Monday, December 24, 2007

Back in the U.S.

Despite snow and winds in Chicago, I managed to make it to Atlanta safely and without delay last night. I had about enough energy to eat dinner and promptly went to bed around 7:30pm.

A debriefing is definitely in order. Stay tuned for more pictures and some last thoughts on Vietnam...

For now, happy holidays to everyone, and enjoy your time off!

Another appearance by Sophia (From Dec. 19)

December 19, 2007


Galatians 6:9 “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”


It’s Sophia again. I thought I would make another guest appearance on Rachel’s Blog before we leave Hue. The Hoang Long Hotel here in Hue has become our home in Viet Nam and it will be sad to leave. I will especially miss the sound of the children going to the school next door in the morning. I will not miss the fact that they go to school at 6am and seem to always have recess when we actually have time for a nap!


Reflecting on our time here in Hue is a daunting task. We have experienced so much. After our first experience with the villages on the 16th I was left feeling overwhelmed. The amount of need we witnessed coupled with the frustrating limits the government was placing on our work made it easy to feel useless. But now that we have been back to the villages on two other occasions and have been to the orphanage two more times I am filled with hope. Don’t misunderstand me; the need is still there. And I am not saying in the last three days we have successfully solved all the problems in Hue. The hope I feel comes from seeing the lives of those we have touched and envisioning the possibilities of further serving the people of Viet Nam.


Today we gave rice, noodles, eggs and milk to 20 families. After waiting for the delivery truck to arrive we started our assembly line. It was so much more chaotic today because we drew lots of attention from school children and local villagers. After distributing the goods we split into two groups and visited the homes of the families we gave aid to. I thought it would be another day of sadness but today I looked passed the suffering and saw the people. I think we often place people into neat little boxes that make sense to us. I had placed the villagers into the victim box. Victims of the flood, victims of their government, victims of society. But they are so much more. They are mothers and fathers. They laugh they cry. They have inside jokes and enjoy beauty. The people in the village also play a role in their own cycle of poverty. We asked if many of the families if their children were in school and usually the answer was no. From what we have learned they don’t value education and fail to fight for a better future for the children. We heard from a woman who although she couldn’t feed her one child, had a child with a stranger because she wanted a son. This knowledge may seem depressing in itself but there is another way of looking at it. Mother nature and the system of government are hard to change. Showing the importance of education and family planning is a much more attainable goal. If we can provide food, shelter and an opportunity to make money then the Vietnamese will have more time and resources to devote to bettering their children’s futures. The mothers we meet today are not victims; they are fighters. I am hopeful that things can change.


Even more encouraging is the story of the Duc Son orphanage. In just three visits I have come to love Duc Son. There are so many things to say about the children and nuns of the orphanage. I think what strikes me the most is the amount of joy and love inside the walls of Duc Son. Even though these 198 children each have there own sad story they are filled with such happiness. The nuns at the orphanage truly love each child unconditionally. They hug them, kiss them, toss them in the air, and fix their hair in pretty pig tails. They provide a loving home to those developmentally disabled children who have been ostracized from society. The orphanage desperately needs a new location. When the rainy season comes, flooding devastates them. The orphanage has acquired land on higher ground and volunteer labor. All they need is the money for the building and Think About the Children wants to focus their energy on raising the needed funds. There is hope in this new building. The Duc Son can be a safe dry place with the resources to give the children the opportunities they deserve. In turn the children will be inspired to effect change in their community. Saying goodbye to Duc Son today was hard, but I know that I will be working to support them from the states.


Friday, December 21, 2007

Lead with your heart.

We traveled from Hue to Hoi An yesterday by bus. It was said to say goodbye to such a great city. We met so many great people and learned so much. It took about three hours to get here. On the way we passed through Da Nang, the third largest city in Vietnam, and it was crazy. There were so many cars everywhere; it was really weird to see, especially compared to the motorbike and bicycle-clogged roads of Hue (and now Hoi An as well, which is even smaller). We got to see so much of the Vietnamese mountains and countryside along the way. It was so beautiful...everything is lush and green, but the shacks along the roadside remind us of just what country we are in.

Only two other girls and I decided to go on to Hoi An yesterday. The rest of the group went on a tour of the DMZ. I couldn't stand the thought of 13 hours on a bus (not when I have to get on a plane for another 16+ hours in just a few days!). And especially when there is so much to do in Hoi An. Sophia went on the DMZ tour, though, so she'll probably have lots to say about that when she gets back--miss history major has been looking forward to that trip ever since we found out we were going to Vietnam! I can't wait to hear her talk about it.

