Friday, March 30, 2012

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

The smoothness of the ocean continued from after we left Singapore. But the evening before we arrived in Vietnam, the water suddenly became rocky again, and I started feeling a little sick. But shortly after, we made it to Ho Chi Minh. This was the beginning of a crazy schedule, we had two days of class before Vietnam, we will have two days after, and then go to China. Then we will have just two days before Japan. After Japan we will be crossing the Pacific and on our way home, making a brief stop in Hawaii. It seems like this last leg will go by the quickest.

We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City on March 25 and I had a city orientation. We drove around and looked at some of the major sites of the city. Immediately, I noticed the large amounts of motorcyclists. And the traffic only seemed to get worse throughout the next few days. It's a pretty sketchy place to ride a bike in. First, we stopped at a temple that I think was Buddhist, but it might have been a mix with Caoism or Daoism or something like that. It had a huge painting on the wall of the sea. They worshiped a goddess to ensure safe crossings over the ocean. The temple was partially enclosed and outside. It had a lot of incense and candles that were used to pray to the gods and goddesses. After the temple, we went to eat at a very nice Vietnamese restaurant. I thought the food was OK, but it had too much cilantro for me. It definitely wasn't my favorite meal in Vietnam. After lunch, we visited the Unity Palace, which is where the president of South Korea once lived. It was huge and mainly consisted of large, extravagant rooms with very nice carpets and rugs, taxidermy, and nice furniture. We saw rooms like the president's office, room, and meeting rooms. Then, we went to a cathedral near the post office. It had giant ceilings, kind of like what you would picture when you think of a cathedral. We also saw the post office, which was huge and looked kind of like a train station. The last thing we did was visit a museum of Vietnam's history. It was different than the War Museum but had a lot of interesting artifacts. That's one thing we didn't get to do - go to the War Museum, and I really wish I had done that.

The next day was my trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels and Caodaoist Temple. We began with a long drive to the temple. It was completely different to the temple the day before. It was entirely indoors and was just one enormous room with elaborate statues and decorations.The religion fuses a lot of different religions together to create one perfect religion that wouldn't cause controversy and would create peaceful unity. Yellow stood for Buddhism, red for Confucianism, and blue for Daoism, I believe. We made it there in time for their noon service, which involved a mass prayer and song. After that, we stopped by the Cu Chi cemetery for the veterans. Then we made our way to the tunnels. First, we saw a video of life in Cu Chi, which was extremely sided toward the Vietnamese and seemed anti-American. Which makes sense for a video in the '60s, but I just thought that was interesting. Then we got a brief introduction to the tunnels and saw a model of what they once looked like. After that, we got to walk around and look at/go inside the tunnels. The openings were well hidden and extremely small. We also got to go further down into a tunnel a few feet underground. We had the option to go about 60 meters, but I only went 20 meters. It was very small, you had to crouch down, so someone that was claustrophobic had a lot of trouble. And it also had bats in it, although I didn't see any. They showed us the traps that they used to wound or kill American soldiers. They all consisted of long, metal spikes that were arranged to form various traps that rolled, swung, folded, etc. It was a different experience, because you really saw their side of the war, which also made you understand our side even better and what they had to endure. It was a lose-lose situation for both sides.

On the third day, I didn't have any trips planned. So I just found a couple girls who were going to get Internet and explore the city. We went to an Internet Cafe we had seen the day before, but it wasn't open. So we walked around and tried to talk to local people to find out if there was a place to get Internet, but no one spoke English. We were just about to give up when we saw the cutest Husky puppy. I went up to the owner and motioned to pet her and he nodded. We tried asking him if there was Internet anywhere and he, luckily, understood English, but said no. Then he said we could use the wifi in his office. It might have seemed a little sketchy to some people, but it was in the middle of the day, in a crowded area, with three people, and a man with a puppy. So we just went for it and it was completely safe. It was an advertising business and several people were working inside. They didn't mind if we skyped though, and one even struck up a conversation with me. After that, we dropped our computers off at the ship and went back out. We explored some of the markets, like the Ben Thanh market. They sold mostly electronics and American clothes. So I didn't find much to buy except headphones and an extension for my Mac cord. We decided to take a bus to a random part of town and found a local area with a long strip of shops. We walked along the strip, and I found a moped helmet that I bought. I just had to get one, since almost everyone there has one and has a moped. I really wanted to buy a moped though! We kept walking around and decided to get dinner. We finally found a restaurant but they spoke hardly any English. I asked for noodles and rice with no meat. The waiter acted like he understood, nodded his head, and even repeated "no meat." I made clear and even said, "No pork, no beef, no chicken, no fish, no shrimp." And he pretended to understand, but he didn't. When the food finally came out, mine had shrimp in it. I tried to explain to them what I wanted but they didn't understand one word I said. After nearly an hour of trying to get them to see that I didn't want the shrimp, they went in the back and quickly brought back noodles without the meat. I figured they just pulled out the meat, which I still don't eat food that has touched meat, but I just ate it anyway. I was tired of being there and wanted to leave. After dinner, the two girls I was with decided to go back to the ship, but I went to the night market. People had told me it was really safe there and it was crowded and well-lit so I decided to check it out. And I'm really glad I did because it was a great experience! I bought a lot of cool souvenirs! After about 30 minutes there, I walked to the place where the shuttle picked people up to take back to the ship.

