A Travellerspoint blog

Volunteer Life

...or how to live with 18 other people

We just finished our stint of volunteering and it was definitely a worthwhile experience. We talked a lot in the past two blogs about the work that we did, but I haven't mentioned much about life outside of the project. I would have to say that the biggest adjustment was living in a house with about 18 other people. When you are used to a lot of alone time, being with people 24-7 is not easy. The Vietnamese culture is very sociable and communal and they don't really see a reason to have alone time. It is actually seen as sad when someone is alone. But, besides the small annoyances, we really made some great bonds over the 2 weeks with our fellow volunteers and wouldn't change a thing (well, maybe more toilet paper!)

Here are some photos from the Peace house where we stayed:

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Our humble abode.

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Our daily van ride to the village where we passed new condos, supermarkets, rice paddies, and BBQ-ed dogs on tables. Yes, dogs, whole or in half, smiling at us - more on that later...

Most of the time in the house, we hung out together. One very common pastime was playing cards with Khiem and Khai, two very competitive Vietnamese brothers. They were fantastic at counting cards and we were lucky they didn't gamble or we would probably be asking for handouts right about now. While they killed us in playing Hearts, we managed to take the lead when we introduced them to Big 2.

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We also ate most of our dinners together in the house. They were usually prepared by a Vietnamese girl, Hung, but USA took over one night to make an authentic American meal - Mexican food, of course. Ingredients were a little hard to come by, but a little experimenting and the meal was a success (who would have thought we would have to go Vietnam to learn how to make flour tortillas)! The Korean volunteers also took a night to cook, and yes Dad, we tried Kim Chi and Justin liked the cabbagey dishes! Justin tried his hardest to curb the use of MSG, but communication skills were weak and we are now numb to salty food.

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Helping out in the kitchen.

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Joanna makes salsa.

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I make tortillas.

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In our free time, many of the Vietnamese volunteers and staff showed us around Hanoi. It was wonderful having our own personal tour guides that would prevent us from getting overcharged for everything. Here are some photos from around town:

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We visited a night market.

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We were very tempted to buy this tasteful clock honoring Ho Chi Minh, but we couldn't fit it in our packs.

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Justin picks up a smoking habit.

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The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, where Ho's embalmed body is on display. Too bad you're not allowed to take photos inside! The experience of just getting into the Mausoleum is worth a trip to Vietnam. We have never experienced such unnecessary waiting in line, dropping off of bags, security screenings, picking up bags, dropping back off bags, single-file walking, no hands in your pockets or crossing of the arms (yes, I (Justin) was tapped on the shoulder for both), picking up of bags (in a different location from where we dropped them off), etc. The guy is pumped full of formaldehyde, do you think he minds if I have my arms crossed?????

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Out for some famous Vietnamese Pho.

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Aerobics by Hoan Kiem Lake.

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Bridge in Hoan Kiem Lake.

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Hanoi is famous for it's water puppet show.

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Army training.

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A visit to the Ho Chi Minh museum and house.

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Inside the Temple of Literature, a 1,000 year old complex and Vietnam's first university.

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A visit to Vietnam wouldn't be complete without a romantic tour on a swan boat. AWWWWW!! (We were forced, I swear)

We were invited to one of the volunteer's (Linh) family's house for dinner one night and were fed a huge meal of spring rolls and soup. Linh lives with her parents, brother and grandparents, which is the norm in Vietnam. Her entire family made us feel right at home. After dinner, I (Justin) won the ping-pong tournament, so I think we are even with Vietnam!

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They lived across from a dog meat restaurant, which kept us entertained for a while. The place had some chopped up pooch on the table and a big live dog hanging out inside. When we asked if the live dog was on the menu for tomorrow, they laughed and said, "No, he's a friend".

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Linh's family dog was being a bit annoying, so Justin took him to the restaurant to give him a little scare.

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Our final night together with all the volunteers we had a huge farewell dinner and managed to jam about 30 people into the "dining room". It was one heck of a meal and we had a great time.

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Posted by rebmamber 19:57 Archived in Vietnam Comments (3)

Halong Bay

Weekend Trip

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We went to Halong Bay with the volunteering group for a two-day one-night adventure. About 20 of us left Hanoi at about 8 am and 3 hours later (and a few car sick Vietnamese) we got on a boat and headed off into the bay.

