Thursday, Feb. 19: The Final Countdown
It may be cliché to say that everything seemed to go by too quickly, but there really is no other way to say it. Our trip took advantage of every minute of the day. While the days seemed long, in hindsight the trip went by all too fast. Each one of us made new friends, tried new foods, pushed new boundaries, and learned new things about the places we visited. Now, it is difficult to come to terms with our impending departure from Cambodia. Ironically, the dream-like state we are in at the airport is similar to what we felt when we first arrived in Hanoi. Though we prepared and studied for the trip, nothing was quite as expected. Looking back, no amount of books, movies, interviews, or research could have come close to replacing the actual experience.
Our first impression of Hanoi was set by the new freeway, which gave us a false sense of order in the streets. The calm of the countryside rice paddies and the large lanes of the freeway quickly condensed into a crowded city. During our stay in Hanoi, we would become accustomed to the the busy and somewhat dangerous streets. So much so that upon arriving in Cambodia and having our first exposure to the streets of Siem Riep, the traffic no longer seemed daunting to us. In fact, our tour guide seemed surprised at our familiarity with Southeast Asian street-crossing techniques. Exposing ourselves to new things, becoming accustomed to them, and eventually becoming confident with them was a common theme throughout the trip. Like crossing the street, we started with baby steps in trying new foods. Our first meal in Southeast Asia was a dish we were all familiar with, pho; however, by our farewell dinner, most of us had tried tarantula. Even those of us who struggled using chopsticks in the beginning eventually became proficient in using them (if not to avoid starvation).
One of the most important and impactful aspects of the trip was meeting people. Reading personal anecdotes and even exchanging emails was no replacement for meeting in person. Indeed, meeting our penpals for the first time was still a somewhat awkward experience despite previous contact, but we quickly became close friends after walking and talking with them. Though our penpals’ English levels varied, which was a barrier for some of us at first, we were able to find common ground. Getting to know the penpals gave us a more personal connnection to Hanoi than the tours did, and it was interesting to learn about Vietnam from the perspective of Vietnamese students. It was also informative to hear about modern Vietnam from our tour guide, Mr. long, who shared not only the major facts but also small stories that we would not have been able to get from the research we did back home (and certainly from a different point of view than Vietnamese expats in America). Most importantly, we felt the warmth and welcoming of those we met, like when we were welcomed to a students’ home, despite straying from the schedule. In Cambodia, we had similar personal experiences with our guides and the people we met. As the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge were relatively recent, it was common to people who survived the “killing fields” or were directly affected by the events. This was extremely powerful and added a new level of understanding those troubled times. Additionally, by talking to people and meeting the schoolchildren, we saw that the country was moving on from the killing fields and reviving the classical arts of Cambodia’s past. Like Vietnam, we were deeply moved by the warmth of those we met. Again, we were welcomed into the house of a person we had just met, and our tour guides became not just guides, but also dear friends.
The educational aspect of the trip has also been a huge success in learning not only culture but also history. Vietnam was interesting because the country’s history is shrouded with mystery and politics. This was highlighted in our tour of the Hanoi Hilton because much of what was shown conflicted with what we have been taught in America. Though we did not quite believe what were shown, it made us think of the possibility of propaganda in what we are taught back home. In Vietnam, we were given a new perspective on what we were relatively familiar with; however, while in Cambodia, many of us were exposed to entirely new information, as the Cambodian genocide is generally unknown to Americans. No amount of reading or movies could have prepared us for what we saw. Our visits to the Tuol Sleng Prison and the one of the killing fields were eye-opening experiences to say the least. It made us realize not only the brokeness of Cambodia’s history but also how little we knew about it. This has raised the question of what other tragedies we know nothing about and why we know little about them. The tours in Vietnam and Cambodia, while informative, did not conclude everything for us, and instead provoked further thought.
Visiting Vietnam and Cambodia has actually made it harder to write a conclusion about visiting both countries, as we have learned just how complex the countries really are. There is no one side to any issue, and it is hard for us not to choose a side. Reading through the blog entries, and seeing the conflicting points of view within our group is further evidence of the complexity of our trip. Our meetings at the end of each day, in which we shared our reflections on what we saw and learned, revealed much about ourselves and our peers. Whether confirming beliefs, or bringing something completely new to the table, what we learned changed our views on Southeast Asia and the world as a whole. Now, we have long hours of flying ahead of us to digest our experience as a whole. It is hard to leave such memorable people and places. If anything though, the cramped cabin of the airplane will make the bittersweet touchdown on the tarmac at LAX sweeter. Happy New Year and thank you for reading.
–Zak Brownlie, Matthew Wei
Wednesday, Feb. 18th: A Glimpse of the Past and a Glimpse of the Future
Standing at the center of every country, there seems to lie a defining moment in the state’s history that, more often than not, stands as a point of pride. In the United States, people are proud of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the Revolutionary War that ensued, serving as a reminder of the freedom that stands at the center of the country. April 17, 1975, was meant to be that moment for Cambodia, which would known as Democratic Kampuchea. As the Khmer Rouge regime paraded through the streets, some Cambodians cheered at the thought of a new country centered around the ideal of total equality. However, April 1975 and the four-year time period that followed now seems to cloud both the citizens’ minds and foreign perceptions of the country’s history and people.
