A Travellerspoint blog

February 2006

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


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:




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.

A portion of the garden that we are working on.

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.


Cultivating green beans.


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A bit of dirt hauling.

Haul one-way, ride back the other.


Waiting to be plucked.

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Joanna (Californian) & Amber (Alien)

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Enjoying the organic carrots.

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.

Quan, Hoa, and Truoung.

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

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.

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.

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:








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!

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!)


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.

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.

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

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


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


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?


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


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)


Fast-forward to 2:30 -

AMBER: Hello!


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)

SE Coast Cont...

Hoi An & Hue


Hoi An - With photos (back by popular demand)!

Hoi An is a small city of around 75,000 along the Thu Bon River with charming streets lined with French architecture.

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Every narrow street has just enough cafés and a ridiculous amount of tailor shops. Nearly every traveler leaves here with an extra bag or two full of custom-made clothes/shoes. We were no exception and are sporting several more items to carry around for a while. The shopper in Amber surfaced and I even got into it a bit. It was good fun being measured for a couple of pants and coming back later that day and trying on the finished product. If a bit more room is needed, no problem, come back in an hour and taaaaadaaaaa, perfection!



Our first night in Hoi An we stayed at a small guest house built in the early 1800's. The entire place was wall-to-wall wood work and just spectacular. Step out of this guesthouse and you are immediately immersed in the buzzing central market. To get to the guesthouse, we had to hike through the market, luggage and all, which was good fun. However, we learned quickly the next morning that markets buzz very early and decided to relocate after one night to a place where we could sleep a little past 5 am (we're on holiday after all).

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Our second hotel.

Good fortune blessed us and we happened to be in town for some sort of night festival, complete with floating lanterns, mock "ninja" fighting, a parade, and such. The entire old town, which is a World Heritage Site, turns off its’ electricity and the streets are filled with torches and candlelight. Complete with the ancient looking architecture, you felt as though you just got out of the Delorian in 1750!

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We rented bikes one day and headed out a few kilometers to the beach, which if you walked about 20 kilometers north, you would reach the famous China Beach. After chilling on the beach for a while we rode further along the beach to a small village, where we were overwhelmed by school children. A little bit out of the tourist area, we quickly became a spectacle to see, touch, and talk to.

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West vs. East

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Some photos around town:

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A typical Hoi An dish, Cao Lau noodles drying by the side of the street.

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We left peaceful Hoi An, taking a 4-hour bus ride up the coast to the busier, less manicured Hué. Hué ranks third in size, behind Saigon and Hanoi.



The picturesque perfume river flows through Hué. On the south side is the main city (where we stayed), and on the north is the old city - in fact, it used to be the Vietnamese capital and cultural hub a few hundred years ago. Most of the city was destroyed during the French war, and most of what was left was destroyed in the "American War", but there were still a few sites to be seen. We rented bikes and rode around the Citadel and entered the Forbidden Purple City (no longer forbidden!).


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Justin loves cannons!

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We ran into our friends from Québec again, so we ended up hiring a dragonboat for a little sunset cruise on the Perfume River.



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This pagoda was made famous in the 60's as it was the place where the monks who set themselves on fire in the streets to protest the war came from.

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There was not a whole lot else to do in Hué, but it was a good place to relax and recover from our constant traveling.

Our "private" balcony on the 4th floor of our hotel.

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A cat helping me finish my vegetarian sweet and sour "pork".

Justin gives a cyclo driver a ride.

Posted by rebmamber 22:33 Archived in Vietnam Comments (12)

SE Coast of Vietnam

Mui Né and Nha Trang


After a short visit in Saigon, we had to leave in order to be able to catch a glimpse of a couple of spots along the coast. We hopped on a 5-hour bus journey to a little beach town called Mui Né. There really is only one road in this town with resorts on the beachside and restaurants, bars and resorts on the other. Since we love the beach so much, we opted to pay $5 extra ($15) to get a nice room in a hotel on the beachside, where you could hear the waves crashing from your doorstep! Unfortunately, the water was a bit rough (and cold), so we just enjoyed the nice weather on the beach. This is apparently a huge spot for windsurfers and kite surfers since the intense wind and sunny skies are fairly consistent here.

