Francis Parker Exploring South East Asia

Published February 24, 2015

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

Francis Parker – Vietnam 2014

Published February 24, 2014

Day 12: There and Back Again

The last two weeks have, undoubtedly, been a life-changing experience for every Francis Parker student in this group. Not only have we broadened our horizons culturally, but we also have grown as individuals and gained a better global understanding as well as understanding of self.

When our group arrived in Vietnam we all had our expectations for both the trip and the country: how living with each other in a very foreign, communist country would be. As a whole the group has come together, like “sticky rice,” as we have taken to saying since being in-country, and become a sort of family. Now, two weeks later we’re on our way back to America, and we have found that two weeks is much longer than any of us thought, but in a good way. None of us are quite ready to leave the busy streets, the bustling cities, the vibrant culture, or the kind people of Vietnam. We also have transformed our views of Vietnam as a whole, politically and culturally, and especially have a more complete view of the American War, as it is known to the people here. 

Many of us knew Vietnam as “the jewel of Southeast Asia” because of our history classes with Mr. Taylor. Now, we all truly understand his love of this country. The culture in Vietnam is so rich it is nearly impossible not to share his love of Vietnam. In the North, we experienced a strong political presence and were fortunate enough to spend time with Hanoi University students, bonds that many of us hope will be lasting, as well as give back to victims of Agent Orange. We found that in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the Vietnamese people don’t hate us, as they could. Rather, they have focused on healing and unifying their country. In the South we spent time in the Mekong River Delta, easily a high point of the trip for every student. During our home stay we all became very close, as we lived together, cooked together, and tried to completely immerse ourselves in the culture. After our couple of days in the Vinh Long province near the Mekong Delta we traveled to Saigon, now known as Ho Chi Minh City, to spend the last few days of our amazing trip in another city. Though Saigon and Hanoi did have similarities, there were also many differences. Most obviously, Saigon had a warmer climate and also a much stronger Western influence, allowing all to identify with the city as more “friendly” in some ways, as well as more familiar. 

In addition to the obvious cultural exposure we have gained by being in Vietnam, the group has made so many memories together. We came together in new ways and have become so close: be it through rooming situations, our adventures, our jokes, or everything we’ve learned. Every member of the group is coming back to the States and to Parker with new friends and two weeks of memories we will never forget. 

Vietnam has opened all of our eyes to a completely different way of life and exposed us all to a very different part of the world. We were forced, due to the different culture and huge language barrier, to communicate largely with gestures and actions, which led us to one of two major conclusions for our trip: despite being thousands of miles away from each other geographically, having very different histories, and being raised with different ideas of “right” and “wrong,” as humans we are more similar than many of us could have believed without coming here. Our time at the home stay, with the Hanoi University students, the locals, and the members of the Peace Village allowed us to realize this, as we were able, and lucky enough, to form meaningful relationships with them, even if some of them were only temporary. The second is that we have all gained such an important skill in just two weeks: we have been lucky enough to become more globally aware and take a step towards understanding that service learning does not just mean we, as Francis Parker students, give to the people we are visiting; it also means they have an immense amount to teach us. 

This, for all of us, has been an experience of a lifetime. Many have said they could, and would love to, live here for many months, just to learn more about the history and culture of Vietnam, as well as see more of the country. The memories made in the last two weeks have been more meaningful and lasting than any of us could have predicted and, for that, we are all so grateful. So, tonight, though we journey home, we have all agreed we would love to someday return to Vietnam and we feel so lucky to have had such an amazing opportunity, trip, chaperones, and, of course, companions. 


Francis Parker – Vietnam 2014

Published February 21, 2014

Day 11: Saigon and Environs

Reconciliation is a complicated yet necessary part of humanity.  Being able to let go of the past and stay focused on the future makes living in the present easier and more enjoyable.  It is often a challenge for people to move on, especially when it comes to war.  Today we had the privilege of witnessing the hardships of the war through the eyes of Kim Phuc’s family and how one of the most iconic pictures of the Vietnam War affected the family’s image in society.  

