The Veil of Vietnam

[Originally posted by Lane Brugman on February 17, 2014. You can find his original blog here: beamanoftheworld.com]

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As the mist falls from the gray expanse of the Hanoi sky, the veil of Vietnam is as secretive as ever. This veil is neither easy nor quick to dispatch and most will never get past it. One must let go of past expectations, surrender and dive, head first, into this largely unknown country in order to uncover the awe and splendor of Vietnam. This is the story of my journey.

My decision to travel to and study in Vietnam was a chaotic impulse. While attending a study abroad meeting in aims to plan my semester in Chile, the speaker mentioned an opportunity to study in Hanoi. She instructed us to ask more questions if we were interested. Needless to say I was interested. My ignorance about the Vietnam War, the incredible jungle climate of Southeast Asia, the incredible food and all the differences between American and Vietnamese culture whetted my appetite. The curiosity that ignited inside me was so intense that I instantly began asking question after question. The more I learned about the program the more excited I became. Two of the most important pieces of information I gathered was that: this was the first time CSU was running the program and that I only had four days to decide. After exhausting my adviser with questions I left the office with a grand smile and a foreign sense of enthusiasm. I then did what every college student must do… run it by the parents.

My parents are very open-minded people but they were quite shocked to hear the Chilean plan had been substituted with Vietnam. I reassured them that the opportunity to go to Vietnam was once-in-a-lifetime and they agreed. With the support of my parents and most of my friends I made the decision to go. So there it was. I was going to Vietnam, not Chile, for six months and I only had two months to organize everything.

Those two months were spent balancing time between filling out applications, completing scholarship forms, gathering visa materials, getting vaccinations, and finishing my 18 credit workload. These two months also consisted of telling all my friends and family that I would be across the world in a developing country for the next six months. During these conversations many asked; “Why are you going to ‘nam’?” I found myself short of a concise response but that question did bring up a common theme. Most Americans think of Vietnam as a war, not a country. Vietnam, the country, seems to be mystery to us. This is the veil of Vietnam and I hope to reveal the real Vietnam through the eyes of a 20-year old college exchange student.

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Progress is quickly transforming Vietnam into a major player Southeast Asia. The constant stream of motorbikes buzzing about Hanoi’s streets represent the progress that is quickly transforming Vietnam into a major player in Southeast Asia.

In my time, I have come to realize that Vietnam is a country of stark contrasts. When you get here, Vietnam overwhelms you, it inundates you. You get off the plane and are suddenly in a world that will not wait on you. You are engulfed with screaming car horns, buzzing motorbikes and loud banter in an alien language. This culture shock seems to smack you dead in the face. You have just been bludgeoned by a foreign culture and you realize it is going to take time to recover. Days go by, you remain in a surreal state but you are able to revel in all of the new, all of the novel, all of the exotic. Weeks pass and as your recovery quickly progresses, the new becomes regular. Soon the fatigue of travel, the commotion of the streets and utter feeling of shock loosen their sharp grasp on you. The intricacies of the Vietnamese culture begin to shine through, the veil slowly rises.

At this point you begin to appreciate that for all of the “in-your-face” facets of Vietnamese culture, you have been missing the subtle traditions, gestures and customs of the people.

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The ability to cook has not been lost on the Vietnamese. This was taken at house warming party which included a delicious lau or hot pot. Nearly every celebration focuses on communal cooking, drinking and eating.

The area that reveals the most about Vietnamese culture is a simple one, the dinner table. Here, more than any other place, the true Vietnam shows through the sheer, for this culture revolves around its much talked about cuisine. Hanoi is most definitely a foodie’s paradise. Restaurants that specialize in one dish line entire city blocks with certain streets renowned for their phở, bún chả or lẩu. The cuisine is very public too. Hundreds of people crowd around street side vendors, sitting on blue plastic stools as busy chopsticks can be heard shoveling food from bowl to mouth. Hanoians are deeply proud of their food and extremely conscious of the long lineage and tradition of Vietnamese food. I quickly learned that each vegetable has specific health benefits, that the only suitable fish sauce is from Phu Quoc and that a proper Vietnamese meal should not require a drink but rather the liquid will come from a soup, broth or boiled vegetable. The depth of tradition and knowledge surrounding Vietnamese cuisine is unlike anything I have ever experienced. Take for instance the story of bánh trưng, or chưng cake.

