rugby stars, muffin tops and that time we got left

I actually started this blog right when we got back on the ship after China so I’m just going to leave it as is, however, you may have noticed it’s been a few weeks….Oh well. Here goes.

Oh China,

Honestly, the past few weeks have been crazy. We are literally sprinting through Asia. It’s awesome to be certain but it’s definitely tiring. With only two days between each country we barely have enough time to catch up on sleep, journal, blog (or try to), before we’re already in a new and exciting place with things to see, taste and experience. Not to mention class, quizzes, homework and papers.  Yikes.

That being said, it seems like we got on the ship after Vietnam, showered, blinked and then we were in China. I woke up the first morning in Hong Kong excited and ready to do as much as I could in the 24 hours I had before my trip to Beijing. My friends Taylor, Rosaly, Megan and I got off the ship as soon as we were cleared, ready for a day of shopping, sightseeing and general Hong Kong fun.

We took a cab to the ladies market downtown and since the stalls weren’t set up yet we had a little while to putz around and see the downtown. We window shopped and decided to grab lunch before hitting the market. You’re probably going to cringe, but since we knew we were going to be eating lots of traditional Chinese food on our trips we figured the best place for our first meal in China was Pizza Hut. Sometimes, western food is just so good and this was no exception. This Pizza Hut was actually surprisingly fancy with swanky booths and semi-romantic accordion music playing. In an effort to at least try something cultural Megan and I split a curry chicken pizza and once we had all eaten our fill we headed over a few blocks to the ladies market.

We’ve spent a lot of time on our trip in markets and the ladies market in Hong Kong was very much of the same. Stalls selling purses, scarves, watches, souvenirs, not so tasteful underwear and occasionally some cool clothes, lined both sides of the streets. People tried their best to barter down the prices and there was the constant game of up and down until finally a good price was reached. I didn’t end up buying anything but my friends got Hong Kong tee shirts, some scarves and something that can only be describes as a banana hammock shaped like a toucan as a gag gift for a friend.

After the ladies market we decided to take the Star Line Ferry across the bay to Hong Kong Island. Our ship was docked right on the bay across from the island and we had a great view of the skyline. We hopped a ferry across and after taking lots of pictures of the skyline (and seeing some of the buildings used in the Batman movie) we decided to take a cab to Stanley market. Honestly, I don’t know what I was expecting Hong Kong to look like but it was actually really beautiful. Someone said that it looked a little like Los Angeles, in that it was a city but it was surrounded by hills. The drive to Stanley market was gorgeous. We drove through the hills, saw the water and all the buildings carved into the sides of the mountains and followed the steep and windy roads into the middle part of the island. It reminded me of Monaco with the windy roads looking over the ocean. We got to Stanley market and shopped around for a little. They had some really nice Chinese handicrafts and I bought some gifts and watched as one of the shop owners did name calligraphy and made custom Chinese stamps for my friend.

We had a MICE performance on the ship at 7pm and I wanted to get back in time to help set up and figure out what was going on. As of that morning I knew that there was a performance and the general idea of it but didn’t really know what I was supposed to be doing or how the piece went. But, MICE is usually an adventure so I just wanted to make sure I was on the ship in time to play. We cut it really close, especially since there was a little confusion with the taxi, but I ran onto the ship at 5 minutes to 7 and has just enough time to change into formal wear, figure out how to play the birinbao and get into place for some pictures.  Semester at Sea is launching a big new Sino-US relations program and the ship was packed with a bunch of important alumni and representatives from the host universities. We were going to be playing for people like the President of the University of Virginia, the founder of Semester at Sea, the CEO of Crocs shoes and the woman who is the head of all the Starbucks in Southeast Asia.

The piece we did was called World Strings and we threw it together literally the day before. My friend Keith who is a computer science major wrote this really incredible patch that creates all these layers of sound that you can vary with 6 different controls. Each of us in the “orchestra” had a stringed instrument tuned to E and after starting the piece with a few strong chords we each improvised along with the patch and the other computer controlled sounds.  Even though we put it together on such short notice it actually sounded really great. We had a cello, a ukulele, an ud, a danbao, a Thai hammer dulcimer, a guitar and then my birinbao.  All of the strings harmonized and we played around with the rhythms and it ended up being a really cool piece.  We performed in a place called Tymitz square in the middle of the ship and after the performance John Tymitz, for whom the square is named, came up to us and told us how much he enjoyed hearing the music in his square.  We all got a big kick out of this and had a mini SAS fanboy moment.

After MICE, Keith Hussain, Steve, Disha, Sarah and I had made plans to go out to a gay bar and see the Hong Kong night life. We said we were going “out out out”. We met up with our friends Mark and Martha at the 7-11 near a street called Lan Kwai Fong. It was still pretty early but things were already in full swing. Apparently that day there had been a giant rugby tournament so everyone on the street was already celebrating the wins and losses in the street. We grabbed some dinner and after milling through the street we started the walk to the gay bar. Since it was a Sunday night, it was pretty low key but we all hung out, tried to teach Hussain how to dance and had some good conversations with the locals. They told us about how homosexuality was slowly becoming more acceptable in Asia and talked to us a little about what it was like out in Hong Kong. After a while we decided to head back to Lan Kwai Fong to check out the rugby party.

The streets were absolutely packed and the crowds flowed in and out from the bars into the road with music playing, people cheering and crazy costumes in full display. There was a guy dressed like Ronald Macdonald, a male Britney Spears as well as lots of angels, devils, a greenman, some people in drag and plenty of people with hats, face paint and beads.  There were lots of SAS kids mixing with locals, tourists and people from all over the world who came to play and watch rugby. I ended up talking to the Scottish rugby team and they were really great, funny guys. They had lost to the Hong Kong Sevens earlier that day but were having a great time nonetheless and boasted proudly that they had beaten the American team last weekend. After bopping around the area, dancing and chatting more with the Scots we decided it was time to head back to ship in order to pack and maybe get some sleep before an early departure the next morning.

After very very few hours of sleep I got up, took a light-speed shower and headed to the union for our 7am trip to Beijing. All of us groggily boarded the busses and napped until we got to the airport. The flight to Beijing was quick and relatively painless, filled with more naps and some journaling. Upon landing in Beijing the group of us headed down through the gates to customs and then caught a tram to the arrivals section where we were supposed to meet our bus and tour guide.  My friends Disha, Grace, Kendra and I stuck with the group most of the way to customs but since we were the last to go through the line, we got to the platform just after a tram had left. We waited 6 minutes for the next one, hopped on and made the walk down to the arrivals gate.

