An Oral History

Ba interview 1

This weekend marked a very special milestone on the Dragonfish Path, one worthy of awakening the sleeping Dragonfish Blog. I achieved an major goal for the year by recording an oral history interview with my grandmother before our family Christmas gathering. Part of understanding where I come from is understanding who I come from – and I know my mom’s mom (known as “Ba” in Vietnamese) is full of stories that I’ve never heard.

A few months ago, I sent my grandmother a list of nearly 50 questions, everything from what toys and foods she liked as a child, to how the conflicts in Vietnam affected her life. In a more perfect universe, I would have been able to understand and speak Vietnamese well enough to conduct the interview myself. But in this case, the importance of getting the story surmounted my language hangups and I enlisted the help of my mom as an interviewer. Rather than interrupting their flow to get things translated, I just sat back to bask in the interaction of these two important women in my life, content that I could pick out enough words to know which question they were on, and requesting more elaboration at some points.

Ba interview 2

The quality of the video is far from professional as I futzed over the background and lighting. Most important was trying to make sure Ba was comfortable, and it seemed most fitting to shoot the video at her kitchen table. And at the end of the day, the main thing is that we captured her story (or at least the parts that she was able to tell in our hour-and-a-half  recording session). When I first sent her the questions, Ba had told my mom and aunt she wasn’t sure who would want to listen to her stories. But I think we convinced her how much this would mean to her children and grandchildren, and at the end of the interview, she said she was happy to be able to share something with us in this way.

I hope to work with my mom on the translation and try to stitch it together with video I collected on our family trip to Vietnam with Ba earlier this year. With any luck, I may have something to show for it by the time Ba turns 90 next September…At any rate, the dream of the Dragonfish Path is still alive, and I hope to keep moving forward on it step by step.

One last note on that illustrates the intricacies of the Vietnamese language. There are no simple words for “I” or “you.” Everything is contextual (which means just starting a conversation with someone is rife with pitfalls for the beginning language learner). Before we started the interview, my grandma asked how she should refer to herself. We decided that the more formal “toi” was too impersonal, and so she referred to herself as the more familiar “me” or “mom,” since she was talking to her daughter, my mom.

The Brave Ones


Today marked 38 years since the Fall of Saigon, the official end of the Vietnam War. I figured it would be a fitting day to post this reflection on my trip to Vietnam last fall, which I started to write but didn’t finish…

While I was in Saigon, I was surprised that multiple people suggested I visit the War Museum. Highly recommended, they said. It’s not a tip I expected to hear coming from other Westerners. Let’s just say the museum was not high on our travel list when I visited Vietnam with my mom and aunt in 2007. Since history is written by the victors, I assumed the museum would be filled with anti-Western rhetoric. It’s heavy, people told me, but worth it.

I won’t delve too deeply into my own thoughts on the war or I’ll never finish this post. But it’s worth mentioning that I went through a phase of fixation with the Vietnam War when I was younger, around junior high.  I didn’t immerse myself in historic details, didn’t memorize any battles or dates, didn’t even watch any of the iconic movies. Instead, I plunged myself into forging some kind of emotional connection to the war – an attempt to find some connection to my culture, to define my origin story. Not too unusual for a teenager, I suppose.

I’ve since tried to direct my energy into more productive cultural pursuits, like learning language – but I don’t think I’ve yet reconciled the war’s place in my life and my family history. Move on, don’t dwell, leave the past behind. That seems to be my family’s approach.  I’ve tried to walk away from the wound, and it sits there quietly, as I at times debate the merits of opening it back up, probing deeper. In any case, it felt important to visit the museum and confront the war in some respect during my recent trip. Call it a pilgrimage of sorts – paying respects to a past idea of myself, as well as to an event that is undeniably part of my past.


The museum isn’t a big one, just three floors, and the exhibits are composed almost entirely of photos. One floor displays portraits of the victims of Agent Orange, and they are almost too heart-wrenching to bear. I can’t look at them too long, or process the enormity of what I’m seeing. I feel almost guilty taking them in, as if I’m a gawker at a sideshow exhibition. But I tell myself it is important to acknowledge what happened to these people, to affirm their existence as people, to regard them with dignity.IMG_0019

The immense human and environmental toll of the chemicals is undeniable. There is boy who must walk on his hands and a baby with no legs, whose lower body is only a stump. There are conjoined fetuses in jars and babies born with enormous heads that didn’t live a week.  The effects are so horrifically varied; it is a disease of capricious malice. And the effects of dioxin are heritable, still passed down to afflict children born decades after the last U.S. helicopter departed.

There are other photos that spotlight the civilian toll of the war. I linger at one of a mother and her four children lying on the ground, covered with a blanket up to their chins, eyes closed. The children look as if they are tucked in and sleeping.

Larry Burrows

But the exhibit that transfixes me the most is on the top floor, an exhibit called “Requiem.” It pays tribute to the photographers killed during the war. I am fresh out of my own one-year journalism boot camp, and this exhibit hits home.

