Currently traveling

Sabbatical 2018

February 2018 - December 2019
Currently traveling
  • Day58

    Our Adventure Draws to a Close

    April 14, 2018 in Singapore ⋅ ⛅ 31 °C

    One last day before we return home.

    We began the day in Saigon with another delicious breakfast of SEA delights (who needs eggs and bacon when you can have noodles, pho and dim sum) and a final cup of iced Vietnamese coffee. Then, we set off to explore the Second District, which Une (my scooter driver) had told me was very interesting, and a must-see. According to Une, it is very green and filed with beautiful parks and houses. So, off we went. What we discovered was a big ex pat enclave, filled with big houses, gated neighborhoods, signs in English and tons of Westerners. As Arie astutely pointed out, this is exactly the type of neighborhood that would impress a 24 year old Vietnamese girl! As we walked along the streets, we were struck - for the millionth time - by the economic disparities in the country. The rich in this country are so very, very rich, and the poor are so very, very poor. While this is true throughout the world, the differences seem much starker here. And, the fact these differences exist in a supposedly communist country is astonishing. We ended our visit to District 2 with a stop at Osterberg’s ice cream — a Copenhagen creamery that specializes in tropical fruit flavor. It was delicious.

    After having some good ice cream, and a quick dip in the pool, we packed our suitcases and headed for home.

    But, we had one more stop to make . . . Singapore. When we were planning our flights, Arie told me that we’d have to stop in Singapore. He suggested that we add one additional day to our trip, so that we could explore Singapore. At the time that we were getting our tickets, I was fixated on having to be back in the office on Monday, April 16th and was adamant that we could not add a single extra day to our trip. What a dope! As we traveled through Asia, I decided that we had to move our tickets so that we could have a day in Singapore. Unfortunately, we simply could not get an earlier flight, so we only had 14 hours in the country, most of which were at night. Not one to let sleep get in the way of an adventure, I decided that we were going to squeeze as much adventure as possible into the few hours that we had, and Arie, being a good sport, was willing to join me.

    We arrived at the Singapore airport at 7 pm, zipped through customs (so efficient), grabbed our bags and checked into the airport hotel. After quickly changing clothes, we summoned a “grab car” (the equivalent of Uber) and headed into town. As always, we had an interesting chat with our driver. He was born and raised in Singapore, and worked for IBM as a “middle manager” until he was fired two years ago during a layoff. He has been unable to find a job in the last two years, so he is driving for a living. He told us something very interesting — cars are considered a luxury item in Singapore and are very heavily taxed. His car, which is a Lexus, cost him a total of $170,000 USD — which included taxes in the same amount as the purchase price fo the car, as well as a license fee that is about $50,000. To add insult to injury, a car can only be driven for 10 years. At the end of 10 years, the owner must turn the car in and a small refund (approx $20,000) will be issued, The cars are either crushed, or if they are in good shape, sold outside of Singapore. Of course, the owner doesn’t get whatever profit is made on the sale of the car — that goes to the government.

    When we arrived downtown, we saw lots of tall office buildings. English is the primary language used in Singapore, so all of the signs are in English. Given the throwing litter is illegal (punishable by a $500 fine), the streets are immaculate. We had about an hour before dinner at Nouri — a restaurant that Maya had eaten at when she was briefly in town. We had the cab drop us off in Chinatown, so we could stroll through the Hawker Market before dinner. Unlike in Vietnam or even Thailand, where everything seems thrown together, the Hawker Markets in Singapore have permanent stalls, and full-size tables and chairs. The food looked delicious, and was pretty inexpensive. Since we were on our way to a multi-course meal, we decided not to snack along the way.

    When we walked into Nouri, the sommelier asked if we had a reservation. When we gave Maya’s name (as she had made the reservation), he gave us a broad smile and said, “oh, you must be Maya’s parents. We had such a great time when she was with us a few weeks ago!” What a lovely welcome. We got a great table near the kitchen, so we could watch the chefs at work. As soon as we sat down, Ivan — the owner of the restaurant — came over and greeted us warmly. When we said we were Maya’s parents, he flashed us a big smile and said that he’d really enjoyed meeting her when she came to the restaurant. Over the next few hours, we had one of the best meals of our entire trip. Every bite was just delicious.

