Tuesday, May 31, 2011

May 31- Save the best for last

And so the morning of May 31 is Time to fly for most of us to our new destinations and it was so hard to say goodbye, and I seriously think it's much better when we gave huge hugs to each other and hope to see one another again in the future.
Many of us took the bus back to Vientiane to take the train to Thailand, some us took the flight home, and the Hanoi University girls took the train from Luang Prabang to Vinh (Vietnam) and then home in Hanoi.
It has been the A-May-zing month of May if I should say, in four weeks we have travelled to various places in Vietnam and Laos, we have been to many caves, rivers, mountains and the sea, we have visited many historical sites and have been to many temples and beautiful places. We have travelled by all means of transportation that we can, by bus, by train, by boats and we can not count how many steps we have walked along the road and on the way up and down to some temples and caves up high in the mountains. We have been together as a group and we have met so many wonderful people in Vietnam and Laos, and worked with the local people in our volunteer project sites. We have completed our service work in Quang Tri (Vietnam) and Xieng Khuoang (Laos) to bring the new look to the places we have been to. There was some low moments during the trip but most of the time we jumped really HIGH :) and I am sure we have learned a lot from what we have experienced, many of which we have never known before.
I would like to get back to what William Faulkner said "You cannot swim for new horizons until you have courage to lose sight of the shore.", I think we have gone beyond the horizon and made this journey to the SEA (Vietnam and Laos) our MAY, the Marvelous Adventure of the Year.
It has been a great journey in four weeks of May and we will keep the memory of the trip and our smiles forever wherever we go for our next destination.

Friday, May 27, 2011

French Fries, Chopsticks and Paint Splatters

At the conclusion of our harrowing journey through the mountainous northern regions of Laos, we have emerged to find a much colder climate in Phonsavan, the likes of which suit most of our Michigan counterparts and leave new Vietnamese friends donning cardigans and long pants.

Luckily this gives us all a chance to make use of our scarf purchases from Hanoi - the likes of which we thought would be dead weight in our suitcases during 36 hour return flights. This is good news!

This leg of our trip begins at the Xieng Khouang Hotel for our first night not requiring air conditioning.

This component of our service project takes us to the Xiangkhaung Library for 3 days of painting, landscaping and french-fry eating (with chopsticks, naturally). We began our first day sanding the outer walls of the library in preparation for a new coat of primer and paint, a festive coral with maroon trim.

The majority of our two days to date have been spent with the current staff of librarians and some local children for added guidance in the finer points of painting. The library sits on a former UXO site which has now been cleaned up to make way for both a local museum and our project. The library project we are working on exists in the wider scope of the Lao Library Project (http://www.libraryoflaos.com/), an NGO begun by an American Veteran originating in Vietnam with corollary projects in Laos and Cambodia. The project looks to create central librarys in each of Laos 100 provinces with room to create smaller satellite facilities to serve the greater populations in these countries with multi-media resources.

Many of the sites picked housed former UXOs with the intention of replacing bombs with books and creating a place for humanitarian efforts and community building.

We look forward to completion of our small part in this exciting effort and doing some touring later in the week around this historic area in the heart of the mountains.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Lovin' Lao

We arrived in Laos after a long and arduous ordeal with immigration officials. Strangely the Laos border was only about one mile from where we had stayed the previous night. Our new tour guide, Alie, met us with our new bus on the Laos side of the border. We loaded up the bus and drove for about four hours until we reached Savannakhet, our home for the night. After a very late lunch, we set to explore the area. Some of us took a walk to the river to watch the sunset while the rest of the group went to a local park and played soccer and basketball with some of the local kids. Tomorrow we continue our journey in Laos and head to Vientiane—about a six hour bus ride from Savannakhet. Hopefully we can pick up some Laotian on the way!
We have arrived at Vientiane, which is the capital of Lao. We got a chance to wander around the city and see some of the major attractions including the Golden Stupa, three Buddhist temples, and the Victory Monument. Later on in the day, we had a meeting with the head of public affairs in the U.S. embassy in Laos and learned about her experiences. Our hotel was right next to the Presidential Palace and right across from the Mekong River, which separates Lao and Thailand! It was really nice to walk along the river. On our last night at Vientiane, we were treated to some traditional Lao dance and music.
From there, we continued our journey through the beautiful mountains of Laos to Phonsavan where we will be starting our library project for the next four days.

Farewell Vietnam and Truc

The last full day in Vietnam, we woke up early and went to the boarding school for ethnic minority students. There are 250 children from grade 6 to 9 selected by their villages at the school. It was the last day of the school year before summer vacation, so we played games and sang songs with them the whole morning. At first, they were very shy but then they became more curious and engaged. Some of the students were very excited to show us their dorm rooms which are quite different from Michigan dorms! Before we left, we donated some school supplies and candies.

