Archive for January, 2010

Lucky, lucky me

It’s been an amazing week in the Mekong Delta and Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam. My $30 three-day tour (includes meals, transportation, tour guide and accommodations) captured the highlights of the Mekong Delta including the floating market, traditional music, rice paper compounds, temples and even a crocodile farm. The highlights were of course, the people. Everywhere I went, people shared their stories with me with very little prompting. I learned about the “New Economic Zone.” After the war ended in 1975, the men that were involved in the South Vietnamese Army/government/United States were placed in re-education camps/prisons for months to years. The people that were involved in the Northern Army/communists were moved into Saigon’s “New Economic Zone” and the Southern Sympathizers were displaced from their homes, many to the Mekong Delta. I have met so many people this past week – the men that were placed in the prisons, the women left behind to raise children, and the now-grown children.

I continue to be frustrated with the tourists that are so cynical of Vietnamese people, while also incredibly touched by the generosity of the locals. I took the public bus from Chau Doc to Rach Gia. We foreigners had been properly warned by the travel agent about the public shuttle: no air conditioning, many stops to pick up/drop off additional passengers, slower than the VIP/Express Bus. I boarded the van with two German tourists and we got the best seats. The German man sat on the end for the additional room for his long legs. Inevitably, more passengers boarded bringing a lot of boxes and luggage, and the staff started moving the German man’s legs to accommodate the extra luggage. More people boarded with more luggage and lots of squeezing into tight spaces. The German man started yelling, “Less touching and more talking!” and “NO! NO!” There was clearly a language and cultural barrier, and the Vietnamese man tried to shift the boxes around to make it more comfortable for the German man (although less comfortable for all the Vietnamese passengers). Every time the Vietnamese man tried to make more room, it just seemed to anger the German man even more. I was just happy we weren’t sharing a seat with chickens and pigs! And then I remembered a scene from the prior day. We had walked through a watermelon field and my sandals were caked in mud. I stopped by the river to clean off my shoes but couldn’t quite reach the river from my vantage point. A woman washing her dishes beside me saw my hesitation, and immediately started WASHING MY FEET! I was just floored by this simple demonstration of the generous Vietnamese spirit. And I see it everywhere, so it is so hard to understand the wrath of tourists.

After the Mekong Delta, I went to Phu Quoc Island and spent four glorious days on deserted beaches. I got a massage on the beach (my seventeenth massage over eight weeks!) and the massage therapist asked me all the standard Vietnamese questions: “Where are you from? How old are you? Are you married? Where is your mother from in Vietnam? How many brothers and sisters do you have?” And then she asked me an unusual one, “Are you happy?” I burst out laughing with a loud, “Yes!” I discovered we were the same age and was totally surprised. She looked so much older than me, and I realized (again) that I am very lucky. If things had been slightly different in my life, I could be massaging tourists in Vietnam for a few dollars a day.

I have had such a wonderful life in Seattle, and an amazing 21 years in the Northwest. And the exciting part is I know I have an even better future ahead of me. I usually feel a bit sad at the end of a vacation. But this time, I am excited to return to Seattle in two days and see friends and family. I know I will be returning to Vietnam in March, and have found a new home. This is probably the last e-mail during my travels. My thanks to all of you for being such wonderful vicarious travel companions. Hope to see you in Seattle, or in Southeast Asia later this year!

Attached are my final photos from Vietnam. I keep saying the people are amazing, and they are. But FOOD is definitely the second highlight of my trip. I had two wonderful beach BBQs in Phu Quoc. You can see the delight in my face from the shrimp and sea urchin. Also included a serene trip down the Mekong Delta.

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It’s the people

This week, I spent the day in Tam Ky, Vietnam volunteering at orphanages with Global Volunteer Network. Currently, six volunteers from Australia, Scotland, Malaysia and the United States live in a four-bedroom house. The program is very well organized and they have a cook, driver, site coordinator and regional coordinator. The day I was there a visiting Physical Therapist was spending his one week/month in Tam Ky. They also had two local interns from a neighboring University. I’m sure the reason why it’s so well resourced is if you just visit this place your heart cracks wide open and you just want to help.

