Wednesday, June 27, 2012

only in vietnam [entry #2]

This is Vietnam's way of handling power supply to 12 million people. Typical street corner.

Oh, Vietnam. Why you gotta go and make things so complicated? 

Sunday, June 24, 2012

tweet, tweet

Oh yes, my project. I know it is more fun to read about (and for me to write about!) my quirky collisions with the culture, but my birds are in need of a post as well. I promise I did actually do work. So in case everybody forgot what I was actually doing over here, let me remind you briefly.

I set out to investigate past and present bird species distributions of the Timaliidae (AKA babblers--think songbirds if you can't picture anything else) family in South Central Vietnam. I chose babblers because there are some species widespread throughout SE Asia, but some that are very special to Vietnam, and some even more special to just a very small area in Vietnam. Therefore, I thought they would be a rather good representation of the general status of biodiversity of the country.

Vietnam was chosen as my subject of interest because of the ENORMOUS gap in studying the biodiversity here. Due to the political turmoil, no one gave a damn about what was in the jungle for the longest time. In the past decade they've discovered  a ridiculous amount of new species. Just yesterday, the institute where I worked at publicly announced the rediscovery of a rare pitcher plant that hasn't been seen in over 100 years!

Dr. Truong (on the right!) is one of my advisers.
Read the press release in English or Vietnamese

The idea was for the assessment of past babbler distributions to be done in museum collections throughout the country, hoping to learn about where this bird specimen was collected from and when. A refresher of my first encounter with specimen collections can be found here.  I would like to remind you that the word "museum" needs to be used lightly. In the states, the word Natural History Museum brings about images of colossal buildings adorned with dorsal columns or ornate architecture--think Smithsonian or the Field. Now, just forget all of these preconceptions. These are hardly museums, but rather collections of birds accumulated by various institutes and universities over the years. I went in with an open mind, not really expecting to get a large amount of data. After visiting about 5 collections (4 in Hanoi, 1 in Da Lat) here are some general conclusions:
  • Most of the collections had far more birds in their collections than otherwise predicted. In total, I collected useful data from about 300 specimens. Also, most of these birds (~85%) had enough information on the tag to georeference (a.k.a. locate where the bird was found in order to map it). 
  • Most of the bird specimens, although high in quality, were terrible in quality. It is clear there is a need for 
  • Most of the birds in the collection (~90%) were sampled from the North. I had expected a skew, but not this bad. ATTENTION ALL FIELD BIOLOGISTS: we have some work to do. And as much as I want to encourage Vietnamese scientists to take upon themselves to collect, I honestly do not think the institutions that house the specimens are prepared, trained, or capable at this time to carry out expeditions or prepare the specimens appropriately for long-term use. 
What is to be done here? Well, I think the first thing I am going to do is write a little brochure thing in Vietnamese for basic specimen care--(e.g. Please do not smoke while handling specimens, etc.). What I think really needs to be done is some formal training. I am obviously not qualified to give that, but I am hoping to publish on this topic to bring awareness of the status of specimens in Vietnam. Somebody's got to get the ball rolling.

Now the second half of my project involved doing a "current assessment" of babblers. I guess what I had in mind was a bunch of field surveys, but considering I have never once done a field survey, especially in Vietnam, I had no idea what to expect. My first trip into the jungles was described here, in which I went to Binh Chau Nature Reserve. It really got me hooked to working outside. Despite setbacks and schedule changes, I was finally able to schedule a few more field trips. I went to one more at Binh Chau, which is a lowland sandy forest near the beach and two other ones to Bidoup Nui Ba National Park, which is high up in the mountains near Da Lat. 

I had described in my previous post that the trips to Binh Chau were somewhat of practice field trip because I wasn't literally stranded in the middle of nowhere. We had little rooms to sleep in and adequate food and water within walking distance. However, at Bidoup Nui Ba, when I say we were in the mountains, we were IN the mountains.

