Wednesday, November 30, 2011

"The American Teenage Referee in Hanoi"

Here's a link to the refereeing segment produced by VTC10: NETVIET, The Vietnamese Culture Channel:


Monday, November 28, 2011

Time Travel; and, Turkey by Surprise

          Alright. I’m back! Did you miss me? I feel like I’ve just been put in a time machine. The month of November has gone by in an absolute flash. Now it’s the 28th and I’m absolutely stunned at how quickly the entire semester has gone. It still feels like I just left last week, and now, I’m staring right at the end of the semester, just 3 weeks away. Let me try some metaphors . . . we are now at the twilight of the first semester, not quite dark, but there is little time left before the end. But then again, for me, and the other 6 students staying for the full school year, it is only lunchtime . . . as much as I would like to leave and head home in a few weeks with the rest of the semester students, I feel like that’s not a valid choice. Retreat is not an option! They don’t call it school semester abroad, it's School Year Abroad!

So some interesting things took place during the weeks since my last entry. As noted in my last post, I was filmed for an English-language television news journal, refereeing a soccer game! That was a lot of fun. I met the film crew at the fields before my game, and they filmed me preparing for the game, checking-in the teams and inspecting the field, and doing some warm-up stretches and jogging. Then, just before I took the field to start the game, I did an on camera interview, and talked about my experience with soccer and refereeing. The focus of the interview was that while I am at school here in Vietnam, I am volunteering my time to assist with running a youth soccer league and also refereeing some games (I'm donating the salary I would make for refereeing back to the league). Youth referees are as unique here in Vietnam as we are back in the States, so players and spectators definitely seem to take note when I'm on the field! The program aired on TV a few days ago, but my segment hasn't been posted on YouTube yet, so you’re going to have to wait a few days to see it. The game went smoothly, and the only not so smooth part involved a penalty kick right at the end, but by that time the camera crew was gone, so it worked out well. The next week after that game (last week), I was invited to referee for a professional football club! Well, it wasn’t actually the professional team; it was their U-15 academy team. A lot of professional clubs around the world have academies, where kids live and study, and also play soccer. These players may have only been 14-15 years old, but they were amazing! They had incredible ball control and passing skills. They played another club team, not affiliated with a pro team, that was coached by the directors of the league I referee for. They are a very good team, and rarely lose a game, but they lost 10-0! That, for those of you who know little about soccer, is a very, very high score! And especially because there were two very skilled teams on the pitch. But I guess that’s what you get when you play against a school that specializes in developing professional soccer players.

Last week, we had a Thanksgiving banquet. Yes, we actually celebrated Thanksgiving over here in Vietnam. And just a warning, the menu may shock you… oven cooked turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, salad, pumpkin pie, apple crisp, cakes, brownies… and the list goes on. It took a heroic search all across northern Vietnam to find the various ingredients (I think we ate the only two turkeys in country), and some fantastic cooking by some of my fellow students and teachers - but we had it all!! It was a large party, with host family members, students, teachers, and friends of the school from Ha Noi. There must have been at least 60 people there! The guests were treated to some fine musical performances and a play.

Looking forward to the events of interest these next few weeks. . . .  this upcoming Friday morning, at around 3 am(!), I am going to be attending an all-school town meeting at my alma-mater, Santa Barbara Middle School.  I'll be online on Skype, of course, and if all goes well with the technology, I'll be making a short presentation about my experiences so far in Vietnam, perhaps have time to show one of my videos, and then take questions from the audience.  The day after that, on Saturday, I'll head out of Ha Noi with my classmates as we go south for nine days to visit Saigon and the Mekong River Delta. Upon our return, we'll have just one week of school, and really only 4 days, because we have our final semester exams scheduled on Friday and Monday, December 16th and 19th. After the exams are done, we'll have just a few days to celebrate and decompress and then half of the students will return back to the US on December 22nd. And the biggest news for me, on December 20th my mom and dad and my sisters will arrive for a three-week visit! During their stay, we'll hang out in Ha Noi for several days, then we'll be traveling south by train to Hoi An (where we'll spend Christmas), and then will continue on traveling through Cambodia and Laos.  As luck would have it, on the same week that my family gets here, my godfather Aaron will also be visiting Ha Noi on an unrelated trip from his current home in Qatar, where he's a school teacher. I'm excited to have all my families together (host, real, and lifelong friends) - I'm sure we'll have a few great dinners that first week.  Special Note:  Uncle Aaron and Dad, if you're reading this, as this will be the first time we'll all be together in years, I expect to finally hear the Needles Story that has long eluded my ears....I believe that I'm old enough now.

I want to get this post up as quick as possible, so I will be adding pictures tomorrow and hopefully that video soon as well.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

United Nations and a rare Andrew Sanborn Television Interview

            Well it’s November now and this is the section of each blog where I diligently count how long I've been here and how long I have left. I realize it's a repetitive activity, but it's also cathartic so please bare with me; here it goes....I have now been here for well over two months, and with 42 days remaining until winter break, things are starting to go by a little quick now. For instance I can’t believe I haven’t had a post in 11 days! We have now been here for around 70 days, which is also hard to believe, I don’t think it’s affecting me as much as the semester students, because for them the end is now defiantly in sight. Of course I am getting really exited for our trip to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) in the beginning of December, only 3 and a half short, yet packed, weeks ahead. I look forward to getting out of Ha Noi and the north and experiencing a different part of the country. And Saigon and the Mekong delta are definitely different. For example, the temperature high here in Ha Noi tomorrow is expected to be around 77, where as in Saigon, it’s expected to be 10 degrees warmer and raining. Which I suppose may not seem that different, but... uh... anyways...

