February 29, 2012

South to Saigon

Francis Parker School - North to South - Day Seven

Our group awoke Sunday morning on our beloved night train around 5:35, and quickly exited. Everyone seemed very tired after so much traveling in a short time. Us students were excited to hear that we would be returning to our Hanoi hotel where we would meet up with the South to North group for breakfast and discussion. After a short bus ride, we were back at the hotel, where we were greeted warmly by Mr. Taylor and his crew, a few students who had woken up early enough to meet us. Amid a buffet breakfast and a familiar view of Hanoi, old friends gave each other tips on how to best enjoy the opposite trip. Aside from a few notes on wearing bug spray and the quality of the food, the other group preferred to keep much of their experience to themselves, which hopefully will let us shape our own experiences.

We headed to the bustling Hanoi airport. It was sad to cross the Red River for the last time. We all said our goodbyes to Alex, our tour guide, who had led us around the North, and who Ross especially had grown close to in such a short time. We boarded our flight on Vietnam Airlines, which, to our surprise, was a huge and nice plane. Among other Vietnamese passengers also making the journey from the North to the South, we were able to discuss our trip thus far. 

The first thing we noticed after landing was the humidity and heat of Saigon, a sharp contrast from our Northern home bases. We applied our bug spray (after hearing the other groups' experiences) and headed out into the hot city air. Our new guide Trang awaited us with a smile and a Vietnamese song. We boarded yet another bus which took us into downtown Saigon. Immediately we noticed the contrast between this city and Hanoi went further than the weather. The shops were well settled, Westernized and developed, as opposed to the Hanoi street vendors. Stores such as Louis Vuitton lined the roads, instead of knockoff booths. The street traffic was a lot lighter and seemed more organized, posing less danger to students crossing the streets. 

We ate lunch at Pho24, a chain noodle soup restaurant, which we had previously visited in Hanoi. Pho was nothing new or exciting, but the famliar chicken soup was enjoyed by all. Since our hotel rooms weren't yet ready, we decided to explore more of Saigon. Our first stop was the Presidential Palace, a 70s-style building flocked with tourists like us. We were able to enter and explore meeting rooms, dining rooms, radio facilities, and a museum. The building, used by the Southern Vietnamese government, was well-protected yet somewhat modest, a contrast to American government buildings and even political sites like the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum which seem lavish and over-the-top. However, it was well-preserved and clearly respected by the Vietnamese people.

We headed to our hotel and then out to dinner, which to our amusement featured decorated food such as a large melon carved like a clown and stuffed with fish. The food seemed similar to what we were used to in the North with a few pleasant surprises like chocolate-coffee ice cream to end the meal.

Back at the hotel, we collected our dirty clothes for some much-needed laundry. We were interested to find that many Vietnamese utilize laundromats, unlike Americans who are used to doing it in the comfort of their own homes. We were then given the opportunity to explore the city on our own and immerse ourselves in the nightlife of Saigon. The group traveled to a six-story ice cream parlor with an exotic menu. The building's size was a change from Hanoi, which featured buildings with stores on the first floor only and homes on the second stories. Some opted for the traditional banana split at this ice cream parlor, while others sampled avocado ice cream. 

We then headed towards the local market, an outdoor mecca of knockoff goods and jewelry. We were forewarned about the dangers of thieves and pickpockets, so we traveled cautiously, but the people we encountered were mainly pleasant, if not a bit pushy with their goods, much like the women of Sapa.

Many of us exercised our bargaining skills which we had developed in Hanoi and Sapa, utilizing our two-dollar bills to lower prices. The market seemed much less chaotic and more organized than any we had seen previously, with each stall specializing in a unique product. The vendors seemed accustomed to tourists and spoke English well, so we assumed that most who went to the market were probably not locals. Their desire to appeal to us Americans reflects what we think to be Vietnam's shift to a global economy. 

We returned to the hotel tired but cheerful as we examined each other's purchases and headed off for some much-needed sleep before another day in the city!

Emily and Gonzalo  

February 21, 2012

Community Service and Cultural Exchange at Friendship Village

Francis Parker School - South to North - Day Eight

We awoke this morning to familiar faces. Our dear friends on the North to South trip came to our hotel for breakfast before their flight Ho Chi Minh City in the South. It was refreshing yet awkward to see these relative strangers. Shortly after the other group left, our dynamic pod, led by the one and only Eric Taylor, once again was immersed into a day full of activity. First on the list was a Water Puppet Show, which was within walking distance from our hotel, the Imperial.

