Stick A Fork in Me

Because I’m DONE! Tomorrow morning I will go with Chi Vy, the program assistant to print off my 45 page ISP paper and then to submit both my paper and presentation to my academic director. I cannot believe my ISP period is over and that daunting paper and presentation over with.

(Celebratory dance)

To briefly update you all about my last few weeks during ISP, I moved out to Binh Duong for two weeks. The first week I stayed at a guesthouse, it was quite lonely to say the least and I felt pretty homesick. It did not help that Thanksgiving fell that same week. I realized I absolutely love the holiday season especially because of the time you get to spend with family. My prayers asking to fill the lack of company were answered Friday morning when my adviser Dr. Danh introduced me to a family friend who worked in the center right next to the one I was interning at. Dr. Thanh went to high school with my uncle and heard from my dad that I was doing research in BD. He graciously welcomed me to stay at his home with his family. In the spur of the moment, I decided to move in with them, so I got a mini-homestay during my ISP time as well. They live in Lai Thieu, a village within Binh Duong, coincidentally my dad’s childhood hometown. I was able to visit the church that my dad grew up going to and walked about the fresh market where his childhood home still stands. I enjoyed being about to explore the area that my dad spent his childhood and learning more about my dad’s side of the family. And of course, the company and home-cooked meals were a plus!

Every morning and afternoon Dr. Thanh would take me to the Health Prevention center, it wasn’t out of his way seeing that his work office was right next door. I finished my interviews within 3 days and spent the next week (with lots of free time) analyzing the data, doing literature review, writing my paper, and preparing my presentation slide. Needless to say, I got a bulk of my ISP assignment done which was really nice after returning to HCMC and not having to worry about working on my paper. It was definitely bittersweet finishing my case study time in BD. I met some great people at the Health Prevention center, and hope in the future I can return to help them in any way that I can.

Last day at the Health Prevention Center

So sad..

Finishing a bulk of my work also gave me the time to visit my mom’s side of the family in Da Lat, by far one of my favorite places in Vietnam. My friend, Jenny, tagged along with me too. It was a great time, a well deserved break from ISP work, and cherished memory of meeting more extended family. I especially loved listening to stories about my mom and uncles when they were younger. My mom and her brothers grew up in Saigon, actually near Ben Thanh Market in District 1, but during the summer, to beat the heat of the city, my grandparents would send them to stay with their aunts in Da Lat. The oldest aunt lived on a small farm with three boys. I got to meet these..I guess I would call them uncles…while in Da Lat. They were so helpful and took care of everything for me and Jenny. They are also really funny.

A memory to cherish forever

Picking up my uncle’s adorable kids from school

Where my mom spent her childhood summers

The family took us to see the major tourist sites around Da Lat and surrounding area. The city reminded me a lot of Asheville. The weather was cool. Air was fresh. And the sights both of natural and of the city itself were beautiful.

Cable Car ride over the mountains to one of the largest pagodas in Da Lat

Cable car perspective

Pagoda for visitors, the larger one was restricted for visitors :(

“Roller Coaster” ride, surprisingly more fun than it looked at first

Fun for all ages!

It was like Disneyworld, except there’s a monkey instead of Mickey

My Great-aunt

Prenn Falls

Lang Biang Mountains

At the peak of Lang Biang

Interestingly designed house

It was like I stepped into a scene of Alice in Wonderland

Saturday morning was presentation day! I was nervous about the presentation… especially since that I really had not practiced. And we had a number of special guests like the relations teams from the SIT headquarters sitting in for the morning session….when I was presenting. But I got it done and heard overall good feedback about my presentation and findings.

Presentation Day with special guests from the SIT headquarters

Presentation Day is over!

I think my classmates would agree with me saying that the we still cannot believe that this semester is over. Done. ISP submitted. A whole semester in Vietnam over with. Though a majority of us have a few travel plans before officially heading back to America, we all are looking forward to reuniting with family, friends, and the comforts of homes but we know that we will truly miss Vietnam. Goodbyes are always difficult. I have learned a tremendous amount about myself within these short four months, I cannot even begin to explain.

Vietnam, the places I visited, the people I interacted with, the extended family I met, and the friendships I formed, will always hold a special place in my heart. I know in the future I will return to my que huong – my home.

Now…about those travel plans…off to Cambodia and Thailand on Wednesday then home just in time for Christmas!

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Mother Nature’s Bakery

I realized the other day that I have not done a “food post” in a while, by now you have finished digesting that Thanksgiving spread, so let me fill you up with some interesting fruits you can find throughout Vietnam and southeast Asia.

