Saturday, March 31, 2012

School Year Abroad Vietnam: The End of an Era

It’s not often that one can say that they were in the final class of school. But unfortunately, today I can say that. It is with great sadness that I must report to you, my readers, that School Year Abroad Vietnam will not be continuing next fall. It came to a vote this past weekend by the board of directors back in the States, and it was decided not to continue. I was given the news this morning in a meeting by our director Thay Vuong. The mood was understandably strange for the remainder of the day. Our class actually spent a good hour and a half in the morning discussing it. We of course are very against the shut down. We believe that it’s unfair to cancel the program after only 3 years. Like with anything, the first few years are always the hardest, but most of the time, after grinding through, it gets better. Of course the first 3 years of the program have been trying, but what about when they get to year 6? Well, I guess we’ll never know.

Having had the extraordinary opportunity to come to Vietnam has helped me grow so much as a person, and I think it’s a shame that others won’t be able to experience what I have, a real shame. I have learned so much about how to live and adapt to a strange new way of living, and it will help me so much in the future. When ever I feel like the going gets tough, I can always look back on my time here and say “ I lived in Vietnam for 9 months, I can do this!”.  Just looking back at myself before I came here, and who I am now, I can hardly recognize my self. Sure, I still have my famous fiery red hair, but inside I feel completely changed. This program has benefited me so much, and I know that next year’s batch would have experienced those exact same changes, and would have left Vietnam a better person because of it. There have definitely been hard times this year, I won’t deny it, but the final result is what counts at the end of the day.

I also feel very bad for my host family. Because when it comes right down to it, even though the program is being cancelled, I still got to do it. But they were so looking forward to hosting many more young SYAers like myself, and it’s such a pity they won’t be able to have an opportunity like this again. They are so loving and caring, and would have made next year’s host kid so happy, just like they did for me. I am just so lucky to have been paired with them, and I can’t imagine being with any other family.

The hardest part, and what saddens me the most is thinking about the things that could have been. This was an amazing experience that was offered to me, and I only wish that others could have been offered it as well. I respectfully disagree with the board’s decision to end the program. I think that a few more years should have been allowed to see how the program developed. There is such an incredible group of teachers and parents over here, who would have made such a massive impact in the next group of juniors and seniors lives. This program was such a great one. To have the opportunity to travel to a developing country like Vietnam as a junior in high school is almost unheard of, most would have to wait at least until until college for an something like that. So in the end, is there anything that can be done to save the program? Probably not, but what I can do is be thankful that I was able to attend this program, and learn and grow for a year in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Hà Nội is Burning

           I startled awake to the sounds of people yelling! As I slowly opened my eyes, I noticed the orange light leaking trough my window. I looked at my watch, it was 4:45am, but why was the sun rising? After my initial shock waking up, I realized what was really going on: Fire! I rushed to my 4th story window, and the scene below me was one of chaos. In the dim, pale light of a street lamp and the ominous glow of orange reflecting off of walls, I saw people rushing around below me. On the roofs next to the building on fire, men were dropping buckets of water on top of it, to try and quell the flames. Their efforts, valiant as they were, just weren’t going to cut it, though. We needed the fire department. In that instant, I remembered something. I have been living here in Hanoi for around 7 months now, and in that entire time, I have seen 1 fire truck. 1. In a city of around 2.5 million, I have only seen 1 fire truck. At around 5:15, with the fire still raging, it became apparent that they weren’t coming any time soon. As the sun began to rise, I was able to see the alley more clearly. A small crowd had gathered to witness the now fully burning building. There really wasn't anything they could do at this point. Then, at 5:40, about an hour after the spectacle had begun, the cavalry arrived. At first it was a distant siren that soon came closer and closer. Then, our brave (and very late) heroes came running down the alley with a long hose in tow. The crowd stepped back to let them through. Then, all of a sudden, everyone began scattering and running away from the house (from my window I couldn't see the front). I nearly had a heart attack because for a second I though the building was coming down! Thankfully tough, it turned out to be just a misdirected fire hose. As it started up, I suppose it was accidently aimed at the crowd of on-lookers. For the next 20 minutes or so, the firefighters worked to control the burn. By 6, the fire seemed mostly under control. I could no longer see smoke. Remembering that I had to leave for school in about an hour, I got back into bed, and rested for half an hour, thinking about what I had just witnessed.

