Saturday, May 24, 2014

Young Voices of Vietnam

Culture differences aside, the first thing that struck me about Vietnam was that there is a noticeable difference between living on an average of 1 dollar a day (Cambodia) vs 2.  Hanoi felt much more prosperous, even though it may not have looked that way on the outside compared to Phnom Penh.  Even their garment district was much more decorated with sheltered ATMs just outside of each building and workers wearing lanyards with official ID cards.

There is an air of productivity and seriousness in the population.  All business, even from the most poorest of farmers.  You can see it in their eyes.  They want to take advantage of all potential opportunities -- Not in a pushy way.  If someone sees you looking, they will perk up quickly but will also back off quickly if they see you aren't interested, as to not waste their energy or time.  I had no problems with that.  People work long hours. Some travel from far away to sell their produce in the city.

Education is revered there.  Everyone I had a chance to talk with saw it as their ticket to financial success.  There doesn't seem to be significant amount of corruption in the educational system even though Vietnam is rated quite high in this area.  Maybe it is because the government recognizes that the country, in order to reach the heights of global success it wishes for, needs to support the growth of its people?

Not all areas of the country are receptive though.  In Sapa, I was told that in the minority tribes, education is not encouraged by parents even though government sponsored village schools are available.  There is just too much money to be made from child beggars.

One of the more difficult things trekkers encounter are the swarms of children whining out their words while holding cheap bracelets up to your face.  They just keep repeating it over and over until you don't actually understand what they are saying.  Their bored and frustrated expression says it all. It can really get under your skin.  Much worse than at Angkor Wat.

If you buy from one, beware that the entire lot of them will be at your feet.  Their siblings and mothers stand a few steps away, occasionally encouraging and coaching them.  When these girls grow up, they will marry early, 14 - 16 and continue the uneducated child bearing cycle.   It saddened me to witness it. 

I had no idea that the majority of conversations I would have with young women in Hanoi would end up being about women's rights, or the lack of, in Vietnam.  I'm talking about university educated women who are telling me how apprehensive they are about marriage.  How it will mean a life time of "slavery" especially if you marry the first born son. 

The first time the conversation swung to this topic, we were at a cafe and I was with another solo traveler, a strong willed Austrian woman.  You can imagine the looks on our faces when we started hearing about how many young Vietnamese woman have been marrying Korean and Japanese men, just so that they are able to leave the country.

Unfortunately that move hasn't been very successful for many of them as there have been many cases of severe spousal abuse.  With no rights in the new country and no money to return home, many women continue to suffer greatly.  Apparently there has been a new law introduced in South Korean which offers some protection to these women.

Women who do stay in Vietnam and get married are expected to do everything for her new family.  Husbands do not help, even if they might want to, as to not anger their mother.  The day starts early, 4 - 5 am, with a trip to the market to buy ingredient for breakfast.

Once that is cooked and kids are sent off to school, the wife then proceeds to her workplace.  After work, it is another visit to the market to buy food to prepare supper. Traditional Vietnamese food takes a couple of hours to make.  Then there is cleaning and washing and then tomorrow, the cycle starts all over again.

The young women were genuinely surprised to learn that I did no such thing.  That women here in Canada, do not move into the home of their in laws.  (I told them I would not be married if that was the case...) That we are allowed to create our own home.  That husbands do and are "allowed" to help out around the house. That I wasn't "forced" to have children.  That it is acceptable for me to travel solo especially as a married woman. 

The young men I spoke with were all quite philosophical.  They too were educated.  A common theme was their fear and frustration with not knowing what they really want because their parents have directed their entire life.  From what to study at school, to making contacts to help ensure a job afterwards.  Learning to separate the automatic thoughts of parents with truly "original" thoughts was challenging.

Many of them second guessed themselves.  They didn't feel strong enough to go against their parents' wishes but they felt a strong pull to forge their own paths, even though they didn't know what they were.  They have not heard their own inner voices before.  One of them told me that neither he nor his wife wanted children but there comes a point in adulthood that you must put your wants aside for the greater good...

It was especially difficult for the young men to understand and accept solo female travelers.  It is just not done in their culture.  You travel with family first, then friends.  And they all said they would not allow their wives to do such a thing.  And that the wives wouldn't consider it anyways because they would worry so much, they would not be able to follow through with it.

