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
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
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
Today in Vietnam we had lots of fun. We did a variety of different activities which kept us busy all day. After breakfast we went on the river taxi and visited the floating markets where people sell from their boats in the middle of the Mekong delta. On land, we visited a small factory where they make rice cakes, candies, and rice paper.
After this we were split into teams and were given a challenge: to buy ingredients for dinner at the market (without help from Annie and Nick who speak Vietnamese.) We had to buy prepared mixed flour, carrots, jicama, bean sprouts, yams, and coconut shavings. It was hard to communicate with the sellers because they could not speak English. We used hand-signals to bargain, and buy the food. Whichever team made it back first while spending the least amount of money (by bargaining) won. The other team with Jennie, Sarina, Alex, Kelly, and George won and we had to buy them drinks at lunch.
We ate lunch at surprisingly nice restaurant. The reason I say the it was a nice restaurant is because the environment was very clean. We sat outside on a large, open patio with gardens all around us. The service and food were great, we had: grilled fish witch they made into spring rolls for us, fried pork rolls, vegetable soup, pork cooked in coconut sauce, shrimp, and fresh fruit for dessert.
After lunch we took small row boats back to the home-stay. We had a few hours of free time so we swam in the water. We jumped off the dock right in front of the house to cool off. Although the water probably wasn’t the cleanest, we still had a great time.
Around dinner time we all went to the large kitchen to learn how to prepare and cook a traditional Vietnamese meal. The women taught us how to make Vietnamese crepes filled with shrimp and vegetables. We also had chicken, soup with rice, noodles, and fruit. After dinner we played some team building activities in the same groups from the market competition. The first round involved breaking clay pots with sticks (hanging from a rope like a piñata) while blindfolded. Our teammates directed us where to go and when to swing the wooden stick.
Our team lost that round but there was still two more rounds. In another round we raced to chairs set parallel from each other. On each chair there was a bowl of flour with garlic pieces in them. The rules were that you had to bring the garlic from the bowl of flour to the other chair in your mouth, without using any hands. We ended up winning that round.
Today we learned a lot about the food here; how they prepare it, and all the ingredients they use. We experienced the busy markets and learned how they buy their food. Overall, I thought the day was fantastic.
Village in the heart of Hanoi. Opened in 1991, this village serves as an orphanage and boarding school for people from infant ages to adulthood that live with the mental and physical disabilities as a result of Agent Orange. Students have classes and learn vocational skills while living with others that suffer from similar disabilities.
We joined forces with some esteemed students of Hanoi University. After chewing the fat for a few, we
began singing Vietnamese songs, playing with balloons, and completely repainting a previously algae-infested wall. We then enjoyed a traditional Vietnamese pork lunch sandwich before touring the gorgeous Hanoi University campus. One round of coconut boba and a transient stay in egregiously small and dangerously wobbly chairs, we ended our visit with our home slices (needless to mention Beatrice made quite the posse). On the real doe, I could never fabricated not only the overwhelming joy and laughter those kids had, but also the feeling that their joy reflected onto me. The time that I spent with those remarkable kids were worth the trip around
the world. In the tempest of our times we are often so preoccupied with pent-up stress and meticulously scheduled lives that we hardly take the time to stop and really appreciate what we have. The children at the peace village were the most happy, full of life, and thankful people I have ever seen despite their disabilities. Their passion for life is truly inspirational and a testament to not only their strength, but the resiliency and fortitude of the Vietnamese people.
March 28th – Hanoi – By Blake
We are back in the big city after four intense, fun-filled days in the sweltering Mekong Delta. There have been so many unforgettable moments on this journey so far that it is hard to keep them all straight. It’s safe to say that not many people get to speak with an 84-year-old Viet Cong general in his home and talk about a shared vision for world peace moving forward. Vietnam’s version of “Hillbilly Handfishin'” allowed us to catch our own lunch in the mud, and playing highly competitive volleyball against locals was an intense experience. The family vibe at the homestay was so welcoming. The children were painfully cute, and the hospitality we enjoyed was remarkable.
Now we are back to a world with air-conditioned rooms, chaotic street scenes and historic buildings around every corner. Hanoi is slightly smaller than Saigon, and it has a more cultural vibe. The streets are narrow and bustling, the storefronts are many and the rickshaw ride we took through it all provided a front-row seat.
Laura and I sense that some of the kids are in need of a second wind after all these jam-packed days, but we are on the home stretch with a potentially life-changing day on tap tomorrow. We will visit the Peace Village, an orphanage for displaced children and victims of Agent Orange. We have purchased paint and supplies to help refurbish one of their classrooms, and we will might be out of our comfort zones interacting with some severely disabled youngsters. There are bags of toys to bring to them and we are ready to try to produce all the smiles we can.
March 27th – Mekong Delta
I woke to a gecko on my net and got the boys, who were loud and awake, to come catch it. It ended up traveling into their room anyways so I cautiously went back to sleep, only to re-wake to the gecko on my net again! After another loud and rambunctious breakfast we went to get catch fish in the mud streams around
the house. I was really nervous but so excited! Getting in the water was crazy! It was extremely muddy and your feet just sunk into the mud like quick sand so trying to move around was difficult. It was really soft and felt good on our skin but there were some scratchy branches in it. I caught the first big fish and it was so exciting.
Everyone was surprised. I caught about two or three other medium sized ones as well. It was so much fun just flopping around in the canal. Lots of laughs. Before going to our rooms to shower we had to rinse off. There was a lady from the homestay helping to bathe us and it was fun but awkward! Finally getting in the shower was amazing. I have some little scratches on my legs from the sticks as battle wounds. We had some down time until lunch. We ate our fish we got in the morning which was barbecued for us. It wasn’t my favorite but the boys enjoyed it. The meals here are huge and this one was too! After lunch a few people went to the wifi cafe. We tried an avocado smoothie which wasn’t good or bad, just okay. We also tried some new spiky fruit which was actually really good.
After lunch, which consisted of river fish that we caught ourselves (and the other boys were disturbingly happy to kill), the group went its separate ways. Half stayed at home to relax while the other half ventured to the Wi-Fi cafe to communicate with the outside world.
When we returned from the scrupulous adventure the crew was faced with a quest to visit a local Mekong Delta high school. To get there, we rode our bikes on a narrow path, crossing a bridge made of branches on the way.
We arrived at our destination overheating from the scorching afternoon sun and attempted communication with our Vietnamese counterparts. They were shy at first but warmed up to us with an international volleyball game. We learned that though these people live a half a world away from us, they have the same feelings and hopes and dreams that we do. However, they are less privileged and it is hard for them to achieve these dreams, with approximately 10% of them ascending to a university after graduation.
We were able to take a boat back home while the bros, led by Mr. Hau, searched for Pierce’s lost phone (which ended up being in Carter’s backpack).
Our after-dinner presentation was traditional southern song and acting performed live. Our friend Owhyn got to sing us a nice ballad about monkeys and something else in Vietnamese, and Mr. Hao, Bea, Pierce and Blake all dazzled us with their singing talents.
This day was filled with some discomfort from the heat, realizing American privilege, and watching a stunning musical performance and was definitely one to remember.
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