    As dinner came to a close, Ivan came up to us and asked if we wanted to take a walk after dinner. When we said that sounded fun, he suggested two different routes, one which took us to the Gardens by the Bay, which I had read about. So, we set off through town towards the Gardens. The walk was beautiful, but very, very hot. After walking about a mile, we came to the entrance of the Gardens. in the distance, we could see a huge building that looked just like a spaceship — three towers crowned by a single immense oval. As we walked in the direction of the tower, we saw lights of red and purple projected on the oval, and five beams of light coming out of one side. So weird looking. But, we were in for a far more striking site — the Supertrees. There are about a dozen of these “trees,” which are metal structures that range from nine to sixteen stories tall and look like trees. Each of the trees is illuminated with blue violet lights, and there are plants and vines growing on them. Even at night, they are simply extraordinary looking. We wandered in and amongst the trees for quit a while, but as the time closed in on 1 am, we decided it was time to get a little shut eye.

    As I said to Arie as we drove to the hotel, we managed to squeeze as much fun into an 8 week sabbatical as is humanly possible. From flying out hours after we finished work, to walking around in Singapore just hours before our flight home . . .what a fantastic adventure.
    Read more

  • Day57

    Food Tour, Saigon Style

    April 13, 2018 in Vietnam ⋅ 🌙 29 °C

    For the first time in quite a while, we slept late and woke with no definite plans for the day. OK, not totally true, if you count the evening hours as part of the day . . . Our only plan for the day was to take an evening food tour, so we decided to relax during the day, wandering around the city, doing some shopping and sitting at the pool.

    By the time we left the hotel at 10 am, it was already over 90 degrees, and extremely humid. Our first stop was one of the tourist markets, but I thought that poor Arie was going to melt in the heat. So, we pressed onwards, popping into this and that shop to pick up a few treats to bring home. As we walked through the city, I noticed that it is extremely green — there are lots of trees, there is vegetation growing on the mediums on the streets, and there are many big parks. It’s really pretty. I also noticed that there are a surprising number of very, very high end stores — Chanel, Dolce & Gabbana, Brooks Brothers, you name it. These stores are in fancy hotels, or high end malls. To get a break from the heat, and out of curiosity, we walked into a mall and a Coach store. I noticed two things — everyone inside was a westerner and the price of items was super high. A Coach handbag that costs $400 in the US costs $800 here. When I later asked someone about the price differential, I was told that all brand-name goods sold in Vietnam have a really high tax placed on them, which typically doubles the price of items. It is clear that these items are not being sold to your average Vietnamese woman, but sold to a wholly different market.

    As we strolled, I noticed that we were passing a chocolate store that I’d read about — Maison Malou. Time for a snack. Finally, after 5 weeks in SEA, we had found truly delicious chocolate. We popped into the shop and enjoyed some chocolates, and a egg chocolate (like egg coffee, but with hot chocolate instead of coffee), while we watched some chocolates being made. I was surprised to see that everything was done by hand, including the wrapping of the individual bars of chocolate.

    We also visited the Fine Arts Museum of Saigon. The collection was a complete mishmash of items, with modern items in galleries labeled “contemporary art before 1975.” My favorite piece was a still life with rambutans — not something I think that I’m likely to see again. While the art work was not particularly interesting, the building itself was fantastic. I believe that the building was originally a large mansion, built in the late 19th Century. It is in terrible shape — paint peeling off the walls, water damage on the ceiling, and no air conditioning. But, in its heyday, the mansion must have been gorgeous.

    In the evening, we embarked on a big adventure — a food tour on the back of motor scooters. When we were planning our trip to SEA, I read all about how many motor scooters there were, and how you could rent one for a few days. I casually mentioned this possibility to Arie, and he looked at me as if I had totally lost my mind. So, I crossed renting scooters off our “to do list.” But, as we traveled through Vietnam and Cambodia, and I watched all of the people on scooters — including young children sitting in their parents’ laps — I continued to yearn for the experience of zipping around on a scooter. It looked really fun, albeit a teeny bit dangerous. So, when I discovered that the most common way to take a tour in Saigon was on the back of a scooter, I renewed my pitch to Arie . . .what if we went on a scooter tour? Nope, he was still not interested. But then I found a new option — a food tour on the back of a scooter. Somehow I managed to convince him that it would be fun, so we signed up. Then, on our next to last day on the boat, I invited John and Debbie to join us, and they made reservations, too.

    We were picked up from our hotel at 5:15, by two women on scooters — Une and Binh. We introduced ourselves, were given some basic instructions about how to safely ride a scooter, handed a helmet, and told to hop on the back. I was told to ride with Une for the evening, and Arie was assigned to ride with Binh. I must admit, as we rode to the first restaurant, I was completely terrified that I would fall off. This seemed increasingly likely as the scooter zipped in and out of traffic, with cars coming so very close to us. I clung to Une (something that Arie was not allowed to do, as the men were told that it was improper to touch the female drivers, so the men had to hold onto the back of their seats). And, when we turned left, I was certain that we would drive right into oncoming traffic. In the course of the evening (and with a beer or two), I become considerably more relaxed and felt more comfortable riding the scooter — so much so that I was eventually able to stop holding onto Une, and simply hold the back of the seat. (But, I must confess,that I did not have the courage to ride without holding on, which is the norm in the city.) By the end of the evening I found it thrilling to speed through the streets on the back of the scooter. What fun.