As much as they want to marry women who are educated, they don't want to be with one who is stronger and more independent than them.  Whereas universally, all the young women I met, want the opportunity to live my life.

The men and women I met are smart and driven.  They would give me a run for my money if they weren't "trapped" in their country.  Unanimously they are frustrated with their government and wanted to move abroad.  But the chances of that are slim to none, unless they marry a foreigner.  A mixed race relationship would be challenging to accept culturally.


I have stayed in touch with a number of them so am getting to hear about what has been recently going on with the demonstrations. 

There is strong anger in Vietnam against China and their recent oil rig installation.  People are determined to make their stand and are fed up with China's continued trespasses.  They are sick of it.  The Vietnamese are intense people.  I don't know that I'd want to go up against them.  They are proud of their fighting history.  However, China is not known for backing down either.

When I first arrived in Hanoi, I wasn't sure what to expect in terms of attitude towards foreigners.  Were there going to be topics that ought to be avoided?  Is the Vietnam war a touchy subject? 

What I hadn't expected was the obvious dislike/hatred for China to be so near the surface.  Normally composed but this topic brings out the uncensored in people.  That goes to show that history chronology doesn't always dictate what remains.

I did expect Ho Chi Minh to be revered but was surprised to see how strongly young people felt about him.  Was given a quick tour in an art gallery with contemporary paintings illustrating the history of Ho Chi Minh and you'd think that the 20 year old had been right there fighting from her gusto. 

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Giving Time

Time is one of my most valued resources.  I don't give it lightly as you can't claim it back.  So what have I gleaned from all this roaming around I've done recently?

Mostly I've been trying to get my head around how things work, the whys, all the while making valuable contacts.  Also to answer the question of what roles a foreigner can effectively play in the existing framework?

Canada may not be the most efficient country in the world but I don't have to concern myself with stuff like corruption and the mysterious disappearances of millions of dollars with nothing really to show for it and no accountability.  Some days, this very real aspect alone is enough to make one want to throw up hands and give up.  You can feel so very hopeless and insignificant.

On the flip side, this kind of "anything goes" environment can sometimes enable more direct help, that can be immediately effected.  For example, I have been sent a number of cases to collaborate on from Cambodia and have done so without officially being part of an organization.  They took a leap of faith that I am who I said I was and have the credentials I said I did.  No one asked for proof!  They just wanted help, simple as that.

Not sure I contributed much outside of getting my first personal taste of how trying to work with practically nothing feels like -- Awfully hopeless, massively incomplete, shot in the dark, lack of control, much higher reliance on intuition than ever.  I found out that in general, the healthcare system lacks what I would consider a basic framework for appropriate follow through.

We wouldn't take such risks here.  We don't have to.  We have access to science and technology.  I've gained an incredible appreciation for front line workers who have to process many situations/cases with barely anything to "prove" and "confirm" prior to decision making.  This aspect is especially difficult for me as I agonize over personal responsibility.

Which leads to something else we take very serious here that doesn't seem to matter in a developing country -- Liability.  My liability insurance alone is like owning 4 luxury vehicles.  So when Naïve Me asks about whether volunteers are protected under an "umbrella" policy etc.. I got some pretty confused looks.  Wow, was what I thought. As you can imagine, this has led to some unethical situations involving abuse of orphans and funds. 

You just do the best you can "under the circumstances" is what I've been told.  And you know what?  The people you're trying to help are so grateful, despite you feeling like you have done not even 15% of what you are capable of.  You feel woefully inadequate and think people must wonder if that's all you've got to show for that fancy foreign education.


A couple of interesting side things have come out of my trips.  

An opportunity to give feedback to an existing corporate donor of the NGO I spent time with in Siem Reap.  Man, was I nervous about that.  Had horrible visions of messing up future funding.  Didn't feel anywhere close to qualified to answer their questions (and told them so) but they wanted a new person's feedback, not someone familiar with the system.

Second involved helping out with a research project for a university student in Hanoi.  

It is the first time I really really appreciated the power of the internet.  None of the above would have been possible without it.  


I did end up finishing both discs of "Nature's Most Amazing Events".  Highly recommended for individuals and families.  Have seen lots of wildlife documentaries as a kid and beyond.  This one ranks as my current favorite.  There were a number of "I didn't know that existed!" comments between D and I. 

