What can you learn from Strawpocalypse in Sài Gòn?

Who knew I’d run into Ben in Vietnam and talk with him about his art installation and its role in a campaign to rid the country of plastic straws.

I spent most of my life seeking to change public policy to make the government more responsive and improve our lives.  I was a consumer lobbyist in Congress, founded Equal Justice Works, ran the philanthropic program of the Stern Family Fund, orchestrated a pool of charitable donors committed to campaign finance reform, and worked at the Pew Charitable Trusts for more than a decade.

While some initiatives sputtered or failed, there is much that I am proud of and that I believe legitimately contributed to a better nation.  Working for the public good, however, has gotten much more difficult.   Politics is a rough sport these days and so many of the institutions we trusted and that we worked through have atrophied.  I’m, therefore, always on the lookout for creative new means to educate and engage.

Who would have imagined that a trip to Vietnam would offer an opportunity to see a creative social change experiment in action.  By happenstance, I ended up in Sài Gòn the same day as a friend from Burning Man had returned to visit his art installation.  It turned out that “the Parting of the Plastic Sea”, had just have been awarded the Guinness World Record for the largest art installation made from drinking straws.

The Parting of the Plastic Sea also known as #strawpocalypse was a vision brought to life by Ben Von Wong  in partnership with a community-based environmental group, Zero Waste Saigon, Starbucks (Yes – Starbucks.  They are committed to end their use of straws in Vietnam, although why you would go to Starbucks when Vietnamese coffee is available is beyond me) and a green developer.  Since straws are virtually impossible to recycle and add to the truckload of plastic flowing into our oceans every 60 seconds, the ultimate objective to halt the reliance on plastic straws is clear.

The art is striking.  Volunteers collected more than 168,000 discarded straws off the streets of Vietnam to construct this 8m long, 3.3m tall installation.  Visitors are viscerally drawn to it, but is that enough?

The question that Ben struggles with is how do you take that experience and translate it into societal change.  There are no easy answers.  The volunteer engagement, the media attention at its construction and launch, the social media campaign waged to extend its penetration, the tie to community-based environmental efforts, and the survey to assess the educational impact among those that are touched by the art are all worthwhile.  To be truly effective, however, means that it measurably contributes to changes in corporate practices, government policy and/or societal behaviors.  As with the virtual reality installation on immigrants crossing America’s southern borders that I wrote about here, engagement is only a first step and Ben is a restless soul not satisfied with standard measures of impact.

My daughter is on a similar path in San Francisco.  Leah joined Niantic several years ago.  You’ll know Niantic from the hype around the launch of Pokémon GO and its leadership in the field of augmented reality – a fascinating blend of computer generated experiences that are incorporated into the real-world environment.  Niantic will be launching a major effort around Earth Day in a week.  As with the art installation in Vietnam, they are using their platform to partner with non-profit organizations and the broader public (in this instance the millions of people that play their games).  Last year, their players collected 6.5 tons of garbage as part of their Earth Day initiative.  The ambition is much broader – “As an organization with millions of players around the world, we see it as part of our responsibility to help ensure things such as ocean pollution and global warming are at the forefront of conversation and action.”

At a point where traditional advocacy and public engagement tools are waning, we are desperately in need of creative new strategies like these.  Ben Von Wong and Niantic don’t necessarily have the answers but they are asking the right questions.  We should follow them closely to see what we can learn.

Oh Vietnam – I miss you already

What made Vietnam special for me — sidewalks, street food, coffee, wandering, motorbikes, daytrips, local guides, making mistakes, and traveling with an adventurous friend.

Yesterday we left Việt Nam.  It was bitter sweet.  I’m looking forward to getting home but Việt Nam gets in your pores.  I will miss . . .