Coming through the arrivals gate I was a little surprised at how strangely I felt. I hadn’t been in an airport since coming to the Bahamas and it just made me realize that the next time I do this I’m going to be coming home to see my family. While I wouldn’t trade this experience for the world I definitely got a little excited thinking about coming through the gates at JFK and being able to see my family waiting. I got goose bumps at the thought of seeing my mom waiting for me on the pier in Florida and driving up to school to see my friends for the first time after so long.

Unfortunately this feeling of excitement didn’t last long once the four of us realized that, after looking around the immediate area, our group was nowhere to be found.  A pack of 40, white, loud SAS kids is usually not an easy thing to miss so we asked around and no one had seen us. We figured maybe they had gone down to the bus and we should walk down there and check. Well, we walked all up and down the bus terminal, checked the area around the arrivals gate again and then came to the conclusion that we were pretty much stranded in the Beijing airport. Oh yikes.

Being the cool and collected travelers that we were we decided that the best thing to do would be to call the ship’s field office and see if our trip leader had a cell phone we could call. We bought a phone card and after a number of failed attempts and some serious help from the phone card lady we were able to connect with the ship. The field office coordinator told us to see if there was a phone number on our itinerary so we called the tour company’s Hong Kong office and once they realized what was going on they called their local tour guide and instructed us not to move. We stayed put and eventually a woman from the local office came and picked us up.  Crisis averted.

We took a taxi with the tour guide over to the bird’s nest and the water cube. After having seen both on display during the summer Olympics it was really cool to see them in person. The four of us only had a limited amount of time since we arrived late so we decided to make the most of it. We wandered around the complex taking pictures and recounting our “left behind” experience. We decided to call ourselves the four horsemen in reference to the left behind book series and made lots of jokes about the new nickname. As we were strolling around the complex we saw three Asian tourists wearing what are best described as panda hats. Basically, it’s the face and ears of a panda, very soft of fluffy, that sits on your head and secures under the chin. We thought these were just about the coolest hats ever and took a few pictures with the guys wearing them, resolving that we needed to purchase them immediately if we ever got the chance.

As big of a kick that we got out of the panda hats, the other Asian tourists got an even bigger kick out of us. In front of the water cube we were pretending to be Michael Phelps and swim through the air and tons of people started taking pictures of us. Finally a few asked if they could take them with us so we posed for a bunch of swim pictures with our new friends. This would become a common theme throughout the trip (other Asian tourists taking pictures with and of us) and it’s kind of strange to think that somewhere in Korea there’s a picture of me in someone’s home, doing my best Michael Phelps impression.

After the Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube we headed over to Peking University to settle into our hotel. We were staying at a small hotel on the University campus and would be meeting a bunch of the students later that night. We dropped our stuff off and then walked to a restaurant on campus for our first dinner. All of the food we had in China was served family style at circular tables with a lazy susan in the middle. All the plates were put on the lazy susan and you spin it around in order to share everything. Some of the food was a little hit or miss but it was definitely a good introduction to traditional Chinese food.

After dinner we walked further into campus to go meet some of the Peking University students. When we arrived we were told to split into groups and each would get to go around with one student. Disha, Kendra, Kerri, Dave and I were all together and were joined by a really great girl named Yin. We were still a little hungry for a D2 and since China was way colder than I think we anticipated we were also hoping to buy some jackets. Yin decided the best place to take us was the campus store which was right next to our hotel.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the UConn co-op and I have to say that after seeing the Peking University store I have some suggestions for an upgrade. The PekU store had a full grocery store, campus stuff, books and school supplies, shoes, some really cool women’s clothes, winter jackets, a bakery and a section where you could by American and Chinese movies and TV series for $2-4. We explored the store and tasted some Chinese cookies from the bakery, all the while asking Yin about where she’s from, her family, and college life in China. She was originally from a small town pretty far from Beijing but moved here to study Library Sciences and Information Technology.  She has 2 older sisters and 2 younger brothers. 

 Part of us wanted to go out into Beijing and see the nightlife, but all of us were still tired from the night before. We decided to go get some coffee and tea and take it from there.  Yin led us further into campus to this really nice, warm coffee shop located under one of the buildings. It reminded me of Lu’s café at home, except larger and packed with Chinese students. We grabbed a table and it just so happened that we were sitting next to an American exchange student from Alabama. His name was Sam and we talked to him for a while about his experiences in China thus far, getting around and understanding the language and things to know and do in Beijing.

After getting a round of coffee and tea Yin suggested we play a game called Truth or an Adventure. Much like truth or dare, you put a number into your phone between 1 and 100 and your friends take turns guessing. You begin to narrow it down and whoever picks the right number has to choose truth or an adventure.  I was lucky enough to pick first and I chose adventure. My adventure was to go up to anyone in the room and make a new friend but somehow I had to slip the sentence “I have a dog named Moxy” into whatever conversation we ended up having. I scouted the room for the perfect target and found two girls who looked like they could be some good new potential friends. I came over and introduced myself and asked them a few questions and the looks on their faced indicated that they thought I was totally nuts. My entire table of friends was staring at us so I decided to just explain the game to them. This was probably cheating, but once they got the gist of it they seemed a lot less nervous. They confessed that I had actually scared them but once they knew what was going on they were really cool. We talked about Semester at Sea, life at PekU, stuff to do in Beijing and, of course, my dog moxy.

After me it was Yin’s turn. She also picked adventure and we tried our best to come up with one. We decided that we would buy a muffin and she would have to try and eat the entire thing in one bite. Yin had been awesome before this, a very sweet and funny guide to be sure, but the muffin moment put her above and beyond and was definitely a bonding moment for us. She couldn’t fit the whole thing in her mouth but she committed and hilarity ensued as she tried to eat as much of the cap while crumbs flew everywhere due to laughter.  We played a few more rounds of T or A – Disha made a hat out of napkins, Dave told us about the time he painted a 20ft graffiti mural for a girl, Kerri shouted “I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream” while marching around the center of the coffee shop” and Kendra finished the rest of the muffin in one swift bite.

