Saturday, August 28, 2010

Good Morning Vietnam!

August 27th, Andrew and I embarked on our six week tour of Southeast Asia. Our first stop was Ho Chi Min City, Vietnam. We arrived at around midnight a little dazed and exhausted and a bit relieved when we saw a man holding a piece of paper with my name on it. He was our ride to the hotel and because we arrived over an hour later then expected we were afraid he might have left us high and dry.

Our ride to the hotel was a bit overwhelming. I had never seen so many scooters in all of my life. There are hardly any traffic lights and people just ride at their own risk. We were pleasantly surprised with our Hotel and went to sleep right away, anxious for what our first full day in Vietnam would be like.

Day 1:
We woke up and started our day around 10:30am. We walked outside and that's when it hit us...we were in Vietnam. It was such a chaotic scene. Scooters were literally everywhere and horns were constantly honking. We walked down the street to look for some breakfast. We found a little bakery and enjoyed some danishes and two waters for less than $2.50. I had read that it was cheap to visit Vietnam...but I didn't anticipate it being THAT cheap. We walked a little further just trying to figure out what was around us. Our first tricky task was crossing the street. With no stop lights or crosswalks, pedestrians just walk at their own risk. There is rarely a break in traffic so you just walk slowly into the middle of the street and the scooters sort of just go around you. This was extremely uncomfortable at first but then we got use to it. (Except when Andrew got hit by two kids on a bicycle, he has the tire marks on his new shoes to prove it.)

We wandered into the Ben Than Market and were shocked at what we saw. Much like the Silk and Pearl Markets in China, this place was HUGE and booths were crammed even closer than in China. We didn't put our bartering skills to work too much, we were just there to soak it all in. Since many things are 'made in Vietnam' their knockoffs looked awesome! I am kind of glad that Vietnam was out first stop because we can't really carry a bunch of purchases...I would have had a hay day if it was our last stop!

After a quick look around Andrew and I went back to the hotel to find out how to get to the War Remnants Museum, formally known as Saigon's Exhibition House of American War Crimes. The second name was more fitting. The stuff they had in this museum was absolutely unthinkable. I am ashamed to say that I don't know much about the Vietnam War...and after visiting this museum, I have begun to read up on it. I am sure the tortures went both ways, but some of the things the American soldiers did were horrific. There is too much information to go into detail, so I have included some photos. It was very interesting and heart wrenching to see and read the captions of both the photographs and the artifacts. This museum is definitely a must see for anyone who visits Ho Chi Min City.

After the museum, Andrew and I went to grab a quick snack and then head back to the hotel to get out of the down pouring rain. Around 6:30pm, we decided to brave the rain and find a place to eat. We went into Pho 2000, a local spot where President Bill Clinton dined back in 2000. It was delicious! We each had pho (a Vietnamese noodle dish), a beer, ice tea and a fruit smoothie for $5.50! After dinner we took in the sites at the outdoor market and some live local music.

Day 2:
Andrew and I booked a tour that left at 8am and wasn't to return until 6:30pm. I will have to say that the tour was a bit of a disappointment. We didn't know that it was a 2.5 hour drive there and back. Our first stop was the Cao Dai Temple. Your guess is as good as mine as to what it is. Our "tour guide" spoke unrecognizable English and didn't explain anything. He just said to meet back at the bus in one hour. There were no signs to read telling us what we were looking at. We just sort of wandered around for a while and then we had the opportunity to witness members of the Cao Dai community sing beautiful hymns in a solemn ceremony. That part was very cool, but again, I wish we knew what we were witnessing. I'm going to have to do some research.

After the temple, we rode for about 20min to a local restaurant. The place was very cool and the food was pretty good and of course really cheap. After lunch, we drove for about an hour or so to the main event, the Cu Chi tunnels. This is where the guerrilla war was fought during between the Viet Cong and the Americans in the Vietnam war. This is where the local people of Cu Chi struggled to survive against the saturation of bombings. Over the course of the war, the people of Cu Chi dug nearly 200 kilometers of tunnels underground, some as deep as 10 meters down. The tunnels were where they lived, created boobie traps against the Americans, and were even able to sneak attack the American soldiers on the bast because the tunnels were so far down that the Viet Cong could go virtually undetected. That is until the Americans caught on and found some of the secret air holes. They then used German Shepard dogs to follow the scent from the air holes and then they knew where the tunnels were. All this is what we kind of understood from our "guide," and again, I wish we had someone who spoke a little bit better English so we could fully understand what everything was.

