Category Archives: Vietnam

Descending Dragon’s Bay

Halong Bay is considered one of the new seven natural wonders of the world and is also recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. If you come to Vietnam, it’s one of the excursions you MUST do. It definitely seems like the pleasure trip; fortunate passengers literally sailing through thousands of small islands made of limestone aboard a wooden ship.

One of many thousands of small island at Halong.
One of many thousands of small island at Halong.

Sounds like heaven! However, the only way I would agree to go on this outing is if I had a pirate ship. I’ve seen pictures of it on the internet and it’s definitely possible. Lucy felt the same. We booked a tour through Ethnic Travels. Their whole mantra is taking their guests to places where most tourists don’t go. Sounds perfect! And one of their boats resembled a wooden pirate ship with giant red sails! We’ve turned down many tour companies offering us a cruise through Halong Bay because their boats didn’t look anything like a pirate ship, but with Ethnic, we were also able to nab a great deal, thanks to Ibrahim who is a master bargainer.

A minivan picked us up in the wee hours of the early sunlight. Inside it were six other passengers who would join Lucy and I on the ship, including a couple from the Netherlands, Jurre and An. It was about three hours drive east in northern Vietnam until we finally made it to the port of Halong City. There were many tourists and fellow backpackers crowded about, eagerly waiting to board their boats. What made our cruise extra special was that the eight of us had an entire ship to ourselves, unlike most other ships where there could be 20+ passengers on just one vessel. In addition to Jurre and An, in our group we also had a couple from Switzerland and two friends from Singapore. It was a solid bunch and we were primed to board our ship!

Ha long means “Bay of Descending Dragons”. The legend goes like this:

In the ancient world, when our ancestors were in a war with barbaric adversaries from the northern region, the heavenly gods blessed our ancestors with a family of powerful dragons to help defend their earth. The dragons descended upon the empty sea, which is now called Ha long Bay, and began to spit diamonds onto the calm waters. Upon hitting the surface, these diamonds transformed into thousands of small islets, becoming a complex barrier against the barbarians. With the help of the dragons island barriers, our ancestors were able to defeat the barbarians and keep their country safe. The family of dragons fell in love with the peaceful waters and with the gratitude of the people, and so, decided to remain on earth. The mother dragon lives in what is now Ha long Bay and her children live in Bai Tu Long Bay, an area of equally rich waters neighboring Ha long Bay.

What a cool story! Not only will I see Halong Bay, but the next day we will be able to see where the dragon children live in Bai Tu Long Bay!

As we boarded the ship, we were treated to a lunch in the cabin. Lunch that contained seafood…lot’s and lot’s of seafood. Blah! Thankfully there was rice, chicken, and a medley of sautéed veggies to hold me over until dinner. Soon enough, we began our descent through the bay!

Not a fan! But I managed to at least try a few bites.
Not a fan! But I managed to at least try a few bites.
She was loving it! After all her favorite food is prawns.
She was loving it! After all, her favorite food is prawns.

Technically, I am a tourist, but I really don’t care for that label. I prefer “adventure seeker”. I climbed to the top of the ship and set my eyes across the distance, past hundreds of islands, through the courses of our route.

All aboard for adventure!
All aboard for adventure!

Before boarding the ship, I was a bit worried about becoming sea-sick. Regular readers already know that motion sickness has been my worst enemy while traveling amongst the continents. And stupid me forgot to bring prevention tablets for this trip. Fortunately, the waters in Ha Long Bay were blissfully calm and serene. The ship glided smoothly among the surface of the sea, like an airplane in a clear sky. Islets of limestone, scattered around the region created a soothing, tranquil effect. The clouds were as white and puffy as I’ve ever seen. It was the perfect day for sailing.

Happy as a clam :)
Happy as a clam 🙂

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After a couple of hours, we cruised to a floating village. Literally dozens of small, worn wooden homes and shops floating on the water. Four locals came to our ship by rowboat and picked us up for a tour around their village. In this village, children learn how to row and swim at the ripe age of four! As peaceful as it is here, it can be a bit of a drag. There isn’t really anywhere to walk to and since this village is so far from towns on the mainland, the villagers must often wait long periods of time for water and food to be delivered. In any case, the villagers catch, sell, and trade a hefty amount of fish and crustaceans; a couple of food sources they will never run out of.

Floating Village
Floating Village
Children learn to steer a boat at an early age.
Children learn to steer a boat at an early age.

