We woke up to a row of bikes waiting outside the hotel. We took a bike tour around some of the rural sites in Hoi An and finished the day with a fishing tour on the Coco River. We were guided by Jack Tran of Jack Tran’s Ecotours. Jack began his business eleven years ago and takes advantage of local sites for agro and ecotourism. First, we biked through rice paddies to an organic vegetable farm. This land is leased to the farm by the government, but rather than growing rice they are allowed to grow fresh vegetables. We were met by some of the farmers who showed us how to water their vegetable plots by hand. They use dried seaweed as fertilizer and cover the planted seeds with sand for protection and moisture retention.


We continued biking along the scenic rice paddies and met a water buffalo named Xe. Xe gave many of the class members a ride- some even rode him in the water.


The class biked to the Coco River where we boarded Jack’s fishing boat. We traveled along the river to back canals created by the propagation of palm trees by the North Vietnamese Army during the Vietnam War. These canals were occupied by Viet Cong soldiers that hid under water by breathing through bamboo straws. We also had a chance to ride basket boats through the canals with some of the local people employed by Jack’s business.


After the basket boats we docked at a fishing village where we learned different methods of net fishing. We completed our ecotour with a lovely meal prepared by Captain Cook, Jack’s father, and his staff. We were served shrimp spring rolls, rice and tuna, stuffed squid and Vietnamese pancakes. After the tour we were given some free time to enjoy the evening in Hoi An.



Krista Willis and Whitney Place

After breakfast our bus took off at 8 o’clock for our Cu Chi full day. Our first stop was at the lacquer factory which was a nonprofit to employ disabled people. We learned about the process used to make the beautiful lacquer plates and decor and were able to buy some souvenirs.


From there we headed to a hog farm owned by Banh Ty. He spent time teaching us about his hog operation and gave us a tour. We were very impressed at the modernization and scale of his farm with over 2000 hogs raised per year. Was very generous with his time and information.


From there we had a lovely lunch at Ben Nay Restaurant were we seated in a private hut overlooking the river. Another fantastic Vietnamese meal!


Then we headed to the to Cu Chi Tunnels where we were able to learn about the tunnels, how they were made, along with examples defensive weapons and traps. We got to experience the tunnels first hand by crawling through some – pretty tight quarters especially considering the these were made larger for tourist.

Our last stop was at a rubber tree farm. It is a process very similar to maple syrup tapping. Then back to the hotel around 6:30 dinner on our own to explore Saigon.
Another amazing day learning about this diverse and fascinating country. The people have been so hospitable and friendly. Looking forward A good night sleep and another incredible day tomorrow!

Lona Rookaird and Corey Hanson

After a night of fine Vietnamese food and an hour or two exploring the environment around our French Quarter hotel in Hanoi, we began our fifth day in Vietnam meeting with members of the U.S. Embassy. The Embassy is under construction in Hanoi, so we traded the excitement and high security connected to embassies for the comfort of a comfortable conference room on the top floor of our hotel. Political Officer Adam Davis, Economic Officer Joe Narus, Officer for Environment, Science, Technology and Health Ali Davis and Agricultural Attache (actually an employee of the USDA) joined us to both explain their roles as diplomats as well as field our questions about Vietnamese-American relations.


Adam, a St. Olaf and U of M grad began, telling us that relations between the two countries “has never been stronger.”  He stressed how impressive that is considering diplomatic relations between the two countries are only 20 years old.  He referred to relations as a “Comprehensive Partnership”, a term used by countries for whom nothing is ‘off the table’.

With a population of 93 million, Vietnam is second only to the Philippines’ 98 million people in the ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations).  Thailand is a distant 3rd at 53 million. Vietnam is both our 11th most important trade partner and we are Vietnam’s 11th most important trade partner.  Adam implied that trade and economics are just one of the reasons that both countries are working together to strengthen ties and work together. Of course, it isn’t all rainbows, with problems with the rule of law, specifically the interpretation of laws, and continued, pervasive corruption making intergovernmental economic relations very challenging at times.