I went to the Mekong Delta the next day. First, our guide took us to a local food market. It was good and bad. The good was all the fresh fruit and other foods all along the road. But the bad was all the meat, especially seafood. The fish were in these tiny buckets, alive, and the entire area wreaked of fish. Then we took a boat to the Mekong Delta. It kind of reminded me of those swampy, wet areas with tall plants that you saw in movies about the Vietnam War. And in fact, people in the war had to fight there. The river was brown and narrow, and one both sides were these tall plants. Then, we went to an island and saw how local people used the coconut. They use it to build houses, rugs, roofs, lamps, purses, and candy. And I bought six packs of coconut candy, I already almost finished off one. I'm trying to save the rest to bring home and share with my family. We got to see how they make the candy by shaving off coconut meat, liquifying it, and then it hardened and they hand packaged it. We also got to eat lunch there and it was very good! Then we took several boat rides, some smaller and hand paddled, and others larger and with engines. We even took a ride on a horse drawn cart, which I was very upset about. These poor horses were the size of ponies, and had to carry around six people in the heat and humidity. I wasn't very happy. But all in all, the day was interesting and we were able to see how people lived on the Mekong Delta. Although, we didn't really learn much about how they use the water in their everyday lives, which I thought was interesting.

The last day in Vietnam, I went to the Can Gio Biosphere (pronounced something like Cun Jia) with my marine biology class. We took a bus ride to a ferry, then took the ferry to the other side (wherever that was). Then we took another bus ride further to the Can Gio Reserve. Along the way, I saw a lot of aquaculture going on, especially shrimp farming. I thought that was interesting since it's one of the worst things for mangrove areas. It was interesting that there were so many since the Can Gio area was devastated by the Agent Orange gas. The shrimp farming only furthered the devastation. That and cutting down the mangroves for fire wood. But we went to the reserve and got a presentation about how they use aquaculture and about the Can Gio Biosphere in general. I saw a lot of mudskippers (which they eat), prop roots on the Rhizophora trees, pneumatophores on Avicenia, propagules (baby mangroves), macaques, an area that they farm blood cockles, crab farming (everyone else participated in fishing for crabs, but luckily caught none!), a bat island, these crazy, huge deer, a gibbon, a water snake (it was tan and had black lines going down it the long way), and some birds. We also helped rebuild the mangroves by planting baby propagules. We walked a long way through the thick mud and got covered in mud. We were the first Americans to help in the rebuilding of the area since Americans destroyed it in the Vietnam War with Agent Orange. The last thing we were able to do was probably the most exciting, maybe even my favorite on the entire voyage. We were able to feed crocodiles! We went into a caged area (it was a very large reserve that was just caged so they couldn't get out, but they said they planned to release them into Can Gio in the future) and got into a caged boat. The crocodiles came from everywhere and surrounded the boat, they knew that meant food time. Then, we were handed a fishing pole with a wire and a dead fish attached to it. The first person to do this put the pole over the edge and almost immediately the crocodile jumped up and snatched the fish from the pole and made the most terrifying sound when he closed his jaws. Then he played tug of war with the rope for a minute. I was terrified to feed them because I thought maybe they would pull me in! But the nice crocodile i fed just snatched the fish off, clean and easy. I was grateful for that. But at the end, a crocodile got the wire caught on his tooth and couldn't release. I felt really bad for it, and the tour guide just pulled really hard and eventually it snapped. But the whole experience was very cool. I've studies crocodiles in high school and only saw one in Kenya, so to be able to see that many was amazing! After the crocodiles, we went back on the bus, took the ferry, then got back on the bus again and returned to the ship. We will be traveling for two days to China, and will arrive in Hong Kong on Sunday. But the journey is expected to be rocky, because we will come very close to a typhoon - hopefully it won't get too bad.

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