I Think This is Illegal Where I Come From

Sitting at a classroom desk, I heard a tap on the window and could just make out the laughing faces of the Hmong children standing outside in the dark.  The principal was grabbing my arm to make another toast, this time because we are both left-handed, as I had a moment of wondering, “Is this really happening?”

I learned a lot about the culture of Vietnam on my three-day trip to Mù Cang Chải with students from the Vietnamese Faculty of the Hanoi National University of Education (HNUE).  The trip was a cultural exchange betweeen the university students and the ethnic minority group, the Hmong, who live in the region.  Vietnam recognizes over 50 ethnic minority groups.  Many are farmers living in the remote mountain areas who speak their own languages, have traditional ways of dress, architecture and other distinct cultural traits.

Many of these groups are also marginalized from mainstream society and live in very poor conditions despite being surrounded by some of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen.


The rice had been harvested, so the colors were not vibrant, but it was still beautiful.

On this trip, HNUE students brought books to build a library at a local school and handed out over 100 boxes of basic staples and other supplies to families in need.  Leaving at 6:00 am on a Saturday, we took an all-day bus journey to a small village that had one hotel.  The students slept on the floor in a large room.  I was on the other side of a divider (not really a wall) with my own space.  Professors from the university, Korean exchange students and workers from Samsung, one of the sponsors of the exchange, also attended the trip.

On Sunday morning I found myself on the back of a motorbike riding the switchbacks through the mountains and soaking in the cool mountain air as we passed by terraced rice fields, local children on their way to school, water buffalo fights (a competition between two villages), and beautiful scenery in every direction.  We eventually were riding on bumpy dirt trails and had to walk through some sections since my driver couldn’t make it up the steep hills with all my weight on the back (I’m eating well here).

Back in a larger village that afternoon, we visited a middle school where the university students had set up the library that morning.  Most of the students are from the Hmong ethnic group and live in poor conditions.  Several hundred students live in the school’s dormitory (five students to a bed) since their homes are too far away in the mountains.  The school’s principal gave me a warm welcome over tea and I was lucky to have one of the university students there to translate.  Outside in the courtyard, everyone was busy preparing for the assembly.

I was a little surprised to learn that the program would run from 4:00 till 10:00.  After riding through the hills on a motorbike all morning, I didn’t know if I could last that long.

The students sat quietly in rows in plastic stools throughout the assembly.  There were games, prizes, speeches, musical performances, singing and dancing from the university students, middle school students and even the Samsung employees.  It was truly a cultural exchange.

We stopped for dinner after a couple of hours.  A classroom was set up for the distinguished guests and at first, I was glad to see pitchers of water on each table since I was getting thirsty.  I learned very quickly that the “water” was a traditional distilled beverage made from rice and the small cups at each place were for the many, many toasts that would be made.  The tradition involves making a toast to your table, downing the beverage and then shaking hands with each person.  The process repeated itself throughout the meal to the point where I was finding it hard to find the time to eat the delicious meal of local vegetables, chicken, eggs, beef and the ever-present fish sauce used for dipping.   And just when I thought I’d mastered the art of using chopsticks, I noticed more food was slipping through them than reaching my mouth as the toasts continued.

Soon, visitors from other tables all stopped by to make their formal greetings.  In between, I was the recipient of many personal toasts.  The principal made a toast to me because we’re both left-handed, the president of the local Communist party organization raised his cup in honor of the fact that we are the same age.  The seventh-grade teacher, my motorbike driver from the morning, the secretary of the Communist party group, and a long list of others made sure I was formally welcomed.  Overall, it was a very spirited evening!


The principal of the school, his daughter, and Huan, my unofficial translator (a freshman from the university).

Having another round of tea in the principal’s office by the light of his Samsung phone (the power had gone out) helped me to prepare for the next part of the evening – the bonfire.  For two hours, students of all ages danced and played around a bonfire in the courtyard.  It was clear that this was a highlight for the kids from the school and they loved interacting with the university students.  Of course, I spent my time taking pictures (sorry if some are blurry).  The energy and warmth of the evening made me thankful that this was real and not just a dream.



We passed through a tea plantation on the way there.


Watching the water buffalo fights.


Playing marbles



Presenting the donations



The family bed



Even in Vietnam, I’m taking pictures at middle school dances.



No one wanted to leave, even as the fire died down.

Comments (30):

  1. Paula Agins

    October 13, 2016 at 12:18

    Was just wondering when you would send an update. Great photos and story about your travels!!!

    • Tim Flanagan

      October 16, 2016 at 05:09

      Thanks, Paula. It’s been hard to keep up with it all. Too much to do here.

  2. Lori

    October 13, 2016 at 12:39

    WOW!!!!! Love, love, love! What a fabulous experience!!! Beautiful pics!

    • Tim Flanagan

      October 16, 2016 at 05:10

      Thank you, and congratulations!

  3. Susanne Murphy

    October 13, 2016 at 13:07

    There is so much of wonder in our world, isn’t there?

