The Pagoda and the Temple

  • The main building of Nghiem’s pagoda.
  • A Buddhist monk stirs a bean sauce that has to sit out in the sun for a long time. I loved the colors of the monastery in the background.
  • Po Klong Garai from the bottom of the hill.
  • Various views from around the temple grounds and inside some of the towers.
  • The view from the room that Nghiem and I sleep in at his parents home.
  • Fish Sauce finds some love in the middle of stuffing tea bags.

Well I can cross drinking tea with a Buddhist monk off my bucket list! Life moves slower in Phan Rang but that does not mean that I have not been busy seeing things or meeting new people. Yesterday, I mostly sat at the cafe next door (ordering my coffee in Vietnamese!) and helped the girls with their tea assembly line, while today Nghiem took me to visit the local Buddhist pagoda and the nearby ancient Cham temple.

During my time at the cafe I was reading Mr. Vodvarka’s book on Sensory Design, enjoying the shade on a 90 degree day when the man next door noticed me and started waving. I didn’t take this as particularly unusual because a lot of people tend to stare or say and do odd things when they see me. A six-foot tall, blonde and bearded Norwegian man attempting to sit on what we would think of as a children’s plastic stool is odd outside of Saigon I guess. But the man came up to the table and to my surprise started speaking English.

He asked me where I was from, what I was doing in Vietnam and what I was studying. After answering the questions to his satisfaction he stated, “You must talk to my son!” He then returned with a boy who looked rather young to me but was actually a junior in high school. Ang, which is his name, I found to be a very bright student at an honor’s school in Ho Chi Minh City. I proceeded to talk to him about college and what he wants to do after he graduates, with his father chirping in occasionally about how important it was that his son is exposed to foreigners. Ang wants to either go into medecine or information technology and would like to go to MIT or a school in Singapore.

After a while I excused myself and headed back into Nghiem’s home to find the tea factory back in full throttle. All the girls were in the kitchen stuffing tea leaves into bags, weighing the bags, sealing them shut, putting the smaller bags into larger ones and then stapling those closed. After watching for a while they asked me, “You try?” and so I attempted to be of use for a couple hours. At first my large, sweaty hands were not helping me set the smaller tea bags into the larger packaging. What Nghiem’s sister could do in a few swift moves took me a good minute of shuffling, scooting, and shaking and my stacks never looked as nice as hers.

Today, was much more active. Nghiem and I took off right away. I donned my trusty pink and floral motorbike helmet (which the girls find hilarious) and we were off to breakfast at a small road-side restaurant to eat noodle soup and the best spring rolls I have ever had. Then we visited the town pagoda, which is a beautiful two story building just off of a major street. The grounds of the pagoda were incredibly quiet and I loved sitting in the breezy and open hallways of the main building.

We first went up to the second floor to pray to the large Buddha who is housed there. He sits in a giant glass carriage with offerings in front of him and smaller buddhavistas, like the one in Nghiem’s house, surrounding him. On the ceiling above him is a lotus flower and behind his head is a halo of LED lights, which I have found to be very common in Vietnamese altars. The entire room is very bright and open. The sunlight and wind easily move through the space but no matter how hot it was outside the room seemed cool.

Praying to the Buddha consists of taking an incense from the right of his altar and lighting it. Next, you stand in front of him and bow three times with the incense between your two hands. Then, you silently say your prayer (which can be anything according to Nghiem), bow three more times and place the incense in front of the Buddha. As you place the incense, a monk strikes a gong three times. This last part surprised me. Being used to a quiet and personal Lutheran type of worship, it was interesting to have prayer be a process that involved other people and such a large instrument.

When we came downstairs we found the head Buddhist monk, a type of mother superior figure for this monastery was all women, was waiting for us. Nghiem knew her and she seemed very happy to see him. She invited us for tea, wished us good luck and then told us we should stay for lunch, which we did. We ate lunch with an incredibly nice couple who was visiting the pagoda while they were in town. They asked me a lot of questions through Nghiem and served me as if I was a guest at their own home. It was a great honor to be treated so well and hospitably.

After lunch we headed home for a small siesta, a common thing in Vietnam, and then went out again later to the temple. When Nghiem first said temple I thought he meant another place of worship. I found it odd to go to two different churches in the same day but was down for anything. When we got to the temple I realized that he was really taking me to some ancient ruins. As we approached on the motorbike I was amazed. Po Klong Garai, as I later found out it is called, sits on top of a hill and is a huge three story temple complex of red brick. It looks just like the type of place that Indiana Jones would find hidden in the jungle.

I was almost giddy as we got off the bike. Nghiem was upset that the large complex of gift stores were closed, but I was ecstatic just being there. Ten-year-old Travis was coming out and I couldn’t wait to explore. After climbing about five minutes of stairs we got to the complex which consisted of three towers and an open plaza. Nghiem explained that the three towers were called the “Gate Tower”, “Fire Tower” and “Main Tower” and that for the Cham people who built the temple it was very important to walk through them in the right order. Each tower consisted of one room with a ceiling rose in an exact inverse of the pyramid-like roofs on the outside.