With this in mind, we headed to the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center. Immediately after we arrived, we were surprised by the serenity of the center. Standing as one of over 300 “killing fields” around Cambodia, Choeung Ek served as the final destination for those tortured at Tuol Sleng Prison, which we had seen the day before. Ultimately, the killing fields combined to slaughter over 2 million people, or 35% of the Cambodian population. Guided by an audio tour, we walked independently through the compound, noting the stark contrast between the natural serenity of the compound and the atrocities committed over 40 years ago; however, the calmness was disturbed by horrifying stories and statistics. Around the grounds were areas demarcated by bamboo sticks, indicating graves that once held the remains of thousands of victims of the genocide, including women and children.
In contrast to the killing fields, the Seametrey Children’s Village offered a more promising depiction of Cambodia. This primary school seemed like a half-built paradise. We encountered flourishing foliage, red flowers, palm trees, and even an Indochinese rat snake. The soon-to-be-campus very much reflected the school’s mission. Contrary to most schools, the focus was not only to educate its students, but also to help its students find serenity and happiness. As we walked into the school we were immediately welcomed by the main teacher and director of the school, Muoy You, who is also the host of the guesthouse where we are staying. She led us upstairs into a room with a projector. Children, arriving one-by-one on bicycles, saw us going up the stairs and immediately ran to meet us. With smiles on all of our faces, the children encouraged the teacher to take a little break from the schedule and show us their version of The Wizard of Oz.
As we began to understand the larger purpose of this school, Muoy told us our jobs. In a rotation, half of us would work in the gardens, and the other half would would play with school children. The work in the gardens was hard and hot.
–Karina Dominguez, Pedro Gallardo, Rex Winn
Tuesday, Feb. 17: Reflections on Cambodian Fortitude: Reconciling a Painful Past and a Moment of Bliss
She is dressed like an ordinary young woman, albeit a glamorous one, wearing a professional-looking red dress and blazer. Suddenly, her face twists into an expression of intense grief as she opens her mouth to smote, or sing a funeral song. The high notes sound like a beautiful cry, while the low, throaty notes are reminiscent of a lullaby. The smote is typically performed at funeral ceremonies or deathbeds because it is through this particular song that souls can travel to heaven after death. At the same time, the smote provides peace and solace to the souls left living. It was through this ancient art form that we were introduced to the most difficult day our group has faced thus far: the visit to Tuol Sleng.
This prison lies in the middle of Phnom Penh, and it was the center for the Khmer Rouge’s torture and killing of Cambodia’s intellectuals. We entered the compound and immediately felt the grimness of the buildings, whose only decorations were garlands of barbed wire. We were led into a small, stuffy room to hear the smote performance, and as we listened, we were stared at by the eye sockets of rows and rows of skulls. When it dawned on us how recently these skulls were found (for many still had yellowing teeth in the broken jaws), and as the sounds of the funeral chant welled around us, the experience became even more poignant than we had expected.
When our tour of the prison began, the first striking fact of the day was that the prison compound was originally built as a high school. Though the reasons may have been more practical than symbolic, this “coincidence” could not be ignored. We saw how blatantly the Khmer Rouge targeted people, places, and symbols of learning, and we realized as we walked along the hollow concrete halls that the Khmer Rouge was targeting our people. We are young intellectuals, exploring the world in order to learn. Our families have put an emphasis on education. We are the very population that would have been put in Tuol Sleng, our values attacked and obliterated. What happens to a culture when all of the educated people are destroyed? Thankfully, the Khmer Rouge did not last long enough for us to find out, but even Pol Pot (hypocritically) admitted to needing artists and learned people: out of 20,000 prisoners at Tuol Sleng, only seven survived, and all were portrait artists, translators, and other skilled workers who could keep the government running. However, even though seven were spared, their families were not so lucky. As our tour guide described the horrific devices used against prisoners, our eyes wandered around the ghostly cells, only to land on the most disturbing sight any of us had encountered. There were bloodstains. On the floors, the ceilings, and the walls. It is hard to articulate just how intense that sight was, but the blood of innocent people that remains tattooed on the surfaces in the prison shocked even the most resilient among us. As a group, we shared the burden of the visit by taking breaks and listening to the guide in shifts. It was as if we silently understood that each of us needed a break at certain points, and we supported each other through the process. While this is at a minuscule scale compared to what Cambodians went through, it is comforting to think that perhaps there was a similar kind of support among prisoners. Although they could not take breaks from the horror in which they were living, we still got the sense that prisoners held on to their humanity and dignity for as long as possible, and that resilience lasts to this day.