Purple Mangosteen

A rare find anywhere in the States, rumor is you might find it in your local Chinatown…this juicy fruit was new to me. A few people in my group had been on the lookout for this elusive treat the first few days of the semester. Once they found it and shared it with the group, I understood what all their fuss was about. After you getting through the thick purple rind (either by carefully squeezing the mangosteen until it breaks at the mid-line or using a knife), at the center is a white sweet flesh that looks like a garlic clove. The consistency is grape-like but smoother and sweeter tasting.

The sweet flesh inside the mangosteen

Custard Apple

Custard Apple

Custard apple is light green and heart shaped with a bumpy rind, the ripe ones are slightly yellow with brown spots. First you have to peel off the thin green rind, the first layer of flesh is white, creamy, and sort of granular, the next layer are little juicy fruit segments with long black seeds inside. Though it was annoying to spit out many seeds, I found its fruit agreeable, though it was hard to keep it for many days after purchase. In Chile, I remembered beating the heat of Santiago’s sun with a custard apple (chirimoya) smoothie!

Durain

Durian – “The King of Fruits”

Where do I begin with the infamous durian?. There are many odd characteristics of durian, the outer layer is a green, spiky husk (got to have a knife with you to get to the flesh). It grows on trees too, so you do not want to catch up a durian tree when the fruits are ready to drop. Inside are lobes (picture lobes of a lung) of a yellow, creamy flesh. It’s not too sweet, and I really can’t compare it to any other fruit. All around Vietnam, you can find durian flavored ice cream, cookies, candies, durian cake fillings, and durian sweet rice. It’s the fruit of the south, I rarely saw it in the north. Oh, and don’t judge a fruit by its smell. The reaction to its smell varies from person to person, I find it tolerable but other people can immediately catch the scent from a million miles away. I’ve heard the smell being comparable to onions or smelly socks. I think my tolerance for the smell and taste has to do with growing up eating the fruit with my mom. Either you are going to love it or hate it, but please at least this “King of Fruits” a try.

The durian magic inside

The durian magic inside

Tamanrid

Tamarid

No, it’s not a huge brown pea pod. Crack out the shell of the tamarind and you will meet a golden-brown prune/date-like consistency flesh with a sweet-n-sour taste.

Tamarind

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ISP Beginnings…and Bonus Traveler Tips

Before I begin sharing my ISP topic, I got a good traveler’s story for you. Definitely a good lesson for those are you still abroad and those of you about to embark.

During my ISP time spend in Ha Noi, I had to travel by taxi to and from the various places around the city to conduct my interviews. I usually go with the walking option because a) its cheaper, b) its a good way to get to know the city better, and c) exercise! However, Ha Noi is a enormous, so in some cases I had to take a taxi. One afternoon’s taxi ride from the hospital though has made me more cautious of traveling alone. There are many taxi companies in Hanoi than HCMC with different ranges of prices…so I decided to take a cheaper one, though I knew it was not one that that my program director recommended. I had taken the same company the night before, so I thought it was harmless. Anyways, the taxi driver struck up a conversation with me about where I was from and what I was doing in Ha Noi. In these situations, I try to give as little information as possible hoping that the driver would get the point that I was not interested in talking. Somehow the conversation lead to talking about family and relationships, I learned that he was about to be engaged. Then the conversation turned a bit sour from my perspective:

Taxi Driver: “Are you scared of being kidnapped by a Vietnamese man?”
Me: “urr…hmm..What?” I thought he was implying if I was worried about having my heart stolen by a Vietnamese, i.e. falling in love here…but…
Taxi Driver: Chuckling, “Are you scared of being kidnapped by a taxi?”
Me: With images of Taken rushing through my mind, “Well, no because I hear it doesn’t happen a lot in Vietnam…”

Quickly I pulled out my map and looked at where were we…he was going in a different direction than the previous driver and it seemed like we were going away from the Old Quarter area. I immediately asked where we were and why he was driving me in that direction. He replied that he was going to my street but had to go this way because the street was a one-way for cars. I told him that my previous taxi fares were around 80000VND and if I had to pay more I would call his company. He argued that I must have taken a different company and I told him that his company was one of the cheapest around.

I started to pull my phone out to text my roommate, but saw that he was starting to turn into more familiar streets. I made it to my hostel, he only made me pay 100000VND of the 130000VND tab, I was frustrated by that but glad to get out of the car. All in all, I have done some not-so-smart things being a single traveler around the city (Sorry Mom, Dad, and International Studies Office!) But I am more aware and cautious then before.