    As we rode through the streets, I also enjoyed chatting with Une. She told me that she was 24, and graduated from university with a degree in accounting. She found that she did not enjoy accounting, so is now working as a guide full time. Her family is from China, but she is the fourth generation to live in Vietnam. She speaks Cantonese, in addition to Vietnamese and English. She lives with her mother and 12 year old brother; her parents are divorced, which is apparently relatively common in the cities, but quite rare in the countryside. She told me about her travels to Thailand and Cambodia, and that her mother has discouraged her from traveling to Hanoi saying that there is nothing of interest to see there. She also told me that life in Saigon is fun for young people, as there is much to do. But, she also told me that things are expensive for most Vietnamese people.

    During the course of the food tour, we got to see various districts around the City, which differ dramatically. With the exception of driving to the Cu Chi tunnels, we had spent both days in District 1, which is the center of downtown. It is both western and modern, and is the part of Saigon that most tourists see. On our tour, we also visited District 5, which is the heart of Chinatown, and is filed with wet markets, restaurants serving Chinese food, and stores with Chinese decorations. We criss-crossed the River, driving in scooter-only lanes. We also visited District 7, which is one of the most recently developed areas of the city, and one of the few districts which has underground wiring. District 7 is quite affluent, and is mostly occupied by expats It was shockingly quiet as we drove through. Seeing so many parts of the city was great fun.

    And, of course, there was the food. As the fellow in charge of the tour told us, the organizers wanted to make sure that people get to eat food that is eaten by average Vietnamese, and not just bahn mi and spring rolls. Our first stop was Bun Bao Hue — a bone broth soup with vegetables, noodles and meat. Doug had suggested that we eat this when we were in Hue, but we hadn’t had a chance. It was delicious, but being an old-hand at food tours, I knew not to gobble down the entire bowl. Next, we stopped at a huge outdoor restaurant, where each table had a small grill. As we sat with our pals John and Debbie, our scooter drivers did double-duty as cooks, and grilled goat, beef, and shrimp for us. We ate it with various sauces, and washed it down with beer. We also played a drinking game involving moving peanuts from a bowl to a bottle — what great fun. Our last stop was a seafood restaurant, in which we ate our way through a delicious spread of crabs, scallops and other tasty treats. After our stomaches were filled, we hopped back on the bikes and made our way back to the hotel.

    I must say, I loved the adventure and believe that it was the perfect way to spend our last night in Vietnam.
    Read more

  • Day57

    Exploring Saigon

    April 13, 2018 in Vietnam ⋅ ⛅ 33 °C

    We left the boat at 8 am, and headed for our hotel. After checking in and dropping off our bags, we met our guide for a one day tour in Saigon/HCMC. (We’ve noticed that young people refer to the city by its official name — HCMC. But, people over 40 seem to use the older name, Saigon.)

    Our guide for the day was Jenny (or at least that is the name she gave us, although her name badge said Thranh). She grew up in the Mekong Delta, where she was raised by her grandparents, as her parents live on a boat that is used for transporting products. (She made it quite clear that she is much closer to her grandparents, than her parents, and that it is quite common for grandparents to raise children whose parents work/live on the water.) She moved to HCMC to attend university. She rents a room, which she now shares with her brother (who also came to the city to attend university). The room has a bathroom, and a hot plate, and is approximately 150 square feet. Her monthly rent is $200. Jenny works full-time as a guide, and tries to work as many days as possible during the high season as it is hard to get work during the low season (which is from May through November). During the low season, she studies so that she can improve her tours. This year she may learn a new language — either Korean or Spanish — as you can make more money leading tours in one of these languages, and there is a shortage of guides conversant in both languages.

