Culture, Travel

Let’s Travel South Central Vietnam

Du Lich Da Nang

Ðất Quảng Nam chưa mưa đã thấm
Rượu Hồng Ðào chưa nhấm đã say
Bạn về nằm nghỉ gác tay
Nơi mô nghĩa nặng, ân đầy thì theo.

Translation:
“Soaking the land of Quang Nam, without rain
Drunken on Peach Wine, without sipping it
Why don’t you return home and think
of the place that’s filled with grace and kindness.

The above short poem is a very well known in Vietnam that accurately describe the Quảng Nam Province (Southern Province), where the city of Đà Nẵng is located. The Quảng Nam people’s generosity to their guests is as abundant as water, soaking up the land with their generosity. They would offer guests their best wine, the Peach Wine, and one could feel tipsy from its scent without tasting the wine. They would give their guests a good impression of their hospitality and kindness, leaving their guests with the desire to visit Quảng Nam again.

The generosity of the people of Quảng Nam was passed on from generation to generation, until today. Quảng Nam Province has transformed into a bustling tourist region with the recent development of Đà Nẵng city with its iconic Golden Bridge, praised by The Guardian Newspaper as the most striking pedestrian bridge, providing a breathaking view of the mountain to its visitors.

Đà Nẵng was only recently developed into a major city in the last 15-20 years. Previously, the city was very impoverished. Even though it was called a city, yet its streets were small and unpaved due to lack of maintenance. The city council building, schools, hospitals were all deteriorated, without adequate budget for repair. Many of its residents were still living in thatched housing made from coconut leaves. Only through recent efforts to attract investments, develop tourism and building bridges, connecting an isolated part of the city with its counterpart was Đà Nẵng city able to escape poverty.

When speaking of Đà Nẵng, one has to mention Sun World Bà Nà Hills, the Vietnamese mashup of Universal Studio and Disney World. It is an amusement park plus resorts situated on Trường Sơn mountains, west of Đà Nẵng.

The name Bà Nà was said to have been the Vietnamese pronunciation (or mis-pronunciation) of banana, since the mountain was abundant with banana trees. The mountains were previously used as a resort hot spot for French officers during the French colonial period in Vietnam. It was later abandoned and was only transformed recently into a beautiful resort. The unique aspect of Bà Nà Hills is its cable cars, with its Bà Nà – Suối Mơ track setting the world record for the longest and highest single-track cable car.

Sun World itself is a very well-designed theme park with various attractions, games, rides, and restaurants to keep its visitors entertained for days. The theme park was built to resemble a village, and without the massive influx of visitors, you would never have guessed that it is a theme park from its architectural designed. The park is famous for its garden of thousand flowers blooming flamboyantly, setting a spectacular backgrounds for many love birds. In fact, it is not uncommon for couples to come here to take their wedding photos.

Aside from Sun World Bà Nà Hills, Đà Nẵng is also known for its three miraculous pagodas. All three temples are located in favorable location, forming a triangle around Đà Nẵng, with the most auspicious pagoda built in the Sơn Trà District.  According to the local legend, there once was a Buddha statue drifted onto the Sơn Trà sandbank, which was said to protect fishermen out at sea and provided peace in the region for a very long time. The sandbank was named Bãi Bụt (The Buddha’s land) and a pagoda was later built for worship. Its construction was completed in 2010, making it the largest pagoda in Đà Nẵng. Especially well known at this pagoda is its giant statue of the Female Buddha, considered as the tallest statue in Vietnam at 67m height. It is said that the Buddha will answer one who prayed at this pagoda.

Moving north from Quảng Nam Province into Quảng Bình, into the old capital city of Huế, tourists will be able to visit the Imperial City of the Nguyễn Dynasty. During the period of infighting between the Trịnh and Nguyễn Lords (mid 17th century), the Nguyễn lords immigrated south and established their stronghold in the south to resist the Trịnh invasion. after the country was unified, the Nguyễn proclaimed themselves emperors and built the imperial city. The city was originally made of clay since Vietnam was driven to impoverishment following the long civil war between the Trịnh and Nguyễn lords. Later, when the country recovered economically, the city was reinforced with stones and bricks and a palace was constructed from precious ironwoods for the emperor.

