Xin Chao Moi Nguoi! (Hello Everyone)
Greetings from beautiful (albeit strange) Vietnam! I have been making my way from the far south of the country, on my way to Hanoi, for the last thirteen days. Vietnam has been both stunningly beautiful as well as disappointingly upsetting. The Vietnam is a land of immensely gorgeous sights and surprisingly modern villages, towns and cities. The Vietnamese culture and people, while mostly wonderful and fascinating, can be (and has been) very difficult to get used to after spending so much time in the wonderful cultures of Cambodia, Laos and Thailand.
You see, my experiences with the people of Laos, Cambodia and Thailand was consistently very positive and effusively friendly in most cases. The people of Vietnam are, overall, very kind but there is a general case of (especially in more traveled areas) the people consistently attempting to take advantage of (financially) visiting tourists. Instead of the kind "Hello", "Sawadi Krap/Ka", "Sabadii" and "Where you go?" that I've grown accustomed to elsewhere in SE Asia, it is more likely that I hear "You buy something" from the people of Vietnam. Again, this isn't a blanket phenomenon, it's just all too common.
That being said, I have had some fantastic experiences both in nature as well as with the many kind people of Vietnam. Several days ago I spent a few days in Dalat, a stunning mountain town in the south-central highlands. Dalat is unlike anywhere I have been in SE Asia thus far (the closest I could compare would be the Bolivan plateau area of Laos--which has a similar climate).
It is located in the highlands and is very reminiscent of a beautiful village in the Swiss Alps surrounding a pristine (looking) lake with lush alpine forested mountains and farms stretching into the nearby countryside. It was discovered by the French (of course there were already Vietnamese occupants there) in the late 1800's (I think that's correct) and quickly became a popular destination for those on holiday as well as settlers who built villas and chalets around the area. The climate is mild (temperatures ranging from the 60-85 degree range--maybe 15-26 in centigrade?)and perfect for farming an amazing variety of fabulous fruits, veggies, coffee and tobacco (incredible strawberries, blackberries and even AVOCADOS!!!--what a treat!). Needless to say, the food in Dalat was unbelievably good.
The highlight of my trip to Dalat was a day of solo hiking (trekking for those of you who prefer to use the term common in this part of the world) north of Dalat just above Lat village. I rented a motorbike and made my way to Lang Biang park on a clear, cool and refreshing morning. I have not been on any unguided real (long) hiking/trekking trips since I have been in SE Asia--I was very excited to attempt the trails solo. I had the most fantastic time hiking to three of the summits from the valley below. It was exhilarating to be on my own, strenuously climbing through the mild, clean air of the pine and tropical forest. The difficult hike made me realize how little actual physical exertion I had had in the month since I left the regular exercise I was having at the resort in Phuket.
I was clearly winded, but ecstatic, as I clamored up the steep trails leading to the glorious summits of each mountain-top. My heart pounded relentlessly in my ears like a bass drum as I slowly ascended the stair-like trails through the damp, lush rain-forest of the two higher peaks. The sweet earthy green smell of thriving plant-life mixed with the dank, musty scent of decaying foliage and fungus as I worked my way towards my destination. It was a great sense of satisfaction and relief when I stepped out of the jungle and onto the clear, grass covered peak of the highest mountain, K'Biang (approximately 2400 meters). The incredible, unobstructed 360 degree view afforded from the top made the effort seem like nothing in comparison to the reward before my eyes. The view was simply stunning.
These are photos from when I entered Vietnam through Saigon (Ho Chi Minh):
These are photos from Dalat through Hoi An, Vietnam:
So I've been wanting to write about the most amazing and touching experience that I have had on this trip and have found myself putting it off far too long--so here it goes.
When I was in Phnom Penh I met a very nice Khmer man that owned a travel agency/motorbike rental place near the guest-house that I was staying in. After several days of chatting with him as I either walked by, purchased bus tickets or rented motorbikes from him he mentioned that there were several orphanages in the Phnom Penh area that were in need. The orphanages in Cambodia are all forced to rely on private funding as the state is not able (or willing--I'm not sure which) to contribute in any way to their operation. I was and am shocked that a government, even one that is relatively new, can ignore such an important social matter. Without these private orphanages the streets of Cambodia would be overrun with vagrant street kids either selling trinkets or thieving to simply survive (there are already far too many of these kids throughout Cambodia).
The last full day that I spent in Phnom Penh I decided to take my new friend (appropriately self-named, Mr. Happy) up on his offer to take me out to the Lighthouse orphanage for a visit. I made arrangements to purchase 40 kilos of rice and met up with Mr. Happy for the 30km ride out to the orphanage on his motorbike (Mr. Happy, me and a 40 kilo bag of rice). After the somewhat harrowing journey navigating through the streets of Phnom Penh and its outskirts we reached the simple compound that makes up the Lighthouse Orphanage.