    • Tim Flanagan

      October 16, 2016 at 05:10

      It’s good to get out and see it every now and then!

  4. Karen Champ

    October 13, 2016 at 13:59

    So facinating! I Love your updates!

    • Tim Flanagan

      October 16, 2016 at 05:11

      Glad to hear it, Karen. Feel free to publicize my blog in Panther Tracks!

  5. LInda Wight

    October 13, 2016 at 16:24

    Hi Tim, love the pictures- you are experiencing a lot of different cultures and a lot of tradition- good think you’re in good shape. The children are very joyful. INteresting to see the fields after rice harvested and the tea field and buffalo. STay well – keep studying ! The autumn leaves here in Maine are very beautiful right now. . THanks for sharing Love Linda

    • Tim Flanagan

      October 16, 2016 at 05:12

      I’m missing the leaves and the crisp air right now, but I know I won’t miss winter!

  6. Cindy Cassidy

    October 13, 2016 at 17:40

    Seems like you fit right in as you’ve had a “typical Tim adventure!” Cheers to you (couldn’t resist another toast) as you get the opportunity to enrich these beautiful children’s daily lives!

    • Tim Flanagan

      October 16, 2016 at 05:13

      You would have loved this experience, I’m sure!

  7. Deidre

    October 13, 2016 at 19:11

    It does seem like a dream after reading your words and looking at your beautiful photos. Glad you are eating well and maybe you will bring back some good recipes when you return! You look wonderful and so happy. You are like a celebrity there! You picked a perfect time to leave the USA and hopefully are not hearing much about the Presidential campaign. It’s sort of like two parents fighting for custody in an angry battle and we the voters are like the children. Awful! Enjoy every minute of this magical place! We miss seeing you!

    • Tim Flanagan

      October 16, 2016 at 05:17

      Unfortunately, the fighting comes through loud and clear here. The Vietnamese are very interested in the election, not only because it’s something they don’t experience here, but because they wonder how the outcome will affect them. One thing’s for sure – they love Obama. They are still talking about his visit here earlier this year.

  8. Bruce Yarnall

    October 13, 2016 at 19:54

    It looks amazing Tim. I can’t wait to hear more about it when you return to our part of the world.

    • Tim Flanagan

      October 16, 2016 at 05:18

      Yes, there’s always more to the story.

  9. Millie

    October 13, 2016 at 20:18

    We are starved for Tim’s stories..TU for this one. Just wonderful!
    Love, K…Millie

    • Tim Flanagan

      October 16, 2016 at 05:19

      Wish this was all I had to do – maybe after January I’ll be able to write more.

  10. Malana Ashlie

    October 14, 2016 at 01:19

    Great story and wonderful photos. I love the idea of the many toast. What a fabulous experience. Look forward to the next post. ~ Malana

    • Tim Flanagan

      October 16, 2016 at 05:21

      The traditions are fun and sincere. Sometimes I long for Spanish, where I could at least understand half of what people were saying.

  11. Monica Schnee

    October 14, 2016 at 03:37

    What a great moment! Every time you post, I can’t help but compare our experiences, two countries in South East Asia, two worlds apart. I loved the faces, the joy of the kids to have you there and the pride they all show. They are so incredibly generous and open with their schools. The countryside still retains so much of what it must have been. I love it all, Tim. Thanks for sharing and for making sure that your spectacular pictures tell the story.

    • Tim Flanagan

      October 16, 2016 at 05:25

      Thanks, Monica. Living in this region makes you realize just how diverse it is. I’m also realizing things are not all close together – you’re 2000 miles away!

  12. Ruby

    October 15, 2016 at 18:18

    What a beautiful place Tim! I’m glad to see and hear what is captivating for you. I can totally relate to all the toasts during dinner. You better get better at chopsticks or you’ll go hungry! Love the water buffalo. xo ruby

    • Tim Flanagan

      October 16, 2016 at 05:28

      Yes, I’ve thought of Morocco a lot while here. The traditions and formalities (especially the tea rituals) are similar. Hope you and Hassan are having a good year!

  13. Betsy

    October 16, 2016 at 09:31

    Great pics Tim. We miss you.!

    • Tim Flanagan

      October 18, 2016 at 23:36

      Thank you! Miss you guys, too.

  14. Jeanne Steinnagel

    October 19, 2016 at 12:33

    Wow Tim!! Your photos are fantastic! You have really captured the spirit and excitement of the celebration!! What kind of camera are you using? You know I am a photo fanatic.

    • Tim Flanagan

      October 20, 2016 at 01:35

      Thanks, Jeanne! I’m using a Nikon D5300, mostly with a Sigma 18-200 lens. I also have a prime lens and a GoPro (which I haven’t used much).

  15. Sally M

    October 24, 2016 at 07:42

    I really enjoyed your post today!

    • Tim Flanagan

      October 24, 2016 at 09:27

      Thanks, Sally! Nice to hear from you.


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