So here I am, back in Ho Chi Minh City.
Again, sorry for the lack of updates to the blog. You'll just have to be patient, as internet here isn't the easiest thing to track down. There are internet cafes, but with me staying outside of the centre it's not always within easy reach (and it takes me AGES to update this for some reason), so bear with me...
Where did I leave off? I think I was in Hanoi. Ok, we'll go from there.
I flew back down to Ho Chi Minh City (formally Saigon, which the locals usually refer to it as) last wednesday evening, and was picked up at the airport by Lynne and Mac. Lynne is my dad's cousin, and so I think she is technically my second cousin, although I'm not entirely sure. Either way, there is a blood in there somewhere and so I had to use every contact I have to get me through this trip and safely and securely as possible (I'm really not the best traveller - at all - but I'm getting better every day).
So from the airport it took us about 30 mins or so to get back to the house. They live in a lovely, quite exclusive area to the north east of the city, by the river. It's a very westernized area, and the houses out there are gigantic and quite colonial in style - their place is a mansion! It has four big rooms and a pool, a garden, and lots high ceilings. I love their choice of decor: they've got lots of things from their travels, like old wooden chests and unusual lamps etc - very chic. Lynne and family are lovely, and have been looking after me well. There's Lynne and Mac, then Luke (my age), Jamie (who's at uni in Rochester at the moment) and Cameron (14). They have been so accommodating and have welcomed me into their home with open arms. I really feel relaxed around the place, which is lovely. I just hope that I don't get too used to it, as when I fly off again back to Thailand it will be difficult to let go of the little luxuries and home comforts I've grown so accustomed to, like having my washing done and having REAL museli for breakfast!
On my first day here I just had a bit of a laze around - slept in till 10.30, which I don't think I've ever done back home - and then went out with Lynne for a quick taxi ride into town in the afternoon. For dinner that night we literally went round the corner to a place they like to go to often, which serves up quite western food and is owned by an australian couple (I think). I had an awesome caesar salad with huge chunks of chicken in it, and some of their homemade wholemeal and seeded bread. I have to admit, after only a month away from home I'm already missing my staples, like bread, muesli, SALMON...oh my gosh I think I might die without salmon! Thankfully I went shopping with Lynne and she bought some for tea, so that has temporarily satisfied my craving. I think I'll just have to move to Scotland, or Alaska, when I'm back...I have eaten some lovely fish out here though, especially the fish I had at the orphanage I'm working at.
The next day I took a half day tour to the Cu Chi Tunnels (the tour group I was with initially went there when we were first in Saigon, but I decided I'd do it on my own when I came back). So I hopped on a coach and got chatting to a sweet spanish girl called Paula (pronouned Pow-La) who I was sitting next to. The tunnels were a strong hold for the VC during the vietnam war. Because the american forces were bombing the area so severely, the amy (made up of civilians from the local villages) had to go underground. They built an impressive network of tunnels that went down to 9 metres deep in places! And they managed to live in these conditions without adequate lighting and ventilation. Because they could only come to the surface when the american troops weren't around, rice couldn't be farmed and harvested as it would normally have been, so instead they ate tapioca root as their starch supplement. We got to try some boiled tapioca, dipped in sugar and peanuts, that looked like a parsnip; it was quite waxy and didn't have that much taste to it, but it was interesting to try it all the same.
We were also given the chance to fire some of the guns that would have been used during the war (can't remember the names of them all as that sort of thing doesn't really interest me) and the sound of people firing them was quite deafening. I'm sure it was only a fraction of the total noise, which would have also included the sound of falling bombs, but it was actually quite an immersive way to get in touch with the not-so-distant history of the place; you almost felt you could have been there. After that we went down into the tunnels themselves, which had been widened for tourists. I say widened, but there were still pretty narrow and not very tall. If I have time I will try and put a photo up at the end of this post. Paula and I did 70m out of the 100m that was open to the public, and we came out sweating like dogs. I honestly don't know how they survived down there - for nearly eight years (I'm hoping I've got that right!).
When i got back from the tunnels I grabbed some lunch - a hot pork bun. It's a sort of chinese style bread, made from rice flour, and holding a within nugget of hot pork, inside which is a qual's egg. I know, I'm eating pork! Those of you who are used to my fussy eating habits will know that I don't eat pork or beef, mainly because I don't like them but also because I have trouble eating things I don't think I could kill myself. Lamb is an exception (I'm such a hypocrite), but I think I will phase that out soon as I hardly ever eat it and won't really miss it. But over here there is so much more pork than back home; if not as the main focus of a meal then at least added as a background ingredient. I've been given bowls of soup at the orphanage with bits of minced pork in and couldn't refuse - I even ate a bloody pork chop! I'll get back to my normal eating patterns when I leave vietnam, as even in thailand there is much less pork than here.
Anyway, sorry for that food-related digression...when I'd had lunch I got a motorbike (so fun to ride around on) up to Ben Than Market to meet Suzanne, the founder of the orphanage I'm currently volunteering at. She picked me up on her motorbike, and when she turned up I was like "whoa!". She had a black vest top on, a tight red leather mini skirt and knee high black boots with a rather large heel. She looked like a real biker chick! I hopped on and she took me to a Highlands Coffee shop (the vietnamese equivalent to starbucks, although Lynne believes Highlands is better...I've yet to decide). She introduced herself properly and gave me a full background of the orphanage, including where all the kids came from and her own personal backstory.