After our tea we knew that we were definitely too tired to go out but also didn’t want to go to sleep just get. We decided to go back to the store to get some movies and snacks and stay in to have a movie night. After browsing the movie selection we decided on The Last Emperor and Farewell my Concubine. Since we were going to see the Forbidden City the next day we figured we’d get a jump on the history. We also bought some snacks and I decided on some apple/kiwi/aloe flavored yogurt and some roasted chicken flavored Pringles. If there’s one thing about Asia that is definitely different from the states, it’s their preferences for potato chip flavors. All the chips are some kind of meat or fish flavor usually and have pictures of steaks, ribs, and thanksgiving dinners on the front. The other day I bought chicken and red wine flavored lays and I’m pretty excited to try them. (editing note: they were weird, but good)

We all went back to the hotel to put on pajamas and met up in Disha and Kerri’s room with our extra blankets and pillows to watch the movie. Apparently in China they don’t ever have sleepovers so the concept of a slumber party and getting together in your pajamas to watch movies was a new one for Yin. We explained the slumber party concept from when you’re a kid and it’s a big deal t have a friend stay over and that even older kids and adults will spend the night with friends. She said that in China you rarely ever sleep at other people’s houses and that she and her friends don’t usually watch movies together. Considering all the time my sister and friends and I spend at Video World it was definitely interesting to note the small difference in culture that we might otherwise have overlooked.

We popped in The Last Emperor and while it was a beautiful movie, I started to fall asleep before the Emperor even reached puberty. Apparently it was the first movie ever allowed to be filmed in the Forbidden City after it became open to the public and it swept the Oscars so I’ll have to come back and finish it sometime. After all of us started to fall asleep we called it a night, said goodbye to Yin and passed out.

saigon, blinders and bubble tea

After a good conversation we all passed out and napped until we reached the ship. After a very much needed shower we re-convened on the ship for dinner and then headed out to enjoy our last night in Vietnam.  I had to go in to get my dress fitted at 9:30 so a little bit before then Kendra, Disha, Hannah and I split off from the group and made plans to meet up later. We had some time to kill so we stopped to get some coffee on the way to the tailor. I didn’t know this until recently but Vietnam is the second highest exporter of coffee in the world and the iced coffee I had was AWESOME. It’s really thick and strong but in a good way and when they add some sweet milk it’s just about perfect.

After coffee we made our way to the dress shop where they fitted my dress. I was a little worried that the actual dress was not going to look like the drawing or that it was going to fit weird but it actually looked great. She needed to take it in a little on top so I left it with the tailor and made plans to pick it up the next afternoon. While I got fitted Kendra, Disha and Hannah browsed around the store. Kendra was thinking of getting another dress made but when she inquired about the price the seamstress made a comment that took a serious swipe at her self esteem.  It may have just been a cultural difference or the fact that her English wasn’t great but the comment was hurtful nonetheless and we promptly left and decided it was time to go out for a drink.

The four of us headed to a bar and perused the “girly drinks” section of the menu. Everyone ordered something different and we all took turns tasting, swapping stories and having a good time until we had forgotten all about the seamstress. We had planned to go to this place called Acoustic Café across town so we hailed a cab and headed out.  I had heard that Acoustic was popular with locals and they weren’t kidding. It was a really cool, small place with a live band that played American covers and a bunch of singers that rotated sets onstage. It was packed with locals so after getting our drinks we hovered around the bar until some seats opened up. Aside from a few French guys we were the only tourists in the place and it was really cool to see everyone enjoying the music – from Tom Petty to Katy Perry. We stayed until the last set was over and then grabbed a cab back to the center of town.

Everyone was going to go to the opening of a club called Buddha but since it was its first night, no one knew where it was. Plus, Hannah, Disha, Kendra and I weren’t in the mood to be around a giant group of SAS kids just yet so we wandered around a little longer. We took the elevator to the top floor of the Hilton and got to see an awesome view of the city. After walking around a little longer we resigned to just head over to Apocalypse, hoping to run into the rest of our group and dance a little before heading home. The club was packed and we could barely make our way around. We did find our friends though and a bunch of other SAS-ers. The music was good so we stayed a little longer to dance before finally hopping on some motorbikes and heading home.

The next day was our last day in Saigon and Hannah, Disha and I had a mission. Do something cultural and then spend the afternoon at the market. We were tired of seeing things like museums and tourist attractions and wanted to meet people our own age so we decided to go to a local college and just see who we could meet. We got three motorbikes to take us to the school and when we got into the campus we saw that there was some kind of fair going on. We didn’t really know what it was for but there were booths showing knot making, bridge building and there were people giving out what looked like iced tea. In short, we were excited and confused.  We stuck out like sore thumbs but people were also really interested in us. We went over to the booth with the “iced tea” and started talking to some of the people who spoke English. They explained that today was a holiday and that the fair was to show what the different disciplines in the University have been studying lately.

We walked around to the booths, meeting people and seeing what they had put together. There was a guy who built a bridge out of bamboo, another who taught me how to tie fancy knots. There were people who knew martial arts and there was a table where you could make a painting and hang it up. Somehow we started talking to one girl named Nguyen. She came with us over to the art table and hung out and painted with us. As we were painting everyone cleared a space in the middle of the quad a we were treated to a martial arts demonstration. It was really awesome. There were 12 students who all did moves in time to music and they also did stick fighting. After them there was a boy and girl who sang a duet in Vietnamese.  Once our paintings were done we wanted to see more of the campus so Nguyen offered to take us around.

While we walked around we asked Nguyen about where she was from and what it was like to be a college student in Vietnam.  She was originally from a small town North of Saigon but came down to attend the university. She told us that she’s studying chemistry and wants to either be a teacher or a researcher but wasn’t really sure what she wanted to do with it yet. We talked about what her classes were like and what she likes to do with her friends on weekends and she told us about her family. She has a younger sister and an older sister, both of whom went to the same university she’s at now. I actually just got an email from her with pictures of her family on Easter and they’re so cute. While we talked Nguyen took us all around the campus and showed us the buildings and where she studied, the classrooms and labs and the canteen.

In another part of the campus they had carnival games, presumably for the same holiday, but they were some of the weirdest games I’ve ever seen. One was kind of like piñata except you have to smash a piggy bank hanging from a string. There was a ring toss but you had to toss the ring around a duck’s neck. And my personal favorite, there was a ring made of paper with lots of little alcoves in it. Each alcove had a number and in the middle of the ring was baby duckling. Everyone picks a number and the object is for the duck to go into your numbered alcove. The result is everyone standing around this big paper ring yelling at the little duck it Vietnamese in hopes that they will woo him to their space.

