Understanding Vietnam: Its History and Culture
Week 1 Journal

Day 1 & 2 (April 24-25, 2008)

I think my journey in Vietnam started on Wednesday night I stayed up to 2:30 in the morning because I waited until the night before my flight to pack. After only getting an hour of sleep I went to National Airport to fly to New York. Since I was so exhausted from getting barely any sleep,I slept right through my flight from take-off to landing. When I got to New York I was completely overwhelmed. Most airports I’ve flown to,you don’t have to leave security to get to other terminals, but not in this one. I was so scarred I was doing something and would miss the flight to Vietnam, even though in the back of my head I know had plenty of time which I was grateful for. After figuring out how to get to the Korean Air desks, I was able to rest and talk to Professor Trian before the Boston people came. While I was talking to Professor Trian, it finally hit me that I was going to be in Vietnam for the next month learning about Vietnamese culture and art. I couldn’t wait to get on the plane to Vietnam. When the people from Boston came we checked in and got our boarding passes for Vietnam. After going through security again, it was nice to be able to get lunch with the group and start getting to know everyone.

When I figured out I had a middle seat, I tried getting it changed.Thankfully there was an emergency exit available and I was able to stretch my legs and was very comfortable for our long flight. Korean Air was really nice as well. On other planes, when I’ve slept through meals,it meant that I wouldn’t get anything at all, but on Korean Air they put up a sticker informing other flight attendants that I hadn’t eaten yet so I could get a meal when I wanted one. The best part about Korean Air was that I not only had my own personal television, but I was able to choose what movie I wanted to watch and when I wanted to watch it. It also helped that they had a wide arrange of movies from classics to new Hollywood movies. Before I knew it the flight was over and we were in Seoul, Korea.

Landing in Seoul I was starving, and wanted to try explore the Seoul Airport. We found a place that served Korean food and tried it. I had cold spicy noodles that were delicious, and I was ready to get on the next plane to Vietnam. Unfortunately, our plane was delayed due to weather.The plane was finally able to board and I had a window seat again.Although some people thought that the plane seemed longer, I was able to sleep again and the flight seemed the same as my flight to New York.After we landed in Hanoi, Vietnam, we got our bags and drove to the hotel. It was moving to see Thao reunite with her parents after not seeing them for almost a year. I can’t even imagine what that must have felt like to be back in your home city with your family. Driving to the hotel I loved looking out of the window to view the city at night. When we got to the hotel, even though it was 3:30 in the morning I was so excited to ne finally be in Vietnam I could barely get to sleep. I just wanted to start the next day.

Day 3 (April 26, 2008)

After waking up and showering, I had breakfast at the hotel. I was really interested to see what we would have for breakfast in Vietnam. In China,breakfast consists normally of some sort of dumplings filled with meat or vegetables or noodle soup so I wondered if it would be similar or not to a Vietnamese breakfast. When I got to breakfast it was mostly Western food, so I’m excited to try an authentic Vietnamese breakfast when we leave Hanoi. The scrambled eggs and fruit were my favorite part of breakfast.

The first place we went today was the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. The boys had to dress respectfully in long pants and a nice shirt and the girls have to wear to wear either a long dress or skirt that wasn’t revealing. I was so surprised when I got there how strict security was and how many rules there were to go into the Mausoleum. Even though Ho Chi Minh wanted to be cremated and scattered throughout Vietnam, the Vietnamese government decided to embalm his body after his death, since that was what was done to Stalin. We were not supposed to bring any bags or purses, and cameras had a special bag to be carried in. There was a security line and a lot of guards everywhere. What was most shocking to me was that everyone had to walk silently two single file lines. If people were not absolutely quiet, intimidating looking Vietnamese guards would “hush” you. There was something about seeing Ho Chi Minh’s body that was uncanny=. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but seeing little things like the perfectly trimmed nails and styled hair on his body seemed eerie.The guards made sure that no one just stopped to gawk at his body as a sign of respect.

We then walked past a beautiful government that was built by the French and used as Ho Chi Minh’s office and is still used for special government meetings today. Less than a couple hundred feet away was Ho Chi Minh’s residence, the House on Stilts. It was a reproduction of the countryside houses in the north by the mountains. Ho Chi Minh wanted to live in a house that reflected the majority of the lifestyles of the Vietnamese people, instead of living in an ornate palace. The House on Stilts was really unique, overlooking a small pond and completely open without windows. It’s almost hard to imagine a person with so much power living in house commonly found in Vietnam. On the same grounds was the One Column Temple. The One column temple is supposed to look like lotus in the middle of the water. I thought it was beautifully constructed.