Ali, an Ohio native who now calls D.C. home, reported much more eagerness to cooperate when it comes to the Environment, Science, Technology and Health – all areas that don’t have nearly as many differences as economic and political viewpoints. Vietnam is all too aware of the deeply scarred landscape in China caused by total disregard for its environment, and it is cognizant that as one of the top 5 most bio-diverse areas in the world, it has to balance growing its economy with preserving what makes the country so special.

Air and water quality have plummeted in the last 10 years, a fact made all too plain by the multitudes of both moped drivers and pedestrians using surgical-style face masks as they travel outdoors.  For a country that was receiving food aid as recently as 2000, health has steadily improved along with the growth of the economy.  Ironically, economic growth has meant Vietnam will receive less foreign aid to combat diseases like HIV.

While Agriculture represents 18% of GDP, it accounts for 33% of land use and 50% of the workforce according to Michael (official figures state the percentage as high as 90%. though that includes occasional/family workers and logistics folks like drivers),  It is the world’s 3rd largest exporter of rice (much of which goes to a multitude of African nations) and is in the top 5 when it comes to shrimp, cashews, rubber, black pepper and robusta coffee (used primarily for making instant coffee).

In turn, Vietnam’s main imports from the U.S. are cotton, dairy, soybeans and meal and wood products.   Corn, which would seemingly fit into expansion of hog and poultry farming, is NOT imported from the U.S., as farmers and the agriculture ‘union’ that guides government policy recommends corn dried to a 13% moisture level instead of the typical 14% level commonly found in U.S. corn.  This comes from reasoning that in a humid, tropical climate (though with a high of 59 degrees, it didn’t seem all that tropical in Hanoi THAT day) corn/feed needs to be drier to prevent spoilage. Another potential export opportunity for the U.S. is in the dairy sector.  With the dampness as a whole, lots of mountainous terrain and a perennially hot Southern growing region, dairy farming is marginal at best in Vietnam.  Yet the government, in an attempt to help its population grow taller (I’m not making this up!) is actively pushing increased dairy consumption.

The omnipresent shadow of China, an adversary for millennia, looms to the North.  Vietnam is increasingly looking to the technological (and bio-tech), military and educational superiority of the U.S. as it grows its economy and strives to maintain a unique cultural identity, according to these four bright diplomats.  With a public approval rating of the U.S. between 75% to 90%, it is clear that regardless of political differences and economic challenges, the Vietnamese-American relationship will continue to grow stronger.

A trip to a unique restaurant was a perfect juxtaposition from a fact-filled presentation from the Embassy.  We headed to KOTO, right across from the Confucius temple in Central Hanoi.  KOTO, which stands for Know One Teach One was started by a Vietnamese expat in Australia who wanted to create a restaurant business that could teach abandoned and impoverished youngsters work skills in the restaurant and hospitality industry.  Visited by President Clinton in 2000, the three-story restaurant was teaming with eager young cooks, servers, bartenders and support staff.

Using money raised while betting on where our class would be going during our Itasca session, we purchased a $150 ‘brick’, simply stenciled MARL Class VIII (the best class ever, needless to say) to help support KOTO’s mission.  When finished, it will be displayed on the wall along the beautiful winding terrazzo stone staircase.

A quick visit to the 1,000 year-old temple next door was followed by a jaunt to Ho Chi Minh square, which sits in front of the huge mausoleum where his embalmed body lays.  Ironically, ‘Uncle Ho’ wanted to be simply cremated, with ashes spread over a unified Vietnam, but the political party saw value in keeping the dead leader embalmed and enshrined, courtesy of the Soviets and their experience keeping Lenin’s corpse looking spiffy all those years.


We had only a few hours before we had to depart for Da Nang and Hoi An, we sped over to the famous ‘Water Puppet’ theatre, where puppeteers behind a screen operate wooden and fabric puppets in a pool of water.  Originating in the rice fields, water puppetry was both a way of entertainment but also a method of passing down music and legend from generation to generation.  It was amazingly fun, intricate and like nothing any of our group had ever seen.  Part ‘Punch and Judy’, part fireworks show, part ancient Vietnamese musical revue and part water show, the puppetry led us into our next adventure – the ‘cyclo’ ride.


