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.