Saturday, August 10, 2019

The Educational Summer Vacation: Studying Vietnam

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The Educational Summer Vacation is something my kids and I have done for the past 6 years or so.

Families do different things to provide structure to their summers so their kids don't turn into gelatinous blobs, and for us that's trying our best to learn about and immerse ourselves in the culture of a different country of the world each week.

This week my kids chose Vietnam. I went into it knowing only two things about Vietnam: the U.S. was involved in a long and unpleasant war there, and they make very tasty pho.

I'm now more informed about what exactly was involved in the Vietnam War, and I still really like pho.


We began by locating Vietnam on the giant wall map I put up at the beginning of the summer.

I threw on some Vietnamese folk music from YouTube while they wrote down everything they could learn about it from the map: what countries/bodies of water border it, if it has any interesting physical features, and what the capital is. We used these faux passport pages that I designed years ago.

They looked up the Vietnamese flag and made one for our Wall O' Flags while I skimmed and read out loud parts of the book Vietnam from the Explore the Countries series.

We headed downstairs to watch a short 13-minute DVD about Vietnam from one of my favorite video series, Countries Around the World. They're meant for classroom use so they are narrated by a kid and just the right length to keep my younger kids' attention.

We were going to make Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches for lunch, but I failed to read the recipe ahead of time and see that I was supposed to marinate the meat first for 4-6 hours. Tomorrow, then.


Our library had a lot of educational videos about Vietnam (who knew?) so today started out with Families of Vietnam from the Families of the World DVD series. They learned about a family in Ho Chi Minh City and one that lives in rural Vietnam, which I thought gave them a pretty rounded picture of what life was like in Vietnam.

Today's focus, though was going to be the Vietnamese language.

We read an age-appropriate bare bones guide to Vietnamese in the introduction of My First Book of Vietnamese Words, and then each kid picked a few pages to read out loud. We did our best struggling through the pronunciations, which I'm sorry to say was not very good.

I explained what a tonal language is by paraphrasing some of this article, and then we watched this video on the 6 tones of Vietnamese and how to do them. 

We played "Move Your Body With the Tones" (Game #2 in this article on fun ways to improve your Vietnamese.)

I stand by the idea and think it's a good game in theory, but I'd only learned the tones about 5 minutes ago so I had to keep referring back to the video and the game fizzled quickly. If you do this, take 20 minutes the night before to learn a little more about the tones, or at least write yourself a cheat sheet.

Turning to more YouTube, we learned 'please' and 'thank you,' 'hello' and 'goodbye,' and then watched this hilarious video about counting from one to ten:

If the comments section is to be believed they're even funnier if you know Vietnamese. (She also has videos on animals and fruit, FYI.)

Today we finally got around to making our banh mi sandwiches! 

As per this recipe, I marinated the meat and pickled the shredded carrots before we left for swimming lessons in the morning, which is no small feat because the pool is 20 minutes away and lessons start at 9 AM.

I realize that some of you can easily make it out of the house before 9 AM with your kids dressed, but you are not me. Anyway, I was super-impressed with myself.

Banh mi sandwich bar.

That night for dinner, we went out for Vietnamese food. My 5-year-old calls restaurants "resternauts" and I'm not going to correct him until he's at least 16. It's too cute.

In addition to a few bowls of pho (which was okay but definitely not as good as the pho we ate in Portland) we also got a fire pot.

Fire pot is also called hot pot in China or shabu shabu in Japan; it's kind of like Asian fondue. But instead of dipping stuff in cheese you're cooking meat and vegetables in boiling broth.

A big gas burner is brought to your table (my 3-year-old's eyes widened and he just breathed "Woah" when they brought it out) and after cooking the food, you roll it up in rice paper and eat it.

Try to imagine 6 kids ages 3 through 15 who've never done this before trying to figure it out.

Now imagine it going worse. Phillip had a headache 5 minutes into the meal. I remained calm and positive because we have to trade off when we have our mental breakdowns; we're quite the team.


Most holidays in Vietnam follow the lunar calendar, meaning that they happen at roughly the same time each year but on a different date. Kind of like Easter.

We learned about lots of different holidays in the book Cultural Traditions in Vietnam, stopping at the appropriate point to read the picture book Ten Mice for Tet! by Pegi Deitz Shea and Cynthia Weill (the text of the story didn't have much substance, but there was a little fact sheet in the back that made it worthwhile. Also, I loved the illustration style.)

Look closely and you will see the illustrations are all made out of threads. Or pictures of them, anyway.

Tết Nguyên Đán, usually just called 'Tet,' is the Vietnamese New Year, and it's a bigger deal than Christmas in the U.S.

Tết Trung Thu is the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, when Vietnamese kids often carry fancy star-shaped lanterns to celebrate. We made our own simple lanterns using these instructions.

It was way harder to herd everyone together and take this picture than it should have been.

We also made mooncakes. Traditionally, Vietnamese people will buy mooncakes (not make them) and give them away to friends and family during the Moon Festival.