After rowing for a bit, we boarded our ship and sailed to a spot on the bay that was surrounded by numerous caves and towering islands. We then had the opportunity to jump into the water! My neck hasn’t felt 100% yet so I first jumped off the mid-deck. Awesome fun! The water was warm and deep. I immediately got out and went to the top-deck and decided it was okay for me to jump. I decided wrong. My neck felt a sudden painful jab as soon as I hit the water, and sent a jolt down my spine. I didn’t flip or anything, just kinda jumped like a silly man into the water. I played it off like nothing was wrong. The others had no idea! Most of us decided to swim about 100 yards over to a cave nearby called “Drum Cave”. It hurt me to much to freestyle swim, so I backstroked the whole way. I couldn’t really hear or see what the others were doing, but I just knew to swim to the entrance. When I made it, I looked up and saw the others going the opposite direction. I didn’t know why, the entrance was right here by me! Anyhow, as I started to slowly climb the sharp rocks, I was getting cut up all over my hands, legs, and feet just by the slightest touch of a rock. I didn’t even make it to the entrance because I was getting slashed up so much as the others, who were still so far away, looked on. I looked at my fingers and saw all of the blood collecting on each of my fingertips. A shark is going to come get me! I saw our tour guide flagging us to come back to the boat. But, why? We just swam out here? Did she spot something in the water? I saw the others starting to swim back. So off I went too! My mind started to play tricks on me. My neck was hurting so I had to swim upside down and my blood was spewing into the ocean, so I fastened my pace, juuuuust incase a shark really did pick up my blood trace and wanted to take a bite out of me. In the process, I grew fatigued and switched to resting strokes. At one point, I looked up and saw the others had already made it while I was still so far behind. I eventually made it to the ships anchor and kinda chilled there for a bit, regaining a bit of energy. In the process, the anchor was also scrapping my legs, so off I swam back to the ladder onto the deck, finally! My neck and chest were hurting and my fingers were a bloody mess. Lucy bandaged me up and I went to go put on my neck brace. “Why didn’t you guys swim to the cave?” I asked her. “We wanted to go around the other side and the water was warmer where we were”, she replied. Pssshh.

An and Jurre!
An and Jurre!

We all then spent the rest of the evening on the top deck, reveling under the moonlit, night sky.

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The next day we woke up pretty early. Kayaking to caves a bit further away was on the agenda. Lucy and I got into our kayak and paddled away! It was drizzling a bit, with a few booms of thunder, but not enough to stop us! We paddled our way through to a cave, almost hidden behind a giant limestone, and docked our kayak on the sandy shore of a small island.

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On the island was the entrance to what turned out to be an enormous cave that you could see through to the opposite side. Our tour guide told us that this is called “Fairy Cave”. There was a huge crater in the center of the cave edged out with boulders that grew in size the further you went. On the opposite side, we had a framed view of another island, about a few dozen meters across the water. Worthy of photos, but I didn’t have a camera on me, in fear of it getting wet and destroyed. I must go back to the ship and retrieve my GoPro! The others were walking around the cave so Lucy and I decided to hightail it back to the ship. As we kayaked away, it started to rain and thunder heavily. It was so sweet!

Lucy in the front!
Lucy in the front!

Once we made it to the ladder of the ship, I went up, retrieved my handy GoPro and jumped back into my kayak. l wondered why the others didn’t follow us. Where did they go? It continued to downpour but Lucy and I were lovin’ it! On the way back to Fairy Cave, we witnessed sinister lighting strikes shatter the sky as the surface of the sea fluttered with zillions of pelting raindrops. We made it back and saw our group standing near the entrance. Apparently, they were waiting for this storm to succeed, by the suggestion of our tour guide. Whoops…

Anyhow, Lucy and I trekked back into the cave, now with my GoPro in tow, to document what we’ve seen. Worth the effort.

Lucy and I went into the cave while the others waited for the storm to slow.
Lucy and I went into the cave while the others waited for the storm to slow.
Fairy Cave
Fairy Cave. I am that bright orange spec.
Our group!
Our group!

Later on the same day, we sailed back to the dock of Halong City. We parted ways with the Swiss couple and the two Singaporean friends. A couple from Barcelona, Spain joined our group and we took a minivan to Bai Tu Long Bay, the next destination of this excursion. Our new boat was a bit smaller, as we didn’t have any private rooms this time. The rain and thunder ceased and we were able to set sail through Bai Tu Long Bay. Bai Tu Long was similar to Ha Long Bay except the islands were noticeably bigger and more connected than the limestone islets of Ha Long.

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We cruised for a few hours, some of us even falling asleep on the roof of the boat. We eventually reached a large island where bicycles were awaiting each of us. We biked about three kilometers to a secluded beach. There was no other person there but the six of us and our tour guide. After playing around there for a bit, we continued on our bikes through the island to a small village.

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At the village was a guesthouse where we would stay the night and enjoy authentic Vietnamese cuisine. It included fried spring rolls, sticky rice, strewed spinach, chicken, and of course tons of seafood. Bleh! I enjoyed the non seafood things and then called it a night in one of the hottest sleeps in Vietnam thus far!

The morning we woke up to pouring rain and muddy streets. Thankfully we didn’t have to ride our bikes all the way back to our boat, but instead we took a miniature pick-up truck thingamajig back. The pouring rain turned into a harsh thunderstorm, so instead of kayaking again today, we just sailed back to shore. The water was a tad choppy so I made sure to lie down, not look at the water, and try to fall asleep so I wouldn’t get seasick. Worked like a charm! When we returned to the dock, the storm began to lessen, so our tour guide arranged us rowboats to a nearby island. On this island, was a tall mountain with a cave hidden within it.

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One of the dragon children was rumored to live here deep within the caves. There were dragon statues and simulacrum hidden within the overgrown brush of the islands’ forest.

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Jurre, An, Lucy, and I climbed maybe a quarter of the mountain and found the entrance to the cave; and in we went.