After a long rest and a filling breakfast we got on our bus and began the drive to visit Kim Phuc’s family.  During the two-hour drive, Mr. Hau gave us a detailed explanation of the history of Vietnam and how different religious influences have affected the nation.  When we arrived at the Phuc family’s house, we were greeted by Kim’s sister in-law.  We sat down at the family-owned restaurant below the house and watched a detailed documentary about Kim and the bombing of her village.  The documentary contained actual footage of the Napalm bombs being dropped on the village and showed the reaction of the journalists as Kim ran from the inferno.  After explaining Kim’s recovery from her third-degree burns, the documentary focused on Kim’s forgiveness and her ability to move on.  The most inspirational part of the documentary was when Kim visited the Vietnam War Memorial and met with an officer who had been involved in the bombing of her village 25 years earlier.

Kim’s forgiveness of the event was a very important of how Kim’s sister-in-law described her story as well. We asked her what information we should take back to the United States, and she kindly requested that we express how peaceful and trustworthy the Vietnamese people really are, which is interesting considering that most Americans do not view the Vietnamese that way.  We then walked to Kim’s old temple and observed a Cao Dai service which incorporated concepts of Christianity, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism.  Mr. Hau explained that followers pray for 30 minutes every 6 hours, starting at midnight.  After lunch at the Phuc’s restaurant and an ice cream treat from Mr. Hau, we drove to the Cu Chi tunnels where we got a completely different perspective on the war.

The complex consisted of much more than just the tunnels.  We entered a small bunker where we watched a documentary on the history of the Cu Chi area and its resistance to American forces.  The film commemorated Vietnamese soldiers for their efforts and viewed Americans as heathen.  Propaganda like this was one of the many effective tactics used by the party to influence the people’s view of their enemy and how they believed their enemy viewed them.  This is similar to the War Remnants Museum we visited yesterday and to the factors Kim Phuc’s sister-in-law brought up about why Americans do not like Vietnam.  We then got to experience the life of a resistance fighter in the jungle by dropping into small tunnel entrances, observing the significance of each bunker (kitchens, workshops, etc.), learning how booby traps work, shooting guns, and of course maneuvering through a full-length tunnel.  The thrill of going through a Viet Cong tunnel is like nothing we had ever experienced before.  It wasn’t until we left the tunnel that many of us realized how fast our hearts were pounding, how much we were gasping, and how hot it was in the tunnel.  The highlight of the experience was without a doubt Mr. Holbrook’s attempt to get inside a tunnel entrance designed to keep average-sized Americans from entering, let alone a big friendly giant. 

After spending eleven days in Vietnam while being exposed to both Northern and Southern influences, it is very obvious that the Vietnam War that ended almost 39 years ago is still a central component of this nation.  It is still not safe to say which side was just in their motives for fighting in the war; however, if one thing is for certain, it is what Kim Phuc said: “nobody wants war.”  George Washington strictly believed that Americans should never fight unless there was an absolute certainty of victory.  What was the victory Americans were fighting for in Vietnam?  Our visit to Vietnam informed us of the North’s motive to fight and made us question whether Americans knew what their motive was.  All of Vietnam (North and South) has managed to move on from the war, yet Americans still fail at one thing that prevents them from moving on.  Recognizing defeat is a challenge that America as a nation will continue to struggle with for who knows how long.  The day that we learn to accept defeat is the day that America can proudly move on from the past and set our eyes for the future. 


Day 11: Photo and Video Highlights

After watching a documentary about Kim Phuc’s reconciliation with the war, Kim’s sister-in-law explained to us the aftermath of the bombing and how it has affected the family. Although Kim left the country many years ago, the Vietnamese government still closely watches them. The government also continues to be a burden to the family especially by making them move their house when the government decided to expand the road in front of their house. But even with so many difficulties that have inflicted them, Kim and her family seem to be happy and looking forward to the programs that Kim is starting up.