When you think of adventuring out into the jungle, slicing the thick flora with you machete and always looking behind you for any signs of the elusive "yellow fly" (which you apparently need a skin graft if you are stung by this thing), that is exactly what we did. It was at least an hour drive from civilization on this dangerous, rut-covered dirt road 2000m above sea level. Believe me when I say you did not want to make any bad decisions when driving the motorbike. At the camp site, there was no food or water supply, no cell phone service, no electricity, no bathroom, no shower, no beds. We slept in covered hammocks every night. For water, there was a large basin that collected rain water. Luckily it rains almost every day so there is usually enough water to boil and ration among people, but definitely none to clean yourself with. For food (I kid you not), we bought several live chickens that wandered around the campsite until they slowly met their demise, being killed off one-by-one. It is safe to say that after eating boiled chicken morning, noon, and night for 8 days straight, I'm good on chicken for a while.

our adorable camp site shelter with the adorable park ranger!

After living the grungy life for several days, it was absolutely essential to take a bath for everyone's sake. This required yet another dangerous motor bike descent, followed by a 30 minute hike down a steep gorge, to an immaculate waterfall pouring with fresh (but freezing!) water. And although I was trying to protect my naked body from the plethora of leeches swimming around, it was truly an unforgettable experience--it doesn't get anymore "Amazonian Princess" than that.

my bathtub
I have to say that all of my field trips were pretty successful, especially considering I had no idea what to expect. I was able to catch a number of babblers and in large quantities to hopefully allow for reliable genetic analysis in the future. I could ramble on about field surveying techniques and what not, but I am sure you just want to see some pics. Note: not all are babblers, but some are just too beautiful not to share!

Mountain Fulvetta--the species we caught the most of


snowy-browed flycatcher...gorgeous!

blue-winged of my favs

silver-eared mesia

so happy to finally catch a laughingthrush...although not so sure how happy he was to see me.

that's all folks!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

evolution of my experience [entry #2]: opening my eyes

Well, this is going to be a super dorky post. But anyways, here it goes. As I am sure is true with most travelers, I have a minor obsession with reading books about different countries, especially while I am in that country. And I have just finished a book (recommended by my friend An) that I am absolutely insisting all of my readers to read.

The name of the book is The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, her American Doctors, and the Clash of Two Cultures by Anne Fadiman.

Now, the family in the book is not Vietnamese, but actually are from Laos. However, the family is not Laotian either, they are Hmong. Hmong is an ethnic minority group that lives in the highlands throughout SE Asia. Most originated in Laos, but there are still patches of Hmong people in northern Vietnam (most famously in Sapa--if you recall from one of my blog posts).

In brief, the Hmong family is resettled in America after the war and have a very sick child. There is chronic communication issues and cultural barriers when the child is taken to the hospital and basically all hell breaks loose. Its a quick read (less than 300 pages), so take some time to learn something new.

I felt the need to include in regards to my reflection on the evolution of my experience here because I remember coming home at Christmas time and complaining to everybody how I could not possibly comprehend how Vietnamese people could use rhino horn in order to treat every disease or ailment on the planet. I was outraged. How could they think it was okay to kill every last living rhino (they are extinct in Vietnam now) in the country just to use a treatment that was scientifically proven to be as effective as chewing on your own fingernails? It tied a knot in my stomach. I asked one of my Vietnamese friends this, and he replied to me, "I know its proven to be useless. But when my mother was dying of cancer, if we could have afforded a rhino horn, we would have used it. You would do anything to save your mother." Well, yes this is true I thought to myself, but I think the cross-cultural difference is that if my mother was dying of cancer, it would never cross my mind in a million years to use a rhino horn as treatment.

Now six months have passed (and especially after reading this book), I actually feel somewhat sympathetic to something that used to seem so outrageous or disgusting. Americans (including myself especially) often have this know-it-all attitude and our way is always best. Well maybe, but it also may be worth some effort to try to see where another person is coming from. Being condescending about it is not going to accomplish anything, especially here in Asia where respect is so heavily built into language, culture, and society. Just a thought.

only in vietnam [entry #1]

Because I only have about a month left here (WOW), I am desperately trying to document all the quirky/ridiculous things in this country to share with people back home. There will (hopefully) be more similar entries to this one, so get excited.

