Today is our last day in Hanoi. We began with a visit to an orphanage in Bac Ninh, right outside Hanoi. Due to scheduling conflicts, we were not able to do as much service as we wanted to, but we still swept their courtyard clean and left a positive impact on the children there. The orphanage is currently taking care of 22 babies and a number of students who happen to be deaf.
Children of all ages with different abilities greeted us and watched us as we worked. I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with the babies there and I really admired the women who cared for them. Some of the babies had severe disabilities. Later in the afternoon, after a strange lunch with an overambitious host, we visited a highly prestigious high school in Ban Ninh. Their auditorium reminded me of George School’s, but it was decorated in red and had some busts of Ho Chi Minh and a few communist slogans. The school’s presentation of the opportunities they offer impressed me due to its location in a poor area of the city. I was overjoyed to interact with kids my age who were just as educationally apt as we were. We played games with the students and learned a lot about their everyday life at the school. Some of us exchanged social media info and they waved us good-bye with enthusiastic, kind gestures.
Later in the evening, we met up with Alex, my prefect this past year, who lives in Hanoi. His parents invited us all out to a very nice restaurant buffet/barbecue not far from our hotel. It was amazing to see my Vietnamese friends there (a few others from Hanoi/GS showed up) after two weeks of wanting to see them. We sang the George School hymn to Alex in honor of his graduation! I am excited to go back home, but I know I will miss moments like this one due to the quality of Vietnamese hospitality that we found in Hanoi and in every place we went.
by Tommy ’18
Today was the “free day” where we could go sightseeing and enjoy the city. As usual, we began with a delicious Skylark Hotel breakfast. After the satisfying meal, we hopped on the bus. We met our Vietnam-USA Society’s tour guide, Nga for the day. We headed to the taoist temple to see several shrines where people offered incense and food in an attempt to please the gods. We also witnessed two tai chi classes happening in the temple’s front courtyard. An annoying woman tried to sell us cheap fans for an atrocious amount of money. We next went to the West Lake buddhist pagoda. We saw more shrines where all statues of buddha were given offerings of fruit, cookies or money. After that, we treated ourselves to ice cream. The contrast between the temperature of my body and the ice cream resulted in a refreshing moment of balance for me. Devon went to a woman who was selling baby turtles and bought three of them. We walked over to the lake and threw them in, watching them swim away to freedom. We then boarded the bus and went for banh my or Vietnamese popular sandwiches on French bread. It was the perfect mix of ingredients. Since we were in a pedestrian district, we all walked around for about an hour. After we returned to the hotel, Paige, Juliette and I went clothes shopping around the Hoan Kiem Lake area, and ended up buying many articles of clothing. We ordered room service from the hotel. Paige and Juliette got pizza and I got a burger. I think burgers are the food that I miss the most from the USA. After dinner, we headed out to the night market and walked around the Hoan Kien area again. It was a much cooler night, the walk was very pleasant. We didn’t see a lot that interested us. We came back to the hotel and relaxed with some music in the girls’ room. At about 8:55 p.m., I headed down to my room and was totally exhausted, ready to go to bed.
Today was our last day in the village and honestly if I did not have so much waiting for me at home, I would be staying. We had a delicious and traditional breakfast of pho and fruit that was fresh beyond belief. We packed up our stuff and said our last goodbyes to the place I consider another home away from home. The bus ride back brought beautiful views, a delicious snack of mango, and a much-needed nap. Once we arrived back in Hanoi, we had lunch at the first restaurant we ever ate at on this trip. Going there put my time here in perspective and made me realize that I would soon have to say goodbye to this amazing country. Sentimental, I know, but we had to say goodbye to our host families as well. It has been an emotional day. At dinner, we were greeted with tables stacked with wonderful food and a seemingly endless amount of handshakes and “thank you” for the service we have done. With the host families all gathered together, we shared one last meal with people that we had suddenly come to love. My goodbyes went quickly, corrected to “I will see you later” by the people around me. After exchanging songs with our audience of parents and members of the organization that made this possible, we gave our last hugs and headed back to the hotel. This bittersweet night made me realize how comfortable I have become and there is a spot in my heart for the people I have encountered. With only a little time left, we will continue to immerse ourselves in the culture and eventually say the final “see you later.”
Friday, June 23, 2017
Today I woke up at 5:00 a.m. At first I was so annoyed at how early I woke up, but as I lay there, I enjoyed the many sounds of the village; the crowing roosters, the mooing cows and the constant piercing hum of the cicadas. Today was also our last working day. We got there at around 8:15 a.m., before any of the women in the village with whom we usually work. Beginning work without them really made me appreciate how the whole village comes together to finish a project like this. We were still digging, digging, digging, trying to remove one of probably five to eight huge piles of dirt. And, much of the dirt was actual clay or rocks—not easy at all to manoeuver. We worked until 11:15 a.m. and finished our last community work efforts, dirty, sweaty and exhausted. Everyone headed to the showers when we returned to our host home on stilts.
