Monday, August 2, 2010

Fun Run and A Day Trip in Ben Tre

This weekend was quite a busy one:

On Saturday, we had a Fun Run - a 3k race where the benefits went to scholarships for poor children in the area. We were in charge of organizing the event. We got t-shirts and invited people from Saigon to participate and donate. Teachers and students from VLS (where we learned Vietnamese at the beginning of the program) and the US Consulate were in attendance including Angela Dickey, second-in-command at the consulate. Five from our program actually ran in the race (as well as countless locals and the visitors from Saigon) and four of us placed in the top 10! Yours truly was number seven and the first lady to finish, but the true star was my morning running partner Jing was finished in first place 12 seconds before the next runner (who happened to be Kevin). After the race, we awarded the scholarships to the present students and then brought the Saigon visitors to our work-sites via bike. They were quite eager to hear all about our efforts here and were super impressed with the positive impact this project has. Although I have expressed cynicism regarding this topic, it was rewarding to hear only positive comments. One idea that, although I suppose I knew in the back of my head, had never been put into words by anyone on the trip was the idea that this program pumps money into the local economy and brings recognition to the area. Arriving at my work site to 6 kids jumping me with hugs also contributed to my positive feelings from the day.

On Sunday, we took a bus ride into "downtown" Ben Tre and went on a tour that, for lack of better description, can simply be put into the old people friendly column. We paid 50,000 dong for a tour that brought us by boat to an area where there were free samples and stuff to buy. We walked a super short distance to more stuff to buy and then another short distance to an awaiting horse ride. We got off the horse ride at an area where there was complimentary fruit and tea with honey and oranges (possibly the best tea I've had) and Vietnamese singing (as well as more stuff to buy). There were ample picture opportunities here including with quite a sizable snake and then we took a small boat back to the large boat back to the start where we got back on the bus and returned home. Although slightly contrived, I had a lot of fun and purchases some cool coconuts carved into monkeys (truly'll have to see them). I also left with an awesome picture of my with a snake around my neck and several delicious samples in my tummy. All in all, it was nice to have something to do on a Sunday.

Ben Tre Cultural Exchange

After many failed attempts to put the videos directly on the blog, I bring you links to videos from our Ben Tre cultural exchange.

To begin, one of the roommates Huy (also my partner in crime in the dance classroom) choreographed a traditional Vietnamese dance that the roommates sang to. The song is supposedly about a spider and is quite pleasant and catchy.

Next up, we have all 20 of us singing "I Want it That Way." Let's just say that the amount of times I had to hear this song was enough for a life time. Mark's dance moves make this video memorable though...

Six of us had a ton of fun learning a hip-hop dance. The two main sections were choreographed by myself and Huy and the intro was inspired by Margaux and Jing. Inspired by Step-Up 3, we decided to make an "intro" music video with "bios" and aliases for each of us. Unfortunately, the final version with typos fixed and English narration did not make it into the video on youtube so unless you speak Vietnamese, you will have to use your animation. It is quite epic though... (if I can find the complete version, I will put that link up instead)
And for the actual dance

Finally we taught the Vietnamese roommates a "country" classic - The Cotton Eyed Joe. This is the video from Quang Tri (sans roommates) because the more recent version appears to be missing, but the two were quite similar. Enjoy the awesome duet at the end!

Feel free to look through the other youtube videos which include some clips from practices, soccer games, and more!

The cultural exchange, though it started over an hour late due to Vietnamese "elastic time," was a huge hit with the audience. They loved our dances (especially the flip in Cotton-Eyed Joe) and it was a lot of fun preparing for it. I think it brought the Vietnamese and Americans a bit closer together.

Signing off,

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A Post Related to Food

So I realized that I haven't dedicated much time to talking about food lately, and seeing as how food is of the upmost importance to me, I felt it necessary to dedicate today's post to the appetizing subject.

On Monday, our work sites were quite quiet and in fact, we only had an hour at work and then had a nice long break. Because of this, the ladies (and yes it was just the ladies) were invited to go behind-the-scenes at our lunch venue. Lunch here is no one's favorite is much more repetitive than dinner, but I was excited by the prospect of helping to cook because it has been far too long since I have gotten to heat up a kitchen (minus guacamole day of course). The hour spent was definitely cooking light: I chopped up some vegetables, cracked and whisked an egg, and skimmed the fat off the soup into which I added the chopped veggies. Nevertheless, it made me desperate to cook again, and I have visions for when I get home.