The Puppet Show was very professional and entertaining. To begin the show, the orchestra, comprised of about eight people, began to play a few pieces. The musicians were very skilled and played notes in key and were very precise with their strokes. Then the Puppet Show began. It was like nothing we had ever seen before. This extraordinarily unique experience introduced us to an art form that is neglected by Western Society but is truly beautiful. Basically, breaching the surface of a man-made water area were puppets who, controlled by puppeteers in the back, created scenes describing Vietnamese life and the country’s rich history. Vietnamese culture poured out of this piece and we were all moved by the show. We then, after some much needed free time, went to lunch. This lunch was unusual. We had a buffet and were exposed to American food for the first time since we left. It was filling and enjoyable. (David and Max ate a really hot pepper).

After lunch, our group headed outside the city of Hanoi to the Friendship Village, a community built by Vietnam War veterans from both America and Vietnam to shelter individuals affected by the chemical Agent Orange that was sprayed by Americans during the war. At our arrival to the village, we were led out to the community’s garden where we helped prepare the soil for future gardening. The work was not easy, but a few hours of labor turned out to be quite rewarding, 
considering that most of us had never worked out in a garden for longer than ten minutes before today.

 Afterward, our group went to the other side of the village to meet with Vietnam War veterans. Of course, we couldn’t directly converse with the veterans, but our tour guide Quan translated for both us and the veterans. We asked questions about reconciliation and what the veterans think of America today, but most of the answers that we heard seemed to steer away from our questions, whether because the veterans didn’t want to answer our questions or because our questions weren’t translated fully. The veterans’ answers revolved around forgiveness and accepting the past for what it was. Though the language barrier was surely frustrating for both sides of the conversation, overall, our exchange with the veterans was surreal considering that in 
America, we hardly get to see the other side of a conflict. 

As soon as we left out discussion with the veterans, we were greeted by a few kids staying in the village and a group of high school students from the Czech Republic. We played a quick game of soccer and socialized with the kids before loading onto the bus and heading to a nice French inspired restaurant for dinner. Our food was delicious and we can’t wait for another wonderful day in Hanoi tomorrow.

— Jennie and Josh

February 20, 2012

Ho Chi Minh and Other Reflections from Francis Parker Students

Francis Parker School - South to North - Day Seven

Hello Everybody!

Our first full day in Hanoi was very active. We awoke to overcast skies, a slight mist, and a welcoming buffet. After eating we walked to the Hoan Kiem Lake at the center of Hanoi to visit Turtle Tower. Once there we learned about a 169 kg turtle living at the bottom of the lake. She is supposedly a last descendent of the Golden turtle god, possessor of a magic sword that helped the emperor defeat the Chinese and gain independence. After this we went to Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum. This granite vessel houses the body of Ho Chi Minh, creator of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. His mausoleum is very similar to Lenin’s in Moscow. Everyone could feel Ho Chi Minh’s presence as we walked past his body, understanding that this man will forever be an integral part of Vietnamese history and a symbol of national pride. Ironically, it was Ho Chi Minh’s wish that he would be cremated. All of this extravagance comes in direct contrast with Ho Chi Minh’s wishes. Next, we visited Ho Chi Minh’s houses. Although Ho Chi Minh was offered the opportunity to live in the Presidential Palace, he refused. Instead, he requested that a house-on-stilts be built instead. This house is reminiscent of a typical home among the hill-people who lived in his village. Before lunch, we visited the one-pillar pagoda. This pagoda was built by Emperor Ly Thai Tong to give thanks to Bodhisattva, the god of mercy after he was given the son he always wanted. Due to the stringent laws regarding the number of children a family can have, this pagoda is still used.

After lunch, we visited the Hoa Lo prison, commonly known by Americans as the “Hanoi Hilton.” This prison built in 1896 was first used by the French to subdue the Vietnamese patriots who were fighting against French control. For this reason it was another symbol of national pride. However,  from 1964 to 1973, the Vietnamese used this prison as a holding cell for American prisoners of war, thus garnering the name “Hanoi Hilton,” a sarcastic term that underlies a deep resentment for the POW's treatment in Vietnamese hands. The Vietnamese government used propaganda to contrast the treatment of Vietnamese by the French and the treatment of the Americans by the Vietnamese in order to create an image of moral superiority. While the Vietnamese were shackled to tables under French rule, the Americans were given Christmas dinners and were allowed to play volleyball in the yard under Vietnamese rule. Just after visiting the Hao Lo Prison, we each got in rickshaws and were given a one-hour tour of the city. Although the sightseeing was fantastic, the idea of the rickshaw was appalling in that it was reminiscent of early colonial aristocracy, where the rich paid peasants to drive them around. Nevertheless, the ride was memorable and the busy afternoon was full of energy. The day concluded with a two-hour city exploration and tour bus karaoke, with performances by Steven, James, Max, and Tony.