The Imperial City today is not the same as the city during the golden age of the Nguyễn Dynasty. Much of the city was destroyed from the Second Indochina War (1955-1975). Many precious decorations and artifacts of great historical importance within the city was looted in the Battle of Huế, and only the nine tripod cauldrons and nine great cannon made of coppers remained (probably too heavy for thieves to steal). A few black and white photographs preserved to remind people a piece of Vietnamese history. Currently, there is an on-going project to restore the city. Unfortunately, many parts of the city remained destroyed and overgrown, causing it to be lacking in grandeur.

Leaving Huế, we will be heading to Hội An, the ancient city of lanterns and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. During the golden age of under the Nguyễn Lords, Hội An was grown into a bustling international trade hub with goods coming from China, Japan, Europe and as far as Egypt flowing through the port of Hội An. Building construction in Hội An are a fusion of the indigenous design with Chinese and Japanese architecture, featuring wooden housing, narrow streets, an open market and a ferry quay for the transportation of goods in the old days. Unfortunately, Hội An’s splendor and importance crumpled along side the the Nguyễn Dynasty following the Tây Sơn Rebellion. Eventually, when the Nguyễn was able to suppress the rebellion, they decided to move the seaport to Đà Nẵng, and Hội An was soon forgotten in the past.

There was never a real need for Hội An to modernize or for its narrow streets to expand, so the city structural integrity remained intact. Today, Hội An is a city rich in history, culture and delicious cuisine. It remains a top must visit site for many tourists.

Saving the best for last, I would like to introduce you to the Vietnamese National Park Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng in Quảng Bình Province. The Phong Nha caves and grottoes complex were officially explored and researched in 1990 to harness its potential for tourism development. Phong Nha boasted five best records to its visitors, including:

  1. Longest and largest natural cave
  2. Tallest and widest cave entrance
  3. Most beautiful fine sand beaches
  4. Most spectacular stalagmites and stalactites
  5. Longest underground river in Vietnam

When arriving at Phong Nha, visitors will be taking a 30-minute boat along the Son river to arrive at the Phong Nha cave entrance. The river is turquoise blue and clear; one can see fish swimming under the water. Yet the river is named “Son”, meaning brick-red, because the river would turned as red as a brick after the rain due to the fallen dirt from the mountain, washing into the river by the rainfall.

Entering Phong Nha cave is like entering paradise of the gods. Over hundred millions of year, the flow of water had the interior of Phong Nha cave, numerously beautiful stalactites and stalagmites structures that glitter dazzlingly when bright light is shone on them, giving visitors the illusion of entering the world of the gods. Another reason why visitors called this place paradise because several of stalactites and stalagmites structures appear to shape like Buddhas, gods and angels.

That conclude my tour to Quảng Nam and Quảng Bình Provinces of Vietnam. Tạm biệt and hẹn gặp lại.

Advertisements
Standard
Culture, Economic, Personal Experience, Travel

The Reality of Poverty

My sister, who majored in math, often said: “We’re numb to numbers and statistics.” Whenever I listened to the news concerning poverty stricken region, I would hear reports about an outrageously high percentage number of people living below the poverty line, millions of people have to go without food everyday, and millions other lacking access to clean water, etc. I saw people’s suffering and pains in number – and number is often void of emotion. I was unable to empathize or understand the hardship they had to endure to survive. Overtime, I grew accustom to these numbers, accepting them as a normal part of life. Many people in various places in the world are suffering right now, and there is nothing I can do about it. This is real life. This is normal. There is nothing I can do about. Eventually, I began to tune out these statistics and move on with my life, without a single care or thought about them.

However, this month, I was struck hard with the reality of poverty which brought these numbers and statistics into life for me. During my visit to Vietnam, I had the opportunity to visit a Southern Vietnamese Province called “Bến Tre”, situated in the Mekong Delta. I was very excited at first because it was part of a tour called “”Về miền quê”, meaning “returning to the countryside”. I was expecting to experience the natural beauty of my native country and enjoy the bountiful seafood it had to offer. I was on vacation with my family after all, and the thought of being exposed to a poverty stricken region was the last thing on my mind. Every place I had been to in Vietnam was tourist attraction-site – it was modern, beautiful and fun! Thus, I had expected the same thing from the tour to Bến Tre.