In the mean time, we have been enjoying an over-abundance of fried foods the past week. Fried mushrooms, fried chicken wings, fried rice, etc...after yesterday's fried rice, I finally went to Hahn (who is in charge of the meals) and asked her to please limit the fried food! Maybe once a week! I was amused by her response "oh i was told that americans love fried food." oy. Nice stereotyping there. Don't get me wrong - fried food can be delicious. It's the stomach hurting, guilty thing I don't enjoy. So chicken curry tonight and I'm ever so excited!

We also returned to the coconut factory this weekend, where I bought the best peanut brittle I have ever tasted. I also got a spring roll at the market which was one of the best I've had (though I realized half way through I probably shouldn't be eating raw food from the street), and we've tried several varieties of chips including "new york steak," "alaskan crab curry" (which I have yet to personally try but I've been assured tastes distinctly of crab), shrimp, and even this weird green coconut flavored puff chip. Of course, avocado smoothies are always a welcome accompaniment to dinner, and as I mentioned, I am reallllly yearning for some ice cream (though don't get me started on things I absolutely can't get here like mexican food and whole wheat bread with turkey and cheese....). This weekend we are trying to get together the ingredients to make cookie dough. Though we have no oven, raw cookie dough is definitely as good as it gets.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Veterans and a Drunk Man

On Sunday, we were required by the government of Ben Tre to be listen to a speech given by a Vietnamese veteran of "the American War." It was a slightly uncomfortable experience. He told us how many Americans he killed and how great his squadron was, and we asked questions about how he viewed Americans now and whether he was proud of the people he killed. Even though this easily could've have come across as propaganda, it was actually a fairly interesting talk. The man was very nationalistic. He fought for his country and thus was proud of how he protected it. He believes what it past is past and does not begrudge Americans as all. Most of all, he emphasized the Vietnamese people's love of peace. Especially interesting was his - rather standard- view of Americans not valuing peace...or at least of sticking their noses in other country's businesses. He said it without maliciousness and he spoke from the heart, but the message was clear. Americans don't seem to value peace as much as other countries do. Perhaps this is because we don't have to fight so hard to achieve it on our own soil. I felt like he was generalizing a bit - grouping all Americans into this "police" role, but it's not completely out of the question to see where he was coming from. Regardless, the best comment of the day was when he said he put on bug spray before swimming across the river. This was to keep away the sharks.

In other news, today's dance class (already strained because of a power outage that left us struggling to teach the kids "step" which turned out to be far too rhythmically challenging) was interrupted by a drunk Vietnamese man. Smelling strongly of alcohol, he continually spoke in slurred Vietnamese that I of course did not understand. Being the only white person in the room, he sought to shake my hands, which was rather less than appealing. Nevertheless, he caused no harm and was soon escorted from the premises. Strangely enough, the kids seemed undaunted by his presence, merely giggling at some of the words he was spewing. Perhaps the drunk man is a normal visitor...

The Best Part of Work in Ben Tre

The best part of work in Ben Tre is interacting with the kids. Quite simply, they are adorable. At our work site, one of our big jobs is transporting the materials from the drop off site down a small road to the house. We have developed a relatively efficient manner of transporting the materials using our bikes to speed up the process and increase the amount of weight we can easily carry. Whenever we begin this conveyor belt of material delivery, the granddaughter of the owner of our house as well as many of her cousins and friends run to help us. They hand us bricks, they hold the bags of sand on the back of our bikes, they hold the bags while we fill them with rocks, and they give us candy or coconut juice or fruit. They invite us to their special place by the river or to play cards. They delight in being the subject of pictures and they are eager to take pictures of us. They poke and tease and jabber away at us in Vietnamese that we clearly don't understand.

The children we teach are also quite excited for us to be there. They decorate our hair with flowers. The little girls especially are enamored with the boys and are always hoping for a piggy back ride or a high five or really any attention of any sort. They seem eager to learn, saying hello and goodbye to us. They even know all our names (even though I don't think I know any of theirs). As hard as teaching can be, when I hear that they liked or lesson or request to practice the dance from last week, it feels a bit more worthwhile.