The street where Kim Phuc ran down after the Napalm bombing of her village.

The Cao Dai temple where Kim’s family used to worship. This was also the temple that Kim and her family hid in during the bombing of her village. Cao Dai has about 3 million followers; the religion combines ideas from Buddhism, Daoism, Christianity, and Confucianism. These people gather at the temple four times a day for thirty minutes praying and singing songs worshiping the different faces of God.

The Cu Chi tunnels are an amazing network of tunnels and bunkers spreading over 70km that the Viet Cong used to fight first the French and then the US military. Before we toured the different bunkers and even climbed through one of the tunnels, we watched a documentary praising the Vietnamese soldiers for their efforts against the Americans. Many of us were stunned by how blunt the documentary portrayed the Americans as hellish. But even after that entertaining and eye-opening documentary, we still enjoyed firing guns, climbing a tank corpse, and especially crawling thought the dark and damp tunnels.

Rubber trees were planted extensively by the French. They are only harvested during the rainy seasons. The tree is tightly bounded in latex and then a slit is made. Through this small gap, a rubbery liquid substance is then collected in bowls. This liquid is then sent to factories to be processed and turned into the rubber we recognize.

During an interview with Kim Phuc’s sister in law, she explained to us the hardships that their family has had to face, especially after Kim’s defection to Canada. Phuc’s family is endlessly pestered for money by the local government because of her choice to leave her home.

          This clip captures a prayer session of the worshipers of the Cao Dai religion.