On my last trip to Hanoi, I was lucky enough to be there on Ho Chi Minh's birthday. WOOO! (SIDENOTE: here, he is commonly referred to as "Uncle Ho". Now, whatever your opinion may be on Uncle Ho, I have been told that everyone here in Vietnam adore him. Why is that? Because his image is on every piece of currency--which is always warmly welcomed by all).

Now, even though on Uncle Ho's deathbed he wished for his ashes to be sprinkled across the highlands of Central Vietnam where he can continue to grow and flourish in the hearts of the Vietnamese people, insisting not to have any fancy-schmancy monument built in his honor, the government still did the complete opposite. The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi could not be any more noticeable. The least they could have done is used a little less concrete. Oh, Vietnam.

I believe there are few other places in the world that have a giant park dedicated to Vladamir Lenin. Definitely impossible not to chuckle when driving past this.

children frolicking through Lenin Park

Monday, June 11, 2012

when it rains, the saigonese shine

One of the most important lessons I have learned while living in Vietnam is that when it looks like it is going to rain, it will. So if you are thinking about whether or not you should take your umbrella or raincoat, you should. Otherwise you will find yourself experiencing a series of unfortunate events. It doesn't ever just rain here. It only torrentially downpours. Unlike myself who is always extremely unprepared and can often be found hovering under a motorbike repairman's umbrella, the entire culture of Saigon has evolved to deal with the rain. As soon as one microscopic raindrop is felt, the entire line of traffic stops, pulls over, and takes out their state-of-the-art perfectly-adapted-to-motorbike-riding raincoats.

I have been DYING to get some pictures of this, but I either never have my camera or it is raining too hard anyways to take photos. So when a 7AM rainstorm awoke me, I was thrilled to be able to get some photos from my window. Although not the best angles, they are still a hoot.

Most people drape the entire poncho over the front of the bike to keep their hands from getting wet. How the flaps of the poncho don't get caught is beyond me. Some ponchos even have little clear plastic squares to allow the headlight to shine through.

If you are a passenger on the motorbike when the rains begin and you forgot your poncho, you have several alternatives to choose from. I often go for the "dodge-and-seek-cover" method in which you simply crouch and hide under the back end of the driver's poncho. It is about 80% effective.

"dodge-and-seek-cover" method -- bottom left

"dodge-and-seek-cover method" -- bottom right
However, you do have to make sure your driver knows where you are going. This requires you to pop your head out every once in awhile.

Now these people SERIOUSLY have it together. They have the double-headed poncho AND the little plastic hole for the headlight. If I were them, I would certainly be laughing at all the suckers around me.

Who says you can't look good on a motorbike in the rain? Here we have this little lady cruising along on her BURBERRY motorbike.

điệu quá!
 The rain stops no one from carrying on with their daily lives. The show must go on. Here we have a man taking lord-knows-what to lord-knows-where. But nonetheless, he is going to get it there without even a bat of the eye despite the monsoon going on around him.

Never despair. If you are one of the poor, unfortunate souls who forgot their ponchos, you can always locate one of the trusty rain-poncho sales ladies.

It's hard for me to think of a city with more charm. 

Sunday, June 10, 2012

the evolution of my experience [entry #1]: understanding why i am here

Lâu ngày, không gặp. Long time, no see. No real excuse for not posting, but I have so much to catch you guys up on. And seeing as there are only 12 official days remaining in my grant, I better get started. Since the end of March, I have been on two hardy field trips to the rugged mountains of Da Lat, took another field trip at Binh Chau, flew up for a final trip to Hanoi, visited and thoroughly enjoyed Central Vietnam, accepted admittance to a PhD program, and many more events in between--all deserving of their own blog posts.

