Gia Dinh + LTK = Amazing Kids x Infinite Smiles.
So without further ado, here are my reflections and ramblings over the last two weeks, broken down into days with some of my favorite pictures. I love and miss every one of you, and I’m so, so very grateful for your support in helping make this adventure a reality.
It’s 4:30PM right now IN THE FUTURE (at least if you’re reading this in the US or Canada or what have you) and it’s hot as allllllllllllllllll get out right now. It’s also pretty noisy down on the street, what with the neighborhood dogs barking intermittently, roosters and hens clucking before their heads get lopped off, and motorcycles racing around one another and narrowly dodging pedestrians who are doing their best traffic two-step to avoid that whole “death by being run over by a motorcycles, bus, taxi, or car” thing. So that brings me to two things that really stood out to me in Vietnam from the jump - the heat and the motorcycles. They were right there when I first stepped off the plane. That’s saying something, because I arrived at 2am after traveling for 30 hours. Let me explain.
1. The heat: imagine being in a sauna with 99% humidity, no discernible air movement, and no escape from the heat (unless you’re super rich or staying with someone who is and can afford air conditioning). Or, just imagine Tampa, but with less Republicans.
2. The motorcycles: words fail to adequately convey the sheer magnitude of motorcycles and scooters there are on the streets here, so here’s a picture to do it justice (though that almost doesn’t cover it either)
Awoke at 5:30 today to perform some semblance of a workout today before leaving on placement orientation at Gia Dinh School, one of two places I’ll be volunteering for the next two weeks. (Already 80 degrees + pushups on a linoleum bedroom floor = lots of slipping onto my face). Caught two buses on about an hour and a half commute, which takes me roughly 10 miles – by my math, about 7 mph. My placement is in the Binh Tanh District of Ho Chi Minh, in the central eastern corner of the city. From the gazes, laughs, and stares of the locals, this doesn’t seem to be a place many white folk wander. There’s an open air market here which pretty much redefines my notion of what “fresh” is. Frogs tied together with string, fish flipping out of their bowls, and chicken being butchered straight out of the coop. Plus, of course, motorcycles weaving through the whole of it.
When I arrived at Gia Dinh, I was welcomed by smiles and hugs by the teachers, and cautious waves and handshakes by the children. Understandably so – someone completely new encroaching on your space is always an interesting thing no matter who you are. Goal #1? Achieve genuine smiles and high-fives from the kids while helping lend the teachers a hand. After introductions, there was an assembly for me and the other volunteers – and Gangam Style. I was always so-so on the song, but it’s pretty incredible to see how it can be used in a setting where it is helping the kids learn body movement, rhythm, and counting. (Psy - I apologize for doubting your artistic integrity, my friend).
After the assembly, we went to recess with the kids, aged 5-15, and played basketball, catch, and balloons. We then went to a class where a couple of the older kids use looms to make really, really impressive and beautiful wallets, purses, and bags. One of the girls, whose name I have not learned the proper spelling of (but will when I bring paper and a pen), danced to a techno version of Hotel California, which was honestly really good (the dancing, not the song. Not an Eagles fan).
Back home after a nice morning and afternoon at Gia Dinh. Cold showers never felt so good.
P.S. Mosquitoes in Vietnam are no joke. They’re also on some super stealthy ninja mission, because I never see them, just wake up with more bites each day that turn into an awesome sack of fluid and blister and pop. AND THEY AREN’T EVEN SATISFYING TO ITCH!
P.P.S. My Heart Will Go On, from Titanic, is still huge here, in some form of techno mashup.
Having been born and raised in a moderately-sized coastal town, I never experienced waking up to a rooster until this morning. As soon as the sun comes up, around 5:45, the roosters drown out the almost constant walla of motorbikes to announce the new day. It’s just as well, since there are few better ways to adapt to a 14 hour time zone change than by getting an early start to the day, pushing the body through a walking comatose state until the evening, and crashing. Hard.
After pumping a good 3 cups of coffee into the bloodstream, I experienced my first taste of the bus system, on the way in to District 1 of Ho Chi Minh City. I can say with absolute confidence that the most crowded New York or London subway car has absolutely nothing on marginally crowded buses in Vietnam. Imagine a normal city bus. Now cut it in half. Now pack 50 people on it. You’re almost there…Be that as it may, I wouldn’t trade the bus travel for a taxi given the option, because this is a great place to meet strangers, learn Vietnamese, and get travel tips from the locals who are all more than happy to oblige, and even brush up on their English.
*cue monster truck rally voice guy*
THE POOOOOOOOOOOOOST OFFFFFFFFFFFFFICE.
(No but really, we went to the post office). To be honest, though, this was basically the Taj Mahal of post offices – about the size of Grand Central Station. Huge mural of Ho Chi Minh in the back, about 30 workers feverishly taping boxes, and knickknacks out the wazoo for purchase. I tried to track down some stamps and postcards, but no luck.
After hanging out in the DMV and the Vietnamese branch of the IRS for a couple hours, we found our way over to the Reunification Palace. It’s pretty wild to stand on the same ground that the president of South Vietnam called home during the war until the fall of Saigon in 1975. Here are some pictures of the inside of the palace. They still use some of these rooms for conferences and meetings today.
