March 5, 2012

Greetings From Sapa

Francis Parker School - South to North - Day Eleven

We trust you are well. Our group spent the last day and a half in the village of Lai Chai, located approximately ten (10) kilometers outside Sapa town. The experience began when students packed up two days' worth of clothes and necessities, and then hiked to Lao Chai along a winding mountain road that offered up powerful views of the northern highlands. With luck, the fog cleared for our entire tour and we were able to see terraced rice paddies that date back to the 1600s, when the Hmong, Zao, and Zai peoples migrated southward from China and settled this region. Along the way our guide, Bui Van Quan, offered up insights about the local peoples and how their culture is being impacted by the rapid pace of change in this region. Due to the opening of the Vietnamese economy in the late 1980s, and especially the tourist trade, the northern highlands have quickly transitioned from being a land of rice and corn into a land of mass produced handicrafts traditionally worn and used only by the Hmong, Zao, and Zai peoples. Local women, once bound to the local markets and paddies, now venture forth far from the household and engage tourists who visit their community. Most learn English (and other "western" languages) not in the classroom but on the streets, and through time the women have become quite capable students of communication with outsiders, not to mention effective traders of their wares. 

Once we reached Lao Chai (around lunchtime), the group spent the afternoon engaging with the locals in the marketplace and along the rocky roads that meander through the village. We also spent time at a local school visiting children in their classrooms and playing a Vietnamese game that can only be described as "foot badminton." We eventually made our way to our homestay, where a family that included a husband, wife, aunt, and three children welcomed us with handshakes, kind words, and enriching hospitality. The late afternoon was spent relaxing in their home, with some students playing various card games and others venturing into the community. One highlight came when Bui Van Quan took Mr. Taylor on a search for one of the rarest commodities of Lao Chai, the original Oreo cookie. Another came when a local Hmong woman named "Cho Cho" approached the homestay to sell her wares. Cho Cho was a gracious, insightful, and very savvy trader. She had great stories to tell and charmed the entire group with her humor and sarcasm. The final highlight came when the group reveled the night away with a raucous session of karaoke. 

We leave tonight on a night train from Lao Cai (near the Chinese border, which the group will see at sunset), and will arrive in Hanoi in the early hours of Friday. We will then march to the Hanoi Imperial Hotel, pick up our luggage, and make a break for the Hanoi airport for our flight to Taipei. In the Taipei airport, the South-North group will meet up with the North-South group, at which point the sharing of stories and experiences will begin in earnest and continue across the Pacific Ocean to San Diego. While the North-South students will claim that theirs was the best of the two Parker trips, we all know that nothing can beat the South-North at engaging and learning from the complex Vietnamese people and their culture. After all, as students on this trip know too well, you can't beat the party rockers. 

We have had a great trip and anticipate sharing with our friends and families our experiences, stories, photos, videos, and everything else Vietnam. This has indeed been another great year for the Global Studies Program at Francis Parker. As Americans who visited Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s might have said when discussing returning to America, we will soon see you "back in the world." 

—Eric Taylor

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