In the afternoon Gavin, Rex and I went to a café where we met two people from an organization called Asia Outdoors. They were very nice and invited us to a free yoga session. Their invitation made me feel welcomed, and even though we didn’t go, I still appreciated it. Throughout our free time in the afternoon, almost everyone in the group got massages from some of the women with whom we worked. When I arrived there, I was glad that they were happy to see us again!
In the evening, we went back to the community center where the children put on a dance performance for everyone. They were proud to dance for us, and for the last dance they invited us to do the Macarena with them. We also sang a song for the community and Tommy, Devon and Paige did “The Cup Song.” As we handed out candy and gum to all the children and mothers, I saw many of the women we worked with and I felt like I was a little part of their community, too. There is an obvious lack of men in the village. We were told that many men of working age leave the village to go work in the cities. A lot of them have jobs in hotels. They come home for extended periods in early June and November to help harvest rice. While they are away, they send money home to their families.
We went to bed once again pretty early – around 9:45 p.m.!
by Juliette ’18
Today we woke up around 6:20 a.m. and had breakfast at 7:00 a.m. After breakfast, we departed for the community center where we continued our work from the day before. We began with shoveling dirt and then quickly shifted to forming an assembly line with the women of the village to transport rubble from a demolished building. We passed large pieces of concrete down the line and eventually discarded them into a ditch to create the foundation for a new building. The work was exhausting and hot, but in my opinion, it was preferable to digging and shoveling. It was wonderful to see the work that can be accomplished when a community comes together. The people in the village were all invested in the goal of building a new communal cooking area, thus improving the quality of life for all the inhabitants of the village. We took a break for lunch around 11:30 a.m. After lunch, Paige, Tommy and I went shopping in town. The afternoon heat was really intense and it took a lot of effort to mentally prepare for the hours of work ahead of us. We returned to work around 2:00 p.m. As predicted, the afternoon work proved to be grueling mainly because of the heat. We returned to the house at 5:00 p.m. and I took a nap while others went out shopping, exploring in town. We all regrouped for dinner. Everyone enjoyed the delicacy of fried grasshoppers. I was surprised how easy it was to eat grasshoppers if I didn’t look at them closely. Exhausted, we went to bed early, around 8:30 p.m.!
by Devon ’18
To begin our first working day in Mai Chau, we woke up after a restful sleep (despite the lack of AC). We had a delicious breakfast of banana pancake fritters and dragon fruit. At 8:00 a.m., we walked to the community center where the townspeople were working; they are expanding the center and so we were asked to level the dirt piles and fill in what used to be a pond. Two of the large piles were dry and rock based. Another was predominantly clay. In the morning we could hardly see a difference although we worked for a few hours. We broke at noon, which is really 11:30 a.m. in Vietnam, for a filling and delicious lunch. After, the girls’ house took a long siesta, and we returned to work around 3:00 p.m. After an hour and a half of work, the townspeople decided to use a backhoe to move the dirt. To us, it really seemed like our work was destroyed but the organizers explained that our work had to get done first for the backhoe to come into the area and do its job. While we all watched the machine do ten times faster what we were doing, Julian became friends with a little boy. He was very strong but very small, and we all had many laughs together. I have really noticed how happy these kids are without electronics. To me, that is really special and has made me think a lot about kids in the U.S. Julian and I were also greeted by my little friend Jiang and her cousin Nguyen when we came back home. Very graciously, they brought us cold bottles of water. We soon left for showers and dinner. None of us could wait to eat the great food they make here. After the meal, most of the group played a round of cards but I chose to sit in the hammock next to the table and journal while Julian watched many head lamps moving and working in the rice patties. The work was hard, but overall we had all had another great day. 9:30 p.m. bedtime was fine with most of us!
By Gavin ’18
Today we had a mission: to get to Mai Chau without any casualties! The bus trip was long but after taking a long nap, I awoke to daunting mountains and a miraculous landscape right outside my window. The view was special and I knew that I was not in Kansas anymore. Mountains just up into the sky, and wild cows and chickens roam the fields below. When we finally arrived to Mai Chau, we were greeted by a big, happy family who graciously led us into their home. Their houses on stilts are similar to all the others in the village. Our village is actually next to the town of Mai Chau, and it is called Pom Coong. We sat down to lunch, and I tasted the best chicken ever. Everything on the table was locally grown or raised, and not tainted by chemicals or sweeteners, as common in American food. The village has about 60 houses (constructed from bamboo and stone) and is relatively undeveloped and natural. They make their living by renting rooms for tourists or selling handmade wares. We walked around and many people greeted us with smiles; it felt good to see people happy, living such simple lives out in the country. Pom Coong’s simplicity really puts into perspective the convoluted American society to which I am so familiar. It is peaceful here and that is wonderful. We went to bed at 9:30 p.m. and we begin work tomorrow!
