On Leaving Vietnam

•April 27, 2013 • Leave a Comment

I’m down to my final eight hours in Vietnam. Eight months whittled away to just eight hours.

I’ve been working hard to think of how I can possibly summarize this placement into stories worth telling and lessons learned. How to concisely and accurately describe the experiences I have had and the people I have met. How to paint a vivid mental picture for others of what my own eyes have been seeing for such a long time.  It isn’t an easy thing to do.

It’s no secret that an international work placement is full of both successes and challenges, but it does seem to be slightly taboo to talk about the difficulties without following with a profound teachable moment. The truth, not surprisingly, is that there have been many difficulties which lacked such a positive epilogue, which seemed to happen without cause, which can barely be made sense of. Everybody knows this whether they have heard the stories or not.

However, the reverse applies as well. Sometimes incredible things happen for no real reason whatsoever. People are kind for the sake of being kind, see meeting a foreigner as an opportunity to welcome them and help them become familiar with their surroundings, or turn curiosity into a pursuit of friendship. This is how it works in Vietnam: somebody will always have your back. Something will always happen which reminds you of how strange it is that you’ve found yourself here, and what a fucking lunatic you are for not appreciating it even for a moment. Frustrating things happen every day, but inspiring things happen at least twice as often. As I spend the last few hours of my time in this country visiting my favourite places, eating my favourite foods, and having to say goodbye to the warmest of friends and acquaintances, I find that I don’t really care about the difficulties anymore. I can barely even remember what most of them are.

Oops. That was a profound teachable moment.

It’s honest though. The reason these experiences seemed so intensified, whether they were good or bad, is because they happened in a country where I didn’t know anybody. Where everybody I met was a stranger who didn’t understand much about my language, my culture, or my interests. Similar things happen every day in Canada, I just interpreted them differently. The challenges themselves are different, but they challenge the same parts of me. But the majority of people chose to be kind, strangers or no. The majority of experiences worked out for the best. The majority of days finished with hope and a smile, and the ones that didn’t at least involved cynical laughter. This is how the world works. This is a world worth exploring.

I’m thrilled to be going back to Canada. I’m not thrilled that it means I have to leave Vietnam.

Vietnam is a fascinating place. A beautiful place faced with a history of war and oppression, where recently amazing things have happened in their stead. To appreciate it once more this morning, I rode my bicycle around Hanoi’s largest lakes and still found beautiful little places I hadn’t known existed before. There’s too much to talk about when talking about Vietnam, really. Too many tiny pieces which make up each individual city or town, too many words to use in describing the taste of food, the freshness of a pineapple, or the strange chirping sound made by the geckos. Too many unforgettable experiences, unforgettable people, and unforgettable encounters which I hope I will never forget. I hope what I have learned here, the millions of things I have learned and seen here, remind me to be thankful for it for the rest of my life.

Leaving Vietnam is just another learning experience, just another mix of sweet and sour.

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My Post-Placement Thoughts

•April 11, 2013 • Leave a Comment

please...

…and yesterday was the first time in my adult life I’ve known what I was going to wear the next day. Which was only because it suddenly got cold outside.

I Found Vietnamese MacGyver (In a Hopeless Place)

•April 2, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Well, he was missing the fabulous mullet – but he’s similar enough.

Yesterday was a beautiful day. It was raining, the wind was blowing harder than it usually does between the tall buildings, and a thick layer of fog had descended over most of the city’s lakes and the streets that surround them. Since my office is located next to the largest lake in Hanoi, one which has a perimeter of seventeen kilometers, the mist was heavy as I sat on the sidewalk and tried to perform unexpected first aid on my bicycle. The chain had become dislodged earlier in the day and my options for getting home were reduced to either walking or using the bike like a scooter, and I was equally stubborn about it being unrideable and curious about whether or not I could fix it myself.

After about five minutes of accomplishing nothing other than covering myself in grease, I realized that fingers would not be enough to put the chain back into its place. Remarkably enough, at that exact moment a security guard from a nearby restaurant and a man who had been smoking with him outside came curiously along. I’m assuming that when the guard realized he might risk getting his uniform dirty he assigned his friend to the task, who quickly assessed the situation of my chain, smiled, and returned to the restaurant. A moment later he came walking down the block once more, holding a screwdriver triumphantly above his head. No, wait. Not a screwdriver. That’s just what it looked like from far away, or what I had assumed he would be bringing. What was it then? A pair of chopsticks.

Without a word to me, he flipped the bike on its side and proceeded to hammer at the chain with the chopsticks. His solution took less than ten seconds; before I could even pretend to start helping him he had already reattached it. He set it upright and gestured for me to try it out, and when I walked it forward the pedals began to turn like they normally would with a functional chain. So there it was: Vietnamese MacGyver had found me and fixed my bicycle with chopsticks. 