Our last night in Vietnam, we had a big dinner as farewell for Truc – our fabulous guide. We feasted on giant prawns, fried squid, clams, vegetables and of course, rice. We hung out the rest of the night and finished off with a special presentation for Truc and a group discussion reflecting on our experience in Vietnam.

More exploring in Quang Tri

Our last few days in Vietnam were really memorable. We left Dong Ha for Lao Bao – a town on the border of Vietnam and Laos. On the way, we made a quick stop at the Rock Pile and learned a bit of history about the battles fought there. All the foliage that had been destroyed during the war has grown back so we could not climb the Rock Pile itself, but we took a couple of pictures and learned some interesting facts about the war. The Rock Pile presented an obstacle for both sides in the war, and especially for the US Army because they were unfamiliar with the terrain. Next, we spent some time at the Van Kieu minority village. We treated the kids to some candies and learned about their lifestyles. Because they don’t speak Vietnamese, it was difficult for us to communicate with them but we found that a smile can be as good as words. The villagers’ livelihood consists of various agricultural practices, and because their parents work all day in the fields, the older children are responsible for taking care of their siblings.

From the village, we walked down to the Ho Chi Minh trail. In the war, it was crucial transportation route for soldiers and supplies between North and South Vietnam and Laos. Then we went to the museum in Khe Sanh. The mountains surrounding the museum were beautiful but in the past there was so much bloodshed there. Next, we continued on to Lao Bao and spent the afternoon exploring the town. We spent a mellow night in Lao Bao.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Phong Nha Cave

Today we took a trip to the Phong Nha Cave, which translates to "wind teeth."  The cave is given this name because it is very windy inside and the rock formations resemble teeth.  After a three hour bus ride, we arrived at the Son River, located in the Quang Binh province, north of Quang Tri.  We then boarded two small boats that took us down stream to the cave.  We spent time trekking through the cave, admiring the natural carvings, as well as climbing up the outside of the mountain to see more of the cave.  Along the way up, we saw spectacular views of the countryside.  This breathtaking view is scattered with dark memories of the war, with small ponds and darker shades of soil marking bomb craters.  We ended our afternoon outing with lunch at a nearby hotel then traveled back to Đông Hà.

Exploring the War Remnants in the Quang Tri Province

Yesterday we took a trip to the town of Quang Tri,  DMZ (the former demilitarized zone) located along the 17th parallel, the Vinh Moc tunnel, and the beach.  The town of Quang Tri is where the bloodiest battle of the Vietnam War took place. We visited the ancient citadel where the battle occurred, and learned more about it from the museum.

Then we traveled north to the DMZ, where we walked across the Ben Hai River bridge that separated the north and the south during the war. For many of us, it was eye opening to see how distant two parts of a country can be and how real it felt given the physical separation.  We also visited the museum at the DMZ and saw some pictures of the NGOs that are working to help restore communities affected by the war, including Project RENEW. Visiting the museum helped us to understand more about the role of Quang Tri in the war and the efforts that NGOs have been making since.  Many of us were moved by crossing the river and visiting the museum because it made the war seem much less distant than it does at home in the US.

From there we traveled east to the Vinh Moc tunnel along the coast of the South China Sea (also known as the East Sea in Viet Nam). We crawled through tunnels made by the North Vietnamese during the war to be used as protection for soldiers and their families. Entire communities lived in these underground homes for long periods of time.  Children were born in the tunnels, attended school there, and families eventually transitioned their entire lives to the underground tunnels.

In the afternoon we got a bit of relaxation at the Cua Viet Beach.  It was nice to spend the afternoon in the sand and the  waves.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Rocky's Birthday Thoughts

I had a fantastic birthday in Viet Nam and a good friend of mine wanted me to share some thoughts on this day.  My father fought in Viet Nam in 1968-1969.  As a result of being shot up he had to have a leg amputated and led a life full of physical and mental pain from the shrapnel in his body, PTSD and exposure to Agent Orange.  Yet he was also a man of great love and compassion, passing away from several heart attacks and strokes when I was 16. Below is a poem on my birthday reflections in Dong Ha.