The museum has not reduced me to an emotional mess as I feared it might. This is both a relief and troubling ­– I seem to have adopted a stoicism that might pass for indifference or numbness, though it is probably closer to coping. However, reading this excerpt from the introduction to “Requiem” by David Halberstam, who wrote the book on which the exhibit is based, brought tears to my eyes:

“…War correspondents always know who is real and who is not. A war zone is not a good setting for the inauthentic of spirit and heart. We, who were print people, and who dealt only in words and not images, always knew that the photographers were the brave ones, and they held in that war, which began in an era of still photography and ended with color film and videotape beamed by satellite to television stations all over the world, a special place in our esteem. We deferred to them, reporter to photographer, as we did in few other venues.”


IMG_0073The exhibit both celebrates the work of the doomed photographers and bears witness to IMG_0029their final days, hours, even minutes. Certain photos carry the haunting caption “last roll of film.” This is what the photographer saw just before the mine went off.  The image survives, its creator does not.

Halberstam writes:

“…They have given us images that have had the power to endure long after the war is over. Now that the war is past, consigned to the normal negligence accorded to history in America, those images remain powerful, a critical part of what constitutes modern memory.”

The one image that I cannot shake is the last photo of Dickey Chapelle. I had just learned about her a few months earlier in an exhibit at the Newseum in Washington, DC.  The intrepid female combat photographer. This photo in the War Museum shows a chaplain administering the last rights to Chapelle after a land mine detonated and shrapnel struck her in the neck. The image makes my stomach drop – it is so jarring, deeply personal and raw. A woman lies broken, bleeding, and minutes from death.


The book I had just finished reading, The Man from Saigon, about a fictional female journalist during the war, described this very photo – how the sun glints off Chapelle’s earring and the blood pooled by her neck. The book relates her last words, as others have: “I guess it was bound to happen.” I cannot look away, until I have to.

Dickey Chapelle

Then there is the last photo taken of of four famous photographers in a helicopter that would soon crash in Cambodia. And a photo of the missing, the photographers who ventured into Cambodia and simply vanished. The museum is full of ghosts, fading into history as memory subsides. But the images they captured live on, silent but insistent reminders, windows into the past that dare us to forget.


IMG_0086Halberstam writes:

“The title says that this is a requiem for a war, but as much as anything else, this is a form of homage on the part of those who made it back from Vietnam to the memory of those who did not. The photos evoke dual images, not just those of a terrible and violent time and all of the casualties of that war, both civilian and military, but images as well for many of us of the faces of the men and women who were there, who were our friends, and who took these very photos. We are reminded of their bravery, of the terrible risks they took, and, of course, constantly, of our own good fortune.”

Tonight I reflect on my own good fortune.





The net came up filled with more trash than fish. Plastic bags, string. Lots of twigs too. The researchers plucked out a handful of silver fish to sort through. The rest went back over the side.

I hadn’t been in Vietnam a week, but clearly there was a serious problem here. So many times I watched people fling a plastic bag into the river, onto the road. Houses flanked either side of the tributary where the fish researchers from Can Tho University conducted their trawl survey—houses that opened right onto the water. Trash disposal is just one toss away.  People squatted in their doorways and stared as we floated by.

The researchers were hardly better. Piece of labeling tape too long? Rip off the end and toss it over the side. Plastic bag snagged on the net? That goes back over too. I didn’t say anything at the time, since I was their guest. And of course it was awkward trying to translate through my cousin. Frankly, I was kind of at a loss for words.

"Scenic" riverfront in Saigon.

“Scenic” riverfront in Saigon.

Later, I did ask the English-speaking head scientist about it and he mused about his experience travelling to Belgium for school in the 1990s. He realized he couldn’t just throw trash on the ground anymore. It’s about changing habits, he said. With my cousin’s help, I also asked the grad student who ran the survey—why did they throw the trash back?  He sounded somewhat embarrassed and explained they didn’t want to offend the fisherman they hired by keeping piles of trash on his boat. He didn’t say this explicitly, but the feeling I got when we were on the river was, they can’t possibly clean it all (or even make a dent), so what’s the point?

Saigon is no better. The “scenic riverfront” where you can pull up a deck chair, sip drinks and admire the view harbors a thick bobbing raft of Styrofoam and plastic. At a local beach, piles of trash mix with the sand where the waves pushed it ashore. Bottle caps, lighters, shoes. And no one complains?


I remembered participating in beach cleanups in the Monterey Bay Area where hoards of volunteers scrounged for a few cigarette butts to put in their mostly empty trash bags. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s wonderful that we have clean beaches. But trying to clean a beach that’s already clean, I couldn’t help but wish that I could spend my energy somewhere that really needed it. (According to this video, seems like the real trash problem in my old back yard hides in the creeks and rivers!).

Well. Vietnam certainly has trash issues worthy of my energy.  And it seems like a tantalizingly quick fix —it’s just lying there begging to be scooped up. I was itching for a plastic bag and some gloves. Trouble is, even if I blasted through like a cleaning Tasmanian devil, the trash would probably reappear in a matter of days. Without getting the problem at its source, just treating the symptom could easily sap anyone’s energy, however noble the intentions.


To me, the deeper problems are how to stop generating so much trash in the first place, and the fact that people view the environment as a garbage can. Plastic bags abound— if you get a cold drink to go, the plastic cup comes in a little plastic bag. And if the whole river or ocean is a dump, and it doesn’t matter if the trash shows up in your backyard, how will people ever care about the invisible things, like the health of the benthos or ocean acidification?  Trash is supposed to be the low-hanging fruit.