After seeing all of these sites, we had our first lunch in Vietnam.Vietnamese food back at home is one of my favorite types of foods so I was extremely eager and curious to see if it would be similar to that or completely different. What I found was that the food reminded me a lot of Chinese food, with a bit of a twist. Everything we had was so fresh and not heavy at all, so even though I was completely full after our meal I didn’t feel overstuffed, as I do with sometimes with American food.One of the best surprises of lunch was having vegetables without heart (rau muong in Vietnamese). It’s one of my favorite vegetables, but it is often really hard to find and is also very expensive in America. I love the crunchiness and sweetness that it has when it is stir fried with garlic.

When we finished lunch, we went to the Temple of Literature. Walking through the Temple of Literature, it was fascinating to see the Chinese influence. This Confucian temple had beautiful stone statues in the shape of turtles that had the names of all the men who had passed the civil service examinations. It also helped that the Temple of Literature had a 3-D map of the area so that it was easy to understand the symmetry and layout of the temple.

Following the Temple of Literature we went to the Fine Art Museum.Walking to the museum was an adventure in itself. The traffic in Hanoi was already intimidating enough when we were in a large bus, but crossing the street was like nothing I have ever experienced. Unlike in America there are no lights designating when people can walk and people also don’t have the right away. Without our tour guide stopping traffic for us, I don’t know if I would have ever made it over. I hope by the end of the trip I can say that I have successfully crossed a street in Vietnam without any help, but I’m not sure if that is a feasible task. The Fine Art Museum is filled with Vietnamese art ranging from bronzes to folk art to contemporary art starting from prehistoric time all the way to the 20th century. The most memorable parts of the museum for me were the replicas of Buddhist statues and the artwork from the 19th and 20th century. It was fascinating to see the evolution from the artwork in these two time periods. The 19th century artwork reminded me of French impressionist painting with the delicateness of the paintings while the work in the 20th century depicted modern life in Vietnam. The artwork in the 19th century used soft colors while the 20th century used ancient techniques with a modern twist. Lacquer was very popular in the 20th century, so many of the paintings we saw had red, gold, and black. The artwork was used as a propaganda portraying how life in Vietnamese people should act with emphasis on education and working hard.

After returning to the hotel and napping for a bit, we went to dinner. It was a traditional Vietnamese banquet. We were served many dishes ranging from fish to vegetables to meat. It was incredible to get to try so many types of Vietnamese dishes in one meal. One of the most memorable parts of the meal was listening to the traditional Vietnamese music. It was amazing to see Thao play the mono-string instrument. I was surprised to see how many notes it can play and how versatile it was.

Day 4 (April 27, 2008)

So far it has been so hard to get used to Vietnamese time. When I went to sleep I was exhausted, but I still woke up at 6:30. I hope my body will get use to the time change soon. Following breakfast we went to a Taoist Temple. It is no longer used as a Taoist temple but as a common center for Vietnamese people. People go to study, couples go to love, and locals go to escape from the busy streets of Hanoi. The detail that went into building the temple was especially breathtaking. I was amazed by the workmanship in all the wood carvings that were inlaid with mother of pearl. Following the Taoist temple we went to a Buddhist temple. In the Buddhist temple, people put pictures of loved ones, such as children. These are image pictures of the death which were honored on the altar at the Buddhist temples. Following these two temples, I really enjoyed going to Hoan Kiem (Sword Return) Lake and Ngoc Son (Jade Mountain) Temple. The legend about Le Loi, the first king of the Le dynasty, who revolted against the Ming Dynasty was especially interesting. There was a brightly colored stone carving that illustrated this story in front of the temple. It showed the turtle, whose shells were made from blue and white porcelain, with a sword on top of it.

Once again, the meal was one of my favorite parts of the day. I thought being able to sit on the ground without shoes made the environment extremely comfortable. Everyone was able to sit together and enjoy the food and talk to one another. I really like the banana flower salad, the pumpkin leaf stir fry, and the fried tofu, but the eggplant curry was my favorite. The freshness of all the ingredients was amazing. The tofu was crunchy and fried on the outside but soft and delicate in the middle giving a great difference in textures. The eggplant curry was so flavorful and was a great end to the meal. I was so shocked when I was told that it was considered common food, because it was so flavorful and rich.

The Natural History Museum was had a great collection of Vietnamese artifacts. Seeing the replicas from Champa, gave me a taste of what was in store for me later on in the trip. I was really impressed by the large bronze drums. The detail and workmanship that went into them was amazing considering that they are thousands of years old. I also really like seeing the spears that the general used to defeat the Ming Dynasty after going to Ngoc Temple.

I was so stuffed from lunch that I couldn’t even imagine eating any more but the “pho” we had was great. Adding mint, bean sprouts, lime, and the different sauces brought out the flavors of the soup. The Vietnamese coffee that I had was a perfect drink. It was so delicious that I wanted to get every last drip out and I was even tempted to drink some of the coffee grind (but was able to hold myself back). Since I’m still jetlagged I was getting a little tired at dinner but the coffee was able to wake me up for the Vietnamese puppet show.