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This cave was deep. It was long and maze-like. Not to mention, total darkness. We needed torches to navigate through. It looked as though a small museum was being built here awhile ago but has been abandoned, maybe temporarily or maybe not. It was kinda eerie because the abandoned showcases and other random man-made objects lying around rendered a haunting influence within the cave.

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We could hear bats flying about, but could not see them. We went for several minutes, with diverging paths coming every few careful steps of the way. Our tour guide suggested we turn around because it was easy to get lost inside. I agreed that it was easy to get lost, but I wanted to continue further. Unfortunately, I didn’t have my own torch and I would have been lost in the cave forever. On the way back, Lucy spotted a spider the size of my fist!

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We exited the cave and continued our way up the mountain. Once we reached the summit, we had a great view of Bai Tu Long Bay! This completed the end of our stay at the bays. The three days flew by and was as relaxed as I imagined. Except for the whole bleeding in the ocean thing, but that’s a story in itself!

Later on in the day, we packed our bags and took a van back to Hanoi. As soon as we got off the van, Lucy and I immediately took a taxi to the bus station. Literally, no times to go to a hotel and regroup. We parted ways with the cool couple, Jurre and An, but only for the night. The next morning we would all reunite, after a long 11 hour bus ride to the northwest to an otherworldly place called Heaven’s Gate or more famously known as Sapa.

Halong, you have been an amazing host!
Halong, you have been an amazing host!
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Backpacker Mode

And so my tenure as a volunteer is over, at least for the time being. Now that I am relieved of any obligation, I can go anywhere and do anything I want. From now through mid September, nothing is planned in stone, nothing is booked. This is where the real fun begins.

For weeks, Lucy and I have been debating about where we should go to next and for how long. We knew we wanted to head north in Vietnam, as our visa is for only one entry, it would be smart to do whatever else we wanted to do in Vietnam now before we leave. With that, we decided to go to one of the natural wonders of the world, Halong Bay and then immediately after to Sapa. But before we could go to either of those places, we had to touch base in Hanoi, the northern capital of Vietnam, in order to get everything situated. Backpacker mode starts now!

The easiest method to get to Hanoi is by flying. We went to the airport, boarded the plane, and anxiously waited for take-off. As Lucy and I were reminiscing about how much fun we had in HCMC, a passenger who sat next to us couldn’t help but listen and introduce herself. Her name is Kim. She’s a young Vietnamese but lived in Australia for quite awhile. She’s living in HCMC for about a year to begin a new job, but is traveling to Hanoi for the weekend to visit a friend. “Sorry for listening but you guys sounded like you had so much fun!” she said very politely. We didn’t mind at all. We began talking to her about what our experience has been like in Vietnam thus far and what we are looking forward to next. As a matter of fact, we were talking to her for pretty much the whole flight to Hanoi. Well, it was mainly Lucy doing the chatting because I ended up falling asleep halfway through the flight. Kim mentioned to us that a taxi from the airport to Downtown Hanoi (our destination) is almost an hourlong and a bit expensive, so she offered for her friend that is picking her up to give us a ride. We felt that Kim has been genuine and kind during our talk so we took her up on the offer. Haven’t even made it to Hanoi yet and we’ve already made a friend!

Once we landed and gathered our gear, her friend rolled up and gave us a lift through town. His name is Trung and has done his fair share of traveling around the world. Even though Lucy and I were in a car with two complete strangers, not once did I ever feel the slightest worried. Kim asked us if we had a hotel or hostel booked for Hanoi. We didn’t. We were just going to walk around and find something. She then gave us her number saying that if we have trouble finding a place, then we could stay at the hotel she was staying at for the night. What a nice person! After about an hour of rough traffic, we finally made it to Downtown Hanoi! Lucy and I tried to pay Trung for giving us a ride, but he wouldn’t take our money. We decided that since we have the whole day free tomorrow, that we should all meet up for lunch sometime, so we exchanged contacts.

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Trung and Kim!

It just so happened that a fellow volunteer we met in South Africa is in Hanoi. His name is Ibrahim.

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Ibrahim, volunteering with the kids in Muizenberg, South Africa. (June 2012)

Ibrahim arrived in Muizenberg, South Africa the same time Lucy did last year. He was part of a huge group from his school and ended up being placed in the Palmer house. He initially was only going to stay in Muizenberg for a week, along with his group, but eventually extended his stay for an extra week, while his group left back to Qatar. Everyone loved Ibrahim because he was incredibly kind to everyone and instead of completely sticking with his group the entire time, he made an effort to get to know all of the other volunteers. A couple of weeks ago, Ibrahim saw that I was in Vietnam on FB, and so he messaged me asking if I had plans of going to Hanoi sometime, we can all link up. That was the game plan. Lucy and I wandered the condensed streets (or more like glorified alleyways) of the Old Quarter of Hanoi. We found a suitable, yet comfortable Hotel close by that we called ours for the night. Once we settled in, we walked down the street to meet up with Ibrahim near his hotel. Seems he had the same idea in mind because we all ended up bumping into each other about halfway from our respective hotels!