This past weekend, for the first time, I ventured up into the North side of Ha Noi, which is the international part of the city, and is where all the diplomats live and all the international schools are. One of my teachers, Thay Chuck, invited me to go with him to the United Nations International School (UNIS) to play ultimate Frisbee. UNIS is amazing. As you drive up, there is a guarded gate, and on the other side is the massive campus. The buildings are super modern and cool looking; they have a huge covered pool, indoor and outdoor basketball courts, a baseball field, and a massive field that is actually living, green grass! It was a Saturday, and sports activities were in full swing at the school, there was rugby, soccer, Frisbee, swimming, basketball, baseball… every sport you could think of was going on at the campus. Two of us students from SYA showed up to play, and after playing for a while, we got tired out, and started talking to some UNIS kids who were also in the ultimate games with us. They were really cool, and it was nice to meet some other kids from the US and Europe who were our age. After talking for awhile, it was getting dark, so I headed home - but I hope to get up there again one day soon.

          Amazingly, last week I was once again on a national TV broadcast, but this time the stakes were even higher. It was a larger station, and a bigger show. Voice of Vietnam - think Good Morning America or The Today Show - was doing a show all about my school and our director, and he and the full VoV (I just made that acronym up) crew came over to my house to film what a typical evening is like for me and my family - eating dinner together, talking about our days, doing evening routines and homework, etc. They also did a formal interview with me with a translator - which you can see below. The show hasn’t been aired yet, but when it is, I will have the video link up on the blog so ya’ll can see it. What you see in this video is my school director, Thay Vuong, filming me from a different angle with my camera. What you can’t see from that perspective is giant cameras they brought, along with all the lighting and sound equipment. So, enjoy the full, ALL exclusive, un-edited, highly anticipated, Andrew Sanborn Interview. Riveting stuff, I know....

As a side note, yet another camera crew - for a different television show, this one in English, and all about my daytime activities - will be coming with me on Sunday to my Football game to film me refereeing. So after 7 years of officiating, I have finally made the ultimate goal (pun intended), to be in a televised soccer match. Which means I can finally retire! It didn’t take as long as I thought, so I’m not sure exactly what to do next… Maybe make the next goal to play on TV, which will probably take a little longer.

          Looking forward, this upcoming Friday, my class and I get to go on a field-trip, but not any ordinary field-trip, we get to tour two coal burning power plants, located a few hours outside Ha Noi. One is a Soviet built plant that is out-dated and dirty, and the other is a modern clean one that was recently built. It should be fascinating to compare and contrast them, but don’t ask how we got this set up, it’s classified.

          So enjoy the video, and also, I have just began an ambitious film project to put my personal perspectives on Ha Noi and my day-to-day experiences here, up on the silver screen - before I become too overexposed by all the media attention I seem to be attracting!  I don't know when I'll have it completed, but definitely before the semester ends. But remember, that’s not for sure, and you didn’t hear it from me, as I don’t want the Andrew Abroad Studios lawyers coming after me again…

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Heatstroke, Nachos, Col. Kurtz

Sell the house.  Sell the car.  Sell the kids.  Find someone else.  Forget it, I'm never coming back. . . 
- Apocalypse Now

           The past few weeks have been jam-packed with school and assignments. My classmates and I have all started to realize that we have been flying through the school year, and, at the time I am writing this, we have already finished the first quarter; which signals the halfway point for half the students here. We have now been here for eight weeks, and only have eight weeks to go until winter vacation....  Now of course I have much longer than that, 30 weeks still to go, so I am not pressed for time as of yet. But, focusing on the day my family arrives to spend the winter break with me, we have one more hump to get over before we finish up the semester, the month of November. It is a big, empty month with no time off, except for one day at thanksgiving. There are no trips to take our minds of school or homework, and we only have a week or so in December of school, so we are going to be pushing hard next month to finish strong.

            Last week, we completed reading our second book in English; Heart of Darkness. And last Friday, we started watching the movie Apocalypse Now, finishing it earlier this week on Monday. I had seen it before, so I thought I knew what to expect. But watching it in the country where it actually took place totally changed my perspective. I couldn’t help but think about the similarities between my journey and the movie, obviously I’m not here to assassinate some colonel up river, but the themes and things Willard said got me thinking. Like when he said; when he was here, all he could think about was going home, but when he was home, all he could think about was getting back into the jungle. And this made me think about what it was actually going to be like for me when I returned home, after nine months away? Will I embrace it? Or will I want to return to the Jungle? I don’t know yet. I think that the movie was much more powerful now to me because I am here and I can actually relate. Hopefully I won’t be moving up river and posting weird entries about snails from my jungle camp, but after 7-8 months here, you never know. . .    Anyway, just food for thought.    

            This past Sunday, I finally refereed my first soccer game here in Ha Noi!  It was crazy-HOT that day and that made it pretty painful to run around for the entire 60-minute game, but I made through the match without passing out, barely. The good news is that I now know the way to the soccer field and didn't repeat any of my taxicab mis-adventures from the past month. I didn’t expect it to be hot, since it had been pretty cloudy and (relatively) cool this month, but not on Sunday. It was hot and the sun was shining. I determined to arrived early, to make sure I had plenty of time to get things figured out, but of course, I arrived too early, and sat around for a while. Soon the teams began to arrive and Paul, the league director, showed up to give me final instructions on the game. Kick-off was scheduled for 1:15, and after a coin-toss and a few handshakes, we were off. It was a U13 boys game, and the game length was one hour. I did fine for most of the first half, but at the end of it I could tell I definitely needed some water. At halftime I got some well needed H2O, and went back out in the blazing sun for half number two. Without a doubt the heat was starting to get to me, and I was moving a little bit slower than I did in the first half. It was painful, but I made it through the half, a little dehydrated, but happy with the game overall.  And did I mention the 90 percent humidity. . . !