Lessons:
1. Don’t take a taxi your program did not recommend, even in the recommended ones, be alert.
2. Carry a map of the city with you, you never know when you are going to need to use it. I constantly use my map especially if I choose to walk.
3. Let someone know approximate times you are leaving and returning.
4. Be cautious about the amount of information you reveal. I have found that hearing about American students studying in Vietnam is odd especially since they hold American education on a pedestal.
5. Be familiar with the language. You can’t assume someone who drive mostly foreigners around all day knows English as well as you hope.

I am one and half weeks into my Independent Study Project period. It has been an exciting, stressful, challenging, and learning experience so far. So what’s an ISP? For you non-SITers, it is an individual project conducted during the last 30 or so days of the semester based on researching and studying a particular interest.

For my project, I decided to research the prevalence of diabetes in the urban population, particularly paying attention to the measures the Ministry of Health, community, healthcare providers, and the individual were raising awareness about diabetes. Throughout the past two months in Vietnam, I have been meeting with my academic director as well as with the many other contacts she had in HCMC to help me direct my project.

Last week, as everyone else departed from Ha Noi, my friend Sarah and I remained. Sarah is researching about the organic movement from the perspective of the farmers (neat right?). I was busy meeting and interviewing researchers at the National Institute of Nurition, the WHO Western Pacific office, and medical doctors of the National Hospital of Endocrinology. By coincidence, last week was also diabetes awareness week for the hospital. I came across a press release online about activities the hospital in partnership with a Danish Healthcare company, Novo Nordisk, were hosting at the city’s largest park, Cong Vien Thong Nhat. They had booths set up for the public to get a free screening and counseling. The awareness week concluded on the 14th, World Diabetes Awareness Day, with a walk! It was quite exciting to have some many resources and contacts at my hands especially because up until the end of the grand excursion, I really had no idea where I would be for the ISP period and who I would be able to talk to. One thing for sure is that I learned to be more flexible and assertive with asking for help and contacts. I was able to get in contact with a doctor that helped set up the event and serves on the board for the National Diabetes Prevention Program. He and the many other people I met provided me with a plethora of information that I am reading and sorting through.

Changing Diabetes (R) Village — A partnership between the National Hospital of Endocrinology and Novo Nordisk

Booth for any member of the public to begin thier free screening process

Awareness Poster in the Hospital waiting area — Diabetes is a silent killer.

In the midst of beginning our projects, Sarah and I still made time to do fun stuff around the city. Of course, trying more street food and bai hoi. Some last minute gift shopping for me. And we watched the new James Bond movie after eating hands down one of the best Indian food I have had (besides, my best friend’s mom’s cooking of course) Here a few pictures of Sarah and I hanging out with new friends in Ha Noi.

New Places, New Friends! The sweetest duo around.

Snails anyone?

So what about all the stress and challenge non-sense? Well, besides not being sure where I was going to be for the weeks after researching in Hanoi, I came across other challenges. One was explaining my objectives and being taken seriously. Many of the doctors did not think I had the capacity to understand diabetes and its effects, nor conduct a public health research like-project since I was just an undergrad. But after breaking the ice with my inital questions, I think I changed their minds. Many of the doctors welcomed me to stay longer or at least return in the near future. One even told me to email him whenever I got married. Kinda odd but I think that means he liked me. Also, though I am Vietnamese and pretty familiar with the language, this project has shown me just how much more I need to learn and practice. Right at the end of the excursion I finally got the green light to work under the advisement of a doctor in Binh Duong province, outside of HCMC. He has been conducting a long-term study of diabetes in the community through his position as the vice-director of the Center on Preventative Health.

After returning from Hanoi, I stayed with a friend for two nights in HCMC then took a taxi out to Binh Duong. Honestly, its kinda lonely out here but that only means my ISP paper will be finished before I know it. Early Monday morning, I met with Dr. Danh and was introduced to the director and several staff members and Tram, a recent graduate of the public health school in HCMC. She is helping me over the course of the next two weeks with my case study. The past two days have been spent learning about the purpose and services of the center and translating my interview questions into Vietnamese. I feel like I have written them a billion times now. Today (Wednesday) I began my interviews! Tune in soon for updates of how my interviews and the overall case-study portion of my project turned out….

FINALLY REUNITED in HCMC..Hot Pot Date. #LinhWithdrawals.

That girl is not impressed

My lovely sous chefs!

In the cooking zone. The dish didn’t turn out like I hoped but it was nice to finally be able to make my own meal

My newest friend in Binh Duong, Tram!

Oddest Meal: Sushi, Steamed Shrimp Dumplings, and French Pastries..oh the selection at the BigC

Happy Thanksgiving! I hope you eat lots of turkey, ham, stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, gravy, pumpkin pie, etc…and look this full (see below)

Belly too full.