As soon as our van pulled up to the orphanage, the children streamed out of the building and ran up to hug us. We brought them their morning bananas and they were screaming with joy. There are 45 children at this orphanage ranging from infants to 11 year old children. I spent most of the morning in the infant room, and as soon as I walked into the room they all turned their gaze on me. Imagine ten pairs of adorable eyes just staring at you, waiting for you to pick them up and love them?!? I was totally hooked. Since I was the new untrained volunteer, I just held them, fed them and changed diapers, while other volunteers were helping to massage babies, exercise, potty train, and organize the supply run. I don’t think I’ve ever been around this many babies before, and it was just astounding to me that they could immediately trust me, especially given their circumstances. Children are there for many reasons – teenage mothers that aren’t ready to parent, very poor parents that can’t afford a child, or their parents died (many children became orphans from the typhoons). Later, we went to another orphanage for older children, and I (tried) to help teach English to older students. They were a bit rowdy and the other volunteer was great at managing their behavior issues. By the end of the day, I was totally exhausted. And although I felt like I helped contribute, it was really just temporary. Of course, the children need love and attention and that is important. But I will be thinking about how to do something more sustainable and impactful when I return (open to ideas!).

It started raining in Hoi An, so I headed south and am in Saigon tonight. Tomorrow, I go on a three day tour of the Mekong Delta, including homestays with local families which I’ve been wanting to do for the entire trip. Then I’ll get some beach time at Phu Quoc Island before returning to Saigon. I’m flying back to Seattle on January 22 and will be in Seattle for about six weeks before returning to Vietnam. Should I have ANOTHER going away party? Just kidding, but I will have a potluck (I’m on a budget people) with all my travel photos and we can all swap travel stories.

Attached are a few photos of the wonderful people I’ve encountered over the past week. The people are the absolute highlight of this trip, from the locals to hotel staff to expats to travellers. The first photo is the old woman on the beach in Hoi An that kept coming back to me to sell me snacks. I kept thinking she could be my grandmother, working so hard to make just a few dollars a day. So many tourists are cynical in Vietnam and wary of anyone selling anything, but I was delighted this woman was willing to cut me a fresh mango on the beach. The other photos are from the orphanage. You’re not supposed to have favorites, but I was immediately taken with Quynh and wanted to take her home with me!

I kept buying things from this elderly woman at the beach (Cua Dai) in Hoi An, Vietnam. She could be my grandmother and cut me fresh mango, plied me with oreos and sweet treats.
My heart immediately opened up to these babies at an orphanage in Tam Ky, Vietnam.

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Central Vietnam is really glorious. I really enjoyed my last days in Hanoi, but it has been good to slow down the pace in Hue and Hoi An. As I rounded the corner on the bus from Hue to Hoi An, and we entered Da Nang I got a really weird feeling. I suddenly had a realization that this was the city of my conception and the birthplace of my brother. There was a visceral feeling of deja vu, coming home, I’ve been here before, all of it rolled into one – even though it was my first time to Da Nang.

Hoi An is just lovely, similar to the slow, sweet pace of Luang Prubang, Laos. It’s a small, lowscale city that hugs a river with narrow streets. And the food is amazing! I had a wonderful cooking class today that began with a 2-hour tour of the market. We sampled sweet drinks, fruit I’d never seen before, cookies with minced pork. I learned about different types of rice, how to pick a ripe pomelo (it should be heavy), select fresh fish (besides clear eyes, also peer into the gills to see fresh blood), and the folk tale behind the betel nut. I have walked through this market many times already, but now it has new meaning to me. And this is what this trip has been for me. I have always been living my life, but now I feel SO ALIVE! (more on that in a bit)

I frequently run into travellers that I have met in other cities, since many of us are on the same Southeast Asia loop, and everyone starts to look a bit familiar. So I’m walking down the street yesterday and see a familiar face in a store – but then I realize it really IS a familiar face, a friend from Seattle! How bizarre is that? The world is so very small, and I’m about to make it a lot smaller. So here is the big news…

This trip has been truly life changing. I’ve always known that the biggest barrier in life is myself. So I’ve decided to conquer my fears, take the big leap, and stay in Southeast Asia for awhile. I have absolutely loved my work at the foundation. But for some time, I’ve felt removed from the clients and have been wanting to get back into the field to get refreshed/recharged. In Halong Bay, I met an Australian-Vietnamese woman who was taking a one year sabbatical to travel and volunteer. She was headed to Tam Ky, the region of my mother’s birthplace, to volunteer at orphanages through the Global Volunteer Network. It seemed like total kismet to meet her and learn about this opportunity. Tomorrow, I’ll visit her and the orphanages. For the first time in my adult life, I am totally free to do anything – unemployed, single, no children. I know that as soon as I return to the US, I’ll find a job, fall in love, and have children shortly. I may never have this moment again.