            This past week was the end of our first quarter of school, so we had many a test this week, and I had a lot of late nights studying - which made making it to the weekend all the more satisfying. To cap off the week, on Friday it was Mackenzie’s birthday and we were all ready for a party, so we went to a Mexican restaurant to celebrate the birthday and let off some steam (if you know what I mean!). The restaurant was owned and operated by a New Joyseyian, go figure. It had all the classics, like nachos and burritos; I narrowed my choices down to a burrito or quesadilla, and went with the quesadilla, because I didn’t want to risk the burrito not being good as I was already planning a return visit to the restaurant. It wasn’t bad, definitely not Santa Barbara quality Mexican food, but after not having any for two months, I’m not complaining. The restaurant even got a cake for the party too, and it was a good cake. After the festivities were over, I headed on home; glad this week of tests was said and done.

          Finally, Jack Creeden, the president of SYA was in town this week. He was here to check in on the program, and see how we were adapting to our new homes for the year. He had already been to SYA China in Beijing, and then came south to Vietnam. He wanted to talk to us individually, and I talked to him for quite a while about the program on Monday. He was here until Thursday morning, and then he headed back to Boston. He said that he really liked my video of our first school trip (scroll down to my next entry to watch the video) and asked if he could publish it on the SYA website. I've heard rumors that SYA may close the Vietnam program next year for lack of funding. I truly hope that doesn't happen.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

VIDEOS: An Andrew Sanborn Adventure; SYA on the Evening News

          Sorry I haven't posted since the trip, things have been a little busy at school, and if I continued to explain each school week it would get a little redundant.... But never fear, I have a few tricks up my sleeve to make up for a lack of entries. Check out these two videos. The first video (above) is one I made about our Sapa- Ha Long bay adventure (hint: don't close the video before the credits finish).

          Next, remember way back when when I posted about a news crew that came to our school and did a story about SYA? If the answer is yes, continue to read. If not, scroll down and find it, and while your at it enjoy my other entries. It was played on national TV and is a weekly "english journal" segment of the newscast - they only do the one segment in English each week which is why it may be a little difficult to understand the newscaster.  Unfortunately, I wasn't able to see it when it aired on TV so the producer posted it on Youtube so I (we) could see it..... 

          Check back in a few days for a new entry for this weekend, because I had my first game with the soccer league here, but that's a gripping story for a different day. Anyway, I hope you enjoyed these movies.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Sapa and Ha Long: Part 2 - The Bay

            One day it started raining, and it didn't quit for four months.  We've been through every kind of rain there is: little bit of stinging rain, and big old fat rain, rain that flew in sideways, and sometimes rain even seemed to come from strait up underneath.  Shoot, it even rained at night.  - Forrest Gump

Floating village in Ha Long Bay
          Today, it started to rain.  And it didn’t stop raining until we left Ha Long bay. It even rained sideways, and sometimes it would rain strait up! Ok, I made that last part up, because Forest Gump was a good movie, and that line is referring to Vietnam, where I currently am. Today we supposedly were to leave Sapa for the warmer, sunnier climes of Ha Long. Unfortunately, that would not be the case -  but I wouldn't find out until later.

Enjoying the sights of Ha Long
            It was raining when we woke up, so there was not a whole lot we could do, so my roommate, Mack, and I went to go have breakfast at a local restaurant that appeared to have American looking food, of course here in Vietnam nothing seems to actually be what it appears, and it wasn’t as good as it we expected, but it was still familiar. A bus arrived at our hotel at about 1:30 to take us down to Lao Cai, where the train station is located. After navigating the twisting and turning roads of the paddy-covered mountains, we arrived in Lao Cai. We had around 4 hours before our train was to depart, so we drove over to the Vietnam-Chinese boarder, just to check it out. China was across the river, and the only way to get across was a bridge, with entrance stations at both sides. That or you swim, but only if you're good at dodging bullets.... After checking out the crossing, and snapping a few pictures and video with my trusty camera, we drove to a hotel near the station, which acted as a staging area in preparation for our departure later that evening. We got a few rooms there, where we watched TV for a few hours, then went down for dinner, and eventually walked over to the station, and left on the Ha Noi express (not its real name) at 8 o’clock. We were all pretty tired, even though we didn’t actually do a whole lot today, sitting in a bus can be draining. So I went to bed much earlier than last time. We talked for a while and played music, much like last time, and at around 10 or so, headed back to the cabin and drifted off to sleep.

A buddha statue in the monastery
            The scheduled arrival time into Ha Noi was 4:30 am. Fortunately today the blaring Vietnamese music was not playing this morning, which was a major plus. I woke at around 4:15, just long enough to come out of my daze before we arrived at the creepy WW2 station. After arriving, we left the train behind and got on a bus that SYA hired to take us to Ha Long bay. It was a 4-hour bus ride, but we made a few stops along the way. I slept for the first few hours of the trip, but I woke up when we stopped for breakfast at a tourist trap, a combo of a ceramic factory, restaurant and convenience store. The service was really bad, and they completely forgot about our table and it took 20 minutes to get my food, which was also the wrong thing.