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We didn't have the best weather, but the fog and misty rain added an eerie effect to the spectacular scenery of this UNESCO World Heritage site. There are literally thousands of limestone mountains descending out of the water. For a few hours you are completely surrounded on all sides by these mountains and calm blue waters.

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Fishing villages in the bay.

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Justin and Cuong.

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The never-ending card games!

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Khai entertains us with his beautiful voice!

On the way to Cat Ba Island, we made a visit to "Surprise" Cave. Which despite it's quite corny name, did surprise us, as it was massive and beautiful.

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After a 4-hour cruise on the 2-story wooden boat, we arrived at Cat Ba Island for the night. We checked into our hotel and it was very nice to have our own room and bathroom for one night after living with about 18 people for a week! We then went out to explore the island, but unfortunately, we only had about an hour before dark. Us Americans got wind of a restaurant with a happy hour special and organic (and no MSG) food, so we spent our free hour before dinner to check it out. We were very pleased with our black bean nachos with real guacamole and sour cream!

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We all had dinner together and then tried to decide what we would do for the evening. However, with a group this big, it is very difficult to find something that everyone wants to do, so we eventually split up into 2 groups, and we went to a pub to relax, which turned into a karaoke session. There is not a day that goes by in Asia where you don't see, hear or participate in karaoke (However, this was our first time participating, thankfully). The Vietnamese can really sing, and I think they enjoyed showing off their skills. However, the westerners brought down the house with our ear-piercing rendition of "Sweet Caroline". Neil Diamond would have been proud.

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After leaving the pub, we were greeted with pumping sounds of techno music pouring out onto the street. A few of the Vietnamese girls were very eager to check it out, so we said, "Why not?" and went in. It was only 10 pm and the dance floor full of energy. We soon realized that what we were dancing to was a techno version of the anthem "Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh". It was hilarious and we busted some moves in honor of "Uncle Ho".

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We retired somewhat early (around 11pm) since we had to get up for the ride home the following day. We would have loved to have more time out on the island, but it was great to get a chance to see it. We got home Sunday and got ready for another week of volunteering.

Posted by rebmamber 19:56 Archived in Vietnam Comments (3)

Volunteering: Week One

Vietnam Friendship Village

A Brief History

Of course, everyone is familiar with the Vietnam War, whether you lived through it or have only seen "Apocalypse Now". The country has gone through some very difficult times since the war ended, known here as the "Dark Ages". Many people forgot about Vietnam once we left, but unfortunately the Vietnamese people are still suffering the effects of the war today. I just want to list a few things that we have learned since our time here.

During the war, twice the tonnage of bombs was dropped in Vietnam, a country about the same size as California, than were dropped during all of WWII in both Europe and Asia. One of the most devastating weapons used was the defoliating chemical known as Agent Orange. From the years 1965-1971 (when the use of Agent Orange was stopped 2 years before America left Vietnam), the US dropped more than 100 million pounds of Agent Orange, which was more than 3 lbs per person at the time including women and children. The U.S. government recognizes 13 medical conditions stemming from exposure to Agent Orange/Dioxin affecting U.S. veterans. But Washington denies any connection or culpability with regard to the millions of Vietnamese who were “the direct targets of the spraying, and who are living in areas that were sprayed and are eating the food from the sprayed land.” On the other hand, the Vietnamese government has spent little money in doing sufficient research that would back their claims and it will be very difficult, maybe impossible, to pin-point agent orange as the culprit of any deformity or disease as nearly everyone alive has some level dioxins in their system. However, it is difficult to ignore the fact that the Vietnamese people are suffering from an abnormally large amount of diseases and deformities in past and present generations. Even scarier is that no one can be certain how long it will take for the dioxins from Agent Orange to stop affecting this country.

There have been very little monetary contributions for pain suffered by the innocent victims of the war (by both governments). For example, in the United States, veterans and their families who have been determined to suffer from the effects of Agent Orange get a payout from the government of from $500-$5,000 per month. In Vietnam, the Vietnam government supplies disabled soldiers (of the North Vietnamese Army) about $7 per month. There is a petition to the US government to assist in the compensation process at http://www.petitiononline.com/AOVN/petition-sign.html?