            It took the Hanoi fire department nearly an HOUR to get to the scene of the emergency. Think about how long an hour is during an emergency, especially a fire. Think about how much happens in that hour. If there had been people trapped in the top floors, not only would they have died, but they would have been dead for a long time by the time the firefighters got there. In the US, it would be outrageous to wait 10 minutes for a fire truck to arrive at the scene of a major fire, let alone an hour. If that happened in the US, it would probably make the news! Also, it was 5 in the morning. There is no traffic at 5 in the morning. Had this happened at 8 am, they’d probably still be on their way. There is actually a staggeringly high rate of people who die on route to the hospital in ambulances here because of traffic in Hanoi. But that's a different story for a different day. After seeing this, it really is no surprise that the traffic fatality rate is so high here, when it takes first responders an hour to get somewhere, that's about 50 minutes too late.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Huế Cool

First of all, I should probably mention that the pronunciation of the Vietnamese city of Huế is, "way", otherwise you will have a hard time understanding all the bad puns I plan to include in the entry (including the title, above).

          Congratulations, you made it to part three of SYA’s central Vietnam adventure! I had never been to Huế, so I had no idea what to expect. But given the limited history I knew about the city (as an American), I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised. Huế is a very beautiful city, with its centerpiece being the famous Citadel.

          When many older Americans think of the city, no doubt one of their first thoughts will be of the infamous Battle of Huế, which took place during the Vietnam War in 1968, and was one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the entire war. In a sentence or two....the large, strategic bases established by the Americans in Huế in the mid-60s were not particularly well defended, and were quickly overrun along with most of the city by North Vietnamese forces during the country-wide Tet Offensive of 1968. In the month-long battle to retake the city, American forces suffered 700 dead and close to 4000 wounded soldiers, North Vietnamese forces lost 5000 to 8000 soldiers, at least 5000 civilians were killed in the fighting, and 80% of the city was entirely destroyed. It is perhaps the worst single battle fought by America at any time since WWII, and its horrors were depicted in the classic movie Full Metal Jacket. The psychological impact of having fought this (winning) battle, along with the Tet Offensive as a whole, is said to have turned public opinion in America against the war in Vietnam.

"For it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. This summer’s almost certain standoff will either end in real give-and-take negotiations or terrible escalation; and for every means we have to escalate, the enemy can match us, and that applies to invasion of the North, the use of nuclear weapons, or the mere commitment of one hundred, or two hundred, or three hundred thousand more American troops to the battle. And with each escalation, the world comes closer to the brink of cosmic disaster." 
- Walter Cronkite, CBS Evening News Anchor, in 1968, on the Tet Offensive and the Battle of Huế

          Thankfully, Huế definitely no longer looks like it did in the movies or newsreels. The people have recovered and rebuilt their beautiful city.

recreating famous war photographs.....

oohmm, shama lama...
            We spent our first day in the city biking with a guide to the Citadel, and took a tour around it. The Citadel is a scaled down re-creation of the Forbidden City in Beijing, although it is much smaller now than when it was first built in the early 1800s because of damage from the war and such. After looking around the museum, we got back on the bikes and continued around the city. Biking in a group like that brought me back to my middle school days (minus the helmet and safety guidelines....). Notwithstanding the countless bicycle  safety violations, we all made it back to the hotel more or less intact.

            Next up, we spent a full day at an orphanage in the city. The center not only takes in orphans, but also children from poor families who are unable to take care of them and can’t send them to school. Throughout the day we had a lot of fun playing games with the kids. We had a pretty intense game of soccer going on for about an hour, and I have to say team America did pretty well for a while. We had the opening goal, but it went down hill from there, and by the time of our inevitable surrender, I think it was more like 1-8, in favor of team Vietnam. We also had a full on arts and crafts station set up courtesy of Sarah, who brought in beads, string, and other miscellaneous things for the children to play with. In the afternoon, it began to rain, so we took in indoors, and played games until it was time for dinner - for which, we had a cookout. We made the kids hotdogs, ribs, and chicken. We didn't skimp on anything, and came fully prepared with buns, sauces, drinks and ketchup. By the time the day was done, everyone was full and happy, and we said goodbye to our new friends.

Teacher for a Day  (moment)

          It looks like that’s all I've got for this blog, as I already told you what happened on our third day in Huế, so I’ll spare you and not tell it again. For those of you who haven’t read about it yet, please scroll down below.

          Well, Da Nang it! As Hanoi-ing as it is, there is just no Huế we could stay here any longer. We needed to get back to school, and grind out another 3 weeks, before diving head first into the tropical jungles of interior Vietnam. I've heard word that Colonel Walter E. Kurtz might still be holding out there - expect a full video for that trip!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Zeitgeist of the '60s

"No news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one."
- John F. Kennedy, 1963

Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức burns himself to death at a busy intersection. The self-immolation was done in response to the persecution of Buddhists by the Roman Catholic regime of South Vietnam’s Ngo Dinh Diem.
Saigon, South Vietnam, 1963 

An Andrew Abroad Special Report:
          It is not often that you get to meet someone who was a part of our collective history. On the third day my school group was in the city of Hue, we were given just such an opportunity, as we met a monk who had been an integral part of one of the most iconic photographs of the 20th century - and we had absolutely no idea we were going to meet him.