    We started our day at the Cu Chi Tunnels, which are located just outside of HCMC. The tunnels were created during the French occupation, but were expanded during the American war. During the war, the tunnels were used by Vietnamese who supported the Vietcong and now have been turned into a museum and war memorial. The tunnels had two separate, but related purposes. First, the tunnels were used by the local community as a place to live while fighting was going on above ground. Second, the tunnels were used to allow the Vietcong to fight against the Americans, primarily by allowing soldiers to move around without detection. There are three levels to the tunnels — one is 6 feet under ground, the next is 12 feet under ground, and the deepest tunnel is 18 feet under ground. The tunnels are connected by a series of holes and diagonal tunnels. The tunnels run for a total of 65 kilometers, and within the system of tunnels are underground kitchens, sleeping quarters, and rooms used for medical procedures. In sum, an entire city. Despite the complexity of the system, the tunnels are extremely small. We had a chance to walk through a small portion of the tunnels. We had to duck down to get through, and were told that the tunnels were made substantially larger to allow westerners to go through them. The heat in the tunnels was simply overwhelming. I can’t imagine how people stayed in these tunnels for days on end.

    The tunnels are located in a jungle forest. As we strolled through the forest, our guide told us that every plant had been destroyed by Agent Orange during the war. Looking at the dense forest that we were walking through, it was shocking to think that it had all been laid waste. As we walked along, we also saw a maze of trenches that were used by the Vietcong for warfare. Many of the tunnels connected these trenches. And, amidst the trenches were huge variety of traps that were built and used by the Vietcong during the war. It was all frightening, and made more so by the sound of gunfire that we could hear from the nearby shooting range. I can’t imagine how horrible it was for both sides.

    After finishing up in the tunnels, we returned to the city. We started at the War Remnents Museum, which was built by the government of Vietnam in 1975, immediately after the end of the war. The museum was created as a propaganda tool, and portrays the US in the very, very worst light possible. There were galleries with photos taken by the journalists who were killed in the fighting, galleries of pictures of children born with deformities due to Agent Orange, and galleries about other atrocities committed during the war. Obviously, the museum does not present any information about the atrocities committed by the Vietnamese, and it was a war, but as an American, I felt like a monster by the time we were done. Of course, the cherry on top was the very last gallery that we walked through on the bottom floor, that had a detailed history of American opposition to the war. Beginning in the early 1960s, Americans were already vocal in their opposition. By the late 1960s, men who had fought in Vietnam had returned to the US and were actively opposing further involvement in the war. Despite the opposition, our government continued this pointless war. Such a tragedy.

    Our last major stop of the day was the Reunification Palace, which was both living quarters and governmental offices from the end of the French occupation, through the end of the Vietnam war. The current building was constructed after an earlier palace was destroyed during a bombing at the end of the French occupation. The Vietnamese government created this fantastic modern structure which is composed of huge, impressive rooms, that are both decorated in a contemporary style, with nods to Asian traditions in the art on the walls and the color schemes (red and yellow are very prominent). The building is quite beautiful.

    We finally made it back to the hotel, tired and hot, but excited to spend a few more days exploring the City.

    After cooling off a bit, we decided to take a walk to get a banh mi sandwich for dinner. As we strolled, we were struck by the ways in which Saigon and Hanoi differed. Saigon is so much more modern and clean that Hanoi, as well as considerably more western — both in dress, in the style of clothing that people are wearing, and in the way that life is conducted (life seems to be conducted on the sidewalk in Hanoi, with people, food and scooters forcing you to walk in the gutter). Of course, my perception is undoubtedly affected by the fact that Hanoi was our very first stop in Southeast Asia, and I was totally unaccustomed to the pace of life, as well as the sights and sounds of Vietnam. It would be interesting to go back to Hanoi now, and see whether it feels as frenetic as it felt a mere five weeks ago, when we began this part our adventure.
    Read more

  • Day56

    Saigon, Here We Come

    April 12, 2018 in Vietnam ⋅ ☀️ 35 °C

    After leaving Ben Tre, our boat headed straight for Saigon — aka Ho Chi Minh City — Vietnam’s largest city. Our tour guide, Phiem, had told us that we should gather on the front deck to watch the scene as we passed from the Mekong into the Saigon River. I wasn’t exactly sure what we were supposed to see, but I proceeded to the deck.

    For the past week, as we had cruised along the Mekong, we had seen lots of houses built on the river banks, small to mid-sized vessels, and fish farms. As we headed into the Saigon River, it was as if we had entered a watery highway — there was traffic on the river, and many of the vessels were substantial container ships! The number of vessels that we saw astonishing. As we watched the passing parade, we noticed that even on the large vessels, there was still laundry on the back deck, hammocks in the wheelhouse, and men squatting on the floor as they steered the wheel. Someone spotted a young child playing in a big bucket on the deck of one of the ships. And, as we smiled as the passing parade, we were met with waves and smiles.

