Monday, March 1

Paula: We began our morning early by walking to the lake near our hotel because we had heard that the locals exercise here beginning at 5:30AM. We hoped to see some Tai Chi and perhaps some people walking the lake. What we found was the whole city wide awake. There were hundreds of people of all ages exercising all around the lake. We saw joggers, walkers, low impact aerobics, Tai Chi, and other types of group exercise we had not seen before. What was most notable were the shear number and ages of those exercising. Everyone was moving in some way, many jumping, stretching and flicking joints in all kinds of ways. Many times young and old were standing next to each other doing a variety of stretches and movements. Men were using every bench available to do all kinds of painful sit-ups and body presses. Tan explained later to us that exercise is important in their culture - this explains why there are not many overweight Vietnamese.

Our last day in Vietnam was spent exploring the countryside. We traveled about two hours west of Hanoi to Hoa Binh. The low lying rice paddies and vegetable fields surrounding Hanoi slowly gave way to hills and the mountains which run north-south along Vietnam and make up much of the country. We didn't want to leave Vietnam without experiencing some of these areas. We enjoyed a great authentic Vietnamese lunch in a local restaurant before leaving the town to spend time in one of the mountain villages 30 minutes further west.

The village was home to about 90 families of the Muong tribe. 87% of Vietnames are considered "Viets" and mostly live in the cities and along the coastline while the other 13% of the population is comprised of 54 tribes all living in the small mountain villages.

As we approached the village, our van was immediately surrounded by children and women. Tan indicated that the village has grown accustomed to visitors and they were anxious to sell us their handicrafts. As we walked into the village we were immediately struck by the beauty of the terraced rice paddies and wood/bamboo homes built on stilts. The children were all begging for us to visit "my home." We let Tan decide where we would visit as he is familiar with several families. We saw how these families planted, harvested and prepared rice. We also went up inside one of the homes and saw how they lived. A large wood burning pit served ad the kitchen in the center of the home whose roof was thatched. The home was actually quite spacious and cool. Tan explained that it takes 4-5 years to collect enough wood for each home and everyone in the village works together to build a new home.

The village is fairly self sufficient and we saw seeds for all kinds of crops drying in preparation for the next plantings. The family offered us tea, fruit and the local wine served in a common vase with multiple long bamboo straws. We were also shown the family coffins made out of hallowed out trees. Tan told us that these are always prepared ahead and individuals actually climb inside to make sure they are comfortable! After visiting for awhile and purchasing a colorful scarf woven by one of the family members, we decided to explore the fields and surrounding forest. Tan showed us the village bell which hung in a tree and was made out of an old bomb casing.

The path into the forest was just beyond the rice paddies, so we decided to try and navigate the narrow paths between the terraced fields - it was more difficult than we thought and by the time we made it to the forest, our shoes were quite muddy. Katie got the worst of it when one of the young village girls tried to help her - both her feet landed in the paddy and by the time they were done helping her clean up, she looked like she had been working with them planting rice! It all seemed worthwhile once we climbed a short distance into the bamboo forest - the views of the village were simply spectacular. On our way back to the village, we were offered raw sugar cane which had just been cut from the field. After it is peeled, the pulp of the cane can be chewed for a very sweet treat.

As we drove out of the village, we saw bananas, tea and eucalyptus growing in addition to vegetables and rice. Although the life in the village seemed peaceful and serene, we know that the families are quite poor and lack access to clean water, plumbing and adequate health care.

On the route back to Hanoi and the airport, we enjoyed discussing more about life in Vietnam with Tan. He is very proud of the progress Vietnam has made especially in the past three years - improvements are notable in roads, public transportation, literacy, housing and food production. He described the importance of the family (including ancestors) that still exists in the Vietnamese culture. While noting that there are still difficulties in a one party system (such as corruption), he felt even this is improving.

We also had one final lesson in the Vietnamese language. We are still trying to master hello (xin chao) and thank you (cam on). We're still fascinated by our first experience with a mono syllable language where inflection is extremely important. There are 12 meanings to the syllable "tam" and 8 each for "ma," and "cu."

We bid Tan a warm goodbye knowing that Vietnam had exceeded all our expectations. Tonight we flew to Bangkok, and tomorrow morning we head to Luang Prabang in Laos.



Katie's Kwick Kwacks: Our Visits with Families. One of the most meaningful things that we have done on our trip is visiting families from the countries we visit. These unannounced drop-ins are some of the most unexpected and memorable things we do in each country we visit. We have been amazed by the wonderful hospitality of foreign families, and how excited and honored they are to orient us with their country and life style. The following paragraphs describe some of my feelings about these experiences and what we learn from them.