Of course, once you’ve hauled the trash out of the river or beach, the question remains of what to do with it. It has to go somewhere. In fact, many people get rid of their trash by burning it. When it comes to chemical-laden plastic, that doesn’t seem like the best solution either.

Trash burning

Trash burning.

I did play my own part in the whole mess, I’m sorry to say. During my time out with the fish researchers, the noonday sun beat down on us and our exposed boat. I drained my refillable water bottle and worked my way through a disposable one too. Not long after we raked up that net full of trash, the boat picked up speed as we traveled to our next site.  I turned and the empty plastic bottle went sailing out of my bag and over the side. As we motored away, I watched it bobbing behind us with a sinking feeling of dismay. And my cynical side thought, “Congratulations. Now you’re a true Vietnamese.”

But thankfully, thankfully, not everyone feels that way. Any cultural attitude shift has to be self-motivated to last, so thank goodness some people are making an effort. Looks like Vietnam participated in International Coastal Cleanup Day this year. Although it’s somewhat ironic to see them unloading boxes and boxes of plastic water bottles in their video. But water quality is another serious issue here. Things have gotten better from five years ago for travelers. I was able to mostly stay away from single-use plastic bottles and fill up my reusable one — from larger plastic bottles, but that’s still progress, I guess.

I hope that one of these years, coastal (and riverbank) cleanups will happen all up and down the length of Vietnam. And maybe one year I will be there to participate.

My blog post for FISHBIO on our trawl full of trash.

I love this photo of me, but you can see that damn plastic bottle in my bag... (photo by Bao Quan Nguyen)

I love this photo of me, but you can see that damn plastic bottle in my bag… (photo by Bao Quan Nguyen)

The Floating Market


Although I’ve now made it safely back home to California, I wanted to keep documenting some of the highlights of my trip.  Although the main point of my visit to Can Tho in the Mekong Delta was to learn about fish research, I did have plenty of time to play tourist. The ultimate touristy excursion—a trip to see the floating market.

At first, my cousin and I weren’t so sure about the 5:30 am departure from the hotel — at least, I wasn’t. But I still hadn’t fully adjusted to the local time during the first week of my trip, and luckily the jet lag worked in my favor. Apparently all the action at the market happens early, so no sleeping in.

Quan took this photo of me before sunrise (photo by Bao Quan Nguyen)

Quan took this photo of me before sunrise (photo by Bao Quan Nguyen)

The sun wasn’t quite up by the time we headed out on the water. Condensation clouded my camera lens after sitting in our over-air-conditioned hotel room all night. We had a boat to ourselves, and our driver was a skilled multi-tasker. She made us a variety of gifts throughout the day by folding and wrapping the leaves of a water coconut—while driving.  Sometimes it did seem like our boat was veering off on a questionable course…I guess it’s better than texting?IMG_0930

Lots for sale here...

Lots for sale here…

A lot of the activity had already quieted down by the time we reached the market around 7 am, but the piles of produce made a pretty sight in the early morning sun. A few boats sidled up alongside others, fruits and vegetables exchanged hands. For me, the most interesting part was learning about the advertising.

Each boat had a long pole attached to it, and our boat driver pointed out the produce hanging from each one —announcing what was for sale on the boat below.  That way you can make your way toward the correct floating stall from a distance. We happened to take this tour on Halloween, and I was surprised by the large number of pumpkins dangling from the poles. I didn’t even know they grew pumpkins in Vietnam.

Part of the tour included a visit to a rice paper and noodle-making factory.  We watched while the workers mixed rice flour, heated it into thin round sheets, and set those sheets out to dry or fed them through a noodle cutter. Maybe 10 people made up the whole operation. I’ve eaten so many noodles without ever wondering where they came from. IMG_0898

We then headed to a second, smaller market, where the biggest attraction wasn’t even staged for our benefit. A Vietnamese cell phone company called Mobifone had parked a huge powerboat at the edge of the market. The young employees in bright polo shirts and baseball caps made their way among the vendors in a smaller boat. They handed out to prizes like motorbike helmets, tried to get everyone ramped up to the blaring music, and (I’m assuming) extolled the virtues of their company’s products and services.  The vendors wearing their conical hats and patterned fabric shirts and pants mostly looked on. Just when you think you’ve found a tranquil backwater, here comes “the future” banging on your door…

By 10 am the sun was high and it was already hot. Our driver steered us to restaurant for lunch, where Quan and I had fun chatting with a German couple also from our hotel.  After eating, we walked around the back garden, crossing over a number of bamboo “monkey bridges,” each one looking narrower than the last. We also took a walk among some of the houses and rice fields.  Seeing the raised graves like stone houses, the burning incense offerings and papaya trees reminded me of the one kid’s book I had about Vietnam, called Ba-Nam.

Monkeying by Bao Quan Nguyen.

Monkeying around…photo by Bao Quan Nguyen.

After lunch, our driver had thankfully put up a canopy on the boat for shade. We took a meandering ride back through the canals, past houses at the waters edge with laundry out to dry, trees with straw-like roots sticking out of the water, and little palm frond huts on stilts – covered “parking spaces” for boats. We got caught in a shower not far from the dock, sudden and intense, the way the rain just bursts from the clouds in Southeast Asia.  I would say thank goodness for putting up the canopy, but it somehow let loose a great splash of water all over my head. But in the Vietnam heat, it’s hard to stay wet for long.

