Study Tour Blogs

Diana's reaction

Hi all,
You will probably be back in the states when you read this. First, I want to say thanks for the thoughtful entries which have allowed so many of us to follow your progress. Secondly, I want to pass on an historical perspective relative to Shenzhen while it is fresh in your minds. During my first trip to the PRC in December-January of 1978-9, our University of Pittsburgh group entered China via Shenzhen. It was the ONLY WAY to get there. We took the train from Hong Kong, WALKED across the border from the New Territories and thus into the PRC. As I recall we walked along the edge of train tracks, carrying our luggage, and went to the customs building. We "cooled our heels" for at least three hours while we filled out all types of paperwork, declaring the value of cameras, money, jewelry including watches, anything that was coming in with us. I remember gazing out the window at dirt streets, small homes, pigpens and farmland. Shenzhen was a poor Chinese village. When the authorities released us, we boarded a train for Guangzhou. Three weeks later we left the same way.

Thirty years later I gather that you had a very different experience in Shenzhen!

Riding On A Boat And Reminiscing....

Saturday, 11 July 2009

The sun broke hot and heavy over humidity soaked Ninh Binh to find our happy band of travelers embarking upon their last full day in Vietnam. Alas, what new adventures awaited....

After a marvelous breakfast at the hotel, our happy band moved off to our first event of the day, a two hour boat ride at Tam Coc and Bich Dong that had been billed as "Halong Bay" on land. Having seen the real Halong Bay only the day before, our group figured the cruise to be "more of the same." However, much to our delight, the adventure consisted of small boats with room for only two passengers. As we set off, we were both wowed and amazed by the agility of our pilots, who oft times paddled their watercraft with their feet. The course of our journey took us not only through stark karst outcroppings and cavernous grottos but also through quaint fishing villages and duck infested waters (yikes!) Our happy wanderers were also astounded by the fact that despite the diminutive nature of their boats, our pilots seemed to be well stocked with food, drink, and souvenirs.

After safely returning to port, our group set off for the ancient Vietnamese capital of Hoa Lu, where they visited the Temples of Dihn Bo Linh and Le Hoan. After observing the temples a few members of the group; Scott, Doug, Rick, and Karen decided to scamper to the tomb of the Hoa Lu rulers located at the top of an incredibly steep mountain. Along the way, Rick, keeping with his penchant for attracting wiley old women, caught the eye of a local octagenerian . As she chased him up the steep slope desperately trying to cool him with her fan, Rick tried desparately to shake her. In Rick's own words, "she must have been a shape-shifting mountain goat, because I could not lose her." Despite Rick's inability to shake the the old woman, the group made it to the top of the overlook, completing Scott's mission to climb to the top of EVERYTHING in China, Hong Kong, and Vietnam.

After returning to the much appreciated air conditioning of the bus, our happy band reminisced about our time in China, Hong Kong, and Vietnam as we made our way slowly to Hanoi. All agreed that despite our fears, the trip was absolutely amazing and had given us all something that we would hold and cherish for a lifetime. From our adventure on the Great Wall to our cruise on the Li River, from the acrobat shows to our temple visits, from our factory tour to our village excursions, and from the glowing faces of the Chinese students to the giggles of the Vietnamese village children, we all have taken something special from this tour that has deeply affected us and that we will share with our students.

So long, farewell, and good-bye from Asia....

As ever,

Jim (Big-Size) Safford

***I would like to personally extend my thanks and the thanks of the group to Brenda, Katy, and David for their dedication and devotion to this tour. We hope your hard work has paid off. You guys are the greatest!

***The group would also like to express its deepest and most sincere thanks to the Freemans for making this tour possible. May your contribution to the education of our students return to you many times over.