The Project

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We are working for a little over 2 weeks at the Vietnam Friendship Village outside of Hanoi. The village was established by an ex-Vietnam Veteran, once an active member of Vietnam Veteran's Against the War campaign. Once Vietnam reopened its' doors to foreigners in the early 90's, this man worked on establishing a project to help the Vietnamese people. The village currently houses 120 children suffering the effects of Agent Orange and about 40 war veterans. There are medical facilities, therapy, school, a small clinic, work training, and an organic garden to supply food all on the property. The best part about it is that it is free for the people and is continued by grants from the Vietnamese government and foreign donations.

You can check out the websites for some info on the village:

http://www.vietnamfriendship.org/

http://www.post-gazette.com/magazine/20001105agentorange1.asp

http://www.agentorange.org.au/

The Work

Our main goals with this project are to help out in the garden (i.e. harvesting vegetables, weeding, cultivating soil, removing bugs, planting trees, etc.) and to interact with the children and the Vietnamese volunteers. There are 8 foreign volunteers in total, from the US and South Korea, and about 10-15 Vietnamese volunteers who periodically assist us.

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A portion of the garden that we are working on.

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Inside the net house doing a bit of hoeing.

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The Vietnamese volunteers literally dress nicer for gardening than we both did at our jobs. This is Hoa, the secretary of VFP in Vietnam.

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Cultivating green beans.

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A bit of dirt hauling.

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Haul one-way, ride back the other.

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Weeding.

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Waiting to be plucked.

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Joanna (Californian) & Amber (Alien)

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Enjoying the organic carrots.

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We dealt with a lot of off-and-on light rain the first week. The other volunteers: Young-Ji, Jeong-Ha, Tenley, Dung, and Joon-Hyun.

The Kids

The kids have a variety of deformities, some physical and some mental. So far, we have only had contact with less than half of them, since some are unable leave their beds. The children are extremely friendly, and even though some may not know their ABC's, they definitely know the definition of love and fun; and hugs are given out as though it were as essential as breathing.

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Amber & Hoa, who is mute and deaf.

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A different Hoa. He is a major picture hog, but with a smile like that how can you say "get out of the picture"?! Hoa (pronounced "Wa") is 20 years old and loves karate and dancing and is excellent at both!

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Hoa jumping in another photo with "the organizer", Quan.

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Quan, Hoa, and Truoung.

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Amber and a few of the children, the little guy is 28 years old.

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This little girl, also named Hoa, is blind, but has no problem with legos. She feels the pieces in her mouth and then stacks them on.

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This boy worked on this same puzzle over and over for about an hour. He really had to work to get his hands to place the pieces where he wanted them, but he never gave up.

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Bach is 16 and speaks pretty good English. He is so polite and a really nice boy.

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Some of the other kids:

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Justin being hugged by his shadow, Hien.

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The boys like to treat Justin as a jungle gym.

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Phu is so adorable and loves the camera - trying to steal them from you that is!

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Quy (pronounced "key") is very friendly and also speaks a little English.

The children stay on average of about 2-3 years at the village for treatment and skill training. However, several of them have been there for much more that 3 years and will probably spend the majority of their lives there. Most of the children’s families live far from Hanoi and are unable to visit them.

Posted by rebmamber 00:20 Archived in Vietnam Comments (5)

Hanoi Rocks

(it's not just a great 80's rock band!)

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We touched down in Hanoi after a 4-hour delay and were greeted with a blast of cool air as we exited the plane. We were impressed to de-plane at a proper terminal instead of exiting on the tarmac like all our previous flights in SE Asia.

Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, is located in the northern part of the country (as I'm sure most of you who lived through the war years remember). The city buzzes with traffic, mainly scooters, but a few more SUV's mixed in for added excitement. The city feels more sprawling than Saigon and there are a lot more new construction and buildings all around. However, the older buildings are definitely more eclectic and have a little more character. For the most part the people seem similar to the Vietnamese in the south, although maybe a little more traditional and definitely less modern and westernized. The city seems less touristy than the majority of the ones we have been to thus far, but we certainly see a fair share of smiling faces wanting to sell us something.