Ibrahim is here volunteering as a medic and has been here for a couple of weeks so far, so he was able to show us around the streets even though mostly everything was closed. Hanoi is remarkably different than Ho Chi Minh in a number of ways. One, everything in HCMC stayed open late into the night. Here, everything shuts down by the order of the marginally corrupt police. I say marginally because they can be quite shady. They’ll stop cars for no reason at all here and will give you a ticket for a bogus reason unless you bribe them with some money. And if you’re walking the streets at night, it’s best to ignore them and don’t make eye contact when they start to speak to you, otherwise you will have to bribe your way out of an awkward scuffle. It’s never happened to me, but I’ve seen it happen to others. Not only is the law enforcement odd, but also the delicacy. I’ve heard rumors of Vietnamese eating dog before I came here. Sad to say, it’s true. It’s even truer here in northern Vietnam than the south. What’s even more messed up is the way it’s handled. Any dog lover reading this should skip the rest of this paragraph. To prepare a dog for dinner, the innocent doggie is forced to release adrenaline into its system which results in tastier meat. How is a dog forced to release adrenaline? By beating them up first and then killing them immediately after. I still can’t even think about it without building up a taste of repugnance towards the locals for their abuse towards mans-bestfriend, but I have to remember, it’s just what they do here. Even more bizarre, young backpackers and tourists eat dogs more than the locals do. It’s mainly all for the details of a story to share when they return home, “Yeah, crazy story! I ate dog meat in Vietnam!“. Lucy and I would have been one of those backpackers if we didn’t know the methods for the meat.

We called it a night and the three of us made plans to hangout in Hanoi the next day. I also contacted Kim and Trung later on to meet us up. Around noon, Kim and Trung came and picked Lucy, Ibrahim, and I up and we went to an Italian style cafe downtown. It’s been awhile since I’ve had my favorite food, italian pasta, so I was very happy to finally get some here! Ibrahim couldn’t eat nor drink with us as he was practicing Ramadan, but he didn’t mind at all.

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After lunch, we drove to one of the many legendary lakes nearby. We went through a pagoda that sat in the middle of the lake that we had to get to via a bridge. The fable goes something like this: a magical turtle swam out of the lake carrying a large sword on it’s back, which it gave to a warrior to help win a war against an invading army fleet…well, something along those lines. I am missing a few details but that’s the gist of it!

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We went back to the Old Quarter and Lucy, Ibriham, and I went to Hanoi Backpacker’s to feast out on some Western grub. At 7pm, Ramadan was over for the day and so Ibrahim was able to pig out with us. We had planned to go out tonight with Kim and Trung but unfortunately her battery died on her phone and we lost touch. We made sure to message her later though, saying how grateful we were of all of her generosity.

During the late hours, we said our goodbyes to Ibrahim, who would be staying in Hanoi for a few more days. It was a nice surprise to see him in such a random place but it was also welcoming. Before we parted ways he was able to give us tips on getting to Halong Bay, one of the natural wonders of the world!

En route!

Sai Gone

It’s mine and Lucy’s last full day with the volunteers, so my core group (Lucy, Lex, Tom, Sophie, Addie, and Rochelle (Melbourne, Australia)) planned a special day in District One. It was also a day that Quyen wanted to take the volunteers out again. What to do!? I split my time between Quyen and my group. Quyen took all the volunteers out to try a variety of fruit among the alleys in HCMC. My group separated soon enough but I told them I would meet them later on. The fruit was tasty and consisted of purple dragon fruit, strawberries, bananas, mangoes, and other strange ones that I cannot pronounce. Soon Quyen treated the rest us of that were left to fried bananas and deep-fried sweet potatoes. I didn’t want to miss out on the Vietnamese cuisine so I knew the others would understand. But immediately after, I took a motorbike to the Financial Tower, the tallest building in Vietnam, to meet up with everyone.

Financial Tower
Financial Tower

I caught up with them and we went up to the highest floor we possibly could without paying and found a nice, ritzy bar at the top with an ingratiating view of Saigon!

Saigon City
Saigon City

And so begins the wave of goodbyes. I woke up the next day and found that I only need to wear my neck brace for when I’m sleeping. I started to pack that along with everything else into my bags. Will, Tian, and a few others were leaving early this morning to go to Mui Ne beach, which meant this would be the last time I would see them. Out of all the new volunteers that arrived two weeks after I did, I was fond of Tian and Will the most. Tian just cracked me up with everything she said and did, even if she wasn’t trying to be funny. I bonded with Will a little later into my stay here in Saigon. I really didn’t get to know him until about a week ago and I found he shares the same enthusiasm for venturing the world and making fun of each other’s home countries as much as I do! He’s also savvy with a camera and would go through great lengths to get that great shot, just like me. I have a few friends I need to visit in Australia, now adding Will to the top of that list, which solidifies the fact that I need to get there soon! Watch out for those drop bears Will.

The group of five Australian girls were due to leave next. I barely got to knew them until the last couple of days here, which was a shame. I hung out much more with my students and locals than I did with the other volunteers. Even so, I helped them with their luggage and walked with them to a taxi. Afterwards, I went back to my dorm to finish packing before I went to teach another session at Cuch Gach with Duong.

This time, Duong let me teach whatever I wanted. So for the majority of class, I went over consonant and vowel sounds, in addition to changing certain words to the past, present, and future tense. The later part of the class, I helped them fine tune their conversation skills when meeting an English speaking foreigner for the first time. I loved this!

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The students were really into it!
The students were really into it!