Through talking to Nghiem I also found out that “ruins” is not really the correct word either because the Cham people who still live in Viet Nam gather at these sites for holy holidays every year. They have there own new year in late September and worship their ancestors much like the Vietnamese do. At Po Klong Garai there was even a maintained altar in the main tower with prayer incense and offerings that people had left. According to the sign at the base of the hill, this site was built for a beloved  king who helped the people through a lot of public works. Due to the civil engineering theme of the place, I decided to take an incense and pray for St. Paul/Minneapolis and Chicago and their future success.

Nghiem and I walked around the temple grounds for a while talking about high school and our friends. I didn’t want to leave such an amazing place so we ended up staying for a good two hours, well after the sun set and it started getting cold. We then went home and I spent the rest of the night researching about Buddhism and Hinduism (which the Chams practice along with Islam).

There is so much to learn about and see and do! I feel like I could be here for years and still not get it all. Just the Wikipedia articles on Hinduism are dizzying. Nghiem is trying his best to explain it all but it’s hard to answer questions for things that are just done a certain way and always have been. (Someone in the future ask me how the Vietnamese feel about odd and even numbers.) It’s exciting to learn all of this first hand but I also think I’m getting ready to dive into some textbooks and do some old school learning about my new home as well.

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Small Town Life

  • “Fish Sauce the Cat” upon our first meeting.
  • The family altar to Bodhisattva Kuan-Yin who I learned about from Nghiem and Wikipedia.
  • Nghiem’s mother and father hope to sell all this tea before Tet at the end of the week!
  • The coffee and tra da that Nghiem’s sister brought me this afternoon as I was studying.
  • Nghiem’s mom’s stand at the market.
  • The beach!

It’s been an eventful 24 hours. The day before yesterday Nghiem told me that we would leaving for his family’s house in Phan Rang the next day for Tet. So after Vietnamese class with Professor Tram yesterday, I got to packing for a week of travel. Around six o’clock we got into a cab and drove down to the bus station. I had no idea what to expect from the ride or what lay at the other end of it.

When we got to the station, which was a type of warehouse with buses outside, it was chaos. Dozens of people were swarming the only bus currently there, which I correctly presumed to be our bus. They were pushing to get both in and out, climbing over each other to get to the luggage compartments. Everyone seemed to be in a bit of a frenzy. I didn’t really understand why because we all had assigned seats on the bus, but Nghiem and I pushed through anyway and got to our seats in the back with only minor bruises.

Nghiem said that the bus would not be busy but it was so full two passengers had to sit in folding lawn chairs in the middle aisle. I would hate to have seen what a full bus looked like. As soon as the bus lurched forward a man who I could only assume was the driver’s assistant started playing DVDs of various South East Asian pop music. I only got through one rendition of “Happy New Year”, a song that we’ve heard at various locations all over HCMC, before I fell asleep. The tune basically consists of a Vietnamese woman singing “Happy New Year” over and over again and in some versions a Little John type character comes in and screams “and a Merry Christmas!” It’s been one of the more bizarre things about the trip so far.

(Upon further research discovered that this is actually an Abba song that the Vietnamese have been using for Tet for a while. Who knew? Here’s a link if you don’t believe me.)

After a bumpy nine hours we finally made it to our destination and walked about a block to Nghiem’s parents. The house is small but comfortable enough. Vietnamese families seem to not separate work and personal space from what I have seen so far in Saigon and here in Phan Rang, so naturally the home reflects what Nghiem’s parents do. His father is a driver of a truck and the front of the house serves as a garage for his maroon cargo van. The rest of the house is stocked full of tea or tra leaves in brightly colored plastic for Nghiem’s mom to sell at market.

Throughout the day I met Nghiem’s sisters, who are very nice, and the family cat. The cat has a sad life of being tied up in the kitchen and suffering through mild abuse by the sisters. Also, it’s only name is Mum, which I guess means “fish sauce.” Feeling sorry for it, I try to be extra nice to Fish Sauce the Cat and he seems to like me enough for my efforts. 
Later in the day I went for my first motor bike rides! They were terrifying at first but so much fun. Vietnam seems to make more sense traveling around 30 km/h on the back of a xe om. Within minutes I understood how the other drivers were using their horns to let us know where they were and what they were doing. All the honking isn’t useless noise! The colors of the bright buildings swooshed past and I saw how the city is built to the scale of the small vehicles.
On the first trip I went with Nghiem’s sister to the market to visit their mom. It was a pretty impressive sight with two stories of stalls selling everything from melons to t-shirts, to books and cooking pans. The place was packed with people getting ready for the holiday and every single person there stared when they saw me. Most of the women smiled and nodded but the men sorta just looked me down. I asked Nghiem and he said that it is very rare for Westerners to be in his hometown but he thinks they stare at me particularly because they find me “handsome.” I find that being the main reason hard to believe.
The second trip was much quieter. Nghiem took me to the beach to see the ocean. It was nice to see something as universal as a beach, even if it was quite a bit dirtier than the average one in the States. It felt safe and home-like. Everyone walks along the beach in the waves and doing it with Nghiem reminded me of trips to California and Florida in high school. 
Today was long and parts of it were hard but I feel like I accomplished a great deal. I was worried about leaving the safety of the big city but Nghiem is taking good care of me. I am glad I came to Phan Rang. Being here is helping me understand him and the whole country a lot better. In a lot of ways Ho Chi Minh City is the exception and not the rule to Vietnamese life and understanding the national context that my new home takes place in is invaluable. 

