The first weekend, we had a CET-organized trip to the DMZ and the Vinh Moc tunnels on Saturday. We crossed the bridge at the 17th parallel from South to North, where there was a memorial flag and map of Vietnam. Then we descended into the tunnels after first watching a video about people’s lives under the tunnels during the war. It was extensive, as in: they had living rooms and kitchens and birthing rooms meters under the ground. We learned how water and food were transported inside, and about actual feats and deets of guerrilla warfare. The tunnels themselves were not that tall and even I had to crouch slightly to make it through some parts. And at one of the tunnel exits I spotted my first glimpse of the Pacific, here in Vietnam.
Then half of the roommates and all of the Duke students took a bus to Da Nang, famous for its beaches and neighboring mountains. We got there around 5 PM and had Pizza Hut dinner. Shocking, yes, weak, yes- but we still went there. After just one week of eating at “our” restaurant, the small veggie pizza I shared with Alexa seemed too heavy for me. The first bite was fantastic, but my stomach didn’t feel wonderful stuffed with the excessive cheese and grease. That night, we visited the famous Dragon Bridge in Da Nang, which literally breathes fire and water every Saturday night at 9 PM. Quite the show. Then we walked around for a bit, tried some La Rue, and played Never Have I Ever before going to bed. Our hotel, by the way, cost $5 per night and it was actually decent. Sure, the bathroom had a glass door with shades, instead of a real wall- but it was big enough for a desk, a TV, a dresser, a nightstand, a double bed and a single bed AND it was clean. The next day, I planned on seeing the sunrise with some of the others, but decided sleep was more important. So most of us took our time getting up and rolled out to breakfast at about 10 AM and made it to the beach (My Khe) at about 11 AM. I’m used to the rugged beauty and also the aggressive crowds of New England beaches, but here, it was quite empty, with a few tourists here and there. White sand and mountains in the distance and clear blue water with some jellyfish scattered here and there. I loved it. And it was also so fun to go to the beach with friends- it was a first for me (ha ha ha). We chilled in the water for a bit, which was pretty calm and the perfect temperature, and then sat on the sand for a bit. We had coconuts and chilled in the water for a bit more, and I also jet skied for the first time ever. Possibly almost killed Jared when I threw him off the jet ski, but it’s all in good fun so it’s fine. We left at about 2 the sun was really aggressive, and Alexa, Katrina, and I caught a taxi by ourselves to an Indian restaurant. We made it through the door at exactly 3 PM, and they were so excited there that they let us come in even though they were literally closing. And we feasted on all the spices I already had started to miss and got Katrina to love Indian food and it was the best thing ever. At 4, we piled up into our bus to go to Hoi An, the touristy ancient town area a half hour away from Da Nang. Touristy was an understatement considering the number of non-Vietnamese people we saw there. For once, we didn’t stick out! Except apparently I still did; despite the high tourist population I still got stares. We arrived in Hoi An around sunset and explored until it really got dark and late. There were a number of touristy shops, where I got elephant shorts and elephant pants. Fun story about the elephant pants: we were of course overcharged for them- the guy at the store actually asked for $10 (200k VND!) but Andrew saved the day by stonefacedly bargaining like a badass. He got his pants for like 12% of the price or something, though I caved at around 140k VND and Harry around 120k. Overall Hoi An was quite the romantic city and Diane said many times her line that she wished I was a boy so that it could be a romantic date.
The next day it was time to leave, so we visited Cong Caphe real quick for some coconut coffee and then hopped over to the supermarket to buy food for our 4th of July dinner (this was the 4th of July). We planned on cooking “American” food at the restaurant because that was the extent of celebration we could realistically do for the 4th in Vietnam. Grant made French fries that were actually high quality, and there was some fabulous mac and cheese too.