The tone of the day changed completely after lunch, when we embarked on our built-in mental respite from the intensity of the morning. We went on a river cruise, courtesy of Charley Todd. We met Charley through Cambodian Living Arts, of which he is the board president, and he allowed us to experience a new part of Cambodia. A brief background of Charley: Charley is a man in his 70s and is orginally from the East Coast. He adopted a Cambodian son and later in 2000 began to live in Phnom Penh to facilitate his work with Cambodian Living Arts as well as to be closer with his family. His son is married and has two young sons, who also live in Phnom Penh. Charley lives in Cambodia eight months of the year and is almost like an adopted Cambodian. He is fluent in Khmer, rents a guest house off the Mekong, and is an active member of his son’s family. He welcomed us to his home and allowed us to experience the Mekong River on a rented boat, named “Charlie” due to a serendipitous coincidence.
The cruise down the river, followed by relaxation at Charley’s pool in his beautiful wooden house on stilts, was a time of pure happiness. It was an end to the day none of us could have imagined, given how the morning began. We spent the trip to his house learning a famous Cambodian song, similar in tune and popularity to “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain When She Comes.” We played for hours in the pool with Charley’s adorable grandsons, who spoke French and had extensive knowledge of the solar system at ages six and seven. On the boat trip back, we turned the rickety wooden vessel into a nightclub from the past, dancing to “Build Me Up Buttercup” and “September” with the Cambodian musicians and guides.
–Olivia Ghosh and Nicole Keeney
Monday, Feb. 16: Seeing Phnom Penh
We began our second day in Phnom Penh with a guided tour of the Royal Palace, the home and residence of the current King of Cambodia. As we split into two groups, our respective tour guides walked us through the palace grounds, sharing with us the history of the monarchy in Cambodia.
Moving from such a stark exhibition of political Cambodian culture to the ancient Angkorian arts, we visited the Cambodian Living Arts center for the second time for a workshop in their rehersal room. There, we enjoyed demonstrations of various dancing styles, accompanied by music, of some of the dancers we were going to see later that evening. The fact that these young at-risk youths are being taught the arts and aided to a career path in their chosen skills, we were fascinated with the professional level at which they performed. We even tried our hands at some of their simpler moves, attempting to stretch our fingers and elbows (with many of us failing!). We also demonstrated the traditional American dances of the Macarena and the Cupid Shuffle, and helped the CLA participants learn our dances as well.
During the rule of the Khmer Rouge, many well-known art forms, including some of the dances that were performed for us, were nearly, or completely, destroyed. Being able to witness the revival of some of these once-forgotten traditions was remarkable and highlighted the value and importance of the Cambodian culture. Knowing that the beautiful dances we watched were once almost extinguished gave them a new depth and a new perspective, helping us appreciate the art form on a larger and more historical scale.
Throughout our whole day, we were able to observe and reflect upon various aspects of Cambodian culture, from the history of the Royal Palace to the beauty of the CLA dances. The behind-the-scenes glimpse we were given to the difficulty behind the Cambodian dances allowed us to appreciate their hard work and dedication even more. We’re excited to continue learning about this rich history and extensive culture during the rest of our stay in Cambodia.
–Emma Moore, Emma Sheean, and Simone Tift
Sunday, Feb. 15: One Foot in the Past, One in the Future
“If you put one foot in the past and one in the future, you pee on today,” Yut, our tour guide in Siem Reap, reminded us with his spread-out stance. Although seemingly far from profound and even silly, we’ve seen this Buddhist sentiment reiterated throughout our several days in Cambodia. Living in the present is vital for the religion, as it keeps us humble, aware, and centered. But something Yut also stressed was the importance of looking outside of Cambodia’s past: Angkor Wat, the genocide, and other previous moments in their history. Unfortunately, in many ways the country has been defined mainly by its bygones. Luckily, we were able to see developing juxtapositions and the promise of Cambodia’s future.
The shadow puppet show we enjoyed (prior to a downpour of rain) centered around ancient stories from the Ramayana. Angkor Wat displayed a mixture of new and centuries-upon-centuries of old, as some of its walls were damaged by bullets from the reign of the Khmer Rouge. Also, many of the sacred Buddhas inside all of the temples we visited, from Angkor Wat to Ta Prohm, were decapitated and looted more recently to be sold on the black market. Contrastingly, the circus show, named “Chills,” gave promise and a future in the visual arts to young adults and teenagers from a village around three hours away. Building wheelchairs for the victims of landmines shows the past’s toll on today, as many of the mines were planted 40+ years ago. Therefore, the Landmine Mueseum has put forward efforts by building schools, removing thousands of mines, and providing a scholarships and other opportunities for students who aid them.
We arrived in Phnom Penh after a forty-minute flight, and then drove to our lunch. Immediately, we were aware of the difference between the capital and Siem Reap. Previously, we had eaten at semi-upscale restaurants whose clienteles were mainly tourists. This restaurant, with its much more unfamiliar foods, was mainly filled with residents of Phnom Penh, mostly Chinese, Koreans, and other foreigners living permanently in the city and working for nearby NGOs. We soon arrived at the You Khin House, a guesthouse whose profits go towards the Seametrey Children’s Village located in the building next door. (This, too, seemed an immediate departure from our stay in Siem Reap, where we slept under mosquito netting on wooden beds.)