SIDEWALKS – In Việt Nam’s cities, sidewalks are primarily a parking lot for motorbikes or space for pop-up street food stands with small plastic stools and tables (and I do mean small). You rarely find space to walk so you find yourself on the street weaving between honking motorbikes and cars and crowds of people.  Shops not only open directly on the sidewalks, their wares spill out onto them.  Homes (which are typically directly above the shops) also are indistinguishable from the sidewalks and the shop.  You often see Grandma watching television, motorbikes driving into the living rooms for safe keeping, and parents running between their stall selling bamboo ladders, phố or party goods and their toddlers.  To say that sidewalks are vibrant is a grand understatement.img_8365STREET FOOD – The inspiration for this trip was Tony’s obsession with Anthony Bourdain and his myriad episodes praising the street food of southeast Asia. Our first night was a tour with “Street Food Man” where Nana and Huy took us on their motorbikes through four districts of Sài Gòn and more than eight stops.  We were in love.  The food lived up to the hype.  My key tip if you are in Vietnam is to look for a stall that only serves one dish and is filled with local Vietnamese.  Don’t hesitate to simply plop down on a stool.  The language barrier is never a problem.  You’ll quickly be served a treat that offers flavor combinations more vibrant and diverse than any you’ve had in the past.  The mothers and grandmothers that served me exceled at the dishes they specialize in and build up a loyal following whether it is for their oc biển (sea snails), Bún Riêu Cua (meat rice vermicelli soup), Bánh Koht, . . . You can’t go wrong.  Tony’s doctor also advised daily doses of Pepto-Bismol as a means to avoid digestive issues and, with the exception of one day, it protected us and allowed us to be quite adventurous (see the CDC page for confirmation of that advice).  

COFFEE – I have had Vietnamese coffee in the past. In fact, our neighborhood in Arlington was once called Little Vietnam since it had a preponderance of mom and pop Vietnamese restaurants run by refugees from the war.  Our family would make a weekly pilgrimage until gentrification brought us Cheesecake Factory and other signs of “progress.”  BUT I had not truly appreciated it until we got to Sài Gòn.  The slow drip coffee is so exceptionally rich and dark that it is like velvet on your tongue.  It is typically served with condensed milk but we had it with butter and frothed egg also.  They were all wonderful.  You can read Tony’s blog on a clay pot coffee shop we went to in District Three that has a special place in our hearts.  You can also buy weasel coffee.  I was incredulous when Tony first described it and assumed it must be a trick they play on tourists.  But it is true.  They brew coffee from beans that weasels eat and that they later extract from their excrement.  Enough said – other than that I have a bag I’m bringing home. 

WANDERING – Walking in Sài Gòn and Hanoi can be harrowing. All the guidebooks tell you to simply walk slowly and steadily through the traffic that will whiz past you and the cacophony of horns honking.  It all seems like a suicide mission until your first successful crossing.  It works!  Drivers only need predictability.  One of our favorite t-shirts was one with a traffic signal – it said Green light means GO, Yellow light means GO, Red light means GO.  It is not far from the truth.  As a result, the drivers are all hyper attentive.  When your nerves allow, you can see the masterful dance that takes place among trucks, cars, motorbikes, bicycles and pedestrians.  They weave together seamlessly, and I did not see a single accident.

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MOTORBIKES– Now the best way to watch that dance is from the back of a motorbike. I could never drive a motorbike here but sitting behind an experienced Vietnamese driver allowed me to see and feel the energy of these cities.  I did audibly gasp when we drove right through a market with squawking chickens and writhing eels only inches from my feet and down alleys where I was sure my guide was enjoying the thrill of threading the needle.  By the end I craved the adrenaline rush.  Watch out Washington motorists, I’ve learned new tricks.  We also made a game of spotting motorbikes with the largest number of passengers.  The “four-fer” was the winner and was often seen with families with small children.  Tony’s photo below is a classic. 

LOCAL GUIDES – We took food tours in Sài Gòn and Hanoi, a trip through the Mekong delta and a motorbike ride through Hanoi. For each experience, the two of us had the joy of our own guide.  You could board a motorbus or join a gaggle of tourists and receive a detailed history of the setting or description of the cuisine from the group’s guide but I would not trade our experience for these tours.  First off, the cost is so modest in Vietnam that price is not really a consideration.  More importantly, you not only can have all of your questions answered but you also begin to tread into more sensitive topics of culture, personal life, values and politics.  (See my prior post for another recommendation on in-depth and personal exchanges by volunteering.) 

