Archive for the ‘Discovering Vietnam’ Category

The Southward Journey Through Vietnam

Friday, February 8th, 2013

Ivan Small first became interested in Vietnam during a family trip in 1993. Fascinated with the social and cultural transformations that have accompanied the rapid pace of capitalist transformation, Ivan has continued to be professionally and academically involved with Vietnam over a twenty-year period.  Ivan will receive his Ph.D. in cultural anthropology and Southeast Asian studies in May 2012 from Cornell University. As a Fulbright-Hays fellow and visiting research scholar at Vietnam National University Ho Chi Minh City from 2007 to 2008, Ivan conducted extensive research on the social dynamics of migration and remittance economies.


Group Photo, Hue
Photo courtesy of Ivan Small

Over two activity filled weeks, our Smithsonian study tour followed a route parallel to the one historically traversed by the Vietnamese people from north to south. After three days visiting the ancient capital of Hanoi and the sublime islands of Halong Bay in the north, our group flew south to Danang, into the heart of what was once the Champa Kingdom in central Vietnam. The landscape, cuisine, and climate were dramatically different than what we had experienced in the wintery north. After a relaxed afternoon at our charming beach side hotel, the group enjoyed a delicious seafood buffet dinner over high spirits and animated conversations. The following morning we started out early – our bus driver awaited with fresh incense on the front bumper to protect the voyagers from malicious spirits that might cause a traffic accident. We began with a visit to the Cham relics museum, displaying artifacts of the lost Cham civilization carefully collected and curated by French archaeologists during the colonial period.

Cham statue at Danang Cham Museum
Photo courtesy of Ivan Small

Afterwards, the travelers clamored for more adventure and so we decided to detour along the scenic shoreline to find the source of a towering Buddhist statue visible from a distance. Winding along the seaside cliffs, the bus arrived at a majestic Buddhist temple complex, replete with holy bodhisattvas, ringing gongs and burning incense. Visiting pilgrims meandered through the courtyards, behind the temple wispy clouds hovered over mountaintops and before the Goddess of Mercy’s gaze a blue ocean horizon stretched out for miles.

Buddhist Temple, Danang
Photo courtesy of Ivan Small

We would continue on that day to visit the ancient town of Hoi An, once a thriving seaport in the 17th Century frequented by merchants and traders from across East and South Asia. Many of the wooden houses and even bridges from that era built in Japanese, Chinese, and Vietnamese architectural styles remain. Wandering along the pedestrian streets of the town, our travelers discovered a variety of material and culinary wonders, from a busy fresh produce market to local restaurants selling regional food specialties such as the delicate white rose dumpling. Later we would partake in a cooking class, learning about and using a variety of fresh local ingredients, waiting in savory anticipation as our food cooked and sizzled before us, and finally partaking in the delicious fruits of our labor. Afterwards folks strolled in smaller groups through the lively streets of the town, transformed at night by colorful lanterns and playful children, before returning to the hotel to retire for a good night’s sleep in preparation for the next day’s adventure.

Night Lanterns, Hoi An
Photo Courtesy of Ivan Small

Although not yet the midway point of the trip – many interesting historical, cultural, and geographical sites lay ahead including the grand old imperial city of Hue, the laid back Mekong River Delta town of Can Tho, and bustling Ho Chi Minh City – this midpoint of travel in central Vietnam impresses upon my senses as a memorable moment in our Smithsonian journey together. It was a brief pause where delicious food, beautiful scenery, rich history, lively traveler camaraderie and curious anticipation for what lay ahead came together quite magically. As a study leader, to share with and live vicariously through others experiencing and discovering Vietnam for the first time is one of the greatest rewards.

River boat trip, Can Tho
Photo courtesy of Ivan Small

“Trip to Da Nang”
Poem written by Smithsonian Traveler Marsha A. Temlock  after traveling with her husband on the January 2013 “Discovering Vietnam” program

The road that rims the mountain
Precipitous and blind.
Below the verdant valleys
awake with morning glory.
Purple, white bauhinia
above the peaks of trees
Distant in the sunlight
Sway gently in the breeze.

Mountains veiled in fog,
Rice paddies, streams and bogs,
A peasant thins rice seedlings.
A child squats in mud.

Floating markets
Flower markets
Ancestral altars
Emperors Temples
Sampans eye the shore.

Lanterns gleam
Incense furls
Cables crimp
Steam swirls
A rice paper sky.

Monks chant
Bells chime
Silk spins
Girls stitch
Fingers fine as pins

Babies rock in hammocks
Grandpa sips snake tea,
Grandma fixes pho,
Girls in red neckerchiefs
Bow heads to Uncle Ho.

Napping cyclists
Speeding bicyclists
Couples clutched on Dreams.
Sleeping dragon
Spanning dragon
Bridging old and new.

Honk, honk
Make way, make way
Bodhisattva on the hill
Statuesque and calm
She’ll reveal what we feel
Visiting Da Nang.

Lotus sown in mud
Blooms fragrant in the morn.
Vietnam is a country,
Vietnam is not a war*

*  “Vietnam is a country, not a war.” Le Van Bang, Former Vietnamese Ambassador to the United States.


To learn more about our Discovering Vietnam trip click here

Exploring the Bustling Streets (and Waterways) of Vietnam

Tuesday, May 1st, 2012

Ann Marie Leshkowich, Smithsonian Journeys Study LeaderAnn Marie Leshkowich, a Smithsonian Study Leader and Associate Professor of Anthropology at College of the Holy Cross (Worcester, MA), has conducted extensive research in Vietnam on gender, marketplaces, economic transformation, middle classes, fashion, social work, and adoption. Read her post below about a recent trip to Vietnam with Smithsonian Journeys.

