Molokai in Vietnam
Aki Masui tells the tale of a great visit.
Right: Mekong Delta
Left: Kalo in Sapa
By Aki Masui
Chao Molokai! Last summer Ka’ohele Ritte-Camara (Molokai High immersion school senior) and I, along with 18 other students from public and charter schools around Hawaii, travelled to Vietnam with the Pacific and Asian Affairs Council (PAAC) under the Summer Study Tour program.
Few people seemed able to believe that I was going to Vietnam! Vietnam, “the only war we lost” and you’re going to it. How could I be going to it? It was over 30 years ago. The war in particular is the most common and possibly only thought we as Americans have when we hear the word “Vietnam.”
Before this trip, I too heard “Vietnam” and immediately I could see images of American planes dropping bombs, Napalm, and Agent Orange.
However, my very shallow generalization of Vietnam – the several thousand year history of an entire nation summarized by a single 10 year occupation – ended in my 14 day visit to the country.
Before hopping on the plane for Vietnam, all 20 students along with the 3 adult chaperones attended a week long orientation where we acculturated with lessons in history and language, social norms and customs, and the general do’s and don’ts.
Because we would be representing Hawai’i, it was necessary for our group to have some Hawaiian cultural training. With great honor, Ka’ohele and I, along with a Lanai High School student, choreographed and taught the group Ka Uluwehi ‘O Ke Kai. We later performed several times in villages, restaurants and schools and even taught a few of the locals too.
We arrived in Vietnam educated, flexible, and open minded. Our willingness to try new and different things, especially foods, and to wake early every morning was matched only by our ability to endure the overwhelming humidity. Someone in our group described it like “stepping outside and being covered in a very hot and wet blanket.”
We began our tour in the northern city of Hanoi the nation’s capital and one of the two largest cities. In Hanoi we enjoyed the world famous Water Puppet show and had our first experience crossing the street. Let’s just say that crossing the street will shake even the bravest soul, even after you get the hang of it.
Traffic appears to be chaotic with is a mass of “motorbikes” with a few cars and buses mixed in. To cross the street you watch the stop lights and wait for the “walk” signal. When it finally comes, no one stops. The traffic doesn’t even slow at all! Faced with this dilemma we were forced to gather our courage and walk across.
Here is the strategy that will save your life: Walk at a consistent pace, never run; maintain eye contact with motorists that are coming straight for you, yes the one that look they are going to run you over; Continue advancing until there are no more vehicles; 5) Last and most important, no matter what KEEP WALKING.
After experiencing the Vietnamese city life we took an overnight train north of Hanoi to Sapa, a mountainous region covered in rice paddies and cornfields bordering China. Three hours in a bus on a single lane dirt road and another three hours hike brought us to our home for that night in the Ban Ho village.
We were hosted by a few families in their bamboo houses with a hardened dirt ground floors and second story bamboo floors with rather spacious two inch gaps. Thankfully no one fell through, but it seemed like a definite possibility.
That evening, in complete darkness, we were lead to the village square and treated to traditional songs and dances. Here we performed our hula number for the first time.
The following day we gave back to the community through what I’ll call an Adopt-a-Trail project where we walked around the village picking up trash on and around the paths that run through the village. We also painted the village school house and planted trees to prevent erosion along an already eroding path.
My experience in the Ban Ho village nearly summarizes what I experienced throughout the trip: people that are friendly and welcoming with hospitality to rival our own here on the “Friendly Isle.”
My last story occurs on the southern tip of Vietnam in the Mekong Delta region during our second and final home stay. On our journey there we enjoyed several cool lengthy boat rides through a network of river passages on the delta and walking was minimum. I even had the opportunity to row my boat for a while, but the real fun began after our arrival at the home stay.
Once night fell and engulfed the delta, it surprisingly lit up! Having never seen fireflies before then, it took me a little while to figure out what was going on. But soon the child in me and the magic of the fireflies took over and I found myself running around trying to catch a few and put them in a jar.
After settling on a hammock playing my ‘ukulele, through the dim light I noticed a little boy standing across the lanai staring at me. Very slowly, it took a good half hour, he made his way over to my hammock. After I played another song for his enjoyment I asked him as best as I could if he wanted to play.
Several welcoming gestures with my ‘uke and nods later we were sitting side by side on the hammock: future star ‘ukuleleist on the left and myself on the right. He was about seven years old and one quick learner. Instinctively I taught him how the play Surf, which seems to be everyone’s first song on the ‘uke. He picked it up not only faster than any seven year old I have ever seen but faster than anyone in general. I was amazed.
As a graduate of Molokai High School at the time and a future freshman at the University of Portland, I was overwhelmed trying to decide what to do with my life in college and afterwards. I was considering a career in teaching, but I felt I could do more. But after sharing that moment with the `uke playing seven year, I got the proud feeling of seeing someone succeed in something that I taught and it put me on top of the world. Right at that moment I decided I was going to be a teacher.
I feel it safe to declare that our delegation represented Hawaii very well, not only in representing our culture through hula, but in being considerate and sensitive to the Vietnamese culture and social customs, norms, and traditions.
I would like to send a huge mahalo to the Freemans, everyone at PAAC, and all the participants for making this trip possible and such a memorable experience.
The trip was made possible by a grant from the Freeman Foundation. The Summer Study Tour reflects PAAC’s mission to promote a greater awareness and understanding of foreign affairs issues with special attention to Hawaii's role in the Asia-Pacific region.”
Photos: all the pictures are by me or Sianha Gualano. Most were by her. She’s a good friend of mine so it doesn’t matter if the credit given is on the right pictures.