All 29 of us piled into bicycle rickshaws for a tour through the old town, with mopeds, cars and cyclists zooming by.  Apprehension turned to laughter and joy as our drivers somehow managed to pilot us gracefully through the most insane traffic any of us had ever experienced.  None of us will ever forget that ride!

Soon, though, we were boarding the bus to head to the airport.  After thanking and tipping our bus drivers and tour guide Thang, we checked in for our flight to Da Nang, the 3rd largest city in Vietnam.  Once a huge U.S. military base, Da Nang is now thriving as a coastal tourist destination and business center.  Our destination was 20 km south: Hoi An, a UNESCO World Heritage Site city with historical influence from Chinese, Portuguese and Japanese traders over hundreds of years.  We checked in to our charming family-owned hotel, ate a very late supper (starting at 11:30 p.m.) and hit our beds soon after.


Jesse Davis and Corey Hanson

We awoke early on board our floating, private hotel. The first activity of the day Tai Chi on the sun deck. The sun was barely lighting up the morning sky. The morning mist blanketed the island’s limestone peaks jutting straight out of the water, providing an other worldly feel to our surroundings, as we began our movements, following our instructor. A light breakfast was served and then the tender boat took the group to one of UNESCO’s 7 natural wonders of the world. It is impossible to describe the beauty of Surprise Grotto. Returning, a more robust breakfast was presented. This would be our last meal on the boat that day. The crew was great and we headed back to the launch sight to board our bus for our trip to Ninh Binh. We spent about 4 hours on this leg of our journey. We found the lines on the road are merely a suggestion. The ride was a little hair raising but our expert, native driver handled it easily. Close calls, covering our eyes and slowing moving for the water buffalo were all part of the adventure.

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Along the way we were able to stop and visit with a rice farmer. She was kind enough to allow some of us to jump in and transplanted some of the rice seedlings. Just as the sun was setting in Ninh Binh we arrived at our luxurious Hotel. This is to be our first evening to venture out with locals, if we chose to soak up a little Vietnam after dark. Karaoke was the activity of choice and is was a great time held by all that participate. Looking forward to what the next day brings.


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Barb Liebenstein & Yolanda Cotterall


Sunday Morning arrived quickly after we got tucked in from our 30+ hour travels from MSP to Hanoi.  Sunday started off with  a delicious breakfast at the hotel in Hanoi.  We were on the bus by 8:00 bound for the boat tour.  On our way we had our first day-time exposure to life in Vietnam.


Sunday was the final day of the Vietnamese holiday Tet.  We were told that while Tet was still occurring that many people are still back home in the villages where they grew up and that once Tet is over, we will get a better sense of what the daily life is like in Vietnam.

On our drive from Hanoi to Halong Bay for the boat tour, we saw motor bikes with multiple passengers going in many different directions, often times toward us on our side of the road!  It is amazing how the organized chaos allows folks to get to where they’re going.  It is common practice to use your horn to let people know that you’re coming up behind them in their blind spot.  It actually works quite well however, the rule of thumb is that the larger the vehicle has the right of way!

On our way, we saw many rice fields as well as banana and pine apple groves.  Vietnam is the #1 rice exporter in the world as they have 2 growing seasons in the north and 3 growing seasons in southern Vietnam.  We will be touring a pine apple and rice farm in the next few days, so we’re certain to learn more.

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We made a quick stop at a pearl visitor’s center where we learned about how farmers insert a mother of pearl to simulate the grit needed to start growing the pearl.  Depending on the type of oyster and the size of pearl that they are growing it can take 2, 4 or 6 years to grow the pearl to a harvestable size.


From the Pearl Visitor Center, we finished our drive to Halong Bay where we began our tour of the bay and the majestic limestone formations.  The weather was absolutely amazing.  Temps were in the upper 60’s to low 70’s with a light breeze.  There was a slight haze/fog in the air, but our tour guide said that this was the best day they have had in a number of weeks!  Having a day to get our legs under us and to work through the jet lag was greatly appreciated by all.


We’re looking forward to tomorrow when we’ll tour the caves, talk with rice farmers and take in the sights between here and Nihn Bihn.

Yours Truly,

Anna Boroff & Daryl Timmerman