Hearts and Hugs,
David and Katie P

A Homestay and Life on the Mekong River

Francis Parker School - South to North, Day Four and Five

Last night was our first night at the homestay. We were not able to publish our blog in the river delta during the home stay, so here is our follow-up. The beds were firm, yet soft and were protected by very useful mosquito nets. The family who owns the house is very generous and has two adorable children; they give us a bountiful feast every meal; include today’s breakfast of eggs, bread, and traditional Vietnamese sides. After breakfast we got on to our boat and headed across the Mekong River to start our adventures.

The journey continued upon arriving at the bustling markets at the Mekong River Delta. We had the special opportunity to see and taste the making of traditional Vietnamese candy. Coconut, rice, ginger, and sugar appeared to be the magic ingredients of the candy making practice. After tasting the sugary delights, sipping tea, and buying treats, we walked into a rice paper making operation in which five women were working hard. The hot steam slowly creeping from their stations wafted into our faces and made the whole crew drip with sweat. Five minutes of the steamy room seemed like enough for us, yet for these women they were used to working 7 hours a day and making 3,000 rice papers. Nonetheless, they only made 100,000 dong a day which is roughly $5. Although this seems incredibly small to us, Hau told the group that the per-capita GDP was roughly $1,000-$3,000 a year.

We sure are lucky to have a tour guide like Hau because being affiliated to the party, he is granted special access to almost anywhere he likes. Therefore he has the ability to walk into a shop that may be of interest to us to show us around. This especially was useful when we visited the school...

After walking around the Mekong, our journey continued to the floating markets. At the market we had to fulfill a shopping list for dinner. We walked through the majestic market, full of interesting sights, smells, and sounds. We had to learn the ways of the Vietnamese people by haggling for our vegetables, yet we faced issues with communication. I’m sure we got ripped off multiple times considering since all we could do was hold out money and ask how much. Mr. Hau split the group into two teams to see who could complete the shopping list and spend the least money. Of course tem Toney won which included the champions Zach, Josh, Jenny, David, Katie, James, and Meagan. You can probably deduce who the losers were. After our market exercise we took some small row boats through the beautiful mangroves of the Mekong. We then got to refuel for lunch. Lunch was again fantastic, but even more special was that the restaurant had a 10 foot long pet python who did not have a name... so we named it Nadini. The brave had a chance to hold the snake and with a great effort we even got Josh to hold Nadini.

After the morning trekking trekking had been completed, we commenced on a bike ride through the woods and houses of the local village. Motor scooters whizzed past us, contributing to the hectic atmosphere. Under a beautiful sky and over streams we passed until David’s bike broke, but Mr. Hoa was there to save the day and mend the broken piece of metal. We were luckily not too far from our destination: a school with students our own age. Initial greetings were awkward with the language barrier, but everyone was friendly. We immediately started a game of volleyball and soccer afterwards. We shared laughs and learned each other's names, but eventually had to leave with the promise of returning the next day. After a short ride back to the home stay we quickly refreshed. Members of the family played traditional music using a distortion guitar and Monowar. Songs were sung about young farmers experiencing love and women paddling along the river. We then joined the women in the house and all twenty plus of us fit in the kitchen! We cooked an omelet-like dish though it was made with flour and filed with shrimp. After dinner Mr. Hoa gave us more competitions for the teams to compete, though these were more game like. In one game two members of one team were tied together by the ankle and balloons were tied to the opposite ankle. Then the teammates fought against a pair of similarly constricted competitors, trying to pop one another’s balloons. We were then given free time to shower and to soak in the cool darkness of the night.

Day 5

Greetings readers,

Like yesterday, we began our day by hopping on our ferry to cruise down the Mekong Delta. After a twenty minute boat ride, we arrived at our first stop: a Vietnamese produce and livestock market. In addition to cartloads of vegetables, fruits, and various roots, the market contained hundreds of live animals – fish, shrimp, squid and eels swam and flopped around in shallow pools of water; chickens, snakes, and frogs stumbled around on land; and dozens of other species were in various stages of dismemberment. While the three vegetarians of the group (Mr. Taylor, Ms. Stafford, and Megan Babla) were especially disturbed, we all felt a strong sense of shock when facing the stark realities of food production in a developing country. Before getting back on the boat, we bought a new soccer ball, a pair of goal nets, and two pairs of goalie gloves for the school we visited yesterday.