Also recently completed:  The Dogs are Eating Them Now, Graeme Smith.  Couldn't put it down.  Led me to view Restrepo afterwards. 

Friday, May 16, 2014

Unhinged and Uncensored

It started with an article from Men's Journal (Apr '14) followed by a nature DVD (Nature's Most Amazing Events, BBC) and last night, something unhinged in me.  I couldn't make it through the first disc as I experienced a profound loss in my gut like someone had just shot a hole though me with a 50 caliber handgun.

All of a sudden a whole bunch of thoughts and questions came out:
  • Why are our individuals stories and lives "So Important"?  
  • We have lost sight of the overarching cycles of nature.  
  • We have done too good a job creating lives where we are cushioned from the harshness of life and death and struggle.
  • Why should Everyone win?
  • Why are we fighting natural selection?
  • What right do we have to wreck havoc upon other creatures who for all intents and purposes know how to survive way better than we do?
  • Why have we created societal "norms (circuses)" that are so artificial?
  • Why is our reproduction unchecked?
  • Why are we trying to prolong our lives?
  • Maybe developing countries and their ensuing chaos is a truer way to live?
  • I am upset with our existence.
  • Are we using our brains enough to undo all the harm we've done to the earth?
  • Are any of us doing truly honest work?

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Long Weekend!!!

I cannot remember as an adult, the last time I have been so excited for a long weekend.  Don't care if it continues to rain or not -- I own serious rain gear.  I'm just so happy for some quiet time!

Been extra busy at work, putting in more hours (by choice).  And of course in the background hours, continuing to do what I usually do, which is learning and researching for what is to come.  I asked D if he thought I had gotten "better" with not overdoing it?

He said I've been "this way" for as long as he has known me.  So I'll take it as a "no", even though I feel I have more balance than prior years.  I feel I know when to stop earlier.

A big part of my recent learning involves a potential international volunteer placement, in my field.  The opportunity came out of the blue, as most things for me tend to be.  I'm excited but extremely intimidated as it would just be two of us managing things for 2 locations over a course of  4- 6 weeks minimum.

I haven't said yes or no.  It's not for this year.  I'm mulling it over.  My gut says go for it.  Here's the challenge you've been looking for.  You'll figure it out.  My mind is saying read up on the region, get all the info you can, talk to others who have done it first...

It continues to be a year of firsts.  I have recently been talked into accepting a place on a team with Habitat on one of their global builds.  Back before Christmas, I had sent an email out to a team leader about getting some info about what it's like on a build.

We ended up hitting it off and have continued to keep in touch.  In fact, he and his wife live not far from our cottage.  It was his enthusiasm that won me over, making me want to know what is it about this organization that garners such loyalty among its hands on supporters.

One of the projects D and I want to do in Cambodia involves building a house for a family.  It can be done for around 2500USD and we would be able to participate in the building.

So in my mind, wasn't going to consider a Habitat build after returning from Cambodia, as it costs almost double the price, just so I could get my hands dirty for a few days.  And because I don't need to go this route as a reason to travel.  Plus I had reservations about how I'd manage in a small group environment etc.

Suffice it to say, all my questions were answered and concerns addressed, enough to convince me to give it a go, once.  And I might as well be part of a team led by someone I like and trust.

Friday, May 9, 2014


I'm beginning to think that stretching (stressing) my nervous system has created a withdrawal or dependency response.  Now that I've "recovered" from my latest trip, I find my mind drifting, almost wanting to be thrust into chaos again, like it is calling at me.  Strange.  I can sort of understand better, people who crave adrenaline rushes. 

