Never an Idle Hour: Cu Chi and Can Gio

  • One of the many booby traps that the National Liberation Front left for American soldiers during the American-Vietnamese War.
  • Rice paper left out to dry at Cu Chi. Rice-based paper and alcohol are now some of the products of the once-war torn region.
  • The communist forces at Cu Chi would use old termite mounds to hide ventilation holes for their complex series of tunnels three meters below the surface.
  • Tapioca root, which was a staple during the American occupation.
  • A variety of locus in bloom near Cu Chi.
  • One of the dozens of monkeys that inhabit Monkey Island in Can Gio National Forest Preserve.
  • The old Viet Cong military base deep within the mangrove forest.
  • A sunrise over the Pacific at Can Gio.
  • One of the many varieties of lizards found in Viet Nam.
  • The ferry ride on the way back to Ho Chi Minh City from the forest.
  • Today, locals are allowed to use the forest to create a living as long as they also help protect it from timber poachers. This stand is selling water coconuts, a fruit that grows within the mangrove forest.

Living in Ho Chi Minh city is exhausting. First of all there is the heat, a predictable daily high of at least 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Then, there is the traffic situation with every street crossing involving a never-yielding onslaught of speeding motorbikes, honking busses and panicked cars. Finally, there are the crowds of people everywhere on the sidewalk. Fitting the population of a mega-city in an infrastructure designed for 3 million is chaotic work! Basically, Chicago looks like suburbia when the two are compared side-by-side.

Luckily, the group and myself has been getting some much needed breaks into the calmer, rural areas around HCMC proper. Cu Chi and Can Gio are both districts that are preserved due to their historical and natural importance. Cu Chi is now a forest with a large number of rubber plantations, however, during the war the district was so heavily bombarded that nothing grew. The village and its surrounding fields served as a head quarters for South Vietnamese liberation fighters, or the Viet Cong as they are known in America. What made this particular area of resistance so special though is that was the technique that the communist forces used to survive the constant bombing of the Americans. For over twenty years, they lived in an elaborate series of underground tunnels. In spaces no larger than two feet by one, men would crawl for miles to transport weapons and supplies to various areas around the American military bases.

Today the Cu Chi Tunnels as they’re now known attract hundreds of tourists each and every day. Over the course of a day we explored some of the tunnels that had been widened to accomodate Western tourists’ larger statures and learned about how the southern resistance fighters lived in such a hostile human and natural environment. We even got to try boiled tapioca root, a staple of the army because of its high calorie count and its ability to be grown right above the tunnels.

The other excursion we have recently taken is to the Can Gio mangrove forest on the opposite side of the city. Mangroves are trees and shrubs that are crucially important to coastal regions because they protect the soil from erosion, people from tsunamis and floods, and maturing animals from predators. They also clean up water through storing heavy chemicals in their leaves. Unfortunately, Can Gio like too many sites around Viet Nam is the site of American atrocities committed in the name of fighting communism. The entire forest was completely decimated by toxin defoliate chemicals during the Viet Nam War in an effort to prevent the National Liberation Front from using the area as a base of operations. This tactic of completely destroying the natural environment did not work that well, however, and the Viet Cong managed to keep a base deep in the forest for the duration of the war.

After visiting this base, the group visited “Monkey Island” where reintroduced, semi-wild monkeys live off of tourist-donated peanuts and the nearby beach.


A Need for Service

  • Some of the kids at Smile practice their yoga as the others practice their English in the courtyard.
  • Phil and Salem with some students.
  • The empty yoga room.

I always knew that I wanted to study abroad. Increasingly, it is becoming an expected part of the undergraduate experience and I had been thinking about it since I first toured Loyola’s Lake Shore Campus, but I also knew that I wanted to be intentional with this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I did not want to just go somewhere I could easily travel to as a tourist or a place made famous through glamorous movies. I knew I had to choose somewhere that would be challenging and that I did not already know a lot about. These criteria intersected at a few study abroad sites, but Loyola’s Viet Nam Center stood out because it provided all of these things and the opportunity to engage directly with the local community through service-learning work.

Viet Nam is a beautiful country filled with incredibly diverse physical environments, people and ways of life, but it can also be a harsh place. In twenty years it has risen from one of the poorest nations in the world to one of the fastest developing. Sai Gon (officially Ho Chi Minh City) has exploded to nearly ten million people, a third of whom live here illegally. Free trade has brought jobs but it has also exaggerated already rampant corruption, increased cases of worker exploitation and exacerbated social ills, including intravenous drug use and prostitution. In many ways the poor majority of Viet Nam is being trampled by this surge of global, socio-economic activity.

A lot of the members of this silent majority make their living through informal sector work, selling street food, fixing motorbikes and selling lottery tickets. Although they provide vital services to all types of people in the city, they are forgotten by those in power and often actively opposed through attempts to “civilize” the city’s population and economic activity. A Vietnamese person working at a high-power international corporation makes only $400 dollars a month due to how low labor costs are in Viet Nam, so it is easy to see that someone working on the streets often has trouble making ends meet. As in too many places around the world, there is great need here and much work to be done.

