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