It is a simple "campus" setup around a central dirt yard that constitutes the playground (a volleyball court and makeshift football (soccer) field situated beneath some large shade trees). They have a small semi-open classroom, a covered area that sells various products that the children produce, a covered enclosed tile performance/stage/meeting area, an outhouse building with simple squat toilets, a walled off well area (for drinking and bathing), two multi-room dormitories (one each for boys and girls) along with a fruit orchard and a few other simple accessory buildings. The dormitories house twelve kids per room with three kids per bed (four large beds in each, for those that are mathematically challenged...). The orphanage was caring for almost 80 kids, ranging in age from three to seventeen years old.
When I arrived I was greeted warmly by a small group of kids and the small, volunteer, staff that cares for them. I set the large bag of rice down on an outdoor stage/platform next to the 'store". I felt a bit awkward, not quite knowing how to engage with the children at that point, and was happy to follow one of the younger male volunteers around as he gave me a brief overview of the operations and layout of the orphanage. I was the only westerner there at that point and most of the kids I encountered were friendly but seemed a bit shy as I was lead around by my host. As it was a Sunday I was there on the one day of the week that the kids aren't in public school or taking their afternoon language classes. They go to regular public school six days a week from around 6 (or so, can't remember exactly) to 11 AM (before it gets too hot). After school they have a two hour break before they begin a two (or three, again, my poor memory) hour language class,
where they study English, French and Chinese.
As the tour concluded I wandered a bit more around the complex and stood watching as some of the boys played volleyball as others engaged in a casual game of football. Most of the girls were very shy around me and seemed to be mostly involved in chatting with each other and working on various art and craft projects--as a lot of girls, in my experience, do in all parts of the world. I stood on the sidelines of the game until I worked up the nerve to ask if I could join in the game. The kids playing football instantly clamored around me, telling me that they wanted me to play with them instead of playing volleyball. I was only too happy to oblige.
For nearly two hours I was run ragged playing an intense game of football with kids half my size. It was so much fun running around barefoot with these enthusiastic (and quite skilled) kids as they attempted to out-maneuver and out-play me. I wound up holding my own against them and they were rolling with laughter each time I scored a goal and yelled "GGGGGGOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAALLLLLLLLLL!!!!" to rub the point in that I was victorious. My team-mates and I (as well as the other teams players) constantly congratulated each other on our excellent footwork and skill in the art of shooting. We also shared wonderful bouts of laughter whenever we (mostly me) made bad shots or fouled the ball. They didn't speak a lot of English but were very good at calling out hand fouls as well as penalty kicks for various violations. It has been quite some time since I played football so I had to believe them whenever they called a foul that I didn't notice...
Needless to say, after only a few minutes of playing in the 90+ degree (32+ centigrade) Cambodian heat, I was thoroughly drenched in sweat. I removed my soaking shirt after about a half hour (several of them had their shirts off so I figured I'd go with the flow) and the kids had a laugh and got a kick out of my (apparently) big muscles. They attempted to get me to flex (which I refused to do--Ciera, you know I only flex for strange Korean men ;o) and from that point forward decided that when I wasn't busy playing football that I would make a perfect jungle gym. Anyway, back to the heat...while playing football I notice that several other kids were having a shower, of sorts, with water ladled from the well. Sweating and exhausted I called time-out and told my teammates that I needed to join the kids by the well.
I approached the group of kids and they were all too happy to use the plastic ladles to scoop water from the basin (which they had filled with the manual pump) and pour and splash it all over me. We had a grand time having a water-fight once I grabbed a ladle and began flinging water back at them. After my wonderfully cooling shower we continued playing football, stopping periodically when kids would grab me to engage in another refreshing round of water-fighting. As the football match wound down the kids encouraged me to bath with them, offering me a small packet of shampoo that they wanted me to use, as they were doing. They really got a kick out of me soaping up and rubbing the shampoo all over my face and light beard--they were such amazingly sweet kids!
While I was playing football another western couple arrived at the orphanage and I was told that there was going to be a special, weekly (Sunday afternoons only--my timing was so lucky) traditional dance performance held by some of the kids. I asked Mr. Happy if it would be okay if we stayed around for the performance and he assured me that I could stay as long as I liked...what a great guy!