Arriving at the Vietnamese Puppet show I didn’t know what to expect. I was confused as to how the guild would transform the puppet show from a performance outside in the countryside to inside a theater. After walking into the theater though all questions I had about the performance quickly disappeared. The musicians and the puppeteers worked perfectly together and the movements of the puppets especially the dragons and fish were impressive. I enjoyed how the traditional Vietnamese portrayed daily life in the countryside and Vietnamese myths but in a humorous manner. What I thought was most fascinating about the Vietnamese Water Puppetry was that it was completely indigenous to solely Vietnam,unlike other areas of Vietnamese culture in which you can see the influence from the ruling power of the time.

Day 5 (April 28, 2008)

The bus ride to the Huong Son Temple gave me a completely different perspective of Vietnamese life. It was remarkable to see the change in landscape and people between the busy streets of Hanoi to the countryside. The landscape was filled with either large green rice paddies or scattered small towns. What struck me about the open fields was that in some parts there were large ornate tombstones just right in the middle of a rice paddy. In others there were many tombstones in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere. In the small town there were many vendors,but they were all selling the same items. There was hardly any difference in the items being sold, whether it was fruit or clothing or everyday home appliances. Also the architecture in these towns seemed peculiar.They appeared to have French influence, brightly colored, and were very ornate but seemed out of place in these rural areas. The houses were made out of cement and had no decoration on the side, almost making it appear like there should be buildings in between imitating New York brownstones. Overall I think that the drive gave me a different view of pastoral life in Vietnam.

The mountains surrounding the area were beautiful. When we arrived to the town we immediately got into one large boat that was able to fit our whole group. I felt horrible because two little Vietnamese women had to row the whole boat for almost an hour until we got to the monastery. The boat was so close to the water that I was afraid that we would fall in but fortunately no one got wet at any point. When we got off of the boats I was initially caught off guard because there were hanging meats that looked almost like dog with bugs swarming all around, but walking a little bit more led us to a monastery. Unlike the other temples we have visited, this one was unique because it gave us a glimpse of the lives of monks. There were many monks walking around and it was interesting to see the place they resided in and do their everyday activities. My favorite part was sitting down and drinking tea with the abbot. I was so nervous that I would offend the abbot that I didn’t talk or drink any tea. The abbot was so kind and I felt truly welcomed when he gave us the necklaces that are suppose to protect us and the magazine. I felt honored to be in the same room as many other powerful Vietnamese leaders had been in the past.

When we finished meeting with the abbot we began our walk to Huong Son Temple. I was expecting a hike in the middle of the woods, but instead it was a steep hike with stone steps with vendors selling souvenirs and drinks all the way up the mountain. Although the hike was long and arduous it was an amazing feeling walking up the same steps that Buddhists take to make their pilgrimage to this sacred temple.Understanding the significance of Huong Son Temple made me reflect the importance of being the kindest human possible. In the story the daughter is unconditionally forgiving even under the worst circumstances. I think this moral is important to remember as it is often forgotten in our society where grudges are often held. The temple was completely different from the other temples that we have visited. It was inside a cave and wasn’t made from a man made structure. There were many old women who made the trek and chanted. I was surprised that these women were able to walk up and down the mountain, without appearing to be tired at all.

After the exhausting hike (thank goodness for granola bars) we drove back to Hanoi and went to dinner. We went to dinner at one of the oldest restaurants in Hanoi. I really enjoyed the fish and I have never been to a restaurant where they just served on dish. After eating the dish though, I can understand why they are able to only serve one dish while still staying in business!

Day 6 (May 29,2008)

Today we drove to Ha Long Bay. It was another drive through the countryside of Vietnam. The contrast between the city and rural life is extraordinary. I was so eager to get to Ha Long Bay because I have heard that it is one of the most exceptional areas in Vietnam. The whole areas are surrounded by huge limestone rocks covered in green plants. The area was packed with both Vietnamese and American tourists so I was at first worried that the whole area would be polluted from all of the gas and exhaust.

When I learned that we were going to be sleeping on a boat for a night I thought that we would be sleeping in sleeping bags on Vietnamese style sail boat. I was so surprised to see that we not only got our own boat, but it was a cruise ship equipped with bathrooms, individual sleeping cabins,and my favorite part: the roof deck. After traveling and seeing so many culturally important sites to Vietnam it was relaxing to be in the middle of Ha Long Bay laying out on the deck. This time gave me the opportunity to reflect upon our first week in Vietnam while unwinding in the beauty of the water and mountains. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to conclude our first week in Vietnam!