Pictures of the finished fence in Quang Tri

Courtesy of Margaux's roommate are the pictures of the finished fence in Quang Tri. I know that some on the program felt that the work we did in Quang Tri was not that beneficial, and I know I have certainly painted a somewhat pessimistic view of our work there. However, I truthfully believe that the fence we built is quite important as is the paint job that the painters completed. The aesthetic integrity of a landscape or a building is quite important for those that work and play in the space. It improves standard of living and people's moods. The fence turned out quite beautifully, and I'm really glad I can say I helped to construct it.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Guacamole in Ben Tre!

Today's mission: Make Guacamole.

We set out with a list of ingredients and there Vietnamese translations.
Mangoes (for some added fun)
Chips of some sort

Through the market we meandered. We stopped for some 2 dollar adidas knock-off long pants, some bar soap, and a lufa. The daily rain shower threatened to soak us, but in the end we recovered it all. How is it that all of these ingredients exist so easily and yet guacamole has no tradition here?

All in all for 3 avocados, 3 limes, 2 tomatoes, a bushel of cilantro, one onion, one jalapeno, one mango, and 3 bags of chips, we paid only around 3 dollars. Wow. We borrowed some bowls and spoons and a knife from the guest house as well as the salt/pepper mixture and got to work. The guest house staff assumed we were making "salad" and brought us mayonnaise (which apparently is what every good American salad uses). They also helped us to cut the mango (a fruit I previously did not enjoy and thus had never diced before). Before we knew it, we had a little taste of home in Vietnam. The chips left something to be desired but the intention was golden. Oh happy day.

5:45am Runs

When staying up til 1am at Duke University, it's hard to imagine how our parents arise sometimes before the sun has even risen. Yet here in Ben Tre, life is different. This past week, I added 5:45am runs to my schedule. Bedtime is usually before 10pm and there's a certain repetitiveness in day to day activity that college life seems to avoid. Is this real life then?

Not quite.

This past week we have seen progress at both house sites and in our teaching abilities. The house that I am working at - the one owned by the blind lady and also inhabited by her blind son, his wife, and his daughter - is almost done with the process of laying bricks. This process requires patience and is both harder and easier than you'd imagine (I'm not sure how to explain this...just try it sometime). The language barrier of course makes it harder: the contractors insist to our Vietnamese roommates that we should be standing on the other side of the wall even though we've been doing it the same way since day one and our line of bricks in the straightest somehow resulting in our bricks being deemed the least straight and professional looking. Frustration ensues. The other house is not quite as far along - the foundation is coming along nicely though no bricks have been laid and a small money issue seems to have popped up that threatens the size of the house. Yet the atmosphere at the worksites is upbeat and friendly. The owners of the houses serve us jackfruit or coconut juice or tea or durian flavored crackers, and the children love to help us by loading our bikes with bricks or holding the bag for us while we shovel sand into it.

In the classroom, we are beginning to find a steady stride to our teaching. In dance, we have shown the kids salsa, hip hop, jazz, israeli dance (turkish kiss!), and kbop (a popular korean style of dancing). Some classes work well and other seem slightly over the kids heads, but every day we have had lots of kids seemingly eager to learn. The art class has made masks and oragami and amazing pictures of their houses that have 3D elements I never could have mastered in elementary school. PE is completing their soccer unit and finding that the girls here are more than willing to play despite some misgivings on the part of our roommates. English had a review day on Friday that went quite well - the high schoolers have even been taught "what's up," "yo," and a few well chosen pick-up lines. In science class, animals were the focus on Friday, which is quite a cool topic considering I know almost no animal names in the foreign languages I took.

Yet it might be the 5:45am runs I enjoy the most. When I start, there's a mist all over that is the promise of the day's humidity, and the small dirt road I run on still has puddles from the daily thunderstorm of the night prior. The people watch me, a white girl in running clothes, and laugh and sometimes yell hello (which I must admit still irritates me). Sometimes dogs threaten to jump up and bite me but they always seem to lose interest at the last moment. Half an hour later, I return to the guest house sweaty but satisfied and ready to face the day.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Ben Tre Beginnings

We have now been in Ben Tre for four days, and I'd say we are mostly settled in. To begin this post, I must say a huge HAPPY BIRTHDAY to Kristi, who turns 20 today :-) The problem of how to make a cake in the middle of Vietnam has been on the back of my mind since I found out we had a birthday to celebrate this summer. We ended up buying some angel food like circular cakes and layering them with strawberry jam, ice cream, and bananas. Though perhaps not quite up to par with the cakes I make back at school, I think we did pretty well sans oven and we will celebrate in the Karaoke room tonight (ssssh Kristi doesn't know!)