Yesterday we explored Hoi An by bike as soon as we got here. It was absolutely wonderful to be back on a bike again! I really miss riding my bike. Although the motorbikes were tempting to rent instead...but Hoi An is smaller and bikes are just easier to deal with here. This city is a lot more touristy, because it is right by the beach. Sometimes I see more white people than Vietnamese. There are a lot of resorts by the beach, some of which look very pricey. Hoi An is also a city known for its shopping. In particular, you can get any article of clothing, even shoes, made exactly to fit your body. They have some really beautiful stuff here. But the shops are EVERYWHERE! Every time we walk somewhere we are bombarded with "you stop in my store please? You buy something?" At least the people are friendly.

This morning I did yoga as the sun rose over the roof of our hotel. Eva, one of the C of C grads who is staying over here for a while working with Think About the Children, studied in Bali and is an accomplished yoga practicer--she showed me a few positions. It was the most wonderful way I could ever imagine waking up on what turned out to be an incredibly gorgeous day. We ate breakfast across the street (fresh mango with sweet yogurt...delicious) and then went for a little walk through just a few shops. But around noon we hopped back on our bikes and headed for the beach. We swam in the South China Sea, and it was so awesome! The water was perfect, and there were these incredible mountains just a little ways out on the horizon in the ocean. That's where all the resorts are, and now I can see why.

We stopped at a little outdoor cafe on the river on the way home. The sunset over the river could not have been more gorgeous. When we got back to the hotel, we decided to eat dinner at a restaraunt near the market that supports Blue Dragon, a charity that Think About the Children works closely with. Blue Dragon also supports the education and rehabilitation of Vietnamese children, specifically those who have been trafficked. I had Vietnamese eggplant, and it was probably the best meal I've had yet (which is saying a lot...I've had a ton of good stuff--we can hardly stop eating around here!).

The other girls should be getting back a little bit later tonight; they have a long bus ride from Hue still to go after their tour. Then tomorrow we'll take a bus to Da Nang, where we'll fly out of to go to Ho Chi Minh City. I can't believe it's already time to go. If I'm not at the airport on the 23rd, don't be surprised--I've just had a little change of plans and decided to move to Vietnam.

Hope everyone back home is doing well!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Dec. 18 - more aid to villages

Today we woke up early and went outside of the city again. We had planned to visit three different villages over the next three days delivering food and supplies ourselves, but the government of course had different ideas. Another eye-opening thing about being here is witnessing a different kind of government in action. They want to help their people, but if it is coming from anywhere other than their own country, they are very wary. And understandably so. But it is this thoroughness in checking out everything that comes into the country that has made a lot of our plans different than what we thought they would be. Rather than delivering the food ourselves, we had to have the food delivered to a government building and the people from the villages who would be receiving the food had to come there on their own. Then, while the government officials stood by, we handed out food to the 20 families that had been approved to receive. Families that had anywhere from 4 to 7 children got 3 packages of cheese, 2 boxes of powdered milk, 1 dozen eggs, and a kilo of rice. That food will feed most of them for over a month. It's great that we provided them with those supplies, but it makes me wonder what will happen once we leave? They get a lot of charity, and of course they make some money for themselves, but I wish there was a way we could help provide them with something more sustainable, so that it's not just us handing them food whenever we come to help them.

After the government oversaw us handing out the food to the families, we then got on the bus and went to the villages to visit a few of the families who received aid. (The villagers, however, had to strap the bags of rice and supplies to their bikes and motorcycles and carry them back to their homes themselves. Doesn't make much sense, but we have to comply with the government or else we can't provide any help at all.) We drove many more kilometers away from the city and eventually split into two groups and were directed around a tiny village where we saw how the families we had given food to actually lived. 

Just like in the other areas, children were running around everywhere and so curious about us. When they looked at me with their hopeful little faces, it was hard not to pick them up right there and take them all with me. I wish I could give every one of them the life that they deserve. Even their parents wish the same thing; on more than one occasion parents have offered their children for us to take them to the U.S. In this village, we were actually invited into the houses, even though half of our group could barely fit into a living space that usually holds up to 10 people. For some of the families, their entire house was the size of my bedroom at home. And the kitchen is outside, with one water pump for the whole village. I hope that some of the pictures can be passed along. I don't like taking pictures myself in the villages. There are so many of us who have cameras, I feel like it is overwhelming to the people there. Also, I can't focus on talking to the people there if I'm worrying about taking pictures of everything. Especially in these small towns, being able to talk to the people is an incredible experience. Through the translator provided to us by the government, we were able to hear the stories of 6 different families. I wouldn't give up that opportunity for anything.