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Ventures in the North: Ha Long Bay

I forgot about blogging this special edition to the northern ventures until now. Xin loi (Sorry)! The trip to Ha Long Bay was the last excursion before beginning ISP period. We left Ha Noi early last Thursday morning for the 4 hour drive to the bay, battling the typical traffic as well as a whole slew of other buses filled with eager visitors. We finally arrived at the harbor around noon. We got on our boat (which we had to ourselves!) and were on our way out to the bay area.

Ha Long Bay was declared a UNESCO Heritage Site in 1994 and is a member of the 7 new Wonders of the World. Neat right? I felt like I was on the set of Pirates of the Caribbean. “Ha Long” means descending dragon. The Vietnamese give this site its namesake because according to legend, Gods sent dragons down to help the Vietnamese defend the coastline, these dragons spewed out jewels and jade to build a wall of defense. The “jewels” and “jade” are the 1000s of islets and islands in that rise about the surface of the water.

After lunch we docked at a floating market to get kayaks. Nancy and I (the canoeing duo of Lotus Lake) paired up again! As we were paddling around the bay, I quickly realized my arms were not cut out for kayaking, I think they are still sore! We curiously checked cave-like entrances and discussed our excitement and qualms about beginning our ISPs. Though Ha Long Bay is absolutely gorgeous, it’s hard not to ignore the results of high-traffic tourism at the site. Chip bags, candy wrappers, and drink bottles were floating around the bay waters tainted by tour boats’ pollute residue.

I actually visited this site before, and I have to say, the condition is slightly cleaner than I remember, but that might because during the summer there aren’t as many visitors. A few weeks ago, we had a lecture about sustainable tourism in Vietnam. The country is in a favorable location with a coastline, lakes, rivers, and mountains, 8% of their GDP comes from tourism, but the professor commented that the country needed to revamp the measures of utilizing their natural resources and natural sites as tourist attraction. There needs to be sustainable infrastructure built that protects the natural sites and is beneficial to the local people.

And here is what you have been waiting for…

Kayaking buddy!

Exploring

Some of the many curious entrances through the islets

Floating Fishing Village

Kissing Rocks

Exploring the caves

Departing the bay as the sunsets

Sunset

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Ventures in the North: Sa Pa

We arrived in Lao Cai around 6:30 then took a 45 minutes bus ride to Sa Pa, officially arriving in time for the hotel’s breakfast (a very welcomed sight for hungry, sleep-deprived college students). We couldn’t check into the hotel though because we were staying a homestay in the Ta Van Village that night. The lovely couple running the awesome hotel gave us two complimentary rooms to shower and catch a nap before our afternoon trek.

I have to admit, I didn’t always like hiking. My love-hate relationship emerge from excessive hiking trips as a Girl Scout balance by a fondness of the mountain air and waterfalls. So my rule is that at end of every hiking trip there must be a waterfall or awesome view. I got both. Check out the pictures for yourself. Blue Ridge Mountains cannot compare…

And the 7km trek begins

The perfect day

Hand woven and dyed fabric — this process can take up to two years!

Indigo residue from the drying fabrics

Endless Beauty

tourist pic!

We visited several ethnic minority villages. The first was Hmong in the Lao Chai village. We met with the farmer and his family. He showed us his water tank that SIT students built for his family a few semesters ago. One the issues the ethnic minority groups living in this area is access to clean water. They are isolated from the town system and the terrain of the mountains make it difficult to construct water pipes throughout the villages. Unfortunately, this year our program did not have enough funds to build another one for a different family, but we hope by next semester the target fund needed will be reached. We continued our trek to the Ta Van village where the Red Dao people live. We stayed the night in a group homestay in a traditional Red Dao Longhouse. It was like a big cabin with two floors. Usually the top floor is for storage of winter food saved from the harvest season. Some families however, can now afford to depend on food access all year round, so they host tour groups, utilizing the storage space as sleeping areas.

Kid with the purple boots. Master of racing bike wheels.

What I miss from home: wearing scarves in the Fall

The next morning we trekked to another village to visit a shaman and his family. We had a delicious lunch of fresh vegetables, grilled pork (not for me), and stick rice (my favorite!). Though I was very exhausted, the opportunity to spend time in the shadows of the beautiful Sa Pa Mountains and to interact with the local ethnic minority people was well worth the soreness I still feel in my legs.

