As I referenced in my last post, leading a gap semester is a very different experience than joining one as a student. These first few weeks on the program have certainly reinforced that reality.
Taya and I ran into our first problem to solve even before getting to Vietnam — one of our students was still waiting on her Vietnam visa to process. The student’s parents and the ARCC office did everything they could to contact anybody who could push the process through before our arrival, but to no avail. To make matters worse, we would arriving in Hanoi during the four day celebration of Vietnam’s Independence Day (funny enough on my gap year we touched down in Guatemala City on their independence day as well). This meant that not only was nobody responding to the frantic emails, but she wouldn’t be able to get her visa processed upon arrival either.
After a lot of trouble shooting with the office, the plan was made for this student to fly with us to Singapore, where she’d stay with a former ARCC instructor who happens to be living there, and wait until her visa processed and she could meet us in Hanoi. So, at the airport after our 17 hour flight, we said goodbye for the next few days while the rest of us continued on to Hanoi.
Orientation in Hanoi
With our remaining group, we had three and half days in the nation’s capital to take care of our program orientation and explore a little bit of the city. It can be a lot of information to cover, but making sure the whole group is on the same page about the expectations for the following 70 days was worth the effort. We did our best to break up the more serious discussions and conversations about rules and expectations with some cool sights and sounds of the city.
We explored the bustling Old Quarter of the city, lined with hundreds of shops selling everything from Halloween decorations to pajamas, and visited Hoan Kiem lake, the liquid heart and center of the city. We toured the Museum at the former Hoa Lo Prison, where Vietnamese revolutionaries were held and tortured by the French during the colonial period and where American POWs including John McCain were held during the Vietnam War. When the sun went down we wandered the streets of the giant night market which seemingly went forever, and found entertainment at the Thang Long Puppet Show, a traditional water puppet show first started by rural rice farmers when the fields would flood.
We finished our few days with a guest speaker, Phuong, from a local organization that works with those who have been affected by Agent Orange. The chemical herbicide used during the war continues to have devastating effects. It not only destroyed roughly 14% of Vietnam’s forest but also has a genetic factor which leads to high rates of disability and birth defects in children of parents who had been exposed. Our students were very attentive and asked many great questions, reflective of their engagement and curiosity throughout our orientation time in Hanoi. Taya and I are grateful to have a group that is eager to learn and excited to be exposing themselves to so much new information, no matter the discussion topic.
On the evening of our final night in Hanoi, we were at last joined by our student whose visa had finally been cleared. After a few days in the hot, humid, and at times overwhelmingly dense city, the crew was ready to head north to Sa Pa.
Trekking in Sa Pa
It’s amazing how cool 75 degrees can feel after four days in 95+ degree heat with nearly 100% humidity. We stepped off the bus in Sa Pa greeted by the fresh air and gorgeous surroundings. Nestled in the mountains of the northern rice farming region near the Chinese border, the town of Sa Pa is a tourist hot spot where most come to embark on mountain treks through the rice terraces. Upon arrival, we relished the view from the roof of our hostel and spent the night preparing for the four day trek we would begin the next morning.
Zao and Sy, our two guides for the trek, met us the next morning and we began our hike. What followed was an incredible four days, walking 8-10 miles each day through the main valley outside of Sa Pa. We hiked in pouring rain, up and down steep trails coated in thick mud, through dark bamboo forests, and alongside the cascading terraces of rice rising from the river to the mountain top. We passed through local villages where we would dine, visit traditional homes, and stay the night in a homestay. These homestays were usually especially outfitted for trekkers, a separate floor lined with mats and mosquito nets for the travelers on top of the more typical floor where the family lived and prepared our meals. Our hosts were generous and kind, and our meals were delicious — plates piled high with spring rolls, stir fried chicken and vegetables, sautéed greens picked that day on the trail, and large stacks of crepes in the morning.
