Thursday, May 29, 2008

My School

I am teaching at the AVIEC (Am-Viet International English Center) School in Da Nang. It's nothing fancy but it is air conditioned and kind of funky-fun. I am the only American teacher on campus but they do have one Australian, one Brit, and a guy from Denmark. I am teaching Lower-Intermediate level, which means their English is slightly better than my Vietnamese, and I have 15 students ranging in ages from 14-35. I will be teaching young children (8-12) starting on Sunday. Having never taught to this age group, I am a bit apprehensive but here we go.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Moving In

Well, I finally moved into my house on Sunday the 25th. One would think it would be easy to move in when all you have can fit into two suitcases. It just isn't so. There are dishes to buy, sheets and bedding, food, hangers, clothes lines, silverware, and towels. Not to mention getting Internet service, trash service, electricity, water, and living as a foreigner permit. When you compound this by not having a clue what the labels say or what the regulations require, or how to ask directions, is gets a little complex. It took two hours just to find thread tape to hook up the washer. And oh yea, I had to buy a couch. Whoa, there's a challenge. I finally got one and it's pretty weird but the least weird I saw out of about fifteen different stores. Then of course there is the delivery problem, a big problem when your house doesn't have an address. Anyway, it's all done now. At least I think it is. I hope it is. I am in and by God, I am going to stay in for a while.

I have, however, been able to meet most of my new neighbors. I guess I am kind of the talk of the block and everyone is curious about the new guy, the FNG. (If you served in Nam, you understand FNG, if not, I can't explain.) My neighbor to my left teaches English out of her house. Her English is better than my Vietnamese but not much. Her husband's friend is the chief of police in my neighborhood and they all came over for a beer the other night. It is good to know these people besides, they are real nice.

I also had a couple of older gentlemen over last night. They are classical musicians and veterans of the American War. They served with the North. They heard that I was a vet and were curious about me and wanted to know why I came back to Vietnam, for what purpose. They seemed genuinely pleased to learn I am teaching English here and really got enthusiastic when I showed them the book of photos of Vietnam I have published. I signed a copy and gave it to them. Now, they have invited me to their next concert. I guess the Danang Symphony is very well respected and it is apparently an honor to get such an invitation. I will take them up on it for sure.

I met with another neighbor and went for a swim on China Beach at 5 in the morning. That's the time the locals go to the beach because it's just too damn hot to go in the middle of the day. It's interesting how the beach is completely deserted between 9am - 6pm but looks like Coney Island early in the morning. It's a great way to start the day and I hope to make it part of my routine.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Phase II - Going Bamboo

Real life is starting to come around now and I am starting to go "Bamboo". I practiced my driving skills again and even ventured downtown for awhile. That was definitely an experience to put on the record. I actually did great and didn't run into anyone. I also was able to get a haircut and order my lunch all by myself. I ordered chicken and got fish. Close enough. Chicken is "ga" fish is "ca".

I got a call from the school this afternoon saying they wanted to have a meeting with me at 3:30. At the meeting they informed me they wanted me to teach that afternoon (5:30). Not much notice but I kind of BSed my way through and it seemed to go OK. Not great, but OK. Since I wasn't expecting to teach, I didn't take my camera with me so I don't have any pictures to show of my school or my class. I will try to get some when I teach again on Monday. Hopefully the air conditioner will be working better then. There was some trouble with it this evening and I was sweating like a pig for the first hour. I have 15 students ranging in age from 14 to 27. They are classified as being "low-intermediate" which means they just look at me with blank expressions. I will also be teaching young children on Sunday mornings but told the school I couldn't start until next week since I am moving into my house this Sunday. So much for teaching advanced students beginning on the first of the month! Lesson #1 in Vietnam is expect the unexpected. That was true in 1969 and is true today.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

I have spent the last week travelling through the northern part of Vietnam. If you are ever over here, a place that is well worth the effort to reach is Sapa. This mountainous area is a favorite for many tourists because of the incredible terraced landscape and the colorful clothing of the local ethnic tribes. The weather is also much cooler up here so it can be a great way to find relief from the heat of the low lands. The best way to get here is by train. There are several options running from hard seats to fairly comfortable sleeper cars. The sleeper will run about $25-35 per person but it's well worth it for the 10 hr trip. You leave Hanoi Rail Station at about 10:00 pm and arrive in Lao Cai at 8 in the morning. It's another 90 min bus ride to the town.

Another place to see while you are in the north is the town of Ba Ca. Every Sunday the locals come down from the hills to what is known as The Lover's Market. It is basically the big day for the tribe people to shop, to barter, and to meet people from the distant villages. The richly colored clothing worn by the local women is a photographer's dream come true.

Ha Long Bay

Of course, no trip to the North would be complete without spending the night on a boat on Ha Long Bay. It is said there are over 3000 islands jutting up out of this bay and is one of the most spectacular places I have seen. A night on one of the 'Junks" is a great way to get away from the noise and congestion and the seafood that is served is outstanding. You can swim off the boat, snorkle, kyak, or just sit on the deck and drink beer if you want.

It is about a three hour ride by car or bus from Hanoi but is worth it. Besides, there is some pretty interesting scenery along the way. I have been to Ha Long many times now and am always in awe whenever I return.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Final Days with the Group

Mr. Luong
On May 11, we invited a former enemy to join us for dinner. This is always an evening that is filled with anxiousness for all but is a very rewarding experience. To meet with someone who was once on 'the other side of the wire' is something that brings a full mixture of emotion. It brings out the human side of war that not many have the chance to experience.

Mr. Luong served with the North in Hue during the Tet Offensive of 1968. This was one of the most difficult battles of the war for both sides because it took place in a major city and left no room for retreat for either side. Of course, much of the conversation revolved around our personal experiences during the war but the biggest part of the evening was spent talking about our families and what we have done with our lives since that time. It is incredible how much similarity there is between all of us. We shared many toasts and many laughs before the evening was over.