Our first two days of work showed us Americans how in shape we've gotten...or at least how much easier it is to engage in manual labor in a shaded area for only half the day. We've been divided into two groups with each group in charge of building a house. Before getting here, countless interviews were done with prospective families. The house that I am working on has a tragic story: the woman who owns the house is blind. When her son was born, he had normal sight but at age 8, his sight began to worsen. She used up all her money on what she thought was an operation that would save his eyes. The operation did not work. Now the son has a (super cute) daughter of his own who currently appears to have normal eye sight. Time will tell.

Day 1 we took down the old "house" which was basically wooden and aluminum planks tied together with metal wires. On day two, we began to make the trenches for the foundation and move the materials to the work site. It became immediately apparent how much easier the conditions are heard compared to Quang Tri - the ditches we dug in under an hour in Ben Tre would've taken an entire day of work in Quang Tri. Transporting the materials was repetitive but straight forward enough - more 50kilo bags of cement to use. Come Monday, we will begin making cement...our favorite.

In the afternoons, we have begun teaching. Our dance class was a pretty big hit on day one, and we have planned a "kbop" (Korean pop music) dance that is easy but super fun. On Friday, dance had its day off, so I got the chance to see how English, Science, Gym, and Art were doing. In art class, the kids LOVED the origami lesson. In gym, football (soccer) drills and scrimmages let the kids release some energy. The English class was surprisingly easy for the kids - they already know many basic words and phrases as well as the numbers and letters. Science is planning some cool experiments for this week including a volcano (baking soda and vinegar of course).

This weekend, we went to a coconut candy "factory" which is really a big house with lots of kids and adults wrapping and molding these caramel/fudge/taffy like concoctions that I am absolutely addicted to. In the afternoon, we played football (soccer) against some of the locals, and for the first time in DukeEngage history, we won!! And let me say that after watching first the USA and then Germany lose in the World Cup, this win was much appreciated.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Planning for Ben Tre

We leave for Ben Tre on Wednesday and we've begun preparing for the teaching that will occur there.

We will be teaching: English, PE/Health, Science, Arts/Crafts, and Dance/Music. We will also be building two houses for two very poor families, one of which has both a blind mother and a blind son. Our daily schedule will look like this:
6:00am breakfast
6:30am bike to work site (5km)
7:00am begin work
11:30am lunch break
2:00pm first period of teaching
3:00pm second period of teaching
4:00pm bike back to guest house (5km)
6:00pm dinner

Feelings about the project in Quang Tri suggest that many participants felt the project to be less than beneficial for the inhabitants. The projects were very aesthetic and without the teaching component, we did not feel as though we really interacted with the people. Hopefully people will feel more fulfilled from this project. The question remains the purpose of this program (and really any Duke Engage) to help others? Or is it really more to give us fortunate kids from the states an "experience"?

Two Firsts

So here's a quick overview of some firsts:

In the world of culinary delights, I've tried weasel, wild boar, deer meat, intestines, pigs ear, and now duck embryo! This concoction tastes a lot like eating an egg halfway between soft-boiled and hard-boiled...but there's definitely something else present. I think the best way to eat it would night. when you can't see what you are eating. Connie tried it the night before me and she quite enjoyed it, thus encouraging me to take the leap. We both got some the next day, and she admitted that it was better when she couldn't see it...couldn't see the black blob that definitely isn't in your typical egg...the black blob that. has. feathers. which I ate. oy. Nevertheless it was a good experience

Back in Saigon, I finally got the chance to ride on a motor bike! My new roommate took me to the market today. How was the experience? Well I know for sure I would never want to drive one myself....especially in Saigon where the traffic is out of control. That said, it was awesome. I wore a dashing yellow helmet and away we went. It's crazy how there is nothing keeping you down except gravity and I must admit I was gripping the hand hold located behind my butt rather tightly, but I definitely wasn't ready for my ride to end!

