I have become increasingly interested in aspects of Asian culture over the last ten years or so. This interest was partly due to almost being sent to Vietnam in the early 1970’s. I was drafted into the Army and was to be sent to Vietnam, but I failed the physical and was classified 4-F (another story…). Every since the Vietnam War, I have felt drawn to visit the country. Another aspect of Asian culture that interests me relates to the Buddhist and Hindu religious traditions as part of my study of Yoga. This summer I had the opportunity to experience the people and natural beauty of the region.
The School for International Training (SIT) is one of a number of excellent organizations that offers study abroad programs for students from the U.S (http://www.sit.edu/studyabroad/) . SIT has a number of programs throughout the world including one on the Culture and Ecology of the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. The Freeman Foundation (http://www.iie.org/programs/Freeman-ASIA/) is an organization which grants about $50 million every year to various institutions. It is committed to increasing, strengthening, and popularizing the teaching of Asia in university classrooms.
One of the programs the Freeman Foundation funds is a group of competitive faculty development grants administered through the SIT study abroad program. I have applied for funding for these grants for several years and this year I was successful. The faculty development grant offered through the SIT program included travel to and from Vietnam plus a very intensive overview of their SIT study abroad program on the Culture and Ecology of the Mekong Delta. I joined 13 other U.S. faculty from around the country for the two week program.
Faculty group on arrival at Ho Chi Minh Airport
This was an extremely interesting and rewarding program which started with our arrival in Ho Chi Minh City late in May 2007. One of the interesting aspects of this program was that the faculty were required to do many of the activities that the study abroad students were required to. I, and the other faculty on this trip found this to be an intense immersion in the culture and ecology of the Mekong Delta. The trip organizers wanted to make sure that we could sample as much of the program in the time available. On the first day of our arrival our group met briefly and then were taken directly to visit the Reunification Palace in Ho Chi Minh City. BTW, I took lots of photos on this trip, I included a few here.
A front view of the Reunification Palace as well as a U.S. army helicopter on the roof of the building
The weather in late May in southern Vietnam is very hot and humid, and we could feel it. We took a short rest outside the Reunification Palace then were given an orientation activity (which all the students have to do). It involved giving groups of 2-3 faculty an address in the city, as well as a small amount of money to help us get around. We were then told we had to find our way there, visit the site, and then find our way back to our hotel. This was a very excellent way to start the immersion into the culture, as we had no maps and could not speak the language. It ended out to be a fun exercise, we all felt quite safe traveling around the city by ourselves.
One of the things that fascinated me about Vietnam was the traffic. Lots of motor bikes were on the road and there seemed to be a total lack of any traffic laws. It was as if the traffic on the roads was a organic entity (which of course it partly is), a constantly changing flowing, mass, and I enjoyed it immensely. There was a technique for crossing the street, that was pretty intimidating at first. You just slowly walked into the onrushing traffic without slowing your pace or changing direction, and the mass of motor bikes somehow moved around you.
Light Ho Chi Minh City Traffic
One of our early stops on the visit involved a four-hour bus ride to Can Tho City, the site of Can Tho University where the SIT students based the classroom portion of their study abroad experience. While at Can Tho University we met with Dr. Nguyen Anh Tuan the Rector of the University and toured the campus and their facilities. The university officials proved to be very gracious hosts.
Our first meeting with the Dr. Nguyen Anh Tuan, the rector of the university
Can Tho University and their Aquaculture Facilities
The next day we were involved in a number of activities including a visit to the floating market on the Mekong river. The floating market is very old and started not only because of the utility of using boats for both transport and sales, but also to avoid some of the regulation associated with selling the goods on land.
A few scenes from the floating market on the Mekong River
The next day we attended a series of lecture on the geomorphology of the region, then visited a farmers house and his “biodigester” system. One of the things that really struck me about the people of the Mekong Delta was how friendly they were. Anther thing was how innovative they were in taking advantage of the natural resources of their area. A biodigester consists of a large sealed plastic tube that pig wastes flow into. Methanogenic bacteria work on the wastes under the hot conditions and produce methane gas that the farmers families use in their kitchens to cook their food.
Farmers assembling the parts of a biodigester
The hardest part of the job is digging a trench in the hard clay soils.
Mother and son at the farm were they were installing the biodigester
Pigs provide the waste materials, also shown is another farmers finished and working biodigester.
