Reflections

I’ve been back in Canada for four weeks and I finally had a chance to put together a slideshow of my time in Vietnam (10 months in 3 minutes!). It was fun to review my pictures and select from them a variety that I hope show..

  • I had a great time.
  • There was a significant amount of work involved.
  • I got to see and experience places and events I’ll never forget.
  • I loved the people I got to work with.
  • I made friends that I hope will be in my life forever.
  • Vietnam is BEAUTIFUL.

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My Fat Buddha

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My Fat Buddha sits beside my television. He was a gift from a friend leaving Hanoi. Now, I have to say, this little fellow has always bothered me…I never understood why Buddha was represented as a jolly fat man?

Siddhartha Gautama, the prince born approximately 560BC who eventually  became the Buddha was, according to legend, exceptionally good-looking.  He was married and had a son before he left it all behind at the age of twenty-nine to search for enlightenment.

As the Buddha, Siddhartha  specifically stated that he should not be idolized.  He was just a man and he spent his life teaching people that anyone could do what he did. He readily admitted that he had temptations and weaknesses; admitted it was difficult for him achieve enlightenment, and that he could fail at any time. He didn’t set out to establish a new religion, and he didn’t see himself as a God.

Because of his specific instructions not to idolize him, for the first 500 years or so after his death there were no representations (pictures, statues) of the Buddha at all…

But as the number of his followers grew, so did his legend and people did come to pray to him and to venerate him.   And, if they were going to worship and pray they needed an image of their idol. So it was that hundreds of years after his death the first representation of the Buddha appeared.  One of the main tenants of Buddhism is that each man should be his own light and make his own way and that tendency towards subjective truth influenced the various depictions of the Buddha.

In search of enlightenment, Siddhartha tried lots of stuff…As an ascetic monk, he practiced extreme self-denial. So, yeah, I understand the skinny Buddha.. .

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One day (many years into his search) while Siddhartha sat under a Bodhi (fig) tree, enlightenment came to him. There are many statues of the enlightened Buddha…

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There are even statues of Buddha as a female (in case that’s what speaks to you?)…

female buddhaBut what’s with this FAT Buddha?? …Well, here’s an explanation provided by a friend…

Buddha was a man. He didn’t want to be worshiped, but he did want people to follow his example and attain the enlightenment he attained.  Since Buddha’s wish was that people emulate him, someone started to look at which images of the Buddha worked for this goal…Could you see yourself as a starved monk? Probably not… As an enlightened soul? …Most of us aren’t there yet… What about as a Buddha content with what he has?   …enough food, happiness , children …

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This is where the Fat Buddha comes from….mystery solved.  This Buddha is a reminder that we have all the sustenance and joy we need. So now my Fat Buddha sits by my television reminding me to be happy and satisfied…I like him a whole lot more these days.


Short Days?…Short Months?…Must be Winter

December went by in a blur here in Vietnam. I started the month in the City of Phan Thiết at Bình Thuận Community College. My first thought on arriving after a six hour drive from Saigon was…”Crap…Why did I insist one week would be enough time here?!” BTCC is across the street from the beach and ten minutes away from the awesome resort area of Mui Ne where I spent a leisurely long weekend after the a week of presentations and classes…

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Leaving Mui Ne we toured a Sapa Valley Wine Castle on the outskirts of town before heading to the airport. Yep…that would be Sapa Valley as in California, USA…at least that what all the labels said. Obviously, international trade has made the world a very small place…

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Back in Hanoi there were Christmas celebrations and going away dinners. Although international schools closed for the holidays and many embassies hosted holiday functions… 

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Christmas Day  was a regular work day for most Vietnamese…Here the big seasonal celebration is the ‘real’ New Year (according to the lunar calendar) on January 31st . This is Tet Holiday and it is BIG…every bit as big as a western Christmas with all the same themes: family, gifts, food, parties, prayer.  January 1st may not be the official start to 2014 in Vietnam but that didn’t stop anyone from enjoying New Year’s Eve western style..er…I mean…Gangnam style!
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Kien Giang Economic and Technology College


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I am just finishing up two weeks working at Kien Giang Economic and Technology College. It’s amazing what you can fit into two weeks! There has been a lot of work accomplished. I taught IT classes, worked with various faculty, and we translated our way through several presentations and workshops.