I just finished being hai muoi lam
People ask me why I go back to Viet Nam
For me the personal has always been political
Not an abstract philosophical elliptical
No matter how many socks used or applied baby powder
With each step the pain always got louder
Prosthetic limps can't hide the limp
Never called him a wimp
Even as phantom pains struck like lightning
Hitting each piece of shrapnel is frightening
He used to say "freedom has a price"
But they weren't there when he'd slip on the ice
How many bones can you afford to lack?
Dioxin chemical nightmares
The government never paid that fare
They take the youth
Destroy and twist the truth
Other fathers and sons play ball & run
But taking care of strokes ain't no fun
So I jumped head first into the Mekong Delta
Trying to understand the hand that delt ya
At an early age I knew hell isn't a place underground far
And heaven isn't up next to a star
Simultaneously coexisting right here
Embracing the tension became clear
Constantly unveiling the layers
Figuring out the key players
"Let's move forward and be friends"
Is what I heard here...bends
Your heart and mind
Stripping the fruit from the vine
Let's learn and love one another...?
It wasn't just a voice from my own mother
But foreign young and old alike
Shattering every preconceived fright
So I come to search for the ghost of my old man
And tell him I have a new plan
Plant trees where bombs maimed
Where American and Vietnamese came
I come to leave a token
For the dead and living, smokin
An incense prayer
That before the dawn
We can unite and be strong
Reality is not a static fatality
Where we come from shifts
Tectonic plates can rift
When we shed the scales off our eyes
Slowly stripping down the lies I do apologize
I come in hope of a dream
That washes our blood & tears away in a Mississippi or a Red River Stream
Where tomorrow is brighter than yesterday's jelly napalm
Learning the rights from the wrongs
This is why I come back
So you and I won't lack
The necessary compassion needed to combat
Ignorance in all its shapes and sizes
Sharing with each other our greatest prizes.

Rocky Block

Hard Work in the Hot Sun!

We spent Friday through Monday working with the NGO, the Global Community Service Foundation (GCSF), on one of their new projects, a school for the visually and hearing impaired. The school is geared towards preparing young children with visual and hearing impairments for either further education in a mainstream school or for the workforce with vocational training. The GCSF took on this project after the last NGO that ran the school, then called Kids First Village, lost their funding and was unable to continue with the project.

We've been helping the GCSF with preparing the school through landscaping and cleaning. It has been a lot of hard work, with the physical labor even more exhausting in the heat (but apparently the people who live in Đông Hà consider it "cool" weather for this time of year). In addition to our work at the future school, on Saturday morning, four members of our team travelled to the home of a local ethnic minority family and aided them in building the foundation of a new bathroom.

Over the four days we worked at the site of the new school, we planted over 300 trees, cleaned three buildings, cleared four lots of grass and weeds, and truly came together as a group. We hope that our efforts will continue to benefit the school that is scheduled to open in October of this year.

Working with lawn Mower to clear a playground
Working under the sun
Planting trees

We're ready to take off to the next destination when our work at GCSF has been completed.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Journey to Đông Hà!

Sunrise in Đông Hà, Quảng Trị (shot taken through the train's window)

Wednesday evening, we boarded an overnight train in Hanoi, and 12 hours later we were 580 kilometers away in Đông Hà, in the Quang Tri province. For most of us it was our first time on an overnight train. We all slept in four person rooms in a sleeper car, with two sets of bunk beds in each room. The night was spent chatting, hanging out and getting to know each other better.

At 7:00 am the next day we were greeted with the intense heat and bright sunshine of Đông Hà! We spent the rest of the day Thursday learning more about the NGO we were going to be working with over the next four or so days, the Global Community Service Foundation (GCSF), and we visited Tâm Cafe, a coffee place for where the staff who work are hearing impaired people. We checked the menu and learned from the pictures posted on the wall how to order our drink and food in sign language.
In the afternoon, we visited one NGO called Project RENEW (Restoring the Environment and Neutralizing the Effects of War).

Project RENEW works to help people affected by UXOs (unexploded ordinates) and ERWs (explosive remnants of war) in the Quang Tri province. The organization is currently active in three of the districts in the province and is hoping to expand to a fourth in the near future. The Quang Tri province was the most bombed area during the Vietnam War, and contains the majority of UXOs still remaining, causing many problems for those who work in agriculture, look for scrap metal, and herd livestock. One way Project RENEW helps victims is with initiatives like the Mushrooms with a Mission project, where the organization provides families affected by UXOs or ERWs with the means to cultivate, gather, and sell mushrooms to help support them financially.

Over the past two days, we have been working with GCSF on another project, involving landscaping for a future school for the blind. The location is inside a complex that used to be operated by Kids First Village.
It's been a lot of hot, hard work, but we're all getting through it together and growing as a group.

From Busy working time at Quảng Trị Center, Đông Hà.