When we returned from the villages, we had some time to ourselves, which is pretty much a luxury around here. We are always are doing so much in all of our days, it is hard enough to even relax for a second. And my mind is always going a mile a minute with every new place I visit or thing I see. I am in constant amazement here of just how different things are here. And really, the poverty here is how the majority of the world lives on a day-to-day basis. That is something I am still trying to grasp entirely.

We're off to eat dinner at another Vietnamese restaurant. Last night we went to a traditional family style Vietnamese place. We had to bring our translator along just to read the menu! It's great being able to try so many new things, but every time I sit down to eat, I think about the children at the orphanage and the poor people of the villages that we've seen and talked to. They aren't really that far away from us as we stay in Hue. And even when I go back to America, I know they won't be far from my mind. 

I hope everyone is doing well at home. It's weird to think that Christmas is in just a few days. That is probably the last thing on my mind here. I can't believe we only have a few more days in Hue. I already miss it. On the 20th we'll be heading to another city, Hoi An, to stay for a night, and then we'll fly back to Ho Chi Minh City for another night before we fly back home. We'll be visiting another orphanage and a few more villages along the way. Hopefully I'll be home on the 23rd if we don't get stuck in the Chicago airport they day before Christmas Eve.

Dec. 17 - villages outside Hue

I have been amazed by the poverty here ever since stepping off the plane. I knew (of course) coming to Vietnam would be eye-opening in itself, because I haven't really ever in my middle class suburban white lifestyle been exposed to real poverty. But going to the villages was like nothing I expected. It's difficult for me to describe the way that these people live. 

Yesterday we left in the morning and headed out away from Hue to the villages south of the city. Not that Hue isn't already quite poor, but driving farther out was like slowly entering into a different world. As we left the city, the buildings became fewer and fewer and the flood damage was really evident. The roads weren't paved, and animals were everywhere. Water buffalo, cows, and mangy dogs ran all over the place. We were driving along the river, and the water is so disgusting. It would take ages of filtration before that water would be good for anything, really. There is trash everywhere in Vietnam, especially farther out in the country. It is very dirty, and there is a distinct smell here that only gets stronger the farther out you go.  There is even trash in the trees along the river, from where the flooding made the river rise. You can really see how hard these people were hit by the typhoons. And it happens to them every year. Even though they know it will happen, they are still so poor there isn't anything they can do to prepare. They simply go to a shelter when the worst rains and flooding are upon them and wait, while the water washes their homes away. When the flooding is over, they rebuild their shacks for another few months before it happens again. Natural conditions like flooding are just one of many reasons why these people remain in such destitution year after year.

After driving past miles of countryside, we finally arrived near the villages along the South China Sea where Think About the Children has donated supplies to recently. We couldn't bring anything with us (the government is rather unreceptive to foreign aid, as I think Sophia mentioned before. It it understandable in a communist country, but it is a little frustrating when we have the resources to help but there are so many hoops for us get through before we can actually help the people) but we still got to see the people and where they lived. We also got to talk to them about what they needed, so that even after we leave, Think About the Children can better provide them with supplies.

After walking along the beach which, like everywhere else, was absolutely covered in trash (shoes, plastic, cardboard...everything you can imagine but mounds and mounds of it), we came upon a group of primitive boats, which was where the village was. As soon as we walked up, we were surrounded by people who recognized Liz as the girl who had given them supplies before. They look so dignified, these people. The women look wise beyond their years and speak to us with only their children in mind. When we asked them what they needed, they said everything, and meant it. They told us they would rather send their children to school than feed themselves. Everyone here seems hungry for education. It makes me want to never take my schooling for granted ever again. I have gotten to go to school for so much longer compared to most Vietnamese. School over here is no longer compulsory after the age of 9, but out in the remote villages, some children can only dream of going to school that long. Most of the parents have never been to school, either.