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The following day, we hired a motorbike to check out some of the local scenery. Some of the major attractions are a couple different sand dunes in the area. We didn't associate Vietnam with dry land and sand dunes, but much of the scenery around here looked like it was straight out of the desert (but with a couple of palm trees sprinkled in).

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A couple of kids off to school.

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We headed first the White Sand Dunes, which were about 35 km from town. We took a beautiful coastal road to get here, and the best thing about it is that there was hardly anyone else on it.

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Some red canyon views along the road.

We arrived at the White Sand Dunes, and since neither of us like to get up too early (especially me, Amber), we managed to get there in the middle of the day. Thinking back, it was probably not the best idea to visit a large expanse of sand where you have to climb up steep, sandy hills in the heat of the day, but it was very nice nonetheless.

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On our way back, we passed by a nearby fishing village with beautiful boats docked together in the water. There are boats that are used here which are completely round! When we stopped for photos, a couple of schoolgirls on their way home were interested in us. I let them take a look at the boats through my telephoto lens, and then they asked if we could get our picture together!

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We made it to the Red Sand Dunes right before sunset. On the way in, we were attacked to buy a barrage of "sand-slide salesmen", this one using a new technique which we hadn't seen before!

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It was great to eat our last meal at a nice restaurant on the beach with these guys running around your feet!

The next day, we hopped on another bus up to the town of Nha Trang. This town was definitely bigger than the last with a lot more to do, however, the first night, we hit a spout of rain which quieted the town down to a whisper.

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Nha Trang in a fog.

The next day was sprinkling on and off, so we just putted around the city. We went to an art gallery for a Vietnamese photographer, Long Thanh. It was quite a spectacular exhibit and we got to meet and speak with Thanh, himself. Check out the “Galleries” at http://www.elephantguide.com/longthanh/home.htm

On our way back to our hotel, we ran across another Bia Hoi establishment. As it was the middle of the day and hot out, we thought it would be a good idea to pop in and have one liter between us both. However, we ended up getting invited to sit with a group of Vietnamese photographers who felt it was their personal obligation to be goodwill ambassadors for their country. Many beers and interesting food bites later, we were a little past our initial one liter! The Vietnamese will not take "No, thank you", or "Cam on, kom" for an answer!

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After this, we thought it would be best to relax and enjoy a cup of the amazing Vietnamese coffee - it's nice and strong - along with some pizza!

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Another adorable kid we met in the market.

Signs of Communism, so cheery, isn't it?

The following day turned out to be less cloudy, so we hopped on a boat cruise around the islands of Nha Trang. The scenery was beautiful, and the tour was quite entertaining, complete with snorkeling (for some), onboard karaoke, (forced) dancing, and a floating wine bar.

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Justin's reaction to the cold water.

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Our French singing tour guide belting it out.

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Preparing sea urchin soup.

We also stopped at a fishing village where we were able to get a ride in one of those circular boats. Justin gave an attempt at rowing, but he was not as good as the 10-year-old.

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Justin with Sam & Catherine.

We met the above Aussie girls on our boat, and met up with them later in the evening. We ended up running into a few other people that we had previously met (or seen) in another city. The interesting thing about traveling is if you've met someone for a minute, whenever you see them again, you are best friends - "Hey, I know you!". This turned into quite a late evening, complete with dancing at a backpacker hang out. It was fun since this was the first time we have really done this since we arrived; however, the next morning was not as fun. Luckily, we had booked a 1-hour plane instead of a 12-hour bus ride, so we were thankful for that!

A slightly strange Swedish expat we met.

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Posted by rebmamber 03:41 Archived in Vietnam Comments (6)

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