Leaving the comforts of our new hotel, we entered into a Cambodia quite different from the sanitized, westernized streets of Siem Reap (dominated by elephant-patterned harem pants and resorts with Angkor in the name) and entered the slums around the governmental housing known as the White House. Designed by the former king of Cambodia, Norodom Sihanouk, the buildings today are crumbling, houseplants spilling out from small balconies. Almost immediately, the group (conspicuous with our clothing and expensive cameras) felt somewhat out of place. In contrast with the food stalls, motorcycle repair shops, and children running around, our middle-class American lifestyle stood out like a sore thumb. Many in the group later remarked that it almost felt like slum tourism, or that we should not have visited in the first place. Still, being able to see the living conditions and humble beginnings of the Cambodian Living Arts’ (CLA) students provided important context prior to seeing one of the graduated student’s (Neang Kavich) documentaries, Where I Go. The documentary followed a different CLA student, Pattica, throughout his dance studies, familial conflicts, and problems with discrimination (being half Cambodian and half Cameroonian, as well as not knowing his father).
Following the showing of the film, we departed to dinner across the street from the CLA office with the filmmaker, his brother and friend, and the coordinator of the CLA program, Melissa. Throughout dinner, we had the opportunity to ask questions regarding his production process/his inspiration for the film and the history of CLA and Melissa’s work with the program while eating coconut and mushroom soup, tempura vegetables, and delicious egg and fish “quiche/omlette.”
We are looking forward to more work with CLA throughout this next week and exploring a new city.
— Olivia Fidler, Isaac Gray and Grace Sellick
Saturday, Feb.14: Witnessing the Realities of Cambodia
Our group awoke at around 6:30 to have our first breakfast at the Metta Karuna Center. We shared a buffet-style meal, with baguettes, assorted jams, bannanas and packaged ramen soup. After we all stuffed ourselves with food, we hopped on a bus headed for Banteay Srei, an old temple of almost a thousand years. On the way we passed by small shops with patchy areas of palm trees growing around them. These shops sold many of the same items, which were evidently catered towards tourists. The products consisted of many woven coasters and boxes, bowls and wooden tableware. The vast majority of our group purchased the sweet palm sugar chunks, after having sampled them. They were intensely sweet and buttery, dissolving in our mouths.
Once we arrived at the temple, we learned from our tour guided, Mr. Yut, that the temple was built, designed and carved entirely by women. Observing the many small inscriptions and depictions, we soon realized the skill and the patience that went into this beautiful structure. The temple was constructed and finished by two Angkorian kings, King Rajendravarman and King Jayavarman V. The first king began this project and funded it, with his successor, Jayavarman V, supposedly appointing women as laborers. The intricate and delicate carvings and the small doorways were thought to be too beautiful to have been carved by men. Although this is just a myth, many women did play an evident and important role in Angkorian society. In wartime, for example, they joined in as fighters; they used this temple to pray for luck and victory before battle.
Many children crowded around us as we exited the temple. They held postcards, wooden flutes and other souvenirs. This is a very controversial subject in Cambodia. Many people would have problems with children selling goods to support themselves and their families; however, the parents also exploit their children to conjure sympathy from tourists. Even though we cannot help feeling sympathy for the kids, it is nonetheless a prevalent issue.
After leaving the temple, we visited the Cambodian Land Mine Museum. This museum explained a lot of the horrors that still occur frequently in Cambodia. Many of these victims are children. Some of these children wounded and disabled by these mines have become workers in the effort to clear mines in Cambodia. This effort and museum were greatly influenced by Aki Ra, a former child soldier in the Khmer Rouge, and Bill Morse, an ex history teacher from California. In Cambodia an average of three casualties a week are caused by land mines. This devastation was caused by the U.S., the Soviet Union, and China, who supplied the Khmer Rouge and Cambodian armies as well as the Vietnamese. The complicated web of weapons deals and inner conflicts of Cambodia and Vietnam led to the scattering of billions of tons of mines and bombs in Cambodia. An incredibly shocking and heartbreaking thing Bill explained to us was that young kids would find these mines and cluster bombs not knowing what they were and would pick them up seeing them as interesting shiny objects–the result is obvious. This lack of knowledge is consistantly troubling for the demining of Cambodia, as many outer villages in the forest are uneducated about the dangers and are difficult to get to because of the land mines surrounding them. Many of these victims suffer from PTSD, which is not treated by the NGO. These ongoing tragedies show a harsher and darker side to present Cambodia. Not only are we reflecting on the ancient Buddhist civilizations in Cambodia, but also we are confronting the current events of Cambodia.
After having eaten lunch, we headed for the Ta Prohm temple, a famous and world renowned temple used in such films as Tomb Raider, featuring Angelina Jolie. The temple itself was captivating, as we all witnessed the natural phenomenon of the native banyan trees growing through the temple’s foundation. Another interesting phenomonon about Prohm is the discovery of a stegosaurus carving in the walls of the temple. We aren’t sure if this is just a coincidence or if it speaks to us about the ancient civilization’s scientific advances. It is just another unique element that adds to the wonder of the temple. The temple was built in the early eleventh century as a place of worship for Buddhists. However, by the thirteenth century, the new king imposed a new system of Hindu beliefs on the kingdom, changing the temple from Buddhist to Hindu. The thousand carvings of Buddha were defaced and changed to phallic symbols called Shiva lingam.
