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OHCHS’ Blanchard traveling once again
TRADITION — Vietnamese farmers still use traditional methods. This farmer, near Sapa, Vietnam, plows his land with a water buffalo.
“There’s a lot we can learn from Asia,” says Craig Blanchard, a history teacher at Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School.
While only learning European history early on in high school, his senior year, Blanchard took a Chinese class. Although he was raised Catholic, he became interested in Asian religions after college.
The diversity in belief of Buddhism and Daoism caught his attention, he says. His studies in Asian culture sparked a passion for Asian culture that continuously blazes within him, a light which he shines upon his students. Blanchard’s fascination with Asia has led him to study in Beijing and travel in Thailand, Vietnam, and China.
This past April, his passions led him to take a trip to North Vietnam. Blanchard had been planning this trip for over a year. He arranged for home-stays through travel agencies and knew from reading that North Vietnam was different than South Vietnam.
Blanchard found the north to be more reserved, serious, and less pro-American, while the south is pro-American with about 10 percent being Catholic. While there was no hostility towards Americans, he saw no Americans for the duration of his trip.
Blanchard flew in and out from Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital. However, his trip was mostly in Sapa, the gateway to the northern mountain area near China. Sapa is where the hill tribe people – the Hmong – live.
The Hmong, who dress in colorful clothing, have a very different culture and religion than the Vietnamese. Some of them fought alongside the United States during the Vietnam War. There are even Hmong communities in America.
Of the many minorities within Vietnam, the Hmong remain isolated from the rest of the country. In order to reach this isolated community in this secluded mountain region, a nine-hour train ride and 10-kilometer trek through rice paddies was required.
While much of Vietnam is flat with jungle, rice paddies, and famous beaches on its coast, the north has many foothills with terrace farming. It has three harvests of rice each year, with April as its dry season and summer as its rainy season.
The rice is planted by scattering it in the rice paddies, then picked and transported to another location to complete its growing process. Blanchard’s home-stays were “surprisingly nice,” he says, despite the primitive showers consisting of only a hose and drain. His hosts however, desiring to be good hosts, would buy flat screen televisions and fancy food, much different from their traditional culture.
Despite being a well-rounded traveller, Blanchard was surprised by the modern commercialized tourist towns that replaced the expected small villages.
“I was expecting to see traditional villages but there’s shops, theatres and restaurants,” says Blanchard. Roads had been built to the villages and the rivers dammed and used for electricity, all done to lure in more tourists.
“[Vietnam] responded to demand by economically trying to develop,” says Blanchard, ”You definitely see the effects of tourism, where the villages once had rice paddies, they’re now hawking stuff.”
Most of these vendors knew English. In Vietnam, learning English can mean receiving better job opportunities. However, as an agrarian society, the Vietnamese children spend more time farming than in school.
Blanchard recalls a scene in one village where an older woman was selling hand-knit goods, blankets, and belts and was crying because she couldn’t sell anything and was out of money.
The effects of these changes and unexpected modernization left Blanchard with lingering questions that continue to plague him.
Which is truly a better life for these people, working hard in the rice paddies or easier jobs in commercial tourism, neither of which offer much economic success?
Should they try to maintain their old culture, or modernize with the rest of the world?
“I like to travel to see things that are different than Maine,” says Blanchard. "Yet, who are we to say that Vietnam should remain less advanced in order to serve as a tourist attraction for the rest of the world?"
However, Blanchard also feels that “the more I travel, the more I see similar things.” The world is simply full of people trying to survive and be happy.