Thanks to Sara Fowler of Ridgeland for sharing e-mails sent to her family during her recent 21-day trip to Vietnam and Cambodia.
Sara is a 19-year-old sophomore at Wofford College in Spartanburg, where she is a dean's list student majoring in government and religion. The trip was part of her studies at Wofford.
Sara is a graduate of Thomas Heyward Academy in Ridgeland. She is one of three children of William Fowler and Deborah Malphrus, who is chairwoman of the board of Palmetto Electric Cooperative.
Following are two of Sara's daily messages sent home during her trip last month.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
By Sara Fowler
WEDNESDAY, JAN. 12
OK, so yesterday was really different but really fun and eye-opening.
First, we went to a Buddhist pagoda and worked on meditating and all sorts of stuff. It was neat because the pagoda was in a town that not many tourists go to and is completely off the beaten path. Because of that, we got to see firsthand how incredibly poor this country is.
There was a little boy on the side of the road that was about 5 years old, and I started playing with him. After I played with him for a while I gave him 10,000 dong, which is like 50 cents in America, and he immediately ran back to his dad who then freaked out in thanks. The dad came up to me and nodded and was speaking what seemed like thanks in Vietnamese. It's quite shocking how poor some of these people are.
Once we were at the pagoda we started off with sitting meditation, then we went to walking meditation, singing meditation and capped it off with eating meditation. Everything was all about losing yourself in the now and being content in the present. It was neat since I took the class on religions of China, Japan and Korea, which is basically the same as it is here. It's interesting to see the things you learn about in practice.
The eating meditation was interesting. We were supposed to stay silent and think of the food and be thankful for it, etc. Our group was not too good at that. Also, there was no meat in the meal because of their beliefs in trans-existence, so we had tofu, but I've been eating a lot of that here so it was good.
After the pagoda we went to the Friendship Village, which is for children who suffer from birth defects because of Agent Orange. I was really nervous going in because I had seen pictures of how bad it was.
However, once I was in there and over the initial shock, I really enjoyed it. It was easy to see how they were just like normal children and still enjoyed the silly little things that all kids do. It really was a powerful experience that I'll never forget. It made me recognize how alike we all are in so many ways.
A spark to volunteer with disabled kids has definitely been started.
After that a few of us went out for dinner. We started to go to one restaurant and quickly realized we were not properly dressed, and upon further reading found we were at one of the best restaurants in Southeast Asia, so we opted out. Looking back at it, though, I kind of wish we didn't because I'm sure it was amazing and how many opportunities like that do you get? But oh well, I'll hit it up next time I'm in Vietnam!
This morning we leave to cruise Ha Long Bay and are going to spend the night on the boat, then fly to central Vietnam the next afternoon, where we will stay in Hoi An for five days. We're all very excited to fly away from the colder north. Yesterday in the south the temperature was 92, so we'll definitely get some beach time!
Love and miss you all!
FRIDAY, JAN. 21
Yesterday, we made it Ho Chi Minh City. It was finally the weather we've been expecting and hoping for. Hot, humid and sunny is just what the doctor ordered for all of us.
The first lesson we learned is that no one actually calls it Ho Chi Minh City. Everyone sticks to Saigon, except for the tourists.
The first thing we did was go to Pho 2000, which is basically their fast-food place, and an eating spot for President Bill Clinton.
After that we went to the China Town market. That was quite the experience. I'm glad I did it, but I was truly uncomfortable, bordering on miserable, while we were there. It was major sensory overload. There was raw meat and people yelling. It was really hot, really smelly, with pickpockets literally bumping into you and grabbing at you. But it was quite the experience and I feel like if I hadn't done it, I couldn't say I really experienced Saigon.
After that we went to the War Remnants Museum, which is about the Vietnam War, except it is portrayed by the Vietnamese. I can honestly say that was the most upsetting experience in this whole trip.
I guess being born a generation behind, I knew the war was bad, but I never knew how bad. The museum said that it wasn't for the squeamish, but I feel like I am a tough cookie. However, it really did disturb me.
The pictures displayed were the most graphic and heart-wrenching I had ever seen.
I guess I always had an uninformed opinion of the war, but now I'm trying to take in everything I've learned, seen and witnessed on this trip and use that to form my own opinion. But I feel like that may take quite some time before I can come up with something worthwhile that I can allow myself to accept it.
After that we went back to the hotel and then out to Hard Rock Cafe for some good American food to celebrate a girl's 21st birthday. But we're up and out and heading to the Cu Chi tunnels this morning, so we called it in early.
Love you all,