For those of you who are not so familiar with popular 80s television shows, MacGyver was the name of a series titled after its resourceful main character, a secret agent who could accomplish just about anything with minimal tools – his staples were duct tape and a Swiss Army Knife. This man that I met outside of my office is by no means the only MacGyver-like person in Vietnam; in fact, he is one of millions, but his “yeah, I’ve seen this before” attitude and the immediacy of his “yeah, chopsticks can fix this” taught me many a lesson in the world of Vietnamese repairs. There was an awkward moment at the end of our encounter where we stared at each other for a while and I think he might have wanted a tip, but after (hopefully) jokingly blaming me for the state of his greasy hands he went along without another word. I would have gladly tipped him if there hadn’t been so many things to touch on my way into my backpack to get my wallet, but since he seems to enjoy hanging around the lake there is a good chance the opportunity will re-present itself. 

So, lessons learned from this MacGyver: Sometimes strangers dump their bathwater on your feet, but sometimes they do really great things as well. Sometimes you think your options are limited, but then you’re reminded that you are surrounded by some of the most resourceful people in the world. Also, sometimes it’s possible that chopsticks might actually be the only tool one really needs to own in order to survive.

The bike has never worked better.

 

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Except if it’s Steamed. It’s Never Great if it’s Steamed.

•March 30, 2013 • Leave a Comment

rice

– Mitch Hedberg

We Did a Lot of Dangerous Stuff, Listened to a Lot of Bob Marley, and Ate a Lot of Guacamole

•March 19, 2013 • 3 Comments

It has been several weeks since Daniel, Stephanie, Madiha, Heather and I returned to Hanoi from Bali, a small Indonesian island which you may recognize from the string of popular Australian AAMI Insurance commercials (or more likely, from Eat, Pray, Love.) Best known for its beautiful public beaches, dense jungles, active volcanoes, and variety of waves for surfers of all levels, Bali is a popular vacation destination for travelers worldwide, boasting an incredibly diverse reel of attractions, activities, extreme sports, and cuisines. It’s also totally shaped like a pancreas, its waters are virtually shark-free, and the mere three thousand people who populate it are never short on kindness or humour.

beachsunset

While Bali appears to have adopted a mish-mash of many cultures due to immigration, expatriates, and a  year-round tourist influx, many areas of the island still represent the cultural diversity and significance that is a rich part of both Bali’s past and present. Urdu, nicknamed the island’s Cultural Centre, is home to Hindu temples old and new, diverse forests, art centres, and other glimpses at history and current artistic and cultural pursuits. Many other areas of the island are hosts to these things at well, but are largely taken up by mountains, jungles, homes, hotels, and tourist infrastructure, the latter of which occupies a vast majority of space from one end to the other. While there is a lot to ponder regarding the impact of tourism on Bali’s culture, economy, language, and lifestyle, we truly did have an amazing time doing a lot of dangerous stuff, listening to an obscene amount of Bob Marley in the sun and under the stars, and eating guacamole on just about everything. Though thousands of foreigners visit Bali every year, we were never made to feel unwelcome by any of our acquaintances and always received a healthy amount of compliments on our tattoos and sunburns.

Bali was certainly a time for trying new things, particularly in the realm of the dangerous, frivolous, and things that will get you scolded by the middle aged Australian ladies downstairs. Here are some of the highlights:

Surfing

We arrived in Bali on a Sunday afternoon, and as soon as we checked into our hotel (thank goodness for the timing) I came down with a painful case of something that seemed a lot like food poisoning (but who ever really knows.) So as my friends went off to acquire over-sized sunhats for an afternoon of bumming around at the beach, I stayed in bed staring out the window and sipping Fanta. However, it was nice to catch up on the sleep that had been lost on the bumpy chairs of Don Mueng airport in Bangkok, and I was very lucky to have such supportive travel companions armed with coconut water and a wide variety of food poisoning knowledge. I hadn’t quite made a full recovery by the next day, but when the group announced that they were thinking of trying surfing that morning I doubled up on my toast intake and decided that I had to go.

Everybody in Bali has a side business of being a chauffeur or tour operator, or at least knows someone who does, and in the most casual of interactions will somehow offer to take you just about everywhere on the island. Our waitress at breakfast thus introduced us to her husband, a driver named Singa, who upon meeting we ended up trusting with the majority of our activities for the week. When we mentioned that we had unsuccessfully contacted two full-up surf schools for classes that morning, he had a solution. We followed Singa’s motorbike down to Legian Beach, where he introduced us to a few of his friends who rent boards and provide unorthodox surfing lessons by the shore. A few hundred thousand Rupiah and some borrowed rash guards later, we were fake-paddling on surfboards that had been drawn into the sand and pretending to understand the instructions. About five minutes after that, far sooner than I had expected, our instructors were pulling us out into the waves.