After class was over, Duong took me to another restaurant to treat me to breakfast. Bittersweet because this was the last time I would see Duong here. She showed me around the restaurant and she was keen to hear about what I have in store for the rest of my travels. She was very interested about the Reaching Out 2 The World project I’m working on in South Africa and thought that it was the most awesome idea in the world! As a matter of fact, most of the students that knew about it, thought it was the coolest thing ever! I would never expect, nor want these students to donate so all I asked of them was to follow along to see what I would be up to. Still to this day, I have never seen Duong without a smile – still one of the most pleasant people on the face of this earth. I also found out that Duong came all the way to the hospital to check on me when she found out something happened. Once she saw that I was okay, she left but didn’t want to bother me. What an angel! After breakfast, we said our farewells, and I set off on a motorbike back to the college as she rode her bicycle back to her home. It then hit me that I have a LOT of people to say goodbye to before my flight at 8pm! Hopefully I would get to everyone!

As I walked back into the college, luckily I bumped into Duc as he was on his way to the restaurant. I told him not to leave the college quite yet, as I had something for him. I went to my dorm to get a shirt I had with me that had the “University of Michigan” emblem on it. I’ve had it for awhile but it was always too big for me. I thought Duc would be the perfect size for it and he was! We said our goodbyes. Soon he would be going to Luxembourg for a year to start his schooling there to become a chef. Good luck with everything Duc!

Duc with his a-MAIZE-ing new shirt.
Duc with his a-MAIZE-ing new shirt.

I heard a “Hey Dan!” as I was walking around the college. It was the group of students who took me out to karaoke a few days ago, lounging on the benches nearby. I was glad to see all of them here at once because I didn’t think I would see them again before I left. 20130719-104200.jpgThey remembered that I was leaving today so we all took pictures together in the center of the campus. They would ask me what my plans for the rest of my trip were and then follow up with, “When will you come back to Vietnam Dan?”. That question would always kill me. Before coming to Vietnam, I thought this would be a one-and-done visit. Now that it’s just about over, I can definitely see myself coming back to teach at the college and visit many of the students, but I have no clue when. I would always say, “One day, but as soon as I know, I will tell you all on Facebook.”

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Lucy was in the middle of packing, so I decided to go grab a quick lunch on my own at the restaurant downstairs. That’s when I saw another group of students from another one of my classes enjoying lunch. “Hey Dan!”, they said as they were flagging me over to come join them. I went over and mentioned to them that I would be leaving in just a few hours and was glad to see them one last time. We talked about a lot of different things and then eventually they gave me a keychain and one of the girls made a card for me with a 3-D basket that popped up when you opened the card. I felt really terrible because I didn’t have anything to give, because I never expected this much gratitude before coming to Vietnam. They just made me promise to skype them when I got back home to help them with their English. I would love that and can’t wait for that to happen!

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After lunch, Quyen spotted me walking past her office and so she called me over. She had a certificate for me, stating my completion of teaching English at this college. The date is a week short, but no matter! It’s still pretty nice to recieve this. Always dressed in professional business attire, Quyen has been one of the best coordinators for any volunteering establishment I have ever been a part of. Not only is she incredibly sweet and informative, she’s amazingly funny and wants nothing but the best for us. Anna and Bryan have been very helpful too. Bryan loved to hang out in the city with the volunteers and Anna was always around to make sure we were all ready for the days events. A top notch team!

Anna, Me, Quyen, and Lucy
Anna, Me, Quyen, and Lucy

On the way back to my dorm, I saw that Ms. Chi was in the middle of teaching a class, so I popped over so she could see me through the window. She knew it was my last day and wanted to say goodbye. My intention was to take a photo with just her but it turned out that the entire class wanted in on the action!

20130719-104349.jpgOnce I said my goodbyes to Ms. Chi and her students, another student spotted me from her office. Her name is Annie and she is one of the top students of her hotel management class. Good luck in all of your future endeavors Annie!

Annie and me.
Annie and me.

I had a few food tickets left that I decided to use all on ice cream instead of dinner. So I headed back to the restaurant real quick and that’s when I spotted another teacher I worked with and his student assistant enjoying a meal. They spotted me and invited me to sit with them and just like everyone else in Saigon, they wanted to treat me to a delicious dish. So nice! But, I literally had 30 minutes left before a taxi came and picked me and Lucy up, so I had to decline, but I made sure to get a photo in for memories sake!

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This whole day I was worried I wouldn’t get to say a proper goodbye to three of my closest students, Bin, Bone, and Macu. I messaged Macu on Facebook telling them goodbye and I came to terms that I wouldn’t see them before I left. Then suddenly, Macu messaged me to meet him in front of the college. And before I knew it, here he was walking along towards the college. I have been showered with small gifts and tokens from students and teachers and I felt horrible that I didn’t have anything great to offer. Macu shared in my love of food and ice cream so I handed him some money. “I want you guys to buy as much ice cream as you can!” I said. Macu is a modest one, and didn’t want to take the money. “But you must save for your trip!” he said trying to hand me back the money. “I’ll be fine.” I responded. “Tell the others goodbye for me and stay in touch!” He was the last local here that I bid farewell to. Now it was time to say goodbye to the other remaining volunteers, the ones Lucy and I have become very close to…

