Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Report from Vietnam

Since coming to Vietnam, I've mostly been posting little snapshots. That's not really accurate, since I forgot the cable that connects my camera to my computer, and haven't been able to upload any photos. But I haven't felt like the trip was worth my usual exhaustive blow-by-blow. And also, until now I've been struggling a bit. This is definitely the most ambitious travel experience I've tackled to date. Still, here's a quick update on the trip so far... [Photos are now up!]

On Thursday morning my colleague Matt Craig and I showed up in Hanoi. We checked in to our hotel in the old quarter, Sunshine 3, and then wandered out to find a bite to eat and arrange our trip to Ha Long Bay. Through Handspan, we booked 2 days and 1 night on the Lagoon Explorer junk boat. Then we tried our first bowl of Pho, and staggered back to the hotel for a nap. I did manage to drag myself out of bed later, despite the jet lag, and took a walk around Hoan Kiem Lake. We sat in a cafe for a bit, having a wonderfully delirious conversation about life, love and the pursuit of happiness, fueled by my first brush with the ridiculously strong Vietnamese coffee, which is "cut" with sweetened condensed milk. Later that night we headed to the one Indian restaurant in the old quarter, which we had been commended to by the professor at UCLA from whom I hope to take Intro to Classic Indian Dance this quarter. She had been told there is a mural of her at that restaurant, and wanted photographic proof. The masala dosa was actually really good, which perhaps explains why the place was filled with Indian tourists.

The next day we woke early and boarded the bus to Ha Long. On the bus we met Jean Luc and Fiona, a French-Scottish couple in their late sixties who very much impressed me with their travel stories. They take upwards of four big trips a year, and have been to some amazing corners of the world. The more remote the better it seems. They've been hiking in northern Pakistan 5 or 6 times, without a guide, and were raving about southern Yemen. (Never mind the civil war.) Someday I'd like to grow up and be like them.

We had a pleasant trip on Ha Long Bay. We lucked out and had nice weather, and although it was extremely touristy, our boat sailed further east than most and so we weren't completely in the thick of the traffic. The food we ate was very good, and the sculptures the chef decorated the plates with were a marvel of engineering. I can't wait to get my photos up. We stopped and visited a limestone cave on one of the islands, and had a quick kayak. We also toured a floating village, by which I mean I sat there and let a woman about half my size paddle me past all the houses while I stared in and the inhabitants stared back. I was most impressed by the little floating dog houses.

Upon our return to Hanoi, we met up with Nathalie, the American woman who started the organization that is our client, Chi Em. Nathalie is wrapping up her time in Vietnam, so the organization is now being run by the extremely capable Thanh. Nathalie is heading back to Berkeley, so I had to ask her if she knew Abby Falik, and her work with Global Citizen Year. Berkeley is a very small world, as is the world of international NGO folk.

[A note on pronunciation - I am discovering that any word that ends in "nh" actually indicates an "ng" sound. So Thanh is said "Tang", and our translators Linh and Minh are really "Ling and Ming". Which suggests that my entire life I have been massacring the pronunciation of the name of the father of this nation. Also, "d" is often "z". So the traditional costume that I ordered at the tailor would never have been achieved if Nathalie hadn't told me that an Ao Dai is really an "ow zai". We have also been introduced to the very useful expression of "oi, gioi oi!" (There are a bunch of accents missing there that this blog program does not seem able to handle.) Roughly translated as "oh god", it sounds like "oy zoy oy", and has the same intonation and expressiveness as a really satisfying "oy vey!"]

Dinner with Nathalie (at Highway 4) marked the start of the work portion of the trip, as we began to get exposed to all the details of Chi Em's work that we hadn't yet understood. I'll keep it short and say simply that Vietnam is very interested in foreign direct investment, and in having international NGOs be active here. In theory. In reality, any work is constrained by a very rigid and hierarchical bureaucracy in the best situations, and extreme corruption in the worst. It makes trying to create and implement programs here extremely difficult.

Especially if you are a bunch of naive and inexperienced business school students. On the one hand, it's been amazing how much we've learned, and I'm excited about the possibilities for us to make a difference. On the other hand, I'm having to fight the urge to throw my hands up in defeat and run back to the classroom where at least the case discussions are confined to a 15-page packet plus exhibits.

Since Monday we've been working in Dien Bien, the province where Chi Em is active. We're staying in a guest house in Dien Bien Phu, the capital city. Both the guest house and the city are a bit bleak. I've never been in a place less set up for tourism. There are literally no restaurants that have menus, and very few hotels. Still, the rice paddies are very beautiful, as are the hills around the city, when the moisture in the air clears enough to afford us a view. This is a very misty place.

Actually, this is a very wet place. The fields of rice are shockingly green, and this is the dry season! And last night, just as I was falling asleep, a storm rolled in. The rain was so heavy and so loud it sounded like a freight train was passing through. It even drowned out the thunderclaps. Very impressive.

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