Today we also went shopping and I bought a Germany Jersey...gearing up for the Germany-Spain match! Go Deutschland! (yes we are avidly following the world cup even here...we stayed up til 1:30am to watch the USA game and even though we lost, we're still following the excitement). Kevin bought a Spain jersey to rival mine and Garrett decided to buy local and purchased a very awesome looking Vietnamese jersey. Obviously we will be wearing these jerseys when we play soccer against the locals in Ben Tre next weekend

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Quang Tri in Pictures

The completed small road

The completed fence
Students in their classrooms
During the closing ceremony - cotton eyed joe
Our roommates with their certificates
A typical classroom
Hot Pot!
In front of the pagoda in Hue
The forbidden palace in Hue
The caves!
Boat ride to the caves
Opening ceremony - The Americans!
Vietnamese sunset
Seafood meal!
The Beach near Quang Tri where we went during the first week

Cultural Exchange

The final day in Quang Tri also featured a cultural exchange with the students of Quang Tri. This exchange had a showcase of American and Vietnamese performances. The students of Quang Tri performed two traditional dances, a song, and an awesome boy band like rendition of a popular Vietnamese song and dance. Our roommates prepared an American Idol/America's Got Talent skit featuring Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, and Batman. We performed two songs - Hakuna Matata and I Want it That Way - accompanied by Jing on the guitar and Eric on the harmonica and two dances - Billie Jean and Cotton Eyed Joe. After the performance, we split into teams and got to interact with six different classes. Various activities included teaching Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes, Simon Says, and Rock, Paper, Scissors.

The dance portion was especially fun. For Billie Jean, we used the electric slide as a basic movement and then finished with a soul train. Highlights from the soul train included human bowling ball and pins and Tony putting his shirt over his head for no apparent reason. Cotton Eyed Joe featured the traditional line dance as well as some Texas hoe-down and culminated in Mark and I sharing in a little duet. Do-si-do and spins ended with Mark literally flipping me. Let's just say, we kicked it.

Goodbye Quang Tri

On Friday, we had our closing ceremony in Quang Tri. I was selected to read a speech on behalf of the American students and one of the Vietnamese roommates named Tao translated for the Vietnamese public. The following includes excerpts from that speech

It's strange to sit and reflect back three weeks to our first few days in Quang Tri. We were so unfamiliar with each other, with this town, and with the task at hand.

The night before biking to the elementary school for the first time, we divided into two groups: the painters and the fishpond fence slash small road builders that I have discussed in previous posts. Our choice to be in our respective groups was largely arbitrary and unknowing of what exactly of what our jobs would entail.

Before we knew it, the school was surrounded by a freshly painted sunny yellow fence. At the same time, the builders had become concrete making pros completing the small road, the bike station, and the fish pond fence which is now eagerly awaiting paint in order to match the bridge that is now a whimsical blue and yellow.

We've learned a lot from these three weeks together. We've dealt with language barriers and stomach flues and tonsilitis. We've had to redo work we've already completed and add unplanned projects to our task list. We've learned who among us are good leaders, who to go to when the work is tough and we need someone to make us smile, who can carry a 50 kilogram bag of cement, who is the best at painting circles, who will always be first to work (and who will always be last).

Before I got here, I received a letter from my roommate in which she addressed me as "friend." "It may seem strange" she wrote "that I am calling you friend before we have even met, but I'm confident that is what we will become." Her words couldn't have been more accurate. We are now accomplished builders and painters. But more importantly, we are friends - friends of Quang Tri and friends of each other.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Week Two Building

These past four days, we finally have seen progress on our projects. We have made so much cement that I wish we had given up meals for a week in order to hire a cement mixer truck. We used our amazing masonry skills to place concrete blocks on top of the concrete filled trenches we dug last week. We cleared the grass where the small pond will be and mixed more concrete.

Meanwhile the painters finished sanding and added a base white layer and are now working on a layer of yellow paint. Everything is looking quite exciting!

Some things to note:
Are are projects really worthwhile? It feels like these are projects that our coordinator suggested rather than projects of true necessity. A lot of people are disappointed we didn't end up getting to teach English here (as the original plan suggested) and feel a disconnect from the project

The sexist attitude of the contactor. Particularily in the building group it often feels as though the contactor is quick to correct the girls, letting the guys do whatever they want. In actuality, the girls are just as strong as some of the guys and work just as hard as them. The frustration of this is furthered by the language barrier.

Just over one more week in Quang Tri and then a short stop back in Saigon before heading to Ben Tre!