Here are some tips that may be helpful for your next trip to Hanoi:
  • If you have status with Skyteam, bring your card!  That saved me from hours of waiting to check in at Hanoi airport.  There were 2 people ahead of me in the "Priority" line and it took 45 min!  People just stand there and chat with the agents!  Those poor people in the regular line with 50 people (no joke) ahead of them...The lines extended out to the entrance doors.
  • Hanoi airport is not as bad as you read.  It is "modern".  There Are seats and if you search a little online, you'll even get the free wifi codes.  Washrooms are clean!  Don't know what people are complaining about.  If you believe everything you read on the Internet, you'd never leave home.
  • To my surprise, I wasn't issued boarding passes "all the way through" like I was told by Air Canada.  Was not impressed especially when I had asked 3 different agents and had a choice of another flight that would have eliminated all the mad running I had to do.  On the way there, I connected in Narita (Tokyo) and to my surprise, there was a board with my name on it at the end of the jet way.  After some questioning and shuffling, they ran me through x- ray and gave me instructions to go down  2 (3? blame it on 18 hours of travel with no sleep at that point) flights of the escalator, across 3 (4?) lengths of people movers, up another escalator, across the "way" to catch a bus to the other terminal, which leaves in 6 minutes so I have to move fast...(And once I got there, go somewhere up somewhere else and get my boarding pass)... I did make it to the bus with the doors closing right after me.  The driver was so polite and well dressed (white gloves!) and it was to his credit he didn't bat an eye at my red face (12 lb pack + coat) nor my subsequent frantic removal of clothing.  Had the same type of fun on the return leg via Hong Kong.  Made it to my gate with 10 min to spare.  The good thing about being 12 - 13 hours ahead is that D would have gotten lots of notice had I missed my flight.  There are worse places to be stranded for 24 hr. 
  • The above wasn't because I picked silly flights with little transit time like 45 min.  I had 2 hr 10 min and 1 hr 45 min respectively.  Having to get another set of boarding passes is a totally different ball game.
  • Getting hit/nudged/grazed/violently bounced around by motorized and non motorized vehicles is just part of life in Hanoi.  I already mentioned 2 boating incidences in the last posts.  The 3rd was by a motorcycle on my leg as I was traveling by moped (passenger).  The 4th was on a train.  The 5th was on a bus.  The 6th ,7th, 8th etc. times on the street as you are not going to be walking on sidewalks much.  You get used to it and people have quick instincts and reactions.  Concept of personal space is closer to what I imagine India to be. 
  • The tourist infrastructure is actually quite developed.  Hotels all seem equipped to sell you packages or day trips.  Often that will include extra services free of charge, like drop off and pick up at train stations (at odd hours like 8 pm and 5:30 am) and letting you use a room until yours is ready.   
  • Remember that travel distances will be deceiving -- 145 km will take 4 1/2 hours by van, 300 km will take up to 10 - 12 hr by train.  Make the best of it.  You made it this far.  What's another 12 hours?
  • Change lines if yours is slow.  Don't stick it out stubbornly like I did and end up getting unnecessarily angry.  I'm thinking of You, First Passport Guy.  There is actually a Skyteam priority line for passport check when leaving Hanoi.  He was just fine.  Actually smiled at me.
  • I don't know why I thought I'd find coconut water in Vietnam but I actually only had one.  Iced tea is more popular.  Also didn't find as many fruit drinks as I was expecting.  I used more of my re-hydrating tablets on this trip versus Cambodia.
  • Don't have much advice for you if you are sensitive to MSG, like I am, outside of eat more Western foods.  I didn't really do that outside of bacon and eggs for breakfast.  Just avoided soups which for me was the worst culprit.  FYI: The baguettes are the lightest I've ever tasted!
  • Ear Plugs, noise cancelling headset, music.  That's all I'm going to say about that.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Iconic Places 3

Might be pushing it with the descriptor "Iconic",
but those who have made the trip to Ninh Binh province, rave about it.

Local specialties include:  Mountain goat, Hill chicken and crackling rice.
The mountain goat tastes like pork belly and beef combined.

These Super Strong Women will row up to 6 guests almost 2 hours!

Trang An Grottos: Known as "Halong Bay on land".

It's hit or miss whether you get life jackets.  We didn't.

First of 7 caves, some 500 m long.
You may have to duck.

Traffic is supposed to be One Way. 
Early crash with this dude and his guest.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Iconic Places 2

A 2 day trek here, at the tail end of the Himalayas.
Early morning clouds and mist.

Indigenous hill tribe -- Black Hmong. 

First day was 15 km with fairly easy terrain.
Lots of time to look around and appreciate, passing many villages.

Day 2 -- Not many pictures after this,  
as next portion of trail (7 km) became all downhill and challenging.
Had it been raining (often), we'd be sliding down on our behinds in mud.
Wear hikers with good tread, if you decide to come to Sapa.
Rubber boots are available for rent or buy at most hotels.
Or you can rock the trails with plastic slippers like the locals,
who managed better than any one of us!