July 10, 2009

Hello from Ninh Binh, Vietnam,
We started the day with an early buffet breakfast in our Ha Long city hotel consisting of fried rice, an assortment of steamed veggies, fried noodles of different varieties, flavored and non-flavored congee(rice porage), and different fruits. The favorite for many of us was a generous bowl of noodles with hot broth. To drink we had a Tang-like juice and thick black coffee w/ condensed milk.
Our bus ride to the wharf for our four-hour tour of Ha Long bay was short. When we got there, the wharf was full of people and full of large wooden boats ready to be boarded. Our group felt like VIPs to have our own boat with an inside cabin with spacious padded seats and tables and almost 360 degrees of visibility. There was no air conditioning but the bay breeze through the windows with some oscillating fans kept it relatively comfortable. Many of us spent much of the time outside on the upper deck where under the intense sun we were cooled by the breeze. The views were spectacular. They say that there are over one thousand islands in Ha Long Bay, most of them rising quickly from the salt water to great heights. Millions of years ago, these limestone mountains were shaped into the karst formations that we see today. One of the legends has it that when the Vietnamese of Ha Long Bay were threatened by the Chinese, a powerful dragon flew over the area and with its massive tail beat the landscape to form barriers too difficult for the enemy to get through. We were very fortunate with the weather; the water was a beautiful blue-green and the sky was a deep blue with scattered clouds. We made a stop on one of the islands to walk through a natural cave. It was very crowded inside, mostly with Vietnamese tourists. The cave had large rooms with impressive stalagtites and stalagmites. Lunch on the boat was very tasty consisting of; potatoe soup, crabs, clams, fish, squid, fried noodles, rice, veggies, spring rolls, and pineapple jello. We have eaten like kings and queens on this trip!
One of the highlights of the day was a stop we made on the way to Ninh Binh; we stopped at a typical small village filled with some merchants and rice farmers. Our tour guide was sure that this was the first time this village had seen a tour bus full of foreigners in their midst. As we walked through the narrow streets, the villagers proved to be extremely friendly. They said hello and smiled or nodded as we passed by. One family graciously invited us into their humble home. While in the small back courtyard, many curious neighborhood kids congregated. One small fellow performed by doing a goofy dance for my video camera. I replayed the video on my small screen as the kids hooted and hollered all around me. Over all we have felt very welcomed by the Vietnamese. They are very accommodating and have been extremely friendly.

Another wonderful and enriching day in Vietnam!

Doug Bertanzetti

What we have learned about traffic in China and Vietnam

As we come near the end of our trip, here are some samples of what we have learned about traffic in the places we have visited.

1. First rule of driving in China is: there are no rules.
2. Stoplights, yellow lines, and pedestrian walkways are suggestions.
3. Sidewalks are not just for pedestrians. They make great parking pads for buses.
4. Any bus driver who turns a fully loaded bus into oncoming traffic, and the traffic yields, is God. Therefore, Mr. Yao (Guilin) is God.
5. When crossing the street, remember: there is strength in numbers. It also helps to hide behind Brian W. or Jim.
6. Honking is considered a crucial driving skill.
7. When you hear honking, you jump out of the way like a rabbit.
8. In Hong Kong, the rules change. The rules are the rules, but you drive on the left and pedestrians have to look to the right before braving the street.
9. In Vietnam, the rules change again. You now drive on the right, and pedestrians have to look every which way before crossing the street. One tries to avoid motorbikes topped with baby pigs, furniture, mattresses or entire families (babies included).
10. Vietnam also values the art of honking, and it starts at around 5:00 a.m.

Finally, we thought that Mr. Yao was the ultimate driver (see above). But our Vietnam driver raised the bar. He can turn a fully loaded bus 360 degrees in a jam packed intersection with no stop lights or stop signs, plus stores and people packed into every ounce of free space on the edges, and not kill anyone.

Respectfully submitted from one who shall not venture out on her own tonight.


Thursday, July 9, 2009

Thursday, July 11

After checking out of our hotel in Hanoi at 8:30 this morning, we were off to an eventful day. Our first stop was Ba Dinh Square, the location of the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, the President Palace, and Uncle Ho’s House. NO HANDBAGS, NO CAMERAS, and NO TALKING IN LINE were the explicit instructions given to us by our guide Chuong as we neared the mausoleum. These strict rules were surprising to some of us, but those who went to see Mao in Beijing said they had a similar experience there. While walking in line prior to entering the mausoleum, a security man grabbed my arm and demanded to know where I was from. When I replied that I was from the United States, he gave me an odd look, rolled his eyes, and told me to proceed. As we got closer to mausoleum, the security guards became stricter, making sure that everyone remained quiet. When we entered the building, I counted a total of nine soldiers in the room with Ho Chi Minh’s body. After viewing Minh, we saw the President Palace, where he had his office, then had a peak into “Uncle Ho’s House.” His home was a beautiful little retreat that combined exterior and interior spaces much like the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright.
We then traveled to the Temple of Literature and the One Pillar Pagoda. Chuong shared with us information about the educational system in Vietnam, which is similar in many ways to that in China. Students often travel to the Temple of Literature prior to exams in order to rub the stone turtles’ heads for good luck!