Weekend Excursion

This past weekend, as I mentioned, we visited the 17th parallel and a series of tunnels and caves. It was a really nice change of pace from the small town of Quang Tri, and we got to end it all with some awesome wild meats! Weasel, wild boar, and deer proved to all be delicious and I especially enjoyed the weasel which was in a spicy sauce and served with fresh out of the oven bread.

The 17th parallel and the tunnels were the educational part of the day. The tunnels are a huge series of rooms that the communists lived in during the war. It's amazing that people lived there - babies were even born within. Many of the guys had to duck the entire time we were within and it was super dark and slippery. I do not think I would have enjoyed living there. The actual parallel is pretty unimpressive but marked by a bridge we unceremoniously walked across.

After an uninspiring lunch in which the chickens were killed literally right next to us, we headed to some breath-taking caves. We first went through the wet caves via small boats and then climbed over 600 steps to see the dry caves. The Vietnamese people have all sorts of stories about what the shapes of the caves mean and thus we saw faries and dragons and even the palaces of kings and queens.

Sunday we "kicked it" in Quang Tri, enjoying the time to decompress before heading back to work on Monday. We ate some good food - a crepe like concoction filled with sprouts and shrimp and dipped in peanut sauce and a udon noodle soup with fish - and got some quality relaxing done.

This coming weekend we head to Hue City for what's sure to be a fun time in our roommates' university city.

Friday, June 18, 2010

How to Build a Fish Pond

So in the previous post I told you a bit about Quang Tri. Here is a summary of our manual labor so far...

We are working on renovating an elementary school and we have four major projects: sanding and painting the fence surrounding the property, sanding and painting ten classrooms, building a small road that connects the school to the hand washing station, and rebuilding a fence surrounding a fish pond on the property. We have divided into two groups: the painters and the fence builders/small road builders. I am a member of the builders and so this post will focus on that. I will try to get some details about the painting process for a subsequent post.

So far we have spent 12 hours in the blazing Quang Tri sun. I am sunburned and covered in scratches and bug bites. Thank goodness for sneakers and long pants and baseball caps. Yet my arms are a battle field.
Day one we spent the morning taking down the old bamboo fence. You'd think for a fence that is supposedly unstable this would be easy however many of the posts took enormous upper body strength and a movement I liked to call "churing the butter" for several minutes to remove the posts. This was further agitated by large weeds and bushes surrounding us. We then had to stack these pieces of bamboo in several large piles. Swarming with ants and bugs, this is probably when I acquired most of my bites.
The afternoon was spent removing the aforementioned weeds and bushes using very basic equipment: standard garden hoes and sithes. We got down and personal with the weeds and were all exhausted by the end. However we finished the project for day one

Day two we had to building a 20 inch wide by 25 inch deep trench around the entire pond using the hoes from day one, a few picks, and two shovels. These tools continually broke and had to be repaired due to the extremely hard and dry dirt we were working with. This was a pretty painful task and it took the entire day, especially because the contractor told us the wrong place to build one side of the trench and we had to redo it in the afternoon. Morale was a bit low by the end of the day with sore backs and blistered hands. However, we once again finished our task for day two. The sunburn I got on day one did not get any worse but of course I acquired a new one. We all got a bit snappy with each other towards the end, but I think this project will in the end be quite rewarding - we are aiming for a white fence that matches an already existing bridge on the property....and we only have 8 more days to complete the project!

Engaging Begins

Now you may be wondering at the title of this post..."haven't you been engaging for two weeks," you may ask. The answer quite simply, is no. We have been chilling in Ho Chi Minh City then bonding with Vietnamese roommates in Quang Tri. But starting Thursday we finally began engaging.

A few words on Quang Tri: It is a super quaint town. I think a lot of us like it better than Saigon as it is quieter, less polluted, and just more homey feeling. That said, half the days there are blackouts and there is no wireless in our guest houses and it's super hot and buggy. I am always sweating...always. But our roommates are great and we've been bonding over cards and games and questions about relationships and differences between American and Vietnam and riding our bikes together and swimming and eating together. One huge difference between here and Saigon is that the white kids get stared at. All. the. time. We are told we are beautiful and tall and funny looking and fat and we are poked and shouted "Me" at (this means American in Vietnamese and is spelled My with an accent over the y) or "Hello" or "What is Your Name?" It's rather surprising because staring here seems to be far from offensive where as in America we are taught not to stare. I guess we are pretty strange looking. Brown curly hair? Unheard of. Six feet tall boys? Giants! But everyone that we do talk to or that does speak English has been super nice and we've been enjoying sampling Che (a sweet soup) and other smoothies at local cafes (I got one with mangos, avocados, dragon fruit, pineapple, condensed milk, and ice that you crush yourselves).
Tomorrow we will go tour some caves and the 47th parallel to further our education about how this area was affected by the war (we've already seen several museums and citadels and fortresses in the area on a bike tour we took at the beginning of the week). We are all looking forward to a break from the manual labor of the past few days (see next post)