After a tour of the campus we asked Nguyen if she knew any good places nearby besides the market to shop around. She took us to a place nearby that was kind of like a Vietnamese Wal-mart. We walked around but didn’t see much so we walked up the street to get bubble tea. Nguyen said that chocolate was her favorite so we all followed suit and ordered 4 chocolate bubble teas. I’d had bubble tea a few times before at home and was looking forward to trying it again in Vietnam.  Nguyen’s suggestion did not disappoint, the chocolate was AWESOME. We all sat enjoying our tea and chewing out tapioca bubbles. We looked at the clock and realized that we needed to head over to the market if we wanted to get everything done on time. We figured that Nguyen would want to head back to campus but she was done with class for the day and offered to come along with us. We were so excited to have her come hang out for longer and jumped at the chance.

We took a cab over to the Ben Thanh Market and headed in to shop. Ben Thanh was not just an open air market like we’d seen in Morocco or Thailand; it was a giant indoor labyrinth filled with stalls selling backpacks, tee shirts, jewelry, clothing, DVDs, crafts, food, sweets, and more. It was like Canal Street, stuffed into a warehouse, on crack. All of us had lists of gifts and things we needed to buy so we headed in the direction of tee shirts and backpacks. The vendors in the market were really aggressive and if you stopped to look at something they would automatically latch on in hopes of making a sale. Walking down the aisles they would literally grab at you, hoping to get you into their shop to look at their stuff. It was a little overwhelming, especially at first. However, once we figured out what we wanted it was easy to barter with the vendors and get good prices for the things we wanted. However, Disha is a very visual shopper and if she saw something she liked she would pop into a stall to look at it. However, leaving without buying makes the vendors angry and it’s easy to get a lot of people grabbing at you and yelling. We had to institute a “blinders policy” where Disha put her hands up on the sides of her face until we reached our destination. The entire time Nguyen was a patient and funny shopping buddy. She helped us convert from US dollars to Dong and having a native speaker helped us in our bargaining. Plus she got a kick out of watching us try to deal with the vendors and all of us spent most of the afternoon laughing.

After stocking up on gifts, souvenirs and lots of bootleg DVDs everyone was hungry for lunch.  We decided to go to a popular chain place called Pho 24 to eat. Pho is a traditional Vietnamese dish which consists of a big bowl of noodle soup, often with meat and egg in it, usually served with lime, chili and plum sauces, green onions and other things you can throw in on the side. All of us got big bowls of steamy chicken Pho and dug in. The broth was tasty, the noodles were good and we slurped down our bowls in no time.  After lunch we had to go back to the tailors to pick up our dresses. We took our time walking to the tailors across town, stopping to look in some shops and just talking more to Nguyen. After we picked up our dresses it was time to part ways so we said goodbye to Nguyen and thanked her for all of her help. It was really great getting to talk to someone our age in Vietnam and we’ve communicated via email a few times since.

After we split up Hannah and Disha decided to go back to the ship but I had one last mission to accomplish. My friend Vinny, who went on Semester at Sea this past fall, also got a suit made when he was in Vietnam. However, the girl who he was with in Saigon, a friend of a friend named Chau, told him that she would ship it to him since it wasn’t going to be finished in time. But, Chau forgot to send it and then moved to Australia for the semester, leaving Vinny sad and suit-less. So, since I was in Saigon he had emailed me the address of her parent’s store and I vowed that I would go and get his suit. I had the address and the name of the store, The Teddy Shop. I figured they either sold bears on lingerie and I wasn’t sure which was better. Nonetheless I caught a cab and headed to the address. It turns out it was bears and I walked into the store and was surrounded by teddy bears, bear clothing, bear houses, you name it. I went up to the register and asked for the name of the friend and tried to explain why I was there. However, no one spoke English.  Hmm, this is difficult. I tried again to explain, mentioning the name again and showing them the paper I had and the phone number Vinny had given me. After about 15 minutes of broken communication and hand gestures something finally clicked and after making a few calls I was put on the phone with Chau’s mom. She came down from upstairs and told me all about how she had met Vin last semester and her husband was going next door to their apartment to get the suit. Chau’s mom was really cool and very hip. She was sleekly dressed, spoke perfect English and was the owner of the Teddy shop as well as two other branches. After a few minutes her husband came in and had Vin’s suit in hand. Mission Accomplished.

I was short on cash and I was pretty sure I could navigate my way back, so after thanking Chau’s parents I grabbed my stuff and started to walk. I had a map in Vietnamese and did my best to find the names of the streets and match them to the signs.  On some streets I was definitely the only white person and I stuck out like a sore thumb walking down the street with my backpack full of stuff and my little map. However, I was able to find my way without any problem and I was pretty proud of myself when I turned the corner and was right in front of the market again. After grabbing one or two more last minute gifts and slung my backpack over my back, grabbed a motorbike taxi and zipped back to the ship just in time to grab an iced coffee before on-ship time.

Once we all got back on board there was a bbq waiting for us and everyone was in a great mood, swapping Vietnam stories and enjoying hamburgers and hotdogs. Hannah and Disha came back from picking up their dresses and brought a bunch of bubble tea with them. I was SO excited to see more bubble tea and Hannah and I had the bright idea of playing a game to see who could fit more of the tapioca balls in their mouth at once.  This game proved to be incredibly funny as our faces got chubbier and chubbier and it got harder to keep everything in while laughing at the jokes our friends were making. After lots and lots of bubbles the final count came out to 78 for Hannah and 92 for me.  Woo Hoo! We finished off a great day with everyone piling into my room to show Steve his dresses and to watch Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which was hilarious.

We weren’t set to actually leave Vietnam until early the next morning and we had heard that it was a sight to see when we sailed down the Saigon River next to small rice boats along the Delta. I’m not a morning person but I wanted to see us leave so I decided not to set my alarm and if my body woke up then I would get up. Well somehow my body did wake up and I dragged myself up to the 7th deck to watch us sail away from Saigon. It really was a beautiful sight to see everyone waking up along the coast of the river, starting their days on their boats or in the rice fields. I ran into Betty Waldron, a woman who, along with her husband Milt, has been involved with SAS for many years. They’ve sailed a numerous voyages and Milt was here supervising the medical students who were onboard with us. We talked about travel, how the world has changed since she and Milt started traveling and about the SAS program. We also bonded over talking about medical practice, malpractice insurance and growing up with a doctor in the family. I talked about my Dad, how much his patients love him and the great experience I had working in his office last summer. It may have been an early morning but the sights along the river and my conversation with Betty made getting up well worth it.