Later in the trip we attended more lectures followed by a visit to the Mekong Delta Rice Research Institute in the Omon District, this is a very important facility, as rice production in the Mekong is a critical aspect of the economy of the country.
Planting seedlings and watering seedlings at Can Tho University
Introduced snails and their eggs are a major problem for the rice crop in the delta.
We spent a lot of time in the country visiting a number of farms in the delta. The families were always welcoming and always offered a wonderful meal or a drink. Below are photos of a family that runs a large shrimp farm in the delta.
The outside of the home, and the inside when we were caught in a monsoon, good home-made alcoholic drink of some sort
Two of the farmers children, the daughter with her favorite pig.
We also visited the site of other farmers that grew a variety of crops. The productivity of most of the Mekong Delta region is very impressive.
Checking out plantings on one of farms we visited
The tidal flux in the delta region is quite high, allowing for the "flushing" of materials into and out of the backwater regions. Many farms take advantage of the water flow by having toilets that are just two planks over the water. At low tide the water is quite a distance below which makes for interesting noises when using the facility.
Here is the toilet in one of the farms in the delta, of course I had to try it out....
A number of different-sized ferries were used to move the group through the countryside from the smaller ones shown here.
We also used large ferries that carried traffic. The image on the left shows a young woman with a face mask on. Face masks and long gloves are very common, especially in the cities. Interestingly, the masks and gloves are not for pollution, but to keep the sun from causing the skin to tan. Light skin is considered a beauty trait, and the stores are filled with skin-lightening "beauty" creams. The photo on the left shows six live dogs on the back of a cycle on the ferry. They were panting hard in the near 100 degree heat. They were on the way to the market, as dog is a not uncommon dish in Vietnam.
Another activity on the trip involved a bus ride to Tram Chim National Park where we met with and were introduced to the park by its director, Mr. Hoang The Phien. After a series of lectures led by Professor Truong Thi Nga of Can Tho University we took small boats into the core areas of the national park. One of the aspects of the faculty immersion into the culture of the country was the food. All the food was provided and the program did a remarkable job of always providing foods of the region. One of the members of our group was an ecologist and was fond of playing with the local animals. Here he was posing with a large spider that was running all over him, it would make our Dr. Shear proud.
On the boat to the core region of the park
Spiders and boat ride to the core regions of Tram Chim National Park
We stopped for lunch at a wonderful rest area above left, within an hour, a violent storm blew through the area
One stop towards the end of the trip was to the Can Gio Mangrove Forest in the Can Gio Biosphere reserve. This region of Asia has traditionally been the home of one of the largest mangrove forests in the world. The U.S. almost completely deforested this region with Agent Orange and other defoliants during the Vietnam War, as it was one the major Vietcong strongholds. The country of Vietnam undertook one of the largest reforestation efforts ever seen after the war and over a series of years following the war, the forest was replanted.
An aerial view of the Biosphere reserve offices as well as the extensive mangrove forests
Biosphere reserve classrooms, note, Vietnam is a communist country
A family on a boat in the Biosphere reserve waters
I was very impressed again by the kind, insightful and friendly people of the region. Several of the lectures and guides of the region were men of my age that fought against the U.S. forces during the Vietnam War. They had interesting stories about the war to tell, but seemed to hold no animosity towards us.
Two of the student-guides on a farm along with another wonderful meal at a farm
I was surprised and humbled by the fact that throughout the trip our group was treated as if were all celebrities or VIP’s. Our site visits were often covered by the network TV stations and our visits were covered in the newspaper.
"American university professors visit the university"
I found both the rural areas and the cities of the region to be an interesting mix of the traditional and the modern. For example, small groups of our faculty had a dinner with a host family. The family was fully-wired with high-speed internet as were many of their neighbors. In the streets you would see women baking traditional cakes or selling fresh shellfish, but they may also be talking on a cell phone, as is the woman in the right photo above.
One of the aspects of the SIT study abroad programs for students involves a major independent study research project. At the end of our visit we had the opportunity to hear presentations from students that were finishing up their Vietnam study abroad experience. I was very impressed by their presentation and the academic quality of the program and would recommend it to any of our HSC student that are interested in an intensive immersion into the region. Any interested student should contact me for more information. Prior to this trip, I had little experience in study abroad programs for our students. After this visit, I am more convinced than ever that our students should try to have an international experience abroad as part of their undergraduate education.