A City of Surprises

  • The best meal I’ve had so far: crunchy noodles with pork and shrimp and a glass of salted plum juice.
  • A busy alley near our guest house that has a large number of restaurants and cafes. A lot of Westerners live on this block.
  • Iced coffee or ca phe sua da from a nearby cafe. Vietnamese coffee is now my favorite.

At our orientation dinner a few nights ago Chris, the program coordinator, said that he loved Saigon because there are so many little surprises hiding behind every corner in the city. At first this place can be a little overwhelming. It is incredibly noisy, with motorcyclists and taxis constantly sounding their horns from early in the morning until late at night. (There are really no traffic laws per se.) There are so many smells from food of every imaginable type, to the not so pleasant aroma of sewage and bus fumes. Coming from Chicago and St. Paul, the air even feels incredibly heavy because of the humidity and simply walking down the street is an adventure.

There are no standard sidewalks. Telephone towers, the few traffic lights that do exist, random blocks of concrete and large holes are all found all over every sidewalk. On some corners the path narrows to the point that only one person can walk it as the never-ending rush hour swooshes by only inches away. The buildings are just as chaotic. Stores, apartments, some small factories, restaurants and hotels are stacked on top of each other, everyone taking as little space as possible while trying to attract the maximum amount of customers. Strung between is a continuous and giant web of electrical wires that are woven between 40 foot trees and pulled into bunches two feet in diameter.

Crossing the street is fun because even when there is a red light there are close to 30 bikes, each with anywhere from one to four passengers, trying to make the right turn. As you slowly walk across the street (or sometimes Frogger hop like I do) the motor bikes swerve around you, all honking and waving their hands to alert the other drivers. On the busiest of streets I just let Nghiem take the lead and walk on the side that is not facing the traffic.

With all of this going on there are still places of incredible quiet and beauty. Yesterday, as part of an orientation activity I managed to visit a Hindu temple, a Buddhist Pagoda and a Catholic Cathedral within one afternoon. All of them were pretty tranquil and it was easy to forget that we were in the middle of such a huge and active place. Another surprise is that Saigon is truly an international city. I thought that there would be some districts with Chinese, Indian and European restaurants and bars but they are found everywhere! The racial diversity is no where near Chicago or even Minneapolis but the number of Westerners here has still shocked me.

Basically, Ho Chi Minh City is bursting at the seams with activity. Just walking down the street is a demanding venture but also incredibly thrilling. There is so much going on just within a square city block that I do not expect to ever explore the entire city, but that really makes sense. In nearly three years of living in Chicago I still have a great deal to learn about that city as well.

Xin Chao!

  • They have entire panda stores in China!
  • This is the gated drive of the guesthouses where we are staying.

Hello everyone!

It is day one in Ho Chi Minh City and everything is incredibly different. For one it is very warm. The current high of 88 degrees is quite different than the 19 degrees and snow I just missed in Chicago. I had pho for breakfast which was a little odd because it was very spicy and savory at 9 AM. I could have had pho again for lunch but decided to pass to give my stomach some time to adjust to the heat and new foods. I don’t understand anyone or anything on the street except the occasional American brand name item being sold in a small shop and I don’t really dare venture outside of a block radius until my Vietnamese roommate Nghiêm gets here in a few hours.

Although I had a bout of nerves last night and the expected “what the hell am I doing moment” as I tried to fall asleep, I am mostly excited right now. I’ve learned my first Vietnamese words but don’t really know how to spell them yet. They sound like “gamma” and “tra da!” as if you were doing a magic trick and mean “thank you” and “cold tea” respectively. (You can tell that my experience has pretty much been limited to food so far.) The restaurants that we have eaten at would not really be considered restaurants in America. They are more like stalls on the side of the busy streets. Some are bays in concrete buildings, others are held together mostly by sheet metal on hang off the side. They all seem to sell the same basic menu of noodles, teas, and rice dishes and have the same brightly colored plastic stools for customers to sit.

I have experienced so little of the city but am exhausted. The jet lag is pretty horrible even though I tried to adjust on the 14-hour flight to Shanghai. I hope to see a little more of the larger attractions that are nearby later this afternoon. Although eating some food and walking around the city are making things seem more solid, the trip yesterday is still surreal.

What I think was most surprising about it was all the different interactions I had with people before I even got to Vietnam: all the little half-conversations with Chinese families returning home, the multiple run-ins with a mid-western looking man who had worked in Vietnam for years a long time ago and the many misunderstandings that occurred in the Shanghai airport. All these things made me realize how much traveling is about people and our experiences with others. It’s easy to think of monuments and planes when preparing to travel but to make the most out of leaving the comfort of our homes we need to not only have patience with others who are extremely different from us, but also with ourselves.