Friday, June 19, 2009

Pineapples of Vietnam

It is amazing how little we all know about certain parts of American History. Take the Vietnam War for example. What little we know about the Vietnam War was learned from the internet, a few family members, and a two minute lecture in High School history classes. I did not know that it is actually called the American War in Vietnam. I did not know that it had been classified as genocide. I did not even know the full effects of Agent Orange on the Vietnamese population. All of a sudden I was thrust into a culture that I knew nothing about. I knew that pho was tasty and that there is nothing better to eat than Vietnamese eggrolls. But really, how much does that matter?

I ate alone the morning we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (from here on will be called Saigon). All the parents who had come to meet students at the halfway point on our world journey were holding large signs and waving and crying. And I wished that I had someone down there waving at me. Luckily my day brightened with the arrival of a young group of Vietnamese girls who held out a huge sign that welcomed Semester at Sea to Saigon. I spent the first day in Saigon with my friends Win, Zach, and Jill. We went to a tailor and ordered custom dresses and bought Vietnamese rice hats at a chaotic market. We went to a chain restaurant named Pho 24 where we ate delicious pho noodle soup and eggrolls. That afternoon we decided to go to the War Remnants Museum. It was very difficult to see America from a point of view like the Vietnamese. They did not hold grudges, but they did not sugarcoat history either. I can’t really say much about the museum. It was one of those things that I can simply hope more people have a chance to experience. We spent the rest of the day buying pirated DVDs and souvenirs for all the folks back home.

The next day we took a bus to the Mekong Delta. Our first day next to the Delta was spent eating a box lunch on a boat before continuing to a candy factory on the river. Coconut chewy candies and ginger rice crispy treats were being cooked right before our eyes. We got to try and make rice paper, have tea with the locals, and even do a little shopping. Later that day we went into town and spent the afternoon wandering through the market areas next to our hotel. There were fruits of all different shapes and sizes. Bright pink dragonfruit, tiny bananas, and the fuzzy Chom Chom (which tastes oddly like a flavorless kiwi) filled my belly. That night we ate dinner alongside the river and watched the houseboats float by.

The next morning was an early start for all of us. After a 5:30 am wake-up call we walked down to the riverbanks and boarded a long boat on the river. We went into the heart of the Mekong, home of the world’s largest floating market. People in tiny boats would pull alongside us and offer anything from mangos to bottled water. They were interested in us just as much as we were interested in them. Now I have to admit that I was glad I skipped breakfast. There is nothing in the world as tasty as fresh pineapple that has been sliced into a beautiful creation. Then we bought a pound of mangos for $1! My fingers were sticky and covered in all sorts of fruit juice by the end of our time in the market. This was not the end of our river trip and we continued on, watching the people sleep in hammocks on the houseboats. Every boat had eyes on the front and it felt like a magical world. That evening we returned to the ship and wandered around Saigon searching for DVDs and other cheap technology.

The fourth day in Vietnam was one of my unique days. Up until this point on the voyage, Cape Town had been the only place I traveled alone. It was pretty easy in Cape Town; someone always spoke English, I always could see the ship, and I never left the nice part of town. When I traveled alone in Saigon it was a completely different experience! I have no words that can give justice to the terrors of Vietnamese traffic. Imagine crossing I-25 in Denver during rush hour, but with motorcycles weaving in and out of traffic and less care for human life. It is best to cross the street with one person on either side of you because then you have human cushions should a car refuse to stop! Anyway, I had spent the morning of this day at the zoo with children from a school for the deaf. It was a lot of fun and I made some new friends. I had no plans for the afternoon so I decided to wander alone and go to the tailor and maybe find a grocery store. Nothing exciting happened, but for an entire afternoon, I was alone in a city with few English speakers, high risk, and no sense of direction. It is the small things that make for an adventure. That night I went out clubbing with my roommate and some other friends and then for a change in pace we decided to walk back to the ship.

My last day in Vietnam was pretty calm. I bought postcards and stamps, made a few last-minute purchases, and bought a few groceries. Overall nothing exciting happened, unless I have successfully blocked it from my memory. After all, I had China to look forward to!