Article_01

At Bến Tre, I experienced a private cruise along the Mekong canals on a “xuồng ba lá”, which is a flat-bottom wooden boat made of three planks. I spoke with the ferryman, who informed me that he made only 15,000 VND from the trips, which is the equivalent of 0.65 USD. However, the 15,000 VND wage was a recent raise in 2019. Previously, he was only getting paid 10,000 VND (0.43 USD). It was only after an intensive many years of back and forth with the tour company did he receive his raise. Meanwhile, he borrowed 300 USD from the bank to purchase his wooden boat, which he was only able to pay back $150 after 4-5 years of working. I asked him how many trip does he ferry per day. He responded: “Only one per day. I fish or work as labor hire ” There were so many people working as ferrymen in the Mekong Delta that they had to rotate so everyone gets an opportunity to ferry tourists. I asked him what does he do when he is not ferrying customers. He responded: “Fishing or work as labor hire.”

I have heard story of people living on less than a dollar a day. However, to see it in real life is a whole other story, especially in my native country. I couldn’t enjoy my trip at all. I felt as if I was flaunting my wealth and my Western privilege in his face, paying him a slave wage for his hard work. Now, I understand what Jesus meant when he said: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” I wasn’t rich per se by the American standard, but I was plenty rich in comparison to the ferryman. I was embarrassed and I felt as if my privilege was a sin.

The ferryman wasn’t the only person experiencing hardship in the Bến Tre region. While floating along the Mekong river, I saw rows and rows of “nhà lá”, thatched housing made of dried coconut leaves, of people waste deep in the river, searching for water snails under the scorching sun, of families breaking in sweats gathering longan fruits to be shipped out to the market for only 0.22 – 0.43 USD per kg. I felt nauseating just being there in Bến Tre, and helpless because there was nothing I could do to help them. My family was generous with our tips to the ferryman and purchased various local goods to support the residents, but the money was only a stop-gap – like a band aid much more severe problem.

The majority of Bến Tre residents were working in the agricultural industry, mainly planting orchards. However, unlike in the U.S. where the government spent billions of dollars on subsidies for agricultural business, paying planters to refrain from overproducing food crops, in Vietnam, it’s a vicious capitalistic competition for the Vietnamese planters, with little to no governmental protection. On a bad harvest season, planters were unable to grow much fruits to make a living. On good harvest, they can only get low prices for their products due to overproduction. It is a lose-lose situation for planters regardless of the harvest season. Thought Vietnam has moved to a middle-income country in recent years, there remained a huge wage-gap between rural residents and city residents. According to a 2014 survey from the Institute of Policy and Strategy for Agriculture and Rural Development, the average income of a agricultural household of four is less than 3 USD per day, way below the poverty line. As far as I am aware, there was no clear plan in sight to help planters search for new markets or grow new crops to diversify their products.

I returned to “Sài Gòn”, the Southern metropolis of Vietnam, after my day at Bến Tre, crestfallen and depressed. I couldn’t enjoy the remaining of my vacation to Vietnam. The same evening after my Bến Tre trip, I met up with a friend in Sài Gòn for a Thai hot pot dinner, which cost us 650,000 VND (28 USD). It wasn’t anything fancy, but I felt wasteful for going out to get dinner. That 650,000 VND would probably meant a lot to some families in Bến Tre. I could have donated the money instead of wasting it on an outing. The sad thing is… when I return to the States, I felt as if my whole experience in Bến Tre was only a dream – surreal and wouldn’t affect me. I went back to being numb to numbers and statistics. I am so heartless. I had to write about it to remind myself that it happened, that poverty is real.

 

 

Standard
language barrier

Language Barrier

I am half Chinese, half Vietnamese, Asian American grew up in the States as first generation American in my family.  Well, technically some people wouldn’t consider me as a first generation since I since I was not born in the States, but… that’s not really important unless I decide to run for US President, then some people may decide to dig up my birth certificate and kick me out of office despite how awesome I am.  Anyway, before I digress too much, let’s get back to the story of “my experience growing up in the States”.