Chưng cake, you see, is the traditional food for the lunar New Year or Tet holiday, Vietnam’s most celebrated holiday. As the story goes, the simple dish was created by a poor Prince wishing to impress the king of Vietnam. All of the other princes competing for royal attention spent lavishly to find ingredients from across the country but Prince Lang Lieu was not wealthy. He scraped together local ingredients: mung beans, rice and pork. Then he combined all the ingredients and wrapped it with banana leaves before boiling it. When he offered his culinary creation to the King, the king was deeply impressed by the resourcefulness of Prince Lang Lieu. The young Prince had taken easily found, local ingredients and combined them to create a long-lasting, delicious meal. Simple, easy to make, long lasting and very filling, Chưng cake became a hit centuries ago and it remains a favorite for the Vietnamese around the Tet holiday.

I had the pleasure of attended a family chưng cake production just days before the Tet holiday. I spent several hours observing and making the famous cakes alongside 15 family members. From grandma to the youngest toddler, the whole family is involved in the process. The cake begins with creating a banana leaf form. A cupful of rice creates the first layer, followed by crushed mung beans and several pieces of pork. The pork is then covered by more mung bean and a final layer of rice. The banana leaves are then tightly folded around the rectangular form and tied with thin strips of palm thatch. I soon found out that this is the most difficult part of the process. I split banana leaves, failed to tie the thatch correctly and couldn’t get the cake out of the form. Once the laughs subsided the cake came out as a bright green, 6”x6”x3” rectangular block of food and boy oh boy, they are dense! The huge number of cakes are then boiled in a giant pot for 24 hours. Family members take shifts monitoring the pot making sure everything is in order and that the precious cakes are not stolen. The cakes are then divided among the family or sold to neighbors and enjoyed for the festive days, sometimes weeks, to come.

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Sidewalks serve a different purpose in Hanoi – outdoor seating. The commotion of the streets is only surpassed by the tremendous food.

The Chưng cake is a great story of Vietnamese cuisine and its also a great insight into Vietnamese culture. Food, family and tradition remain the most important facets of Vietnamese culture. Though it takes time to see and understand these intricacies, under each of these aspects is a subtleness and modesty that embodies Vietnam. Vietnamese food highlights the bounty that the countryside supplies and allows the ingredients to shine. The spirited, traditional preparation has earned Vietnamese food a distinction as some of the best in the world, yet it does not seem to brag or boast. The people are the same way: genuine, traditional, inspiring and talented yet modest. In this way Vietnam presents a bizarre opportunity to be inundated by the modern blare of motorbikes one minute, then the next minute be in a fish-sauce smelling kitchen, preparing a traditional nem -spring roll – dinner.

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My host mom made one of my favorite dishes bún chả for my birthday. She went to the market at least once a day to secure the freshest ingredients. I miss this so terribly!

This contrast of driving through streets where the culture seems to be so palpable, even incapacitating at times compared to the intricate, quiet tradition is fascinating yet hard-to-grasp. The excitement, commotion and overwhelming alien nature of Vietnam easily creates a shroud around this beautiful country. Yet if you are able to get passed this initial mask, if you can open your mind, you can enjoy the full picture of Vietnam. The picture is a brilliant one with bright colors and images that will change your life. When your eye finally focuses in on the tradition and purity behind a simple bowl phở, you know that the veil of Vietnam has disappeared, leaving you a brilliant country to admire.

Vietnam

Kim Selinske is a sophomore at CSU majoring in History with minors in Political Science and English. She will be spending Spring 2014 on a ship sailing to vibrant destinations such as Japan, China, Burma, India, South Africa, Morocco, and England. Keep an eye out to see where she is headed next! Her blog can originally be found at http://seafaringstudent.tumblr.com/.

[Originally posted March 1, 2014]

We pulled into Ho Chi Minh City at noon on Valentine’s Day, and my
America in the World class immediately debarked the ship and headed on
our field lab. Our professor, Bob Brigham, worked on the normalization
efforts between Vietnam and the US after the Vietnam War, so he is very
invested in Vietnam. We went to 3 museums in the city: Ho Chi Minh City
Museum/the Museum of Revolution, the Reunification Palace, and the War
Remnants Museum. We were supposed to look at what kind of image the
ruling party in Vietnam is putting forward, but each museum was
interesting on it’s own. We were also accompanied by Ambassader Thuy,
one of Bob’s longtime friends, who is the Vietnamese ambassador to Panama.

The Ho Chi Minh City Museum had 2 main exhibits that looked at how Ho
Chi Minh City has grown, and then 2 that tracked the city’s history
through the French invasion and the Anti-US Resistance. This museum was
small and kind of strange. It didn’t seem like it really worked
together, but it was beautiful. We also saw a couple taking their
wedding photos in the main entrance of the museum, which is apparently
the tradition in Ho Chi Minh City.