Throughout our Smithsonian Journeys tour of Vietnam, we witnessed the role of family as the heart of this society. Ancestor worship; weddings, funerals, and reburial ceremonies; preparations to return home to celebrate Tết, the Lunar New Year; and the idea of the country as itself a large, extended family (the word for country, quốc gia, literally means nation-family) – all provide evidence that family imparts a sense of self, identity, and belonging.

It would be misleading, however, to think of this family-centeredness as cloistering Vietnamese in some private world behind the doors and walls of home. Instead, as we walk along streets in Vietnam’s largest cities or cruise down its waterways (for, in Halong Bay and the Mekong Delta, water is, after all, a key thoroughfare), we see that the social world of the family spills out of the confines of the home and is intimately connected to the bustling activity of streets and markets. All the more so as Tết approaches.

Our journey begins in Hanoi about two weeks before Tết. Preparations focus on Ông Táo, the Kitchen God. Through his residence in the home, Ông Táo learns all a family’s secrets. On the 23rd day of the 12th lunar month, Ông Táo will journey skyward on the back of a carp to give a full account of the year’s events to the Jade Emperor. A proper ritual send-off will sway him in making a positive report. Our first full day in Hanoi ends in the Ancient Quarter with an evening walk down Hàng Mã Street, which specializes in votive paper items and decorations that are used in offerings such as those that will soon be made to Ông Táo. Row after row of housefront shops take over the sidewalk with eclectic arrays of red lanterns, dragons (in honor of the upcoming Year of the Dragon), auspicious messages that can be hung on decorative kumquat trees, red and gold lì xì envelopes that will bear small gifts of money for children, and paper replicas of currency, clothing, jewelry, and electronics that will be burned as offerings to the ancestors. The group tentatively weaves through the traffic, as commuters on motorbikes stop on their way home to buy ritual or decorative items. Other residents perch on small stools to enjoy phở (noodle soup) or grilled meat at streetside cafés. Our local guide reminds us that Hanoi’s tubehouses – long, narrow multi-storied structures – can be cramped, so both socializing and domestic tasks move out onto the street.

Lantern shop in Hanoi

Lantern shop in Hanoi. (Photo courtesy of Flickr user mrbold_fickr.)

The next day, the group journeys through the drizzle to Ha Long Bay, where we witness a different sort of street life in floating villages formed by groups of boats anchored together. These villages include bank branches so that residents can conveniently exchange the money they receive from Chinese and other foreign fish buyers. We stop at the houseboat of one family, where three generations (grandmother, parents, and children) live in a series of one-room wooden structures linked by planks that surround enclosures for raising grouper or oysters. There is a roofed verandah for work or socializing, a drainage system for collecting rainwater, a generator to power television, lights, and other appliances, and a dog to patrol the entire compound. Both friends and customers can easily stop by.

Halong Bay

About a week later in Cần Thơ, we get another view of watery street life. Early one morning, we board a boat at the hotel’s dock to travel about 45 minutes to a floating market. For several hours each morning, boats congregate to trade the bounty of the Mekong Delta region. Produce sold here will be transported to markets throughout the country or exported abroad. Every boat has a bamboo pole for hanging samples of its offerings, including pomelo, turnip, star apple, shallots, garlic, scallions, melons, and squash. In the throng of boats, the poles help customers locate what they wish to buy; the hails used in land markets would be futile over the din of boat engines. We disembark to taste local fruit, including the infamous durian, at a floating store and phở restaurant. Back on our boat, a few detours down smaller tributaries yield a closer view of the houses that line the waterways, the narrow wooden monkey bridges that traverse the numerous canals, and the flowering water hyacinths and morning glory that make the scene so memorable, but which also threaten to clog the boat’s motor.

Fruit market, Cần Thơ, Vietnam

Market in Cần Thơ. (Photo courtesy of Flickr user dalbera.)

In Ho Chi Minh City, a.k.a. Saigon, the pre-1975 name that most residents still prefer, our group gets a different taste of street life. On one of our final days in Vietnam, a few of us venture to a boutique specializing in fair-trade handicrafts. Our excursion takes us through the Tết flower market in the large “September 23rd Park.” Families, couples, groups of schoolchildren, and tourists oggle displays of horticultural virtuosity: delicately patterned orchids, exuberant chrysanthemums, lovingly tended bonsai, and giant kumquats. Some plants are shaped like famous Vietnamese landscapes, while others take the form of a dragon in honor of the coming year. Even in a city as large as Saigon, an outing to the Tết flower market can be an occasion to bump into friends and acquaintances. As we get closer to New Year’s Eve, families and friends will pile onto their motorbikes to cruise around the downtown area – a chance to see and be seen while taking in the festive atmosphere of this most special time of the Vietnamese year. Although Tết is often described as a family holiday, the preparations for it that we witnessed on streets and waterways throughout the country underscore the intimate links between kin and community and between social and economic life in a country where a sense of cultural heritage is paramount.

A bridge on Nguyen Hue Blvd., Saigon

A bridge on Nguyen Hue Blvd. in Saigon. (Photo courtesy of Flickr user HudrY.)

Flowers on Display for Tet in Saigon, Vietnam

Floral display for Tet, Saigon. (Photo courtesy of Flickr user Calflier001.)

Crowded street during Tet in Saigon, Vietnam

Crowded street at night during Tet, Saigon. (Photo courtesy of Flickr user robertlafond2009.)

Read more about our small group “Discovering Vietnam” trip here.