Kien Giang is the Province; Rach Gia is the city. It is remote. It took us three hours to drive here from Can Tho airport, which is itself 170km south of Saigon. I’m not the only Westerner in town, but I haven’t met the other two.  People are sometimes surprised that I will travel alone to really remote areas to work. But, the truth is that when you work as an international volunteer, you are never alone. You are picked up at the airport, delivered to your accommodations, escorted to breakfast, lunch, and dinner. You are given guided tours of the area; you are provided with a full-time translator…and you always get to hang out with the brightest and most personable people. My working visit to KGTec did not disappoint.

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Rach Gia is a seaside city; fishing is the main industry and very fresh seafood of all types is on every menu.(I tried jellyfish for the first time!) 

The city also has its share of history and temples and character..

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I got to enjoy my first National Teacher’s Day..TeachersDay8TeachersDay4 VID00020 

On the weekend, I  traveled with several staff members to the tourist district of Ha Tien. It is at the western end of the Mekong Delta close to the Cambodian border. Although a tourist spot, it doesn’t see many western visitors due to its remoteness. 049

We bought fresh crabs and had the seaside restaurant cook them for us and swam in the Gulf of Thailand…

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On the way we stopped at two mountains where stunning natural caves are used as temples.  At Da Dung Mountain a path goes around the mountain (a great up and down workout!) and there are several caves which serve as “cave temples”. It’s definitely a very special place and I’m so glad I got to visit..

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On Tuesday evening I was a judge for the First Annual Canadian- American Cultural Challenge. That was fun!..

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And on my last day at KGTec, I enjoyed a review meeting and a farewell dinner to which I wore my new áo dài…(What a fantastic gift!)

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Lots of new friends and lots of memories!

Meanwhile, in the south…

009So I’m off tomorrow to Kien Giang. Had I known I would be travelling to the very south of Vietnam to work at a Community College there, I may not have decided to fly to Phu Quoc Island last weekend on a 4-day vacation. But, I had planned this getaway with a friend long before my schedule of work visits in the south were set and before Typhoon Haiyan threatened to wreak havoc in central and northern Vietnam. And that’s why I got to spend last weekend on the beach.

Phu Quoc Island is, in four words: beaches, fish, pepper, and pearls. They also have a National Park where we went kayaking and hiking, and while we had a lovely day, at the end of it our consensus was “It’s hard to impress a Canadian with lakes and forests…” Now, back to the beaches, food, and pearls…

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Watch out for low hanging bananas!

 

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I finally did it! I jumped into Hanoi traffic on a bike…and survived! Okay, I cheated a bit, because I chose a day-trip to Middle Island where there are no roads, no cars, no trucks, and only a handful of motorbikes…But I had to navigate Xuan Dieu and cross Au Co at Yen Phu to get there and these are some of THE worst streets in Hanoi…(I’d tell you why, except I’d insult a whole bunch of expats.)  I can’t emphasize enough what a big step this was for me. Suffice to say, I left my neighbor with specific instructions about where my passport and medical coverage documents were…just in case.

MiddleislandSo, within only a few nerve-jangling kilometers my friends and I found ourselves on the extraordinary Middle Island. Extraordinary because it is a stretch of farmland in the middle of the Red River, in the middle of Hanoi. I’m not an expert on cities (realizing THAT more and more…) but as I understand it, not many of them have urban farms where produce can be transported to markets…by motorbike of course!..within an hour.producebikePatMiddleIslandOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The pathways that run up and down Middle  Island meander through fields of corn, cabbage, sweet potato, thyme (…Oh, you should smell the thyme!) and banana palms…Bunches of bananas hanging over pathways at face level were definitely the main biking hazard. 

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For the last two weeks in November I’m travelling to the much quieter Kien Giang Province…(Yeah, I know…lucky me!) and I do believe I’ll be renting a bike…

Be Where You Are…

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Today I visited the Old Quarter of Hanoi for the first time in months. I needed to buy a new pair of sun glasses and I knew a street in the quarter where I could select from Dolce & Gabbana, Channel, or Ray Ban for $10 a pair. That errand done, I wandered down to Hoam Kiem Lake cursing the traffic and the crowds along the way. I was thinking about my upcoming trip to Saigon, the workshop I had to give on Wednesday, tropical storm Gabriel in Nova Scotia…

As I entered the park at the lake and walked past the Ngoc Son Temple a voice in my head, (Oh, come on! We all have them…) said,…”Be where you are.” Blame it on reading too much about Buddhism or just getting weird in my old age, but, I’ve started listening more to those voices…and I looked up…The Ngoc Son Temple  (Temple of Jade Mountain) is stunning. It was built in the 18th Century on Jade Island.  Jade Island is connected to the shore of Hoan Kiem Lake by the red, wooden The Huc (Morning Sunlight) Bridge.  I’ve included pictures of the temple and the bridge to show you just how beautiful they are. Without that voice in my head, I would have walked past…head down…negotiating with locals and tourists and vendors and motorbikes for sidewalk space. Instead I sat on a bench and watched a couple having wedding photos taken, watched tourists take pictures from the bridge, watched a group of old (old!) men practicing tie chi, and became mindful of where I was.
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Mindfulness is not a strong suite of mine. No matter where I am, my mind is usually somewhere else.