          We were visiting a monastery and had just sat down to have tea with the monk who was hosting our visit, when a little, old monk who lived at the monastery walked by where we were sitting and our host casually called him over to introduce him to us. But it turned out that he had an incredible story to share with us.......many years before, in 1963, he had been with Thích Quảng Đức on the day pictured above. They drove together to Saigon - likely in the car in the background - and he had been the one to pour gasoline on Thích Quảng Đức just moments before the photograph was captured. It was absolutely amazing to be able to talk with him. He was only a young man back in 1963, and we were eager to ask about what was going through his mind at the time of such a momentous event. He told us that he knew it was a great sacrifice that Thích Quảng Đức was making, and that he was very heroic and our monk knew it was the right thing for him to do. There had been a lot of suffering and persecution during Diem’s Roman Catholic based rule over South Vietnam, and by martyring himself in such a way he understood the impact it would have, and that he could make a major difference.

We asked him a lot of questions and received thoughtful, interesting answers, but I simply do not possess the ability to comprehend the decision process of Thích Quảng Đức. I have so much more to learn about religion and the religions of the world before I could even start.....

            Just by looking at him, no one would ever have guessed that this little old monk from Hue was a part of a moment in time so famous and iconic. But that just brings me back to the old lesson, “never judge a book by its cover”. My classmates and I all noticed and discussed afterwards was how happy he was. He obviously had no regrets, and I could tell that this was something that was very important to him, and that he believed in Thích Quảng Đức's sacrifice 100%. It was such an honor to meet him, and gain insight that only someone involved in such an emotional time/event/decision could possibly posses. And we didn't even know who he was until he was introduced - you never know who you’re going to find next in Vietnam!

a modern, colorized version

Monday, March 5, 2012

Hoi An - redux

            Morning came quickly. Before I knew it, it was already 5am and time to get ready for yet another journey - I had just five hours at my home in Hanoi since my return from California - it did cross my mind that perhaps I shouldn't have pushed for that extra day in Santa Barbara after all, though it seemed a logical decision at the time. In the rush to leave Vietnam one week before, I only had time to pack a single light backpack for the US, but this was now a benefit as I only needed to switch out the clothes I had worn with some clean replacements and voilà, ready to go, as both Santa Barbara and the Central Vietnam coast share a similar climate (briefly) at this time of the year. The cab arrived at my house at 6am sharp, and my host mom got me the Vietnamese rate of 250,000 dong, easily 100k less than I could have negotiated for myself, and far less that would be offered to a typical westerner. I said goodbye and was off on my next adventure: to explore the cities and surrounding countryside of Da Nang, Hoi An, and Hue in Central Vietnam. 

A return to the village of Hoi An

          Once at the airport, I met up with my SYA classmates and teachers as they arrived one-by-one in the early morning from their own homes. They were happy that I was back, and apparently missed me while I was gone, at least that's what they told me…
Luke seemed surprised to see me after my week away

            The flight to Da Nang was only an hour. It was drizzling when we arrived, but we could handle it. We then drove from the airport to a restaurant in downtown that had been around since the war and was patronized by US service personnel those many years ago. We had a simple lunch; soup, some pork, and vegetables. Next we loaded back in the bus and headed over to the Champa museum, conveniently located just a few minutes away. The Champa Civilization existed in what is now Central Vietnam from approximately 200 AD until the 1400s, and was a great rival to the Khmer Civilization during many of those years. To be honest, it wasn't a great museum, but it was interesting to see the Champa statues - they were real Champ-ions. Sorry. Anyway, now we were nearly done in Da Nang, but before we left we make a quick stop to see China beach, which is the very same beach the G.I. soldiers would hang out at when they weren’t in the jungle.
Beach time!

            Now we were ready for Hoi An. Of course as you likely remember, I have already been to Hoi An during my Indochine adventure. But for the rest of my group (except Sarah and Perrine) Hoi An was a new city to explore. It was much different than last time I was there at Christmas -  most notably, it had warmed up and the clouds had gone away. It was still infested with tourists though, but very beautiful nonetheless. We had a free afternoon, which we all spent at the nearby beach, enjoying the pleasant weather and beautiful, wide-open Vietnamese beaches. After a few hours of playing in the water and building sand castles, we packed up and headed back into town.