Monday, June 15, 2009



Well now that I have completely failed to keep up with my blog, I suppose there is no pressure on me anymore! Lucky for all of you, I am now stuck at work where I have copious amounts of free time.

So here is Thailand:

Thailand was stunning. Imagine elephant rides, ancient ruins, and beheaded Buddhas all mixing together for five amazing days. The first day was spent at an elephant village in Pattaya. We watched the elephants haul logs, play basketball, and eat bunches of bananas straight from our hands! Some students rode them into the nearby pond for their daily bath, but I chose to stay dry on my elephant ride. Let me just say that elephants are much wider than horses. They are also taller. Picture, if you will, a tall, really white girl attempting to drag herself on top of an elephant (and actually succeeding with the help of the elephant!). Now unlike riding horses, you sit on an elephant’s neck instead of its back. Even on the neck you feel like your legs have been dragged into the splits. There is nothing to really hold on to and every step of the elephant makes you worry about the plummet to the ground. Was it one of the best experiences of my life? Of course it was! After we left the elephant village, my friend Alicia and I spent the rest of the evening relaxing in Laem Chabang. Well there isn’t much to do in Laem Chabang. We hung out at the mall and cooked our own dinners at a restaurant called Hot Pot. After that we made new friends while drinking beer with the cabbies that were camped out on the pier. It was a good day.

The second day had my small tour group leaving for the River Kwai. I had never really thought about WWII in terms of Thailand before and this was a learning experience. We took a bus to a small town where we ate lunch in a jungle restaurant. None of us really knew what to expect when, after lunch, we were taken to the local train station. Now the Death Railway was built by 60,000 POWs from Allied countries. The Japanese wanted the railroad to stretch to Burma and help in the Pacific war efforts. 16,000 POWs died while building the railway. One of the faculty members on our trip found the train ride very emotional as her own father had been one of the POWs. It was an amazing journey that ended after the train crossed the re-built bridge over the River Kwai.

On the third day we had some new surprises. We were taken to the banks of the river and put into small boats in groups of 4-6. The boat ride was beautiful and our tour guide “Witty” made sure we had a good time. We got off the boats at the river entrance to the JEATH War Museum. This museum was designed as a replica of the huts that the POWs lived in. The name JEATH comes from the countries that were involved (Japan, England, Australia and America, Thailand, and Holland). Following our visit to the museum we went to the cemetery that held only a fraction of the POWs. That afternoon we took a bus to Ayutthaya, the former capitol of Siam. We visited some of the ruins and climbed to the top of the pyramid-like temples. All the Buddhas were in ruins missing anything from an arm to a head. Despite this destruction, the ruins were unbelievably beautiful.

My tour group spent most of the fourth day wandering through the ruins of Ayutthaya. We went to various sites of old temples and destroyed buildings. I bought a travel-sized wooden Buddha to come back on the ship with me for good luck! We continued on to Bang Pa In, the Summer Palace of the kings of Thailand. It was a beautiful mixture of Eastern and Western styles. There were elephant topiaries next to a Thai pavilion across from a traditional Western palace. That afternoon we went into Bangkok to do some shopping, but it wasn’t nearly as memorable as the rest of the day had been.

I decided to go back to Bangkok for my last day in Thailand. I was very lucky and the trip I signed up for went to Wat Po, home of the most amazing reclining Buddha in the world. He is the largest Buddha in Thailand and is 152 feet long with mother-of-pearl feet and gold plating. I really cannot describe this Buddha at all, but I promise to put up photos! After going to Wat Po my group took a refurbished rice barge down the Chao Phraya River and ate a delicious lunch while watching the city go by. After lunch we visited a fish market and then took a bus to Vimanmek Palace. Imagine a Victorian palace made completely out of teak. It is no longer used as a residence, but as a demonstration of Thai culture. That evening we returned to Laem Chabang and the ship. I was sorry to leave Thailand behind me, but I felt like my time there could not have been better spent. Besides, if there is one thing that Semester at Sea taught me, it is that there is always another port on the horizon