I cannot believe we have already reached the halfway point of the grant! For midyear programming with MACEE (Malaysian-American Commission on Educational Exchange) we all met back in the capital city Kuala Lumpur for meetings including a discussion on cross-cultural understanding and current Malaysia-US politics with the US Ambassador to Malaysia Ms. Lakhdhir. After three days of programs we set forth on our two-week midyear holiday vacations.
I departed with my cousin Mike to the Philippine island of Boracay. Boracay has been noted as one of the best islands in the world, and we were met with white sand beaches and vibrant warm blue water. Other than dodging the swarms of selfie-stick-bearing tourists it was an undeniably scenic and relaxing vacation. Check out some of the amazing drone footage my cousin Mike captured of the blue waters.
Departing Boracay via Kalibo International Airport we made our way for a one night stop in the Philippine capital of Manila. A family friend has just opened a fitness studio in the financial district of metro Manila. We were able to stay at her place in the Bonifacio Global City (BGC). BGC is a true 21st century city with a great deal of development currently in the works for completion. If you ever find yourself in Manila check out Elev8 Lagree Fitness Studio!
From Manila we flew to Kuching, Malaysia the capital of the state of Sarawak on the island of Borneo. Here Mike and I met a friend named Anthony who is currently a Fulbright ETA in Kuching. Together we traveled several hours outside of Kuching to several Iban and Bidayuh indigenous communities for the Gawai Harvest Festivals. Every year communities come together for parades, open-houses, and community-wide family reunions. We walked in a parade that included several stops for local dishes like Laksa Kuching (a spicy soup with rice noodles and vegetables) and home-brewed rice wine called tuak. We then made our way another two hours out to a longhouse, which was literally a very very long community house with several family homes attached. We were able to celebrate with a student one of the Sarawak Fulbrighters is currently teaching. The night was spent sitting in the longhouse sharing songs, conversations, and tuak eating freshly cooked bamboo sticky rice, curries, and even python. The family was incredibly hospitable and I am so grateful we were able to share the experience on their harvest festival.
Departing Kuching I met up with several other Fulbrighters in Vietnam. Starting in Northern Vietnam we traveled to the capital of Hanoi. Hanoi's old town is packed with motorcycles zooming down a web of dense streets filled with vendors dishing out fresh Bánh mì and Phở.
A highlight in Hanoi was visiting the Hỏa Lò Prison known by many as the 'Hanoi Hilton'. The Hỏa Lò Prison has quite a history originally being used by French Colonists for Vietnamese political prisoners, and later during the Vietnam War being used by the North Vietnamese for United States Prisoners of War. John McCain was one of the POWs in this prison for 5.5 years. What I found most striking about the museum was the lens through which it described the Vietnam war compared to the story I heard in US History classes. The Socialist Republic of Vietnam remains a communist state today and their museum described their treatment of the US POWs as "very humane compared to the atrocities of the American imperialists". This museum really resonated with me being able to reflect on how you find "truth" between the diametrically opposed narratives.
We took a 3 hour bus, followed by a one hour boat, followed by another 1 hour bus, and a 30 minute boat ride to Ha Long Bay. Ha Long Bay is by far one of the most picturesque settings I have ever experienced, with jagged limestone islands towering out of the calm emerald water. We swam, kayaked, and cruised all around the bay visiting several floating fishing villages. Very beautiful and relaxing place (despite the bed bugs that nearly ate all of Anthony).
We then flew down to southern Vietnam to Ho Chi Minh City (known during the war as Saigon). HCMC compared to Hanoi felt very capitalistic with the Bitexco Financial Tower ostentatiously visible throughout the lower parts of the city. Saigon and South Vietnam was home to the anti-communist groups along with United States Navy, Air Force, and Marines during the war. Today a War Remnants Museum in the heart of the city offers a thorough and heavy account for the millions of civilians that died, and describes the present effects of chemical herbicides like Agent Orange used by the US in rural areas throughout Vietnam. We finished off our HCMC tour with a visit to the vast network of Cu Chi Tunnels constructed by the Viet Cong to hideout from American bombardment and surround Saigon during the Tet Offensive.