Meredith Casper from DukeEngage visited us this week, as a part of her site visits for the year. Apparently Vietnam was overdue for a visit by like 3 years. She sent us a long questionnaire about our service and our living conditions and all so not everyone was super pleased about it at first, but Meredith was awesome. She visited our worksites and the Youth Center and took a bunch of pictures and joined in on making fun of Vu so it was great (even if our Friday afternoon naps did get interrupted to reflect with her). She joined us for our CET weekend visit to Hue, where we walked along the Perfume River and saw the Imperial City. It was freaking HOT that day, with the temperature over 105 during the peak of the day when we were out in the sun and the real feel at like 130. And our tour guide for the citadel was a bore and a half- Vu had his friend arranged to give the tour but last minute it didn’t work out so we had this dude who kept talking about the beauty of ancient Vietnamese woman, and the woman’s shape in an ao dai and a conical hat, and how he missed those days. He spent a lot of time storytelling about women, I think. Actuallt he just spent a lot of time talking in general. He would also describe not the actual sights but what tourists would do at these sites. For example- we were at the entrance to the citadel where they had large cannon replicas and instead of pointing the cannons out, he would say, “These are the cannons where tourists pose for pictures.” He made us try to take a jump picture in front- all twenty-seven, mind you- and of course it failed! And in the citadel, when talking about how the king had many wives, he asked all of us women if we wanted to be concubines. Literally. Meredith was dying as were we all! (I felt a little bad for making fun of him at first but eh)
We then visited this wonderful organization, Tinh Truc Gia (Peaceful Bamboo Family), which serves children with disabilities by providing a community where these young adults are able to grow socially and build self-sufficiency. The organization provides an environment where the children are nurtured and taught valuable skills through artwork. The kids weren’t there as it was a weekend, but the director who was Vu’s friend showed us around. He was one of those people you could just sense goodness from, and feel the kindness in his eyes and know that he was fully devoted to what he was doing with his life. And the grounds of TTG were spectacular. There were plants everywhere, shady breeze, and the kind of warmth that peace and happiness bring. They had a small teahouse where they served juice, smoothies, tea, and cookies the kids made. They had this cute organic garden, and learned that the organization couldn’t find well water for months after consulting with so many companies, but found it at last minute when they asked a father and son to manually look for water. We saw some of the paintings they had displayed, and though we didn’t get a chance to meet the kids, it was real to see where the art we saw in Saigon came from. So Vu will be biking the Hai Van pass (as I posted on Facebook) to raise money for TTG to send more teachers for special education training, and he plans to work there after CET. I do think that if I ever get the opportunity to come back to Vietnam, I want to visit TTG again and if I have the chance to stay here for a long enough time I would love to volunteer here.
And after TTG is when we all split up. For the first time in weeks, our DukeEngage group would not be together at the same place so it was mildly (definitely unnecessarily) dramatic. But everyone was splitting up either to go to their roommate’s house, or to another roommate’s house, to stay the night. Khanh, me, Alexa, Nhi, Kayla and Nga went first to the supermarket to pick up food for our picnic the next day. I was planning on making basic vegetable stir-fry, Indian style, and was sorely disappointed when the only spices I could find were some sort of fish powder, chili powder, and pepper. But I planned on just cooking my food anyway with about half the ingredients (and it turned out actually realistically Indian-tasting! And people loved it yessss). After stopping for milk tea, we all split up for our roommate’s houses. Khanh actually is from a coastal town ten hours away, but her grandparents live in Hue and welcomed me to stay for the weekend. I can’t say how grateful I felt, one for them letting me stay and two for experiencing the feeling of being in a real home after so long. I suppose at Duke it doesn’t strike me as much because I have my things in my dorm room, but here in a different country thousands of miles away from home and with the experiences of being in generic guesthouses, I didn’t realize how much I missed it. And her grandparents’ house reminded me of being at my own- you can just tell with grandparent’s houses. Khanh’s grandfather spoke some English as he used to be an English teacher a while ago, and we talked about my family. And her grandmother joked with me that she would charge me $20 per night to stay, to which I said “Mac qua!” (“Too expensive!”) which cracked her up probably because of my terrible Vietnamese. We left soon after to grab dinner at a vegetarian place in Hue, by Khanh’s motorbike. I’ve been on motorbikes before and I actually know how to ride one so I wasn’t as *amazed* as some people were (Lol) but I had missed the feeling and it was great. There’s no better way to feel alive when traveling. Hue was a beautiful city during day and night, especially when crossing the famous bridge across the Perfume River, and being out in the air for it all was the best. Also the best was the vegetarian food we had, with tofu stir-fried noodles and fresh orange juice and rice cake things that were similar to idli. Then we went to this super hipster secondhand store Khanh loves, where I got two quality dresses for 200k dong (aka less than $10). The shop asked us to pose in our new clothes so they could take pictures so we awkwardly modeled for a bit and probably looked incredibly dumb. Then we met up with half of the others who were staying in Hue city, in the backpacker district. It was more touristy than even Saigon. (This was one of the most common observations we made every weekend- wow, so many white people! Please excuse the group for not being pc). But hella lively.