Americans in Vietnam

IMG_0071One of the best parts of traveling is meeting other travelers.  It’s fascinating to talk to other people who have converged from all over the world to visit the foreign place you also happen to be visiting. And sometimes it feels good to meet people who remind you of home.

I didn’t meet as many travelers on this trip, since I stayed with family for the most part, not at hotels and hostels where these kinds of interactions spring up. But one of the highlights was getting to know Ashley and her husband James, thanks to the Halloween party at the hotel I stayed at in Can Tho.

The other hotel guests were mostly Europeans (Germans, Dutch, Danes), who take their world travel pretty seriously, and seem to flock to Southeast Asia in much greater numbers than Americans.  I told someone I studied fish, and he mentioned there was another researcher somewhere at the party.  Instantly, my science radar perked up, but in the midst of flip cup and apple bobbing and “Gangnam Style” blasting over the speakers, couldn’t figure out who it was.


Halloween Vietnam style! (photo by Bao Quan Nguyen)

Then at the end of the night, I finally bumped into Ashley and learned that she’s a Ph. D. candidate in Environmental Engineering from Duke University.  She’s already done research in Haiti, and is in Vietnam on a Fulbright Grant to study wastewater treatment with researchers at Can Tho University.  Sweet.

It felt amazing to talk to someone else about the country through the lens of science. To commiserate about her challenges trying to get research supplies and navigate the university bureaucracy.  To express our mutual frustration about the things that shocked us, but that we didn’t know how to change—like the coffee shops that have monkeys tied up outside with tight chains around their necks. And to find someone who understands just how agonizing it can be trying to speak the language.


I became a regular at this cafe - ordered the mango smoothie three times in one week! (photo by Bao Quan Nguyen)

I became a regular at this cafe – ordered the mango smoothie three times in one week! (photo by Bao Quan Nguyen)

In Can Tho, Ashley and James took Quan and me try their favorite meal – a vegetarian dish called bun kho. It’s a version of one of my favorites, with vegetarian spring rolls, and some kind of soy protein instead of pork — I  didn’t even miss the meat! In return, Quan and I took them to Café Queen, where I have discovered what I’m pretty sure is the best mango smoothie ever.  Of course, when we got there, it turned out there was a power outage, so they couldn’t make anything that required a blender.  We ordered yogurt instead and joked that maybe we could wait it out until the power came on. And in the course of talking over a few hours, that’s exactly what we did—smoothies for all!

It’s an easy bus ride from Can Tho to Saigon, and Ashley and James sometimes come up to the city for the weekend.  I had fun meeting up with them for an afternoon.  We got some good food at Givral and visited the Ho Chi Minh City Museum. I enjoyed having some buddies to play tourist with!

So here is the super small world part: in North Carolina, these guys live in Cary, the town just west of Raleigh—where I just happened to spend the first two years of my life. I was technically born in Raleigh (where the hospital was), and I’ve never been back to either place. I may have to change that…Fancy meeting them on the other side of the world.

While my cultural immersion was short and sweet, these guys are the real deal – they’re living in Vietnam for 10 months.  You can check out Ashley’s blog to keep track of their ongoing adventures (like this interesting post on culture shock). Good luck, you two, I’ll be thinking of you!


A Meditative Thanksgiving

IMG_0184I spent this Thanksgiving at a Buddhist temple in Vietnam. I had wanted to work a little meditation retreat into my trip, and Thanksgiving seemed like an appropriate time for contemplation and reflection. I felt I needed to do something to mark the holiday, to justify spending it away from home.

This was my second Thanksgiving apart from family. The first, six years ago after studying abroad in Australia, included a camper van and three friends as we travelled around Tasmania. We found a pay phone and took turns calling our families, then made stir-fry. Something about spending holidays away from the people you love makes the ones you spend with them that much more meaningful.

Arranging this trip to the temple had taken a bit of effort. Unlike other countries (say, India) where I imagine there is a meditation center on every corner, things aren’t really set up in Vietnam for foreigners to stay and meditate for multiple days, especially if you don’t speak the language. A family friend had suggested I try to stay at a temple with all women. They do take visitors, but it requires a bit of formality and prearranging. I called one Vietnamese temple in California and visited another to meet with the abbess. She recommended I stay at Vien Chieu, the temple she was originally from. The temple is in Dong Nai province, a two-and-a-half hour drive east of Ho Chi Minh City.

IMG_0253The all-female temple is home to 150 nuns and nuns-in-training. My experiences during two nights there can easily fill another blog post, so for this one, I’ll just focus on meditating and eating (in the spirit of Thanksgiving).

To get a sense of the place, it’s worth sharing the daily schedule:

3:00 am: Wake up to the sound of the big bell
3:30-5:00 am: Sitting meditation
5:30-6:00 am: Chanting prayers
6:30 am: Breakfast.
7:30-11 am: Do chores, work around the temple.
11:00 am: Lunch
Noon-1:00 pm: Sleep
1:00-400 pm: Dharma lessons and/or meditation
4:00-6:00 pm: Free time
6:00 pm: Dinner
6:30-7:00 pm: Chanting prayers
7:30-8:30 pm: Sitting meditation
9:00 pm: Sleep.