I do not think that anyone on our program has any grand delusions about sweeping in and solving these problems. It would be unrealistic and presumptuous to think we could and ultimately these are issues that only the Vietnamese can address themselves after asking some hard questions of their government. The consortium of non-governmental organizations that Loyola has partnered with are more focused on the type of small to medium sized community building that individuals can have a large impact on when engaged.

Some of these groups are general in their approach, giving out funds and organizing neighborhood-based projects such as Helping Hand and the LIN Center for Community Development, while others are quite specific in who they help or what they do, such as KOTO and the Smile Group. Together they form a tight knit community of social justice advocates and community organizers who are trying to give individuals the tools to do better for themselves and their families in a fast-moving and unforgiving social climate. We as students at the Loyola Viet Nam Center get to help them in their missions but also get the opportunity to engage in a unique cultural exchange with new friends, peers and mentors. During the time that I have left here, I plan on sharing some stories and news from these unique sites of global learning. Enjoy!

Below is a short description of the service-learning sites Loyola University Chicago students are working at in Viet Nam during the 2012 Spring Semester:

Sai Gon Children’s Charity: Focuses on helping children who have been affected by urban poverty through providing access to educational opportunities.

Helping Hand: Works with both local and international volunteers to focus charitable aid into small-scale projects where the impact is greatest.

Smile Group: A community center and support group that seeks to aid children and families who have been affected by HIV/AIDS in the Sai Gon area.

LIN Center for Community Development: Serves as a support group for numerous local charities through organizing volunteer staff and a small grant giving process.

KOTO (Know One Teach One): A not-for-profit restaurant and culinary learning center that gives formerly homeless children an opportunity to learn service skills and receive a formal education.

Society for a Divine World: A Catholic community similar to the Jesuits that is preparing young men for youth ministry in various parts of Viet Nam. Volunteers here are leading an English club to help the future priests learn the language.

Food Rules

  • Our delicious soup consisting of squid, shrimp, vegetables, noodles and pinapple from “The Lunch Lady.”
  • A meal in for the evening (a hamburger from the local bakery, bubble tea and instant noodles).
  • These are the types of alleys where the restaurants we typically go to are found.
  • The bakery across the street from our guest house. The owner speaks English and gives us little tips about living in Sai Gon when we visit, which for me is every day.
  • Justin tries to eat the duck egg-fetus.
  • A buffet we had in Cambodia with every type of Asian food imaginable.
  • “Hot pot” a type of do-it-yourself stew where you choose what ingredients you want from an array of goat meat, intestine, okra, greens and noodles.

Today is the first time I had a really unfortunate experience with food. I was feeling cocky and went to a random restaurant in the alley near our guest house alone. I ordered, or at least thought I ordered, a bowl of rice and chicken, but I what I received was a bowl of porridge with various cow entrails, dried blood and a mysterious black meat. I politely ate at the rice porridge but really could not do the intestine. The waiter at the restaurant seemed confused as to why, but I did not stick around to explain and quickly went to my favorite coffee shop down the street to get something to wash down the unpleasantness.

Food has definitely been a constant theme throughout my travels through Sai Gon, Viet Nam and larger Indo-China, but it is almost always more positive than it has been today. (Two of my friends in the program also thought today would be a good day to try hard boiled duck fetus and chicken feet.)

Obviously, the prevalence of food makes sense. You need to eat no matter where you are, but the past two months have been more than making sure I eat breakfast, lunch and dinner every day. In the States, I never really think about eating. I usually eat at my home. I know what I like and occasionally I will get creative and invite other people over, but for the most part it’s nothing fancy. It’s usually wheat-based, with lots of vegetables, and some milk or bean protein.

Here, this rather simplistic prescription has been turned completely on its head. I do not have access to a kitchen. (My home is more a hotel room than an apartment.) I had no idea what I liked when I first got here and I still don’t really know what most things are called. Finding foods that are good and that I enjoy is not some horrible struggle, but it is definitely something that I have to think of constantly.

Most days I will spend about $7 or 140,000 dong on food. This consists of a breakfast of bahn mi (bread) with eggs, cucumber and pork, a lunch of rice or noodles, a dinner of the same, and two to three cups of coffee throughout the day. I have found that, at least living with our roommates, it is hard to get away from noodle soups. Of course, there is pho, but there are also a whole assortment of similar tasting soups that have slightly differing styles of noodles. Each dish the Vietnamese assert are completely different from one another, but to most Americans I think they would seem, at the very least, closely related.