All in all, Vietnam was a country that surprised me in a lot of ways.  I was surprised at how developed the cities were and how that commercialization was able to coexist seemingly peacefully with the simple agrarian lifestyle of the more rural parts of the country. I was surprised by how communism affected the country and how the government officials (especially Ho Chi Minh), were celebrated in schools from elementary to university level. But mostly, I was surprised by the people and their kindness toward Americans. During the Vietnam War, we tore their country apart. We murdered hundreds of thousands of people and burned villages to the ground. And yet, the people we met weren’t bitter or anti-American at all. On the contrary, they were overwhelmingly hospitable and kind. They mentioned that our countries were not always friends, but that it was water under the bridge now. And perhaps that sentiment may have been different if we were in the northern part of the country, but it was still struck by how quickly the Vietnamese seemed to forgive and forget. I wondered if we as Americans would be able to do that if the tables were turned and what generational legacy we would pass on about ourselves. However, on the whole, I was thankful for the opportunity to see Vietnam. I don’t think I ever would have traveled there on my own and I would have missed out on meeting great people, the thrill of riding on motorbikes (and regular bikes), my first taste of communism, beautiful scenery, and the really awesome iced coffee.

i ate a fish and i liked it

The next morning we got up bright and early for our overnight trip to the Mekong Delta. My friend Greg had put the trip together and the ten of us were excited to get out of Saigon and see more of the country. The trip was Me, Hannah, Disha, Taylor, Caroline, Greg, Brendan, Skylar, Nate, Mike and Greg’s friend Dan who had traveled on Semester at Sea in spring 2007 and was currently volunteering at an orphanage in Cambodia.

We got off the ship and were met by a little bus with our name on it and our guide for the next two days, Mr. Tan. We hopped on the bus and all clocked out for the two hour drive out of the city. On our way to the delta we stopped at a Cao Dai temple. Caodaism is a religion that attempts to create an ideal philosophy through the fusion of the secular and religious philosophies of East and West. It includes elements of Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Hinduism, native Vietnamese spirits, Christianity and Islam.  The Cao Dai temples are known for their color, beauty and fusion of religious symbols.

After seeing the temple we continued our drive to the harbor where we met the boat that would take us around the delta. We all hopped on with our bags and Mr. Tan grabbed the mic to tell us a little about the area. After he was done he instructed us to sing. We sang some sweet 90s music, a few classics and some Beatles songs which Mr. Tan knew and joined in on. Everyone was in a great mood when we reached the first little island where we were treated to a traditional Vietnamese music performance. There was a guitar, a danbao and what looked like a two-stringed banjo, as well as two female singers. The music was interesting but beautiful. The voices sounded great but were definitely not what we would think of as traditional singing voices in the west. The sounds are much more nasal and sung from a different part of the throat. The instruments however, reminded me of a southern bluegrass band in their composition and rhythm. All in all it was a neat performance.

After the first island we hopped back on the boat and floated further down the delta to another island for lunch.  In terms of heat and humidity, India and Thailand were only opening acts for the main show of Vietnam. It was blistering hot and we were sweaty and gross to say the least. Luckily it was nice in the boat and the breeze coming off the water cooled us off a little. We arrived at a second island where we sat down for a traditional lunch. We were given the rice papers and lettuce to make rolls as well as some already fried spring rolls and other appetizers. The main part of the lunch though, was another whole fish, eyes and all, that had been fried on the outside and was now propped up to look as though it was still swimming on the plate.  We went to town on it and honestly, it was some of the tastiest and freshest fish I’ve had. After we’d had our fill of fish it was time to go for a bike ride.

Mr. Tan walked us over to a bunch of bikes and each of us picked one out. Once we made sure that everyone’s had at least one wheel with working brakes we lined up behind Mr. Tan and headed out. We rode over the thin bumpy path out from the area where the restaurant was and then turned out onto the main street. The street was paved in some places and bumpy in others. We saw other locals on bikes and motorbikes, people carrying baskets of goods to the market and women walking with children. We rode down a busy street with shops and people selling things outside and then came out the other side onto a less busy and more scenic road. We drove by houses and a school and continued over small bridges, breezing by greenery on every side.

Honestly, riding bikes was so much fun. I felt like a little kid again. Aside from being a little bumpy the surface we were on was relatively flat so it wasn’t an exhausting workout and we were able to be cooled by the breeze and enjoy the scenery. I loved it. As long as you could see the person in front of you it was pretty hard to get lost so well all just zipped around at our own pace and had fun. We reached the end of the trail and Mr. Tan pulled over to a roadside shack. He bought us all waters and coconuts with the tops cut off and we all took a break to enjoy our drinks. We were laughing and joking with Mr. Tan and decided we would start calling ourselves the Tan Clan. Also, over the course of two days Mr. Tan would adopt a number of nicknames including Master Tan, Tin Man, Mr. TanMan and Mr. Miyagi.  In short, we were big Tan Fans.  After our drinks we got back on our bikes and made our way back to the restaurant. We had some bike malfunctions along the way but we all made it back in one piece and it a great mood after our ride.

We headed back to the boat and Mr. Tan took us to the island where we would be staying. We arrived at our “homestay” and we were led into our open air room where we would be spending the night. Each of us was given a cot with a mosquito net, blanket, pillow and a towel. We had a little time to hang out before dinner and Mr. Tan took us to one of the smaller canals to catch minnows. Everyone was given a stick with a string and hook on the end and some bait. It was hard to catch the fish since they were so small but a few people caught some and brought them back to the site with us to cook.

We sat around and talked and walked down to the canal to watch the sun set. All of us were hungry so we were especially excited for a dinner of fish, spring rolls, rice and these really awesome crepe/omelet things that the women who lived at our site had taught us how to make earlier. We also got to eat the minnows that everyone had caught that afternoon, cooked up in a salty red sauce. They were tiny but tasty and everyone was proud of the food they had caught.