DAYTRIPS – I love cities and I enjoyed every minute in Sài Gòn and Hanoi. The energy truly is addictive, but I also appreciated opportunities to get into the countryside.  Tony and I had a little over two weeks and we didn’t want to be changing hotels daily so we grounded ourselves in the two major cities of Vietnam.  Day trips to the Mekong Delta and an overnight cruise on Halong Bay allowed us to travel the highways and back roads of Vietnam, luxuriate in idyllic settings and gain deeper insights into the country.  We only scratched the surface so I’ve already begun plotting out the next itinerary and would appreciate any tips you might share.

MAKING MISTAKES – One day in Sài Gòn I had a list of temples to visit and Tony was kind enough to humor me. What I didn’t realize was that the Grab app (similar to Uber) was not particularly sophisticated (or perhaps it was the user) and we ended up at the wrong Quân Ấn temple.  We were 40 minutes away from the Cholơn neighborhood I had wanted to explore, an area of the city that used to be filled with Chinese immigrants with ancient temples around every corner.  When we walked into the “wrong” Quân Ấn temple, a small group of nuns or lay people dressed for a ceremony, eyed us with curiosity.  It appeared that not many Westerners ventured to this neighborhood.  They kindly nodded and we removed our shoes and entered the temple.  It was beautiful and exceptionally peaceful.  As I reflect on the myriad temples we visited, this remains one of my favorites.  It was not a mistake at all.img_8831TRAVELING WITH AN ADVENTUROUS FRIEND– The truth is I would not have gone to Vietnam and Laos this year without Tony’s prodding. Upon reflection, I’m not sure I could think of a better travel companion.  Who else would put up with my pleas to walk past the preserved body of Ho Chi Minh and spend hours in the War Remnants Museum in Sài Gòn detailing the legacy of Agent Orange and the Vietnamese perspective on their fight for independence?  Who else would share my joy in meditating with a former novice from a Buddhist monastery?  Without Tony, I would not have stopped at a village making Lao Lao (rice whiskey) or taken a cooking class.  Together we did it well!  And did I mention that he has elite status with airlines and hotels that gave us perks I’ve rarely experienced. 

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Our families and friends will now need to put up with us as we get together and recount our adventures in excruciating detail.  But those tales deserve to be told and the memories will be treasured for years to come.

And fear not – the story on this blog is not over.  Tony and I have much more to offer so keep your eyes out for the next installments.

Volunteering in Luang Prabang

There are so many people striving for a better life in Laos.  I only hope that the time I spent volunteering had half as much value to the young people I met as the blessings they gave to me.

I’ve always found volunteering one of the best ways to make a real connection.  In Laos, there is a desperation to learn languages, especially English and Chinese.  A language is perceived to offer a fast-track up the economic ladder.  In Luang Prabang, there are scores of private schools that offer language training but Big Brother Mouse is one of the few that was set up as a not-for-profit, Lao-owned business.

At the outset, its mission was to fill a void in books published in the Lao language and it has expanded to offer a selection translated into English.  They added an elementary and post-secondary school in the countryside outside Luang Prabang (Big Sister Mouse) as well as a range of free courses in the city.

I was able to join them for an open session our last morning in Laos.  Seven days a week they invite English speakers to drop in for a few hours.  I was warmly greeted and sat at a table waiting for someone to join me.  After a few minutes, a 19-year old woman, Hina, sat across from me.  It was time to begin.  We each started tentatively with the basic exchanges when you meet someone – where are you from, tell me about your family, etc.  The purpose was to teach but it was not clear who the student was in this scenario.  I talked slowly and tried to introduce new English vocabulary and improve pronunciation but I had so much to learn about Lao culture.

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The conversation veered significantly when tears started to well up in her eyes and she told me that her boyfriend had broken up with her the previous night.  His Mother had told him they would never have a happy marriage since under the Chinese Zodiac their birth years (rat and rooster) were incompatible.  It veered to a darker place when she told me of the suicide of her cousin that week.  We talked about the way our cultures looked at suicide and the dark mystery that leaves us with grief and unanswered questions.  This was clearly much more than a basic English practice-session.