The only time I’ve ever meditated consistently was five years ago, during a three-month stay at Friday Harbor on San Juan Island in Washington. Those three months were also some of the best of my life, an experience I can’t help but describe as “magical.” Although it was wonderful for all kinds of reasons, I sometimes wonder how much the meditation helped with my mental outlook. What kept me consistent was having a buddy, another girl who sat with me for 20 or 30 minutes every day before breakfast. Being accountable to someone else gave me the motivation to get out of bed a little earlier — which back then was only 7 am or so.

So now consider 3 am. At that hour, it helps not only to have a buddy, but also a giant bell that sounds a like a cross between a gong and an enormous clock chiming. It rings in a low, rhythmic but insistent tone, prying me from sleep. I grab my two cushions, a large, flat square one and a taller round one, and head downstairs from the guesthouse where I’m sleeping.

IMG_0234In the kitchen, a young novice nun hands me a pack of instant sweet coffee and a small glass. She pours in about a quarter of the hot water I normally use. I almost ask for more, then watch her gulp down her own strong glass in a few sips, almost like a shot. It’s time to get moving.

In the pre-dawn darkness, under glittering stars, we head to the meditation hall, a beautiful building shiny with dark, polished wood. We climb the curved wooden stairs. The novices carry cushions for some of the older nuns. The nuns sit in two long rows on either side of the long hall; the novices and I sit on the balcony, facing outwards.


Before sitting, we line up in two long rows, facing each other, and they chant some prayers. The big bell sounds, someone else beats a drum. The rising and falling tones of Vietnamese lend themselves well to singing. It sounds almost Native American. It’s enough to get your heart going.

We prostrate to a statue of the Buddha three times, then disperse to our cushions. The big bell sounds a few more times. Then, silence. Except, not really. Crickets chirp, a few early morning birds twitter. During the evening sessions, frogs croak in the pond and dogs bark in the distance. Bats flit around the white flowers of the large tree in front of me. There are plenty of stimuli to distract me from the task at hand if I want them too.

The view from where I sat for meditation—except, it as always completely dark.

The view from where I sat for meditation—except, it was always completely dark.

The nuns practice zen meditation, which, in theory, appears deceptively simple. Observe your mind. Notice when a thought arises. Realize it is just an illusion. Let it go. Return to observing your mind. Simple, until you realize just how incessantly and thoroughly your mind fills with thoughts. Thinking about people, places, events that have happened or have yet to happen. These thoughts that bring about our happiness and sadness—they don’t really exist. They’re just projections that prevent us from truly experiencing the present moment.

The first evening I sat with the nuns felt like the longest hour ever. My thoughts jumped all over the place. I felt almost afraid of quieting my mind, afraid of the emptiness I would find if I let go of my world of thoughts. I felt myself tensing up, thinking that all of this was hard work, how exhausting it was to watch my mind at every moment. And sometimes, in fleeting moments, I felt myself relax. I’ve read that sitting on the cushion should just be an extension of your real life. Your mind should be in a similar, watchful state at all times. Except on the cushion, there are fewer distractions. It’s the training ground—and it can be challenging enough.

There are distractions aplenty for an untrained mind. In addition to the sounds of nature, I found myself puzzling over a periodic, wooden sound, thwack, thwack, THWACK, like two blocks hitting each other. Was it some kind of ritual happening behind me? Then one of the walking nuns knelt next to the woman sitting next to me, who rubbed her shoulder slightly. The kneeling nun proceeded to whack the sitter on the back with what looked like a wooden flyswatter. Thwack, thwack, THWACK. Clearly this was welcome relief for a cramping muscle, because the sitter acknowledged the thwacking with a little bow. But for me it brought to mind the image of Catholic nuns wielding rulers in the schoolroom. I couldn’t help but tense up when the walking shadows passed by. Don’t hit me, don’t hit me, don’t hit me… Kind of funny to think about it now.

IMG_0227Sitting for long periods can definitely cramp up your body. After thirty minutes, the cushion felt as hard as a stone. Trying to shift my crossed legs discretely was a challenge —like the nuns, I was dressed in a long shirt and pants, with an outer tunic-like dress over that. And I was sweating. My legs and fabric and everything felt stuck together. The sun wasn’t even up. I couldn’t imagine what it must be like to sit here at the height of summer in its muggy, humid glory.

On the second morning, it dawned on me as the bell sounded and we settled down to sit, that for everyone except for me, this was the real deal. This wasn’t some special event, and certainly nothing staged for my benefit as a tourist. Every single morning and evening, these women sit and confront the true, stripped-down nature of their minds. And though I admired them for it, I found myself relieved, almost desperate, to return to my familiar world of distractions. It’s one thing to acknowledge that the sensory pleasures of the world actually bring you suffering in their impermanence. It’s another thing to walk the talk, to renounce them entirely.

IMG_0393A little wind chime over my head faked me out once or twice during the sessions into thinking the meditation was over. Another time, I stole a glance at my watch and it was 4:59. The session ended at 5 am—couldn’t I have held out for just one minute longer? The bell sounded to mark the end of the meditation, and the nuns spent a good five or seven minutes stretching and massaging their faces, necks, backs and limbs. I always felt relieved.