My roommate from the very beginning, Tom, and his girlfriend, Sophie, have been great to have around. Sophie had an English accent as if she came straight from royalty and Tom’s accent was so thick that it was hard to understand him sometimes, but it made for constant laughs. They are both leaving the next day and traveling around Southeast Asia. There is a high probability that we will run into them again soon. Addie has grown as a person, considerably since she arrived. Poor girl has been through so much here (having her phone ripped and stolen right from her hands, nearly getting her purse snatched, a kidney infection, etc). By the end, she handled everything like a pro and she’ll remember this experience for years. Rochelle likes to snicker and giggle at random moments throughout the day to herself, which we all found highly amusing. She has been here longer than the rest of us, and once her original group left, she blended very well into ours. She would remain in Vietnam for about 6 more weeks. Lex also arrived the day we did and will remain in Vietnam for a total of three months. Her and Lucy became close as they always had the same thought process. Lex lives in Toronto and I am an avid visitor of that city so it’s likely that I will see her again. One more group shot for the books guys…

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Sophie, Rochelle, Lucy, Lex, Tom,.Addie, Me.

I came to Saigon with little expectations. I thought I would stay in more of a village, with barely any electricity, bugs flying everywhere, and help teach in a school full of little kids. Turns out, Saigon is a huge city with towering buildings and bright flashy lights that really come alive at night. It’s a city that is growing economically and independently into a major attraction. I predict in a year or so, Saigon will have it’s very first McDonald’s! The college was well organized, quaint, and I felt that I was put to great use here. And to any of you students that I didn’t get the chance to say goodbye to, remember to send me some long messages on Facebook so I can correct your English grammar for you.

Cheers to the world guys – I’m off to the wild North!

Another Point of View by Lucy

Hello everyone, I must start by saying what a pleasure it is to write a post for Dan’s blog, i.e. he’s making me write one! True but im still happy to tell you what its like volunteering with the disabled children. I’m no great writer like Daniel but I’ll try my best to keep your attention! Also knowing this blog is Daniel’s pride and joy, I better not mess this up! Here we go…

Welcome to "Centre for Orthopedics and Rehabilitation for Disabled Children".
Welcome to “Centre for Orthopedics and Rehabilitation for Disabled Children”.

It takes a 15 minute walk to placement and being so hot, by the time we get there we’re always on the sweaty side. However after 4 weeks doing this, I’ve definitely got used to it! This centre is not only where I go to daycare but it’s also where the medical program is, where volunteers get to watch live surgeries and help with physiotherapy. Our first day at daycare the other volunteers and I didn’t have a clue what to do and it didn’t help that the nurses don’t speak a word of English. This made things really difficult as we couldn’t ask them the simplest questions about the kids and how to help. However as the day went on we found a few of the children were really good at speaking English! One was so fluent he was asking me about American politics and english football teams! This was one moment it would help if I actually liked football! Anyway I tried my best to keep the conversation going! Once we started to bond with the kids we all really enjoyed the program. The children were so used to having new volunteers it was quite funny how it was them telling us what to do.

The day care is split up into 2 rooms, one we spend most of the day in, the other is where the children eat, this can be quite time-consuming due to most children have to be hand fed. There are about 30 children overall and the majority of them have Cerebral Palsy, a disorder that occurs when the brain is damaged during a child’s early development resulting in poor muscle control. This can affect a child’s movement, speech, hearing, and vision which can give abnormal muscle tone and unusual postures. Some of the children have no problem moving around with help and can communicate with us pretty well, where as some can’t move or talk at all.

Daily Routine:

8:00am – We arrive and help the children with their writing skills, I usually try to stimulate the children who can’t write or else they spend most of their day lying on the floor being pretty bored. Using puzzles and other toys we try to develop their fine motor skills and eye coordination.
10:00am – We move to the other room for lunch time. Some children will be able to move themselves by ether walking or crawling where as some children will have to be carried through. We tend to stick to feeding the same child so they get used to us, if they aren’t it’s a hard challenge getting then to finish their bowl. Once every child has eaten they settle down to nap, however this usually always ends up in pillow fights! m
11:30am – While the children nap we return to the college for lunch and being so tired we like to have nap too.
1:45pm – The children wake up and have a small snack, then they are washed with a wet towel and changed into fresh clothes. Some of the older children like to help changing to younger ones.
2:30pm – Some afternoons the children will have sign language classes but mostly this is free playtime. After learning some basic sign language myself it was easier to communicate with the children who couldn’t talk.
3:30pm – One by one, parents take their children home.
4:30pm – Time for us to leave.

Each kid is totally different in how sever their disability affects them but still each kid is lovable in their own way! Pronouncing the children’s Vietnamese names was sometimes difficult so instead we gave them nicknames, here are a few of the many children we work with…

This is Duy (aka The King)!
This is Duy (aka The King)!

The King was the first we noticed because he immediately started asking our names and where we came from? He’s 15 years old with extremely good english and an awesome sense of humor. He always has us in stitches during pillow fights and he always helps us know what to do. He loved having the volunteers around to practice his English and prank us but the most loving thing about him was his caring nature towards the other kids, always changing them and making sure no harm came their way from the other children.

This is trumpet.
This is trumpet.