Our lunch was a spectacular feast for our taste buds. We overwhelmingly agree that the food in Vietnam has been the best food of this entire study tour. Brenda requested that I share with everyone the menu of our delectable nine course lunch, so here we go! We started with a delicious vegetable soup, followed by ravioli of pork HaNoi style, banana flower salad with beef, fried chicken with lemon sauce, grilled eggplant filled with onion and meat, stir-fried beef filled with lemongrass, stir-fried shrimp with peanut, fried rice with vegetables, and finished it all with a dessert of fresh fruits and green tea. Needless to say, many of us are going to have to do some extra exercise after we leave Vietnam! In addition to the wonderful food, Brenda very generously offered to buy us all a drink with lunch. Deciding to have some fun, Brian W. arranged with Chuong to have a full bottle of cognac (the most expensive drink choice on the menu at about $89) delivered to the table. The look on Brenda’s face was priceless! Brian W. very innocently reminded her that she did say that she would buy a drink for everyone. After that, she was very careful to specify that she meant one glass, not one bottle.

After our spectacular lunch, we went to the Hoa Lo Prison, better known to Americans as the “Hanoi Hilton.” There is really only one thing I can say about this experience- it is all about perspective. As Americans, we think of this prison solely in terms of how it was used during the Vietnam War. Many of us did not know that it was initially built by the French to hold Vietnamese prisoners. Much of the prison museum dealt with this part of the prison’s history. However, the part of the museum dealing with the Vietnam War (referred to as the American War by the Vietnamese) was quite an experience. As the daughter of a Vietnam veteran, I grew up hearing about the war from a much different perspective than the one presented in the Hoa Lo Prison museum. The lesson here is that there is always two sides of every issue, and no one ever wins in a war.

The rest of the day was spent with a quick visit to the Ngoc Son Temple, followed by an approximate three and one half hour drive to HaLong Bay. Some interesting sights on the drive included: water buffalo by the road, lots of rice paddies, a dirty coal mining town, “Disney-like fantasy” architecture, a wrecked truck that should never have been driven, and pigs on motorcycles.

Hopefully the rest of our days here in Vietnam will prove to be as fruitful as today has been!

Debbie Roberts

Vietnam Millionaires

Sleeping a little later this morning helped us all to feel eager for the transition from China to Vietnam. At 11:30 we said a fond goodbye to Muriel, hopeful that we will see her when we meet in Elizabethtown in October. We had our last Chinese meal at the airport and caught the 2:15 flight to Vietnam where we met Chun (sp.), our guide, who suggested we change our money immediately, at the airport, for a better rate of exchange.
Eureka, what a great idea! It was then I and some others in the group became millionaires. I personally exchanged $60.00 US dollars and received in return $1,068,240 in Vietnam Dong. My mother would be so proud! Katie and Brenda are also millionaires at the current time. Actually, one us dollar equals $17,000 Dong. Imagine the calculations we will be making in the next few days!
On the trip to our hotel, we found out that pick pockets and wily motorcyclists can divest you of funds very quickly, so we were reminded to be vigilant.
The unique architecture in this part of the world is quite different from that of China. Here you find large verandas on many of the floors of the tall thin buildings, unlike the small balconies on the buildings we have become accustomed to seeing in China. It actually reminds one of New Orleans, a city also influenced by the French aesthetic.
After a brief check in at our hotel, we bused to an intimate restaurant serving traditional Vietnamese food that was scrumptious. The menu contained: Pumpkin cream soup; Fried Crab Spring Roll; Grilled Chicken with Fried Sticky Rice; Steamed Fish with Soy Sauce; Sautéed Shrimp with Curry Sauce; Stir Fried Vegetable; Steamed Rice and Fresh Fruit. Many of our taste buds are happy to be in Vietnam.
The evening concluded with a lively show at the Thang Long Puppet Theater. Puppeteers stand in a pool of water behind a bamboo screen and guide the activity of their puppets. It was performed completely in Vietnamese which I would guess many of the western audience did not understand. However, the show was so engaging, the language barrier did not cause any lack of enjoyment.
The day was fairly uneventful, except for the Debs who found, while gazing out their window, that they had a very clear view directly into David’s window. Luckily we only had a short time to prepare for dinner; otherwise somebody might have gotten an eyeful!