In Hanoi, my friends showed me the holiday postcard I’d sent them in 2000, declaring that I was going to move to Vietnam in 2001. During my first trip to Vietnam in 1998, I had every intention of saving money in the US, and then moving to Vietnam for a few years. But then life catches up with you and I never did move to Vietnam. So here I am again, and this time I’m going to seize this moment. I’ll volunteer in Vietnam for three months, travel in Asia, and then return to Vietnam to work for an NGO. This is an evolving plan, so please let me know if you have any connections in Southeast Asia, ideas, etc.

Internet is really slow again so no photos, sorry. My thanks to all of you for being with me on this journey, and the many journeys ahead!

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The new Vietnam

Leaving Laos was really difficult. My last days in Luang Prubang continued to be delightful. I went on a bike ride with the guesthouse owner, his brother-in-law, and fellow guests. We took a ferry across the Mekong, and rode along a bumpy road to a temple. Children plied us with lotus flowers to provide offerings at the temple situated on top of a hill with a spectacular view of the area. After we’d each purchased lotus flowers, the five children could relax, play and just be kids with us (business first of course!). They spontaneously burst into a coordinated traditional song/dance and again I felt so fortunate to be part of this unfolding life of mine. Later, we biked along dusty roads to our destination – a sugarcane plantation. This family runs an amazing operation from start to finish. They grow and harvest the sugarcane. They have custom built a huge gear shift and a water buffalo is attached, walking in a neverending circle to crank the gears while someone feeds sugar canes into the gears to produce the juice. They boil the juice for five hours, stir it, and then pour it into a mold, drying it in the sun to make bricks of brown sugar. We sampled all the imaginable uses – raw sugarcane, sugarcane juice, sugarcane taffy and sugar. YUM!

In 1998, I visited Vietnam for the first time and it was the most unexpected homecoming. Over the years, I’ve built up Hanoi as this mythical place and it’s occupied a very dear place in my heart. So it was completely disconcerting when I left Laos, arrived in Hanoi and was immediately accosted by hotel staff yelling at me on the street and physically trying to grab my luggage into their hotel. I ran away from there quickly, and since it was so late, just stayed in a 6-story walk up (of course I was on the top floor) that was very sparse and left me a bit sad. The next morning, I went in search of a new hotel, found Hanoi Amazing Hotel and it absolutely lived up to it’s name. The hotel staff were just delightful and I felt a bit sad to leave them to go on a cruise to Halong Bay. Halong Bay consists of 1,969 islands and is one of the most beautiful places on earth. I splurged and stayed on a luxury junk (a big upgrade from my last trip to Halong Bay of 2 nights/3 days for $30). We went kayaking through caves, I jumped off the top of the boat, hiked to the top of hills with amazing vantages and met lots of wonderful people. It was the perfect way to spend New Years Eve/Day.

Now that I’ve been in Hanoi for a bit, I’m starting to get the hook-up! I reconnected with my friends who ran the budget hotel I stayed in for two weeks in 1998. Last night, they prepared a huge feast for me and it was so wonderful to eat a home-cooked meal with friends. Tonight, I’ll eat dinner with someone who works for an NGO in Hanoi (PATH, major grantee of the Gates Foundation). Today, I took a tour with the local NGO, Hanoi City Kids, that uses university students as tour guides to improve their English skills. After visiting the major sights (it is really weird to view Ho Chi Minh’s embalmed body), we ate lunch at Koto, an NGO that provides culinary training to street kids, similar to Seattle’s Fare Start. This new Vietnam is a bit of a conundrum to me. So hungry for economic growth, but also aware of the growing pains. The university student said to me today, “I hope the next time you come to Vietnam there will be more cars then mopeds on the street.” I asked her why and she said it would be a symbol of economic growth, although she acknowledged with regret the harsh realities (pollution, traffic, widening gap between rich and poor).

I’m taking the overnight train to Hue tomorrow, and am ready to get to warmer weather and Central Vietnam, my mother’s birthplace. Hanoi is a bit relentless, and the Old Quarter is total chaos. There are now 2 million mopeds in Hanoi and I have to remain calm and steady to cross the street. It’s common to see tourists just standing in fear for minutes, waiting for a break in traffic that never comes. Of course, when I am with Vietnamese friends, the women link their arms in mine and they don’t even glance sideways when crossing the street!

I’ll have to post photos next time since the connection is pretty slow. Wishing you all a wonderful new year!

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