Vietnam diary (continued) – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
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Vietnam diary (continued)

Ed. note: Jonah Levy ’08 of Brooklyn is studying abroad in Vietnam during the Fall ’06 semester. He agreed to keep a journal of his preparation and his time there. This is his second description of recent events since the group arrived. A selection of photos from him is available at Vietnam photo gallery.

When I woke up in Dong Ha, on the last day of the study tour, I remember thinking “Today, I’m going to Hanoi.”

We wouldn’t arrive in Hanoi until the next day, a little less than 24 hours later, but I was just excited to settle down in a city. No more hotels, no more community meals, and no more living out of a suitcase. I would be able to acquaint myself with a great big city, day by day, meeting people, discovering film, art, music, video games and some underground culture.

But first, one more bus trip, to Truong Son National Cemetery, which was described in an earlier journal entry online and in the Herald.

Afterward, we visited the Dong Ha market, a huge complex of small alleys, a big home cooking center, and a new smell every two steps in the fresh food area. It’s a market but also a community: people napping in chairs, playing with their children and gossiping in every little corner. Many people were intrigued with the video camera, and when I turned the screen around so one group of older women could see themselves being filmed, it felt like the early 1900s when still cameras and film were first popular.

When we got back to the hotel, we had plenty of time to pack up and arrive at the train station two hours early. Viet, our tour guide for the last two weeks, was concerned about our boarding. “We have to line up on the platform at least 20 minutes before the train arrives. The big guys get on first, and haul everyone’s luggage on. We have to be like a SWAT team.” He teased us about Vietnamese customs every once in a while, but this time he was dead serious. When the time came, it was madness, and the train departed three minutes after its arrival, like he said.

The train ride was fine, and after walking through some other cars, we realized how lucky we were to have our sleeping compartments. We spent the night sharing pictures, secrets, eating and playing Scrabble.

Spanish music woke us at 5:30 a.m. as we arrived in Hanoi. We somehow missed saying goodbye to Viet and were driven to our dorm room that included two desks with lamps, bedside table, tea set, two comfy chairs, three long shelves, a huge cabinet, fridge, freezer, TV, big windows, private bathroom and two single beds.

After a short nap, I checked out the local street food (much variety, and expectedly cheap and greasy) before meeting the group for our first walking tour. The dorm is in an area with tons of students, street eateries, photocopying shops, ATMs and Internet cafes every few blocks, and a pleasant 40-minute walk to downtown.

The downtown area is pretty much centered on Hoan Kiem Lake and the Tortoise Tower, which honors a talking turtle from folklore.

One of the restaurants we visited the first week was Bobby Chinn’s, run by a good-looking San Fransiscan in his mid-30s who moved to Hanoi about six years ago and has been very successful since.

The next morning, we had academic orientation, and soon I started my internship, at the Vietnam News, founded in 1991 and now the country’s major English-language daily. It publishes seven days a week, and is 24 to 28 pages a day, and provides “comprehensive coverage of the latest domestic and international developments in all areas including politics economics, business, social affairs and sports.”

We later toured the city, visiting the tomb of Ho Chi Minh and the Presidential grounds, the Temple of Literature, and the old city—a flabbergasting network of 36 streets named and divided by trade: tin street, paper street, jewelry street—although it didn’t always seem that way. The traffic at rush hour made this venture the most harrowing of my experiences thus far.

The following week, our language teacher invited the class to her daughter’s wedding reception, and I went with Phuong, our student guide. We brought 100,000 VND ($6.25), the customary gift, and enjoyed the food, which probably was the most exciting part of the event.

On my second day at Vietnam News, I was one of those asked to proofread English articles, and learned to appreciate the beauty of a simply crafted sentence. Another day, I transcribed an interview from audio tape to Word document. Baby steps, I know, but it’s different from proofreading.

Some of those in our language class are students from other colleges in the United States; they live in the same dorm as we do, and take classes in the same building, so we’ll be seeing a lot more of them.

Another day after language class, five of us went to the zoo, which was a grand ole time with monkeys, elephants, jaguars, cool birds, and squirrels (yeah, squirrels, but not like those in Geneva). There were also dirt-cheap bumper cars, since part of it was almost an amusement park, lovely scenery and lots of pictures taken.

We found a roller rink packed with Vietnamese teens, some of them very impressive, a lot of them falling, and a few punky-looking chicks. They didn’t have skates in our sizes, so we watched and ate.

Part of the seasonal festival took place in an area with a stage where pop groups, a children’s choir and dance groups performed with a whole lotta sparkle and spark. There was also a giant inflatable castle where tons of kids were bouncing around. When the time came there were fireworks.

The next day we headed out for our overnight trip to the Mai Chau village. On the way there we stopped at the biggest hydroelectric plant in Southeast Asia where, to my surprise, I ran into Quang Ang, a friend who was on a trip with another student group. The plant was big, and looked Russian-made; afterward, we saw the second biggest Ho Chi Minh statue in the world, which weighs 400 tons and is 6 cm (less than 2-1/2 inches) shorter than the tallest one, which is located somewhere in the central highlands.

Another day, we went on a serious hike. The walk into town wasn’t too bad but then we climbed this mountain that had 1,238 stairs carved into it — my friend Jenna counted. The reward at the top, however, was totally worth it: a massive cave with monstrous stalagmites to climb all over. It was really slippery but totally cool. The sight of the landscape around us was quite breathtaking as well.

Several of the student internships have turned out to be pretty interesting:

* About five kids are working with Blue Dragon, a humanitarian organization where they’re really making a difference;
* One guy does one-on-one English lessons for street kids three hours a week, one kid helps out in a kindergarten age class, another girl sits in on group therapy sessions with some seriously tragic cases (orphans from drug-related murders, abuse cases; these are the type of kids who are at risk for sex-trafficking);
* Mark is working for the U.S. embassy, and Nils is working at the Swedish embassy;
* My own internship at the Vietnam News, a government-run newspaper, has helped me feel more educated about current events now than I have in a while.