The children wore clothes that were tattered but clean, and most had shoes on their feet. But every single one was smiling, from the moment we arrived to the moment we had to say goodbye. They would smile for photos, play peek-a-boo, and they are so curious. Many of them have never seen white people before, and they just want to touch you. They like to run and play and laugh. Families are very close. The parents are all very hardworking and just want the best for their children. Seeing these things has really reminded me of what human beings all have in common. Beyond our material possessions, we are not really all that different, as cliche as it sounds. So I know these people are capable of so much, if they can just be given a chance. And really, it takes so little for any one of us to help them. It would only take about $9,000 to build a school here, Dr. Murray said. Our American money can go so far in a country like this one.

After we left the villages south of Hue, we went to the grocery store to buy more supplies for the children of the Duc Son orphanage. We went there on the way home, and were again greeting with so many happy little faces. I have never seen such beautiful children. If I come home with a Vietnamese baby, don't be surprised. It was hard enough for me to put one down in time for another one to come running into my arms. The orphanage is run by Buddhist women who are the most selfless people I have ever seen. They have such kind faces and are so thankful every time we walk in the door. They don't speak much English, but everything they want to say is written all over their faces. They give up every semblance of a normal life to provide for these children. And the children are truly all they care about. Their devotion is really promising to me. It restores my faith in humankind, that someone could be so selfless.

It was hard to leave the children that day, but knowing that we can go back (and with more food and toys to bring them) makes it a little bit better. I can already tell that those children are going to stay with me. Just another reason it is going to be very difficult for me to say goodbye to Vietnam.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Dec. 16...on the river in Hue.

After the events of the 15th, and yesterday, and every day that we’ve been here, it’s hard to imagine that we could possibly do anything else in this country. As Sophia told you so eloquently yesterday, we were risk takers, to say the least! I wish everyone could fully understand the road conditions here in Vietnam, so you would know just what a big deal it was that I drove my very own motorbike, with Sophia on the back, on the streets of Hue and the countryside of Vietnam. Me, who can barely get a hold of herself enough to drive a car in the U.S. without completely losing her mind, was the first member of our group to hop up and learn how to drive a Vietnamese motorbike! This country makes me do crazy things.


Catching up on days…Sophia wrote about the 15th, but as far as the 16th goes (That’s yesterday, I think? I can hardly keep up with days anymore.) it was pleasantly laid back. So far, it almost seems like the days slow down in Vietnam, but that’s a good thing. That way, we are able to cram about a week’s worth of activities into one very full day. We have all been waking up very early, but doing so much throughout the day that by the time 8:00pm rolls around, we’re getting tired like grandmas! Last night, we went out to a place called Why Not? after dinner ,and we got home at 10:30…a really late night for us!


After yesterday, Sophia and I really wanted to sleep in. We wanted some physical and emotional rest after the motorbike rides, talking to Vietnamese students, and visiting the orphanage of Saturday, Sunday we totally slept in until about 9:30. We got a croissant for breakfast at the little bakery next door to our hotel. (I think Sophia mentioned the French and European influence of the food already…definitely a plus here. Not that the food isn’t great! The amazing food here would be a whole other blog entry in itself.) Then we went for a little walk through Hue near our hotel, which is an interesting area. We are a couple blocks away from the Imperial Hotel, which is a luxury hotel where the lowest priced rooms are $250 a night, right in the middle of the very poor area of Hue, most of which is so far below the American “poverty line” it is hard to even describe.


We sat outside the Imperial Hotel, where we discovered there is free wireless if you have your own laptop, and went on the internet. It’s really a precious commodity because we do so much during the day; it’s hard to find time to record it all. It’s difficult enough (for me at least) to sort everything that I’ve seen out in my own head.


After that, we went to lunch (where I’ve had the best fruit smoothie of my whole life…mango lemon, so delicious) and then walked to the Huang River for a “dragon boat” ride. We met more Vietnamese students there (who were so excited to see us, as usual. They are so curious about us and love talking to us; it’s really encouraging. We’ve gotten all of their email addresses and I feel like I’ve made at least 10 new friends. And, as Sophia told me, that’s world peace right there!) and then we hopped on a boat that was one level and had, what else, but a dragon on the front. We traveled up the Huang River with the students and had a chance to ask them a lot of questions about their life in Vietnam. It’s so interesting hearing what they have to say, and hearing what they want to ask us!


We rode on the boat, seeing a lot of Hue that you can’t see from walking on the road. There is a lot of poverty up the river. People fish and live out of their boats. We took the boat to an amazing Pagoda outside of the city. Buddhist monks live there from really young ages, studying and devoting their lives to their religion. It was probably one of the most beautiful places I have been in my whole life. All of the places we have been have really interesting stories. There is a lot of Chinese influence to all of the architecture and culture. It’s actually really interesting…the Vietnamese are incredibly nationalistic (hence why the government is very suspicious of a group of 17 Americans going into the smaller villages, even if it is just to provide relief) but much of their culture, language, everything, comes from elsewhere, from other countries’ influences.