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A few locals chillin' on a street corner.

The little alleys in the Old Quarter of Hanoi are designated for different products and are also named accordingly, although in Vietnamese. For example, “Silk Street” contains silk products, "Steel Street" is full of things made from steel, etc. It is so funny to see shop after shop overflowing with the exact same products. They even have a street specifically for wooden birdcages.

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A scene from "Toy Street”.

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Get your spices on "Spice Street”.

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And of course, your sewing products.

We were scheduled to report to our volunteering stint on Monday morning, so we spent all day Sunday unsuccessfully searching for a couple items that we needed for the work we were to do. (We later found out we were fine without them) Due to this, we didn't do much sightseeing, but it's fun enough walking along the tiny alleys. The "roads" were made for bicycle traffic, but now handle gobs of scooters and a few cars and trucks manage to squeeze through as well. Walking around is an adventure sport as the sidewalks are littered with parked scooters and the roads are streaming with traffic going every which way in any lane open.

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Pagoda in the middle of Hoan Kiem Lake at day…

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...and night.

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Technology is great! Our webcam conversation with the entire fam.

Posted by rebmamber 17:38 Archived in Vietnam Comments (6)

Vietnam

Yesterday, I got a letter, from my friend, fighting in Vietnam...

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After several weeks in Vietnam we have come to accept a few unavoidable realizations of traveling here.

1) NOTHING happens on time, nor goes as planned or as described in the brochure, by the person that sold you the whatever, or as written in your tour guide. (Case in point, I am sitting at the computer right now due to our flight to Hanoi being delayed 3 hours)

Another example that happened the other day goes like this:

AMBER: Can I get this one photo printed off of my memory card?

PHOTO BOOTH GUY: Yes.

AMBER: How long will it take because I am catching a plane in a couple hours?

PHOTO BOOTH GUY: One hour.

AMBER: Because if I can't get it in one hour, than I'm not going to bother.

PHOTO BOOTH GUY: Yes, no problem. Come back at 2:30 (pointing at the hands on his clock)

AMBER: Ok

Fast-forward to 2:30 -

AMBER: Hello!

PHOTO BOOTH GUY: (smiles)

AMBER: It's not ready?

PHOTO BOOTH GUY: Come back at 8 o'clock this evening.

AMBER: I will be in Hanoi (600 km away) at 8 o'clock this evening...

2) Everything is negotiable. Try this next time you go to Publix. Pick out a bottle of water and take it to the cashier and when she "says that will be $1", say no, no, how about .50 cents. In Vietnam every price is inflated (especially if you are a westerner) and by low-balling the sales person, the price can be brought a bit closer to what the locals pay (but still more).

3) There are NO RULES, consideration, or morals for walking, driving, or any other means of transportation. "He who hesitates is lost", that's the golden rule here. Never let anyone ahead of you or you will be left letting the whole country ahead of you through the door/aisle/whatever for hours. It is unbelievable how many times we have been shoved by someone passing us while we were slowing to let someone else ahead of us. Similarly, when crossing the street, do not wait for the light to turn (if there is a light), just go at a slow but steady pace and let the traffic zigzag around you. If driving, never let off the horn, do not signal, and don't bother with lights at night. JUST GO!

4) EVERYONE has something to sell, somewhere to take you, or a special deal for you. It amazes me that we can say "no thank you" to 7 motodrivers in a row, that ask us if we want a ride and the 8th motodriver 3 feet away from the 7th asks us again if we want a ride. A recent example of this selling drive was minutes ago when I walked outside and found it raining a bit. As I am putting on my rain jacket, two separate women, seconds apart, asked me, "You want rain jacket"? I point to the jacket that I am putting on and say "No, thank you", once to each of them. We are walking dollar signs.

Ok, enough ranting a raving, it never gets me upset, it just amazes me.

Plus, it is real hard to get upset at anyone that asks you if you want to buy a banana (when you are eating a banana and carrying 20 more) because they all ask it with a huge smile and when you say "no thank you", they smile back and say, "maybe later". Yes, maybe later I will want another banana...

By the way, we love ALL the comments, keep ‘em coming and don't change a thing!

Posted by rebmamber 08:05 Archived in Vietnam Comments (4)

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