One of the amazing aspects of this temple is that it rises magnificently out of the grey rubble and temple ruins. Efforts are being made to restore the temple to its former state. This can be seen as controversial because some believe that the temple should be left to crumble naturally, while others believe that it should be held together to preserve its glory. Photographed by senior Karina Dominguez.
After dinner, we took tuk tuks to an outdoor shadow puppet theater. We watched the performance of the Indian epic Ramayana. The shadow puppet artists used leather silhouettes and incorporated dance movements to act out certain sections of the epic. Unfortunately, the performance was cut short due to an unexpected (and pleasantly refereshing) rain shower. Our curiousity about the ending of the story was satisfied when junior Snigdha Nandipati told the rest of us about the part that we sadly missed.
–Mitchell Capp, Snigdha Nandipati, Angelica Vera
Wednesday, Feb. 11: A Country of Opposites
Vietnam is a country of opposites. From order to chaos, from communism to captialism, and from old to new. Today, we explored these seemingly incompatible worlds.
Walking in a single-file line through the covered corridor at Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, it seemed as if we faced a new guard at every step. Despite the guards’ stern appearce with their pressed and intricate uniforms, we were suprised to see them smile at our light-hearted “xin chao”s. However, as we neared Ho Chi Minh’s tomb, the atmosphere suddenly shifted to a more serious tone. The tomb was silent, and all attention was on the angelic body that lies at the core of the Vietnamese communist identity. The tomb embodied socialist architecture through its square, imposing shape, and the sentiment that all who were present were witnessing something much larger than ourselves. Even as foreigners from America, we were able to grasp his ever-lasting legacy. This understanding was deepened when we visited Ho Chi Minh’s humble living quarters, and his conscious decisions to emulate the lives of his impoverished nation.
“Our great president, Ho Chi Minh, lives forever!” the banner hangs aside his Mausoleum. Photograph by senior Olivia Fidler.
After exiting the tomb, we stood in the square and reflected on the tomb and the government buildings surrounding us. Though the government is technically democratic, the Parliament building was situated between Ho Chi Minh’s tomb and the Communist headquarters, clarifying the firm hold the Communist Party has on the Vietnamese government (85% of the Parliament belongs to the Party). This was only the first of many contrasts that we would experience today.
Transitioning from Vietnam’s recent history, we stepped back into the 11th century through our visit to the Temple of Literature. In the thick of modern Hanoi, the Temple of Literature shifted our focus from the power of the collective population at Ho Chi Minh’s tomb to the opportunities of the educated elite. Vietnam’s first national university was restricted to the few that could afford to be competitive; the Confucian meritocracy of old Vietnam was not open to all. The names of graduates were engraved on stone tablets, resting atop tortoises (a Vietnamese symbol of longevity), representing their ever-lasting achievements.
Pictured in the bottom left is a yellow fruit which locals call “Buddha’s hands,” serving as a common offering in Vietnamese shrines, such as this one at the Temple of Literature. Photograph by senior Olivia Fidler.
Shifting from our morning’s focus on the grandeur of Vietnamese history, we met with our pen pals to get a taste of everyday life in modern Vietnam. Becoming acquainted with everyday life in Vietnam was as simple as sitting down with our pen pals at a street cafe. In our small talk, our interests in each other’s differences brought us as close together as our similarities. After lunch, the schedule was ours to control.
Most of the group decided to walk through a market in the midst of rush hour traffic. The stands around the streets were as busy as the traffic, and we were able to buy goods from propaganda posters to cheap toys. The competitive nature of business being done at the market was a stark contrast to the communist ideals we were exposed to earlier in the day.
With horns blaring and motocycles whizzing by, crossing the street with a group of over 20 people quickly became a formidable challenge. Photograph by senior Pedro Gallardo.
To escape from the hustle and bustle of the streets, we retreated to group coordinator Son’s favorite eclectic stop. Our time at Cafe Nola was spent with further bonding with our pen pals over mochas and piano renditions of pop songs.
The singing carried on into the evening as the group headed over to a karaoke bar. We were suprised to find that our pen pals seemed to know the words to American songs better than we did; it was clear that Western culture thrives alongside the Vietnamese tradition. Bonding over less-than-stellar performances of John Lennon’s “Imagine” and Katy Perry’s “Hot and Cold,” karaoke was a great final send-off from the pen pals who now seemed like old friends. The farewells were certainly difficult, but we were reminded of the brief but meaningful times we spent together in Hanoi.
Over the past couple of days were immersed in many contrasts, both cultural and political. We are interested in seeing how Hanoi will change in times to come and hope to visit again to see these changes for ourselves.
— Zak Brownlie, Olivia Fidler, Pedro Gallardo
Tuesday, Feb. 10: The Road to Recovery
As we piled onto the familiar red bus after another delicious breakfast, Mr. Long, our guide, began to prepare us for our first destination with a little history.
