Monday, January 30, 2012

Return from free weekend

The abroaders returned to Hanoi last night from their free weekend to a traditional style thank you dinner from the staff at the Hanoi Springs Hotel--our Vietnamese family.

They were incredibly sweet to us over the past month, and their farewell dinner was an indication of their appreciation of our stay with them.

Today we have our final culture presentations followed by a farewell dinner at a nice restaurant in the old quarter. We head off to the airport early tomorrow morning to begin a full day of traveling back to the states.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Back in Vietnam

We left Laos on Tuesday afternoon for Hanoi. We returned to the old quarter at about 8pm, found whatever restaurants were open for a quick bite before the tired travelers found their beds (we are in the middle of the Tet holiday, and many businesses owned by locals are closed).

Wednesday we spent the entire day preparing our final proposals for the research projects we have been working on for the last three weeks.

On Thursday, each group gave their presentation and fielded a Q&A session. One group proposed a sanitation/beautification project for the Old Quarter with aims of improving business and return-tourism in this neighborhood of the city. Another group took on the problem of moving Hanoi towards a more sustainable motor bike future--discussing the pros and cons of electric vs. hybrid options and how to get the necessary stakeholders on board. The team that researched the education system in Vietnam and Laos determined the most helpful program to develop is a chain of drop-in English tutoring centers with qualified instructors, because seemingly all students here wish their English skills were better, but the schools' current English curriculum is insufficient. The final group developed plans for an organization that would allow local artists to design instructional health posters (about handwashing and other hygiene issues) for Vietnamese youth to be displayed in schools, hospitals and community centers. They plan to partner with an online poster store as their socially responsible mission, asking customers to make a small donation to the cause at checkout.

The abraoders break for their free weekend today-- some students are moving to a different hotel in Hanoi. Another group of abroaders is headed to Hue, the capital city of the Thua Thien-Huế province--known for beautiful architecture and monuments. The final group of students is headed to Da Nang, a port city in the South Central Coast of Vietnam--it is the commercial and educational hub of Central Vietnam. This group will also be spending at least a day in Hoi An, a quaint old town that is recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

My Library workshop

We replicated the workshop we did with the Hanoi Kids last week with the librarians in Luang Prabang.

My Library is an organization that invites students in Luang Prabang to use computers and other technologies to improve their skills.

They receive no formal training in team building or creative thinking strategies, so we taught them methods to improve these things.

They were surprised at how much they learned while having so much fun with our activities. The schools in Laos are so focused on teaching technical skills that they entirely neglect to teach soft skills and how to lead dynamic teams.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Almsgiving

8 of the study abroaders woke up before 5 this morning to line the main street in Luang Prabang. We purchased sticky rice, fruits and crackers from local women to place in the monks' tin baskets.

When the monks arrived they walked slowly, in a very organized single file line. Hundreds of them pass by, opening their baskets for small donations from the townspeople and tourists who gather around well before they begin.

Almsgiving is reciprocated by the monks to even younger boys from impoverished families that carry plastic baskets the same size of their bodies. It is heartwarming to see the monks sacrifice their own daily rations for the well being of the struggling community.

Excursion and Big Brother Mouse

The 12 abroaders hired a tour guide and a driver to show them the wonders of Luang Prabang outside of the center of town. We started off the morning packing fourteen people (doing our best sardine impression) into a van built to fit 13 Laos people (approximately 6.5 UD students).

After about an hour we arrived at a small village. Our tour guide Corn (Sweet Corn was his preferred nickname) split us up and took 8 of the travelers to visit the Buddha temples in the caves across the river. We took a long, thin boat to the Tam Ting caves and climbed up a several stories of steep stairs to the caves. The temples were dark and covered wall to wall with statues of Buddha in every imaginable shape and size. Corn encouraged us l donate to the cave temples and shared a ritual to bring good karma our way.

After the caves we returned to the village for an exciting and unique opportunity: elephant riding! The massive mammals were friendly and happy to trod along a path with us on their backs--as long as there was plenty of sugar cane along the way. We took turns riding on their surprisingly bony shoulders and feeding them leaves and cane.

