What is this idea of happiness? It’s a central concept in the States “the pursuit of happiness.” It’s listed on every piece of stationary here “Independence, Freedom, Happiness.” But what is meant with this word: happiness? Does it mean having enough to eat? Having enough things to live comfortably? Having a family? Is it just a fleeting feeling that you get when reading or watching something that makes you laugh? When can you say that you are actually happy?

I’m not sure that I’m truly happy here. I have lots of fun, and I take joy from seeing the happiness of others, but I don’t think I am really happy. I have no family here, and no friends that I matured with. Sure, I have many good friends here, but they weren’t there during some of my most formative years. I guess it comes from a slight sense of isolation; of having no one that I was close to before I came being here now. I’m not sure if it’s natural or if I’m weird, but I was thinking about all these things as I drove around yesterday. Happiness. It seems so central to our lives, but what is it? And how do we attain it? And what is required for it? Life is good for me here and I couldn’t ask for anything more, but the lack of people that I developed with seems to leave me a little lonely at times…

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A few drops of rain fell last evening when Steven and I were out to dinner with friends. And when I woke up this morning, the sky was overcast and the ground and trees were moist. It’s not hot or oppressive in any way. It’s nice and it feels cool with all the humidity around. I checked the temperature on the internet and it’s actually 75 degrees today. This feels cool. I mean, I wore a jacket when I drove around today. I don’t know how I feel when I eventually get home to Ohio in the middle of December.

The lack of recent posting was due to the abundance of busyness for me lately. Dan Wessner and a group of seven students from EMU were in the south, first in Ho Chi Minh City and then in Long Xuyen. It went something like this:

May 17th, 2:30 a.m.: Two teachers and two students from AGU that will participate in the Summer Peacebuilding Institute at EMU (and me) got on the bus to Ho Chi Minh City. The four of them had to get to the immigration office when it opened to collect their passports and then immediately apply for a U.S. visa. They got the passports without a hitch, but when they paid for their visa applications, they were given an interview date of June 11th. I should note here that all Vietnamese citizens that apply for a U.S. visa have to have a short interview before they can be given a U.S. visa. But anyhow, the interview dates that were given were on June 11th, after they were scheduled to be back in Vietnam. But they got emergency request forms and we went to the hotel to fill out these forms and then fax them to the embassy.

The afternoon was spent relaxing and waiting. Dan and the students were arriving at 5 p.m. from Hanoi. At 4, the five of us got on the bus and headed for the airport. It seemed as though five flights were arriving at the same time, so we had to wait for a good half-hour until they had collected their bags and were off the plane.

The next few days were spent in or around Ho Chi Minh City. We went to museums, a Vietnamese amusement park, the Cu Chi Tunnels, etc. We ate some very expensive meals in District One and there was not much down time. Also, on Saturday the 19th was Tyler’s final goodbye party in Vietnam. About seven of us went out and ate cheeseburgers and listened to Irish music and laughed and talked. It was a good time, and he is missed, but I take comfort in knowing that he’ll be back in the fall (at least for a visit).

The entire morning of the 21st was the four folks from AGU at the U.S. Consulate having their visa interviews. I was nervous the whole morning; I would be in my room, then go down to the street and loiter around, waiting for a taxi to come back, then go back up to my room and try to watch some T.V., and then rush back downstairs and look for a taxi and wait. This process must’ve been repeated about 10 times throughout the morning, but at 11 a.m. everyone was back at the hotel and all of the interviews were successful.

Finally on the 22nd, we got on a bus bound for Long Xuyen. I was really glad to be coming home and eager for all of 6d1 to have a chance to interact with the EMU students. We had workshops in the morning for three days, and then we toured the city in the afternoon.

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We went to places that even I hadn’t been in the city for years, including the Cao Dai temple.

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The same day that we went to this particular temple, other students where back at the guest house cooking dinner. Dinner that’s been cooked by people that you know always seems to taste better. We sat on the floor and ate and laughed.

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On Saturday morning we went out in the hot sun and toured Tiger Island, the home of Vietnam’s second president, Uncle Ton Duc Thang. It was extremely hot and sunny, but a very good little trip. Our big group even got to tour a large catfish farm on the banks of the Mekong.

Saturday evening was a farewell dinner at a local restaurant, and afterwards, we all came back the the guest house for singing and some games.

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And then the next day, the group of eight from EMU and the colleagues and students from AGU got on a bus back to Ho Chi Minh City and flew out of Vietnam this morning.

48 hours with 6d1:

When my second-year students first realized (or were notified) that I would be leaving Vietnam at the end of this year, they decided that we needed to have another trip together. I suggested the cool airs of the mountain town of Dalat, but they decided to go to Mui Ne, a rather famous beach area north of Ho Chi Minh City. The trip began at 10 p.m. on Saturday: we would drive overnight and then arrive at the beach in the morning, spend the night there, and then return the next day. Saturday was also the first of many goodbye parties for Tyler, so I ate goat and had a good time before driving home through the drizzling rain and packing up some clothes and then walking down the street to meet everyone. The seats on the bus were too close together, and I was pretty much wedged in and it was uncomfortable and I couldn’t sleep until about 2 a.m. But sleep I did, and when I woke up, the landscape had changed into one with distant mountains and it just seemed so different from the delta. We arrived at some ecological site with a cable car (I hate heights by the way), but the students decided that it was too expensive, and we were back on the bus, headed to the beach. Because of our little detour, we didn’t arrive at the beach until 12 hours after we left Long Xuyen, but it was nice and pleasant and there was a nice breeze. We went and played in the warm water and I got sunburned, like I usually do at the beach.