Altogether, I sat five times over the course of three days, for an hour or an hour and a half each time. Each time was a challenge, though it got easier. And in the best moments, it became clear how many of the things that cause me stress and distress don’t really exist. That I can have more control over what runs through my head. That I’m mentally stronger than I think I am.

And now, a few words on eating. The vegetarian meals I ate with everyone in their common area—breakfast and lunch—were marked with ceremony. Once everyone has piled up their food, buffet style, and filed into the cafeteria, the nuns recite some prayers and bless the meal.


The Buddha instructed five basic points for monks and nuns to contemplate while eating in silence. Huan, my translator, broke it down for me like this:

1. Think about all the people and effort necessary to bring this food in front of you.
2. Contemplate your virtues: have you worked hard enough to earn this food others have given to you?
3. Guard against being greedy in your eating.
4. See the food as medicine to nourish your body (more than a source of pleasure)
5. The purpose for eating this food and nourishing your body is to study the Buddhist path and help yourself and others reach enlightenment.

To me, these seemed like fitting reflections for Thanksgiving. The nuns recite the contemplations, then bless their bowls of rice. You balance the bowl on three fingers of your left hand and hold it to your forehead.

On Friday morning, around the time many people back in the US gathered together for Thanksgiving dinner, I sat down to a breakfast of rice, greens, eggplant—and, to my great delight, butternut squash. Golden and delicious, and one of my holiday favorites, it felt comforting to eat thousands of miles from home. We also had a bright pink broth, the color of beets (or cranberries) that looked festive, but was rather sour, and I think flavored with some kind of fruit. Bananas for desert.

All in all, it was a holiday unlike any other, and one I’ll remember for a long time. And I even made it back to my cousin’s house on Friday after an eventful bus ride (25 people crammed into a 12-seater van, the woman next to me throwing up into a plastic bag…) to Skype my family at the end of their Thanksgiving. After being “away from it all” for a few days, there’s nothing like technology to bridge the distance of an ocean.



If you don’t count the markets or the zoo, I haven’t seen much by way of wildlife during my trip—that is, animals on their own terms. I suppose that’s inevitable when staying in cities—although even there, the geckos are constant, if uninvited, houseguests. But one group I hadn’t expected just knocks itself out in fleeting but breathtaking displays, reminding me that Southeast Asia is, in fact, a tropical hotspot of biodiversity.

I’m talking about butterflies. Some are orange-and-black Monarch look-alikes; others wear pale green with black stripes, dark blue or light blue, white with orange markings, bright yellow. Aside from the occasional Monarch flutter-by in Santa Cruz, I’m not used to spending so much time in their winged company. Whenever a butterfly zips past, it feels like an event, calling to mind trips to an orchid greenhouse or the rainforest exhibit at the California Academy of Sciences. Adding to my excitement, each new butterfly was usually different than any I had already seen.

Can you see me?

The abundance of these pretty insects signals their ability to survive in urban areas, but undoubtedly their habitats here are changing. As we drove to visit a village in Laos, I would watch a passing butterfly try to power its way above us, only to get swept up and sent sailing in the drafts of air the cars created with speed.  A four-lane highway becomes a non-stop death corridor—not to mention the clearing of vegetation on either side. Watching a derailed butterfly go tumbling away, I could only hope it would recover, that it hadn’t collided with our windshield.

As much as I marveled at these wanderers, I had pretty much given up hope trying to photograph them. I grew up playing the computer game Amazon Trial, the more modern, ecologically conscious cousin of the famous Oregon Trail game. Rather than trying to shoot buffalo (or those annoying squirrels), the goal in the South American version was to shoot photos of rainforest wildlife. If an animal like a butterfly darted across the screen, you just had to click it with your mouse-based “camera.” And presto, a perfectly framed, focused picture of the animal appeared on the screen, as if it had kindly posed for you. Even at the time I had a sneaking suspicion this type of photography was a notch easier than the real thing. Here, as I watch the butterflies darting around, I am definitely pining for that kind of Go-Go-Gadget-style camera magic.

From the back…

…and the underside

Happily, the bushes and flowers at the Vien Chieu temple, where I spent Thanksgiving, turned out to distract the butterflies just long enough for me to sneak up on a few and snap their pictures. Poised with my camera instead of a net, I felt like a modern day insect collector, tracking my flitting quarry from one branch to the next, usually in vain.  These are the successful encounters—hopefully you can extrapolate from this small sampling to their amazing and colorful diversity.

And a moth, so as not to be too biased.

And on the subject of moths, one startling one from Laos.

The Ancient House

I fear that from this point forward, my blog will be pretty far from chronological and anything near “real time,” but such is the tricky balancing act of travel writing: trying to do noteworthy things, and finding time to actually write about them.

As a quick recap of my roughly four weeks in Southeast Asia, my first week included a trip to Can Tho in the Mekong Delta, followed by a week in Ho Chi Minh City, and a weekend volunteer trip to the outskirts of Long An province west of the city. I travelled to Laos last week, and am now back in Ho Chi Minh City for my last week.

I want to circle back to my week in Can Tho to write about one of my favorite sites, something a bit off the beaten track. Our hotel listed a few local attractions worth seeing besides the famous floating markets, and among them was “Binh Thuy Ancient House.” Something about the name intrigued me, so my cousin and I rented a motorbike on a free afternoon and, armed with a map, traveled to the general vicinity about 15 minutes outside of town.