After the stop, we sailed back down the delta to a pottery kiln, where a team of potters spent their lives firing clay bricks inside a row of gigantic cinder-block kilns. The kilns were massive, nearly forty feet tall each and twenty times the size of the Parker pottery kiln. Next, we walked to a woodworking shop where coffins were produced. We learned that the custom is to purchase a coffin for any family member older than 60 and keep it for the person until they died…which could sometimes take decades. In the interim, the coffins were kept in the local woodworking shed and the giant room of soon-to-be-filled coffins creeped us out a little.

We sailed back to the homestay for a quick lunch (and a few card games) before getting on our bikes again to visit the school one last time. On the way, we stopped at a plant nursery to see some of the local flora and explore the Mekong’s natural beauty. When arriving at the school, we found it empty; apparently, in Vietnam, students don’t go to school on Thursday but do on Saturday. However, a few of the students (our friends from yesterday among them) returned to school on Thursdays to use the facilities, and we were able to put up the nets (which actually fit!), inflate the soccer ball, and start up six-on-six soccer and volleyball games with the students. The soccer game was incredibly competitive and enjoyable. Afterwards, we said goodbye to the students and biked home, sleeping early to prepare for a 5 am wake-up the next day.

-Alec Heifetz and Joseph Haack

Hiking, Water Buffalo, Rice Paddies & Karaoke

Francis Parker School - North to South - Day Six

Friday morning was slow. Everyone got up at different times to explore the town and to get breakfast. It was nice to observe the cloudy covering in Sapa before the tourist activities started. We met up again before lunch and checked out of the hotel to embark on our hike down to the village of Tavan. The three hour trek down the mountain side through the mud and mist was a good time for us to discuss our best experiences so far. It also allowed us to talk with the Hmong women who followed us for miles trying to sell their handcrafted clothing and bags.The Hmong people speak English fairly. It isn't surprising given how many times they have practiced heckling tourists like us.

Walking through the village we saw water buffalo's, pigs, chickens, and dogs roaming freely from house to house. Each home was placed on a rice paddy terrace, which made for an amazing view. Since summer is the growing season, the tiered planting ledges were flooded with water.

Eventually we reached a local school where a few of the students engaged in a game of soccer. Then, just before dinner, we arrived at our homestay. It was a two-story house with the living room, kitchen and a few beds on the bottom floor. The top floor was filled with mattresses and mosquito nets. The students found their spots on the floor and we passed time playing games and telling stories. The family who owned the house was very accommodating and the dinner they prepared for us was delicious. Their two young children found a particular liking for Patrick Riley's good company, Ross's iPhone, and Mrs. Imbimbo's Elmo stickers.

After we ate, we went back up stairs to continue our gaming. Soon, we were interrupted by the blaring sounds of a 1980's Karaoke machine coming from downstairs. We spent the rest of the evening swapping off mics and singing classic tunes. Just as we started to dive in to singing The Beatles, a few drunk Danish tourists joined our party. Their performance was so poor we had to kick them out. After countless attempts at scoring a 100 with songs like "Bennie and the Jets" and "Piano Man," Maddie, Solia, Ross, and Mr. Crowley finished off the night with a perfect score singing "Sweet Caroline."

A good 30 minutes later, our singing falsettos could still be heard fading into the night. A slow day in the countryside was a nice change from the bustling city life in Hanoi and the nagging vendors in Sapa. Our night in the village allowed our group to bond and acknowledge the happiness in a simple lifestyle.

Our tour guide, Alex, has continued to enlighten us with his jokes, while still relaying useful information about the history and culture of Vietnam. We really do not want to leave him as we will soon head south to Saigon.

Ross, Solia, Matsuo, Collin

February 17, 2012

A Visit to the Bo De Pagoda Buddhist Orphanage

Francis Parker School - South to North - Day Six

Following an early 5:00 am wake-up on a steamy Friday morning, we boarded our boat in the dark and headed to catch a bus that would take us to the closet airport to the Mekong Delta.