–Esther and Mark

Francis Parker – Vietnam 2014


Day 10:  Saigon

 Our first full day in Saigon came and went like the speeding motorbikes that surround us. In the midst of great economic development, rapid industrialization and a global outlook, we discovered flourishing religious sites as well as efforts to redefine violence from the recent past.         
After an early breakfast, we journeyed to the Cathedral of Notre Dame to gain a more practical understanding of religious minorities in Vietnam. The building itself, based on a gothic cathedral in France, sharply contrasted with the modern, fast-paced setting of Ho Chi Minh City. Amidst the bustling markets of Saigon, individuals and families from the city congregate in this transplanted religious and cultural center to worship. In the cathedral, dim lighting, colored by red, blue and yellow stained glass, shone on the few churchgoers bent on pews in silent prayer. Just as Vietnamese Catholics find solace in the cathedral, Vietnamese Buddhists do so in a nearby pagoda of Chinese origins. Located in the 24th district of Saigon, the temple exists as a safe haven from the noise of city life. Upon entering the grounds, we were drawn in by the captivating aroma of insence and ornate shrines. Distant echoes of hymns and prayers served as the backdrop for belief similar to that of the Catholic faith, a belief in afterlife. Post-mortem punishment and resolution guides believers in their everyday lives. Unlike the Cathedral of Notre Dame, the Buddhist temple was full of life. The cathedral appeared sparse in comparison to the many bright colors, large crowds, and ponds for fish and turtles of the temple. In addition, the temple was buillt just in the last century, making it more concurrent with modern times in Saigon.        
In District 3, a section build by the French and intended to house a mere 1 million people, a number that has swelled to 9 million, we observed variegated infrastructure ranging from secondary schools intended for the very wealthy to charity centers and hospitals for the poor. It was here that we found the War Remnants Museum. We were greeted by an array of American tanks, helicopters and planes shot down during the Vietnam War. On the first of four floors, international perspective of the “American imperialist” and “U.S. aggression” were met by accounts by American protesters and American veterans denouncing the war effort. In one of the most disarming displays, an American veteran donated his war meddles with a note saying, “I was wrong, I am sorry.” A second display demonstrated the horrific consequences of Agent Orange, a chemical defoliant containing dioxine, which has engrained itself into the DNA of the Vietnamese people. Shocking images of grave disfigurements in infants and paralyzing ailments in teenagers and adults brought further perspective to our recent visit to the Peace Village. In another startling display, a gallery titled “Requiem” featured documentary photographs taken by 134 journalists of 11 different nationalities who were killed during the war. We were taken aback by one image in particultar, labeled “Silhouette of Death.” In it, an American soldier falls limp from a spiralling helocopter. Against the sunlight, the man is virtually unrecognizable as an individual, implying that his descent reflects that of many. The purpose of war as well as the need for people to die this way are obscured in the glaring, white light, and the crossed, diagonal lines created by the falling man and the helicopter illustrate the confused, chaotic nature of the scene. In a sense, Vietnam, despite its rapid growth in the modern era, is still subject to this silhouette of death. Names of those passed are immortalized in shrines and segments of Saigon, like the wide expanse of grass once serving as a cemetary for officials of a dead government but now serving as a park in the 20th district. Reminders of the past are never far behind in a culture and infrastructure that places such a profound emphasis on history.        
Our final destination of the day was the Reunification, or Independence, Palace. Though Ho Chi Minh City is characterized as being an economic powerhouse, it is also home to this political site rich in historical significance and modern symbolism. After it was built during French occupation, the Norodom Palace was used by the Ngo Dinh Diem regime and renamed the Independence Palace. Following this short-lived government, the palace changed hands again to the dictatorship of Nguyen Can Thieu. During the Vietnam War, the Palace became a strategic machine, targeting the Viet Cong with American communications and spying devices as well as tracking military sizes and loyalities of foreign countries. Today, the Independence Palace hosts foreign diplomats and leaders as well as attracts tourists. At first glance, the architecture of the Palace seemed outmoded, though grand in size. However, after crossing into the main enterence, we were stunned by intricate room designs with ancient Vietnamese accents. In the presidential room, we were left awestruck by the unique blend of European-style hardware and allusions to Vietnamese cultural symbols. One of these symbols, found on a floor rug, was that of two dragons facing the moon, an ancient symbol of happiness. In the palace basement, we were reminded again of the building’s deep connection to the war, where we found the preserved remainder of battle plans.        
Despite the heat and despite the length of our day, we felt the enormity of our luck and our privilege in receiving such an opportunity to go to these places, both physically and metaphorically. To be born into the safety and peace that allow us to analyze and reflect on our lives and surroundings is more than most can relate to. The silhouette on our horizon appears less imposing and more distant than that of Saigon. But maybe we share a horizon and the difference rests in perspective.

Francis Parker – Vietnam 2014

Published February 20, 2014

Day 10 Photo Highlights

In the morning, we briefly visited a pagoda that blends the religions of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. We saw people burning incense in front of shrines of the Buddha or a renowned Confucian scholar, while Taoists brought turtles to put in the pagoda’s pond in order to atone for their sins.

After the pagoda, we proceeded to the War Remnants Museum. Outside the museum were tanks, missiles, and planes used by the American military in the Vietnam War. These were not as startling as the exibits inside the museum, especially since we saw several similar Russian-made tanks (used by the Viet Cong) later in the day at the Presidential Palace.

 The first exhibit showed posters from solidarity movements all around the world that were protesting the Vietnam War.  For instance, we saw posters from Finland (as seen above), all over Western Europe (Italy, Germany, France, etc.), Japan, Cuba, and of course from Berkeley. Many of us had previously thought that the Vietnam War was an unpopular war only in the United States (a very limited point of view), so it was eye-opening to learn that it was unpopular all around the world.

In the American War Crimes Exhibit, we saw pictures of the results on the Vietnamese of dioxin poisoning (most significantly Agent Orange), phosphorus bombs, and massacres of entire Vietnamese families in the name of rooting out the Viet Cong. We saw the plaque shown above in the same exibit, and it resonated and shocked us because it used our own words to denounce the atrocities our soldiers commited in the War.  The extent to which the Americans were desperate to root out the Viet Cong shocked us again was we read this quote from an American bulldozer operator: “From now on, anything that moves around here is automatically considered VC and bombed or fired upon.”

