Posts Tagged ‘dana sachs’

Discovering Vietnam

Tuesday, April 19th, 2011

Study Leader Dana Sachs is the author of three books and numerous articles about Vietnam. Having lived in Hanoi, she loves to share her favorite places with our travelers. Click  for more on Dana and traveling with her. Click here to see upcoming tours to Vietnam.

Vietnamese Ancestor Temple. Photo: Stan Shapiro.

Vietnamese ancestor temple. Photo: Stan Shapiro

Travel is so rich and deeply stimulating that sometimes a single day on the road feels more eventful than what we could experience during an entire month or year at home. If we race through our travels too quickly, however, we risk losing our ability to absorb all these new experiences. That’s why it’s so important to slow down sometimes, step out of the car or bus, and start strolling.

Our group did just that one morning by taking a walk through a farming village on the outskirts of Danang in central Vietnam.  It was a mild, sunny day and, as we walked past the well-tended vegetable patches and kitchen gardens full of herbs and flowers, the land seemed so fertile that you could almost see the new sprouts shooting up before your eyes.

For days, we’d been discussing many of the most important themes coursing through Vietnamese society—the role that religion plays in the family, the rhythms of agrarian life, the shifts of balance between rural traditions and the growing influence of the city. Now, though, walking on those narrow village paths, we could see how such themes actually play themselves out in daily life.

Over the past few days, for example, we’d talked a lot about Vietnamese spirituality. At temples and pagodas in other parts of the country, we had already seen the beauty of religious art and architecture. The crowds of worshippers leaving offerings at the altars of a Hanoi monastery had shown the popularity of Vietnamese Buddhism, which combines traditional Mahayana Buddhism with Confucianism and Daoism, strongly emphasizing ancestor worship. It was hard to understand the depth of that spirituality, however, until we took that walk through the village.

Not far from the main road, we came upon two buildings standing on a single plot of land. The bigger of the two structures was a house, old and fairly run-down, but still inhabitable. On the other side of the plot sat another building, tiny but new, with a fresh coat of paint, pretty tiles on its roof, and two large pots of bright yellow chrysanthemums on either side of the entry. Looking in through the open doors, we saw that this building had been constructed as a family temple. It had a large ornate altar at its center, in front of which had been placed a wide array of offerings: pyramids of fruit, vases of flowers, “fake money” for the ancestors to use in the next world. Here, clearly, was the nicest spot on the property, not only a place to pay tribute to the ancestors, but also a lovely structure for the living members of the family to enjoy as well.

Saffron noodles drying in the sun. Photo: Stan Shapiro

Saffron noodles drying in the sun. Photo: Stan Shapiro

Farther down the road, at another home, a family was busy preparing to commemorate the death anniversary of an ancestor. Seeing our group approach on the lane, they quickly invited us into their courtyard, offered us tea, and explained that they were honoring a ba (a grandmother) who had passed away. The lunch party was a way to remember her and also bring the extended family together for a festive meal. Would we like to stay for lunch as well?

Unfortunately, we had to continue on our walk through the village (a home-based noodle-making enterprise was just up the road!), but the moments that we shared with the family as they prepared for their commemoration gave us a clear sense of the powerful connection that Vietnamese feel with those whom they regarded as having travelled to the world beyond. By taking one simple walk through a village, we gained a deeper understanding of one of the most important factors in contemporary Vietnamese life: the central obligation of the living, we saw firsthand, lay in the act of honoring the dead.

Learn more. Click here for more on Dana and traveling with her, click here for Dana’s other blog posts, and click here to see upcoming tours to Vietnam.

What did you learn on your latest travels? Please share.

Q&A With Study Leader Dana Sachs

Wednesday, October 21st, 2009
Dana Sachs is Study Leader on our 2010 Journey Through Vietnam. As a Fulbright Scholar in Hanoi, she conducted research for a book on Operation Babylift, the U.S.-sponsored evacuation of displaced children at the end of the war in Vietnam. Here, she chats with Smithsonian Journeys about her time in Vietnam and her research there.


Woman rowing in Vietnam.

Woman rowing in Vietnam.


Smithsonian Journeys: You lived in Hanoi for two years. What would you especially highlight on our itinerary and what impressions would you hope our travelers will take home with them?