We boarded a non-stop flight to Hanoi and arrived before lunch to meet out new tour guide, Quan. Hanoi is a beautiful city, and immediately our group fell in love with the climate, which at 55 degrees and overcast was a wonderful change from low 90's with humidity at least that high in southern Vietnam. We bused for 1 hour from the airport to a wonderful lunch in the heart of Hanoi, which is part of the old "french quarter." We then proceeded to our hotel, where we checked in and unpacked for the next three nights. Following this we re-boarded our bus and headed out of Hanoi for the Bo De pagoda and Buddhist Orphanage.

As Eric Taylor and I had visited last year, we were immediately amazed by the amount of construction that had taken place in just 1 year. It was obvious that some significant funding had come through as new buildings had been completed and the facilities had improved dramatically from what we had experienced with our group in 2011. That being said, it is still heartbreaking to see so many children without parents living in some very difficult conditions. Our kids were wonderful in the way they immediately went to the children, picking them up, playing with them and sharing with them all of the clothes, toys, candy and stickers they had brought with them from the US. I promise you it will be a memory that our kids will cherish forever.

Following a tour of the pagoda, we were treated to a wonderful vegetarian meal by the monks. After saying good-bye, our kids sang all the way home, courtesy of the microphone on the bus and some encouragement by their peers. I sense the karaoke club may only be one night away!

Looking forward to a great day tomorrow as we visit Ho Chi Min's mausoleum as well as the Temple of Literature and other sites that this wonderful city has to offer.

Good night from Hanoi.

John Morrison

A Vietnamese Train Experience

Greetings friends and family! We trust that you are all well.

The night train to Sapa was definitely an experience we will never forget. Although some of us were not feeling very well, it was a bonding experience for all. There were two bunk-beds in each cabin which made for very cramped quarters. Let's just say we were happy to arrive in Lao Cai, one step closer to the fresh country air of Sapa. We got off the train at 6 am and boarded a bus en route to our final destination. The journey was long and winding, which wasn't exactly beneficial to our sick passengers. The change in scenery was drastic; from the hustle and bustle of Hanoi to the serene countryside of the Vietnamese highlands. It was a change that most of us probably needed.

When we finally arrived in Sapa at 8 am, we immediately went to an American breakfast buffet. Complete with crepes and fried eggs, the breakfast was a great way to start the morning. Then we dropped our bags off at the hotel, freshened up and began our seven kilometer trek. Along the way, we were swarmed by the persistent Black Hmong tribeswomen who tried to sell us their handmade goods. We were amazed by their proficiency in the English language since their only practice came from interaction with tourists. We had trouble declining their offers because we wanted to help them out.

Anyway, back to the hike. Even with the tribeswomen following close behind, we managed to make it down to a village in the valley. There were lots of trinket shops lining the trail. It was difficult to resist looking through them all even though they all sold the same souvenirs and handicrafts. One specific instance that stuck out was entering a local house. It was humbling to see the impoverished conditions that they lived in. It broke out hearts to see a small child sitting alone in a smoke-filled room, but also made us so grateful for what we have at home. The sun came out just in time for the culmination of our hike: a beautiful waterfall surrounded by lush, green vegetation.

The rest of the afternoon was devoted to exploring the quaint town of Sapa. As the fog rolled in, we meandered from shop to shop, some of us taking advantage of the cheap massages and others simply resting. After a quick European dinner, we headed back to the hotel and gladly went to our beds. Tomorrow is a village homestay. YAY

Matt, Patrick, and Maddie

February 16, 2012

A Visit to "The Girl in the Picture" Kim Phuc's Family Home

Francis Parker School - South to North - Day Three

Today was a very fun and eventful day. Our first major event was a visit to Kim Phuc's family's house. However, along the way our tour guide, Mr. Hao, was kind enough to tell us his life story.  Like most Vietnamese citizens Mr. Hao was affected by the Vietnam War. He was forcibly enlisted in the Vietnamese army and fought in Cambodia against his father's wishes. Their relationship was shattered by Hao's service time and also their family's house was confiscated. After the war was over, Hao rebuilt his relationship with his father, getting his father's house back. Learning of Hao's story taught us about the social turmoil after the Vietnam War from a soldier's standpoint. Next we arrived at Kim Phuc's house. We watched a documentary before meeting Kim's sister-in-law. Kim Phuc, "the girl in the picture," provided great insight into the path and power of reconciliation. She forgave all those who harmed and managed to transform the atrocities of her scars into a memorial for peace and hope.

After seeing Kim's family, we visited the neighboring Cao Dai temple, which infused aspects of Confucianism, Taoism, Catholicism, and Buddhism. The four religions were combined through the architecture and orientation of religious service. The spiritual leaders of the Cao Dai emphasized  the virtues of living a simple life in search for enlightenment.