May 13, 2008

Al and Marty flew back to Saigon this morning and will be on their way home tomorrow. It has been a great trip for all of us but the time seemed to slip past too quickly. I don't know if either of them found what they were looking for but I do know they have left Vietnam with a different vision of this country and memories that will help to put some of the demons of the war to rest.

After seeing Al and Marty off, I hopped a train to Hanoi. This 19hr trip makes the flight over the Pacific seem like a short hop. The train is old and the seats, though cusioned, are tightly cramped and don't recline. I was the only Caucasion on the train (or at least in my car) and aroused curiousity in many of those sitting around me. I had conversations with some of the people but none of them spoke much English and we were not able to talk in much depth. Everyone was very friendly and curious why I had come to Vietnam. When I explained that I had come to teach English in Da Nang, there was a lot of chatter throughout the car and many smiles.
I am meeting a man that I met on my last trip over for dinner this evening. Mr. Houng is an English scholar and works with the American Embasy here in Hanoi. I will be great to have a conversation with him and share some thoughts about my new adventure.
Tomorrow, I catch another overnight train and go up to the northern border to a town named Sapa. I was here in 2000 and am looking forward to having another chance to see it. This area is well known for its variety of ethnic mountain people and the amazing terraced rice fields. It is a photographers dream.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Since my last entry, we took the train north to Hue (pronounced ‘Way’). There are only two other vets with me this trip and I have to admit it is nice with a small group. We are able to do things on the spur of the moment without a lot of logistical problems to deal with.

Hue used to be the imperial city and was also the scene of some of the heaviest fighting during the war. Now, it is a great place to visit with plenty of cultural and historical sites to see. I also like Hue because of the fabulous hotel here. The Morin is one of the oldest hotels in the area and was founded by a Frenchman back in the 30’s. It’s colonial charm and quiet courtyard make it a place where I always try to stay when I am in the area.

Yesterday, we went to the DMZ and visited many of the places where we served during the war. So much has changed since those days that it is difficult if not impossible to recognize. The scars from the war have almost completely healed and areas that were once the site of so much tragedy are now lush and inhabited. It’s hard to imagine the violence and suffering that once took place here. There are places like The Rockpile that will always remain the same in spite of the years that have passed.

Tonight, we have a dinner planned with a gentleman who served on the other side during the war. I enjoy meeting with these men and learning more of what it was like from their perspective. I am always amazed by how much similarity there is between us and how we have grown to have the same hopes and dreams even though we were enemies at one time.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Bad Day

Things have not been going particularly well this week. Three members of my group had to cancel at the last minute because of obligations at work and another member had his flight in the US canceled which caused him to miss his international flight and all the arrangements that were set up for his arrival. He is in country now but won’t be here in Da Nang for another couple of hours.

But most difficult has been getting the news that my step-son Lon took a serious fall rock climbing and is in very bad shape with head and back injuries. It’s not easy being this far away from home during a family crisis. I know there is not much I could do even if I were home but I wish I were there to help at this time. If things get any worse, I will consider returning to the States for a while. It’s a wait and see situation, the kind that I am not too good with.

So far, my trusty guide Anh has been such an enormous help to me. She has helped with getting my house arrangements set up, my travel arrangements organized, and has been teaching me Vietnamese and teaching me to drive a motor bike in this country. She has also introduced me to several of her friends that speak a little English. I will miss her once she returns to Saigon. From then on, I will be on my own. Well, I was looking for adventure and here it is.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

I have now been in Vietnam for a week, a very busy week. After leaving Ho Chi Minh City I flew up to Da Nang and feel like I have gotten a lot done in the past four days. The first major business to deal with was getting the contract on my house finalized. I was able to meet the owner and make a walk-through of the place before paying the rent for the next six months. Not only did that confirm that the house will be mine, it also confirmed that I really am here to stay for a while. Whew! One giant step out of the way.

Since the next day was Vietnam’s Independence Day (April 30, 1975 is when the war was officially over) most businesses were closed so I headed up into the mountains just north of Da Nang and spent the night on Ba Na Mountain. This area was built up as a resort by the French during the 30’s because of the cool climate and spectacular setting. The 1800 meter mountain is covered with dense forest and is often blanketed with clouds in the morning. Absolutely beautiful. Most of the old French manors have been destroyed by both time and war but there are new resorts up there now and the area takes on an atmosphere that reminds me of Disneyland.

This is not the first time I have gotten back into the forest since the war but each time I do, the smell and sounds trigger off memory switches that have lain dormant for so long. The senses become heightened and the adrenaline flows. I have to confess that it is not an all together unpleasant feeling and is perhaps part of why I return to Vietnam.

Returning to Da Nang early the next afternoon, I had to clean up and go to a meeting with the director of the school where I will be teaching. It has been arranged for me to begin work on June 2nd. I still don’t know exactly what my schedule will be but I should find out in a week or so.

The next day, I took a motor bike south of Da Nang about 30 km to village of Hoi An where I caught a speedboat to Cham Island. This is actually a group of five small jungled islands surrounded by clear blue water and coral reefs. I did some snorkeling, some

hiking, and bought some lobsters from one of the fishermen who cooked them up on the spot for me. Though the island has some pretty primitive guest houses, I opted to stay at the place where they set up small tents on the beach for you. It was like paradise.

Tomorrow, my group of vets is supposed to start arriving and I will be with them for a couple of weeks. We will be traveling around the our old stomping grounds along the DMZ and I probably won’t have a lot of time to add to this blog until the group is over. I really am looking forward to the time with the guys but I am also ready to start settling into my life of living and working abroad.