Not knowing exactly where the house was, we pulled over at a pagoda that looked promisingly ancient to see if it was our destination. My cousin asked an old woman selling food outside the gate, and she waved her hand vaguely at a road across the street, as if shooing us away. “She says it’s that way,” my cousin reported. As we made our way down the narrow street, lined with vendors and shops, I started doubting the accuracy of our less than detailed directions, certain we’d never find it.

But the house was in fact on that street, though we drove past it once before we realized it. The large blue iron gate was closed, except for a side panel wide enough to ride a motorbike through. I expected at least a sign. The beautiful tile courtyard was empty. My cousin talked to some workers doing some repair on the side of the house, then parked the motorbike and headed around to the other side of the house. I followed him, assuming we were in the right place. We rang a doorbell and peered through a screen door into what looked like someone’s darkened kitchen. After some time, an old woman appeared, spoke to my cousin briefly and shut the door.

“It’s closed, isn’t it?” I said. But no, she was simply unlocking the main room for us. Stepping through the green shuttered doors into the dim interior felt like entering a long unused room in a mansion from the Secret Garden—or maybe the big library reveal scene from Beauty and the Beast. As the woman opened one pair of shutters and then another, a high-ceilinged room slowly appeared out of the darkness, crammed with breathtakingly ornate artifacts from another time.

I suppose “ancient” is a relative term for describing the house, which was built in 1870 and remodeled to its current state in 1911. The inside revealed a blend of Eastern and Western styles. Tile floors, beaded chandeliers, carved hardwood chairs and tables, ceramic vases, wooden wall panels with exquisite mother-of-pearl inlay. Carved ivory tusks of an elephant long dead. Most staggering were the intricately hand-carved wooden borders that framed each entryway, a true artistic masterpiece of deer, birds, and flowers.

I wondered aloud how the owners had made their fortune to pay for such luxurious things, assuming my cousin would translate for our guide. “Our family were rice and salt merchants,” she replied in perfect English, with clean diction. With surprise, we learned that the woman, whose name is Lien, is a retired English teacher. The house belonged to her own family, who had lived in the area for six generations since the 18th century.

Our visit suddenly became infinitely more personal—a trip to someone’s home rather than a stuffy museum. Lien was delightful: gray hair pulled back in a neat bun, graceful features, soft eyes, a kind smile that revealed a few gold teeth. She seemed like the perfect grandmother.

Lien, a descendant of the house’s original owners, is worth the visit on her own! Photo by Bao Quan Nguyen.

She and about 10 members still live in rooms behind the main house, but in the old days, she said, there were many more. The land surrounding the house used to be much bigger too. Now most of the family lives far away, and I sensed a grandmother’s sadness when she said this. In a framed group photo of a family reunion at the house, Lien is positively beaming with a small child in her lap.

It was easy to imagine the family dissipating over the years, the fortune crumbling, the precious artifacts and tracts of land sold off one by one to pay for debts, taxes, bribes. One black-and-white photo in a booklet Lien gave me showed a baby posed between two absolutely enormous elephant tusks from the family collection. The caption contains a poignant parenthetical: (missing already). The remaining family treasures are now collected into the house’s main room in a shadow of its former glory—with a single woman invested in keeping its memory alive. Perhaps I identify with Lien because I am definitely one nostalgic for the past, someone keen for preserving history who often cringes at modernization.

I found myself taken with a photo of the actress Jane March hanging on the wall. A scene from the racy 1992 French film “The Lover,” which I hadn’t heard of, was filmed at the house. The lead actress is a mix of Vietnamese and European ancestry, though I was disappointed to learn that she plays a French girl in the film. The film is set in 1929, during Vietnam’s French colonial period—it would seem only fitting to have a character that acknowledged intermarriage. During my time here, I sometimes find myself wondering by the shape of someone’s nose or other facial features whether they have any European or American blood. I studied Jane March’s face with particular interest. I know many multiracial people, but have met only two or three that are specifically part Vietnamese like me. As a minority among minorities, there’s something to be said for finding people who “look like you”—in the sense that they have similar roots.

Photo by Bao Quan Nguyen.

I asked Lien how many visitors she gets at the house. Some days are busy when a tour group might come, she said, but most weeks are like today, only a few visitors if any. On our way out, I gave her a small donation to thank her for opening the house, about $5. She was so pleased, and asked if we would like to see the garden. My favorite photography subjects are flowers, so here I was in bliss. So many bright tropical orchids!  Wandering through the garden reminded me of my own Vietnamese grandmother’s, beautiful and slightly cluttered and in need of repair. A cat and some bony kittens stared at us with skittish eyes.

Lien came out to give me a small booklet on the history of the house, written in Vietnamese, English and French. She had even penned a dedication in it. She returned to the house, then ran back out, smiling and flustered because she realized she had mixed up “From” and “To” in the dedication. Endearing. Then, as we were leaving, she ran out again to give us a bag of sweet cooked plantains. A woman truly after my own heart.

Consider this my full endorsement for visiting the Ancient House if you should find yourself in Can Tho, Vietnam—if for no other reason but to meet its charming proprietor.