We traveled to Cu Chi to see the network of underground tunnels used by the south during the war. We learned of the tunnels' functions and how they supported the South Vietnamese against the Americans. We also watched a Northern Vietnamese propaganda video that presented a new perspective on the war through  the eyes of a communist fighter. The tunnels were awe-inspiring to say the least. Inside the tunnels, there were complex designs consisting of planning rooms, smoke chimneys, air holes, and even underwater entrances. We crawled in an enlarged tunnel, which was fit for Americans. The original tunnels were barely large enough for us larger-framed Americans to crawl through.
The rest of the day consisted driving through the Mekong Delta and celebrated a chaperone's birthday.

—Christine Buckley

Revisiting the Friendship Village

Francis Parker School - North to South - Day Four

To begin the day, a few of the students decided to wake up at the crack of dawn (5 am) to attend a traditional Catholic mass. Besides the mass being delivered in Vietnamese, the only difference from the services at home was that the men and women sat on opposite sides of the church. For those who were willing to sacrifice a few hours of sleep, it was a great, early start to the day!

Overall, the morning was slower than usual. We were given free time to sleep in, shop, and eat outside of the hotel. About half of the group went to a local family-owned restaurant in the heart of downtown Hanoi. We were treated to rolling cakes and fried eel - a traditional Vietnamese breakfast.

Before lunch, everyone packed up to embark on an overnight train to Sapa. We checked out of the Imperial Hanoi Hotel, loaded up the bus with our suitcases, while others opted for the carry-on backpack. Then we were ready to start the day!

We had a quick lunch and headed over to the Friendship Village. Everyone was very excited to return and visit the children we played with on Monday. Little did we know that our visit would include gardening and talking with North Vietnamese war veterans. It was difficult work, as most of the area was overgrown with weeds and infested with bugs. We spent a large portion of the afternoon using rusty hoes and sickles to clean up the garden. However, much to our surprise, it was an enriching and rewarding experience. While working, we were able to reflect on the fortunate circumstances we enjoy at home and appreciate the efforts of those who work at the Friendship Village.

Afterwards, we walked to the other side of the village to engage in a discussion with Vietnam War veterans. Alex, our extremely well-dressed guide, translated our questions and the veterans' responses. However, we noticed that when it came to the subject of politics, the veterans and Alex tried steering the conversation in a different direction. This is not the first time we've noticed this; it is clear the Communist government has an influence over what tour guides and maybe even the regular people are allowed to discuss. Overall, though, it was a unique opportunity to be able to see and hear stories from the other side.

After leaving the Friendship Village, we headed to the famous Hanoi art gallery Mai. The gallery was a mixture of abstract and more traditional oil paintings. One painting in particular stood out among the bunch. It illustrated two rows of mice, each holding something different. The top row showed four mice and a cat holding up his paw, stopping them from walking further. A mice on this top row was holding money and the others were holding cheese and personal goods. The bottom row displayed mice who were helping each other carry other, less-materialistic goods and instead of a cat at the end, there was a mouse riding a motorcycle with the word "dream" inscribed on the side. A few of us interpreted this painting as a comparison between a capitalist and communist society. This message did not seem unusual, based on the slightly biased propaganda we have noticed this week.

The rest of our day, we shopped around the city while some went back to the hotel to rest. A few of us are battling the stomach flu, but are now easing back into good health.

To finish off the night, we ate at an American food restaurant. The spaghetti was a hit, but then how can you go wrong with marinara and pasta? The pizza on the other hand...

Tonight we will board the night train to begin our trip to Sapa in northern 'nam!

 Kate, Ross, Michela, and Solia

February 15, 2012

Joey Benoit, Savannah Benes, and Walker Newton in Hanoi

North to South - Day Two

Our second full day in Vietnam has been busy to say the least! From cruising through the streets in rickshaws to an all-you-can-eat Vietnamese buffet, Valentine's Day in Vietnam has had a lot to offer. We have been up and out since 7:00am, and to be honest, we would rather be sleeping than writing this blog.
But like the beliefs of the Socialist government we are in, every small sacrifice counts for the betterment of the group! Hanoi by night awaits.

To begin the day, we hopped on the bus and went to the first University of Vietnam to explore the vast courtyards and listen to native music. A few of us will even be bringing home some Vietnamese instruments to play and master on our own! The quiet atmosphere was easily appreciated, since the last few days have been a bit hectic and confusing.