We call him trumpet because he always lies on his back staring at the ceiling making trumpet sounds which was the only sound he ever made. The first 2 days we noticed he would only lay on his back due to he couldn’t walk… Oh so we thought, on day 3 trumpet suddenly out of no where stood up and walked to the other side of the room! The look on all our faces were just gobsmacked. This was the last thing i ever expected after most of the children can not walk where as he could walk perfectly. Since then Trumpet was so pleasant to be around. He likes you to stand in front of him where he can put his feet on you or lean against you while he plays with your hair.

This is The Smiler.
This is The Smiler.

This kid is amazing to work with, he can’t walk, can’t talk and can’t hardly keep his head up but will never stop smiling. Half the day he will be in a wheel chair and the other half be lying on a pillow. He loves to throw the ball, especially on the floor so he can laugh when you go pick it up! I’ve also noticed he really likes long hair and i always find myself with a few missing because of it. I sometimes feed him his snack after nap time and when I do it’s always a blast, i put the spoon near his month where he then holds the spoon with me (smiling of course) and puts it in himself. He’s so pleased with himself after every spoonful he immediately wants to celebrate with a high-five!

This is Little Angel.
This is Little Angel.

This adorable creature is one of the cutest things I’ve ever seen, hence she’s called Little Angel! She loves anybody singing to her and she always knows its me and smiles when I sing “nose, nose” and “cheek, cheek” while pointing at hers and my own face! Sadly she can’t move hardly at all, she has poor neck muscles which means she can’t hold her head up very long and her fingers and toes are curled and clenched. Ways we have tried to help her are by supporting her hold her head up and trying to get her to follow objects. We found she enjoys when you full her fingers out slowly. Unfortunately our Little Angel was not there our last week so i didn’t get the chance for a proper goodbye but I will never forget her or the other kids that were all so inspiring.

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Tom, Lucy, The King, and Sophie

It’s hard to see any children with disabilities like these but getting to know them can be the most rewarding experiences. I knew these children for 4 weeks and they opened my eyes massively! I can only hope to one day see them again and if not hope they all live long, happy and healthy lives!

Spirit Week

I have one more week left here in HCMC. Time flew by too fast! It’s also Elisa and Valentina’s (Munich, Germany) last couple of days in Vietnam. Tom and Sophie went off for the weekend to Halong Bay, so the rest of us decided to go to China Town in District 5 to explore a bit. We started off by visiting a pagoda. Here there were locals praying to Buddha statues and lighting incense sticks as a way of showing respect. The architecture of the pagoda and the idols inside were very elaborate; red walls of statuary flowers and dragons of a gold color. There were statues all over the place! 20130719-103702.jpg20130719-103720.jpg

Just outside this pagoda was a tall yellow dragon that swam out of a pond in the middle of the district. Fascinating! I wanted to climb it and sit on the dragon’s head, but the locals sitting near warned me not to.

 

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After going through the crowded market of China Town, Addie nearly got her purse snatched by a driver on a motorbike! He knocked her down but fortunately he dropped the purse. Here in Vietnam, you have to be careful walking around on the streets. People on motorbikes will see an opportunity to quickly snatch something from unsuspecting tourists. It’s happened to several volunteers in the past, but mostly the girls because of how easy it is to nab a purse. Opportunist thievery. Afterwards, we all went to a Chinese food restaurant nearby and ordered some grub. I didn’t order anything because I was craving hamburgers and fries. I’m horrible. We headed back to the college and chilled out for the remainder of the night. The next morning we said our goodbyes to the two German girls. I told Elisa and Valentina that I will come see them next year for Oktoberfest and they can show me around. So saying goodbye to them was more like a “See you later.” I’ve never been to Germany before and this would be the perfect opportunity to go! They went off to Siem Reap to explore Cambodia, a country that Lucy and I will eventually make our way to in the coming weeks.

On Monday, after all the volunteers returned from their weekend excursions, Quyen invited all of us to the restaurant and taught us how to make spring rolls. Essentially, its green vegetables, rice noodles, meat, and carrots rolled into moist rice paper and then you eat them without being cooked. There were other spring rolls which we deep-fried which tasted much better. Quyen told us that it was her birthday, so after singing happy birthday to her, she announced that it wasn’t actually her birthday and that she just told us that to get us all to come out to spend time with her. We would have came regardless of the reason! Quyen is quite the jokester!

On Tuesday morning, the unexpected happened. I woke up with chest pains. That same morning I had plans to go to Duong’s restaurant at Cuch Bach to teach her staff at the restaurant English. It was a private session and she asked if I would be willing. Of course I would! So that morning, one of Doung’s friends picked me up on a motorbike as we cut through the city to Cuch Bach. We went up to the top floor, a lofty area, which resembled a giant treehouse. This was great because it was a smaller group which meant this could be a little more personable. Duong speaks great English, but she came up with this idea to help tutor her coworkers. She holds private sessions a few times in the morning during the week and I was the first English fluent guest she had. 2013-07-09 10.36.00I helped her for a few hours and during those few hours my chest started to hurt more than when I woke up. I kept on clenching my chest with my hand and had to sit up straight, but sometimes when I moved my body, a sudden strike would go through my spine which stung like no other. I pretended to be fine. Soon enough, class was over and one of Duongs friends motorbiked me back to the college.