However, those will have to wait. I am feeling a tad nostalgic as we just had our final Fulbright conference in Huế this week. It gave me a chance to ponder about how much I have changed since I have been here. I was able to see the transformations in the other Fulbrights, as well. Vietnam means something different to all of us. Our interests cover everything from history to lobster farming, ethnic minorities to mosquitoes, bride trafficking to bird biodiversity. For many (like myself), it was their first time being in Vietnam and had no idea what they were walking into. For others, they were returning to Vietnam after a very long hiatus, also having no idea what they were walking into.

Before coming here, telling people that I will be moving to Vietnam would often bring an element of surprise or confusion. It goes without saying that the first thing people (in America) think of when you say Vietnam is the war. I remember hearing "when I was your age people were doing everything they could to NOT go to Vietnam". Well, life is curious like that.

I was shamefully unaware that two of the Fulbright scholars were Vietnam war vets. To even think about returning to a country that had once brought nightmares and sorrow to them takes an incredible amount of courage and forgiveness. I also need to shamefully admit (and I think this speaks for a lot of people of my generation) that I have never formally learned about the Vietnam War (or the American War in Vietnam, as it is called here). We always seemed to "never get to it" by the end of the year in my history classes. I have various theories as to why this is so, but I think it mostly comes from the naivete of the generation before mine, meaning that they were alive while all of the drama unfolded and it does not quite feel like history to them. It seems like a natural stopping point for an American History class. The war sits on a silver lining of international current affairs and post-civil war American history. Therefore, most of my understanding of what happened here has come from my observations and conversations with people here, my own research and reading (which definitely takes proactive effort), Forrest Gump, and my dad, of course. And needless to say, many things need to be taken with a large grain of salt. A trip to the War Museum (formerly known as the American War Crimes Museum) certainly presents the government's perspective of the war and the impression it wishes to leave upon people. I RARELY have discussions about it with Vietnamese people here in Saigon. Names and battles were often hard to keep track of when trying to read literature, making the task rather daunting and dense. Full Metal Jacket  is also another extremity of a resource. I decided to take the approach of just simply listening to what others had to say and rely on personal, first-hand accounts to slowly piece together a level of understanding that would allow me to be able to engage in a conversation about it. This is juxtaposed next to the typical Vietnamese student my age. The government makes damned sure they learn about the war and in the exact manner in which they are supposed to learn it.

One of the scholars, Ron, (who is a Vietnam vet)  is actually a history professor and his project entailed teaching the American War in Vietnam to Vietnamese students in Saigon for a semester. I nearly fell over when I heard this was his task. Not only would this involve presenting the topic in a way that the student's have never heard before, but it also sounded illegal. Because I was so fascinated at how this unfolded, I want to share his experience. He approached the topic as "American History" and began the course with the Revolutionary War, which I found rather clever. When the long-awaited day of the American War arrived, the police actually pulled aside the TA of the class and "wanted to meet for coffee" regarding Ron's class. In order to ease any opposition or controversy, Ron invited the police officers to sit in on the class and I guess that nipped things in the butt. What is most touching about Ron's experience is that Ron's students were both sons and daughters of parents who fought in the war on both the North and the South.

Although, of course, a unified country now, I have personally experienced contrasting opinions about the war from the North and South. From my friends in the South, I often encounter comments such as "We lost a lot in the war, but that is not what is important any more", "the US was only here to help", etc. (and often times not even wanting to dwell on it at all). While on various trips to Hanoi, I have run into comments such as (in response to saying I have never learned about the war) "your government just doesn't want to admit they were wrong" and "I think you learned wrong why the US came to Vietnam. They come to try to divide one country of Vietnam into two. But we are strong and remain one country". In response, I just keep my mouth shut. Although I have never ONCE felt a drop of hostility towards myself for being American, I have picked up on elements of tension and regional differences. Tying this into Ron's experience, I can only begin to imagine the challenge he faced to tread carefully. However, at the final conference he shared the comments of some of his students about their reaction to his class that were so gut-wrenchingly profound that it was very difficult for everyone to choke back tears. Knowing that he was able to present such a personal topic for everyone in the room (including Ron) in such a mature, truthful manner demonstrates everything this program stands for. I felt so honored to be hearing his story.