Agent Orange: accounting for nearly twelve of the estimated seventeen million gallons sprayed over Vietnam, the herbicide was one of eleven used by the United States to clear the foilage and increase ground visibility. Named after the distinctive color of a strip on its shipping container, the compound reduced the cover and food available to the Vietnamese Communist soldiers.
Although its suppliers claimed that the herbicide was harmless to humans and the environment, post-war research quickly revealed that such was not the case. The herbicide, which often drenched those hiding in the vegetation and in close proximity and seeped into the soil as well as water sources of the surrounding area, was toxic, and its effects extend to the present day.
Entire areas of land and water were deemed contaminated and therefore unusable. Those directly exposed to the chemical spray developed cancers and painful sores, and in turn gave birth to children with serious health complications, including physical deformities and mental disabilities. Portions of the estimated four million Vietnamese affected were shunned in fear of the unknown—all consequences of Agent Orange.
However, the Vietnamese are not easily disheartened. Support groups and organizations dedicated to helping the victims soon emerged as awareness was raised, both domestically and internationally. Contaminated areas were, and continue to be, carefully monitored by scientists and used to hold the United States accountable for the copious amounts of toxic herbicide sprayed. The Pineapple Village, founded by affected women who were ostracized from their original communities, helped change attitudes as they sold pineapples for a living and gradually regained acceptance.
We had the honor of visiting one such organization with our pen pals from Hanoi University: the Peace Village, or Thanh Xuan.
Upon meeting up with our pen pal friends, most of whom used taxis, public transportation, or motorbikes to reach the destination, we were escorted into a room with residents of the village for a brief introduction by lead Doctor Vu Son Ha.
Since its establishment in 1991, we learned, the Peace Village has provided medical treatment to over ten million people; the Hanoi branch focuses primairly on providing aid to Agent Orange victims. Their educational and physical therapy programs are specifically designed for the needs of the victims, beginning in primary school and continuing as far as vocational training to help facilitate the students’ integration into society.
We were welcomed by a few of the village’s students with a song called “I Am Not Sad,” which was specially composed for Agent Orange victims to help lift their spirits. In response, we sang “If You’re Happy and You Know It, Clap Your Hands,” which allowed the students to participate by clapping their hands, stomping their feet, and jumping around in rhythm with us.
We were then able to visit their classrooms and interact with the children on an individual basis. Given that most of the children were not able to speak, or disliked doing so, our pen pal friends and we were forced to work together to communicate through other means, including pictures, hand motions, and facial expressions. The residents of the village—although the “village” more closely resembles an apartment complex—were also gracious enough to allow us to try our hands at their embroidery pieces, which depicted countryside scenes and cultural sites of Vietnam. As both Hanoi University and Parker students alike struggled to sew in straight lines, we learned that the ease with which the women worked was something acquired over many years, their techniques developed over several of the pieces that took up to five months to complete. In addition to embroidery, the able residents also learn how to weave pouches, scarves, vests, and even jackets in multi-colored, varying patterns to sell alongside their embroidery pieces, handmade bracelets, and crocheted squares.
Pen pals from Hanoi University play with several of the children from the Peace Village, showing them how to use the stamps that were donated by Mrs. Hayman’s second grade class at Francis Parker. Aside from the stamps, the students from the Lower and Upper School donated a variety of art supplies, a world map mural, and a washing machine.
Juniors Simone Tift and Snigdha Nandipati practice their needle point on the machines that the children, affected by Agent Orange, use to create magnificent and unique pieces of art to sell and raise money for the Peace Village.
After bidding farewell to the Peace Village with broken—but improving!—Vietnamese, we enjoyed a traditional lunch of a Vietnamese-style sandwich and bananas, and with the guidance of our friends, we walked off the meal by exploring the surrounding area. We came across another market, and ducked under its entrance into the dark, tented enclosure, shuffling through stalls selling kitchenware and clothes that morphed into produce and shoes became crates of fruit while baskets of hair accessories became cages of chickens, and followed the narrow path for only a couple minutes before exiting back onto the streets and headed to a well-known cafe for a taste of Vietnamese coffee.
After spending the first half of the day at the Peace Village, seniors Grace Sellick, Emma Sheean, Pedro Gallardo, Sam Pryor, Olivia Ghosh, and Olivia Fidler and their pen pals toured the area and stopped to sample traditional Vietnamese coffee and other specials treats at the Twitter Beans Coffee. A traditional Vietnamese coffee is similar to an espresso but is made with condensed milk.
Suspiciously similar in both color scheme, design, and drink options to a certain American chain, the Twitter Beans Cafe provided us with an opportunity to relax, perhaps a little too much as we lost track of time and found ourselves rushing several blocks back to the bus to arrive at the appointed departure time and make a timely arrival at the family home of one of our very own friends, S’on.
We were dropped off across the street and, using the sticky rice technique, crossed the bustling streets and made our way to his home. His mother and father stood by as twenty-five people crammed into their living room. Assorted Vietnamese candy, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, and warm tea awaited us inside the Giang household, and as we continued coversation with our university friends, we took in the wandering tabby cat, the first feline we saw on our trip, took in the family shrine, adorned with gold coloring for prosperity and luck, as well as fresh dragonfuit, bananas, and custard apples, took in the large family portrait that hung above a cherry blossom tree design that added a personal flare to the gray walls.