When she had to leave for work, a trio of young Hmong men walked in and I went from a drama to slap stick comedy.  Koob had a sly smile and a facile use of English that he employed to tease me and his two friends.  He works for a trekking company and hopes to move to Thailand to continue to move up in the world of tourism.  Hawj was an exceptionally diligent student – peppering me with questions, asking for help with specific challenges he faced with grammar and driving the conversation.  He worked at two restaurants and participated in free morning and evening sessions at Big Brother Mouse.  I asked him what he did for fun and he was perplexed.  After a few tries, he understood and said that pleasure would come later – now he must work and learn in order to be successful.  Suav was a full-time student in English and technology but was very shy.  I tried to draw him out but Koob would usually jump in to steer the exchange to a joke.  After an hour with them, I was still chuckling.  This video give you a sense of the experience.

I found myself volunteering again when I stopped at Khaiphaen for lunch.  I needed a quick meal before we left for Hanoi and knew that Khaiphaen was part of the TREE global alliance of vocational training restaurants that educate street kids and other at-risk youth.  We had enjoyed a meal in Phnom Penh at one of these restaurants (In fact Jane and I tried deep fried tarantula – I don’t recommend it) so I was glad to have this opportunity in Laos.  While I was there, all of the wait staff sat together at a table to hone their math skills between bringing out dishes and my waiter ended up sitting with me to practice his English.

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There are so many people striving for a better life.  I only hope that the time I spent volunteering had half as much value to the young people I met as the blessings they gave to me.

A Venice Day on the Mekong River

In our family, we have a tradition passed down from my Aunt Cappy of demarcating rare and fabulous days that you savor far into the future as a Venice Day.  It dates back to a trip she made to Venice with her husband, Red, in the 1950s that could bring a smile to her face until her last days.

Yesterday was right up there in such experiences for me.  Tony and I headed off onto the Mekong to visit Pak Ou caves, 25 km north of Luang Prabang.  They are set in a dramatic limestone cliff at the point where the Mekong joins the Nam Ou River and have been the repository for thousands of years of Buddha icons now numbering over 4,000.

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While I was sure the caves would be interesting, I waivered on whether to take a day away from Luang Prabang since there were so many nooks and crannies left to explore.  Some of the guide books and blog posts I read complained of long boat rides crowded with tourists taking more than two hours one-way.  After our tradition of breakfast in the market at street food stands serving sticky rice, jeow bong (sweet and spicy Lao chili paste) and various grilled and fried delicacies, we walked to the docks only to realize that we had missed the tour boats that left at 8:30am.  Tony counseled patience and we slowly strolled up the riverside.  A few minutes later, we were approached by Nam Kom and offered a private ride up to the caves in his boat so off we went.

The caves and a stop at a village known for its Lao Lao, rice whiskey, were worthy destinations but I would not have had any second thoughts if we skipped them.  I would however have missed out if I didn’t get on the boat—the ride itself was pure joy.  The vistas were glorious, the breeze cool and the sound of the engine and the water soothing.  We snapped pictures of life along the river–fisherman, water buffalo, mist shrouded mountains, a major new bridge under construction, villages and garden plots.  I’d take breaks to read lessons from a famous Vietnamese monk, Thich Naht Hanh, and then gaze at the scenery.  It was absolutely glorious.

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The caves were fascinating but it was the journey that transformed the day.  As I looked at Nam Kom at the front of the boat maneuvering us downstream, I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude.  What a gift he had bestowed.

When we arrived back in Luang Prabang, we took a siesta and then walked across a narrow bamboo bridge to Dyen Sabai for happy hour.  With a cocktail in hand we were looking over the Nam khan river just as a major thunderstorm rolled in.  What is better than gazing out at thunder and lightning over an idyllic scene while drinking with a friend and reclining on a lovely veranda safe and secure from the downpour?

What a day!  When I lose sight of my many blessings, I look forward to calling up this memory.

The Life of a Novice

What is it like for a boy from a small village to join a Buddhist temple as a novice?