When we do succeed in escaping the noodle soups, a daily trial on my part, there are fried noodles (which I particularly like), simple rice dishes with beef, chicken or fish, spring roles, Vietnamese egg pancakes (which are nothing like American ones) and fried snails with rice crackers (another personal favorite). No matter what the dish, a healthy helping of various greens, many we would never think to eat in the West, are served along with fish sauce, limes and chilis. Pork and beef are by far the most common meats, but fish and chicken are close seconds. Meat is pretty much in everything so good luck trying to be a vegetarian here. I once ordered rice and tofu and it had a beef meatball hidden in it.

Another reason food is such a prevalent part of my trip so far is that it is everywhere. You would be hard pressed to find a street that doesn’t have at least one vendor, usually a woman, selling fruit, noodles or drinks. (That’s another thing, the fruit smoothies are amazing here.) These informal food merchants sell such a variety of quality, cheap snacks it is impossible not to try a whole host of new things. My favorite food outing to one of these folks has been to  “The Lunch Lady”, a small pho stand on the boarder between District One and the Binh Thanh District that has become internationally famous after a visit by celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain. Despite being nearly impossible to find in the back of a winding alley, the small shop was packed with backpackers and tourists in the little red plastic stools that are so ubiquitous in Saigon.

Food is a powerful force in Viet Nam. Meals are often humble but served with much more meaning that in the States. The act of eating plays a central role in most religious holidays and ceremonies and thousands of people in Ho Chi Minh City make a living off of preparing their grandparents secret recipes for pho, bun, bahn and my for their neighbors.   Personally, I think I’ve felt the most connected to Vietnamese culture while sharing food with both our new friends from here and my fellow Loyolans.

A Place Called Home?

  • A typical larger Sai Gon apartment building.
  • Graffiti on the side of the cafe that I usually visit.
  • The students at Smile Group.
  • An old colonial home next to more modern buildings.

If there are any avid readers out there, I have to apologize for the large gap in posts. It has nearly been three weeks! But do not fret! I have not abandoned the blog!

The past few weeks have been that point in my experience between novelty and this second emerging part where I attempt to figure out a regular schedule in a place that is now familiar but not quite home. Since Cambodia, I have started to fill my days with some weekly activities; however, this calm is not going to last long since March is filled with trips and visits. Overall, I have a routine but the fact that this than pho is so different still takes a lot out of me everyday. It is definitely no Chicago or Saint Paul and I imagine it would take years to fully adjust to life here. One of my professor’s has been here off and on for 15 years and even he described still having “why moments”, where you just ask why things have to be so difficult.

Part of the reason I haven’t been writing as much is that I actually have a somewhat full week now! Besides class, which I have Monday through Wednesday, I also go to yoga on Monday evenings, a recreational expatriate dodgeball league on Wednesday nights, and my service learning placement on Friday afternoons and Saturday mornings. Yoga is taught by Elisabeth, the woman who helps manage my service learning site. I have only gone once so far but I have thoroughly enjoyed the relaxing, yet physically demanding sessions. Elisabeth is very talented at the traditional style in which she was trained. By the end of the semester I hope to be able to do a meditative headstand, which is apparently very good for you because it allows the blood in your body to flow in the opposite direction for a while.

The dodgeball league is called Sai Gon Dodgeball and it is organized by a group of British and American citizens living in Viet Nam. Everyone pays a small fee to play, the money going to the renting of a court, and the games usually go on for a good two hours. The people there every week are fun and welcoming for the most part. (A few of the guys have an alpha complex and put way too much into what is usually a children’s game.) Lately, the group has been attracting a good mix of expats and their Vietnamese friends. All of the Loyola students have been encouraging their roommates to come and it has been pretty hilarious teaching our friends how to play the game, of which they know nothing about.

Finally, I have my service-learning placement for the semester. I asked to and was given the opportunity to work with Smile Group, an NGO that serves as a community center for children and young adult affected by HIV/AIDS in Sai Gon. Elisabeth and some other committed volunteers work to keep up a small house in the middle of District Three for their clients to come play games, take lessons and eat meals together. I just started last week but I am looking forward to helping out with their valuable mission. You can read more about Smile and the service-learning process in this section of my blog.

It is simultaneously a relief and strange that being here is starting to make sense. I no longer am startled by the traffic, sites and smells of this large, ever-moving city. In fact, some of the aspects of living here are even wearing on me a bit. It’s hard to constantly have to fight past bikes, carts, chairs, tables, and other people on the sidewalk and the temperature increases a bit every day.

Also, it’s been difficult to negotiate with some of the cultural paradigms we are working with in class, especially my gender studies course. There are wonderful aspects of being a family-oriented society, but it can also create situations that seem impossible for individuals who do not quite fit. Learning about how potentially abusive age and gender hierarchies are has made me very appreciative of my cultures’ strong emphasis on the individual perspective; but, then I return to all the problems American society has because of that very perspective. Somewhere between the Vietnamese tendency towards fatalism and the blind American belief in the power of specific men and women, there is a healthy balance. I am just still trying to figure out where it lies.