After dinner we were treated to more Vietnamese music and then Mr. Tan took us on a torch-lit walk through the jungle. We had torches made of dry palm fronds all wrapped together and lit on the ends. We felt like the contestants on survivor walking to tribal council with our torches. It was dark all around us and all we could see was what light was cast by the torch. After making our way back Disha, Skylar, Brendan and I decided to go for a short walk down another path. The torches had gone out but we were only going straight and then turning around so we figured we’d be fine. We were walking and laughing when all of a sudden we heard something in front of us. At first I thought it was a person and almost peed myself and then it started to growl and bark. I couldn’t see my own hand in front of my face and the sound scared us so much that we all screamed and ran as fast as we could back to the camp. Luckily all of us made it back alive and were able to recount our triumphant brush with death the rest of the group and have a good laugh.

Once everyone was back and settled we took turns using the shower and sat around talking about our homes, life on SAS and what we thought of Vietnam so far. For my Ecoacoustics class I’m supposed to make recordings of sounds I hear in port and I had brought one of the recorders along with me on this trip. I had taken it out to record the sounds of the jungle at night and we deiced to have some fun with it. Greg can make some pretty legit bird sounds so we started with those. However it quickly devolved into cows mooing, what sounded like a bird dying, crows screetching, stich from the movie Lilo and Stich, the announcer from GUTS, crocodile sounds from that arcade game and Hannah’s dead-on impression of a Halloween ghost decoration. And, just in case you thought we were mature, a chorus of fart noises. After playing with the recorder we were all getting tired so we get into our respective mosquito nets and told a few stories before falling asleep.

The next morning we got up at 6:15 to go for a bike ride with Mr. Tan to the market. The sun wasn’t all the way up yet so the morning was pleasantly cool. We bumped along the unpaved roads on our bikes and arrived at the market to see people doing their daily shopping. There were lots of mothers and children as well as many pregnant women. Seeing all the mothers and children made me think of mom and how she would have gotten a kick out of all the women. All of the kids I saw in Vietnam we so incredibly cute and I may or may not have wanted to take a few home with me. I resisted though and after exploring the market a little we rode our bikes home for breakfast. After a good meal of bread, jam, soft cheese and awesome Vietnamese coffee, we packed up our bags and hopped back on the boat.

We took the boat over to another island where our first stop was a place where they made honey. The guy who worked there pulled a comb out of the box and there were bees all over it. He told us we could touch it with our finger and lick off the honey if we wanted to. I was a little nervous at first but I went ahead and touched the bees anyway. I’m pretty glad I did too, since I didn’t get stung and the honey was pretty tasty. Then we sat down and they made us some tea with sour oranges and honey in it. I’ve had some pretty good tea on this trip but this tea was incredible; almost as good as Moroccan mint tea and that’s saying something. They also gave us shots of rice wine and banana wine, both of which were very strong and not particularly good tasting. Luckily there were sweets on the table to get the taste away and we snacked on pieces of candied ginger, coconut and pineapple.

This place also had two cages with a medium sized snake in one and a giant snake in the other .The man took out the medium sized snake first and asked if anyone wanted to hold it. No one did and I felt bad that he had taken the snake out for nothing so I said I would. He put the snake over my shoulders on my hands and he just kind of hung out there, looping around my arms a little. I was like a wussier version of Britney Spears that time at the VMAs, minus all the slutty. I gave the man back the snake and he proceeded to take out the very large one in the next tank. My friend Skylar volunteered to hold that one and it was honestly, huge.  He chilled on Skylar’s shoulders and arms while we snapped some pictured but once he started to get a little too wiggly we decided to head out and followed Mr. Tan as he led the way.

Our next stop was a place where they made coconut candy. They opened up the coconuts and extracted all the pulp with a grinder. From there the pulp is put under a press which you rotate using a giant lever. The press extracts the coconut milk which is then boiled and mixed in copper pots until it’s thick and workable. Then they pour it out, roll it and cut it into little squares. They mix it with peanuts, chocolate and banana flavor and after its cut it gets hand-wrapped with rice paper and regular paper before being packaged. It’s a pretty demanding process but the candy is very tasty. I  also bought a bunch of packs of it so you may get to try some very soon.

After seeing where they make the candy we walked over to a canal where we hopped into little 3-person canoes for a ride down the canals.  The tide was at its lowest point and while it was sometimes difficult for us to maneuver through the water. The small canal was filled with boats and we often had to grab the sides of other canoes in order to push ourselves through a tight spot. Overall though, it was a calm and beautiful ride. We could see the back porches of peoples’ houses, hear their roosters crowing and see them bringing their boats full of things to sell at the floating market. We were given rice hats to keep the sun at bay and relaxed as we slowly made our way back to the larger Delta.

Once we got out of our canoes, we boarded our larger boat and headed back toward land. We got back on our little bus and started to make out way back to the ship. On the way we stopped at a giant Buddha. I thought the two-story Buddha we saw in Thailand was sizeable but it didn’t even hold a candle to this guy. I have absolutely terrible height, depth and weight perception but I would guess that it was around 20 stories tall, all white and standing on a beautifully sculpted lotus flower. Very cool. After seeing the Buddha and enjoying one last lunch with Mr. Tan we started back to the ship.

On the way home we talked to Dan about his time on Semester at Sea and what it was like for him to come home. He said that it was hard to re-adjust to being back and that you never want to buy anything. Everything seems expensive once you’ve been abroad and it’s strange not to be able to barter. He said that it was hard to come back to American culture and to feel like we take a lot for granted. He also said that he has a much lower tolerance for complaining than he used to. Things that he used to complain about, he doesn’t anymore and he expressed how frustrating it was to hear his friends complain about things that seemed so unimportant. However, he also said that once you get over the initial shock SAS stays with you in a lot of good ways.  He was introduced to the orphanage where he is now volunteering in Cambodia through semester at sea. He keeps in touch with his good friends and wants to go on a reunion voyage. And he said that SAS really opened him up to travel and made him want to do it as much as possible.


Vietom nom nom nom

So it’s been a very long time since when left Vietnam but I’m going to do my best to summarize all that we did and the big things that I took away from my experiences there.

We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, on March 22nd. Coming into Vietnam, I really didn’t know too much about the country. I knew a little about the Vietnam War but other than the bare essential facts I really had no idea what the country was like now or what to expect when we arrived. 