    As the afternoon wore on, we started to see the skyline of Saigon, a big metropolitan city. Knowing that our cruise was coming to an end, we exchanged emails addresses with the pals that we had made on the trip — Gail and Dennis, a retired couple from Ottawa who now live in Mexico and travel all over the world (listening to their stories was tremendous fun, and gave me a huge appreciation for how delightful retirement can be); Paola and Steve, a couple from Australia with whom we laughed and laughed (Paola, who has lived all over the world, charmed us with her stories and Steve made us howl with laughter as he talked about biking, motorcycling and moving to meet Paola whom he only knew casually); and John and Debbi (recently retired, living in Toronto, and simply charming). What a lovely week.

    As the sun set over the bridge at the end of town, Arie and I packed our bags, and started to get ready for the very last leg of our sabbatical adventure — two days in Saigon.
    Read more

  • Day55

    Ben Tre

    April 11, 2018 in Vietnam ⋅ ⛅ 25 °C

    Our last excursion of the cruise was to the island of Ben Tre, which is one of the largest islands in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. Almost a million people live on the island, which is located relatively close to Saigon. Of course, we only visited the very tip of the island, and saw two very curated sites.

    Our first stop was a shop where they made coconut candy, which is a traditional sweet in Vietnam. Everything is done by hand. First, the coconuts are split, by hand. Then, the coconut meat is separated, by hand. Then the meat and coconut milk are cooked, by hand. The result is a sticky toffee, which is pulled by hand, cut by hand, and wrapped, by hand. Yep, every stage in the process is done by hand. The cost to purchase a bag of 40 pieces — $1.25 USD. Watching the process was pretty interesting.

    After we watched the candy making demonstration, we were also given a chance to taste some local spirits — coconut (meh), banana (ok) and snake whiskey (tasted like moonshine, but snake in bottle was huge). And, we were serenaded by three men playing traditional Vietnamese instruments. I can’t say that I particularly liked the music, but seeing the instruments being played was pretty cool.

    We then walked through the jungle and got onto horse carts — another new form of transportation. The carts carried us about 15 minutes up the road, where we disembarked, walked down to a canal, and got onto sampans. Although all of the sampans now have motors, each of our boats had someone rowing with a long wooden paddle, which was operated by a villager who stood up (similar to the way that a gondola is rowed). We spent about 20 minutes going through a palm forest. The ride was just beautiful — quiet, shaded, and gorgeous. But, I couldn’t help think about what it must have been like for American soldiers to move through these forests. (After we got out, I spoke with a couple of my fellow passengers — one Canadian and one Aussie — and apparently I wasn’t alone in thinking about this as we were rowed through the canal.) The jungle is incredibly dense. There are shadows everywhere. It would have been incredibly easy for someone familiar with the land to plan an ambush. It must have been totally terrifying for the soldiers. And, I can’t imagine how anyone might have thought that soldiers who were unfamiliar with the area could possibly win a sustained battle.
    Read more

  • Day54

    Cu Lao Gieng

    April 10, 2018 in Vietnam ⋅ ☁️ 28 °C

    This afternoon we visited another Vietnamese village — Cu Lao Gieng. This village is known for making sampans, which are an essential part of life along the Mekong. Sampans, which are typically made from a few pieces of wood, are relatively small, as they are designed to carry 2-4 people, or to move items. People who live on the Delta generally own a sampan, and have it tied outside their back door, which is usually located on the river. The sampans are all hand made — the wood that is milled by hand, the boards are shaped by hand, and then the entire boat is assembled by hand. A boat usually costs about $300 USD, and lasts for about 10 years. We were told that we could ship one back to the US, but that the cost of shipping would be approximately $2000 USD (which probably still makes it quite a bit cheaper than buying a handmade wooden boat in the US)).

    From the moment that you step off the dock into the village, you know that making sampans is the local industry. Virtually every shop that you pass has a sampan that is in the process of being assembled. And, some of the shops have multiple boats being built at the same time. As you peer in to the shops, you feel like you’ve stepped back into time. Most of the techniques that are being used are identical to those that were used 100 years ago. The only nod to modernity is the presence of a few electric tools — a table saw that is set in a wooden table, a very old band saw for making boards, and a hand sander that is used in one shop. But, the boards are still shaped over a blazing fire, but a man who we were told has been doing this work for 40 years.

    At the same time as the traditional methods are being used by the boat builders, as we walked through the town we saw young men with mobile phones in hand. And, we saw flat screen televisions hanging on the walls in sparsely furnished houses. The new and the old sit side by side, which is clear metaphor for life throughout Vietnam.