We followed that visit with a tour of the Presidential Palace, now known as Reunification Palace, which is most notable for hosting the American-backed Diem regime. The palace featured lavish rooms used for receiving foreign diplomats and the president’s living quarters.  We ended our tour with a walk through the bunker underneath the building, where we saw a map room by Diem’s and America’s generals.


Francis Parker – Vietnam 2014

Published February 19, 2014

Day 9: Arriving in Saigon

“Thank you and goodbye.” It may seem easy to say, but today, it is one of the toughest phrases to utter as we departed our beloved homestay. As we boarded our faithful boat, we reflected on these past few days with our hospitable host family and how this immersion has provided insight into one of the most vibrant cultures in the world in a way that is unparalleled to any book. Despite reluctant farewells, we departed the Mekong with a full head of steam, ready to embrace a rising economic power of the world: Saigon.

As we floated away from our home-away-from-home, our minds began to wonder what’s in store for us? After experiencing the heavily monitored chaos of Hanoi, we didn’t know what the streets would be like in a city far away from the political capital and the center of the party’s power. Will the people dress as conservatively as they did in the north? Will the people look at us differently? What will the food be like?

When Mr. Hau announced that we reached Saigon, our eyes immediately fluttered to the glass as we watched skyscrapers tower above us, streets widen to fit five cars abreast, and other tourists stop to take pictures. Wait, tourists? One of the most drastic differences that we noticed between Saigon and Hanoi was the impact that tourism has played in shaping the culture of this city. More people were dressing like us, speaking like us, and acting like us. The streets were nicely maintained and the buildings and shops were catering to the Westerner. However, that did not stop us from stopping at the famous restaurant Pho 2000 for lunch. In November of 2000, Bill Clinton ate pho at this restaurant, which symbolized the steps he had taken during his presidency in reconciling the American-Vietnamese relationship, such as lifting trade sanctions in the mid-90s.

Many of us retired to our hotel after lunch, but a few explorers ventured out into the city of Saigon. We stumbled upon a looming business tower across the street from a 200-year-old French colonial building, and a Chanel adjacent to a previous U.S. CIA building where the final extraction of U.S. troops occurred. Saigon surprised us with its tourist-oriented feel, but it still retained the distinct elements of history and socioeconomics that were present in Hanoi. There is still a feeling of government presence (observable by the many green police jackets), but there is also a greater feeling of individualism and expressiveness displayed in the infrastructure and interactions. 

“Hello, it’s me.” Without knowing it, we all kept Todd Rundgren’s words in mind as we stepped off the bus. We were all smothered with a wave of heat, but we welcomed it and lost ourselves in a city that has experienced one of the most rapid economic, societal, and cultural growths in the world. Embedded in the buildings, the faces of the people we encountered, and the enviroment of this city, we could sense a vibe that is different than Hanoi. We cannot place a finger on exactly what it is, but we have two more days to figure it out. 


Day 9 Photo Highlights

Today we left our homestay and traveled by bus to Saigon. Halfway there we stopped at a gas station for a bathroom break, and little did we know that our air conditioner took a break too and refused to go back to work. So we decided to head for the shade.

While our drivers fixed the AC, we enjoyed ice cream from the local store and wondered around the area to marvel at the roadside wonders.

As we arrived in Saigon, we were greeted by the modern marvels that make this city an amazing mixture of the new and the old. 

We stopped at a restaurant called Pho 2000, where we enjoyed the soup and enjoyed the fact we got to eat in the same restaurant as a previous American president. 

We arrived at our luxurious hotel, which was breathtaking and exciting, and we worked our way up to the rooms where a beautiful balcony view greeted us.