A bunch of my friends and I had signed up for an FDP, so around noon we boarded the busses headed out to see the Cu Chi tunnels and enjoy a Vietnamese lunch. Upon arriving at the restaurant we were met with what would be pretty much our standard meal in Vietnam. Unlike the States, most of the food in Asia is served family style, everyone taking a little of each plate. We were given really tasty fried spring rolls, other little appetizers, soup, and pineapple. After eating our fill we got back on the bus to head to the Cu Chi tunnels. On the way we stopped at a cemetery for those who lost their lives in the Vietnam War. The cemetery was very open and airy with rows of matching, white marble graves. In the center was a large sculpture of a man holding a dying woman in his arms. It actually reminded me of both a small version of Arlington national cemetery and the quiet Jewish cemetery in New Jersey where my grandfather is buried. After a short stroll around we were herded back onto the busses and finally arrived at the Cu Chi tunnels.

Located right next to Westmoreland’s base from the war, the Cu Chi tunnels had been in use since the mid 1940s. They were cramped, tight, underground passages where men women and children lived for years when at war. They were used as a base for the Viet Cong from which they could launch strategic attacks and then seemingly disappear into thin air. We watched a video about the tunnels and then were taken around the compound as we learned more about what life in the tunnels was like and the various military campaigns perpetrated on both sides. There was a range where you could shoot military weapons and we were shown the various traps that were set to catch American G.I.s. Most of them involved very sharp spikes and looked like something I would not be pleased to find underfoot.

Finally we were given the chance to go into the tunnels. We climbed down inside and followed one another through the underground labyrinth of passages. The tunnels were tiny, hot and cramped. We crawled on our hands and knees through the dark and dust, finally making out way back out into the sunlight. After maybe 10 minutes in the tunnels we were dirty, sweaty and thankful for clean cool air. The Vietnamese would spend up to two years underground living in these spaces and we later learned that the tunnels we had crawled through had been enlarged 40%. Yikes.  

After out adventure in the tunnels we headed back to the ship to clean up and go out for dinner. After a really awesome shower we met up and took the shuttle to the Rex hotel at the center of town. We walked for a little while and after grabbing a tasty meal decided to explore Saigon and find a place to go out. One of the faculty members from the ship, Bob, was playing a concert at a Jazz club called Sax n’ Art and a bunch of us decided to go watch. The club was small with a stage to the left with just enough room for a piano, drum set and mics for a sax, guitar player, bassist and a singer. Bob played a few songs with their local backup band and then asked if the students who he usually jams with on the ship wanted to come up and join him. A bunch of my friends who play with him every night in our piano lounge hopped up on stage and played for a crowd of SAS-ers and locals.
After a little more jazz we decided we wanted to go dance so we headed back to the center of town near the Opera House to a club called Apocalypse Now. Seeing how it was a weeknight the club was filled with mostly SAS kids. There were a few locals however and everyone was together having a good time on the dance floor. Being on the ship the only time we really get to hear new music from the US is when we’re in clubs or bars in port so everyone was excited to hear new songs and have a good time dancing. At the end of the night we grabbed cabs back to the ship and turned in.

The next morning Taylor, Hannah and I got up early for a service visit to a school for the disabled. After a short bus ride we arrived at the Truong Dan Lap Da Thien School. We were met by the principal who explained to us a little about what the school does and the kinds of children who attend it. Most of the kids are from rural areas and through a government program are able to attend the school. Some are deaf or hearing impaired and the rest have either Down’s syndrome or another kind of mental disability.  They had a wide age range with children as young as 5 who attend the kindergarten, and children in the hearing impaired class who were as old as 14 or 15. After learning a little about the school we were able to split into groups to meet the kids and visit their classrooms. The school was actually really nice and the kids were great. They were so friendly and excited by our visit. Also, in comparison to the visit I did in India, the children at Da Thien were given a lot of attention and care.  Their teachers were patient and engaging and it was really great to see the program functioning so well. We visited a few of the classrooms and the students showed us what they had been learning, like songs, reading and writing. My mother knows a little bit of sign language and I know even less but I did my best to sign to some of the little girls and was able to spell out my name to them.

After visiting the classrooms everyone was brought into the common area and we were given toys, coloring books, bubbles and games were allowed to let loose and play.  It was really fun and we had a great time with the kids. We taught them head, shoulders, knees and toes and the hokey pokey and they sang us a song about Ho Chi Minh. I grabbed a bottle of bubbles and one of the little boys came over to join me. He sat on my lap and I showed him how to blow bubbles.  He was seriously into the bubbles and I think we spent the next 20 minutes just blowing bubbles, popping them and trying to catch them on the wand and start again. After a little while I joined some of the older kids drawing pictures. They were actually really good at drawing and were making graffiti writing and DJs and all sorts of really legit drawings.  Finally I hung out with a little girl who had a sticker book. We picked out stickers to give to the other kids and she gave me one to put on my cheek. After a little more time playing a few of us went into the kitchen to help set up and serve lunch. The kids were fed in their classrooms and they set up two tables in the common area for us.

At this lunch we were introduced to the Vietnamese concept of “make your own spring rolls,” which we would re-visit at most meals from that point on. We were given bowls of water, stacks of rice paper, plates with lettuce, herbs and some pineapples and a whole cooked fish. What we learned (after some serious trial and error) was that you wet the rice paper in the water so it’s workable, put the greens, pineapple and some fish meat inside and then roll it up. It actually tastes pretty great once you get it all together but it definitely took a little while for us to put the rice paper and the water together resulting in a lot of people snacking on some very dry rice paper. Oh well.

After our visit to the school we headed back to the ship and re-grouped to figure out the afternoon. Taylor and I wanted to find a place to get dresses made and Nate and Jordan wanted to get fitted for suits. Hannah, who had gone to a tailor the day before came with us and we headed in the director of her tailor shop. Earlier that week my friend Steve, who is an art major, had sketched out a dress for me and I brought the drawing along as a template. Hannah’s tailor had too many orders to take anymore to Taylor and I ventured next door to ask if they could make our stuff. The woman said that she could make my dress and Taylor’s suit. I showed her the design and she took my measurements and I picked out fabric. The dress Steve designed was three layers with the bottom two visible on top and bottom.  I chose a bronze, brown and cream fabrics and Taylor chose an olive-colored fabric for her two piece suit. Taylor and the boys were going to head to the market but Hannah and I wanted to do something more cultural since Hannah had gone to the market the day before. We decided to split off and take a cab to the war remnants museum.

