Thursday, March 18, 2010


As we began to dock in Vietnam we saw a crew of 10 Vietnamese women dressed in traditional garb with a big sign welcoming the SAS students. As soon as I got off the ship, I was hungry to get my suit made. Men who offered $1-2 motorcycle rides for tourists harassed us at the ATM. It didn’t take long to be a “Millionaire in Dong” the exchange rate made me smile until I realized the level of inflation to which this socialist republic was being subjected. This one man on a bike followed Corey Bruck and I four blocks until we found a tailor. I haggled the price of a suit down to nearly 1/4th of what the tailor first suggested; subsequently, Bruck got his down to half of mine. When we left the tailor a taste of defeat was on my tongue, and honestly, my pride was a little bruised, but no matter. I had accomplished something I wanted to do: Get a custom suit in Vietnam. We later went to the Cu Chi Tunnels. The Cu Chi tunnels were the intricate underground passages the Viet Cong used to placate the effectiveness of US soldiers. They consisted of miles and miles of underground passageways, hidden openings and awfully guerrilla style traps. We had the opportunity to walk around in them. I stood in one for a photo opp and unfortunately fell down into the burrow, but I was fine. We ate what the Viet Cong ate, raw tapioca and tea, a crude meal yet rich in vitamins and nourishing enough for the Viet Cong to survive. After the Cu Chi tunnels we went to a wild life preserve for endangered species. We entered and we saw everything from monkeys to bears. All of the animals we saw were in cages with enough space, food and water, unlike the Shanghai Zoo. We took pictures of cute furry creatures like chinchillas and land otters. Holly took video of a simian, upon her getting a great up close shot, the monkey punch her camera. It all happened so fast and it was truly entertaining. About 10 minutes later I had my camera, steady in hand, and became a bit snap happy. All the animals were so great, I went over to the otter pen and my camera slipped and fell out of my hand into an Otter burrow. Just then an otter emerged with it, in mouth. They started playing with it, all the otter swarmed around this bright blue foreign object and they passed it to one another. One otter too it and led the bunch of them to their aquatic play area. My camera had been taken and submerged in water. I stood there astounded….yet cracking up on how hilarious of a scene had just been played out in front of all of us. The trainer eventually got it back, But I was too late the camera was caput. I kept a good disposition about it, because I took the moment for what it was, a funny story. That night we all decided to find the best shopping center and I wanted to find a new camera. We found Ho Chi minh Square and I lingered off by myself, thinking Juana was a couple steps behind me. I looked around between the pirated DVDs and fake Lacoste Shirts that my group had left. I was lost, in Saigon about 10PM alone with no green sheet (the sheet provided by SAS with details on where the ship in docked). I walked about for about 2 ½ hours from tourist spot, through industrial plots, residential and back again to a tourist area. I saw a couple SASer and asked tem where the ship was, they didn’t know but they were staying in a hotel. I went to the hotel and used the internet and found the dock online and 10 minutes later I nestled into my cabin and reflected on the experience of being involuntarily immersed in Saigon. All of SAS went out to a Vietnamese Club, Apocalypse Now, and had a great time, 2 floors 1 was pop and hip hop and the 2nd floor was rock and roll. I danced between each floor. 2 words for the night Dancing Machine HAHA. Amira and I left early to get some food and ended up at this Mexican Restaurant on Dou Leng Street. We had enchilada, Chimachungas and tacos and danced salsa with some locals in a circle.