Dana Sachs: One of the things that surprises visitors most when they visit Vietnam is the diversity of the country. The northern Red River Delta region around Hanoi has four seasons, so people on our January and February trips enjoy crisp days and nights when they’ll want to carry a jacket. In Hanoi at this time of year, we get to see people bundled in sweaters and hats, eating dried fruit candies and relaxing together in little street-side cafes with cups of strong coffee. In Vietnam’s central region, the days are cool and misty, perfect for bike rides through the quiet cities of Hue and Hoi An, where people maintain the traditions of fishing and making handicrafts that have been passed down for centuries. In Saigon, the country’s thriving metropolis, the weather is hot but pleasant, just the right temperature to finish up a walk through a teeming market with a cool glass of sugar cane juice or plate of fresh pineapple.

Each of these regions has its own particular highlights. I tell people that they can’t leave Hanoi without taking a walking tour through the Old Quarter, a warren of tiny lanes and back alleys named for the things that have been sold there for centuries (Sweet Street, Silver Street, Prayer Paper Street—the list goes on and on). In the Central Region, I always love to wander through the ruins of the Imperial Purple Forbidden City (also known as the Citadel), and to travel outside of town to visit the overgrown and romantic gardens surrounding the tombs of the kings. In the South, I recommend kicking back on a boat that takes you down the canals and streams of the Mekong Delta. Right from the deck, you can witness the life of a vibrant river culture, with people washing their hair on the banks, or fishing from hand-crafted canoes, or trading in the floating markets that stretch across the river near Can Tho every morning.

One of the great highlights for me, as well, is the fact that visiting this year coincides with Hanoi’s celebration of its 1000th anniversary. It’s a year-long party, and I’m excited about being there for it.

SJ: The Thien Mu Pagoda (Hue) has existed since the early 17th century and is famous throughout Vietnam. What is the story of the pagoda?

DS: Thien Mu, with its beautiful seven-story tower, has become one of the enduring symbols of Hue. That’s appropriate, because the pagoda, like the city itself, is a thing of great beauty that shows the scars of intense suffering. First built in the early 17th Century, it has for hundreds of years served as a center of spiritual retreat for Buddhist monks. In 1963, the pagoda became famous for a different reason. It was the height of the war and the monks had become increasingly frustrated by the treatment of Buddhists by South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, who was a Catholic. One monk from the pagoda, Thich Quang Duc, immolated himself on the streets of Saigon, and the photograph of his burning body, seated in lotus position, became one of the most horrifying images of the war. These days, the automobile that carried Thich Quang Duc to Saigon remains parked on the grounds of the pagoda, and the site has become a place of pilgrimage for those who remember those terrible times.

SJ: From what I have read, the Perfume River deserves its name. It seems that beyond, or perhaps thanks to, its aromatic and languid waters, the river is almost a state of mind. Can you tell us more?

DS: This question reminds me of one more thing about the Thien Mu Pagoda. When we visited on my most recent trip with Smithsonian Journeys, we travelled there by boat along the river. The boat brought us to the banks below the pagoda and we walked up to visit. From this hillside, you could look out over the river moving slowly past. Like so much of Hue, the scene was quiet and absolutely peaceful. Only a few brightly colored fishing boats slipped by in the current. It made perfect sense to me that, all those centuries ago, a Nguyen Lord decided to locate a pagoda here. For me, then, the “perfume” of the river becomes intimately connected with the fragrance of the incense burning at the altars throughout the pagoda. It’s a lovely scent that, in my mind, seems inextricably linked with the serenity of the pagoda and the quiet of the river.

SJ: Perhaps at no other point in the itinerary will our travelers come as close to the reality of the Vietnam War than in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). One focus of your academic work is Operation Babylift (from Saigon) and its consequences. Please tell us about it.

DS: Looking back, it seems hard to believe that such a thing happened. It was early April of 1975. The North Vietnamese-backed troops were closing in on Saigon and everyone knew that the collapse of South Vietnam was only weeks away. In the midst of this chaos, the U.S. government embarked on a mission to evacuate some 3,000 children and put them in adoptive homes overseas. Most of these children were already living in orphanages run by foreign-aid groups. A significant number, however, were relinquished in the final weeks of war by panicked Vietnamese parents who worried that their children would be killed by the Communists if they remained in Vietnam. After the war ended, it became clear that those children would have survived. By then, however, they had already been placed with new families overseas. The program had taken the children out of the country, but there was no system in place to repatriate them.