The traps that the Viet Cong created were absolutely horrifying and I can't imagine falling into one. They were all constructed underground and cover by leaves and brush so when then enemy unknowingly stepped into one the would fall into some type of blade.
After witnessing the traps and feeling a bit uncomfortable being Americans knowing in a sense that those were built for us, we ventured over to a shooting range. This was no ordinary shooting range. For a fee, you could shoot a round of bullets out of an AK47. Being a person that doesn't really like guns and feels uncomfortable when I see one on a police belt I thought to myself, "When in Vietnam," and Andrew and I shot one. It was the loudest and scariest thing ever and frankly I can't believe that I did it. After we were finished Andrew and I talked about what it must be like to be in a war and hearing those things go off in every direction around you...I can't even imagine. I was almost in tears shooting that thing and I didn't even aim it, I just wanted to get it over with. It just really gave me a whole new perspective on what soldiers go through.
After the terrifying gun experience, we enjoyed another uncomfortable experience. We had the chance to crawl through one of the tunnels. You could have either crawled 20, 60, 0r 120meters. Well, Andrew and I only made it 60 meters. Before you think we wimped out let me paint this picture. It was about 10 feet underground and you had to hunch over and duck the PITCH BLACK! Not a place to be if you are claustrophobic. We had no idea where we were going, how far we had gone. Once you start, there is no turning around because there isn't enough room to. Our legs were shaky, we were so discombobulated and once we made it to 60 meters, we got out of there. I had read that these teeny tiny tunnels had been widened for western bodies...I can't believe what their actual size was. Nor can I imagine living like that or fighting like that or digging that for 200 kilometers! The guy in the picture isn't Andrew, it's the only picture I have that shows the narrowness of the tunnel. Again, it was pitch black and I had no idea what I was taking a picture of.

Exhausted and shaky we had one last stop on the Cu Chi tunnel tour. We had to watch a short film about the war. It was really uncomfortable because the entire film was about how horrible Americans are. They called the US soldiers devil people and other degrading names as Andrew and I sat there as the only wasn't the best feeling.
After the tunnels, we boarded the bus for another hour and a half ride back to Ho Chi Min city. It was a long bus ride overall, but it did give us the chance to kind of take in another part of Vietnam.

Andrew and I then went to dinner and then I got a manicure AND pedicure for $2USD TOTAL, while Andrew got a 30 min massage for $3USD. Overall it was a successful day and the Cu Chi tunnels are a definite must see for anyone who visits Ho Chi Min City!

Day 3:
Our last full day in Vietnam we again visited the Ben Than Market for one last look around. After grazing the booths for stuff we didn't need Andrew and I decided to check out the Ho Chi Min City Museum. But this time instead of taking a taxi, we lived like the locals and 'scootered' it! No Mom...we didn't drive one, (although you are allowed to rent them yourself if have a death wish) so Andrew and I hopped on the back of two scooters, bear hugged our drivers and took off. This was such a great decision. It was amazing to see Vietnam this way and Andrew and I had an absolute blast!

The museum was....well a museum. It was an old mansion converted into a history museum for the city. They had several cool artifacts there and it was nice to learn more about how the culture of Vietnam has evolved.

Later in the evening we again ate at Pho 2000 and then took in all the night life culture. This is really a city that never sleeps and there is so much to just feast your eyes on. So we sat down, enjoyed a local cocktail and reflected on our short but amazing trip to Vietnam!

Thursday, August 26, 2010


"Finisheeee!" Aww...the most annoying phrase to any foreign English teacher! But that's what I am...I'm not 'finished,' I'm FINISHEEEEE in Korea!

As Andrew and I are about to embark on an amazing trip around Southeast Asia, I thought I would take a moment and reflect on my last few weeks in Ulsan, Korea.

For the past three weeks I had to work at "Fly to the English World," English camp at my school. There were five of us native teachers and five Korean co-teachers. We had eight straight classes a day with an hour break for lunch. It was A LOT of teaching and a lot of making stuff up as I went because a lot of my pre-planned lesson plans didn't work for the level one's who couldn't even speak a dang word. I have never taught an entire class, 20 students, of beginning level kids with barely any help. I'll use the metaphor was like trying to explain the color yellow to a blind was one of the hardest things I have ever done. But when you could see they were making a little progress, it was the best feeling!

To spice camp up a little bit I decided to initiate spirit week. Much like the Homecoming spirit week in high school each day had a different theme and the kids dressed accordingly. The best dressed kid each day won a prize and the most spirited class at the end of the week got an ice cream party. Well...let's just say that if I was eligible to win, I would have won every day! Some of the kids got into it...and more so as the week went on but overall I think it was a success and they had fun with it. Monday was hat day, Tuesday was sports day, Wednesday was twin day, Thursday was crazy hair/backwards day, and Friday was class color day. Some of the kids interpretations were just hilarious and I though you would enjoy some of the pictures.

Korea has been such an amazing experience and I thank God everyday for the opportunity. I have grown and matured so much as a person and have proved to myself that I can pretty much handle any situation...and then some. I've made it through a year of constant unknowns, awkward cultural situations and meeting some of the nicest people on earth. I have learned that patience is a virtue that I am still very much trying to work on and creativity can take you a long way. I am pretty much a pro at charades these days and I dare anyone to challenge me. I have learned that people are the same no matter where you are and having kindness and compassion towards everyone is the only way to live. Volunteering at the orphanage was best way I could have spent my Sundays and I am very sad to leave those sweet children. My hope is that young people these days take the opportunity if it arises to live abroad and open their minds to other places and cultures besides the US. Who knows where the road will take me next, I just hope that I can continue to live my life as a citizen of the world, and not just of the USA.

Thanks for following my life in Korea!