Some students I had in a previous class the day before invited me out to karaoke today at noon. My chest was hurting pretty bad still, but I couldn’t turn these guys down. So I met them all up downstairs, a group of about ten, and we walked to Aapple Karaoke just around the corner. I swear all of these students are superb singers! Some even belted out songs in English in which they sounded great! I managed to sing a song in Vietnamese, where I sounded like total garbage, but the students said I sounded really good. 20130719-103902.jpgDuring this whole time, I remained seated because it hurt too much to move. I started to hurt worse than I did at Cuch Bach, where even just moving my neck would send a piercing strike down my spine. What the heck was happening to me? I would clench my chest and some of the students would ask if I’m ok. I remained calm, just a little ache, to not worry them. These guys are so awesome! They wanted to buy me drinks and food, and have me pay no part of it. I would have felt really bad for that to happen so I insisted that I throw in some money, much to their dismay. I had to cut our karaoke time short because my pain was growing worse. They understood and detected something was wrong with me the whole time. I had to go back to the college and lay down.

Upon my return, I went back to the room and I couldn’t even lie down on my bed because it hurt too much. This morning I thought the pain would go away, but it had gotten way worse at this point. So bad that it was becoming difficult to breath and I could barely move the upper torso of my body with lighting bolts of pain shooting through my body. I tried to prolong it, but I needed to go to the hospital. I didn’t know what was happening to me. The only problem was finding a suitable hospital relatively close by, where they spoke English. I didn’t go alone, Will actually came with me but we decided it was best to first find Quyen and ask her where to go. We found Quyen eating at the restaurant downstairs and told her my predicament. She eagerly escorted us to a hospital, about two minutes walk. She came with us, as she would be able to translate everything the doctor was saying. Next thing you know, I had sensor things all over me. Then took an x-ray. Then I had a blood sample taken. The doctors said my heart was fine and that my x-ray looked good, but proposed that I might of just slept in a weird position that morning. I did in fact sleep in a very uncomfortable position. That could be it. 20130719-103748.jpgHe prescribed me with a bunch of pills and gave me a neck brace to wear so I wouldn’t do any further damage. He also told me to come back in the morning to pick up my blood results. The neck brace actually was helping, but I decided to wait until the morning to pick up the subscriptions, just in case I started to feel better on my own later on.

That goofy character to the right is Will.
That goofy character to the right of me is Will.

Expectedly, I received a lot of stares and sad faces as I walked back through the college back to my dorm while wearing the neck brace. Students and teachers would stop and ask me what happened to my neck. I tried to explain that I slept wrong, but seeing as their English wasn’t the greatest, I don’t think most of them understood. So I just started telling everyone that I fell off a motorbike. Easier to comprehend and easier to explain. I was told by the doctor to go on bed rest all day and not do anything crazy. We previously made plans to all go out to karaoke and then to a nightclub tonight, but I had to be the lone horse that stayed behind. It sucked, but I needed my neck and chest to feel normal again or otherwise this “injury” would ruin the rest of my trip.

The next morning, I woke up still in pain, but not as bad as yesterday. I didn’t feel the need to go pick up my prescription just yet, so instead Macu and Bone took me out to a proper Vietnamese breakfast. I asked them to order something for me that they would think I liked. The only request: nothing with seafood in it! Whatever it was that Macu, ordered turned out to do the trick. Later that day, the boys treated me out to the cinema, along with their friend Kid. We saw the movie “Now You See Me” which was in English, but with Vietnamese subtitles, thank goodness! In return, I bought them lunch at KFC and ice cream right after.

Kid, Bone, and Macu
Kid, Bone, and Macu

These guys wanted to pay for everything for me but there was absolutely no way I could let them do that! “You need to save your money for your big trip!” they would say. “I’ll be okay” I would say. These guys always wanted to pay for me, even though they are just students in college, they still wanted to spend their very hard-earned money on me. Every local I have hung out with is that way. And it’s something that I won’t ever take for granted. Sometimes these locals absolutely insist and it might be rude of me to refuse. But in that case, I always makes sure to return the favor in one way or another. The boys took me back to the college soon after ice cream. “Guys, I have two more days until I leave” I told them. “Don’t worry, we will see you before you go.”

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I am one of the only volunteers that teaches English here at the college. Most of the other volunteers work either with disabled children, at the orphanage, or at the hospital. For weeks, I have been raving to everyone how great it is to be teaching the students, so Lucy and Lex decided they would accompany me to one of my class sessions. Today I was in Ms. Chi’s class of aspiring cooks and chefs. The lesson plan that Chi and I went over the previous day, involved me teaching the students about auxillary verbs and using them in a question. The second part involved conversations in advice about relationships. Chi let me be the frontman for the entire class. It was great and time flew by! The students after class would facebook message me telling me that I have a fun, interesting way of teaching, even though at times it was difficult to understand my American accent. I’ll work on my weird accent guys!

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I returned back to the college, wearing my neck brace back to my dorm. I looked at all of my things sprawled out everywhere. “I have to start packing”, I thought to myself. The next day, my final day in Saigon, would turn out to be one of the saddest goodbye’s I’ve ever had overall with any of my many volunteering experiences.

It’s going to be a tear jerker.