Our meditation teacher in the monastery
          After finishing up at the restaurant/store, we continued toward Ha Long, stopping at a Buddhist monastery. Here we met with a senior monk, who was in his early 80s. He had lived a very interesting life. He was a soldier in the 50’s and fought against the French, and after that he became a monk, and has been ever since. He also has grandchildren who live in the US. He talked to us for a while about Buddhism, and then taught us how to meditate. It was very interesting, but the teachings were really hard, because you have to do some funky things with your feet, like twist them around and put them above your knees when you sit, which was very uncomfortable if you're not flexible (like me). After our meditation lesson, we got to have lunch with the monks. That was really cool. They eat in complete silence, and they pray before and after they eat. It was a little hard at first not being able to talk, but eventually I settled into it and it was actually very relaxing. After lunch, we thanked them for letting us visit them, then left the hills behind and continued on our way to Ha Long. We made one pit stop at a hospital for one of the girls on our trip, because she was sick and our director wanted to get some tests done to figure out what is was, she turned out to be fine though. Then around 4:30 or so, we arrived at our hotel in Ha Long, and after a few hours of rest, we headed out to dinner a few blocks away, but it was still raining, so we took le autobus. To say that today was a long day would be an understatement, because today was a very long day, starting at around 4 in the morning, and not finishing until 10:30pm. But we got to see some very cool things, like being able to learn from a monk and eat with them, and also getting our first glimpse of Ha Long bay.
Ha Long Bay, into the fog
The Cave, with its natural lighting

            The next morning, we had to be at the boat at 8. Thay Vuong recommended that we get up at about 6, so we could have breakfast and be ready to go by 7:30. That turned out to be too early as my roommate, Woo, and I headed down to the breakfast buffet at around 6:15, and of course there was no one there from our group, there were plenty of other people though. Eventually the others began trickling in, and by 7:30, we were ready to head out for our day on the Bay. The tourist boat harbor was absolutely insane, there were hundreds of boats all moored off in the harbor, and there were a few docks where the boats could come in and pick up passengers - and there was not a lot of space to do that. We were hit twice on the way out, because there were so many other boats, and everyone is turning at the same time, and apparently the captains don’t seem to care, so all the boats, large vessels, slam into each other constantly. The Bay is notoriously dangerous for boating, and every few years or so one of these boats will go down with everyone on board, because they are made of wood, and also because the crews aren’t particularly competent and at night the boats just slam into each other and sink. Also, as I just mentioned, they are made of wood, and as I found out while on the cruise, they are constantly taking on water, and in each vessel there is a motor down below that is powering a pump that bails out the water collecting in the bilge. If the pump were to shut off at any point, you better know how to swim, or learn quickly because you only have a few minutes. But anyway, lets forget about all that unimportant safety stuff. Ha Long bay was absolutely amazing, the way that the limestone just jetted out of the water was stunning, and there were more islands then I could possibly count, all hidden away in a massive archipelago that stretches as far as the eyes can see. After about 45 minutes of cruising, we arrived at our first stop, a giant cave inside one of the islands. It was definitely a tourist destination, and there were about 15 of the tourist boats docked in the little bay, and after slamming into a few boats getting to our dock position, we began the 100 foot climb or so to the entrance. If this place had been any cheesier, I could have slapped a couple tortillas on it and ate it. During the assent up the staircase, there were speaker playing dramatic music, and every 50 feet or so there were trashcans, but not just any trashcans, little penguin cans. Really? Penguins? But, when we got inside, the cave was absolutely amazing, it was a lot like the Carlsbad caverns in Southern New Mexico, except keeping to their tourist trap nature, they hade multicolored lights all over the place, which king of detracted from the experience, but it was still a neat cave. It was also very crowded, so it was kind of a trade off; a cool cave visit, but there were a lot of people and bright lights. After we finished the cave walk, we went back down, fetched our boat, and continued on to the next destination, a boat village. When we arrived at the boat village, we got to do a pretty cool thing, our boat pulled up to a floating fish farm. It was basically a giant raft with holes and down in the holes were fish, crab and other aquatic animals. They were in open water, but nets held them in so they couldn’t leave their little pen. While we looked around, the crew shopped for our lunch. Our science/economics teacher, Thay Chuck, surprised us all by showing us one of the weirdest sea critters I ever done saw. It was called a Horseshoe crab, and it’s considered to be a living fossil. It dates back millions and millions of years, and is pretty much unchanged since then. After we selected our lunch, we boarded our ship, and began a slow cruise back towards Ha Long. The Lunch was amazing, everything was so fresh, and delicious too! We had a few different courses, consisting of fresh shrimp, fish, crab, French fries, and vegetables too. After our lunch was over, we were almost back into port. We were supposed to go to a beach today, for swimming and hiking, but it was raining, so the boat didn’t take us there, instead, we would try to head out again on Saturday. After our bus picked us up, we didn’t go back to the hotel, but instead went to a temple about an hour north up the coast, which honored a Vietnamese general, who had beaten the Mongols back in the 900’s. It was kind of a long drive for such a short time at the temple, but it was pretty neat to see. It rained the rest of the afternoon and evening, so chances of a boat ride on Saturday were looking dim. We didn’t have a lot of time to wait around, since we had to return to Ha Noi that afternoon. Thay Vuong said we would just play it by ear, and see if conditions improved.

A boat glides along the water
            We woke up a bit later today, around 6:45. We had to have all our stuff down in the lobby when we came down for breakfast, so we spent a few minutes packing up the rest of our stuff in the room before heading down. Breakfast was the same setup as the day before, western style with some Asian flair. I had toast, sausage, some eggs, and also some egg noodles, because I am in Viet Nam after all. At about 8 am, we gathered in the lobby and brought our stuff to the bus, where it was loaded on, and then after our rooms were inspected by the hotel, we were cleared for takeoff. It turned out conditions on the bay were better today, so we would be able to take a short trip out to an island with a beach. When we arrived there, after about 45 minutes of cruising, we saw the beach, it was artificial, since these were limestone islands that don’t really have beaches. But it was real sand. There were no waves anywhere on the bay because it is so dense with islands; it was really like a giant salt-water lake. Leading up from the beach was a trail, and a few of us intrepid explorers decided to see where it went, leading the charge was Thay Chuck, and along for the hike was me, Sarah, and Woo. After a steep 10-15 minute climb, and I’m talking about intense, fast-paced run-climbing, we arrived at the summit of the island, and got an incredible view, we had a 360-degree view of the bay, it was amazing (do I use that word too much?). After a short ecology lesson, we scrambled down the mountain, and arrived back at the beach, just in time for a game of Frisbee.  

