Friday, March 2, 2012

Greetings from Vietnam

Central Vietnam
I'm in Vietnam! I've been here since last Saturday, after a surprisingly fun plane trip on Cathay Pacific (I think I watched four on flight movies). The Habitat team and I landed in Ho Chi Minh City, otherwise known as Saigon and then headed to Central Vietnam, where we would be building.

ahoy Hong Kong! too bad I couldn't step out
What to say? There's so much! I can say that Ho Chi Minh City surprised me, the only experience I've had with an Asian city is Dhaka, Bangladesh and that city is CRAZY. Though I love Dhaka, it's insanely overcrowded, dirty and completely chaotic ( to be fair, last time I was there I was 12, so maybe things have changed!). Ho Chi Minh City is pretty clean and people actually follow traffic laws. It's a great city to walk around with food stores EVERYWHERE.

Saigon in the evening
Near our hotel was a fairly large park, where people came out en masse to take outdoors aerobic classes (which I think were free) and large groups of men and young boys were kicking around hackeysacks and shuttlecocks. This probably explains why I haven't seen any obese people in Vietnam, the food is so healthy and everyone is so damn active! I think the states can take some pointers, the public parks in HCMC are pretty amazing and they even have public exercise machines that anyone can use!
taking a picture of boys playing  right before getting bonked in the face

The food is amazing, as I'm sure most people know, I can eat pho 24/7, the street food has been more impressive than the restaurants so far, and I can't get enough of tropical fruits, it reminds me of Bangladesh!

Ho Chi Minh City was fun, but the central countryside of the Quang Nam province is breathtaking. I've been told that Vietnam is beautiful, but even that was an understatement. When we first got here we were able to visit Marble Mountain, huge outgrowths of Marble that were turned into gorgeous temples and shrines for worship.  The shrines and Buddha statues are built into countless hidden caves, it was easily of the most beautiful places I've visited, I felt like I had traveled through time. It was also a hiding place for the Vietcong during the Vietnam War and even today bears the bullet holes from the conflict.

Shrine carved out of Marble Mountain

The area I am currently blogging from is astounding with large lush rolling mountains framing bright green rice paddies that go as far as the eye can see. Amongst the paddies you can see farmers with conical hats leading huge water buffalo, it's just like the paintings and books described, except this is real!

The scenery is amazing, but it's the Vietnamese people that have impressed me so much during my trip. Everyone is super friendly, and unlike people that may come to Vietnam as tourists, I was lucky enough to be part of development efforts with Habitat for Humanity, where I worked directly with a family to build their home in the countryside in the city of Hiep Duc.

working hard to build homes
The family has been so warm, welcoming and appreciative. Our group and the family, including their extended relatives have manages to become close and build this house together despite cultural differences and almost no language communication. The youngest son of the family is a riot, and always comes up to us with a huge mischievous smile on his face.

After building 2 days ago, we decided to play volleyball with the locals, and the entire neighborhood came out to watch us play. Vietnamese and American were on the same team, and we laughed, shouted and kicked ass at Volleyball, while some Habitat team members ended up getting bombarded with children, who wanted piggy back rides and their pictures taken, with the requisite peace sign (every kid throws up a peace sign when i take their picture, it's hilarious and really cute).

The son of the family we biult with

And last night was  pretty crazy finally to my team and I's last night in Hiep Duc. Government officials threw what can be best describes as a mini concert where our Habitat crew and locals had a on stage cultural echange of music, singing and other talents. A teacher and local government officials sang songs in Vietnamese, while Roberto and I did a capoeira demonstration, our team leader Janet led the crowd in a stirring rendition of "head, shoulders, knees and toes", and our entire team came together for an acapella version of "Eye of the Tiger".

dancing around the fire
The pinnacle of the night was when cultural dancers (whom I think were indigenous) has us  join them in a dance around a huge bonfire. All of this was unexpected, I don't even think our team leader knew about the bonfire dance. While the fire was still raging, we were asked to join in a ceremonial drinking of rice wine with locals and Vietnamese government officials. Drinking rice wine out of a huge vat with a government official across from me with a raging bonfire behind me was probably one of the most surreal moments of my life...and it was awesome.

chugging rice wine with government officials
Today is our last day in Hiep Duc, I will be sad to leave, I know that we will miss the families and they will miss us. We bonded, sweating while digging, laying bricks, and making mortar can do that. I am grateful for Habitat San Francisco's involvement in Vietnam. Our chapter gives more money to Vuietnam than any chapter in the world. Not only do we take trips to build homes here, we provide $100,000 in donations with each trip. $100,000 can build many more homes in Vietnam than can ever be built in the US with that money. It is good to know that the contribution of so many of my friends who have helped me fundraise is helping to make the building of homes for families in Vietnam a sustainable cause.

Our Habitat for Humanity group, from SF to Vietnam!

Off to the historic city of Hoi An, then to beautiful Halong Bay and then Hanoi. I can't wait.

Oh and also

I love Vietnam!!