By Rex ’18
As we left Ha Long Bay I enjoyed observing the rice farmers we passed while riding back to Hanoi. I try to imagine what their life is like living simply and farming every day. There appears to be no other options for them other than to farm or to sell goods to tourists. I wonder if the children have options in terms of work or if they are just following their parents. Back at the Skylark Hotel in Hanoi, we prepared to meet with the U.S. Ambassador at his private residence. The house was beautiful and full of remarkable artwork. The art was influenced by President Barak Obama’s message of unity and cooperation with the U.S. and Vietnam.
The Ambassador’s partner, Clayton Bond, the cousin of Julian Bond ’57, a social activist and George School alum, welcomed us. Clayton is an incredible person who spoke eloquently. We sat around a beautiful table for tea with him and his staff, and everything had the American eagle on it. Listening to Clayton speak was amazing; he was engaging and personable and you could tell that he truly cared about his job and the Vietnamese people. I was surprised to learn that Vietnam practiced self-censorship within the government and news. My host family had been very open about issues in the government including the recent minister who was kicked from his house for using bribes to buy his wife expensive gifts. Another major issue that was controversial was the Taiwan fish incident in which pollution from a Formosa company caused many fish to die suddenly along the coast. There is not a strong protection of the environment in Vietnam. My host family told me about the incident and they did not know why it happened.
Clayton had also invited three people from the Embassy to talk to us about their work experience in Vietnam. They were very concerned about trying to increase the human rights and I was so impressed that as a gay couple, they are able to represent our country and shake off any negative comments that they receive. He was an inspiration to us for his ability to be a force for change in this developing nation. In a way, he reminded me of President Obama due to his charisma and passion. We asked questions about their jobs and issues that they face. The Ambassador himself finally arrived and met with us at the end of our meeting. He spoke like a politician and had that perfect politician smile, in a good way. I was pleased to hear that he spoke Vietnamese and gave speeches in Vietnamese. I was sad to hear that this was his last year as an ambassador, specially, since we need someone like him to represent our country with our current administration. I feel like they have promoted a lot of good in Vietnam.
by Julian ’17
Today was the most memorable experience of the trip this far. We began with a tedious road trip from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay. While we were comforted with tourist attractions and foreign snacks, most of the morning was spent anticipating enormous road bumps from the poor infrastructures work that sent us soaring as I sat in the back of our bus. I observed the rural scenes around the road with keen interest, feeling both sorry for the immense amount of poverty yet also amazed by the simplistic life style and geography. Arriving at Ha Long Bay felt a bit strange with all of the tourism surrounding our every step, but everything changed once we got on the boat. While our boat was not luxurious, I could still indulge in a remarkable display of seafood that was provided on board. When we finally departed for the cave, I experienced one of the most surreal and thrilling feelings as we started to pass the monstrous cliffs that rested dispersed throughout the ocean, all of these thousands of islands were mostly untouched by humanity and it was incredible to be immersed in such a detached environment. We left the boat at one site to explore a remarkable cave that tunneled far into the depth of a particularly large island in the bay. I was bewildered by the magnitude of the space as it continuously descended through vast spaces and tight tunnels. The tourism was unattractive but made me conscious of my privilege in being capable of visiting such an extraordinary place. I am now excited to finish our leisure and begging the serious service we are here to carry out in this beautiful country.
by Tommy ’17
Today was our last day at our host family. We had a huge breakfast and then headed out to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum. It was pouring all morning and we got soaked. I was feeling cold and tired, but it was fascinating to see Ho Chi Min’s body so perfectly preserved. Then we walked around his modest house near the mausoleum. The Ho Chi Minh museum was next; it was pretty interesting, but slightly boring, although I saw lots of relics of Ho Chi Minh about him before the French took over the country and during the “American War.” (Actually, I was too busy thinking how I was going to dry out my clothes to be fully engaged in the museum.)
We headed to the Temple of Literature which was amazing. The Temple of Literature was created by one of the Emperors before the 1100 so that his sons could be educated. It expanded over the centuries and now is a museum. There are marble tortoises with tablets on their backs on which are inscribed the names of the outstanding students and their teachers. My favorite part was the lotus pond. The flowers and leaves were so beautiful. They reminded me of a desktop screen saver.
It was also cool to see the different number of ethnic houses on display at the Museum of Ethnology. We saw many artifacts and learned about customs in different areas of the country according to the ethnic group. There are 54 ethnic groups here in Vietnam. The one that we will see soon in Mai Chau is called the White Thai.
The highlight of the day was the Military Museum. There were huge planes in the courtyard, and many other artifacts, tanks, etc. We saw a large structure created from recovered parts of planes, artillery, and other warfare memorabilia.
I been feeling pretty tired lately, but hopefully a good night’s sleep will fix that.