         I really enjoyed my time in Ha Long bay, but it was time to return home, back to the fast paced city life of Ha Noi, where the buildings are tall and the bus drivers are crazy. It seemed like that trip lasted way longer than just a week. It could have been a month. I think it was because we did so much in such a small amount of time, that it made it seem longer. We would wake up by 6:30 almost every morning, and the days were jammed packed with stuff to do, and I wouldn’t fall asleep until 11. But I am glad to be back in Ha Noi, because even though it was only a week, I was really starting to miss my host family and my home here. So, with 7 days on the road, we got to see a lot of amazing places, from the mountains right down to the sea.

Boats docked outside the cave

What the @!#$ is that thing?

Oh, it's a horseshoe crab, I should have known

My artsy lunch pictures

Every thing we ate on the boat was alive 30 minutes before consumption

Fish entrée, the meal made up for the traumatic
crashes we experienced in port 

Whole crab, yummy

Temple to Vietnamese general who defeated
the mongols during their conquest in Vietnam

Large scale coal mining is a huge industry
in Northern Vietnam

Stadium near Ha Long, notice the giant screen

Famous rock formation in Ha Long bay

Look out tower on top of the island

A sad sight, giant swarms of garbage left by fishermen
and those floating villages 

Even though this wasn't taken during the trip, It
deserves an honorable mention. This was a blood soup
that I had when I went out to lunch with my host dad
after I got back. (side note: I didn't order it)

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Northern Vietnam trip, part 1: the hill tribes of Sapa

            This past weekend was not particularly exciting for me, the exception being yet another insightful grocery store excursion (which seem to fascinate me), but what was really exciting was that on Sunday night I left with my classmates on our first trip of the year; a week long trip all across northern Vietnam - visiting hill tribes up in the northern mountains, and spending time on the waters of Ha Long bay.

We try our hand at rice harvesting, in a village near Sapa, Vietnam
            We departed for our trip late Sunday evening, at around 8:30 or so, from the Ha Noi train station. But before that, in the morning, I went with my mom and sister to the Metro Store, to get some snacks for the trip. The Metro Store is basically a Costco in disguise; everything about it just reminded me of Costco....from the giant shopping carts, to the giant shelves with boxes of stuff. It is a wholesale store, and it is massive. One side has non-food, and has everything imaginable, and the other side is devoted to food, drinks, and other consumable items. Also you have to be a card member to get into the store, like Costco, and there are people at the doors on the way out who check the carts and stamp the receipts. So after loading up on snacks, we headed home, where I finished my packing, ate dinner, and got a cab over to the station. Once we got through the station, and out to the tracks, it was really eerie. The backside of the station is tall, and very old and rundown. The other buildings surrounding the tracks are in the same condition. The tracks seem very old, and the trains sitting on them seem older still. To get to the different platforms, we had to cross the active tracks by walking over them, as there were no tunnels or bridges. The lighting was very creepy - the lamps gave off an old, yellowish light, and the whole scene just screamed European train station in WWII. We were all glad to be leaving that station as our train departed. The train itself was not too bad, actually it was quite nice. It wasn’t a typical local Vietnamese passenger train; it was a tourist train, and it took us up into the mountains to Sapa, which is something of a resort town. Our overnight train was a sleeper train, and the beds were comfortable. We arrived at 5:30am or so at a town on the Chinese boarder, about an hour or so by bus to Sapa. Before we went to bed, we talked for a while in our rooms, and played music, but we soon realized that we would have to wake up in around 6 hours, and so we went to bed.

A waterfall near Sapa

Our Sapa guide, Viet, shows us the leave used to make Indigo

            The next morning, around 5 o’clock, I was woken up by one of the most annoying sounds I think I have ever heard. Blaring out of an old crackling speaker, conveniently located right next to my face, was music, but it was no ordinary music;  instead there was a loud high-pitched guitar and vocals that, in too large of doses, could drive a deaf person insane. It continued for at least 8 minutes, until we finally figured out how to make it shut up. Soon afterwards we arrived in the city of Lao Cai which is a mid-sized city right on the boarder with China - only a river separates the two countries. We didn’t spend much time in the city, only the time it took to exit the station and board our bus, which took us up into the mountains, and to the town of Sapa. It took around an hour or so to get there as, even though the distance wasn't too far, it was a very windy and narrow road. It was a very pretty drive; there were lots of rice paddy terraces, and steep cliffs. When we arrived in Sapa, it was about 7:30am, and not too many people were out and about yet. It was very strange being there, because it was just so different from anywhere else I have been in Vietnam. First of all, it was COLD, in the 50’s or so, and the town looked like a ski village, with tons of tourist restaurants and coffee shops, and fake clothing stores like The North Face. But the actual clothes in these stores were not fake, as a lot of the clothing we buy in the US is manufactured in Vietnam, so somehow the local shops can get a hold of the brand-name clothing and sell it for super cheap, like 1/3 the price for the same exact jacket in the US. Unfortunately I was not aware of this when I bought my North Face jacket a few months ago. Later when we went out, we saw just how many tourists there were in Sapa, as they easily outnumbered the locals on the streets. After breakfast at our hotel, we headed up a hill, where we saw a cultural show, and got a great view of Sapa from above. It was raining lightly, so the path we hiked on was a little slippery.  I didn’t slip and fall on the hike, but I did slide quite a bit as I struggled to stay upright. When we got down from the hill, it was a quick walk to our hotel, where we took a short rest, and then went on another hike to a village that specializes in cloth and indigo. The villagers there also make sculptures out of limestone and sell them there. I bought a little dragon sculpture and using my incredible negotiation skills, got it for a price of 70000 dong, or about $3.50, which I think was a fair price. We continued our walk, and saw a place where the villagers manufacture indigo cloth. We also saw a big waterfall, which was pretty cool too. We soon returned to our hotel, and had a “do-it-yourself” kind of dinner at a restaurant where there was a hot pot at the table in which we cooked different types of meat. After dinner I went to sleep, ready for a busy day of harvesting rice the next day.