As beautiful as the surroundings were and as delicious as the food was, the best part of the trek in my opinion was learning from Zao and Sy about the traditions and life of the local people. In this region, most people are part of one of the six different minority tribes whose ancestors migrated from China in the 19th century. Zao and Sy were both members of the Black Hmong tribe, known for using indigo to dye their clothes and textiles black. They showed us some of their traditional craft houses where clothes and textiles are made, as well as the traditional methods of separating the rice husk, grinding corn into meal for animal feed, and tying together strands of hemp for use in the loom. We were even able to pick some indigo on the trail and rub it on our hands, leaving our hands blue for a “two day tattoo.”
In the different villages and with some of our homestays, we were also able to meet members from other tribes such as the Red Dao, Tay, and Giay. The diversity of textiles and clothing between villages even just a couple kilometers apart was incredible.
One conversation I had with Sy was a particularly interesting one. On the trail one day we were talking about how many of her guests ask if it’s hard working in such a physically demanding industry. She explained how her job was relatively easy compared to the difficulties of life for many of the people in this region. All the families in the valley farm, mostly rice but also a mix of vegetables and corn. This farming is not for export or to sell, it is exclusively for subsistence for the family as unlike the warmer territories in the south, the people in Sa Pa can only harvest once a year. While most families are able to grow enough to eat, in order to cover other expenses, they are forced to find some sort of work. Many work construction, some choose to sell handicrafts to tourists, and others provide transportation as motorbike taxis. Sy told me that on average they make about 200,000-300,000 Dong ($10-15) a day. This is all while balancing the needs of the farm, drying food for their animals to eat during the winter, and chopping and hauling firewood down from the top of the mountain to heat their homes in the winter.
Sy said she found it funny that some of our students were saying how nice it would be to live in such a beautiful place, noting that while she was grateful, she would switch places in an instant. This was a topic I had been thinking about for some while. During our prep week as leaders, we talked about not assuming that western “advancements” are superior and that the areas we visit would be better off with them. When confronted with such obvious examples of our privilege, we should acknowledge and be grateful for it, but never assume our lives are better. And yet, here was Sy, saying that she wished she had the opportunity of the U.S.
There’s no perfect answer to this dilemma. Sy is interacting with a very select portion of Americans who are able to travel so far in the first place, and is almost certainly not aware of the painful realities that countless Americans deal with every single day. The ability to be so closely tied to nature, to live in a beautiful place, and to have a supportive community that comes together and looks after one another are benefits that she appreciates and might not have living in the U.S. Yet the truth remains that the life I live, the one she is exposed to constantly by visiting foreigners, is one that she envies. Another reason to be grateful for this extraordinary life and to share the lessons I learn during experiences like this.
Before we knew it, our days in Sa Pa came and went. We said goodbye to Zao and Sy, enjoyed a final day exploring the town, and made our way back to Hanoi.
The Pandemic has Other Plans
One of the key differences between this semester and my gap year that I forgot to mention was of course the presence of COVID. Despite taking numerous precautions and measures both before and during the beginning of our trip, one of our students tested positive on our final morning in Sa Pa. After discussing with the office, Taya and the student stayed back to quarantine while I was to go on with the rest of the group and continue the itinerary. Unfortunately, the morning we were supposed to drive to the coast and have a few days kayaking and boating around Lan Ha Bay, another student showed symptoms and tested positive.
This time we had no more staff to stay behind so the group stayed in Hanoi for a few days until Taya and the other student returned. They were a bit bummed, but I was able to entertain them with some fun activities in Hanoi like a cooking class and some chill time at a board game café. Thanks to the hard work of the office we were able to rearrange some of the itinerary and the group and Taya were able to still spend three days on the coast while I stayed back and monitored the second student with COVID.
Today the group is returning from the ocean and tomorrow we’ll all head off as one big group again for our homestays in Da Bac. I’m looking forward to our last week in Vietnam before we cross the border into Cambodia!