I hope to someday realize and practice 1% of the forgiveness on display in these incredible children. I can’t fathom it, really…looking in the face of someone from the country that is responsible for your lifelong suffering and truly, genuinely greeting them with loving kindness. I’d like to imagine the same thing happening in America if a country fought us on our own soil and polluted our atmosphere with poisons that left damaged fingerprints on following generations, but I don’t know if we are capable of it as a nation. Fox News and all of the turmoil that followed over the potential building of a peace-loving Mosque near Ground Zero makes me believe otherwise.
May we all one day know true forgiveness.
Note to fellow travelers that you probably already know: voltages in other countries are different. Check the label on your plug and make sure it can accommodate 100-240V. Otherwise, you’ll be like me: fully bearded and electric shaver-less after you plug it into the wall and blow the fuse and unsuccessfully try to MacGyver the damn thing back together.
3.18 – 3.19
Yesterday and today were full volunteering days – basically, 6am-6pm. It’s important to note, though, that the children at most Vietnamese orphanages, daycares, and the like take 2-3 hour naps. So, this time is usually set aside for an extended lunch break for the volunteers. I found an all-you-can-eat buffet in a hotel restaurant for 32,000VND, which is about $1.50. A plus, in addition to the cheap food is the fact that the place has a modicum of air conditioning. I can see myself spending a bit of time here in the hot afternoons.
LTK is a hospital in the north of the city, and it’s here where I’ll be spending my afternoons. I’m glad that’s the case. There are about 20 kids here, along with three nurses who help to take care of them. The kids have distinct disabilities, most of which are on the severe end of things. The majority have cerebral palsy. During my time with them, I try to assist them in developing their motor skills, by playing catch, or standing behind them and helping them walk, or drawing. I’ll take some pictures as proof, but I might be the worst drawing grown-man on the planet.
It takes me a while to process experiences like spending time with the kids at Gia Dinh and LTK. To me that’s just…life, in its most raw and pure. I wouldn’t consider myself a religious man, but I do believe in something more than just my experience. Something that unifies us all, our collective energy which manifests into moments like this: where the smile and the eyes of a kid lying on the floor, gasping for a sparse breath between bouts of using all their energy to painfully swallow a morsel of food, say more about the universe and god and life and stardust than any astrophysicist or preacher or genius or dude like me could ever express. Life definitely isn’t about me. This much I know. But I can’t help but feel my chest fill with inexpressible gratitude at the chance of being a part of this cosmic two-step, these kids some of the best dancing partners there ever was or will be.
I’ve had a pretty wicked rotator cuff injury that I haven’t been able to afford checking out, and it has been building and compounding for quite some time. So, when some of my housemates invited me into town to get a massage, I thought it a good idea to get some physical therapy on my shoulder. An hour massage for $9? Deal. But there are two things I didn’t know. First, half of it would be a Thai massage. Second, Thai massages are basically you lying there and getting the piss beaten out of you. Pain before beauty, they say. I’m still waiting for the payoff.
The fourth day at Gia Dinh started with an assembly from a nearby private school. One of the girls sang “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Miserables, some of the kids from Gia Dinh performed a symphony on homemade violins, and others made speeches. I had no idea what half of it meant, but I know it was still pretty great.
After class, the principal invited me to a dance lesson with an instructor and the rest of the staff. I’m the kind of guy who, on the rare occasion I go to a club, will either, a)be perfectly content having a White Russian or five while I let someone else fill my spot on the dance floor, or b) if I’m there with a lady who wants to dance, I’ll pull the “I-got-my-drink-in-my-hand-and-I’ll-hold-it-to-the-ceiling-and-salute-other-guys-doing-the-exact-same-while-she-takes-care-of-the-dancing-for-the-two-of-us” dance. Unacceptable here. Cha-cha and tango? Check and check-minus.
Went to the hospital and met Minh, whom I hadn’t met before. He’s 20, speaks pretty great English, and has severe cerebral palsy. His favorite sport is soccer aka football aka soccer, and his favorite team is Manchester United. I don’t know much about pro soccer, but I do know Beckham used to play for them, and that Arsenal is one of their rivals. So I spent the next half-hour telling him why Arsenal ruled, even though I have no idea if they really do. If there name is any indication, they do, indeed. We both seemed to enjoy that. Helped a few of the kids continue to learn how to walk, played a modified version of catch, and called it a day.
If there’s one thing I learned this weekend (and, at most there was indeed only one thing I learned this weekend), it’s this: Sicknesses in Vietnam are pretty funky! Woke up on Friday with a super elevated fever, diarrhea, and just all around no-goodness, so I slept for about 18 hours, which is a personal record for me. And, when I wasn’t sleeping, I was at or near the toilet. I also had a seizure, which wasn’t the most pleasant experience in 100 degree heat, but…not much else to do but rest up so I can hit the ground running on Monday!
Still feeling a little less than stellar, but I only have a limited amount of time to volunteer, and I’m not too keen on wasting it sweating and fevering under a mosquito net, So onward it shall be.