Rice terraces in northern Vietnam
            Tuesday was yet another long day. We were heading deep into the mountains, in search of a village not frequented much by tourists, but just enough that they have shops open and ready… anyway after about a half hour bus ride from the tourist laden streets of Sapa, we arrived at a village in a valley, of which I know not the name. As we pulled into the center of town, I noticed a suspicious gathering of many ladies in traditional ethnic clothing; heavy black dress with a red cloth hat.  Many of them were carrying large baskets on their backs and some were carrying babies as well. My suspicions were warranted because as soon as they saw us on the the bus, they went into what can only be described as: attack mode. Within seconds at least 20 of them swarmed the bus door and this was before we had even come to a stop. We could see them looking through the windows, fighting amongst themselves and singling out their uh, potential customers. As our group stepped out of the bus, we were picked off one by one, each of us acquiring our own personal lady/guide/salesperson/assistant/etc... The woman who would be my friend and foil for the day began by asking me all sorts of questions like where I was from, where I was staying, and if I liked Sapa. She also told me about her family and village. At first this was kind of interesting, but as we started our hike to a neighboring village, where we would be able to participate in a rice harvest, I noticed that the ladies weren’t turning around. They continued to follow us, and the lady who had been talking 'to me', started to talk 'at me', repeatedly saying, “When you buy something, you buy from me!” Which, of course, was happening to all my classmates at the same time. Our group which had started the hike 18 strong, including two of our teachers and local guide, had now grown into a procession of around 40 people moving across the countryside - complete with its own mobile stores and refreshment stands. After not too long, we arrived at the next village and were greeted by the leader, who invited us to his house which, conveniently, doubled as a restaurant.
The saleswomen staging area beneath our restaurant

A view from the terraces where we were working
         We decided to have lunch at some tables on the upstairs balcony, not so much for the view, which was lovely, but mostly for protection it offered us from the saleswomen, who gathered just outside the house, lying in wait. But alas, we weren’t having lunch until after the rice harvest, so we were soon back down in the thick of it. I told the woman who was following me that, unfortunately, I didn’t have a way to carry her products now, since my backpack had been left back at the village leaders house, and I thought for sure that the women would be leaving us alone now that we had  set off for the harvest, and that finally, we would be able to enjoy some peace and quiet. Was that too much to ask?? Well, apparently it was, because they did not stop following us even as we began to climb an insanely steep and slippery hill up to the rice terrace. They just kept climbing right up with us, baskets of cloth and even some babies in tow. It had been raining for the last few days here, so the already dangerous path was even more treacherous. A few hundred feet up, we reached the terraces that we would be working on. As you can see, or will be able to see soon, on the video, it was quite an impressive view of the valley. I also got to try my hand at rice harvesting, and I wasn’t too bad at it. Cutting the rice was actually a lot easier then I thought it would be, but then again I only did it for about 45 minutes or so. I can’t even imagine what it would be like working on a rice paddy for my entire life. The experience gave me a deeper appreciation for the opportunities in life that I was born with, because I could just as easily been a Vietnamese rice farmer, selling cloth to tourists when I wasn’t working in the fields. After our rice adventure, we descended down the hill to the small village, where we had lunch, and talked to some Australian tourists, who were also visiting the valley from Sapa. 

A mob surrounds one of our guys
            After lunch, the level of intensity was rising with the saleswomen, they were getting more aggressive, and wouldn’t take no for an answer. I bought one small little thing from the lady following me, and when she and others swarmed me and demanded I buy more things, I used the old, “I don’t have enough money” line, which seemed to work, because they left me alone after that. Others in the group weren’t so lucky. One of braver ladies grabbed one of our guys (Luke) by the arm, and wouldn’t let go when he said he didn’t have any cash left, and he is a football player, and substantially larger then her. So we could tell they were taking some risks to make their sales. Another guy was literally mobbed, and when he refused to buy something, was called “a no good monkey” and spat at. On our way back to the main village he had about 11 saleswomen in pursuit. The friendly villagers from that morning had now completely left their “curious local” act behind and were now just ugly, aggressive salesperson. After about a 20-minute or so walk, we arrived back to the bus, and drove on out, back to Sapa. Overall I really liked the day, the rice harvesting was definitely the highlight, but the saleswomen weren’t so great. The problem I had with them is that they followed us from the moment we got off the bus to the moment we got on. Sure, they are just trying to make a living, but being tailed for 3 hours isn’t a pleasant experience for most. For the first 15 minutes, it was funny and amusing, they after that it got a little less amusing, and then for the rest of the time was just plain annoying. We came to this village to see what life is like for the rice farmers, and I don’t think that includes being followed by a moving market. But that’s just my POV. After returning to Sapa, we had dinner at a traditional restaurant, and then went to the hotel. Our time in Sapa was coming to a close, because the next day, or night I should say, we would be leaving on the train to Ha Noi, and on to part two of our journey, Ha Long bay.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Pizza and a College Fair

            In sharp contrast to the first month I've been here, this week seemed to go by really slow - likely because I have a week-long trip coming up next week. But, besides focusing on my classwork, I also did a lot of fun things this week as well. I had pizza and ice cream for the first time since I’ve been here, I went to a college fair at a fancy hotel, and I met someone from my hometown, an admissions person from UCSB, as she was passing through Ha Noi. All that and more, this week, on andrew abroad!