Before our amazing dinner, we wondered around this amazing city at night and enjoyed all the sights and sounds of downtown Saigon.

Francis Parker – Vietnam 2014


Day 8: Final Day at Mekong Delta Homestay

Continuing with our efforts to reach out and socialize and thus gain a more intimate understanding of life in the Mekong River Delta, we hung out with several students at a local high school this morning.  Though the school was only a short ways away, riding our bikes through the precarious, narrow, and bumpy  passages while dodging oncoming motorbikes took some time.  Upon reaching the high school, we were greeted with the sight of many students in uniform playing various sports.  At first we were rather intimidated by this unfamiliar environment, but the friendly smiles and gestures of the students encouraged us to engage in badmitton, high jump, and volleyball. We were not necessarily coordinated in our badmitton attempts, but the students were patient and nothing but kind.  Some students also partook in a game of soccer (which we won), and a spirited game of duck duck goose explained though gestures and lots of laughter.  The only downside to all of this activity was the heat.  Our friends natrally took no notice of it while we were huddled in the shade downing entire water bottles.  Though most of them spoke no English, and we could only say hello and thank you in Vietnamese, we managed to reach a common understanding though playing these simple games.  Language is, of course, a large barrier to communication, but it can be overcome. And, of course, it was fun too. 

As is typical in the Mekong Delta, we caught and cooked our own dinner.  Fish, specifically mud fish, are caught with bare hands in canals.  Each day, a series of canals is filled with water.  Certain sections are dammed on either side and then drained, leaving fish swimming in shallow water and lots of mud.  Lots and lots of mud. So we had the oppurtunity to go into knee-deep mud (if not deeper) with baskets and catch these fish just as many local farmers and fishermen do daily.  We were muddier than we had ever been before.   There was plenty of high-pitched shrieking (“Something touched my leg!”  “It moved!”  “Eeek”), but after watching our guide grab a big one, catching fish became a competition.  Within minutes we were diving through the mud grabbing fist-sized fish with our hands.  This eventually devolved into covering ourselves in as much mud as possible, which logically meant that is was time for a swim in the Mekong.  Unsuprisingly, the muddy river did little to clean off the mud.  It really just made sure that we were all covered in a uniform layer of dirt left from the river.  Nonetheless, playing catch with a coconut in the Mekong river was an experience none of us will soon forget.

The fish were put directly from the basket and placed, still flopping, over the fire.  We the ever-hungry students gathered around the fire anxiously waiting for them to be cooked.  Once it was done, after an agonizing few seconds, we decended on the fish like locusts, chopsticks in hand, to eat the fish with salt and lime.  Fresh shrimp were also grilled, and some adverterous students ate the brain.  

The common thread thoughout our experiences at the Mekong has been immersing ourselves (literally) in a world radically different from our own.  We have been staying at a home in the Mekong, we have caught and cooked our own meals in the traditional way, and we have furthered our understanding of life here though simply hanging out with people. Though our worlds are so different, socialzing with the locals was a reminder that we still have much in common.  Words are important and would have made things (much) easier, but they were still ultimately unnessesary.  We all understand smiles, laughter, and the occasional ridiculous gesture; the rest just fell into place. 

–Emily, Alfonso, and Hannah

Francis Parker – Vietnam 2014


Day 7: Mekong Delta Homestay

    It is a local custom in the Mekong Delta, foreign to many of us in our travel group. It is exciting and intimidating, providing us with a glimpse into a society that few of us had ever observed before. However, it is not the Mekong practice of beheading a dozen fish in the street or the selling of multiple fruit species off of boats that I speak of. It is the longstanding practice of bargaining, a practice that we had the opportunity to engage in when visiting a market just a few miles from our homestay. On our first full day in the Mekong Delta, we gained control of pricing and purchasing our own goods whilst competing against our peers. Yet while the activity itself gave us the chance to physically immerse ourselves in a new culture, it also gave us a parallel to compare our experiences of the day to.