The next day, I pulled out my backup camera, packed my bags and it was out to the Mekong Delta. We met our tour guide, Mr. Phouc. We boarded the bus for a ride that was about 3 hours. On the way we stopped at a rest stop and surprisingly, a fellow tourist approached me to ask what we were doing in Vietnam. I told her about Semester at Sea, and told her that I was from Michigan. It turns out that they were also from West Bloomfield and I had played football with their son, Josh. Small World right? Several hours later we were pulling up to a river, loaded out things onto a rickety boat and streamed out onto the Mekong Delta. We all took pictures; relaxed ate fruit and waited anxiously for what we were about to experience. We visited several families. The family which made bricks was first. The sustainability of their community was astounding. They used clay to create the bricks, they would let them dry ion the sun and stack them in a large brick structure. To eat, they would shuck rice, use the outer coating to fuel the kiln for anything they needed to process and to cook their food. The second family was in the coconut business, everyday they had to pick and strip about 700 coconuts between the two sons. We had coconut snacks, and for the first time in my life I had fresh coconut milk and meat. We then visited a family who processed over 3 tons of rice per week. They invited us in and gave us water, tea and coconut ice cream. It was delicious. The river neighborhood tour ended at a bridge, we disembarked and walked about 1 kilometer to our tour guides fathers home. We found his sister and who I assume to be other family members making sleeping cots made from soft wicker. I threaded about 3 strands of wicker in the same time they would finish an entire mat. Nevertheless the experience was great. We relaxed and ate Pineapple candy and tea. Just then 3 motocyclos pulled up, Phuoc us that the motorcyclos would be taking the 9 of us to our home stay. We raced down a couple back roads after egging on our driver. RamRod: Bruck, Corey and I broke into first arrived at the entry of the rice fields where we would stay, we met 3 boys flying kites took pictures and shook hands, they were very excited to meet us, when the rest of our group pulled up they ran away.
About 10 minutes later we came onto a small land that consisted of a 2 eating areas, a series of outhouses and showers, and kitchen and 2 sleeping huts and about 6 hammocks peppered around the area set-in between trees. Phouc allowed us to rest and get settled before we ate a magnificent Elephant Ear Fish. Phouc’s family, cooked for us and we later found out this was his home. The layout was beautiful and as the hours passed I started to realize of simple the local people in this area lived. We walked through rice fields and discovered different types of fruit and vegetables the local people grew. We rode bikes through the backwoods and brush of the Mekong Delta. We went to local markets, none of which held anything flashy but only the bare necessities. This was the first market I witnessed that didn’t have Nikes or tourist shirts. I really appreciated that the village had not succumb to the commercialization of their society. Next we rode our bikes to the home of an antique collector and observed the old china and figures from old Vietnam during the French occupation. We went back to the camp ground and reflected that night Corey and I played catch and baseball with coconuts and sticks. Juana stepped in Cow poop and lost her flip-flop and we had a great meal. The second day, we woke up and talked about all the strange sounds we’d heard that night. At one point we all agreed that there was some kind of rabid beast that was howling on the roof of our cabin because the sounds were so intense. We had a great Vietnamese breakfast as we would have every morning of fried egg, fruit and tea. We then took a boat ride through the delta and learned more about the history of the people of the Mekong Delta.
We came back late that night and all played cards and joined Phouc family in making rice cakes. Rice cakes are delicious it’s like a large sweet, warm Cornflake. The next morning we headed via the Mekong to greater Saigon after a 1 hour boat ride and a 3 hour bus ride we arrived at a different home stay where we had great food and leaned about snake wine.
We got back to the ship the next day and RamRod ventured out to get our suits. When we arrived at the shop the man said 6 more hours for mine and 2 more for Bruck. I gave him an ultimatum, still sore from paying double of what Bruck paid. I said we’d be back in 4 hours and both suits had better be done. The suits were done, not to my standard but I still looked really really good in it. That night we all went to a big party at the Rex hotel and I even took a long dip in the pool while the rest of SAS danced and partied the night away. The night was memorable on so many levels. Shout out to RamRod for making that night amazing.
The next day was a day to learn about the Vietnam War we went to the parliament building and learned about what was going on, on the Vietnamese side during the war. Also the war remnants museum which was an eye opening experience I didn’t understand how we massacred so much of their country. The blood of an entire generation of Vietnamese men, women and children dripped from the bayonets of our military. I love my country but the foreign policy objective and war goal of that time was shiftless and without focus. I will never support such a war but the men who fought in the war were misled and unprepared.