For those of you who don't know, Suzanne was born during the vietnam war. Her dad was a black american GI, and she never knew her mother. She was left under a bush and thankfully saved and taken to a nearby orphanage, where she stayed until she was 6. She says she doesn't remember any of it, which is probably due to the excessive trauma she had experienced. She was brought to England on a boat and adopted by a staunch Christian family. I didn't realise the extent of her 'issues' until last night when we had a really deep discussion about things. She was raised in her new family, along with two brothers and a sister, until she was 18, although it wasn't an easy ride. Her parents wanted her to convert to Christianity, which she didn't want to do. So every time Suzanne was naughty her mum would turn round and say: "You're the Devil's child. That's the reason the orphanage didn't want you, and your real mum before that". Apparently she said that the only way she could make her happy was if Suzanne turned round and asked for God's forgiveness; otherwise, she would always be evil and leading an immoral life.
When she was 18 she left home, and after various career paths she became a chef. She worked her way up to head chef and was really successful. Then she got married, which lasted 13 years. She came to Vietnam on holiday, to see her home country, and went to her old ophanage. On seeing th state the kids were in there she knew she had to do something, so she came back the following few years and made sure to do things with the children, like take them to the local swimming pool. One year she made them all write letters to Santa requesting one present, then she went out and bought each individual present (40 in total) to make sure each child got what they asked for and had something to call their own.
Anyway, to cut a long story short, her marriage broke down (although her and her husband are still great friends and talk every day) and she set up Allambie as a small way of making a huge change to some of the children's lives. She now has 6 kids living with her: Tiet's the eldest, he's 17; then there's Sa, who's 16, and her girlfriend Ne (also 16) - don't ask, it's complicated - then there's Truc, she's 15; Mung, who's 9, and Chuyen, he is 8. Tiet, Truc, Mung and Chuyen are all siblings, and since she didn't want to break them up Suzanne made sure they all came together. They are such sweet kids - especially when you consider what they've had to put up with for most of their lives so far. Tiet is quieter and more reserved, but still chats to me (especially about learning english; he's a serious student); Sa and Ne are cool and very relaxed, and I get on well with them; Truc is the quietest, and as she speaks english the least out of the group it's sometimes hard to communicate with her, but we smile and laugh at each other all the same. Mung is sometimes shy, but she is opening up to me more and more each time. She is such a beautiful little girl: Suzanne and I think she will be a little stunner when she's older. And last but not least there's Chuyen, who is such a cutie pie. He's very affectionate, and after only my first day there he wanted to hold my hand when we went out, and made sure he saved me a place next to him for dinner. He loves power rangers and action shows on tv, so we play fight quite a bit. He also likes remote control cars, and his last volunteer left him one which he absolutely loves. Reminds me a bit of myself as a kid actually lol, so maybe that's why we get along so well!
On my first full day we all went to the swimming pool, which was a couple of bus rides away. Mum (Suzanne) stayed at home, and so Sa and Ne looked after me and got me my bus tickets etc - I said, rather than me taking them out, it was more like them taking me out! We had a really fun afternoon just messing around, and it was nice to just be a big kid for the day. Then we went back and I stayed for dinner, which was divine. I've been eating reallt well at Allambie - and I mean REALLY well. There's always so much food, and it's all absolutely delicious. And you know what I'm like, I want to try new things, so I've been daring and adventurous in what I've been eating. The vietnamese way is to always have rice, a soup, some form of meat or fish, and then some vegetables, each in different bowls so you can help yourself to different things. So far we've had lots of lovely fish dishes, cooked in tomatoes and done simply with garlic, spring onions and chilli; wrap-your-own fresh spring rolls, with all the herbs and prawns (and avocado, which I LOVE); pork chops, deep fried pork fritters, chicken and sweetcorn noodle soup, a gorgeous ginger chicken (which i will try and make when I'm home) and lots of other things which I can't remember. It's such a family atmosphere, with everyone helping themselves and really enjoying their food. Apparently, in the old oprhanage, the kids were lucky to get one meal a day (they would get some sort of lunch at school but not much) and so Chuyen. for instance, always used to scoff his food down, as before he would have had to eat as quickly as possible to make sure no one else stole his dinner. Now he eats much more slowly and really savours his food - he's always mmm-ing at the table which is nice to hear. I said to Suzanne that she's giving them such a basic and fundamental element of 'home' - by cooking and preparing their food so lovingly for them she is expressing love on a simple human level, which they are obviously receptive to. I already feel part of the family and I've only been there 5 days!
I'm rambling...I'll cut this short as I've been in this internet cafe for two hours and I'm getting hungry...over the last few days i've been doing bits and pieces with the kids, including baking (some gorge choc chic cookies and scones) and teaching a makeshift english and maths lesson to Chuyen and Mung! But it's not been too ordered or formal which has been nice. I was frank with Suzanne from the start and said I'm not a natural with kids, I just saw her story in the paper and felt that I had to help out in any way I could. She reassured me by admitting that she's new to all this too and sometimes doesn't have a clue what she's doing, but it's all trial and error. I feel so blessed that they have accepted into their lives, if only for a brief moment. I hope that I can (and maybe already have) made a very small but lasting difference to the children. I will see how the next week goes and keep you posted - I may find myself back here next year, you just never know!
That's enough for now. Off to get some food and then a taxi home. Love to all of you. Sam x