Click an image to zoom with description

  • The group at dinner.
  • Don't you wonder where these wires go?

July 7, 2009 (the last post was really the 6th)

Today we had the opportunity to explore various sites in Hong Kong. Here is a brief rundown of our groups’ adventures:

Dixie, B.J. and Sharon visited a local art museum. They saw a mackette, which is a small replica of a Frank Gehry building, ceramics, and traditional Chinese paintings.

Brian W., Scott, Michele and Linda went to the island of Lantau to visit a Buddhist monastery. They also saw the Guanyin, the largest outdoor, sitting bronze Buddha in the world.

Deb, Jim, Brenda and David started their day with a trip to the bird market. There they saw crickets “as large as your fist” (Deb). Then, Jim faced his fear of heights and rode a cable car with the group to visit Guanyin (the huge Buddha mentioned above).

Karen and Muriel “toured” the city via hotel shuttle and spent the day relaxing and exploring Hong Kong cuisine.

Katie met with a former Pitt student, and they enjoyed a dinner together.

Judy went to Macau to visit an acquaintance.

Debbie and Bethany went to Lamma Island to check out the fishing village. They tried a vegetarian lunch, and Debbie took a bus tour of Hong Kong in the afternoon.

Doug, well, Doug happily waved goodbye as he left the hotel on the shuttle, but I unfortunately don’t know where he ended up :-)

As for Rick, Brian S., Toni and I, we had a magical day at Hong Kong Disneyland. Naturally, we observed elements of Asian culture throughout the park. For example, “typical” Disney food usually includes soft pretzels, hot dogs and huge turkey legs. Although we did enjoy burgers and fries - fried rice, noodles, and chicken feet were far more abundant. Though it should have been obvious, I was still surprised to hear Mickey and Minnie (pronounced Mikey and Miney) speak Chinese. We were also excited to see the “Lijiang (Li River) Lady,” which was one of the boats on the Jungle River Cruise. And just as we thought we would go two days without seeing Chinese acrobats – Tarzan performed a few stunts that I know weren’t in the movie.

Today’s lesson, It’s a Small World after all.
Lynda, Toni & Brian S.

Click an image to zoom with description

We even had time to get our picture taken with the president of the company ;-)

July 7, 2009

Today our fearless travelers experienced everything from small eats to huge heights.

First, they traveled from the booming industrial city Shenjen, China to the former British colony of Hong Kong. Returned to the Chinese government in 1997, Hong Kong has been a big city for a long time, which contrasts greatly the newbie city of Shenjen, only a major city for the last 20 years (since China’s Open Door Policy). Though Hong Kong is “technically” Chinese, our travelers still faced the perils of immigration: forms, long lines, and lots of waiting, and yet they persevered.

Their tour guide, a feisty Hong Konger named Tella (reminiscent of a female Jackie Chan: lots of energy and smiles) showed them to one of the locals favorite spots: the harbor of Kowloon, the island adjacent to Hong Kong Island. There, the adventureres could see the Hong Kong “Walk of Stars.” Celebrities such as Bruce Lee and Chow Yun Fat had their names put into the sidewalk, along with cement impressions of handprints.

Next, Tella lead them to a…yes, you guessed: timeshare! This one—jewelry—went a little bit differently for our crew. Rather than passively submitting to the demands grabby, grubby “hawkers” (code for vendors), the crew took a separate route. David, Brian S., Rick, Michelle, and a few others who will remain nameless for their own safety simply ducked out off the building rather than endure the timeshare. Those hapless souls that remained, Sharon, Debbie, Judy and Bethany perfected their passive defiance skills by looking bored and not listening: something we’ve learned from our students. Brenda, on the other hand, took a more aggressive approach: polite rage.

After their release from the dungeon of jewelry despair, Tella finally lead them to food. Here is where the small eats come in—they had dim sum, this classic dish of Chinese cuisine that is often eaten for breakfast. Small dumplings are steamed in basket containers, which are then stacked on top of each other. Each basket holds a dumpling with different fillings: pork, shrimp, more pork, vegetables, and—surprise—another pork. Dixie, Doug, Katy, and Deb experienced trying this unique and surprising meal.