The other veteran in our group, Cal, also presented his reflections on his experience here. In contrast to Ron (who had returned to Vietnam many times since the war), this was Cal's first time returning since he first arrived in 1970. He shared his own photographs he took as a soldier, journal entries, and excerpts from letters home. Seeing his photographs from his experience here now struck hard. I, of course, was bawling by the end of it. But in all seriousness, the amount of bravery it would take to return to a place that was often referred to as a "hellhole" with the intention of teaching and rebuild bridges shows the immense amount of integrity. It put into perspective how unique having a Fulbright in Vietnam is as opposed to other countries. I now see the importance of bringing home my experiences and sharing them in America. There are still many people who will take the image of Vietnam as a "hellhole" with them to the grave. I would only hope to change this impression that so many Americans cling to. Let go of the past, and focus on the future.

In closing, I'll leave this one last thought that Ron shared. He teaches the Vietnam War in both America and Vietnam. To both sets of students on the first day of class, he asks everybody to write down the first words that come to mind when they hear the word "America" (in Vietnam) or "Vietnam" (in America). Almost 99% of American students write the word "war". Almost 99% of Vietnamese students write words such as "Hollywood", "money", and other words with positive connotations. It may take several generations, but I hope that one day people will write "phở" or "motorbikes" or "insane traffic" when they hear the word "Vietnam".

2011-2012 US Fulbright Scholars & Students

Monday, March 26, 2012

hà nội to hạ long

Immediately after we returned to Hanoi from Sapa on the night train (around 5AM) An and I set off for Ha Long bay on a tourist bus (about 3 hours). Needless to say, it was a groggy and whirlwind ride.

Going to Ha Long Bay sounds like it will be a relaxing and tranquil trip in which you can just whisk away for quick weekend getaway. But like everything in Vietnam, it has evolved into the most complex, shady operations one could possibly make out of such a lovely location. You can't just GO to Ha Long Bay.   Located about 3 hours from Hanoi along the northern coast of Vietnam, it is THE tourist destination of the North. It has recently been named one of the Seven New Natural Wonders of the World. Since then, Ha Long Bay simply serves as a cash cow for some of the most conniving individuals in the world--Vietnamese tourist companies.

There are two ways to see Ha Long Bay--one is to book a tour with a company and have everything be included (rides to and fro Hanoi to Ha Long, the boat that will take you throughout the bay, food, lodging (on the boat or on the island in the bay), etc.) The plus side to this option is you literally are care free the entire trip and can just enjoy moving from one activity to the next without having to find a way to arrange each step along the way. The down side is you have to deal with booking a tour. However,
Your other option is to go by yourself without the help of a tour company. Although probably cheaper, instead of the headache revolving around booking the tour, the pain and suffering is with you every step of the way trying to get from point A to point B. We decided to go with the first option. So after countless hours on the phone in Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf and one SIM card later, we booked our tour. We actually ended up cancelling and switching several more times. It never ends. 

All-in-all, I think we made the right decision. Having everything included for 2 nights and 3 days is the way to do it. We spend one night on the boat and one night on Cat Ba Island. I'll let the scenery speak for itself.

"Surprise Cave"

why it is called "Surprise Cave", as there is a giant rock shaped like a penis when you enter. i wish i was kidding.

our boat!

bike riding in Cat Ba

breathtaking Cat Ba

floating villages
living on water does not stop people from having pet dogs

cat ba town 
view from our hotel window!
In summary, if you ever plan to go to Ha Long Bay, it is doable, it is enjoyable, but you get out what you put into it, and you get what you pay for. If you take your time and plan carefully, it can be one of the coolest places in the whole world.