Once we rode back on the boat, we had a quick drink at a café by the river, then walked to another amazing vegetarian restaurant in downtown Hue for dinner. I have had so much great food here! A lot of great tofu…they cook it so much better here than in the U.S. We went out afterward with Liz, then went to bed to get ready for another exciting day in Hue!


Hopefully I’ll have more time later to write about what we saw today. We went to some villages that Think About the Children has provided supplies to. It was very difficult to see the utter poverty that these people live in. It makes me want to help in any way that I can. I can already tell it is going to be very hard to leave here. There is just so much left to do.


Hope you all are doing well; hopefully I’ll write more later!

Sophia makes a guest appearance...Dec. 15 in Hue!

Hello everyone, this is Sophia making a guest appearance on Rachel’s blog. I would like to apologize in advance because I am not an English major. I am afraid I cannot offer the lovely prose Rachel brings to the blog. This blog is about our activities on December 15, 2007. It was one of the fullest days of my life.


Ruth 1:16 …Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my god.


Today I have been thinking a lot about the story of Ruth. When she went with Naomi to Bethlehem, she was leaving the only home she ever knew. Leaving her country, her people, her culture and religion. I’m sure Ruth went through some culture shock as she promised to go with Naomi to the land of her people. Rachel and I have also wandered to a new place. I don’t think we could have gone much further from home than Viet Nam. Not only are we far away in miles, but also we are distant in culture, religion, food, and language. Just as Ruth promised to go where Naomi went and stay where she stayed and live like her people, so, too, have Rachel and I vowed to experience the life of the Vietnamese. After all, this isn’t just a Christmas vacation, it is a learning experience and today I think we learned more than any book could ever tell of the Vietnamese.

We started the day bright and early at 7:30am. Although that is early for us, it is nothing for students in Viet Nam. Our room here is right next to a school. Every morning, even Saturday and Sunday, we hear the students come to school laughing and chatting with their friends at 6am. Even the Vietnamese university students all start their classes at 7am! After taking a cold shower (there isn’t any hot water in our room…our hotel choice is also part of our charity here) we headed to Mr. Cu’s Mandarin Café for breakfast. There is still a heavy French influence here, especially in the restaurants, so we had crepes and croissants for breakfast. Mr. Cu is a good friend of Dr. Murray, our trip leader and the founder of Think About the Children) so he gave us his famous walking tour of Hue pamphlet. We had until 12 to meet for lunch so we thought we would give it a go. I was proud of our group of girls for navigating (all by ourselves!) their way over the Huang River bridge to the Citadel (nothing like the Citadel in Charleston) and the Imperial City. We did deviate a little from Mr. Cu’s tour. Some of the instructions were lost in translation. While lost we got to see a little better how the Vietnamese people live their lives. We saw a schoolyard of children playing games. They were very happy to let us take their picture! We saw people cooking, cleaning, fishing, and running their shops. In Viet Nam a lot of life goes on in the streets. Everyone camps out in from of his or her shops or homes. It is hard to describe what we saw because there really is nothing like it in America. Eventually we found our way to the Imperial City. It was built in the 19th century to house the royal family. Viet Nam has a very long history; however, most of the visible history is from the very recent past. I think the humid weather and influx of invaders and war has caused many historical structures to be lost. The Citadel was a large military building designed by the French. It kind of looked like a black four-tiered cake with a giant Vietnamese flag on top.

After lunch our Vietnamese university students arrived to do a little sight seeing in the country and go with us to the Duc Son orphanage. [We have gotten the opportunity to meet with several university students from the English Club at the university in Hue. The teacher who leads the club is a good friend of Liz, the American contact here in Viet Nam for Think About the Children, and he works very closely with the organization. The students have come along with us on most of our travels.] Getting to know the students has been one of the most rewarding components of this trip. If you have ever learned a foreign language think back on what you learned first. Usually you learn how to ask someone’s name, their age, what they like to do, etc. That is the type of question we received from the students. Their English was very good, but it is very draining to communicate for long periods of time with them.