If you are reading this, I cannot convey enough the sheer disgust of what I learned in the war remnants museum. Agent Orange produced a disfigured generation and biological warfare that we still see to this day. If you know a Vietnam War Vet, thank him for his service because he saw and did a lot of things that I am sure haunt his dreams.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Hong Kong

Hong Kong was the highlight of China. We began by venturing out to the ladies market, but before we got there we helped out fellow student who had cameras either stolen or lost bargain for deals. We would subsequently find out that Hong Kong isn’t a ripe place for haggling. We found the ladies market, which is the largest outdoor market for deals in Hong Kong. The exchange rate brought with it a fantastic feeling of purchasing power, 7 fold. I bought 4 bags full of souvenirs full of gifts for friends and family. After the market we went to the “Modern Toilet” which has been featured on the Travel Channel as one of the coolest places to eat. The theme of the entire restaurant was that of a restroom. The plates were miniature sinks and water basins. The cups were urinals and entrees were served in a large toilet bowl. Ice creams looked as if it was poo and the seats were actually toilets! After our lunch we returned to the ship after a long day of shopping and being lost. The next day I had to great opportunity, with several others of the top students in my US-Sino relations course, to meet CH Tung, the former and first Chief Executive of Hong Kong. Tung assumed power in 1997, in the midst of the Asian financial crisis. We met at his diplomatic offices in a very intimate setting. Tung gave us much advice on understanding China and how his background as a businessman, of a shipping family, was both a gift and curse because he never had any political experience. The students from Fudan University asked great questions and so did we, at a certain point we began to kindly compete for best question. After about 2 hours he ended the forum and we returned to the ship. That evening I decided that despite an oncoming cold, I wanted to visit the Hong Kong museums. I popped two Benadryl and gathered a group, more like 2 people, and headed to the museum. The exhibits were very interesting, consisting of ancient pottery and Buddhist hand crafts were displayed. I began to crash and doze off, unable to fight the excitement of Hong Kong. Later that evening after a good dinner at Golden Buddha my friends Abby, Amira and I ventured out to find a popular night spot called Dragon Eye. We ran into my roommate, Jordan and Taylor and we all decided to grab dessert and enjoy Hong Kong’s Middle Eastern scene. We found a great spot nestled in between two popular bar blocks of downtown Hong Kong, called Marouche. After we enjoyed the scene we headed to Dragon Eye, which we would learn was not the environment for SAS, but then we discovered Lan Gui Fang, a district recommended to me by my Chinese stepmother, I will just say “Xie Xie Chaohung”
The next day my mind was set on becoming entrenched in the culture. Early on we left Langham Place and came face to face with the Hong Kong Fish market. Just then my senses were full with the sights and smells. We saw men cutting up fresh and sometimes live animals (e.g. Fish, frog and pigs). For the first time I saw this. I really enjoyed walking around and seeing strange foods and even trying Dragon Fruit for the first time. Amira and I had a great lunch at a place who served us spicy noodles, curry rice and something to the consistency of a mango lasse. After lunch we looked for an acupuncturist, we gave up, and then headed to see the big Buddha. Now the Hong Kong subway system is probably one of the easiest public transportation systems I’ve ever navigated, worldwide. We got to Landau Island after about a 40 minutes ride. We bought the platinum package for the Tian Tan Buddha cable car ride up. Gazing out onto the grandeur of Hong Kong was astounding during our 30 minute cable car ride, which brought us atop Landau Island to Ngong Ping. Our package included an all inclusive learning experience. We first came to an animated cartoon that was about 3 monkeys who vied for golden fruit. However, one monkey became so consumed with getting the golden fruit; he alienated his friends with his greed and selfishness. This opposed the teachings of the Buddha which promotes the relinquishing of earthly desires. Only when the monkey dreamed about over indulging in his wants and lost his friends he realized that something are more important that selfish desires. It was at the exact moment that he found his friends to be more important than the materialism that is the fruit. I cross-reference my reading of the book Siddhartha during the trip, Siddhartha experienced similar turmoil when he became engulfed in the material world and departed from his friend Govinda. After we did that we did a virtual tour entitled “A Walk with Buddha” in which we were given a virtual tour of the life of the Buddha. We finally climbed the 100+ steps leading up the huge Buddha we gazed out onto Landau Island. It was a fantastic view. We left Landau to the ship and through much hustle and bustle; we arrived on the ship THREE minutes after on ship time and consequently received 3 hours dock time in Vietnam.