Today at Gia Dinh I worked most of the time with a boy named Quan, who has severe Autism. In his workbook, he’s supposed to trace the letters in the Vietnamese alphabet. Sometimes in the middle of writing, his pencil trails off as he looks off into the distance. When he does that, I erase it. He started to pick up on it and, with a twinkle of mischief in his eye, would write the letter perfectly and then draw a straight line next to it just so I would erase his “mistake.” And then do it again. And again. I’m also helping him with his English, which is surprisingly varied and clear. Right now he just knows select words, and every now and then he’ll shout “Hexagon! Cucumber! Watermelon! Snake! Rhombus!”
The kids at LTK were inspiring as usual today. My cheeks are sore from smiling all the time.
After work today, a group of us volunteers went into District 1, which is where all the fancy pants restaurants and stores and hotels and Westerners stay, to have a goodbye dinner for a few of the volunteers who leave tomorrow - Katja, from Germany, and Rumika, from Japan. We ate at a place called T9, which has little grills at each table where you cook all your dishes yourself. I had deer and vegetables and beer. It was delicious. And at $4, it almost felt wrong. There were also two birthday dinner groups. For each, they turned off all the lights, popped those confetti in a bottle things, and played techno. Silly!
This is my first day traveling solo on any of the buses, and to be honest I kind of like it. No offense to the fellow volunteers with whom I’ve been working – they’re very authentic, polite people – but it’s nice to be able to zone out and not worry about feeling any obligation to engage in a discussion. Pretty tired after a long night and early morning, but there may be no better remedy to grogginess than a roomful of kids who are excited to learn. We did yoga together today. It was pretty great. Just by virtue of how hot it is outside, it’s like doing Bikram (sp?). Also, at recess, this little guy kept chewing on my t-shirt and imploring me to lift him up so he could dunk into the 5 foot hoop. Tough to say no.
I found a sweet little Pho shop next to LTK and, even though it’s probably standard, run-of-the-mill in Vietnam, it’s better than the best Pho I’ve had back home. After lunch, I hung out in the lobby of the hotel to steal their AC and wifi. A Vietnamese couple, dressed up like they were on their way to prom, asked if they could take my picture, which involved me posing with them for the next 5 minutes. Awesome. Also, booked my ticket to Nepal from Cambodia.
At LTK, there is a boy named Ang. Ang was born with both genitalia, a mental handicap, difficulty hearing, and pretty intense psoriasis that encourages him to take his clothes off in the middle of the ward and wander around naked on some days. Today was one of those days. The only person he wanted to have dress him? Me. I didn’t realize how difficult it is to dress somebody else until today, probably because I’ve never done it before. But after helping Ang change, several of the boys with cerebral palsy wanted me to lend them a hand. Some of them cannot bend their arms or legs, so putting on a t-shirt takes several minutes of slowly wriggling and stretching the shirt past their head, shoulders, and elbows while trying not to rip it. It’s an incredibly humbling experience. In a couple days, I’ll no doubt take dressing myself for granted again. But, for the next couple days, I don’t think I will or can.
After class today, I got a ride back home on a motorcycle by the parent of one of the kids at LTK. I’ve never been on a motorcycle before, and starting off by navigating the wild west of motorcycles that is Ho Chi Minh City seemed as good a way to start as any. We drove around to several of the districts and to the outskirts of town, where I saw a lot of development and construction underway in some of the more undeveloped parts of town. Western stores are spreading out here, too, like GNC and KFC. I don’t know how I feel about this. On the one hand, a society and culture should be free to change or evolve any way they see fit, in an autonomous way. On the other, I can’t help but feel that I wish some of our cultural influence here maybe isn’t for the best. This is clearly a culture of boundless community, natural beauty, and shared sacrifice. When some aspects of Western influence spread into the culture here – rampant consumerism, the commoditization of the individual, our ideal of beauty permeating into the movies and billboards and magazines…it doesn’t feel like it’s for the good. In 5-10 years, I bet it’d be tough to tell that this is the same city it once was in 2013.
Dance lessons again today at Ghia Dinh. At LTK, there were folks painting murals in one of the rooms, so all of the kids were confined to another room. It’s interesting to see the increased camaraderie that comes about as a result of not being able to spread out as much. Kids that I hadn’t ever seen play together were talking and laughing. Good stuff. Here are pictures!
No matter how old you are, there’s one constant that will always remain unchanged: water fights will make you feel like a little kid. Here are some shots of the kids learning about volume and containers by throwing water at each other and the staff (below, with the other pictures).
On a sad note, today is my last official day at Gia Dinh and LTK. I’ll be starting at Ky Quang Orphanage on Monday. It’s tough to communicate in writing how much of a connection I feel to the kids after only two weeks of being with them. I mean, in the whole scheme of things, two weeks isn’t much. I think it’s because there’s a strong bond that’s formed through activities like helping dress or feed them, helping teach them how to walk, them teaching me Vietnamese or about soccer or about foods to eat and foods to avoid. But most importantly, they helped remind me how to laugh fully, live authentically, and worry less. I’ll never be able to thank them enough.