As the football match wound down (several kids had to break away to get dressed and ready for the performance) I noticed some very concerned commotion a few meters away on the other side of the performance hall. I rushed over to see what was going on and, lying before me on the ground, there was an unconscious Khmer man crumpled over a bicycle with a power drill lying next to him. One of the male volunteers had rushed over ahead of me and was carefully unplugging the long extension cord (which was plugged into an outlet using just the wires--no actual plug and definitely no grounding) with a stick. In a brief instant I was informed that the man must have been shocked and had fallen off of the awning that he was building to cover several water tanks. He had fallen about eight feet directly onto a bicycle sitting below.
The man that unplugged the drill then proceeded to attempt to move the, now slightly conscious, man before I stopped him. My ancient emergency medical training flashed back to me and I cautioned him not to move him without making sure that his neck was supported for fear of a spinal injury. Together we did our best to slowly roll him off of the bike while keeping his head and neck protected from further injury (it's amazing that I remembered the training that hadn't been used in more than a decade...). We were able to get him safely onto his back and, with the volunteers assistance, I was able to communicate with the man enough to check to be sure that he had sensation in his feet and fingers. He was in a state of severe shock, had multiple bloody gashes and was in and out of consciousness...it was pretty terrifying for me, and obviously for the group of kids that had gathered around in the ensuing moments.
With the help of a few others (and against my advice) we managed to move him to the stage/platform area next to the "store". They called a doctor...or actually had someone take off on a moto to notify a doctor...I think they must have done both...it was confusing. The injured man was barely conscious but we were able to ascertain that he had, indeed, been shocked and he managed to say that he thought he would be okay.
We, the volunteers, kids, the other western couple and myself stood around the stage as several people fanned the man, rubbed Tiger balm all over him (it seems to be the cure-all of SE Asia) and attended to cleaning up his superficial wounds. After what seemed like an eternity, but was probably only about thirty minutes, the doctor arrived. He again checked the man's vitals and then proceeded to place a strange sand-like yellow paste on his injured arm. Once the doctor arrived and the man came to a greater degree of consciousness we breathed a collective sigh of relief and the kids again went about preparing for the show and goofing around with me.
Once the dance show was about to begin I was ushered in to the performance area for a VIP seat by several of my new, young, friends. The performance was beautiful and fun with great costumes and wonderfully expressive kids apparently enjoying the opportunity to show off their talents. I had my camera out and a few of the kids had a grand time taking photos for me. During the performance I was surrounded by my young friends, literally. One kid on each knee, one insisting on giving me a shoulder and back massage and a few others leaning against me or making flower bracelets for me from the flowers thrown by the dancers. It was such a fantastic and special experience for me.
After the performance ended I was hesitant to leave but, after over four hours there, didn't want to keep Mr. Happy away from his business, wife and child any longer. He kindly told me it was okay but I knew that it was time to say my goodbyes and make our way back to Phnom Penh. The kids and I wandered back onto the football/volleyball field and rough-housed a bit more as I said "I'll see you later" to my wonderful new friends. As we drove away on the motorbike I choked back tears as the kids ran after us saying goodbye and thanking me for coming out to see them. It was so difficult to leave. I wasn't sad the entire time I was there with them (with the exception of the strange accident that happened) but found myself overwhelmed with sadness at leaving these beautiful, spirited and gentle kids behind as I went on with my blessed life. The tears rolled down my cheeks as I sat on the back of Mr. Happy's motorbike on our journey back to Phnom Penh.
This leads me to a decision that I have made since my visit with these kids. I am going to come back to Cambodia right after Christmas this year and I am planning on staying for about a month--splitting my time between the Lighthouse orphanage in Phnom Penh, and a kid's painting project and guest house job in Sihanoukville. I hope to raise (hopefully with all of your help) as much money as I can so that I can bring back needed supplies to keep this orphanage doing the amazing job that it is with its limited resources. I will be putting more thought into my plan upon my return to the States and will let everyone know when I have figured out the appropriate way to collect donations and how best to use the donations collected. What I can say now is, all donations will go directly to the welfare of the kids--I will pay my own way and will make sure that the money raised is used to buy food and supplies specifically for the children. Stay tuned and be
for-warned...I will be asking for whatever help anyone can provide.
These are photos from my visit to the Lighthouse orphanage in Phnom Penh:
So, it's time to go to bed now. I've been in Hoi An for three days (and three nights) now and will be heading to Hue tomorrow morning. Only a week left in Vietnam before heading back to Thailand for a few weeks of chilling out and diving in the islands there before I head back home...crazy to think that this wonderful and life altering journey is drawing to a close. Thank you all for sharing it with me! I'll try to get another note or two out before I go. Until then, may you all be happy, healthy and aware of how fortunate we all are to be as privileged as we are (whether we know it, or not).
P.S.: These are photos from my amazing visit to the temples of Angkor...I simply cannot put together my thoughts on this amazing place--fortunately a picture is worth 1000 words, right!