And no wonder, because it's an extremely time-intensive process.

I stayed up with my two oldest daughters laboriously making these things. Having a group of people working on them is a good idea because there are so many steps in the process and many hands make it go faster.

bought a special mold on Amazon for these mooncakes and true advertising, it did turn out the prettiest mooncakes there ever were. 

It was fun to make them once, but I doubt I'll be making these again. I'm probably just too American, but they weren't sweet enough for me to make it worth my while. I'm trying to brainstorm other ways to use that fantastic mold, though. (A lot of people online said they used them for making pretty soap.)


After starting the day by reading Vietnam ABCs by Theresa Alberti, the kids and I learned about the Vietnam War.

I ended up watching a friend's children at the last minute, and since I didn't think they'd appreciate learning about Agent Orange and Napalm as much as my weird kids, we waited until afterward and were kind of rushed.

Most of it was new to my older kids, who claimed they hadn't learned about the Vietnam War in school. And if I'm honest, most of it was new to me, too. Of the wars America has been involved in, it's probably the one I knew the least about.

I read selections from The Vietnam War: 12 Things to Know by Jill Sherman and gave the kids What Was the Vietnam War? (I love love love the Who Is/Who Was series, by the way. It's amazing kids' nonfiction on basically every famous person and place you can think of. I already have a library hold on What Is the Panama Canal? for next week.)

We also watched this short History Channel biopic of Ho Chi Minh, who was the driving force behind Vietnam gaining independence as a country and the reunification of South and North Vietnam, but he was also a fierce communist who brought everyone under communist rule, making him a pretty interesting guy.

I try to think of something hands-on every day, but finding a craft or activity on a war that's not too macabre is difficult.

Luckily for me, helicopters came into widespread military use for the first time during the Vietnam War, so we decided to lighten the mood with some helicopter fun.

I printed out copies of this template for everyone. I was prepared to stage a friendly competition on who can get their helicopter closest to a target, who can fly for the longest, etc, but they really had the most fun when I just shut up and let them drop it off the side of the deck.

Because of our late start to the day, I had to cut it short to leave on a rare date night Phillip and I had planned, but the next day we read a picture book about the "boat people" who escaped from communist Vietnam following the war called Adrift at Sea: A Vietnamense Boy's Story of Survival.


The three main religions in Vietnam are Buddhism, Confuscianism, and Daoism. I gave each of my three oldest kids a copy of this world religions fact sheet and gave them 15 minutes to figure out which religion each of them was going to investigate and summarize for all of us.

Trust me, they hated loved this.

Download the Questions

While they researched, I read to my 7-year-old from this book of Vietnamese Children's Favorite Stories while my 3- and 5-year-olds played with cars and completely ignored us.

After time was up and we listened to the oldest 3 tell us about the religions they looked up, I told them about Cao Dai, which is a uniquely Vietnamese religion that blends the three and also draws from Christianity, as well.

Cao Dai: The People's Religion of Vietnam from Cheri Gaulke on Vimeo.

The symbol of Caodaism is the Left Eye of God, usually shown in a triangle with rays surrounding it.

They looked up pictures of the Divine Eye and painted them on rocks I'd prepped with my 15-year-old the night before, which took a lot longer than I thought it would because of a distinct lack of white spraypaint in the basement.


On our last day, all we had left to do was watch Vietnam from the World Odysseys DVD Series. Like I said, our library had a lot of DVDs on the country so why not?

We learned a lot about Vietnam, and I also left out copies of  Children of Vietnam by Marybeth Lorbiecki and Goodbye, Vietnam by Gloria Whelan for the kids to read sometime.

As I tucked my 7-year-old into bed, she asked me a question about why Hamburger Hill was called that. Unfortunately I didn't know the answer, but at least I know she's been reading.

Update: I just Googled why Hamburger Hill was called Hamburger Hill, and I don't think she wants to know.

Learning about Vietnam is fun and hands-on with these free crafts, ideas, and activities for kids! #vietnam #educational
Building the perfect Vietnam lesson plan for your students? Are you doing an around-the-world unit in your K-12 social studies classroom? Try these free and fun Vietnam activities, crafts, books, and free printables for teachers and educators! #vietnam #vietnamese #lessonplan

This Vietnam unit study is packed with activities, crafts, book lists, and recipes for kids of all ages! Make learning about Vietnam in your homeschool even more fun with these free ideas and resources. #vietnam #homeschool #educational
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Jenny in WV said...

How long did you have to hold the meat in the broth to cook? It seems like it would be kinda fun, but also could get boring fast? (Maybe this keeps one from overeating?)
I never really learned about the Vietnam War in school either. The one year (11th grade) that we studies American History after the Civil War seemed to be mostly about the reconstruction period. I think we only had about a week to cover from V-J day up to the mid-90s (which we were old enough to remember).

Jenny Evans said...

You don't have to hold it in there. You just drop it in with your chopsticks and the meat cooks quick because it's shaved really thinly. It's actually a really fun meal!