Next, we went to the Reunification Palace. This building was the “White
House” of the government in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War, until
two tanks from the opposition crashed through the gates and took the
power. This building was absolutely gorgeous. It was fascinating to see
how lavish each room was, when the common person was barely surviving
just outside the gates during the war. It was very interesting to see
all of the maps of the territory of South Vietnam and where they were
bombing. All of us were a bit confused to see that the South Vietnamese
government was bombing their own territory, but it was a great lesson on
how backwards the war was.

Last, we went to the War Remnants Museum, which was by far the most
valuable thing I did in Vietnam. You walk into the museum, only to be
greeted by an entire floor of Peace Posters. Instead of harboring
bitterness towards America, the museum focuses first on peace being the
goal. I thought it was very similar to Hiroshima in how they handled the
crisis. The top level had two large exhibits that focused on the War of
Aggression and on Agent Orange. Both exhibits were absolutely
horrifying, but I learned so much. They also had a chunk of one of the
old forts and some of the old tiger cages that they crammed prisoners
into. I actually started feeling sick to my stomach wandering through
here, though I couldn’t tell if it was from all of the horrific
pictures, or if it was from the sudden heat and humidity, since we had
just come from the frozen tundra of China.

After the War Remnants Museum, we went to Nam Phan, a upscale Vietnamese
Restaurant. Bob knows the owner, because the owner was the first person
with a license to sell silk in Vietnam after the war. Now, he owns
Khaisilk, the nicest and most expensive silk store in Vietnam. According
to Bob, this guy now owns “half of Vietnam,” including multiple other
restaurants, hotels, and stores. Anyway, Nam Phan had some of the most
delicious Vietnamese food! We had these amazing baked ribs with garlic
flakes on them, and I probably could have eaten just those for the rest
of the week in Vietnam. I also got to sit next to Ambassador Thuy, who
was more interesting than I could say. He talked a lot about Vietnam’s
education system, and then he would lean over and show me pictures of
his family, and then he would sing a song or two. He was adorable and it
was a bit hard to believe he was an ambassador sometimes.

The second day in Vietnam we went and got measured for tailored dresses.
Then we wandered towards the market, stopping in at this cute little
bookstore with canvas posters and tons of Disney and Miyazaki products.
We wandered into the Ban Thanh Marketplace, which is an indoor
marketplace with aisles that barely fit one person. This is also the
place where I bought the “gypsy pants,” or the loose cotton pants. I
swore I would never buy them because frankly, I thought they looked
ridiculous. But after one day of walking around Vietnam in jeans, I
caved and bought a…. few pairs of the loose pants. After the
marketplace we found a Korean & French cafe with some amazing pastries
at amazing prices! Yay for inflation? Less than $3 for a full meal at a
fancy bakery is a nice change of pace from the expense of Hong Kong.

Then we wandered around the city, seeing the huge Post Office, some
weird parks, and another marketplace. We found boba (!!) and then a pho
place off the beaten path and it was wonderful! We made our way back to
the Rex Hotel where the shuttle picked us up to take us to the ship. OH!
That’s what I forgot to tell you!

Traffic in Vietnam is HORRIBLE. It’s absolutely crazy and almost
everyone rides motorbikes. No one really follows traffic lights, and
stop signs are entirely ignored. To make it across the street, you just
have to step off the curb (just not in front of one of the few
cars/buses) and walk straight. Hold your head high, don’t look at the
traffic, and keep an even pace! If you change pace, they WILL run into
you. You get a little adrenaline rush every time you cross the street
because you hear motorcycles zooming past, right behind you, and then
you see the ones barely missing you as they speed in front. It’s a fun
time.

On the third day, I left bright and early for Cat Tien National Park.
This is one of the 6 biosphere reserves in the world, and it was a 3
day-2 night program. There were only 9 of us on the trip and it was
perfect. I roomed with one of my friends, Lia, and one of my other
friends Jason was right next door. We stayed in these “cabins” which
were concrete buildings with 4-6 rooms in each. Our beds came equipped
with pastel blue bug nets, though I still was bitten about 12 times over
the course of the trip (despite wearing bug spray the entire time). They
have a restaurant on-site at the main area of the National Park, which
is really convenient. They first day we took a boat down the river
(spotting birds along the way) to a small village of native Vietnamese
people, and then we took a truck ride back to the main station for the
National Park. This car ride was amazing—it felt like being on the
Indiana Jones ride in Disneyland! It was essentially a pick up truck
with two benches crammed in the bed of the truck. It went super fast and
we had a blast, though the car was too noisy, so it scared away the
animals we were supposed to be looking for. That night, we went out on a
Night Safari and saw a lot of deer, some boars, and a handful of other
small animals that are native to the region.