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In the early evening, we were going to go to the city center and check it out, but as we walked to the bus, it started to rain. So we stayed at the beach and ate, and hung out, and then it was time for playing cards. They taught me some Vietnamese betting game, and I had some good luck at the beginning, but I ended up losing 2000 dong (about 12.5 cents).

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Then we walked along the beach at night, where the waves were crashing and it was very peaceful. We looked at the lights of fishing boats out in the ocean.

I slept soundly, even though there were seven of us males sleeping on mats on the floor. And the next morning it was still raining. We had breakfast and the rain was getting lighter, so we went to some old Cham towers overlooking the ocean. I found them very interesting. The students seemed to be more interested in taking pictures with their cell phones, but it was fun. It was also really humid.

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After a few more quick stops in the city, we settled down for the long ride home. And of course, there were several stops for coffee along the way.

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We got back to the university at 10:30; almost exactly 48 hours after we left.

Tyler is leaving soon. I’ve already attended two of his farewell parties, and there is at least one more that I’ll be going to as well. Tyler has been here a long time, and we’ve experienced a lot together. I don’t know what this place will be like without him, and he will be missed by everyone, especially his next-door neighbor. Because of our different schedules, tonight, Wednesday, the 16th of May, is the last night that Tyler, Steven, Hendrik and I will be together in Long Xuyen.

Yesterday, as Tyler, Steven, Lillian, Hendrik and I sat at a cafe and ate lunch and sipped cool drinks in the heat, there was a common topic of conversation that I wasn’t able to take part in: leaving Long Xuyen. The way it looks now, as of late June, I’ll be the only one of the five remaining in Long Xuyen. Some of these guys are almost like an adopted family to me; I referred to our guest house community as a “dysfunctional family” a long time ago. Our years of living, working, eating, complaining, and trying to understand this unfamiliar culture together will soon be gone, and I’ll remain in this town.

I find myself in a relatively similar situation that I was in when I first arrived here: all of the volunteers that I knew were leaving for various reasons to visit some person or country or some other thing and I was here basically by myself. Except that now I have so many people that I consider friends at this university and in this community around me. I think that at least three new volunteers will arrive in time to teach for the fall semester, but those relationships will be nothing like the ones that I’ve been developing for years already. I’m worried that it might be a lonely final six months here.

Note: I mean to post this yesterday, but I was having terrible problems uploading pictures.

The story of last week:

To make it short, I was up in the northern part of Vietnam. I think that I’ve made my opinion of the north well-known, at least to some people. I generally don’t like the time that I spend there. The language is very different from what I know, the coffee isn’t very good and they don’t give you as much tea as you can drink, and I basically just get bad vibes while in the north.

The reason that I was going up north was for the MCC South-East Asia retreat. We were meeting at some high-class hotel out in Ha Long bay, arguably the most well-traveled tourist site in Vietnam. I went to Ho Chi Minh City a day early and got my pizza fix and watched enough of the Discovery Channel so that I could perhaps someday pretend to be knowledgeable on some obscure topic. Then the flight to the north, and as usual, another hard landing (they really annoy me and I get really nervous now). And then the bus ride out to the bay.

When I got out there, I met my friend Charles. Charles and I were at Bluffton College together for several years and actively involved in several of the same clubs and got along well. We were rooming together, and stayed up rather late talking about old times and people that we knew.

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The place where we stayed was a four-star hotel. A swankier place than I’ve ever stayed in my life. Especially the shower: I didn’t want to get out of it in the morning. The food was good and I ate my share of bacon in the mornings. However, the actual sessions only lasted for 1.5 days, so we ended up having a lot of time to relax.

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The big activity of our time up there in the bay was going on a boat ride that lasted most of the day. I’ve been to Ha Long before and gone out on a boat and done the whole deal before, but it’s still amazing and awe-inspiring to be out there on the calm water with the huge formations of rock around you, covered with growths of greenery. We even saw a rarity out there on the water: a sailboat.

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We stopped on a small island and I had my picture taken next to sign saying that Uncle Ho Chi Minh visited the same spot.

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After the few days in Ha Long, I spent a few days in Hanoi, mainly to hang out with Ben and Alisa. We had been in email contact a few months before, and had both scheduled a few extra days in Hanoi to hang out. We did a little shopping, found a movie theatre, took lots of breaks from the heat with cool drinks, etc.

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I finally started to appreciate and even like this city of the north. Some of the streets seem to simply ooze with history while cool breezes rise from the many lakes and comfort you in the heat. Ben and I even saw a small turtle on the edge of the famous Hoan Kiem Lake. However, it slipped back into the murky water before either of us could snap a picture of it.

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Another day, we visited the Temple of Literature, which was founded before Columbus sailed. I had previously visited the place before, as a student, but this time I found that I enjoyed and appreciated it much more. I was a nice and very peaceful place to stroll around and think again about all the history that was surrounding us.

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Then I was heading back down to the south. I had communicated with Steven and we had a cheap hotel room lined up, and the first order of business when I arrived was to order some pizza. We watched a lot of the Discovery Channel and went shopping for some necessities like cheese and tobasco sauce. Then the next morning, it was back on the road.

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And finally, crossing the brown water of the Mekong on the ferry before arriving back home in Long Xuyen.

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