At the beginning we thought our guide was crazy. We were in Saiwar, India and our guide was leading us into the home of one of the village families. Was this planned? I tried to picture a family from a nationality I had only seen a couple times in my life walking through my front door. I don't think I would have let them go far. Well, there we were being greeted by an Indian family's entire extended family. My confusion was soon over-taken by waves of smiles and giggles. Their eyes were filled with warmth, excitement, and graciousness.

This is only one example of how meaningful a simple visit can be. We have had many other great experiences with these encounters, and hope to have even more as we explore Asia. One of the reasons these visits are so meaningful is because we have the chance to see how the people live. We do this by looking at their house, farm, and asking them about their family business. We can also learn about their education, roles in the community, and living conditions.

Another special thing about these encounters is we are able to watch how the family members (especially children) are reacting to us being in their homes. We learned that many of them have never really seen western people like us before. We appreciate them trying to speak a little English, and enjoy their enormous smiles. This is a very exciting experience for them, and we are glad to be able to make their day special. They have some great stories to tell their friends!

It is also interesting to see how they greet us. They serve us many different things-tea, fruit, fresh yogurt, sweet wine, liquor…everything! They are so generous and we are sometimes leaving with a whole bag of fruit they have packed for us.

All in all, visiting local families has been a wonderful experience for us, and we look forward to continuing to do this throughout our trip.

David's Daily Dump: Our Unexpected Visits. Stopping unexpectedly in small local towns and villages to learn what life is like for normal people has been our top priority in every new country we visit. These visits are far more important than seeing museums, famous monuments and tourist attractions. The whole goal of our trip is to discover how people around the globe really live. Yesterday we encountered one of those memorable and absolutely incredible experiences that will create a lasting impression on us forever. The small Vietnamese town we visited, where American bomb craters were still visible, was one of the major highlights for me of our trip around the world.

As we walked toward the Pagoda of the small Vietnamese town named Tram, I wasn't prepared for what was about to happen. We spotted the huge colorful banner of the town raised on a flag pole by the road which usually means that there is a festival taking place. We decided to have a look and check out the scene.

When we finally weaved our way to the town, we were greeted by the elders and leaders of the town in front of the small local Pagoda. The small temple was filled with citizens of the town eating, dancing, singing, and performing spiritual rituals. They invited us to come in and have a cup of tea. We learned that they were worshipping a famous general and were preparing for the larger festival of the town in a few more days. We had a wonderful time sipping tea and watching the women dance and sing.

After visiting the temple, we got a tour of the Pagoda. We were greeted by a female monk dressed in a long brown robe who had just completed her five year training program. We learned about the founder of the Pagoda and what each statue represented. We even made prayers and burned incense. We also saw a special room dedicated to three female ancestors who the people of the town worshipped in addition to the founder of the temple. Then the real fun began…

We were guided by the elders back to the main temple for more celebration. We knew we were in for a long ride when we saw the men setting up a table for us and placing alcohol on the table. We were all (including Katie and I) given shot-glasses filled with very strong homemade rice wine. The men made a toast to our family and told us "bottoms up." Of course I only had a sip, but everyone else gulped down their wine and were quickly pouring themselves another glass. Then we walked over to the other side of the temple to toast some of the men playing Chinese Checkers, including a 103 year old. We got a huge kick out of one of the men screaming "HANOI, WASHINGTON" and woofing down several cups of vodka. We were lucky that they didn't serve us vodka or we would have had to help our parents walk back to the car (just kidding). Then we were brought back over to the table for yet another toast and served extremely sticky rice and fatty pork. We had only had breakfast two hours before, and were not very hungry at all. Yet we were still served huge chunks of sticky rice that sat heavy in our stomachs and salty pork. I made the mistake of eating mine fast, because I was always given more and more every time I emptied my bowl. The pork was also sickening after a while because they dipped every piece in salt. Overall the food was super and surprisingly we didn't get sick!

After our meal we made donations to the town and were given numerous gifts including fruit, crackers and sticky rice. I couldn't believe what we had been through that morning and was astonished how friendly everyone was. I had a weird feeling walking with our new Vietnamese friends back to the van in between bomb craters now converted into rice fields and small ponds. In the end I felt great and couldn't believe we had made friends in Vietnam. Shaking their hands one last time and waving at them from the car was like leaving a long lost friend behind. It was one of the most unbelievable experiences we have had on this trip.












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