As a former novice at one of Luang Prabang’s Wats, Sounanh was the perfect guide to help me understand life in a Buddhist monastery.  He started his journey when he was nine years old and became intrigued by the monks that resided in his village.  He approached his father stating his aspiration to become a monk and his father suggested he journey to Luang Prabang and spend a week at a Wat to see whether this was the path for him.  One week led to two and then a commitment to spend a year and another until seven years had passed.

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It is not unusual.  It is reported that the majority of male Laotians join a monastery for at least some period of their lives, ranging from a few months to years to an entire lifetime.  While there are public schools, the Wats provide a path for education for many.  They not only learn the ancient chants and sutras but also curriculums that would be familiar to any child in my hometown of Arlington, Virginia from reading and writing to chemistry.

The commitment is not to be taken lightly since life at a temple is very strict.  To be ordained as a monk requires a man to comply with 227 precepts or rules while novices have ten and lay persons are expected to observe five

  • Refrain from harming living beings.
  • Refrain from taking that which is not freely given.
  • Refrain from sexual misconduct.
  • Refrain from wrong speech; such as lying, idle chatter, malicious gossip or harsh speech.
  • Refrain from intoxicating drink and drugs

I fear the last precept may be in conflict with my three-bar night rule.

Days themselves are highly regimented.  Sounanh would rise to a gong rung at 3:30am to prepare for the first round of meditation, communal chanting and prayers at 4am.  He spent many years learning the ancient Indian language of Pāli that is needed to learn the holy texts of Theravada Buddhism, the branch of Buddhism practiced here in Laos.

Slightly before 6am, the drums are struck informing the community that the monks and novices will be walking through the streets accepting alms – primarily sticky rice, fruit and other small offerings of food that will serve as sustenance for their two meals of the day at breakfast and lunch.  The devotion and reverence displayed in this daily ceremony is quite moving.  (See my prior blog post here.)

After returning to the Wat and completing daily chores for its upkeep, Sounanh would head off to school for eight hours before returning to wash, clean, sweep, and undertake other tasks before two hours of meditation, a Dharma talk or sermon by the abbot or a senior monk and then several hours of homework.  After a few hours of sleep, the cycle starts again.

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I am at a loss on how they do not collapse from exhaustion but Sounanh assured me that meditation offers its own form of relaxation and rejuvenation.  I know from my own practice that it is easy to slip from meditation to snoring all too quickly.

One of the insights that I found touching was when Sounanh described his life after leaving the order.  There is no shame in not seeking ordination as a monk after serving as a novice.  In fact, there is great honor for the individual and his family in service as a novice no matter how long one stays.  For Sounanh, the decision to leave was driven by his interest in attending university where he hopes to study Chinese, German and technology.

He is now earning money for his studies and working for his sister.  When I probed, I learned that this is not a “sister” as we typically think of it.  His sister is a woman in the community who helped support him during his years in the monastery.  Novices must pay a modest annual fee to support the monastery but they are not allowed to bring possessions or money.  Sounanh’s sister was instrumental in his being able to continue as a novice through her donations.  Out of love and respect he now helps with her business here in Luang Prabang.  It is yet one example of how deeply the lay and religious communities are tied together here in Laos.

After peppering him with questions for more than an hour, we entered a temple to meditate.  Sounanh led me through a sitting, standing and walking meditation.  While I still find walking meditation challenging (I cannot shake the feeling that I look like a zombie as I try to adopt what feels like a painfully slow pace), the hour spent with Sounanh offered that elusive opportunity to be present in the moment and to heighten my awareness.

 

 

Now I’m ready for more touring!

If you are in Luang Prabang and are interested in this experience, I can’t recommend Orange Robe Tours enough and Sounanh if you are lucky enough to have him as your guide.

 

Bánh Koht and Bánh Xèo – Be Still My Heart

A magical night on a street food tour of Sài Gòn


Tony just posted a great blog on the first stop in Sài Gòn on our street food tour with Street Food Man.  NaNa and Huy masterfully drove us on motorbikes through the streets of the city to a little piece of heaven.  A street food restaurant serving Bánh Koht and Bánh Xèo.  Read Tony’s blog for all the details and subscribe for more entries on that culinary excursion.

While this meal was fabulous, the truth is that the evening was magical due to NaNa and Huy.  I cannot express how much fun we all had together.