We arrived at the museum and made our way inside to look at the exhibits. Formerly called the Museum of War Atrocities, the War Remnants Museum is operated by the Vietnamese government and chronicles much of the devastation suffered by the Vietnamese people during the war. Upon entering the first room we slowly made our way around the exhibit, examining the photographs and reading the explanations. There were photos of American soldiers holding guns to the heads of Vietnamese men and women. Photos of villages burning, bodies in piles, and miles of scorched jungles. The descriptions chronicled the raids, burnings and the war of attrition carried out by the American soldiers. There was an area of the exhibit dedicated to a raid that took place in a small rural village where, among others, two grandparents and their three young grandchildren were killed and their village was burnt to the ground.

As we moved through the exhibit we reached the section that detailed the devastation brought on by dioxin and Agent Orange.  During the war 4.8 million Vietnamese people were exposed to Agent Orange resulting in 400,000 death and disabilities and 500,000 children born with birth defects. There were photos of men and women who had been badly disfigured or affected by the diseases brought on by exposure to dioxin, as well as those in the next generation who were born with birth defects or mental and physical disabilities. There were fetuses that were badly disfigured and testimonies about the chemical makeup of Agent Orange. There was also a section about the American soldiers who were affected by it and the summit that was held on the topic in Ho Chi Minh City in 2007.

There was another section of the museum on weaponry and another which displayed art by local children, expressing their thoughts on peace, war and cultural harmony. Finally, another section of the museum displayed a timeline of events in the war and gave a short history of Vietnam from its occupation by France all the way through until gaining their independence.

Honestly, a lot of what was in the museum was hard to look at. It was hard to come to terms with the things that our country did and our often blatant disregard for human life. It was hard to reconcile why we were there at all and the fact that we literally burnt their country to the ground. Granted, we understood that the museum presented a very biased view of the conflict. There were atrocities committed on both sides and to say that the Vietnamese were the sole victims would be both ignorant and absolutely disrespectful of the Americans who fought and died there. But the things that stuck with me after leaving the museum rested in our reasoning for being there in the first place and the cultural and historical legacy that Vietnam has now in our country.

 As a young person, I was angry at myself, at the shipboard administrators and at the American education system for not preparing me for this. I walked out of the museum feeling like I had been uneducated and I felt very ignorant. Sure I had learned about the Vietnam War in AP U.S. History in high school, but it was something we glazed over between WWII and the present day, at the end of the year. I could have taken the initiative to seek out more information on my own, but I didn’t. I had thought that we would learn about the Vietnam War in Global Studies, but the professors speaking to us are from an older generation and when they became emotionally affected talking about the material, the rest of us were left in the dust. Aside from a few minutes on Domino Theory no one really explained to us in detail why we got involved, how the conflict escalated, what happened and how we ended up getting out. For an event that was paramount in shaping the generation before us, we knew so little. I felt uneducated.

It was a feeling shared by a lot of us on the ship, both in Vietnam and China, and we discussed it at length. My friend Dave commented that we learn about the Boston Tea Party and WWII over and over in every history class we take, but we rush over the Vietnam War and even the first Gulf War and don’t really get the chance to understand them.  But the truth is that these events play a far bigger role in shaping the world that we are going to inherit than the sugar tax or the Platt amendment or the invention of the cotton gin. What I took away from the War Remnants Museum was a greater desire to understand the war and our role in it and the hope that our country won’t make the same mistake twice.

Hannah and I spent a lot of time after the museum talking about what we had seen, and our perceptions of the war, America, and Vietnam as we made our way back to the center of the city. We had a map but the museum was off its borders so we walked in the general direction until we found a street with a familiar name and made our way back to the Rex hotel. The shuttle from the Rex to the ship left every half hour and we made a quick stop around the corner to get a bottle of water before heading back to catch the bus. Unfortunately, we must have taken a long time counting our change because when we got back to the Rex the bus had just left. We didn’t want to wait another half hour and just as we were about to try and make a plan a guy on a motorbike taxi goes “Ship? I take you. $1” One of the things I really like about Hannah is that she is always down for an adventure. We took one look at each other, looked at the bike and decided why not? He called over a friend and each of us grabbed a helmet and hopped on the back of one of the bikes.

If there is one thing that is memorable about Saigon it’s the motorbike traffic. The city has very few cars but there are literally seas of motorbikes, all driving and weaving around. Everyone wears helmets and often mouth and nose covers that look like surgical masks. It’s not uncommon to see whole families on motorbikes with children sitting on laps, or in front of the driver. Crossing the street is also an adventure. There are only crosswalks and signs in some parts of the city, and crossing the street is all about taking a deep breath and just stepping off the curb. The key is to go at a steady pace and make eye contact with the drivers. They anticipate you walking so they’ll swerve around you, but if you make sudden stops or run you might get hit.

Hannah and I held on tight to our respective drivers as we headed into the fray of motorbikes. Honestly, I was a little nervous because they told us not to go on the bikes and to be careful about exhaust burns but riding on the back of the motorbike was AWESOME. It wasn’t crazy fast, the breeze was great and it was just really fun. We got back to the ship quickly and cheaply and from then on Hannah and I were hooked on riding motorbikes.

We showered and grabbed some dinner and then met up with some other friends to go out. We decided to walk around downtown Saigon and check out the night market. I hadn’t been to a Vietnamese market yet so it was fun to see what kind of stuff they were selling. They had lots of polos, tee shirts, northface backpacks and jackets, Vietnamese crafts, shoes, clothes and food. We strolled around the night market and decided to grab some ice cream on our way back to the ship. We went into the ice cream parlor and checked out the menu. Most of my friends got vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce but I figured I may as well eat something adventurous so I got a longan ice cream. Longan is a Vietnamese fruit but I had never tried it before and didn’t know what it was going to taste like.

Everyone got their ice creams and after taking a few bites I still couldn’t really decide if mine was good or not. The ice cream itself tasted ok but there was something weird about the longan fruit. I had my friends taste it and we all agreed that there was some kind of aftertaste that we couldn’t put our finger on. Finally my friend Ben tasted it and he said, “It’s like fruit, but with the aftertaste of bacon”. He was absolutely right.  Ew. After realizing that I was eating a baconfruit sundae I decided that I had definitely eaten my fill and once we were all done we headed back to ship for the night. We had a trip to the Mekong Delta scheduled for the next day and knew that we were going to need our sleep.