The Pineapple and the Coconut

Plenty of pineapple at the floating market.

My saga to learn Vietnamese continues…

I took one Vietnamese class during my junior year of college, the only time such a class was available at any of the schools I’ve attended. I remember feeling frustrated at all the time and emphasis spent on the six Vietnamese tones or accents. I wanted words! I wanted to understand things! The tones just seemed like semantics. Plus, they are really difficult for a self-conscious speaker with a thick tongue.

But in a tonal language like Vietnamese, the tones are the key to understanding and (correctly) saying anything. It’s not enough to learn the general shape of a word, the pattern of consonants and vowels strung together that make one word distinct from another.  This approach, which helped me learn English and Spanish, doesn’t apply here, where the same word can have six different meanings depending on its tone. So it’s back to the basics of inflection for me.

Many of the Vietnamese words I’ve accumulated until now revolve around food. I’m pretty solid on fruits (at least, common fruits in the US), but for the life of me could not remember coconut or pineapple. Now I’ve realized it’s because the words are spelled exactly the same, with only the accent mark and the inflection of your voice to tell the difference. Pineapple = dứa, and coconut = dừa. Oh, and to make it more fun, the “d” is actually pronounced like a “z” if you’re from the North of Vietnam, and like a “y” if you’re from the South. Keeping all that straight?

During a floating market tour in Can Tho, we walked through a garden with a pineapple tree (plant?) growing near a coconut palm. Our fellow tourists from Germany expressed surprise that pineapples grow out of the ground. That’s it, I thought. Pineapples (dứa) grow up from the ground and have an up inflection, while coconuts (dừa) fall down from the tree and have a down inflection.

Never mind that I could just use another word for pineapple (thơm) that sounds nothing like coconut. I was pretty proud of myself for that one. But creating mnemonics for every Vietnamese vocabulary word? Fat chance. So it’s back to my little book, hoping that writing things down will help me recognize and remember new words. I need to sort and catalog them into different mental bins for the different tones. Learning to read, write and speak a word all at the same time seems like a tall order, but I’m realizing I can’t really do one without the others. The only way I’ll be able to navigate this language is knowing which way the tones go.

Writing it down….Photo by Bao Quan Nguyen.

A Familiar (Fish) Face and the Language of Science

Why hello, Chaunacops coloratus!

It’s always comforting to see a familiar face in a foreign country—especially when the face belongs to a deep-sea fish. I had the surreal experience of “bumping into” an anglerfish from the Monterey Bay area while visiting some fish researchers at Can Tho University.  One scientist had the latest copy of a Vietnamese aquaculture and fisheries magazine on his desk, and the front cover bore the mug shot of a fish that resembles an adorable pink grapefruit.

I’d know that whimsical tilt and “smiling” face anywhere. I passed it many times on a scientific poster hanging on the way to my graduate advisor’s office at Moss Landing Marine Labs. My advisor, ichthyologist Greg Cailliet, recently co-authored a research paper about the first live observations of this anglerfish, called Chaunacops coloratus, with researchers from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. (I’m guessing this paper is why the little angler is now a Vietnamese cover model. )Thanks to the technology of underwater robots and cameras, they were able to describe this fish going about its business in its natural habitat at an incredible depth of 3,300 meters (11,000 feet). The MBARI website has a great story about the fish, and even video of it swimming around and hanging out.

Needless to say, there was something so comforting in seeing my culture and my field of study intersect in this unexpected way. I don’t know if I adequately conveyed to the Vietnamese researcher why I was so excited about this fish, but he gamely let me photograph his magazine.

In my first post, I mentioned how I wanted to cultivate a relationship with Vietnam through the lens of science and the environment. My Vietnamese is rudimentary at best, but once we start speaking the language of science, I feel right at home.  Getting a tour of the facilities at the university’s school of Aquaculture and Fisheries was a chance for me to comfortably lapse into full geek-out mode.

Bubble bubble…vials of algae soon to become shrimp food.

I learned that students and faculty at the university study diseases and parasites that afflict farmed shrimp and catfish. That they isolate and culture different species of algae to feed baby shrimp and mud crabs. That they are researching methods of integrated aquaculture, using plants to filter the waste from catfish farms. All very cool.

An experiment to see if these plants can clean up farmed catfish waste water.

A highlight: the researchers invited me to check out some tiny planktonic animals called rotifers—both marine and freshwater varieties— that they grow for aquaculture feed.  As I sat down at the scope and adjusted the eyepiece, suddenly all the barriers of this foreign country dissolved. For my graduate work, I spent more hours at a microscope than I care to count, trying to identify bits of fish guts. Suffice it to say: a microscope is familiar territory.

We’re on home turf now… Photo by Bao Quan Nguyen.

Staring at the little critters zooming about tapped into a deep-seated feeling of wonder and appreciation that usually bubbles up when I’m reminded about the incredible diversity of life. Another time this happened was in the seventh grade when I, also seated at a microscope, first watched a paramecium ambling around a drop of water.  My thirteen-year-old self had no way of knowing what direction my future would take me, but I knew I wanted some connection to that experience of awe, as the natural world opened up to me under the lens of science. It’s humbling to think how all the paths I’ve taken and connections I’ve made have overlapped and intersected to bring me to this point.