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Entertainment in Saigon

First - I learned today that the five second rule definitely doesn't apply in Ho Chi Minh City. Not the cleanest city for sure. I finally bought a "meat bun" (my name, not theres) today. It's this light and airy and sticky dough surrounding meat and egg...half way through I dropped it on the floor. When I picked it up, it was covered in brown yuck. Sad.

But today's post is actually about what we did for fun these past 10 days in Vietnam

1. Dam Sen Water Park - We traveled from district one where we live an hour away by bus to one of the coolest water parks I've ever been to. There were steep slides, slides you rode down in on rafts, slides you rode down in a yoga mats, closed slides, slides that dropped you through a funnel, a lazy river, a wave pool, and a zipline that drops you in a pool. We had an awesome two hours getting wet wild and crazy. Being a bit far from the main part of Saigon, not many foreigners were there, and we were definitely featured in several home videos (mentioned in the previous post). Also, wearing a bikini in Saigon is definitely not that common. Note to self: bring a one piece.

2. Laser Tag - Near the airport is a truly awesome experience: Laser tag. Is it different than the American version? Only minorly. We could split into as many teams as we wanted and we had the whole place to ourselves, but all in all, it was laser tag at it's best. Our Vietnamese teacher invited us and we split into three groups of four: Vietnamese, non-Vietnamese Asians, and the White Kids. White Kids dominated the board with the two highest scorers included on that team (myself included) but we all had an awesome time. And we were sweaty. Quite sweaty.

3. Karoake. For a small fee, Vietnamese and foreigners alike can rent a private room with there very own karoake machine. We ordered some drinks and got the party hopping. Favorite songs included Smooth Criminal, Gangster's Paradise, Sweet Caroline, and Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.

And how much does entertainment in Vietname cost? The water park was 90,000 = approx. 4.5 US dollars. The laser tag was 40,000 = approx. 2 US dollars. The karoake was 14,000 = approx .75 US dollars. We definitely know how to have fun.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Vietnamese-American Relations

Beginning with a movie viewing of "A Dream in Hanoi" and continuing with visits to both the Ho Chi Minh City museum and the War Remnants Museum, we've been discussing Vietnamese-American relations a lot this past week in Ho Chi Minh City.

The movie we watched was sort of an introduction to some of the issues we may face with our Vietnamese roommates. We all received letters from our roommates yesterday, and there is a lot of excitement and anxiety floating around. How good is their English? What if I do something culturally insensitive? What will we do together? In the movie we watched, we learned that Vietnamese people have very different viewpoints of "face" and "personal space." Honor is quite important to them and hugging and lots of public displays of affection are not so common. On the other hand, they may have no qualms about standing quite close to you on the bus or taking your stuff without asking. I'm curious to see which of these generalizations play out with my roommate. I'm hoping she will be able to show me her family and we will be able to communicate to each other about the differences about our lives and cultures in a positive manner.

The two museums we visited were a subtle reminder that we are living these ten weeks in a communist country. Propaganda was definitely present. In the Ho Chi Minh Museum, giant murals of the northern communist Vietnamese liberating adoring southern citizens. The War Remnants museum was formally called the Museum of American War Crimes. Although the name was changed when relations improved, many of the exhibits are still very anti-American. One entire room was full of pictures of Ho Chi Minh doing charitable acts. A photography exhibit on the top floor had a balanced viewpoint as the photography featured was by an American photographer. Regardless, morale was low as we walked through. I was overcome by the pointlessness of the war, and many of us expressed our discomfort of being American in this museum specifically.

In other news, the white students on the trip have officially been documented in two family videos and a not so discreet candid photo. We leave for Quang Tri on Friday, and we are promised that we will be stared at even more. Our program advisor Alyce informed us today that it is raining buckets there...get ready for culture shock part two.