From Busy working time at Quảng Trị Center, Đông Hà.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The last hours in Hanoi

On the morning of May 10, we went to the school Sao Mai, which is a school for kids with mental and physical disabilities. We took with us the Vietnamemse snack called Bim Bim to hand out to the children. We first met with some of the staff and learned more about the center and autism, then we were divided in small groups classrooms where the children study and play. We paired off and visited ten different class rooms along with students involved with Volunteers for Peace Vietnam. We played games, sang songs, and helped them with lunch before the kids went for nap-time. Then we had a chance to ask questions about the center and went out for lunch with some of the VPV students.

After getting back to the Old Quarter section of Hanoi, we worked in 4 different groups and explored different areas that are known for selling different items in the Old Quarters of Hanoi. Some people went to Medicine Street, Paper Street, Toy Street, Souvenir Street, among others. We all were able to interact with the people who live and work in the area and some were even able to visit their homes, which are located down the alleys that lead behind the street-front shops.

We went to the early morning flower market in Hanoi, where Vietnamese farmers and vendors sell a variety of beautiful wholesale flowers.

All of us are doing great and we have a few more hours to enjoy Hanoi before getting on a night train (leaving at 6:30 pm) to travel to Dong Ha, which is in the center of the country. It's about a twelve hour train ride, so we'll be able to catch up on some sleep and probably spend more time bonding over games.

Bye for now! :)
Sunday May 8
We went out on the boat again all day and everyone had a blast. We rented kayaks from one of the floating communities and toted them behind our big boat until we got to the place we wanted to kayak. They were a lot of fun to be in, but steering them posed quite a big challenge for most of us, since we had 2 people trying to do it and the wind was not too helpful. We kayaked through a floating fishing village, which was about 1 hour off the coast. It was interesting to see them so close up. Many of the houses also had dogs on them, which we thought was funny. During the trip we also had some splashing wars, so most of us got wet. Only 1 of the students fell in, which we consider a big success. After we got back to the boat we had lunch and some people decided to play a game. The loser of each round of the game had to do a silly dare. Some of these included pulling out a piece of Rocky's hair, doing silly dances on the deck of the boat, and pulling a crew members ear. We also went to another cave.
Today was also TA's birthday. We had a surprise birthday party for her in Rocky's suite on the 13th floor of the hotel. There was a beautiful cake and all of us had a fun time hanging out.

Monday May 9
We traveled back to Hanoi today. Once back we went to visit the American Chamber of Commerce. It is not affiliated with the government, but the Vietnamese government will meet with them. We talked to the director, who taught us about a lot of what he does and the business aspect of what is happening in Vietnam.

The Kayak Team on Ha Long Bay

Monday, May 9, 2011

Week One Roundup

From Day Tour

Thursday, May 5th
We started the day by visiting Ho Chi Minh mausoleum. This is where his body is kept and on display. After going through the security we were able to see the body, which is over 30 years old, which is guarded at all times. Then we went on to visit the complex, which has remnants of his life including the house he lived in before he died, some of the cars he used and personal items. The area that we saw was mostly outside and had a lot of green area, which was quite beautiful.

Next we went to the museum of ethnology. This explores the 54 ethnic groups of Vietnam, by telling us how they live and providing artifacts. On the inside was where most of the information was and the traditional items were held. There was also an outside of the museum, which all of us really enjoyed. This area had different styles of houses that the ethnic groups live in. They were all very cool, but one of our favorite houses was 20 feet off the ground. Most of us climbed up to the house, which was a little scary. We found it interesting that most of the floors were made of bamboo.

Temple of Literature: This is the oldest school in Hanoi and has the names of the people who graduated from it on stones that sit on stone turtles. People go to this place when they want to receive good luck for an exam. People may also go here to worship, since it is a temple.

Hoa Lo Prison was the next place we visited. This is a historic landmark for the Vietnamese and was where they were imprisoned during fights for political freedom. But Americans know this place better as the Hanoi Hilton. The prison was used during the Vietnam-American War to hold POWs. One significant person that was held there was John McCain, which was really emphasized at the prison. The Vietnam-American war part of the museum touched home for more of the group and had a more significant impact on us. There were remnants of things the prisoner’s left along with a video of what all happened. One of the main messages that was talked about was how well the Vietnamese treated the American POWs, which contradicts what we have learned in the past. It was interesting to see both points of view, allowing us to get a better understanding of the War. Part of the prison has been demolished since it was last used, which was hugely controversial, since it is such a significant part of Vietnamese history.

American Embassy: Here we learned about what the Embassy does in general and how someone goes about working at an embassy. They also talked about the relations between the Embassy and Vietnam. One of the main issues we discussed was human rights and the differing options on it. We also talked about the development of the city.