    Stage one of bargaining consists of spotting the goods you are searching for, the primary stage in making any purchase. The first stage of our day consisted of a delicious breakfast made by our hosts, accompanied by fresh coffee and followed by a boat ride to a well-known tourist attraction that demonstrates local arts and crafts. We watched rice cook almost instantaneously in a pot full of hot sand and sampled coconut caramels prepared just moments before. We skimmed the surface of the Mekong Delta during this stage, still taking in and processing our sights, all the while in awe of the beauty that surrounded us. 

    Socializing with the local people and negotiating for a desired price make up the second stage of bargaining. After our visit to the tourist attraction, we set off towards a true local market to purchase a set amount of goods for our dinner later that night. Armed with the Vietnamese equivalent of $10.00 and innovative methods of communication, we attempted to bargain for the best prices of shredded coconut, bean sprouts, carrots, turnips, and pancake mix. Like the second stage of bargaining, we also began to associate ourselves with the people and shape the desired outcomes of our personal experiences, through trying new foods at lunch or volunteering to hold a giant python. The second stage made us more comfortable with the Mekong culture and gave us the opportunity to step out of our comfort zones in order to have the most enriching experience.

    The final stage of bargaining is the most satisfying, for it entails a final purchase and the acquisition of a desired item. For us, our third and final stage consisted of a calming sampan (small row boat) ride through the lush, natural landscape of the Mekong and a winding bike ride that took us through the streets running alongside the river. We viewed ourselves no longer as tourists in a foreign area but as individuals participating in local activities well embedded in the unique culture of the delta. We prepared dinner with our host family and watched them give an entertaining performance accompanied by traditional music of the region. We had completed our purchase of a culturally enriching experience, content with the outcome and in possession of many great memories.

    As participants on this trip, we bargain for an amazing experience to cherish and share with others. In many ways, we are in control of our enjoyment and what we take with us at the end of the day. The first day in the Mekong River Delta was undoubtedly a success, and I know that we will only get more than what we bargained for in the days to come.


Day 7 Photo Highlights

Today, we witnessed the creation of popped rice to be processed further into a sugar candy. After the rice was popped, caramel is added to create a brick-looking candy. We also explored the making of rice wine and coconut candy.

After watching candy being made, we went to lunch, where we held a massive snake. We then went to a local market to pick up groceries for dinner. We split into two teams. The winners were determined by the amount they spent: whoever spent the least amount would win.

We helped cook dinner after we had bargained the grocery prices down substantially. Of course the senior team won because we paid about $2.6 for the entire grocery list, compared to the juniors’ $3. The dinner consisted of Vietnamese pancakes and soup.

After dinner, we were greeted with a group of local Mekong musicians to welcome us. After the musicians, Hannah and Chris had a good jam session; a perfect, relaxing end to a first day.


Day 7 Video Highlights

We watch the making of popped rice, a local delicacy in the Mekong. It was quite delicious! Afterwards, we saw other culinary operations, such as candy making, that use the popped rice as the main ingredient.

The juniors’ team leader, Alfonso, bartered at a local Mekong market for certain ingredients that we were assigned to obtain there within an hour. The bartering was quite difficult at times considering there was a large language barrier and we were not completely aware of the standard price for each item, but in the end we managed to follow through with the exact criteria given to us. The juniors did end up losing to the seniors, but it was certainly a day well spent, as we got to eat the carrots, turnips, sprouts, and other items for dinner that night.

This video encapsulates all that we did after we accomplished what we were suppose to for the market bartering and lunch. Groups of four took smaller river boats, called sampan, down different channels of the river that we would normally not get to see had we been in a larger boat, because the water would have been too shallow for it. Going through different waterways of the Mekong, we got a better taste of the local culture by seeing how those who live around the river use it in their lives. It was also quite beautiful, as the environment is very lush and tropical.