The next day we went up to a pagoda to have our picnic (the food we cooked at each of the roommate’s houses), and two of Khanh and Nga’s friends joined us. Had good food, saw good views (on motorbike, of course- Khanh’s motorbike was too weak to carry me on the dirt roads I think, and it was struggling and so was she so I switched to her friend’s motorbike), made good memories. Some geese crashed our picnic and aggressively didn’t leave. After eating and chilling for a bit, we left to get milkshakes and dinner soon after at a pub where Khanh and Nga used to work (I had pasta! Yay!). They quit because the pay wasn’t worth the experience- not just the work experience, but the experience of speaking English with native speakers, as it’s common for university students in Hue to do- so anyway, they were paid like 70k per 7-hour shift which is less than $4. Overall, the weekend was, as a real experience of the roommates’ lives, truth-telling. Many of the roommates became a lot closer, like after seeing the different ways we viewed the program. For some of them who don’t have air conditioning or spacious rooms or even free time without chores to do, CET was a vacation where they could hang out with American students in a nice, comfortable guesthouse; whereas we Duke students came in with the mindset: we are going to tough it out in Vietnam and live a summer with just the bare necessities. Khanh and I became a lot closer just because we had the chance to talk a lot more and make fun of each other more and meet her family. And to see how different her university life was from mine- mine where I also had a job that allowed me to practice a skill I’ll need in my career (a work-study job in a neurobiology lab) but which paid as a minimum $10 an hour. Where our dorms were air-conditioned and had space for all the things we have in our double room, rather than a room with four girls and no AC. But where also, my grandparents live two plane rides across the world away and my parents live a thirteen hour car ride away, and where sometimes, hanging out doesn’t have to mean being ~turnt~ in dark rooms with loud music but rather just drinking coffee or milk tea by the river and talking.
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Weekend 3: Halong squad and Quang Tri squad
As our first fully free weekend and only one where long-distance travel was reasonable, half of the DukeEngage group decided to go to Hanoi and Halong Bay by overnight bus and return by flight on Sunday night. So they left on Friday and then it was the rest of us in Quang Tri. On Saturday we planned to go to this national park three hours away, Bach Ma National Park, famous for its Five Lakes and Waterfall trail. And it did not disappoint. So to get there to the trails, we had to go up mountain roads to nearly the top and trek down, and let me tell you these roads were so windy and twisty that I couldn’t imagine how they even existed. But the trail throughout was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen, and definitely the most beautiful in Vietnam. We literally walked down wet and slippery rocks and hung onto ropes placed throughout in this lush Vietnamese jungle, where the jungle views were occasionally broken by “lake” views. I say “lake” because they were actually large pools or ponds of clear cool water that shimmered emerald as a whole, cascading from sets of waterfalls. We ate our lunch of bread and cheese at the foot of one of the small waterfalls on some big flat rocks, and went on through the jungle and all of a sudden I looked up and there were no more lush trees but instead the bright clear blue sky interrupted by the mountains. We were at the top of the big waterfall, and it was a clear cliff. There was a trail to go to the foot but we didn’t take it, instead soaking in what was before us for an hour at the top.