After our walking tour, we ate lunch at a great vegetarian restaurant across the bridge in Hue. Some of the students met us there after lunch. We all wanted to go see the tomb of the last emperor of Viet Nam before visiting the orphanage but there weren’t enough Vietnamese drivers to take us there. But Rachel and I channeled Ruth and said your transportation will be our transportation. Rachel, Emily, Paul, and I all offered to drive a motorbike. The CDC specifically wrote that foreigners should not drive themselves in Viet Nam but hey, how hard can it be. Sure, there are no traffic laws, and we have no idea where we are going, but whatever. It was soooo much fun. We had a thirty-minute training session in the parking lot of the restaurant. Despite the language barrier, Rachel and I became fast experts on the bikes. Once we got out of the city, the view was breathtaking. There were mountains and expansive rice patties. We saw water buffalo and someone in our group saw and elephant. Vi, one of the university students, gave us a tour of the pagoda way out in the country that we came to after our motorbike ride. It was one of the most peaceful places I have ever seen. The only stress came as we biked back into the city in the middle of rush hour. But Rachel and I never got separated from our group because the 11 white students on the back of bikes really stood out of the crowd!

After dinner we went to the orphanage. We brought a ton of food and supplies to give to the orphanage and, of course, ourselves to play with the children. When we got there, the students sang us songs including Happy Birthday, Row Row Row Your Boat, and You Are My Sunshine. They asked us to sing them a song, so we busted out Jingle Bells. The children were so precious and well behaved. The Buddhist nuns need only ring their bells or tap a child on the shoulder and they got right in line. The nun explained to us that they took in children whose parents died in accidents or who were abandoned because of disabilities. People will leave children at the gate and ring the bell. The students can stay there as long as they like. Many remain there and help raise the children. They were so thankful for all the supplies. After the song singing, the children were given time to run wild with us. There were at least 100 kids in the large open room and they all wanted to be hugged, tickled, and chased. I learned some new hand clapping games and a balancing game where three people hold hands and you put one foot into the middle and hop around til you fall down. We got to see the nursery and hold some of the babies. I held one baby who was only 7 days old! By the time we sat down to share some fruit together we were all exhausted and sweaty.

The government canceled our work in the North for the next two days. Apparently we are not to be trusted. I guess they think we might stir up the villagers. Instead of painting and repairing roofs as planned, we are going to spend more time with the Vietnamese students and give more aid to the Duc Son orphanage. We are going to go to the market and pick out special gifts for the children. I know that they will be happy to see us again and I know that I will not be happy to leave them!



Saturday, December 15, 2007

photos from Ho Chi Minh City!

I managed to get the pictures I've taken so far onto my computer. And a picture is worth a thousand words, right? So maybe this will give you a better idea of just what I've seen so far in Vietnam.

Sophia and I in the airport in Hong Kong! We were so excited to be in Asia...and, as you can see, the flight made us a little crazy.

Here is the group of us the first night out in Ho Chi Minh City. We were so happy to finally be on the ground in our country of destination! This was a little way away from our hotel in the "backpackers alley." We saw more white tourists that night than Vietnamese!

Coffee at breakfast our first morning in Ho Chi Minh. This is my favorite part of Vietnam so far...I've had it every day we've been here!

A few shots of the market we went to in Ho Chi Minh. Talk about sensory overload!

I wish I had more time to put everything up here and talk about everything we did yesterday, but I'm to take a Dragon Boat ride on the rive here in Hue! Hopefully tonight I'll be able to be on internet for longer and I can tell you all about it.

Dec. 14

This post is actually from the day before yesterday, but we're just now finding access to the internet, so it's a little delayed. I wrote and saved it to post now.  Enjoy the happenings of December 14! Yesterday was too crazy...I don't know when I'll find time to write about everything I did. It was incredible! Hope you all are doing well!

Wow. I did not know it was humanly possible to do so many things, see so many sights, meet so many people…in just one day! After the market and the insanity that is HCMC, we flew on a small plane to Hue, which was a different experience to say the least. Even though there were screaming children behind us and a crying baby next to us, Sophia and I managed to enjoy our flight, which only took about 45 minutes. Flying in over Hue, we could already tell this was going to be an entirely different Vietnam than what we’d just seen in HCMC. That turned out to be mostly true, with the landscape around Hue all green with mountains in the distance. I had almost forgotten how nice it was to see mountains after being at sea level in Charleston for so long! We also saw a lot of flood damage, still, on the way in from the air. Even though the rainy season is over, it still rains a little bit each night, and there is still evidence of the floods that damaged the area a little while ago.