Morning trek

Red Dao Shaman from the Giang Ta Ho Village

Steamed corn, fresh sliced tomatoes and cucumbers, grilled pork, and sticky rice. Yum. (well, not the pork for me)

Waterfall

On the last day in Sapa, a few classmates and I trekked for about an hour one morning to visit a Hmong elementary school. With the donations of the previous SIT group, we brought winter clothing for the kids. That morning was probably one of my favorite moments of my trip. The visit left a strong impression on me, and made me think about how much I have to be thankful for. This school is in dire need of a sanitary toilet, so my classmates and I along with the owners of the hotel are going to try to raise the money for the materials and construction of the toilets. Sometimes, I forget how a thing like a sanitary place to the use restroom is a luxury for a majority of people around the world. Think about if Milliken or Old Main didn’t have restrooms and you have to walk back to your apartment or dorm to use the restroom.

New sweaters for the elementary school children

The kids with there new sweaters! They were adorable and friendly!

We returned to Hanoi literally at dawn on November 7th, just in time to begin watching the results of the election! I have been spending the past few days leading up to the ISP period working on my final project and finishing my research proposal. I even began meeting with contacts in the city that could help me with my research. I’ll have to share my ISP in the next blog, because this one is getting long.

Whew.

Last shot

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Ventures in the North: Ha Noi

ISP period has officially begun! It’s unbelievable that my courses are finished, the grand excursion is over, and in less than a month I will be presenting my research project back in Ho Chi Minh City. But, I bet you are wondering what I have been up to in northern Vietnam right?

I arrived in Ha Noi on a late night flight on October 29th. My first impression of Vietnam’s capital was its phenomenal weather. I had been especially missing the Fall weather of the south when a cardigan is just enough to keep comfortable in the cool weather, so the surprisingly cooler breeze and lack of humidity was certainly embraced.

My accommodations were conveniently located in the “Old Quarter” and near the Hoan Kiem Lake. As you might guess, the area’s namesake is attributed to the preservation of the oldest buildings and road layout of Hanoi. You can easily get lost in this place. There are many little alley ways and if you don’t pay attention you will soon be on a street with a different name even though you haven’t turned a corner. A good landmark note to make as you explore are the types of merchandise and trades sold on each street. During the times of Old Ha Noi, vendors and those of certain trades would set up shops on streets together, today much of that tradition still holds true. For example, my hotel was located at the intersection of Hang Giay and Cau Go. Giay means shoes…and you can bet that almost every store on it street sold every sort of shoe you could think of. It was tempting to not purchase a pair of flats or even a pair of TOMS for ¼ o f the market price right outside the door of my hotel!

I found the Old Quarter to be a bit overwhelming at times though. The area has definitely become a tourist attraction so bars, clubs, and backpacker’s hostels are popping up like weeds. Needless to say, I ran into a lot of foreigners, mostly 20-somethings travelling with friends throughout Southeast Asia and large groups of retired Europeans and Japanese (they were not however, checking out the bar specials). Also will someone explain to me how people from different part of the world seem to know the “tourist” look includes a bucket hat, lots of khaki, a fat Cannon camera?

Oh and how could I forget to mention! In Hanoi, you can purchase one of the cheapest beers in the world. It’s called Bia Hoi. The beer is very light and goes bad within 24 hours there are no preservatives. You can’t purchase the beer bottled or canned. Traditionally, friends will get together for an afternoon at a Bai Hoi street vendor station, order finger foods like roasted peanuts, cheesesticks, fried dumplings, eggrolls, ect. and drink bai hoi. Cost…drumrolll..5,000…VND! Or about 25 cents.

Hanging out in the Old Quarter

They say the street food is the best in Ha Noi’s Old Quarter…can’t say I disagree. But seriously, every street has any sort of Vietnamese cuisine you like…and its cheap!

On an educational note….I have visited the Temple of Literature, the remains of the Royal Citadel (darn French for destroying it!), Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, and the Ngoc Son Pagoda that is beautifully nestled on the Hoan Kiem Lake. Like Hue, Hanoi has its own story. My program was lucky enough to have a well-known historian and professor of history from Hanoi University to lecture us about the history of Hanoi from its original establishment by the Ly Dynasty to its current phase. He then took us on a tour of the Temple of Literature and Royal Citadel. As we walked around students and other Vietnamese would stop and respectfully bow to the professor. I felt like I was with a celebrity. He had been teaching for the history department at the University for over 60 years!

Professor Le Van Lan with students that interrupted our tour with him at the Temple of Literature.

Temple of Literature — where candidates who passed their exams received Mandarin title from the emperor.

Thanh Long Citadel — Reconstructed and restored after its destruction by the French

Ho Chi Minh Tomb — Unfortunately, we were not able to go inside that day.

Friday evening I boarded the Hogwarts Express Vietnamese Train en route to the Sapa Mountains. Let me tell you, overnight train rides can either be good or bad. I was thankfully able to get sleep on the train but the rest of my classmates barely got two hours. You see, there are many factors prevent you from getting sleep – a) noisy train sounds b) stuffy rooms (A/C was barely working) c) the train stops randomly to pick up more passenger (but one stop was because it hit something…yikes!).