After elephant riding we took a break for lunch (eggs, sticky rice, steamed veggies and bananas) before cramming back into the clown car and headed for the Kuang Si Waterfall.

When we finally arrived (over an hour in the hot van) we swam in the lower waterfall, flew from a tree on the rope swing and jumped from a scary height off the rocks to a gorgeous, natural blue pool. After almost an hour we went to the upper waterfall. It was about 20 times the size and beauty of the first one. We took countless group photos and certified Corn as an "almost professional photographer."

At the conclusion of our day long excursion we arrived back in the center of Luang Prabang. We devoured several plates of noodles and skewered meats from the friendly street vendors and rounded out an awesome day by supporting the local economy at the main street night market.

On sunday morning 5 abroaders woke up early to head over to Big Brother Mouse to work on English skills with Lao high school students. Their skills ranged dramatically. Some of us worked on grammar rules and synonyms for more basic words while others simply practiced basic conversational English. The students were as interested in learning about our culture as we were there's-via was a very enriching experience for all.

We were highly impressed with their dedication to learning our very tricky language--it was Sunday morning and they had just finished exams on Friday, but they were persistent and genuinely interested in all the tips and tricks we had to offer.

After such an enthused report, the rest of the abroaders are looking forward to helping out at the after school library and Big Brother Mouse in the coming days.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Update from Luang Prabang, Laos

Sabadee!! (greetings in Lao)

On Thursday night a number of brave abroaders ventured to the markets off the main street to try some authentic street food. We had heard the reputation of the delicious fare, but many of us erred on the side of caution and found a Thai restaurant on the main drag.

The steel-stomached travelers among us threw caution to the wind and dined with the flies and a few other backpackers at a long bench in a hot, crowded alley. The skewered meats and fish were scrumptious and the various noodle dishes and spring rolls were piled high on our plates. The street food is 10,000 kip per plate--roughly $1.25 and fresh fruit smoothies are about $1. After dinner we hit the night market for handmade clothing and watercolor paintings from the local artists.

On Friday morning we explored many of the 32 Buddhist temples here in Luang Prabang. We watches late morning prayer sessions, spoke to monks during their daily free time and visited some vacant temples. We're looking forward to waking up early one morning while we are here to give the monks alms (their daily ration of rice).

In the afternoon we visited Big Brother Mouse, an organization that we've arranged to work with in the upcoming days. We will be helping Lao children with reading English during their holiday break from school.

Friday evening brought about an exciting excursion for the lead study abroaders: Lao cooking school. We took a 2 hour class concentrating on the traditional cuisine of Luang Prabang--the northern city situated between the Mekong and Khan Rivers.

Our instructors Leng Lee and Phia Yang demonstrated how to make several dishes:
Tom Chaeow Pha (fish soup with smokey eggplant)
Pork Lap (a spicy meat salad served cold)
Panaeng Gai (chicken and pork in coconut milk with chili paste)
Luak Puk (mixed vegetables with spicy tomato chutney)
Luang Prabang Jeowbong (a signature chili paste famous and unique to this region)
Sticky rice

We broke into stations (teams of two) and made ourselves two of the dishes for dinner. After cooking we enjoyed our food while our instructors did our dishes for us! We are now experts at Lao traditional cooking, and each have a cookbook to bring home with us.

It's been a fantastic few days in Laos thus far and we have more exciting excursions planned for the coming days--stay tuned!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

A day out in Loas

After breakfast at our hotel, we hailed a tuk-tuk (open back taxi) and hit the main drag in Luang Prabang in order to orient ourselves for the next few days. We ventured over to the Mekong River, and explored a village that we had to cross a bamboo bridge to arrive at.

We stopped briefly at a temple that we saw some friendly monks (dressed in their traditional orange garb) walking into. They welcomed us inside and to observe their everyday chores/casual activities.

We returned to "main street" for lunch and scoped out some shopping for later tonight at the daily night market.