By far the creepiest part of our day was visiting Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum. Upon arrival, we were greeted with the glares of military personnel, strictly monitoring all activities in the compound with stern faces and sharp bayonets. We then lined up and silently entered the mausoleum to be greeted by the sight of Ho Chi Minh himself, his cold hands resting on his thighs. We weren't expecting to see his body, so the experience was a bit harrowing for most of us. Still, it was humbling to see the man who had such a profound effect on the government and citizens of Vietnam. Then we toured the rest of the compound and saw where "Uncle Ho" had his beginnings. After learning about the modest accommodations Ho Chi Minh was used to, we were surprised by how his body was displayed openly to the public in such a pompous and extravagant way. Still, seeing Ho Chi Minh's compound put a lot of what we've learned in history class into perspective.

After visiting Ho Chi Minh, we headed to an all-you-can-eat buffet for lunch. The buffet was culturally diverse, ranging from sushi to french fries to fried maggots. We saw first hand how courteous the people of Vietnam are, and persistent when it comes to chowing down on chicken feet. Matsuo Chino especially enjoyed the sparrow brains, going back not only for seconds, but for sevenths.

One of the more anticipated activities followed the buffet - the "Hanoi Hilton", the prison where John McCain and dozens of other US Soldiers were contained and tortured during the war. Walking through the poorly lit cells, we could imagine the suffering that people underwent while chained by their ankles to the sloped, concrete floors. What brought the stories to life was the sight of the torture devices like electrical wires, gasoline buckets, and water-boards. The sacrifices made by the US Soldiers during the war are inspiring and their recognition is truly deserved, whether people believe in the war or not. Seeing the conditions of the prison helped us understand their hardships.

After a heart-pounding jaunt through Hanoi in rickshaws and a short break at the hotel, we hopped on the bus yet again and headed to a Buddhist Pagoda and met the orphans and veterans that live there. We passed out some donations and spent the next hour playing with the children. It was heartwarming to see the expressions of the orphans upon receiving their school supplies, clothes, and candy. Hopefully we will be able to see them again before we take the train to Sapa tomorrow.

So parents, as you can see, they are truly keeping us busy here in Vietnam. Needless to say, we are definitely getting your money's worth. Now off into the city to continue to explore and learn.

Joey Benoit, Savannah Benes, and Walker Newton

Reflections from Students Matthew Alessio and Meghan Babla

South to North - Day Two

For our first full day in Vietnam, we started the day at 7:30am with breakfast at the hotel. We were all jet lagged yesterday, so the full night's sleep was very welcome. Then we took the bus to the War Remnants Museum, which was a collection of artifacts and photos from the Vietnam War. It was very impactful on all of us-- it gave a completely new perspective on the war. We had been used to seeing it from an American view, but this museum showed the Vietnamese side of the story.

Some of the notable exhibits were the Agent Orange exhibit, which displayed photos of victims of the Agent Orange chemical. Also we saw a war crimes exhibit, which talked about some of the things American soldiers had done to the Vietnamese during the war. Outside of the museum was a replica of the prisons that held political prisoners. It talked about some of the torture they underwent, which was shocking.

From the museum, we visited the Reunification Palace, which was the palace of the ex-president in the old capital of South Vietnam. We learned about how Vietnam separated and then came to be as one complete country. Particularly interesting was the basement, which was the control center of the operations for the war and bomb shelter for the royal family.

Next, we visited the national post office, which reminded us of the DMV. From the outside of the building, we were able to see remnants of old French architecture, especially with the Notre Dame Cathedral replica across the street. At the post office, a few of us mailed letters and others looked around at the shops inside the post office. Then it was time for lunch. We had lunch at a nice restaurant and had egg drop soup, spiced rice, spring rolls, green beans, pho, and other tasty items.

After lunch, we went to the Saigon Market, which was a HUGE market filled with items ranging from groceries, to shirts, to jewelry, and other everyday items. We learned how to bargain and negotiate a price with the shop owners. Then we went to the Little Rose shelter, which was a home for girls aged 12-18 who were rescued from the sex trade. We got a tour of the small shelter and had a conversation with the shelter leader about how we, and Francis Parker as a whole, could aid them.

When the girls arrived at the shelter around 5pm, we worked on an art project with them-- decorating t-shirts. Then, our tour guide Hau led us in a few Vietnamese games, one which was a lot like the American game of rock-paper-scissors. We had some fun bonding moments and were very moved by the girls' stories. We learned a few Vietnamese phrases, such as "my name is" (toi ten lau) and "goodbye" (gam bih)--spelling not so sure.

