Hue And Living History

Trang Tien Bridge across the Perfume River, Hue

Trang Tien Bridge across the Perfume River, Hue

Wondering why there’s still another travel blog post when I’m already back in Singapore? I write my thoughts in a notebook before transferring them onto the web. Still very much a pen and paper person. After volunteering, I did a week of solo traveling down to Danang, Hoi An and Hue.

The city of Hue is fascinating. In this famous ancient imperial city where the famous “citadel” stands, people live side by side with their history. Along the citadel’s ancient walls, people actually built their houses and ply their trade.

It amazes me that just across the street from the walls of the Forbidden Palace, internet cafes and shops filled with PCs and children playing “Warcraft” are ubiquitous.

I spent an entire day exploring the southern part of Hue, along the famed Perfume River, where all the Imperial tombs were. Lo and behold, people living next to their cultural relics. Villages seem to form around the resting places of the Ngyuen Emperors.

Hue has been through much physical abuse from the ravages of war. Its amazing how quickly people rebuild their lives after the war. I feel that the cultural significance of its artifacts may have been somewhat neglected in the rebuilding of a nation. As I ride back into the city on my bike in the evening, I can’t help but feel sorry for the state of ruin that most of Hue’s cultural relics are in.

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Farewell to Hanoi DHSP, Goodbye Peace House COMA 6

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I’ve come to an end of my volunteer project in Hanoi a few days ago. Leaving the “Peace House” was a bittersweet moment which I had not expected. I wasn’t expecting meaningful friendships, great conversations, and attachment to wretched living conditions.

But I did. And what memorable people and experiences I found.

Its so easy to want to stay longer, for another week, another month. When you’re there, the life you come from is temporarily left behind, all responsibilities disappear.

Nights spent planning fun and interesting ESL lessons for the week’s classes will be remembered. The games I played with the kids were the ones I wished our teachers would play with us when we were in secondary school.

In a certain way, I’m being selfish. The English learning games I got the kids to play in class was a way for me to relive my secondary school days, which was dull, dreary and monotonous at times.

Along with lesson planning, our nights were spent planning weekend trips around Hanoi. Spending hours in front of the “FOR VOLUNTEER USE ONLY!” PC.

Conversations about weekend trips went along to the tune of “You’re going to Sapa next weekend? Mind if I come along?”

Leaving the place was difficult in some ways. We came here all alone, leaving our family and friends behind, and built new support systems with new friends and acquaintances. Its only natural to feel a sense of loss.

Yet its also natural to return to life back home, and apply the lessons we’ve learnt while being volunteers.

Until next time…

Its 1978 in Hanoi…

Photo courtesy of williewonker

Photo courtesy of williewonker

Walking in the Old Quarter, the first thing that comes to mind was that it feels as if I’ve stepped into the past. I wasn’t around in the late 70s, but from impressions told to me by my parents, pictures, and films, the feel of everything here seems 1970s.

Shophouses, crowded streets, 1920s art deco architecture, street stalls… This was probably what the streets of downtown Singapore looked like twenty odd years ago. The closest thing to the Old Quarter we have back in Singapore is probably Katong. Only the architecture is vaguely similar though.

In the trains, the PA system plays 70s style guitar music, complete with foreigner-induction of the history of Hanoi, its legends, and how proud they are of their city.

The train rolls by the countryside: verdant paddy fields, farm animals like ducks, water buffaloes, and the occasional herd of goats dot the greenery.

Shops here close from 12-2pm for an afternoon “siesta”. Once I had to knock on the shutters of a photocopy shop for 15 minutes at 1:30pm, then had a half dazed, post-nap young woman open up the shutters, simply because I had to get something printed urgently. Really felt bad about doing that.

Life seems alot simpler here in Hanoi, what with people playing chess at parks in the afternoon, drinking green tea, and afternoon siestas.

Try really hard and you can actually ffind 1980s priced food on the streets of Hanoi. A bowl of piping hot beef noodles cost no more than a dollar and a half. Coca Cola served in glass bottles.

The Singaporean Connection

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I’ve just returned from Halong Bay last weekend, and here are my thoughts recorded throughout the trip.

As time passes, I find it sometimes hard to identify with my fellow European counterparts here at the volunteer Peace house. Many of them are younger than I am too. Being a 24 year old, sometimes I feel like I want different things out of my travel experience. I wanted this trip to Vietnam to be at once a of declaration of self independence, which is why I prepared myself very much for solo travel. This is what happens when you read too much Thoreau before heading overseas.

Its such a unique experience to be with an international community. Sort of like a mini cultural exchange sometimes. But there is just one thing that feels like an ache whenever I’m with them.

