We spent our first three weeks touring Asia. The SMU and Trinity students met up in L.A. before we all embarked for Kuala Lumpur. We stayed there for one night before we left for Ho Chi Minh City. It was the beginning of our two-week tour of Vietnam. I was overwhelmed when I saw the city for the first time. The city was much more developed than I had imagined, and the streets were absolutely crowded. The majority of people travel using motorbikes, and the traffic was extremely dense. I wondered how no one ran into anybody moving within such close proximity of each other.
There was a lot of construction taking place for the Tet Holiday. It is the equivalent of our New Year. In the span of a few days the city was transformed into a beautiful display of color and grandeur. On our first night touring the city, we started it off with a drink at the legendary Rex Hotel. During the Vietnam War, it was a popular place for key military personnel and correspondents. While in Ho Chi Minh City, we traveled to the Cu Chi tunnels. We learned about the Vietcong’s tactics, living conditions, and tunnel life. We also had someone take us down in the tunnels and followed a route for about 20 meters. That was more than enough for us. Some of the tunnels go as far as three stories underground.
We also went on a one-night trip to the Mekong Delta. We woke up early in the morning to witness the legendary floating market. Locals basically play bumper cars, except with boats. As Vietnam has become more developed, the people have gained access to modern goods. Sadly, due to their old habits, much of the river we traveled along was heavily polluted with plastic bags and other garbage.
After Ho Chi Minh City, we flew to Dalat, which is in the central highlands. It is a very beautiful city with a slower pace compared to Ho Chi Minh City. We were only there for a short while before we embarked on our long bus ride to Boun Me Thout.
Boun Me Thout was my favorite part of the entire trip. On the morning of our last day there, we went to a place that gives elephant rides. It was also the same day the locals who ran the business were conducting their annual offerings to the elephants and their ancestors. After we finished our ride, Paul, a professor from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, acted as a translator and told us what the locals were doing and the reasons why. The people were very kind and allowed us to take part in their ceremony.
They prepared a communal jug of rice wine, which they had made for the occasion, and we all took a drink before taking a seat in their elevated house. Next we watched a man smear blood on the head of the elephants and place a pig’s head above it. They view elephants as equals to men, so they take this time each year to honor them before Tet. Family is also very important, and they honored their ancestors as well. It was a great experience in an isolated community in the middle of the central highlands. Never before had I ever experienced something like it.