From lunch, the group headed to a local market where Linda experimented with Chinese medicine and Brian W. was propositioned by a live fish. From there, they “alighted” to a Taoist temple, where BJ was awed by the coiled incense that burned amidst golden sunlight.

From here, one of their last stops for the day, the group headed to Victoria Peak. This is one of the highest peaks in Hong Kong where views encompassing all of the island could be seen. Lynda H and Scott used this opportunity to terrify the group by sitting atop the railing with a sheer drop during a group photo.

Bethany Marcello

July 5th...It Was a Splendid Day!

After rising up early and enjoying the fine buffet breakfast at the Holiday Inn Express, Shenzhen-style, we began our splendid day. The entire group spent the morning shopping and sightseeing at the Dong Men Pedestrian Street, and building up an appetite for a spicy Sichuan lunch. Off we went to the government-run “mineral museum”…a new code word for a timeshare opportunity where we learned about the qualities and various Jade products and quite a few people bought “certified” Jade pieces. As the afternoon continued, we visited a Splendid WalMart store and spent the rest of the evening at the Splendid China and Chinese Folk Culture Village for a variety of cultural shows and dinner.

Splendid China efficiently shrunk all of China’s cultural treasures into one amazing theme park! One highlight is the Horse Battle Performance including warring tribes battling for control of a castle, and men performing horse acrobatics. Meanwhile another warrior took a keen interest in our group while he was supposed to be conquering the Mongolians. While the rain was falling, and horses were jumping over flaming ropes, a sinister laugh was heard over the loudspeaker and it was clear that we weren’t in the USA anymore. We enjoyed two more splendid shows, including elaborate costumes and lovely performers representing the various Chinese cultures.

I want to pause and give a special shout out to Sharon Gue and Lynda Haessler whose birthdays we celebrated at dinner today! We are thankful that they chose to spend it here with us, and so were the Indonesian and Indian families sitting near us at dinner who joined in singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to them. It was a splendid day, and we are looking forward to moving on to Hong Kong tomorrow.

Click an image to zoom with description

July 5th...It Was a Splendid Day!

July 4, 2009

Following a late-night karaoke adventure, we were off to a later than usual start to the day. We boarded the bus at 9:30 and visited a clothing factory in Shekou, an emplacement--or military fortress—at the mouth of the Pearl River delta, and the accompanying Sea Battle museum, as well as Lin Zexu memorial park, where the park’s namesake burned opium during the Opium Wars. After dinner, the group separated into those that went for a Chinese foot massage and those that went to a bookstore.

The clothing factory we visited broke down many Western walls that we had envisioned before our arrival. It was clean, well-lit, air conditioned, and upon talking to Gilbert, a vice general manager, relatively well compensated for their work. What struck me during our visit was the efficiency of the Chinese factory system and the work ethic of the men and women inside. Not only were the workers unaffected by the parade of American tourists, also known as “The Big Noses,” the products they were making were sold in high-end stores such as Ann Taylor, The Gallery, and others including Old Navy and Banana Republic. Workers as young as 16 were seen sewing, ironing, and packaging the clothing to be shipped to the West. Abruptly at 12:00 noon, as my watch beeped, the workers exited the factory en masse for their lunch break, to return and hour and a half later.

Our journey to Shenzhen Book City was the highlight of the day for me, as Katie, Michelle, Karen, Bethany, Linda and I reconvened with Stephanie, a student we had the pleasure of meeting yesterday, and her friend Charity. These two middle schoolers squired us through the vertical maze of interconnected shops until we were finally able to find what we were looking for. The group was interested in finding a variety of goods, including books and music. Through constant asking by both Stephanie and Charity, we were able to find classic Chinese literature translated into English. The group agreed that both of these girls were the best tour guides thus far (no offense to our guides, whom we all have loved). We each came away with wonderful wares that we can enjoy on a personal level and use for implementation in the classrooms.

Overall, the day was educational and rewarding, another wonderful day on a wonderful trip.

Scott Bayer

Click an image to zoom with description

  • Young women sewing at the Shekou clothing factory
  • Memorial to the Opium War
  • Happy 4th of July!