Bunk Buddies

Lovely Cabin-mates getting ready for a night’s sleep on the train

You got to read the next one to see if we make it….

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Huế: The Imperial City

Since Wednesday I have been juggling a medley of seeing the sights of Huế, completing a term paper on economic development, and beginning to design my independent research project. Though it may seem like a full plate, I actually finished both assignment early and had extra time to explore the city and do some souvenir shopping.

Hue by night

Huế was the captial of Việt Nam from 1802 – 1945 under the rule of the Nguyễn Dynasty. And no, not all of your Vietnamese friends with Nguyễn family names are related to this royal family. Though, sometimes I like to pretend that I am somehow related to the Lê dynasty. Interestingly, the Nguyễn family name became popular because people would claim the family name in order to protect themselves from persecution. Emperor Gia Long, the first king also ordered certain families to change their names especially if their family names were of his rivals. Here are some interesting facts about each of the Nguyễn Emperors:

13 Facts about the 13 Nguyễn Emperors

1. Gia Long had an 800 elephant troop as a part of his imperial citadel defense.
2. Minh Manh had 500 wives and concubines. He would sleep with 5 of them each night.
3. Thiệu Trị strongly suppressed Christian missionaries in Vietnam. He passed away before his edict to allow persecution of missionaries without trial was passed.
4. Tự Đức was the last king to rule independently, his successors will serve as puppet kings under the French.
5. Dục Đức ruled for three days.
6. Hiep Hoa committed suicide after signing the treaty that made Vietnam a colony of France.
7. Kiến Phúc, an adopted son of Tự Đức was poisoned by his adopted mother.
8. Hàm Nghi had been exiled to Algeria and married an Algerian French lady. In 2002, his daughter refused to allow the Vietnamese government to move her father’s remains from France to Huế.
9. Đồng Khánh is the great-grandfather of the Madame Nhu, the First Lady of Vietnam from 1955-1963.
10. Thành Thái was the first emperor to learn how to drive a car.
11. Duy Tân came to throne at the age of 7.
12. Khải Định means “auger of peace and stability.”
13. Bảo Đại passed away in 1997 in Paris, France where he is also buried. 4 of his 5 children are still alive, all residing in France today.

Imperial Citadel

Thursday, I visited the immense Imperial City surrounded by the Imperial Citadel that Emperor Gia Long began to construct and his son, Minh Mang completed. At the very heart of the city is the “Forbidden Purple City” mirrored after the Chinese’s Forbidden City. Only the emperor and his immediate family were allowed inside the complex. Wives and concubines were rarely allowed to leave. Surrounding the “Forbidden Purple City” were the living quarters of the queen mother, living quarters for the emperor’s children, the emperor’s throne room, the Royal Theater, and several temples devoted to the worship of deceased emperors and empresses. Only 30% of the complexes within the citadel remain intact or restored, the other 70% was lost during the war.

Inside the “Forbidden Purple City”

Trespassing in the “Forbidden Purple City” resulted in death! Oh well.

Preservation and restoration efforts are difficult because of lack of funding. There is also a lack of photograph records of the structures, so accurate reconstruction is difficult. The buildings and especially the citadel wall that encompasses the entire Imperial city were quite impressive. I remember visiting this site with my family the summer before I began college. I do not remember being as nearly interested or excited as I was this time around. I guess a few years of maturing and a liberal arts education positively changes one’s perspective about experiences like this.

Temple honoring 9 of the 13 Emperors

Saturday morning our group had the rare opportunity to meet with THE “Hue Historian,” Mr. Phan Thuận An. He is actually married to the niece of Emperor Khải Định. He and his wife live at the Temple of Princess Ngoc Son, seriously that’s the address on his business card. It was a cute yellow house with a breathtaking garden in the back. The quarter of the house where we listened to him lecture was where the atlar to the princess and her family was placed. On either side of the altar are many shelves filled to the brim with personal possession of the royal family, like toothpicks (why someone thinks to save those is my question), photographs, history books, and magazines that this home and Mr. Phan are featured in. With every historical article Mr. Phan presented, he was beaming with pride and pure excitement. He fully lives up to his title as the “Hue Historian” which such an extensive collection.

The Hue Historian and the Royal Ancestral Altar

(excuse the blurriness) Mr. Phan showing off a piece of his collection, a 1936 edition of National Geographic featuring photographs from Hue

He pointed out the many elements of feng shui that are incorporated into the garden’s design, down to the placement of certain stones and plants. Feng shui was highly incorporated into the design of the Imperial City as well. The City faces the river toward the mountains serving as the “screen” and on either side of the Citadel are two islands serving as the “Blue Dragon” and “White Tiger” protectors of the city.