The next day we took a cycling tour around Hoi An and the countryside. Our bike guide took us to numerous pagodas around Hoi An, and also out into the rice paddies. We stopped for lunch at a little roadside restaurant that was well off the beaten path. Later that afternoon we headed out to a farm near Hoi An. It was a working farm, but a side function was to cater to tourists. They offer tours to demonstrate how the farming is done in this part of Vietnam. It’s an organic farm, so they don't use any pesticides of anything, just good ol’ fashion technique - probably much like the corn farm my grandpa grew up on in Rolla, Missouri(a). I even got to put on traditional farmer clothes; brown shirt, and the iconic Vietnamese conical hat, but sadly, I had to turn it back in when I was done farming. We had dinner at the farm, and it was very good - with lots of farm fresh ingredients, which I suppose is a little redundant to mention here....

Anna in the fields

Champa ruins at My Son
            For our last full day in Hoi An, in the morning we drove around one hour to the ancient Champa ruins called My Son. They were very interesting to see, reminding me of the Aztec and Mayan ruins in central America, but were much smaller.  After exploring the area, which by the way still has active mines from the war (the ruins are generally safe though), we loaded up and drove onwards. We had lunch at a restaurant outside Hoi An that supposedly specializes in veal, but it was no veal cutlets they were serving, and we didn't really get what all the hype was about. We then had the rest of the afternoon free in Hoi An, so most of us went back to the beach. After a nice relaxing afternoon at the sunny beach, we returned to the hotel to regroup for dinner. Our group really enjoyed getting out of the cloudy, cool conditions of Ha Noi for a while and just enjoying the warmth and sun of the central coast. Now with our time in Hoi An done, we were ready to continue north to Hue.

** The photographs in this blog entry were taken by my classmate, Sarah Weiner
Sarah is not pictured here!

Sunday, March 4, 2012

There and Back Again

Mike deGruy
             I left Santa Barbara bound for LAX at dawn. My dad was driving me to my flight back to Vietnam and we were seriously late and had to burn rubber to make it to the airport before my flight left without me. But there was a reason that we were late... yet another tragedy had occurred in my town and at my sisters' school. Mike deGruy, the world renown ocean explorer and cinematographer, amazing friend and teacher to Santa Barbara Middle School, and father of two of our classmates, died in a helicopter accident in Australia a couple days after my Uncle Matt died here in town. It was a double shock for my family as we are all friends with the deGruy family through different connections made over the years, and it was an immeasurable loss for our town, our school, and for the global ocean community. I was lucky to know Mike a little bit, he was an inspiring man who seemed to love everything he did in life. National Geographic made this tribute to his life in the ocean.  [May 3 - The NatGeo video now appears to be private, here's a second video tribute to Mike]

          We were late because we wanted to attend a sunrise swim in the ocean held in Mike's honor. We had time to attend the ceremony, but had to make a run for it before it was time to go in the water. As we approached LA it became clear that the 405 wasn't an option, so we took a chance and took the overland route down Malibu canyon. Well it all turned out fine, and I made the flight in time. The flight time to Tokyo from LA was about 12 hours, but my seat was comfortable enough and I was able to watch many movies so there are no complaints there. I only had a two hour layover at Narita, I used that time to work on assignments and reflect over the past week in America.....

          My English teacher in Vietnam has told me that I list too many details and not enough substance when I write, and she probably makes a good point. But, details of the day are like comfort food to me and you'll need to indulge me a bit. Hey, at least I no longer start each blog entry with a count of how many days I've been here, and how many days to go...

my mom(s) will be so proud!
            So, back to our riveting story: I slept during the entire flight from Tokyo to Hanoi, from before takeoff straight until landing. It was around 11:30pm when I landed I breezed through customs and soon found myself back in the familiar chaos that is Hanoi. I have to say I really did enjoy taking a break from the madness on the streets. It was nice for a change to not see any motorbikes, and have every one follow the traffic laws. I only had about 8 hours in Hanoi, because on Sunday morning SYA was leaving on its trip to Hoi An (yes the same Hoi An from before), Da Nang and Hue. I arrived back at the house at 12:30am, and was greeted by my host mom. My dad was on a business trip and my sister was already asleep. I didn't actually sleep that night. The 6 hours to Hanoi was enough. So I just watched TV and waited for morning.

          The past few weeks have been a blur of truly unreal experiences for me, as I've been; plucked out of class in Vietnam with the worst kind of news; without warning, on a 24-hour journey to my - now unfamiliar - home; with my grieving family trying to make sense of an accidental death; days thereafter confronted with another accidental death; forced to watch helplessly as the community of people who had been supporting us were suddenly grieving themselves. And now, without having had any real time to process these things, I'm back in a foreign land, 10,000 miles away from home.

          Stranger still, is my realization that those things feel like they took place in a far away land, and only now have I returned home.