And speaking of somewhere else…
Last week I was cleaning up my photos and came across several I had taken while hiking at Sugar Moon Farm in Nova Scotia last fall… I wonder where I was thinking about that day at Sugar Moon…

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Dong Thap

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I have been in the Mekong Delta for the past two weeks working at Dong Thap Community College. Dong Thap is the province. Cao Lanh is a small town three hours from Saigon…I mean…Ho Chi Minh City. (…Let’s talk about changing the name a city of 7.5 million people from a name it’s had since the 1860s!!)

Cao Lanh has been both quiet and busy. There are 2500 students at the College and a few pretty nice networking labs. We installed Moodle (twice, actually…an English Server and a Vietnamese server), talked about switches, routers, lifelong learning, cloud computing, and the Internet of Things. I even got to teach Cisco’s Packet Tracer program to forty-five IT students. I was surprised at how easy it was to teach IT even though none of the students spoke English. An IP address is an IP address and a ping is a ping…no English required!

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I arrived one day before the full moon…and that’s important because the pagodas were ready for the Moon Festival…I joined two young volunteers from Italy and Spain to visit the Hoa Long Pagoda.

On the weekend I travelled to Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon and joined a few friends from Hanoi and about a hundred new friends for the 1200th Saigon Hash. My camera decided that the serious rain on Saturday was something I should have protected it from and now it refuses to work.

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Luckily, I had a backup camera, because today we went to the Gao Giong Eco-tourism area. We paddled through beautiful marshes and enjoyed a very traditional lunch…Along with Lotus seeds and morning glories, sour soup with eel, field rat, snake head fish, and snails were all on the menu…(If this sounds a bit fear factor, remember…in Nova Scotia we eat lobster and they aren’t very pretty.)

This evening is a cultural exchange evening for the English class. Spanish dance, Italian games, and Vietnamese songs…I’m looking forward to it!

Some more photos…

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Finding Buddha

DSCF5068I’ve been in Vietnam for just over two months now…I’m still enjoying the food, the people, and the heat (which has pretty much held to the mid 30s since I’ve been here). I am really  tired of the traffic but, since it’s not going anywhere any time soon,  I’ll just continue to cross my fingers and cross the street.

You can’t imagine how wonderful it is to get out of the city and hike in the mountains every Saturday. On our last two hikes we happened upon Buddhist temples…Or is it pagodas? There is a distinction…I’ll have to do some research. “Happen upon” may not be the correct term for the Maitreya Buddha  we visited yesterday as it sits on top Phat Tich Mountain,  is 27m tall, and weighs 3,000 tons. It is one of the largest stone statues in Southeast Asia. Seen at a distance, it’s pretty impressive…Up close, after a 5K hike up the mountain, it’s spectacular. 

Wikipedia has a page that lists 50 Buddhist temples in the city of Hanoi. Many of these are ancient treasures that the city has built up around and obscured. Looking at the locations, I see that over a dozen of them are within walking distance of my apartment. Probably worth braving the traffic to visit a few of them…Buddha help me!

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A walk in the woods…

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I attended my first Hash yesterday… The Hash House Harriers is an established running/social club found in most countries in the world. The objectives of the club, as recorded on the club registration card dated 1950, are:

  • To promote physical fitness among our members
  • To get rid of weekend hangovers
  • To acquire a good thirst and to satisfy it in beer
  • To persuade the older members that they are not as old as they feel

Wow…true to their objectives for over half a century!

Yesterday we traveled an hour and a half outside the city for a 10K run / 6K walk in the countryside. I was in the walking group, but I have my sights set on joining those runners before the year’s out. It was about 35 degrees and sauna-like conditions.  I really enjoyed the day. But the rituals…code names…symbols?…I’ve never belonged to an exclusive society before…Unless you count being a Caper…(Come to think of it, we have weird nicknames and rituals and beer is involved..So, yeah, I guess that counts…)

I checked out the Nova Scotia based Halifax Harbour Hash House Harriers on Facebook…They describe their club as “A drinking club with a running problem.”

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