I tell many of my European friends that Singaporeans are often a confused people. Singaporeans still retain much of their Asian values. We have much in common with the Vietnamese people. Yet our preferences and lifestyle choices are becoming steadily westernized.

On buses, in restaurants, I often get stares from Vietnamese people, wondering why this guy that looks exactly like them speaks English better than any Vietnamese they know. Sometimes I wonder if those stares are stares of envy. Through the International Volunteer Headquarters’ orientation guide, I was told that the Vietnamese people love to be seen around foreigners and westerners, and having friends from other countries. Its a big thing for a country, where contact with other countries is so very limited.

When they see me laughing and joking happily with other volunteers, they want to do so as well, yet their limited grasp of the English language hinders them from doing so.

They would love dearly to be part of intellectual discussions, western humor, culture. Yet the average Vietnamese youth can only convey basic expressions in English.

When I am with my fellow volunteers, I feel grateful that I can communicate with them easily. All of a sudden the dual language education I was afforded in Singapore since young becomes such a gift.

Fellow Singaporeans, you wouldn’t understand the value of a dual language until you see that Vietnamese waiter standing at the corner of the cafe, looking at you with envious eyes, at how you’re laughing and joking with “white people”. The Vietnamese people would give everything to be seen and have European / Western friends, much less have great conversations with them.

Sometimes I feel guilty participating in our jokes mocking Vietnamese practices, ways of doing things, what with strange bureaucratic practices, “rubber timings”, and broken Engrish. We’re in their country, yet we judge them through foreign eyes. We’re guests in a host’s country. How should a guest reciprocate a host’s hospitality?

We’re actually mocking ourselves when we make fun of Vietnamese practices. These people have been through so many occupations from foreign powers, and with their current government’s policies, it is no wonder that they stare at foreigners in amazement all the time

When we make jokes about Vietnamese or Asian customs. I often feel a sudden pang of loneliness. All of a sudden my Asian-ness becomes very apparent. While I my choices in lifestyles are very much western influenced, I am and will always be Asian at heart.

Xin Chao, Hanoi High School

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I’ve been assigned to teach at a public school for Vietnamese kids. (I was told they were gifted. What does that mean?) Each class takes a handful of subjects, while majoring in one. For my English classes, I’ve been playing ESL tic-tac toe sentence construction with the kids for the past three days. Some kids were more enthusiastic with the others. I’ve spotted a trend with classes. The most disinterested kids usually sit at the back of the class, and are usually pretty shy too. The brightest and intelligent ones tend to sit toward the front, while “class monitors” (or class leaders) can usually be found in the center along the aisles.

The kids love it when you can speak a few phrases of Vietnamese. I guess I have it easy, with the Asian connection.

These kids need a boost in self confidence through public speaking. I know they’re only 16, but the earlier they start, the faster they improve. Collectivist Asian cultures tend to miss out training kids in voicing out opinions, and having an independent voice. Little to no guidance in the art of the rhetoric.

Three weeks to teach English, I’m wondering what kind of impact I can create. Three weeks to instill the love for public speaking? It might just be possible.

Vietnamese Social Ju-Jitsu (Part 1)

oldquarter

“Bao Nhieu Tien?” (How much is it?) I asked the taxi driver. I spent the week before arriving in Hanoi practicing some basic Vietnamese phrases. I wasn’t about to let these new phrases go to waste. Compared with our Caucasian counterparts, us Chinese have it easy with vocalizing Vietnamese phrases, because we have different tonal values in our words as well.

In Vietnam, it is sometimes best to negotiate a price before getting on to a cab. Meters can be dodgy. I got my first baptism of fire in Vietnamese negotiation from Gerard, who hails from Barcelona. He’s been here for three months. His was a tough, high-ground style of negotiation that still showed some degree of flexibility. What a great place to learn and practice the art of negotiation.

I was expecting a number quote from the cab driver. Oh hell yes. I’ve been memorizing Vietnamese numbers as well. Yet the answer was one that left me quizzical.

“Ong Ten Zi?” (Whats your name?)

A Singaporean in Hanoi

Because I arrived at the lodgings in the middle of the night, I couldn’t really tell where I was After one night of infrequent sleep hours, I realized

“We’re living in a factory?”

Well sort of. The factory is located some distance away within the same compound. The work bell rings at 8am every morning, and blue jump-suited workers come to work.

This is starting to feel like a mini United Nations. I’m the only “delegate” from Singapore though. We currently have other volunteers from Denmark, Canada, Spain, France, Germany.

Like I mentioned in my tweet earlier, interesting cross cultural discussion topics come up.

Cool thing is, this factory / volunteer building even has its own website.

One part of the building,where we are currently in, serves as the housing for Volunteers for Peace Vietnam. The volunteers eat, sleep, work, and play here.

Linh is bringing some of us on a city tour of Hanoi tomorrow.