Needed: Two part rain suit for Quang Tri.....and tailgate

Friday, June 4, 2010

Things We've Eaten So Far (aka the first two days in HCMC)

After arriving in HCMC late Wednesday night (which was highly confusing to me as I was convinced it was still Tuesday), we tried to sleep only to find ourselves wide awake at 4am. Jet lag will do that to you. Luckily, we were meeting at 7am for our first Vietnames breakfast. We are in HCMC for 10 days (until June 11), and we will then be headed to the rural city Quang Tri in the central region. This time in HCMC is a time to learn the language (3 hours per day, Mon-Fri = 18 hours total...what do I remember from the first three hours? Xin Chao meaning hello. That's about it), get over jet lag, and explore! We've taken it to least as far as food is concerned. Here's what we've sampled:

Vietnames Pho - noodle soup traditionally with beef. I got chicken. It's typically a breakfast food and is yum. I added spicy stuff to make it spicy. Who knew eating hot soup in hot weather could be so satisfying
Vietnamese pancake filled with sprouts and shrimp (kinda looks like a very yellow crepe)
Morning glory with garlic (related to the spinach plant)
These rice paper crackers with shrimp and pork
Snails! (They really reminded me of clams/oysters and I quite enjoyed them. I believe I was in the minority)
Spring rolls with shrimp in pork and a yummy peanut sauce
Egg rolls that you wrap in lettuce with vermicelli noodles and mint or basil (a garnish for lots of the dishes)
Shrimp in a coconut. You have to peel them yourself. Eating the head is optional
Lemongrass Chicken
Chicken with ginger sauce
A whole red snapper...yes the head too
Durian and strawberry and taro and pineapple ice cream
Vegetable curry...I really have no idea what was in it and some of the fake meat was pretty frightening
Drinks - iced tea is served with everything instead of water and it's obviously boiled so foreigners are willing to drink it, passionfruit juice, coconut milk served out of a coconut, and a variety of smoothies

As a person that generally stays away from pork and beef, I've been trying to eat the chicken. It's pretty different here because it's not cultivated like in the states. It is thus more chewy and there's a greater bone to meat ration. It's taking some getting used to...We've generally been going to super "expensive" restaurants at 5 dollars a person so we're trying to find some more street food (5 dollars a day is a general amount that you can get by on. Lots of street food is 50 cents or less!) Today's lunch? We're looking for Banh mi!

So what have we been doing besides eating? We've visited a few museums and watched a movie or too...but that's a post for another day.

Vietnamese Spring Roll recipe (my favorite!) Most of the ones here have pork but I like this one with just shrimp

Monday, May 31, 2010

The Night Before Take-Off

Welcome to the official DukeEngage in Vietnam blog! It's Monday, May 31st - the last day of May and my last evening in America for the next ten weeks. Tomorrow I will be meeting up with the rest of my program to start what could just be that life changing event that we all seem so anxious to have. 

There are 10 of us Duke students meeting in Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon) tomorrow: 6 guys and 4 girls; 9 from all over American and one from Asia; 1 senior (that's me), 4 juniors, and 4 sophomores. We all chose this program for different reasons. I have this habit for pushing myself out of my comfort zone, and the fact that half my answers to recent questions about my trip have been "I'm not sure yet" show that this time I've really out-done myself. Do I know the rest of the people on the trip? Well I met them and we bonded during orientation but no, not really. I have no doubt though that in 10 weeks, I will know them and they will know me...and hopefully we will all know ourselves a little better (ahh I promise to try and limit the cliche)

Things I'm excited for: THE FOOD, getting hands on building experience, trying new foods, getting to know 9 new Duke students, getting to live with a Vietnamese roommate, trying out some Vietnamese cooking, the promise of a beautiful landscape, oh and have I mentioned the food???

Things I'm anxious about: the plane ride - definitely the plane ride, the awkward getting to know you questions and don't really know you yet photos, not being able to talk to my parents and friends from home easily, stomach issues, and loving it so much I never want to leave

Some links!
I found this recipe on one of the food blogs I read (warning this blog will contain an obscene amount of references to food) and I can't wait to see how authentic it is. Vietnamese food has some awesome French influences due to the French occupation of the area and thus we get these sandwiches served on a French baguette! 

And here's an some recommendations on how to be comfortable on the long plane ride tomorrow. Dude, I hope there's an in-flight exercise video.