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.

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…

Workshop on Partnership Development (In English and Vietnamese)

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This workshop was delivered at Binh Thuan Community College in Phan Thiet on Thursday, June 13, 2013 and co-facilitated by Annick Levesque (Partnership Development Advisor, BTCC) and Mathieu Aebi (Partnership Development Advisor, Hoa Sua School). The overall purpose of the workshop is to improve the college’s capacity to build partnerships with other institutions.

The main objectives of the workshop were to…

  1. Define key partnership concepts
  2. Assess institutional readiness
  3. Identify partnership opportunities Negotiate effectively with partners
  4. Plan & manage partnership activities
  5. Monitor results & evaluate partnerships

Prepared and Presented by  Mathieu Aebi & Annick Levesque 

Workshop Documents:

Reblogged from World University Service of Canada, Vietnam 

Saigon Polytechnic College and Cu Chi

2W9B6407aI have been working at Saigon Polytechnic for the past ten days. I continue to be impressed by the VACC member colleges. Again, I have arrived at a college where the administration and the staff are highly qualified, enthusiastic, and engaged. With the credentials of the faculty (many have Master degrees and a few have, or are working on, PHDs)  this could easily be a University but they have embraced the Community College model and they are focused on service to students and the community. Translated, that means the College has full classes seven days a week from 7:30am to 9:00pm to accommodate students who happen to be working. They even have an arrangement with one of the local employers for a bus to bring students, who are also employees, to and from the College.

Saigon Polytechnic is only four years old and I am the first international visitor. They have a great apartment on campus and they stocked it with coffee, crackers, treats…They also gave me my own fully equipped office…

The campus is actually located outside of Ho Chi Minh City in Cu Chi District. I knew of Cu Chi because it is where the famous Cu Chi tunnels are located. Two hundred and fifty kilometers of tunnels connecting six villages that served as headquarters for the Vietcong in South Vietnam during the war. How much nerve and ingenuity was required to live (to survive!) just 35K away from the American/South Vietnam Saigon headquarters throughout that war?  I have learned a lot about the Vietnam (American) War in the past five months but I must say the perspective from Cu Chi is much different.  While there are some fascinating stories and the war certainly set the economy back, Vietnam is a country that is looking ahead and glad to be united.

For now I’ll post some pictures of our day at the tunnels because I can hear that the volleyball game between SPC and the team from the Local Authority is starting and I must go cheer for the College!

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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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