It was hardly hurting, but every time I looked down and saw that lump, I started hyperventilating again. Not my best.

Our Thursday night dinner conversation revolved partly around the fact that my dad is the only follower on all my friends' blogs. They like your picture, by the way. One of them also thought you were from Alaska.

Situation normal

Friday morning, on my way to work, I saw a man sanding the feathers off a live chicken. I was already feeling nautious from taking my malaria meds on an empty stomach, and that did not help.

Our ride to work is really different here. We turn right out of our hotel onto the National Highway, the Vietnamese equivalent of I-95. Where we are, it's a 2-lane road with a dotted white line and fruit stands every 10 meters that people park on the side of the road for. There are cows grazing on the sides, and chickens running around. Endless palm trees line both sides and creeks flow through them, separating the houses from the road. Once we get closer to town, the traffic is terrifying. Pedestrians yield to bikes, bikes yield to motorbikes, and trucks do whatever they want. Logan almost ran into a man with one leg crutching along the side of the highway. Almost all of us have had some kind of small biking mishap already.

After the market, we cross two arched bridges, just big enough for boats laden with coconuts to pass under. After a few kilometers, we turn onto a palm tree-lined sidewalk with creeks on both sides. We ride over two more bridges--sidewalk-sized with no railings. It stinks when motorbikes decide to pass me on these sidewalk-bridges, especially motorbikes like the one today, which had three people on it (which is technically illegal).

Then we turn left onto an even smaller sidewalk and cross two more bridges. It stinks even more when motorbikes try to pass on those. The final part of the bike ride is the hanging bridge. This morning there were two dogs in my way. I was pretty sure I was going to kill them or go over the edge, but somehow we're all still alive. After that bridge, we park our bikes and start walking over monkey bridges. They're made of anything that's available and allow us to traverse the water network by foot. The first one we cross is a bundle of bamboo trunks, then lots of wooden branches, then mud, then a coconut tree trunk, then a concrete beam, then one reinforced with wooden planks, just for us, and Yay! We're there.

Though our daily commute is unnerving from a self-preservation standpoint, there are a lot of quality sights along the way. I see one or two huge blue and black butterflies almost daily. We are passed by men in neon orange jumpsuits who are apparently engineers on their way to work. I feel a kind of kinship with them--our fellow inmates. There is a row of casket stores, all open-air, of course. The other day I saw a little girl chatting with an old man on a bench  in front of the displayed coffins. Then my personal favorite is a pair of statues. There is a T-Rex tethered to an umbrella pole, claws outstretched. In front of him is a slightly shorter Buddha statue on her shrine, oblivious to the fact that Barney is about to take her out.

Last Wednesday was our first day playing soccer with the teachers and construction workers from the elementary school where we teach. Backing up a bit, people here drink wine and beer like we drink coffee. They start early--like 6 a.m. early. They also sometimes take an afternoon wine break, instead of tea. The first day we played soccer with them, the computer teacher interrupted Logan and I during class and asked us to come over and chat with him and the principle. The principle was feeling a bit woozy, though, so we just went into the office with Tri, Alyce's assistant, and had the most scatter-brained chat you could imagine. One second we were talking about the location of the soccer stadium, and the next, he was asking how to say 'spring roll' in English. The game ended with a kid spraining his arm and the computer teacher puking on the sidelines. He played better the next day.

A whole new world

Bến Tre is in the Mekong River Delta, so there is water everywhere. It also means that it has a rainy season and a dry season. This is the rainy season. Every single day, it rains at least once. Usually it comes in the form of a freak downpour for about 20 minutes, and then it clears up.

On our first day here, we experienced the rainstorms, and also the traffic accidents. I came within inches of two motorbike accidents in the first two days. Nobody died, and I'm 86% sure they weren't my fault. We also experienced the rumored hospitality immediately. We were forced to eat 4 meals on the first day because everybody wanted to feed us, and we weren't allowed to say 'no' without offending people. We ate breakfast at 9, lunch at 12, first dinner at 3, and second dinner at 8. We went to the market as a group that night, and some guy started taking tons of pictures of and with us. He apparently works for the government in some capacity, but he just looked like a shop owner. Supposedly these pictures will one day end up on the town's website,, but considering how quickly things work around here, they will probably take months to be approved.

On our first Sunday, we visited the work site. The family's house is far from being bike-accessible. They live in between a number of streams, and their current house is very small and quite unstable. It has just one room, a low roof, and is made entirely out of woven palm leaves. Both of the parents have mental handicaps, but in this country, mental illnesses are usually seen as a personal problem, perhaps a spiritual one, and therefore there are no attempts to diagnose or treat them. Mr. Minh is the father. He never speaks to us or makes eye contact, but he works very hard with us. He is quite strong. His wife acts similarly, though in the past few days we've caught her smiling a couple times. Their son is 15 years old, but physically he looks about 8. He spent a few years in 3rd grade, and finally stopped going because he could not progress past that level. His name is Kha, and he is really cute. He is surprisingly strong and helps us carry heavy loads of materials. We heard he was a really good fisher, which is true, but the fish that he catches are these little tiny mudskippers, only a couple inches long. Unfortunately, this talent can't help earn money for the family, because anyone can catch these fish, and they provide hardly any meat. Only families with no money eat these minuscule fish. Before we left, Kha climbed a huge coconut tree, dropped down some coconuts, and fed them to us. Delicious.