My research included interviewing numerous people who were involved in the Babylift, including the foreign aid workers who had taken charge of these kids, local women who cared for them in the orphanages, medical staff, U.S. government officials, adoptive parents, biological parents and, of course, the children themselves. The book comes out in April 2010, on the 35th anniversary of the end of the war. Its title, The Life we were Given: Operation Babylift, International Adoption, and the Children of War in Vietnam, comes from a comment I heard from one of the now-adult adoptees. I had asked him if he harbored any anger over what had happened to him. He told me that he didn’t see a point to feeling angry. “This,” he told me, “is the life we were given.”

SJ: Hanoi finally became “Hanoi” in the 19th century, although it has been a capital or center since the 3rd century BC, and many of the historic sites our travelers will see there date to the pivotal 11th century. Please shed light on what our travelers can look forward to discovering in this historically significant city.

DS: As I mentioned, Hanoi is about to celebrate it’s 1000th anniversary. Like Rome or Athens, it is a city that has existed as an important political, economic, and cultural center for centuries. When you walk down a street in Hanoi, you are literally walking over the remains of the past. Several years ago, while the government was making preparations to build a new parliament building, crews started excavating a piece of land in the center of the city. Not far below the surface, they began unearthing an enormous cache of artifacts. The discovery included, literally, millions of clues to Vietnam’s history: 600-year-old bricks, 15th Century blue and white bowls from the Le Dynasty, celadon platters, even the bones of elephants, which were used for labor in early Vietnam. The discovery marked the site of the royal enclosure of the Thang Long Citadel, the seat of power during the period when Hanoi was known as Thang Long. Scholars had always suspected that it existed but it wasn’t until this modern age, when they were making preparations for a monument to the current government, that they finally found incontrovertible evidence of its existence.

SJ: So many Vietnamese place names are dragon-based, e.g., Ha Long (Descending Dragon) Bay—how did the dragon become the starring figure in Vietnamese mythology and folklore?

DS: Vietnamese culture includes four sacred animals: The phoenix, the unicorn, the tortoise and the dragon. The dragon is the most powerful and, in many ways, stands for the strength of the nation. It’s not surprising, then, that many important Vietnamese names refer to the dragon. The Vietnamese name for the river we call the Mekong is Cuu Long, which means Nine Dragons. For many centuries, Hanoi was called Thang Long, which means Rising Dragon, an image that evokes power within the culture. The famous natural wonder, Ha Long Bay, is named for the “descending dragon” which legend says dove in and out of the water, creating islands as it churned the sea. As we travel through the country, we see these figures again and again. Stone stele of the tortoise, which represents longevity and wisdom, line the pavilions of Hanoi’s Temple of Literature, the ancient seat of learning. Statues of unicorns and phoenixes decorate pagodas and temples from the north to the south. But these images aren’t simply archaic. In Hanoi, a backpackers guesthouse carries a familiar name. It’s called the Rising Dragon Hotel. A charity race in Saigon: Challenge of the Nine Dragons. If you want a clearer idea of the importance of the dragon as a symbol in Vietnam, consider the importance of a flying creature in our own national identity—the Bald Eagle.

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Read more about Vietnam in Smithsonian magazine.

Candied Fruit, Prayer Paper, and Ugly Knives – Shopping in Hanoi

Monday, October 12th, 2009

Study Leader Dana Sachs is the author of three books and numerous articles about Vietnam. Having lived in Hanoi, she loves to share her favorite places with our travelers. Click for more on Dana and traveling with her.

The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi. The garden in front of the Mausoleum features more than 200 different plant species, all native to Vietnam.

The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi. The garden in front of the Mausoleum features more than 200 different plant species, all native to Vietnam.

I’m not a shopper, but I bring an extra bag with me to Vietnam because there are certain things I can’t do without when I’m back home: candied fruit, prayer paper, and knives. Although Vietnam produces beautiful handicrafts that foreigners love—bamboo serving dishes, hand-painted pottery, lacquer boxes, silk—it’s these inexpensive items manufactured for the Vietnamese themselves that I need most. On my most recent visit with Smithsonian Journeys to Vietnam, we took a walking tour through Hanoi’s Old Quarter.