As the afternoon turned to evening, we reluctantly parted from our friends from Hanoi University, and we headed off to the final destination, a traditional water puppet show at Thank Long water puppet theatre.
Established by farmers in the eleventh century as a celebration of a good crop, water puppetry became very popular in northern Vietnam as a form of public entertainment. Made from soft wood easily carved by the non-specialized farmers, the puppets were sculpted into many flexible shapes, such as people, animals including foxes, water buffalo, and frogs and mystical creatures like dragons, fairies, and phoenixes. In order to seal the wood and prevent it from sinking, lacquers were developed to add color to the tan coloring of the wood.
However, this art was almost lost after the war and continued to dwindle as the population struggled to stay afloat and, in turn, had little time for entertainment. This trend began to turn around in 1986, when the economy began shifting from largely subsidized to more free market.
As Vietnam opened its borders once again, tourism revived the art and developed into the complex stories and manipulation of puppets we saw today.
As the puppeteers stood in wasit-high water, they manipulated the puppets in front of a bamboo screen. Coupled with live singing and music utilizing traditional Vietnamese strung instruments and flutes, the show was well received and enjoyed.
We ended the group’s night at a Western-style restaurant, where we experienced a food with a Vietnamese twist, including pizza, spaghetti lasagna, and grilled beef and french fries, and divided into smaller groups that could choose to explore the hotel’s surrounding area or opt to get a head start on the following day.
Following dinner, seniors Sam Pryor, Olivia Fidler and Pedro Gallardo and juniors Nicole Keeney, Mitchell Capp, Rex Winn, and Simone Tift went across the street from the hotel to jump in on a dance exercise with local women in the park, listening to upbeat, electronic Vietnamese music.
–Karina Dominguez, Angelica Vera, Grace Sellick
Monday, Feb. 9: Getting Outside the Comfort Zone
On the morning of our second day, we awoke to the sounds of the many horns from the busy, motor bike-filled streets of Hanoi. After enjoying a Vietnamese version of a continental breakfast, we made our way onto the bus, where we met Mr. Long, our tour guide for the remainder of our time in Vietnam’s capital. As we traveled through the early morning traffic on our way to Hanoi University, Long informed us of different aspects of the Vietnamese culture, including local superstitions, practices, and beliefs.
During the winter season, Hanoi is often covered in a dense and grey layer of smog/fog, and the people of the city can go many days without seeing the sun. Many of the city’s inhabitants wear masks over their mouths to prevent the intake of the smoggy air.
Upon arriving at the university, we met with a student tour guide, S’on, who led us to a lecture hall, where we were able to sit in on a class regarding leadership and motivation. Professor Hoang Gia Thu, Dean of the Faculty of Tourism and Management, taught the lecture in a style similar to that of the classes back in San Diego, utilizing the projector and printed-out slides of his power point to supplement his presentation. Although we were later informed that the classes are usually quite discussion-based, our foreign presence in the class caused the majority of the students to remain silent for the duration of the 90-minute period, reminding us of how we react when exchange students come into our classes at Parker.
Professor Hoang Gia Thu gives a lecture on motivation and leadership, a topic which helps build the foundation of the tourism industry by educating students in management skills.
The rather simplistic and slightly run-down style of the university varied greatly from the more polished and grand campuses in the United States.
After thanking the professor for letting us immerse ourselves in his class, we returned to our bus and left behind “Old Hanoi” and ventured to “New Hanoi” for a buffet lunch adjacent to a large water-park. The buffet, which was rather upscale, seemed to attract both locals and tourists alike, the most of which appeared to be from Asian countries. The wide variety of food, ranging from Taro-flavored Popsicles to fried pupae and mini crab, provided us with the opportunity to try delicacies from many cultures and ethnicities.
One of the highlights of the meal was the dessert counter, featuring a large array of sweet dessert soups and small finger-cakes.
Once we’d had our fill, we all piled back into the bus to return to Hanoi University to meet our pen pals, with whom we’ve been in contact with for the past two months. As so many of the vehicles on the road were motorcycles, it was quite funny to watch our large bus attempting to maneuvre the roads and carve a path through the innumerable scooters.
Upon arriving once again at Hanoi University, we were greeted by seventeen apparent strangers who were, in fact, our pen pals. As we had never physically met them, we played a quick game where we stated three facts about ourselves. From those three facts, our pen pal would have to decipher who we were. When we had all been paired with our respective partners, we had the opportunity to chat with them for a few minutes before going with them on a tour of the university.
Our student tour guides were, themselves, part of the tourism department. As we began to tour around the university’s surrounding neighborhoods, it struck us that each tour given by the students directly benefitted their future careers in tourism in Vietnam. Our tour took a rather unconventional, but welcome, route when we stumbled upon a Catholic church, which led us to a local flower shop and a street fair featuring goods ranging from fresh fish to formal attire.
In a local flower market, we were able to observe varieties of botanicals, many of which held great significance for traditions.