The Hue international airport was tiny. Seriously—one baggage carousel, probably about two gates, maybe. We got off the plane on the tarmac and took a bus over to the entrance in the actual airport building. There, Liz was waiting for us. She is a College of Charleston graduate who studied abroad a few years ago with Dr. Murray, who is leading our trip and has led a few other trips in the past. Liz now works for Dr. Murray’s organization (called Think About the Children) and lives in Vietnam full time. It was great to finally see another familiar face after two days of nothing but airports and Ho Chi Minh City.


We took a van from the Hue airport into the city, which was about 15 or 20 minutes away. On the way in, we passed some absolutely beautiful landscapes. They were punctuated by areas of poverty, reminding us again of the nature of the country we are in. Beautiful, but struggling. Getting closer and closer to the city, you could see traffic picking up, and fewer homes that looked desolate. It was odd, there were people in the country near the airport, but it seemed almost abandoned or something. Once we got to the city, though, I could see why Dr. Murray suggested Charleston as a comparison. The two cities are about the same size, and there is lots of history to be had in both areas.


We checked into our hotel (another small but okay room, this time with two beds, a little bit softer than the other hotel, but this room has neither air conditioning nor hot water as of now!) It is much nicer in Hue than in HCMC as far as the weather is concerned. Here it is in the 70s and not too sunny. There is a breeze because we are right by a river. Overall, I like Hue a lot better than HCMC, not only because the weather is nicer, but it’s also less chaotic and not so much sensory overload everywhere you turn. Traffic is still crazy, but not as bad. Tomorrow starts a new law that everyone riding a motorcycle will have to wear a helmet in all of Vietnam! It’s all anyone can talk about here.


After we got settled into our hotel, we walked a few blocks to a small restaurant across the street from them Imperial Hotel, the very nice tourist destination in Hue that goes for about $250 a night. We met up with the rest of Dr. Murray’s family here, as well as students from a local university’s English Club. It was great meeting Vietnamese students! They were all as excited to talk to us as we were to talk to them, even though we could only say the basics, really. They were all studying Environmental Studies at the University here in Hue. They were all about 20 years old, and we al turned out to actually have some things in common! It reminded me of what it might be like if Sophia and I ever went to Germany and attempted to talk to students there. The basics, a lot of hand motions, and a lot of patience. That’s all it takes to make a new friend in anyone you meet in a foreign country, I’m convinced of it!


After we ate at the restaurant all of us Americans jumped onto the backs of the Vietnamese students’ motorcycles for a quick ride to a café by the river a little way away. It was definitely the coolest part of the trip so far! Traveling by motorcycle is definitely the preferred method of travel, and it’s so much fun! It makes me want to learn to ride my own! If it wasn’t for the crazy traffic in the cities, I would rent a motorcycle in a heartbeat and take it everywhere.


The ride was nice and we ended up at a cute little café on the river where I got to drink more amazing coffee. I hope I can bring back a special Vietnamese coffee maker; I’m never going to be able to drink regular coffee again! Though we were all pretty tired at this point (I still can’t believe we did all of this in one day), so we decided to head back.


We don’t really have a set schedule over here, it’s more of an experience-everything-you-can type of plan. Which is okay by me! This is turning out to be even more of an adventure than I thought it would be—I don’t even really know where we are going or what we’re going to be doing tomorrow, but I know it’s going to be amazing, just like everything else in Vietnam has been so far. Whether it’s talking to students from Hue or just walking the streets of HCMC looking for an ATM, every little thing is such an experience in a place that is so un-Western. It’s incredible how different things can be. Every few minutes I discover something new and that is exactly how I would want to spend any trip I go on!


Can’t wait to see what we end up doing tomorrow! And don’t worry, I’m taking my malaria pills and not drinking any of the water. I haven’t had anything stolen from me in the cities, and no one has gotten hurt. All healthy and safe so far. Have a great weekend, everyone!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

"I've never seen intestine before!"

Day 2 in!

We woke up early this morning and had breakfast at a small restaurant next door to our hotel. I had the most amazing cup of coffee I've ever had in my life. It had its own miniature coffee maker on top: the grounds were in a small container on top of the mug with a little bit of water...thus making the coffee also the STRONGEST I've ever had in my life! I had a banana pancake for breakfast...two huge crepes with unbelievably fresh bananas in between. Quite an amazing first Vietnamese meal, I would say.