Friday May 6
Today we visited Hanoi University, where the 4 Vietnamese students we are traveling with study. We had 2 lectures today, separated by lunch at the school cafeteria. The first one talked about the demographics of the area, the economy and how it is changing, poverty, and developmental challenges. The second lecture, a lot of people found quite interesting and was presented by an American teacher. We learned about how Hanoi’s landscape can be viewed as text. He informed us about the history of Hanoi and how the development has become to be. There are reasons as to why the city is shaped as it is. There is the old quarter and the new quarter, which are quite different. Defining architecture in Hanoi is so different, since there have been so many influences present, with the French being a major one. One of the major landmarks we talked about was the Long Bien Bridge, which was built by the French, but the Vietnamese are very proud of it and it is a big part of their history.
After the lecture, we were given free time to go out and explore the city along with get dinner. Everyone split up in to small groups and went out to have fun. The night market was also that night, which is when a street is closed and shops are set up on the street and many people go out shopping. This was one of the nights that some of the people in the group went and got massages, which were great. Other people went out to the Salsa club, which was a few doors down from the hotel, which was a lot of fun.

Saturday May 7, 2011
Today we were all up and out of the hotel by 7:30. We traveled to Ha Long Bay, which was about a 3-hour bus ride, on our very nice and spacious bus. When we got to the bay, we went onto a boat for our group. The boat was wooden and had 2 levels, which is consistent with most of the boats we saw. We had lunch on the boat, which was good. We had some issues trying to get everyone foods that they could eat though, due to eating restrictions, but everything worked out fine.
Everyone really enjoyed the boat and the view was indescribable. We will put up pictures soon. Lots of sunscreen was applied and it looks like no one got too burnt. We docked to take a tour of a cave, which was so cool. The rock formations were amazing and it was hard to believe that it was naturally formed. Then we went to the beach for a bit to hang out and have some fun. The water was quite nice after such a hot day and most people also hiked up to the top of the rock formation to see around the whole island. The sight was breath taking. One group even had a photo shoot at the top. As we boated back to shore the sun was setting, which was a great way to end the day trip.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Quick Message from Ha Long Bay on Mothers' Day

The GIEU group went to Ha Long over the weekend, one of the World Natural Heritage Sites recognized by UNESCO. Everyone had a great time and enjoyed some beautiful sunshine so we all looked tanned and happy. We finally got internet connection just briefly before we return to Hanoi Monday Morning. There will be more entries to follow from Hanoi later.
Happy Mothers' Day!

See Halong in different way with your action - Gìn giữ vẻ đẹp lãng mạn của môi trường Hạ Long

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Xin chào Hà Nội, Xin chào Việt Nam!

This is the slideshow of GIEU members on their "first hello" to Hà Nội, the capital city of Vietnam.

You can also enjoy the song Bonjour Vietnam (Hello, Vietnam)
So GIEU members have come to Hà Nội to say Xin Chào Việt Nam!

First day - Exploring Hà Nội with Scavenger Hunt

I am Huy Anh from the North Vietnam group. Both Vietnamese and American students are very excited for first day of GIEU. We had a scavenger hunt around the town that challenged us to walk to various destinations in the town. Moreover, there were many interesting things that I have rediscovered Hanoi - the city which I have been living for more than 20 years. Here are the top FIVE:

5. Walking across the street is very dangerous. However, my American friends get used to it faster than I think.

4. I like the tranquility of Sword Lake - the center of Hanoi very much. There is another world inside Jade Mountain Temple (Đền Ngọc Sơn) which is peaceful and calm. I wish I could go there when I have free time.

3. It is little bit chilly today. However, the weather is good in daytime. It is raining at night.

2. I love our group members. They are Alicia, Ellen and Shannon. All of them have made my great day although I cannot fully understand the conversation between them along the course today.

1. We have been walking for nearly 5 hours. Thus, I can sleep better tonight.

Some pictures were taken by Ellen:

Shannon, Alicia and Huy Anh at O Quan Chuong - one of Ancient City Gates

Magic tree

Long Bien bridge was built by French architecte, Gustave Eiffel, who designed the Eiffel Tower.

Shannon, Alicia and Ellen are in front of Ceramic Mural

Happy family ice cream :-D

Ellen's favorite part of Ceramic Mural. It depicts children celebrating Mid-Autumn Festival. For more information about Mid-Autumn Festival.

St. Joseph's Cathedral in the Old Quarters

National Library landscape

Shannon is checking index in library

Taking a rest in Jade Mountain Temple

Hanoi Opera House

Lunch at Phở 24

History Museum

Ly Thai To King statue - the founder of Hanoi city

See you next time !