Today, Nancy and I ventured south of Hue, about a 30 minutes drive from our hotel to check out Minh Mang’s Tomb. It was rumored to be the largest and most beautiful tomb in Hue. Traditionally, when the emperor passes away, his wives and concubines must go and live with his remains. Remember how many wives and concubines he had? (Refer to the facts above). I was anticipating huge building complex with his body lying in the middle and his 500 women locked inside the tomb till their own deaths. Scary. Being a part of the royal family doesn’t seem too appealing now does it?

I think I’ll be a mandarin for Emperor Minh Mang instead

The tomb is not what I anticipated. (Thank goodness for the sake of his 500 wives and concubines.) It’s actually very spacious with three “gates” leading to his burial altar. His first wife, the empress, is also worshiped at this altar. There were ponds and lots of land to roam around. Nancy and I contemplated what sort of activities his wives and concubines would do to occupy themselves besides worshiping at Minh Mang’s altar every day. And what happened to his 146 kids?

Minh Mang Tomb

Day trip to Lang Co Beach…on the eve of a typhoon coming toward Hue

Lang Co Beach…beautifully breathtaking

Thien My Pagoda (Heavenly Fairy Woman Temple)
Rumor is that if a couple visits this pagoda together, they will eventually break up…

Well, this ends my central Vietnam ventures. Tonight I’m catching a plane to Hanoi!

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Mỹ Sơn — Champa Hindu Temple Ruins

Tuesday morning, I visited Mỹ Sơn about an hour drive outside of Hội An. Central Vietnam’s history is closely tied to the Champa people who used to occupy the area until their governmental weakness forced them to move south as the emperor of Vietnam was expanding Vietnam’s area from the north. After arrival, we watched a traditional dance performance and then began a tour through the excavated and restored temples of the sites. Its hard to imagine that what I saw was only 10% of what was originally there. The Champa people practiced Hinduism so the motifs decorating their temples were depictions their Gods — Shiva, Brahma, and Vishnu. Unlike the open and wide spaces of a Catholic church or Buddhist temple, their temples are small, narrower, and do not have windows. All were constructed with red brick with one constructed by stone. Even the script of their language looked similar to Hindu script. Archaeologists believe that there were at least 70 temples built between the 4th and 14th centuries by Champa Kings for their own and the royal family’s usage. I was sadden knowing that much of this interesting site with the backdrop of beautiful mountains has been lost forever, but its encouraging that the Vietnamese has recognized the importance to preserve the remains.

Mỹ Sơn means Beautiful Mountains — I think the name fits

At the door of the “Entrance Room” that separates the mediation room and main temple

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A Step Back in Time – Hội An

Entrance into the Ancient Town

On December 4th, 1999, Hội An was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. What does that mean? Through the hard work of the local government and assistance from tourism experts, the town was able to preserve its ancient characteristics and implement sustainable tourism plans according to the criteria of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, Cultural Organization). The UNESCO site describes Hội An as

“… an exceptionally well-preserved example of a South-East Asian trading port dating from the 15th to the 19th century. Its buildings and its street plan reflect the influences, both indigenous and foreign, that have combined to produce this unique heritage site.”

The town by night, lit up by lanterns

I can speak to the preservation of this ancient town’s characteristics. It has influences of Vietnamese, Chinese, Champa, and Japanese culture. Many, if not all of the buildings are original; some had to be fixed and remodeled back to their original state during the process of attaining the title. The town is filled with lanterns of all shapes and sizes. These laterns adorn restaurants, shop-fronts, and hang from trees and lampposts as you walk or bike through the town. Farming land, fishing, and industry have little contribution in the economic activity of the area compared to tourism. That is one of the many important reasons the government officials of this town pushed to increase the attractiveness of this little ancient town and attain World Heritage status. Here, I have noticed a higher concentration of tourists hailing from Europe, Australia, China, Japan, and Korea, but unlike the types of foreigners in HCMC, I have come across more families with children and tour groups of retired couples venturing around Southeast Asia.

Paper boat wishes. Don’t let his cuteness deceive you. He knows he can get you to purchase a boat with all his cute gestures. See Exhibit A = Me purchasing one.