    After visiting the village, we went to see the oldest Catholic Church in Vietnam. The church was built by the French in the 1880s, and protecting the Catholics was one of the reasons that the French used to justify the Indochine war. The church still remains standing today, and approximately 20% of the population of South Vietnam is Catholic. The village near the church must have a much higher percentage of Catholics, because almost every house that you look into has a picture of a white Jesus, or a statute of Virgin Mary. We spoke with a local Catholic doctor, who told us that he’d spent much of the last ten years working to cure leprosy on the island. As he talked about his work, everyone in our group looked on in wonder, as leprosy is not something that we ever hear about in our countries. Once again I was reminded that westerners, including myself, live in a very privileged little bubble.
    Read more

  • Day54

    Walking through Long Khanh A

    April 10, 2018 in Vietnam ⋅ ⛅ 24 °C

    Yesterday we crossed the border into Vietnam. Today, we went on a walk through a “wet” market (which is a produce market in which live fish are sold) and went to a monastery where a goddess is worshiped. Even stepping off the boat into this small town had a different vibe than in Cambodia — more people, more motor scooters and more prosperous.

    Today we visited Long Khanh A, a small village on a tributary of the Mekong River. To get from our boat to the village, we road in a sampan. (We learned that traditional sampans are much smaller than the one we took, which was large enough to carry all of the passengers on our ship.) Our cruise company — Avalon — really prides itself on using as many means of transportation as possible. The village is on the far edge of one of the islands. The total population of the island is approximately 20,000 people, but the village that we visited in quite traditional and probably has about 1000 inhabitants. Once I again, I was struck by the differences from the villages we saw in Cambodia. In Cambodia, the houses were made of wood and straw, the roads were unpaved, and there was no running water. In this small village in Vietnam, the roads are paved with cement, the houses are made of bricks and cement and are substantially larger than those in Cambodia, and there is running water. And, as you look into the houses while you are walking around, you spy television sets in lots of the houses - although that is often the only modern item in the house.

    Long Khanh A is known for two features. First, there is a order of nuns that live in the village. This is pretty unusual, as nuns are relatively rare in Vietnam (in contrast to South Korea, which there are apparently quite a few nuns). A few of the nuns live together, full time, in a house in the center of the village. They are joined by other women from the village who are referred to as nuns, although they still have families and actually live at home. We had a chance to talk with one of the nuns, who told us that she joined so that she could meditate. We were surprised to hear that the nuns don’t really engage in teaching, although there are books that they do lend to members of the community.

    The second notable feature of the village is a scarf factory. But, to say that it is a factory suggests that it is a large operation. Not so. It has single manual loom, and about 5 electric looms. Around the village you can see the thread that is being cleaned and then dyed for use in the scarves. We were told that a single person, weaving all days, can make about 6 scarves ... tough way to make a living.

    We also had a chance to meet, and chat with, a man who had been a Vietcong soldier. I had thought (erroneously) that the term Vietcong referred to anyone who was fighting on the side of the communists/North Vietnam. Actually, the term specifically refers to those men and women in South Vietnam who were opposed to the “puppet government” that was supported by America, and were fighting on the same side as the North Vietnamese Army. The Vietcong received supplies and reinforcements from the north, primarily with with people and resources being moved along the Ho Chi Minh trail. This gentleman was trained as a medic. He not only fought during the “American” war, but was then called back to fight with the North Vietnamese soldiers who were sent to help liberate Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot. (If the Vietnamese had not intervened in the genocide in Cambodia, it is hard to say how long it would have taken to defeat the Khmer Rouge.). The former “freedom fighter” told us that he was injured in the war, and raised his shirt to show us his battle scars — a piece of shrapnel still sits near his lung. He also told us that he does not blame the Americans for the war, but blames the American government. He explained that he knows that many Americans opposed the war and that there were lots of protests, which is the reason that the US finally left Vietnam. I suspect that this is a very diplomatic explanation, but it certainly is the same thing that we’ve heard throughout our travels. Must be the Buddhist influence, as it is also pretty widely acknowledged that if the US hadn’t intervened, the war would have turned out the exact same way, but it would have taken 2 years, rather than 20, and a lot fewer people would have died.

    As we strolled through the village, people were extraordinarily friendly — waiving, saying hello, and smiling at us. One pair of sisters — ages 79 and 82 — asked our guide where we were from, and told us about themselves. And, a group of women sitting on their stoop asked our guide where he was from, as they interpreted his western dress and English skills as meaning that he was not from Vietnam, which he found quite amusing. Just goes to show, wherever you go, people are curious about each other.
    Read more

  • Day53

    Life Along the Mekong Delta

    April 9, 2018 in Vietnam ⋅ ⛅ 32 °C

    After a week in Cambodia, we have returned to Vietnam, crossing into the country on the water.