The last part of our day was dinner at Restaurant Chateau, a nice restaurant that was really good at carving fruit. We had tempura-like vegetables, noodles, rice, soup in a coconut shell, sea bass, and chicken. Then we arrived back at the hotel and got ready for tomorrow! Starting tomorrow night and for the next few nights, we will be in the Mekong River delta and will have limited computer access. We look forward to sharing our experiences with you via blog when we return on Friday. Good night!

-Matthew Alessio and Meghan Babla

Francis Parker School Arrives in Vietnam

After a long journey the Francis Parker School groups arrive in Vietnam. Here are some reflections from their first day. 

North to South Vietnam

Our first day in Vietnam, we woke up at 7 a.m. and had breakfast at the highest floor of our hotel with a view of all of Hanoi. We then got on a bus with Alex, our tour guide, and drove to Friendship Village, an hour outside the city, and we got to see the outskirts of Hanoi. Friendship Village is a boarding school for children who are victims of Agent Orange disease. Many went home for Tet to spend it with their families, but most stayed. When we got to the village we were introduced to the head of the village who explained its purpose and history. We got a tour of the classrooms and left for a Pho lunch in the city. After we ate and went to the tea house, where we discussed the emerging Vietnamese free market system, we returned to the village to interact with the kids. We were greeted with hugs as we joined the kids in their classrooms. We played for an hour or so, exchanging gifts, coloring, playing with puzzles, and watching the more advanced kids do activities like embroidery. None of us wanted to leave, but we got back on the bus and journeyed back to the hotel. After some free time to explore Hanoi (in groups of three), some of us decided to test out our bargaining skills in crowded markets. We then headed out to another Pho dinner (pho all day erry day). After the delicious dinner we got home around eight and gathered to discuss the restrictions on going out at night. Many of us went out yet again to explore the nightlife of Hanoi; some stayed back to sleep. It's 8:30 in the morning and we're about to head out again- can't wait to see what Tom in 'Nam has planned for us!

South to North Vietnam

 We trust you are well. After a very long day of flying, busing, immigration and customing, and Ho Chi Minh City touring, the South-North Global Studies trip group in Vietnam has finished its first day of educational experiences for the 2012 academic year. In one long day's (or two) of traveling, the group left Francis Parker via chartered bus for LAX, and there for Tai Pei, and there then for Ho Chi Minh City. Because we arrived on Sunday in Vietnam, a traditionally quiet day when many of the city's sites are closed to public viewing, students enjoyed a leisurely afternoon and early evening during which they explored the busy city sites and sounds of the District 1 business community, all while reveling in two splendid authentic meals at a favored local culinary chem, "Pho-24."
With filled stomachs, exhausted bodies, and heavy expectations for what is to come in the next few days, students and chaperones go to bed tonight with high expectations for what comes next in our travels. Tomorrow (Monday in Vietnam, Sunday in San Diego), the group will explore several historical and cultural sites critical for anyone's understanding of the American (Vietnam) War dating from the 1960s and 1970s, as well as the postwar aftermath. The day will start with a visitation of the War Remnants Museum, an internationally recognized requiem to the need for finding reconciliation out of the wars that too often rip countries and their peoples apart. The trip continues with explorations of the Old French Quarter, highlighted with visits to Saigon's Notre Damn Cathedral and old city Opera House. After an eagerly anticipated scrumptious local lunch, the group will engage The Reconciliation Palace, a site best known as the presidential/​governmental headquarters for those South Vietnamese regimes that ultimately failed to keep Vietnam from going Communist in 1975 (despite their being backed by first French and then American governments). Finally, the group will visit the Little Rose Shelter (Mai Am Hoa Hong Nho) for a half day of cultural exchange. The Little Rose Shelter was established in 1992 in response to growing incidents of human trafficking in Vietnam; since its founding, Little Rose has provided a safe shelter to hundreds of young girls (and some boys) and has helped them build a positive economic future for themselves. The shelter also provides medical care, housing, food, and vocational training for the children, most of whom are eventually achieve placement into long-term homes within two years. What a day!
Another blog from the South-North trip will follow tomorrow, although there will be a bit of a lull in blogging as the group heads into a homestay in the Mekong River Delta my mid-week. As soon as possible the students will share with the Parker community their experiences in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, and pass along many of the most memorable and meaningful parts of their travels.
Until then, take care. Everything is going splendidly.
Eric Taylor