This town is truly unique. The buildings, town layout, and atmosphere here make me feel like I have stepped into another time period. It retains the business of the city yet feels slightly calmer because there aren’t hundreds of motorbikes, buses, and cars coming at you as you walk around the town. For the past two nights, I have been able to use bikes from the hotel to get around the town. Besides dodging a few cars and motorbikes on the main roads, the rest of the city is walker and bike rider friendly (and encouraged)! Sunday and Monday, I, a few friends, and our program assistant spent our evenings checking out the many tailor shops to order custom-made clothes. I got a gray blazer, leather flats, a dress, and two flannel-like shirts made. I also got some bowties made as gifts for friends and family. Monday we got to try on a few of the pieces to see if we needed anything adjusted, my blazer turned out great and I love my new flats!

Hội An Traditional Music Performance at the Culture House — With a orchestra of various traditional instruments, we watched several dance and song preformances.

First tailor piece of clothing from Lana’s. This is my assistant who helped me pick a design, choose fabric, and get measured. All the pieces we order were done by the next evening.

Sunday, we spent the morning and afternoon relaxing on Cham Island, a 20 minute speed boat ride from Hội An. Ironically, its fall break at Wofford, and while I missed the traditional trip to the mountains, I think a trip to the beach was a sweet trade-off. I also got to go snorkeling! There was a ton of baby jellyfish hanging around the coral reef, needless to say, we could avoid getting stunk. Slightly uncomfortable at first, but I got use to it. It was hard to clearly see the coral reef because of the monsoon season, but I did find a cute school of angelfish and a sea urchin. I wish I had a underwater camera to share my sightings!

Fall Break–Vietnam Style on Cham Island

Snorkeling off the coast of Cham Island. Little did we know that we would be jumping into a bath of stinging baby jellyfish, ouch!

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Time Flies — End of Homestay Period & Jetting Off for the Grand Excursion

**Previously started this on the 19th, but didn’t have time to upload it! Enjoy!

Time flies. Today I had my final in my Vietnamese language class. It was similarly difficult to the two previous exams however, I was not discouraged because I have seen great improvement in my language skills over the past 6 or 7 so weeks that I have been in Vietnam. Though my class is finish, I still plan to continue studying Vietnamese through reading the news, magazines, and books and through talking to the various people I will encounter especially during my independent study period.

This past Wednesday, my language teacher held class at a local bookstore/coffee shop. It reminded me of Barnes and Noble, they even had a membership card for discounts. We reviewed grammar rules and then delved into analyzing a poem by one of Vietnam’s famous poets/musicians – Trịnh Công Sơn. Over the 600 pieces of poems/songs he wrote, each can be categorized into a poem about love, the homeland, or destiny. We read a little background about him and excerpts from an interview he had before passing away in 2001. Mr. Trinh loved Vietnam—the people, natural landscape, lifestyle—and he wanted to capture his love through music. As he said in the interview, though he was growing old, the music he wrote will remain forever young.

Here’s the poem if you are interested in reading/translating it: http://www.trinh-cong-son.com/bietdaunguoncoi.html

My Vietnamese Language teacher — Chi Thuy. smart, patience, and beautiful inside and out!

After lunch, my classmates and I treated ourselves with a nice lunch at Au Parc, a recommended Mediterranean café. The café was busy-a good sign. We sat on the second floor in a brightly painted yellow walled room decorated ornately with Mediterranean designs and filled with colorful pillows. Everything on the menu looked delicious so narrowing down the choices took some time. I went to a daily special on their blackboard…I’ll definitely be back there when I return to HCMC.

Salad Special — Edamame, Tea-infused Tofu, & Salmon Salad with Sesame-Wasabi Dressing

Tonight, everyone and their homestay families gathered for a final dinner at the Zen Plaza. We ate delicious Vietnamese food –buffet style. Not disgusting Chinese buffet-like food. There were many many choices. I tried bits of this and that. My favorite dish was probably the banana flower leaf salad. I’m going to miss my homestay, especially the conversations I had with my homestay mom. I plan to visit them when I return to the city and possibly going to see “Breaking Dawn 2” with my homestay sisters. This past week we cooked up a storm. I showed them how they could use the apple butter I gave them for apple pie making. The pie turned out great! However, they aren’t accustomed to eating baked apples, so they didn’t like as much. My homestay mom commented that it was too sweet…as she was eating two sugar cookies, haha. She’s funny.

Fresh Apple Pie with Mast General’s Apple Butter

Finished Product — A simple way to bring the joys of fall weather to HCMC

Homestay Dinner — My homestay mom and sister, Minh Anh. My homestay mom joked that I was cheesin too much

Nancy and I with two Vietnamese University students that we have befriended during our time in HCMC. I’m going to miss hanging out with them over the next two weeks.

Saturday night we caught a plane to Da Nang and then a bus to Hoi An, an World Heritage site, renowned for its preservation of ancient town infrastructure and the beaches just a bike ride away. Check back for posts about my ventures through Hoi An and the rest of Central VN!

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