    The Mekong is the breadbasket of Cambodia. Twenty-two percent of the population of Vietnam lives in the Delta. And, of those who live in the area, 80% rely upon the river for their livelihood, primarily as fisherman, fish farming, or growing rice in the land that runs along the side of the Delta. Moreover, Vietnam is the third largest producer of rice in the world, and more than half of that rice is grown in the area around the Delta. So, to say that the Delta is of crucial importance to the economic health of the country would be putting it mildly.

    Geographically, the Mekong Delta includes both the area along the Mekong River, the tributaries that run off the river, and more than 1000 canals that were dug over the last two hundred years to supply water to the surrounding countryside. The canal system is immense, and extremely complex. Some of the canals are small, and are used for local transportation. Other canals are wide and deep enough for navigation by commercial vessels. But all of these canals, regardless of size, are man made, and are maintained by the people who live in the area.

    Coming from Cambodia to Vietnam, I was struck by the stark differences between life in the two countries. In Cambodia, people live upon the river, and fish on the river, but use the resources of the river in a somewhat passive manner. In Vietnam, the people actively grow and harvest the resources of the river by building fish farms, and diverting the water into rice paddies. The level of activity is incredibly impressive.

    One of the most interesting things that we saw on the Delta were the fish farms, although I would never have understood what I was seeing without someone explaining it. As you cruise through the Delta, you see these large square buildings that look like modern houses. Upon first glance, one would assume that people are living in these buildings, although they do have a commercial feel. But, it is what you cannot see is the important part of the structure— below the houses sits these enormous cages, which extend down approximately 30 feet below the water, in which fish are being raised. The fish are actually purchased elsewhere, and transported to the Delta when they are about 2 inches long. Over the next 3-5 months, the fish are raised in these cages, where they are fed twice a day. Tending to the fish takes 2 or 3 people, depending upon the size of the fish farm. At the end of a few months, the fish are big enough to be sold. Each cage can hold tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of fish, depending upon the size of the cage. You can actually see some of the cages that have not yet been submerged, and are being built. Typically, the fish are then transferred into huge nets that attach to the bottom of boats that can sail the 300 kilometers to Saigon, where the fresh fish are then sold. It is ingenious. We were told that building one of these fish farms costs $50k to $100k, which includes the cost of the farm that sits below the water, and the build above the water that is also used for living quarters.

    Side by side with these fish farms sit traditional nets that are used to pull fish up each evening, small houses in which people live, and houseboats that float along with the tides. The contrast in the lives being lived along the Delta are completely reflective of the contrasts in Vietnamese society — people striving and succeeding, next to people who are barely getting by.
    Read more

  • Day52

    Walking through Angkor Ban

    April 8, 2018 in Cambodia ⋅ ☀️ 24 °C

    This afternoon we had another experience that we would not have had if we were traveling on our own — we visited the village of Angkor Ban, spoke with an elderly woman who lived in the town, and then visited a class where students were learning English.

    Angkor Ban is a small, but typical village in Cambodia, close to the border of Vietnam. About 200 families live in the village, but the families are large and multi-generational, so there are a total of 1700 inhabitants in the village The village was emptied during the reign of the Khmer Rouge, but was never bombed. So, most of the buildings were constructed in the 1940s and 1950s, and the village looks quite similar to how it looked at that time. Everyone in the village engages in farming, and the educational opportunities for children are pretty limited. As in many Cambodian towns, there is a large temple complex, in which monks live. The temple forms the heart of the village, both literally and figuratively.

    Walking through the village was like stepping back in time. There is electricity, but no running water. Rainwater is gathering in huge vessels for drinking and cooking. Clothes are washed at the river. Children are bathed in a small basin. All of the farming work is done by hand. Cows, ducks and chickens wander freely through the village. While people appear well-fed, the poverty is crushing. It is truly hard to imagine anyone leaving the village and experiencing economic success.

    As we wandered through the village, Sophea walked up to an old woman who was chewing betel nuts. He asked her if she’d be willing to talk to us, and she graciously agreed. We learned that she is 85 years old, and with the exception of the years in which the Khmer Rouge forced her family to move, she has lived in the village her entire life. (I found it surprising that her family was relocated, as a poor farmer couldn’t possibly pose any threat to the Khmer Rouge.) She had 11 children, although 2 died during the war. When someone asked her how many grandchildren she had, she laughed and said that it was too many to count. She has never spent a night in the hospital, and has never had any serious health problems. She donates her time to care for the monks in the village, and lives with some of her children. She chews betel every day, and has for the last forty years. When Sophea asked her if she was addicted to chewing betel, she said she was not, but that she liked to do it every day. She also demonstrated how to created a betel bundle for chewing (it looked disgusting).