One thing that was apparent while meeting with our pen pals was that they were much more comfortable being close too one another than us Americans were. The girls would often loop their arms through one another as they walked, a concept quite foreign to people who generally abide by respecting others’ “personal circles.”
As we arrived back at the university, we headed to the field to play a series of ice-breaker games to get to know our pen pals better. We were all shocked when they suggested we play games like Mafia, which we all previously believed were games solely played in the U.S. The games were a complete success; in many cases we all burst into hysterics when someone would make a mistake amidst the game.
After we bid farewell to our pen pals, we once again navigated the ever-present traffic to dinner. Here, we ate the spring rolls that the restaurant was acclaimed for. Unlike many of those that are available in the States, these rolls were quite thick and were encapsulated in a very thin, crunchy exterior. Another dish that we got the opportunity to eat was a cold rice noodle dish called bun. On top of the noodles, we poured a special sauce comprised of fish sauce, sugar, green papaya, carrot, garlic, and chili peppers.
As we reflected on our second day in Hanoi, many of us realized that we had used the day as a way to break out of our comfort zones and immerse ourselves in the local culture. We couldn’t wait for tomorrow, when we would be able to work again with our pen pals in the Peace Village, yet another way to step outside our personal comforts.
–Emma Moore, Samantha Pryor, Mitchell Capp
A car in front of you. A bus behind you. A rickshaw to your left. Twenty-five clamoring people walking directly in your path as you begin to move, slowly and surely, towards your destination. As one of four million scooters in Hanoi, you are not alone in this daily struggle for an unscathed way through the organized chaos that is this city.
When we arrived in Hanoi, stripped of our sense of time and perception of hunger after twenty-seven hours of travelling, what struck us most about the city was the cultural shift, especially in relation to traffic. To an outside eye, there are no rules. Lane markings are purely for show, and turn signals are vestigial mechanisms. There is no conceivable way drivers and pedestrians exist in harmony. But somehow, it works. The city streets are alive with close calls and near misses, but we attribute this relatively successful traffic system to a fundamental change in culture. Such a system cannot work without drivers and pedestrians who are willing to be patient and selfish at the same time. In fact, one of the first things our guide told us was, “When you are crossing the street, walk slowly. The cars won’t stop for you, but they will slow down and swerve around you.” While the residents of Hanoi won’t put their day on hold for you to cross the street (and if we’re being honest, you’re probably not at a crosswalk), they will kindly and without complaint make way for you.
This slightly paradoxical attitude defined the rickshaw rides that we took this evening, around sunset. Setting aside the neo-colonialistic implications of the cycle rickshaw, we were able to see Hanoi from the inside out. We were first exposed to the traffic patterns, and indeed, cars would come within an inch of hitting the rickshaw before they regained their patience and let us go by. We passed through Hanoi’s Old District as slow-moving obstacles for motorcycles, while we inhaled the scents of cigarette smoke and simmering beef. We observed three young couples in wedding garb, posing outside the grand old hotel in the center of Hanoi, right next to young men slipping on gravel as they ran for the shuttlecock, playing badminton in the park. We could feel the city’s vibrancy and activity throughout the ride, and we felt ourselves in the middle of the organized chaos.
Mirroring Hanoi’s duality in traffic strategies, Vietnam as a country, as we quickly discovered, is a convergence of two worlds. From the airplane window we observed the dirt roads and crumbling houses on the outskirts of Hanoi, and as we made our way to the downtown area, the rice paddies populated by field workers and water buffalo became spotted with new buildings, new highways, and new bridges. Our experience in the new airport for Hanoi encapsulates the dichotomy of this city. After we trudged off our second long flight, we were stopped before going through customs and asked for pictures of each group member. We did not have such pictures, nor were we aware that said pictures were required. Amidst several confused faces and several knowing smiles, it became clear that the “photo fee” we had to pay of two dollars per person was code for bribery, and Vietnam was operating under an antiquated system of authority, now in a building that is only two months old.
An interesting geo-political reason for all of the new development in Vietnam can be traced to the pseudo-Cold War between the U.S. and China. Countries that oppose China help Vietnam, because often common enemies creates the deepest bond amongst friends. Because the U.S. is an ally among other reasons, the people of Vietnam, even just one day in, have been some of the most welcoming people we have ever met. We are honored to be a part of this great relationship between, countries, cultures, and people.
–Olivia Ghosh, Snigdha Nandipati, Rex Winn
Bill Morse, Director Cambodian Landmine Museum, Siem Reap
Briggs Boss, Sophomore, Thacher School
Stacy Serrette, Teacher and Dean of Student Life, Emma Willard School
Paul Rusesabagina, Real-life Hotel Rwanda hero who saved over 1200 people during the Rwandan genocide.
Shirley Hahn, Beverly Hills, California
The Santa Barbara Independent
Alex Greer, Junior, Laguna Blanca School
Kelly Bennett, history teacher, Santa Barbara Middle School
Alexandra Kall, Francis Parker School
Spencer Barr, English Teacher, Santa Barbara High School, California
Stacy Serrette, Director of Student Life, Emma Willard School
Eric Taylor, Francis Parker School, San Diego, California