Back in Quang Tri, Hoi found out about a vegetarian restaurant and I ended up going there every weekend for each meal we’ve been in Quang Tri for because it’s so good. And Sunday was a day of catching up on life, with emails and blogging and work and rest so all together it was perfect.
Saturday began nearly like any other weekday, as we had to be up and out by 7 AM to travel four hours to Quang Binh province for the CET cave trip. We got there around 11 AM and hiked up a few kilometers to the cave entrance. It was huge- the caves, I mean. Well, I’ve never visited caves before, but these were huge and beautiful. Of course, we also noted the resemblance of the stalagmites and stalactites to things because we are all twelve years old. I think I won’t have any friends when I get back because I’ve become a tween boy over the course of this trip. We explored the caves for about an hour and a half and got back down to have a lunch of bread and cheese, and hopped back on the bus for the four hours back. So the caves were nice…but also a long distance to travel for such a short time there.
For dinner, Alexa and I tried the vegetarian place again but it was closed and then we didn’t know what to eat for dinner so we ate bread again. It was hugely disappointing (this is an understatement) because while I am fine adjusting for food, a whole day of bread is not fine. Thankfully, Sunday the place was open so we had lunch and dinner there. Otherwise, Sunday was much of the same as the week before, which is needed when there’s no time to do any of that real-person stuff during the week. In the evening, a bunch of us went on an impromptu bike ride around Quang Tri, across the bridge on the national highway and into smaller roads through endless rice paddies and small farmhouses. It was the rural we imagined, less than a ten-minute bike ride from our guesthouse. It was also my favorite kind of landscape, so similar to the roads by my grandparents’ houses in India that again the déjà vu returned. And I may have to alter my earlier statement of the most beautiful place I’ve seen in Vietnam because the sun setting into the mountains, casting a reddish glow over the bright green rice carpet and over the river, can’t be beat. We stopped at a war memorial on the banks of the river too. It’s not something a tourist would ever be able to see, and not even something I would have felt completely comfortable doing without having lived in Quang Tri already for the last four weeks, just because it’s almost intimate to just bike around in people’s lives. At this point, so many people in Quang Tri know who we are and have welcomed us that I think it’s ok and it’s not a touristy thing for us to do (again with the tourists!) Although a man did tell us as we biked by, “You guys are lost!” as Kayla translated- not asking if we were, but telling us that we were, which was funny.
Weekend 5: Pre-culture show and pre-departure
This is our last “free” weekend before we leave Quang Tri, but I say “free” lightly because we had a lot of work to do for the culture show. The American students are putting on a skit for the show that we needed to finish writing and making props for so we are mostly all here all weekend. Most of the roommates are in Hue with their families now, as this has been the longest they’ve been away from home for a lot of them. Apart from wifi being a lot faster, it’s a lot quieter on these weekends. Some people are away at the Hai Van Pass, as Vu’s bike ride is actually today. Jared and Harry are also doing the bike ride, although definitely not the full 120 km. I told Vu I was a little bummed that he didn’t really extend an open invitation to train for the pass with him, because though I’ve never done legitimate mountain biking before, I do bike and I could have trained all summer if not for the full distance and helped fundraise more for TTG. It’s fine because doing the ride would have made this week a lot just from being drained of energy- but I do wish I had had the opportunity.
This weekend was also the first time I went to the market a few times without any Vietnamese roommates and it makes me feel like I’ve made it. I got a coconut without any help and for the same price I always get it for, and we all got supplies for our culture show skit too (although we definitely got ripped off, because there’s no way a small plastic chair costs 50k dong). Will say more on this in my community post later.
Tim’s mother is an English teacher and she has a class for 5 to 9-year-olds on Sundays 3-5 PM, and she asked if Khanh and I could visit and do a quick lesson with them. She said Tim enjoys our class and also offered us compensation…of course I won’t take it, but I’m really excited to visit the class later today.
Weekend 6: Soccer and culture
Hasn’t happened yet, of course, but when it does it’ll requisite its own post so stay tuned.