    As people asked her about where she lived, she invited everyone to go upstairs and see her house. A group of us walked up the narrow, steep staircase and marveled that an 85 year old woman could manage these steps each day . . . of course, what alternative does she have? The house, which is considered quite large by village standards, was approximately 300 square feet. The floor was made of split bamboo, as were the walls. The ceiling was corrugated tin. Most of the house was a large room, devoid of any furniture except a small cabinet and desk. There was a small room on the side, with a “bed” made of twine. Running across the back of the house was a long, narrow room that functioned as a kitchen. In it was a two burner hot plate that was used for cooking. I have no idea how many people live in the house, but there were bed rolls pushed against the walls. On the walls were almost a dozen framed photos of family members, including the grandmother. With the exception of the electricity, the house probably looks exactly as it did in 1918, or 1818.

    After taking our leave of the grandmother, we walked to a school in the village. Inside were 60 students, ages 8-18, who were learning English. The teacher came to the town once a week, to teach the children who choose to attend. No tuition is charged. The school is a large hut, which lacks walls. There are fans on the ceiling that were donated by the cruise company. There is single white board at the front of the classroom, and mimeograph booklets that are given to the children so that they can learn to read. When we first arrived, i was struck by the fact that there were far, far more girls in the classroom than boys. When I asked Sophea about this, he explained that the boys had to work in the field, while the girls were given the opportunity to study. The children greeted us warmly, and invited us to sit down next to them. We all had an opportunity to chat with the kids, and have them read to us (we were asked to correct their pronunciation, as they have almost no chance for individualized instructions). In talking to two adorable girls, I realized that they had good decoding skills, but didn’t really understand what they were reading. And, while they had obviously learned some basic phrases for discussion (what is your name, how many sisters and brothers do you have, what do you want to be when you grow up), they had limited ability to go beyond those questions. Obviously, some learning some English is much better than learning none, but I was again struck by the limits that are part of the lives of these children. As we left, we all gave school supplies to the teacher, which he would distribute among the students. Spending a little time with these kids was a very bittersweet experience.
    Read more

  • Day52

    Visit to Buddhist Monastery

    April 8, 2018 in Cambodia ⋅ 🌬 6 °C

    Being on a cruise ship has been a mixed bag for me.

    On the downside: The trip is completely curated, so everything that you see is carefully selected and packaged. The passengers are incredibly homogenous — all white, affluent, and over the age of 50. The staff, which is all Vietnamese or Cambodian, waits on us hand and foot, which I find extraordinarily uncomfortable.

    On the upside: The guides are fantastic, and are incredibly gracious about discussing the good, bad and ugly parts of life in their countries. The candor that we’ve experienced in our discussions with Phiem and Sophea is incredible and has given me a more nuanced and sophisticated understanding of the places that I’ve visited than I could ever have expected. The people with whom we are traveling are extremely nice, very well traveled and quite interesting. And, there are some experiences that we’ve had which we could never have replicated on our own.

    Our visit to Wat Hanchey, a monastery located on the Mekong River, is one of those unique experiences that we never would have experienced if we had been traveling on our own.

    Wat Hanchey was first built in the 7th century, and has been re-built and renovated several times since then. It is an active monastery, housing almost 100 monks, many of whom are young novices (under the age of 18). We docked at the shore, and walked up to the monastery. As it was early in the morning, pilgrims were only just beginning to arrive and the temple complex was very quiet. Our tour had arranged for us to participate in a Buddhist blessing, in which the dharma would be chanted by two monks, after which we could receive individual blessings from the monks if we so choose. We went to the temple, and shed our shoes and hats before entering. Sophea introduced our group to the two monks — one of whom was 13 (which could be 12 or 11 by our system of calculating age) and the other who was 37. We then sat on the mats in front of the monks, and they chanted the dharma. I used all of the meditation skills taught to me by Emily Doskow to clear my mind and be present in the moment. I found the experience to be very moving. Receiving a blessing from one the monks, as he tied a red string around my wrist, left me feeling elated.

    After the chanting, we had an chance to ask questions of the young monk. He told us that he had been at the monastery for 3 years, and joined so that he could get a good eduction. He said that he has secular classes 5 hours a day, and that his favorite subject is math. He told us that it was very hard to follow all of the rules when he first joined, and he didn’t know if he’d stay a monk forever. He was incredibly composed for a young kid. And, while smiling is discouraged by the rules, as he talked to us there was a slight grin at the corners of his mouth.
    Read more