            It is nearing the end of September, and as I've said in previous posts, time is going by fast. This was the last week of the month, and in just a few days I will be off with my classmates on our beginning of the year trip all around northern Vietnam; including Sapa, in the mountains, and Ha Long bay, along the coast. Time away from home in a foreign city is a funny thing and hard to explain, as it sometimes feels like it has been a really short visit, but it mostly feels like I have been here much longer than just a month - and even stranger is that sometimes it feels like both at the same time. I can definitely say that I'm settling into life in this crazy-busy city now; the taxi rides don’t scare me nearly as much, and the temperature has begun noticeably dropping from the hot, humid, sticky summer to a much more livable climate. I still have 8 months remaining here in Ha Noi, and yet I've already become so familiar with the city, its people, its traffic, and its smells (both good and bad), that it’s hard for me to even imagine how well I’ll know it in eight months time. And, along those lines, how strange and foreign Santa Barbara may seem when I first return home.

            On Tuesday I had pizza!! for the first time since I left America. I actually remember the last time I had it; my dad, sister and I ate at a pizza restaurant somewhere just outside San Francisco on our way to the airport, about 4 weeks ago (not that I've spent countless hours daydreaming about it...). But flash forward to present. I went to a place called the Pizza Company, located a convenient 2 minute drive from our school, with some friends. The pizza was actually pretty good, maybe because I hadn’t had pizza in a month, but I thought it was great. It was a combo restaurant of both Pizza and ice cream restaurants, the pizza upstairs and ice cream downstairs. The ice cream was made by a San Francisco company, I think it was called Swensons, and it felt for a short time like I was back in the US - everything in the restaurant was in English, including the menus and ice cream labels. I had a cheese pizza, did I mention that it was very had enough cheese and tomato sauce, and the crust wasn’t too gooey or too hard, just right! Also on the menu were other American staples, like pasta, chicken wings, fries, ect…

            Wednesday at school, our director told us that there was going to be a college fair that afternoon at a fancy hotel downtown, and that he would take anyone who wanted to go after school. So later that day around 10 of us piled in a couple of taxis and headed on over. The hotel experience was surreal. Walking out of the hot, fast-paced streets of Ha Noi and into the palacial, sedate and well air-conditioned hotel lobby was like walking from night to day. It immediately felt like I could have been inside any fancy hotel in the US. It had a large, multistory lobby, with escalators, elevators, and cafes and stores. Lots of tourists were sitting in the café, presumably getting ready to make the most of their visit to Vietnam, and there was a multitude of different meeting and conference rooms all over the first several levels of the hotel. We determined that the college fair was in the main ballroom, but we then had the task of figuring out just how to get there. After about 10 minutes of searching, we finally found the set of “express elevators” that took us directly to the ballroom. It was massive. There were rows and rows of tables with schools from all over the US. We were, of course, the only non-Vietnamese students there, so we attracted a lot attention from the recruiters. Everyone wanted to know what we were doing in Vietnam, so we spent some time telling them all about the program. At some point I looked through the directory and saw that UCSB was there, and I got so exited to talk with someone from home that I immediately went over to find their table. The admissions lady, Lisa, was really nice, and I talked to her about the SYA program and Santa Barbara for quite some time. It was really therapeutic for me, as it made me a little less homesick to talk with someone who was actually from Santa Barbara, and knew what Blenders is, what Rusty's is, or where and what State Street is...I could go on and on. She also seemed quite impressed with the SYA program and the experiences that I was having over here, and said that she would be reading my blog. I hope she remembers me if I decide to apply to UCSB next year - did I mention what a nice lady she was :) After talking to Lisa, I went around to look at some more of the schools. There were some well-known ones, some not so well known, and then there were some that made me ask myself; “does that school really have a large enough budget for international recruitment?”. So after a few hours, at around 6 or so, we headed down to the lobby, and boarded our separate taxis headed home.

Another week put into the history books. Week 4 down, 34 more to go!

A message for those of you that have actually read to the bottom of this post: My blog is being uncooperative and I am having trouble loading pictures right now, but tomorrow morning (tonight CA time) I will try again... Thank you for your patience and understanding.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Notorious Prison; Heartbreak from Home

           This weekend was a weekend to relax, but unfortunately, it wasn’t very relaxing. I had my first weekend “off” since I’ve been here. On Friday I had Japanese food with some friends, Saturday I took the day off and got some sad news from home, and Sunday I went to the Hanoi Hilton. No not the hotel, the jail.

            Friday, after I finished school, I made plans with some of my friends from school to go have dinner. We went to a nice hotel not to far from the school, where they had a Japanese restaurant. I thought it was very good; I had this bowl of chicken, egg and noodles. I had to be home by 9ish, so I took a taxi around 8 or so, to make sure I wasn’t late, because you can never really tell how bad traffic in Ha Noi is going to be. One minute an empty street can turn into a nightmarish disaster, resembling the game where you have to get the car out of the traffic jam. Luckily I made it without incident.

