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 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 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
Published February 16, 2014
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!