I came to the States when I was 10 years old.  The only English words I knew at the time was “hello and bye”.  That is all.  I was fortunate enough to have my own interpreter while I was at school, but school was still a struggle for me.  I still remember the first day in class; I felt as if my teacher was spouting some kind of complicated nonsensical spell in Harry Potter! Seeing that I was having a difficult time in class, my interpreter tried to teach me the phrase “I do not understand” and advised me to say it to the teacher if I ever have any trouble with the material in class.  However, the word “understand” was way too long for me to memorize.  It is 10 letters long! Most words in Vietnamese, my native language, are only 4 letters long. 10 letters were way too much for me to handle!

Another more frustrating part is trying to communicate to other people. My personal interpreter was not always with me to help me.  The language barrier!

So there was this girl in my class, really cute of course.  I was totally into her.  I wanted to talk to her but I couldn’t! Me no English!  One day, during recess, I stupidly asked her:

Uhm… where are you from?

Here… – she replied.  And she laughed… that was as far as flirting went for me.  Thus my first love was gone with the wind due to my lack of English to be able to carry a proper conversation.  Sad face.  To tell the truth, I actually did not realize that I had a crush on her until later during my high school year, when I had nothing better to do other than to reminisce about the past. Then, it hit me like a wrecking ball!

” Ooh Ohh Ohh.

Why was I so obsessed with you?

Girl I want to know…”

I guess in a way, my failed first love did drove me to study more and excel at school.  However, on the quest for knowledge, I was also slowly drifting away from my roots and my own identity.  I used to think my Vietnamese culture was “un-American” and backward.  I remember one time while going to a convenient store with my mother, she was trying to communicate with the sale clerk in broken English mixed with some Vietnamese, and I was reddened with shame of my mother.  I was ashamed that she couldn’t speak English well.  I was ashamed of my native language.  I was ashamed of my Vietnamese mother.  I failed to realize that despite her limited vocabulary, she successfully raised two beautiful daughters, my sister and I, in this strange American land.  She took several odd jobs here and there, working from dawn till dusk.  I shouldn’t feel anything but proud of my mother for her amazing achievement.  After all, my mother did gave up everything in Vietnam – her family, her career, her home – moved to America, so my sister and I can have a better future.

I am blessed.  I am loved.  I am privileged to have the best mother in the world.  Thank you Mom.

Standard
Food

Vietnamese and Food

IMG_1775

There is a famous Vietnamese saying: “Có thực mới vực được đạo”, which is the rough equivalent of the English proverb “it’s no use preaching to a hungry man”. The proverb emphasized heavily on the importance of food, of fulfilling your basis human need before you hope to accomplish anything grandeur. It is a necessary prequisite. And the Vietnamese people take food seriously – eating is a serious business. Eating is an art. A typical Vietnamese lives to eat, not vice versa.

At a Vietnamese family meal, people would gather around a steaming hot pot of white rice, surrounded by two meat dishes (pork, beef, chicken, or fish) cooked with Vietnamese special fish sauce, a vegetable side dish dip in fish sauce and a large bowl of soup (you bet! There’s fish sauce in it, too). There’s a lot of food, and it sure took a lot of time and effort and dedication to prepare them. Naturally, the cook would expect you to take your time when eating to fully experience the delicious taste of this heavenly meal. Thus, Vietnamese would spend a least an hour or sometime more to enjoy the unique texture of the food, its savory aroma, and its saporous flavor.

When a Vietnamese person asks you to go out, it’s not going out for a drink, get drunk, pass out. No, Vietnamese would go out to eat, eat, and eat. It’s all about the food! And luckily for the Vietnamese people, they are blessed with an insanely high metabolism, so they can indulge their cravings without worrying about the consequences or the possibility of gaining weight. If you tell a Vietnamese person “hey, you look fat!”, that actually is a compliment, just to show you how impossible it is for them to put on some pounds. They are struggling to gain weight! Yeah yeah, woe them. What a dilemma!

Now, I hope you have some understanding of how importance food is to a Vietnamese. With that I mind, if you have Vietnamese friends, giving them food is the most realist present you can get for them. And if you’re dating a Vietnamese, a gratifying meal is definitely better than thousand roses. Vietnamese still wants the diamond ring though, so don’t you dare thinking for one second you can propose with just a meal! Dinner proposal is still recommended since ultimately, the shortest path to a person’s heart is through the stomach.

Standard