Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Celebrating Tet in Hanoi, Sa Pa, Ha Long Bay and Hue.

Hue is a very old and beautiful city situated on the Perfume River in the central part of Vietnam close to the East Sea that extends east from Vietnam toward the Philippines and other nations in the Pacific. On the first of February we flew into Hue from Hanoi to explore this historical city and celebrate Tet with our friend Vinh and her family. But first we'll share the earlier travels just before Tet...

On January 25th we began our trek to the Northwest part of Vietnam by flying to Ha Noi from Ho Chi Minh City in the midst of the Tet Lunar New Year rush to return to home to family villages by thousands of Vietnamese heading to the rural provinces to be with family and friends. Luckily our driver had delivered us to the airport about 3.5 hours before our flight, because it took about 2.5 hours to get our baggage checked and to receive our boarding passes. Now we understand our Vietnamese friends' warnings that Tet is like all USA holidays combined! Once we reached Ha Noi we met our guide Thiep and our driver. We spent the next two days and nights in Ha Noi visiting the Ho Chi Minh Museum, the HCM Mausoleum, and several other sites including a long walk halfway across the Long Bien Bridge -- the railway bridge that was bombed many times by the USA during the American War (to no avail as the Vietnamese immediately rebuilt it or used alternative routes to carry on). This was at the same time that we bombed the dikes and irrigation systems in the North that were necessary for food production. Of course this caused hunger and famine for the Vietnamese, but in the spirit of people's war they carried on with great faith that victory would be theirs.

Our Hanoi Friends
Tet Lights on a lake in Hanoi

Next to the Mausoleum we visited the traditional stilt house where President Ho Chi Minh lived instead of the Presidential Palace – he considered the beautiful structure liberated from the French as “too much” and preferred to live in the stilt house (built like a traditional rural farmer's house) until he died at the age of 79. Incidentally, when he had the house built he refused to allow the installation of a toilet within the house in keeping with the practices of the rural people. I would note that there were literally thousands of Vietnamese visiting these sites when we were, celebrating the Tet holidays when they are off work and families can enjoy the beauty of their country. In the HCM Museum our party of three moved quickly as we had lots to cover, including the aforementioned Long Bien Bridge and then the Old District market that lies next to the railroad and covers a number of square blocks. The streets in the market are named by the goods that used to be sold there: a silk street, vegetable street, beef street, and so forth. Thus family shoppers or the different classifications of merchants would quickly find the items they needed to purchase or barter and get on with it. Our friend Carol found a type of mushroom that she was looking for and was able to purchase a nice quantity right there in the market. The woman running the herbal medicine shop cut it up, ground it and packaged it while we waited.

Black Hmong mother and child
From Hanoi we headed north by sleeper train to Lao Cai near the border with China. After a short drive we were in Sapa – a beautiful mountain town with picturesque streets, houses, parks – and lots of tourists. The town is surrounded by several ethnic group's rural villages that are reached by HIKING up and down hilly roads. It took a couple of days of walking, but we able to visit the villages of the Black Hmong and Red Dao to see up close the typical houses, rural primary and secondary schools, rice fields, water-pump rice threshing, wine distilling and handicrafts. With 45 ethnic groups living in Vietnam, there is debate and some controversy about education, balancing economic development and cultures as well as the impact of tourism. With the mountains, waterfalls, mist and sunshine, terraced rice fields and colorful ethnic dress, the area is breathtakingly beautiful. While improved housing and roads, new schools, electricity (and satellite TV) and other signs of improved living conditions are there, it is clear that sustainable economic development is a work-in-progress.

Rural village school

Sa Pa Market

Sa Pa skyline

Terraces and water buffalo

Walking to the Red Dao Village
Nap and feeding combo
Friend Carol with Red Dao woman

From Sapa we headed east to HaLong Bay – another UNESCO and world famous area of Vietnam. This bay full of limestone islands is impressive and popular with Vietnamese and world tourists. During Tet the bay is not as crowded as other times of the year, but we were still amazed (and worried) about the number of cruise boats – of course we were on one! We were lucky to experience both fog and sunshine during our day-and-night-on-the-water while we saw dramatically beautiful islands, floating fishing villages, an enclosed lagoon with golden monkeys. And, as always, the food on the boat was GREAT!
Limestone Islands

Sunset Ha Long Bay


Floating fishing village

Our final stop to celebrate Tet was Hue where we had a wonderful visit with our dear friend Vinh and her family while visiting the Citadel, Forbidden City, several Vietnamese king's tombs, traveled by boat on the Perfume River and ate as many famous Hue dishes as possible during three days. Vinh and her family shared their home and a traditional Tet meal with us – what a great moment to meet with the parents, grandfather and brother of this exceptional woman who was our teaching partner and friend all the while we were in Vietnam. Vinh and her brother showed us a nearby village with the oldest covered bridge in the area – and FUN VILLAGE Tet market where folks were playing a complicated traditional gambling game as part of the Tet celebrations. We also got to visit the high school where Ho Chi Minh, General Giap and other famous Vietnamese leaders studied – same high school Vinh and her brother attended. Everywhere you look you see living history and awareness of ties between generations. Visiting the Citadel and Forbidden City (where generations of Vietnamese kings held court) once again reminded us of the horrible destruction and death of the American War – ancient historic sites bombed and destroyed in the midst of an important Vietnamese city. With help from Vietnamese donors, government and some foreign governments and NGOs, Vietnam is slowly, lovingly restoring some of these historic buildings. Hue is known as the “heart” of Vietnam with a large number of pagodas and temples, traditional architecture and slower, traditional pace. It was so special to get introduced to Hue by Vinh and her family!
Ancient bridge that is national treasure
Friends at ancient bridge

Coffee with Vinh's family in Hue on Perfume River
Forbidden City restored and destroyed
Vinh's father and Carol 
Vinh's parents heading home after Pho and coffee

Celebrating Tet at Vinh's home with FAMILY!
Beautiful Perfume River - perfume from Sandlewood
From Hue we flew to HCMC where we took quick naps before heading back to the USA – after getting to say goodby to some of our special TDT friends at the airport. Even after a week in Los Angeles, we still aren't sure if we've really finished our Vietnam adventure. There are lots more photos – which we'll figure out how to post for painless viewing. So watch for the photo alert. We'll also be participating in a workshop at the annual United Association for Labor Education UALE conference in March in Los Angeles (check out the UALE website for more details), hoping to recruit more volunteer teachers to go to Vietnam.

We thank and recognize each and all of you who contributed solidarity gifts and money for solidarity gifts that we shared with many students, workers, union leaders, professors, children, peoples organizations and Vietnamese friends while we were in Vietnam. You were a real part of this adventure concretely showing YOUR international friendship. We shared your stories with the Vietnamese when we shared your gifts, so YOUR friendship now resides in Vietnam!

Onward to a 2014 full of international friendship, peace and progress for workers everywhere!

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Here is a very short video of a pump used by the Black Hmong to operate a mill that grind their rice for them, Quiet, efficient, clean and doesn't dirty the water.  Some folks might call it primitive or quaint but for the job it is better than an iphone, a giant electric plant to get some power down to a house hold, or a

neo-fascist corporation overcharging consumers for glorified stuff that ends up in the closet.