Because I lived in Hanoi myself, I had my favorite shops I wanted the travelers to visit. I say “shops,” but “stalls” might be a better word for the tiny establishments, usually just a salesperson standing behind a display case, her customers facing her from the sidewalk. On Hang Duong (Sugar Street), we stopped to sample the traditional candied fruit, known as mut, which Vietnamese consume in enormous quantities during winter months surrounding the Lunar New Year, but love all year round. At first, the Americans looked skeptically at the display of dried apricots, persimmons, apples and sliced ginger, all coated in crunchy sugar. I bought a bag of ginger, another of apricots, and a third containing o mai, a sweet-and-sour concoction of shaved ginger and tamarind that you eat in pinches. “Try it,” I urged. This was an open-minded and enthusiastic group of travelers and so, though the candies looked different, everyone wanted to try some. “Sour!” someone said, puckering her lips. Another, who had tried the ginger, said, “Spicy, too. But also sweet.” One of the men pulled out his wallet. He raised his fingers toward the vendor—“three!”—and, without a translator, bought a pile of snacks that, it turned out, he would share with the rest of the group during our next bus ride through the city.

On Hang Ma (Prayer Paper Street), the shops sell the paper goods that Vietnamese burn as offerings to their ancestors. After death, according to Vietnamese belief, souls enter a new world that, in many ways, parallels our own. If we need to eat, so do they. If we need clothing, so do they. If we need television sets, cars, credit cards, jewelry, and motorbikes, well, so do they. It wouldn’t be practical or economical, though, to burn the real thing, so for centuries craftspeople have developed an industry in these parallel goods, all made of paper. On Prayer Paper Street, then, one can find paper clothing, paper jewelry, watches, credit cards and even TVs. It’s an amazing thing to see, and photogenic, too. When I’m shopping, I drop by Hang Ma Street to purchase sheets of handmade paper, dyed in vivid shades of purple, red, yellow, pink and blue, often stamped in delicate patterns, too. I use it for wrapping paper back home. “Anyone else want some?” I asked. The saleslady was squatting on the sidewalk, rolling up my purchase and securing it with a rubber band. One of the California visitors stepped forward, “I think I could squeeze some of that into my suitcase,” she said. Then she opened the fingers on her hand to convey her purchase to the vendor, saying, “I’ll take ten sheets.”

Off to Dong Xuan Market, the cavernous building that serves as the commercial heart of this most commercial district, with vendors spilling out in all directions, selling everything from live chickens to wholesale rice to alarm clocks, bolts of fabric, children’s shoes. My goal now was to find my favorite knife seller, who sat on the floor of a secondary building, her “hardware goods” spread around her in piles and baskets. I’ve been buying her knives for years. At home, I call them “ugly knives” because they are ugly—with a rectangular blade and a rough wooden handle. The steel doesn’t shine. The wood sometimes splinters. You can’t put them in the dishwasher. They rust (a problem remedied with a swipe of the sponge.) But they are the best knives I’ve ever used. You never have to sharpen them and they cut through a tomato as if it were butter. I have given away so many of these knives over the years that I can no longer fly to Vietnam without taking orders from my friends, particularly the ones who are serious chefs. “I want another knife!” They’ll say, “But this time, bring me two.” Or, “My mother stole mine. Bring me more!” I buy them by the chuc, or parcel of ten. Ten knives cost about two dollars, so it’s not only a valued gift, but an economical one, too.

My favorite part of taking the visitors out shopping is watching their interactions with the Vietnamese. Without a shared language, buyer and seller often begin the transaction nervously. The Americans look uncertain. The Vietnamese (these are not vendors who often deal with tourists) look scared. What amazes both sides is how easily they communicate with one another, holding up fingers, nodding, shaking their heads. The American tourists are, from my experience, enthusiastic and good natured. The Vietnamese, who can drive a hard bargain, are also curious and kind. At the end of the exchange, we begin to walk away, bags in hand, while the Vietnamese count their money. I hear the Americans say, “That was fun,” and I hear the Vietnamese say the same thing: “Vui lam.”

What’s your favorite foreign shopping experience? Share below!

Craving your own personal supply of candied fruit, prayer paper, and ugly knives? Click for our tours to Vietnam.