Walking to the market after breakfast was an experience in itself. Hopefully I can get some pictures up, because there is really no way to explain the going every which way, crossing the street is quite an event! Dr. Murray said there are about 10 million people here in Ho Chi Minh City, and I totally believe it. Everyone here dresses nearly head-to-toe covered up, even though it feels like it's about 90 degrees outside. People try to sell you things a lot, but if you say no, they don't bother you any more. They seem to be very hardworking, but I saw a lot of smiling faces, too.

The walk to the market was short, and we saw a lot of Vietnamese architecture on the way. It is dirty here, like you would expect for any big city, but there are some really pleasant park areas, where we saw a bunch of Asian school children taking their morning break. We didn't get hit by any vans or motorcycles and arrived at the market at about 9:30am. There were already stalls everywhere selling everything you can imagine. It was incredible...clothes, shoes, hats, souveniers, live fish, all kinds of eggs, meats (intestines and pig ears...I had to look away :) but the most incredible looking food I have ever seen. I can't wait to try these huges fruits covered in spikes that I see everywhere! Some of the girls even got pedicures right there in the market--for only $2! The goods here are incredibly cheap. And I got some haggling practice inAs far as the shopping goes, I won't divulge too much here, but let's just saw Sophia and I have our Christmas shopping all done. :)

Right now it's about noon and we're waiting for our bus to take us to the airport so that we can fly to Hue. I've seen so much Vietnamese culture already...its amazing how a few hours can bring so many new sights, as cliched as that sounds. I love the city, but I can't wait to get out and see the countryside. Seeing the schoolchildren today made me really excited to visit the orphanage.

Can't wait to tell you more...hope everyone is doing well!

Greetings from Vietnam!

Hello everyone,

Right now I'm sitting in a very warm hotel lobby in the incredible city of Ho Chi Minh City!

Really, it's pretty crazy that we actually got here. We found out our first flight (which was supposed to take us to D.C. so we could get to LAX) was canceled around midnight before we were supposed to leave at 3:30am. Luckily, we have a savvy leader named Becca who worked everything out with minimal damage. We changed flights and had to take Delta to Atlanta instead of United to D.C., but we got everything worked out by the time we got to LAX, and our luggage was waiting for us in Ho Chi Minh City when we got here to boot!

I've never felt so drained of energy when the plane landed in Ho Chi Minh City. After about 26 hours total travel time, the meaning of jet lag makes total sense to me. But as soon as we picked up our bags and headed to our van to take on the streets of Vietnam, I had forgotten all of that!

Ho Chi Minh City is full of life, and there are people everywhere you turn. Everything is done on the streets...socializing, selling goods of all sorts (some of which smell not exactly delectable, but talk to me tomorrow after I go to the market and I'm sure I'll have much more to say about that)! People go everywhere on motorcycles and bikes, and traffic laws are really JUST a suggestion. Our van drove on the wrong side of the road at least five times before the 30 minute trip to our hotel was through!

Myself and the girls on the trip (there are 11 of us, total) all held up really well on the flights over, and of course were ready for a reward, even though it was about 1 in the morning here when we arrived! We took in a little Ho Chi Minh City nightlife, and even ran into a group of students who were sitting next to us on the plane from LAX to Ho CHi Minh City that went to school in Utah!

Our hotel room (my friend Sophia and I are sharing) is not all that great, but it has air conditioning and bottled water, two essentials that we've learned even in only being in Vietnam for a few hours! Tomorrow, after visiting the market and some other sites in Ho Chi Minh CIty, we will fly to Hue, a smaller city, where we'll meet up with some Vietnamese students, visit an orphanage, and do some other cool things. I can't wait!

Sunday, December 2, 2007

10 more days!

Hello all,

Today is December 2, and it is a chilly 73 degrees here in Charleston. (Nothing says it's almost Christmas like short sleeves and flip flops!) Among the Christmas parades and parties, and not to mention finals, I'm also getting ready for my trip to Vietnam!

On December 12 I'll be reporting to a parking lot for my ride to the airport at the lovely hour of 3:30am in order to make my 6am flight. Then I'll be in the air to Washington, D.C., to L.A., to Ho Chi Minh City. On the 13th, I'll fly to another smaller city called Hue from there, and traveling in to even smaller villages in the Quang Tri Province after that.

I am so exited about this trip, and I'm even more excited to share everything with you guys here! Hopefully all of my friends and family can read my blog while I'm away and be firsthand witnesses to my first of what are sure to be many attempts to change the world! :)