The next day we woke up very early and took a 10km hike up to Crocodile
Lake. The hike wasn’t a hard hike, it was just the heat and humidity
that got to us. The hike was worth it though, because both the forest
and the lake were beautiful! When you arrive at Crocodile Lake, you walk
across these bridges that don’t look like they could support one small
person, much less a bunch of hikers all at once, but it supported
everyone all the way to the little elevated rest house. When we arrived
though, the rangers were washing off a pig’s head in a metal basin. It
was really strange and we all just tried not to look. A group of us
ended up paying to go out into these rickety canoes onto the lake
(filled with crocodiles, mind you) and just take it all in. It was
absolutely gorgeous, and hey, we didn’t get eaten by crocodiles!

The next day, we packed up all of our things and took a small boat
across the river that outlines the national park, and visited the Dao
Tien Endangered Primate Species Center. It was absolutely amazing to see
how they rehabilitate gibbons and slow loris and doucs. It’s not a large
preserve for them, but it’s constantly growing. It was really
informative and probably my favorite part of the entire field program.

We left from there and drove the 4 hours back into Ho Chi Minh City.
Since we got back rather early, my new friend Brooke and I decided to be
history nerds and we went to the Rooftop bar on the roof of the Rex
Hotel to have a drink at 5 o’clock like the American reporters did
during the Vietnam War. The drinks were expensive, strong, but not very
good. It’s all about the experience though, and I can say I experienced
the “Five O’ Clock Follies,” which is something to tell as a history
teacher.

The last day, I ended up picking up my dress and hanging out with some
of my friends. We found a supermarket at the bottom of an upscale
shopping mall (YAY) and then we found Blue Moon Spa. We did a fish
pedicure. It was horrible. OK, let me just say that I hate the idea of
fish touching me, so having a bunch of fish swarm my feet, not even
counting their flesh-eating tendencies, terrifies me. And then you add
in the fact that these fish want to eat my (dead) flesh and it’s just
weird. It took me and my friend 5-10 minutes to actually hold our feet
in the water. That was probably the weirdest experience I’ve had this
entire trip, and I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about it. From
there, we had to head back to the ship, but we crammed a lot into the 6
days we were in Vietnam! I can’t wait to go back and see places like Ha
Long Bay, Hanoi, and the Mekong Delta though!

Connor compares the U.S. to Vietnam

I have been in Vietnam for about a week, more or less, and I have found these things to be the most difficult to deal with.

  1. My lack of knowledge of the Vietnamese language. It is very difficult to go day in and day out trying to express what I want sometimes, I had this sort of issue with the grandma in China. I spoke some Chinese at that point, but it wasn’t enough to understand her. The grandma that I live with here is amazing, but she also speaks no English, so it is very difficult to communicate with her, but she is very helpful and we eventually figure out what the other means through paper or hand signals.
  2. The pollution. It is horrendous here, just breathing normally it is more difficult than at home. I expected the issue, but it still a difficult adjustment.
  3. The weather. It is not freezing.  It stays around 50 degrees, but its humid and it has drizzled rain on every day except for the first two. It tricked me, and I do not appreciate it!

I went and saw a movie yesterday with Emily, Nhung (her host sister), and Nhung’s friend Du. We watched Gambit (hilarious!), it was all in English with Vietnamese subtitles. A few differences between American theaters and Vietnamese:

  1. Your wallet doesn’t feel 5lbs lighter. It costs much less, the ticket was $3 and 2 popcorns and 4 sodas were a little less than $8.
  2. Assigned seating…that was really weird to me, apparently the good seats (I don’t know how they judge) cost more than the others, but I’m not sure how much…
  3. The size, this was a “big” theater to them, where as I saw it as somewhat small.
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A type of fish called Chak Ra (I think), a delicacy to Hanoi. It was amazing. It had leeks and rice noodles, mixed with different vegetables along with fish sauce (brothy looking red sauce) and/or shrimp sauce (the gray sauce).

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Being shown around Hanoi by CSU faculty member.

Connor is a junior studying international studies and business administration at CSU.  He is attending Foreign Trade University in Hanoi, Vietnam for the spring 2013 term.