Francis Parker – Vietnam 2014


Day 6: Mekong Delta Homestay

Today, we awoke in Hanoi for the last time. We packed our bags and headed for the airport to say goodbye to our tour guide Alex, who has offered wonderful insight into the history and culture of Vietnam, and to start our flight to the Mekong River delta.

When we arrived in the Mekong in the late afternoon, we were greeted by our tour guide, Mr. Hau. After gathering our luggage we boarded a bus and Mr. Hau welcomed us as he began to tell us about the culture and life in the Mekong Delta, which is also known as the Nine Dragons River delta. The differences between Hanoi and the Mekong were glaringly obvious. Going from the bustling streets of Hanoi to the rural, vegetated South was like stepping into a different world. Whereas in Hanoi there was the never-ending clamor of busy people and motorbikes, as we traveled to the Mekong River, we were able to see that rural areas offer a much more relaxed and open life. Unlike the cold and grey weather in Hanoi, the Mekong was humid and hot. While Hanoi was urban and busy, there is more forest here, and the land is more open, with people playing and flying kites out in the streets. As we drove through the town we were able to see that, unlike Hanoi, the South appears more tropical, with a warm climate and fertile land.

When we arrived at the Mekong River, a boat awaited us to take us to our homestay. The boat ride took us away from an urban setting and into a secluded area where we were suddenly immersed in nature. Once we arrived at the homestay, we were welcomed by the family who operate the bed and breakfast.

Later on, we sat down to an amazing dinner that included pork placed inside snail shells. This was in some senses a welcome feast. After the feast we were given free time to explore the property, which is surrounded by rambutan and longan trees. Being in such an amazing environment, it is a goal among the members of our group to embrace the culture of those living in the Mekong Delta and to dive into nature, leaving city life behind for a few days.


Day 6 Photo and Video Highlights

Today a few students and chaperones began the day with an enjoyable morning run to an interesting historical landmark.  We ran around the lake where John McCain was shot down during a bombing raid in 1967 and quickly captured, living as a POW at the Hanoi Hilton until the end of the war.  On the shore of the lake, next to a busy street, a memorial commemorates this event. After returning to the hotel and packing, we said goodbye to Mr. Alex and got on the plane for the Mekong Delta.

Today we arrived during the late afternoon in the Mekong Delta, where we disembarked after our short plane ride from Hanoi into the heat of the South. Once on the bus, we were introduced to new scenery and a beautiful sunset.

Riding on the bus is an interesting experience because it allows us to view large amounts of scenery quickly and is an interesting way to be introduced to a new area. Here we can see the scenery of the many rivers we passed.

After disembarking from the bus, we gathered our luggage on the sidewalk as the cooling afternoon breeze set in. All covered with DEET, we were prepared for our boat ride to our home stay. 

After a short boat ride up the river, with the soothing putts of the Diesel engine setting the audio track for this area, we arrived at our new homestay. To say the least, we were all shocked at how the place looked! We were told it would be “rustic,” and seeing a home as beautiful and peaceful as this was an amazing sight.

Although we were all impressed with our accommodations, the mosquito nets over our beds was a very foreign concept for many of us.  We learned how to effectively cover ourselves with the mosquito net and also enjoyed a filling dinner. 

Our guide for this portion of the trip, Mr. Hau, is very enthusiastic and positive, and we are excited to spend the next couple of days with him. After a lovely dinner accompanied by the lulling sounds of crickets and geckos, he entertained us with charming guitar numbers he used to sing back when he was in the army.

–Lucas and Nick

See videos from their amazing adventure here.

Francis Parker – Vietnam 2014

Published February 16, 2014

Stay Tuned

In the Mekong Delta, we will continue documenting each day of our experiences through words, pictures, and video. However, we will not be uploading until we leave the delta and head to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) on the 18th. So stay tuned for a bunch of new postings from the jewel of Southeast Asia!