(aka, Larry the Spaceman)
October 20, 2003  -  September 22, 2011
            Saturday I was able to sleep in, and I made a plan to Skype back home at some point during the afternoon. So around 1:30 or so, I saw that my parents were on-line, so I gave them a call. We talked for a while, and then, of course, the connection gave out. So after a few minutes off-line, I got things running again, and dialed them up. When I started talking to them again, they had some bad news. The day before (Friday for me), Thursday, September 22, they had to put our dog, Mukluk, down. He was almost 8. He died of Lymphoma, a disease that attacks the lymph nodes, and eventually spreads to other parts of the body. We knew he had it since mid-April, when we first took him into the vet because his leg was swollen and he couldn’t move. He was at the pet hospital for a few days, and we thought he was going to die then. But they were able to give him medication, and he was able to walk again and it made the swelling go away. They said he only had 4 months at the most, but most likely less. He lived almost 6. He also had the best 6 months of his life too, even though it was his last. He got all the food and attention he could ever want. He constantly dined on steak, cheeseburgers, and his personal favorite, salmon. He also loved to travel, and he always came with us for the past few years to Salt Lake City and Santa Fe. In late summer, he was able to go on one last trip with us, and we knew he enjoyed it, even though we had to lift him into the car because he couldn’t do it himself. I got to say goodbye one last time to him just before I left for Vietnam. I knew there was no chance that he could possibly live another 9 months, so I said goodbye before I left on the train. My dad said he had the best possible ending though. He wasn’t in any pain until the day he died. He took walks on the beach every day for the last 2 weeks before he died, because our new house is so close to the beach, and he ran and played in the waves, he even went to some of the Friday Swims with SBMS this month and swam out into deep water with the kids. Wednesday night he was fine, but by the morning, the swelling was back, and he wasn’t able to move, and couldn’t hold his focus for more then a few seconds, so they knew he was in a lot of pain. My dad knew right away that this would be his last day, so they called in to make the appointment. And even though it was something that he dreaded doing, he wished they could have taken him sooner, that’s how much pain he was in. Two o’clock. With around 4 hours left in his life, my dad drove him around town to all his favorite places; the beach, middle school, and also to our old house. He said that he didn’t give too much of a reaction to the places they went to, because he was in too much pain to stand up. But when they started driving down the hill toward our old house, his ears perked up and he got really exited and even stood up. But by the time they got to the house, he was unable to stand, and had to sit back down. But if he could have I’m sure he would have loved to have seen the house. Because that was the only place he ever lived. When we first got him as a puppy, that was where he came home to, almost eight years ago. My dad and sister, Emily, were the ones who went to go pick him up in the Freight warehouse at LAX, where he was hardly bigger than a shoebox. He had just flown cross-country from Kentucky, where he was born. He was obviously very scared after being on a 5 and half hour flight, and had pooped and peed his little pint-sized kennel, but even the tough LA warehouse workers thought he was cute. When they went over to Santa Barbara Middle School, to say goodbye to my sister Claira, she was very brave, and insisted that she go with him to the vet, because she wanted to be there too to comfort him. My sister Emily was on a school trip to the Channel Islands while this was going on, so she wasn’t able to be there. The four of them arrived at the pet hospital, and they took him to the operating room. The doctor first gave him an anesthetic drug, which took all of the pain away, and said to spend as much time as they needed with him, and to let him know when they were ready. My dad said that after he got the drug, he could see in Mukluk's eyes that he was just completely relaxed. They got to pat him and say goodbye, and after 10 minutes or so, I don’t know exactly how long, they got the doctor. The next drug was one that stops the heart. And it is very painless and fast acting. They were all together when the doctor gave it too him. Mukluk was used to getting shots, because he had to get his chemotherapy shots for the last 6 months or so, so it wasn’t scary for him. It only took about 3 seconds at most to take affect. They said that when he got it, he made kind of a snoring sound and just rolled over and went to sleep, but he would never wake up. They said that the noise was just so out of place that it even made them laugh a little because he sounded so comfortable at the end. Gallows humor.

Dog friendly National Parks made him happy, too
Mukluk's favorite place in the whole world
(even when mountain roads made it a little crowded)

Sorry I wrote so much there, I know it’s depressing. But I just had to write about, it made me feel better, even though I was crying the entire time…

Standing in the Peace Garden

The Original Prison, before the high rises, I think
That's not a door, This is a DOOR
So now how about some fun stuff? Well I guess I still don’t have anything fun to talk about, unless you find notorious Prisons to be fun, but it was very interesting, and also revealed a side of Vietnam that I hadn't seen yet. Sunday my host family, plus an aunt and a cousin, took me to see the Hoa Lo prison, nicknamed the Ha Noi Hilton, not to be confused with the actual Ha Noi Hilton, which was not around at the time. First though, a brief history, I learned this while on the visit.

Just me during my watch 
 The French built the prison in the late 1800’s to house political prisoners. They operated it until WWII, when Japan invaded, and began using the prison to hold Vietnamese political prisoners. Conditions there, under both, were brutal to say the least, hardly any food, rampant disease, no medicine, etc… Eventually the Vietnamese controlled Ha Noi after ’45, but then the French invaded again, and they fought nonstop for 30 years! Eventually good ‘ol USA joined in, and fighting continued until ’75. In 1967, a pilot named John McCain was shot down, and parachuted into Truc Bach Lake, just north of present day downtown Ha Noi. He spent around 5 and a half years there. More recently, most of the complex was destroyed, and now a mall, and some high-rises have taken its place. But the main wing remains as a museum.
My mom and me 

           It’s a total BS museum though; the government, even today, says that no prisoners were ever tortured, and that the prisoners called it the Hanoi Hilton because of how well they were treated. Most of it is just propaganda to make the French look bad, and the other half of the museum is about the Vietnam War, and how well the American prisoners were treated. There’s a whole room dedicated to showing how much people in both countries were against the war, and, if the museum isn’t already corny enough, in the “dungeon” they had speakers play suspenseful music in the background. So overall, I glad I went, so I could at least see the building, even if the museum was not the most truthful. After returning home, by bus, just to try it out, I wrapped up the weekend by working on homework.

And that’s all I have to say about that.