Surfing is incredible. I didn’t expect much of myself that day, considering the food poisoning and the fact that I had not once even touched a real surfboard, but it was absolutely one of my favourite parts of the entire week. My illness, the amount of saltwater that I had swallowed, and the motion-sickness that ensued from being pushed out into the waves on the board forced me to have to take a few breaks, but I never thought I would actually find myself standing up on a surf board, successfully sailing back towards the beach. I didn’t think it would happen more than once, either. What’s even more encouraging is that everyone in our group managed to stand up and get comfortable on their boards, and we were all extremely (exhausted by the end of it) and proud of one another. We didn’t even need an official or insured surf school to do it! (Sorry mom.)

Climbing Mt. Batur

After crawling into bed at around 9:30pm the night after we went surfing, the five of us were out the door of our hotel room at 2am on Tuesday to begin the drive to the foot of Mt. Batur. This is one of the only remaining active volcanoes in Bali, had its last eruption in 2000, and is expected to experience another within the next year. The air was chilly at such a significant elevation, but as soon as we’d been equipped with little flashlights and had started trekking uphill, the desire for warm clothing was left far behind.

During the entire upward journey, we could see the flashlights of other climbers ahead and behind as they attempted to reach the peak for sunrise. We crunched through trails of long-settled volcanic ash, climbed over boulders, passed by fields of spring onions (agriculture on a volcano!), and plowed through our own exhaustion and heavy breathing for almost three hours. An explosion of stars rested above our heads, and the pressure set in towards the end of the climb when we passed through the clouds and could see the sun beginning to appear on the horizon. After coming upon a lookout point and being told that we had reached the top, we then realized that it wasn’t really the summit – it was in fact another thirty five minutes to the actual peak, and the horizon was becoming lighter. So we pressed on, trying to get there as quickly as possible, and were rewarded with the most spectacular view imaginable when we finally hoisted ourselves all the way up.

Mt.Baturedited

White Water Rafting

Other than one unfortunate photobomb, the sights during our white water rafting excursion alone were enough to make it well worth the small price of $25. For about an hour and a half we were thrown around in a little boat while bouncing down a river flanked with rock faces, waterfalls, and rich plant life, and trying to avoid being clothes-lined by low-growing bamboo. We even had the opportunity to raft down a twelve foot dam, and explore one of the larger waterfalls while our boat guides rested.  Despite how useless we probably were to Soma, our expert rafter, we managed to safely navigate the river with only a few bruises, one temporarily lost paddle, and one offer of acquiring a Balinese boyfriend.

The Banana Boat

As summed up accurately by Dan, “who thought the banana boat would have been the highlight of the day?” A banana boat is an inflatable piece of water sport equipment shaped like a yellow hot dog, can hold up to six people, gets towed around by a motorboat, and looks absolutely ridiculous. It’s a little bit like a less-difficult version of tubing, but it’s practically impossible to fall off and you can’t really take tight corners because the shape of the inflatable won’t allow for it. Because the banana boating portion of our water sport day was thrown into our package as a bit of a why not, it was particularly funny at the end of the day when we all agreed that it was probably the best part. We chose it because it was something that we could all do together, but bouncing up and down on this ridiculous-looking thing felt a lot more like an episode of The Wiggles Go to the Beach. We looked like idiots, but we hit a few good waves and were sore from laughter by the end of it. We went parasailing on that same trip, but that mostly consisted of about twenty seconds of exhilarating fun and a minute and a half of panicking over making the landing (which was strategically located on a twenty foot stretch of beach between a bunch of parked motorboats and a tree line) where I personally missed the mark entirely and landed in the water. We went snorkelling as well, but the strong current and leaky face masks made it out to be a bit of a difficult feat: by the time we were on our way back to our hotel, nothing could beat the simplicity and hilarity of the ludicrous banana boat.

In addition to these particulars, simple things like watching the sunset, lounging around in our pool, reading on the beach, and eating a free hotel breakfast every morning provided a much needed sense of leisure and change of pace from Hanoi. (It’s sunny in Bali too, where the light doesn’t have to break through several layers of cloud and smog.) Even when we were making questionable life choices like traveling on foot through parts of Urdu after returning from our 2am climb of Mt. Batur, I doubt any of us would have changed a thing (except maybe the one clinic visit and parts of the slightly traumatic water sport morning.)

sunset

Jumping sunset photo taken by Stephanie Higgs

Tales and Adventures

•March 15, 2013 • Leave a Comment

“I don’t like anything here at all.” said Frodo, “Step or stone, breath or bone. Earth, air, and water all seem accursed. But so our path is laid.”
“Yes, that’s so.” said Sam. “And we shouldn’t be here at all, if we’d known more about it before we started. But I suppose it’s often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seemed to have been just landed in them, usually – their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on – and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end. You know, coming home, and finding things alright, though not quite the same – like old Mr. Bilbo. But those aren’t always the best tales to hear, though they may be the best tales to get landed in! I wonder what sort of tale we’ve fallen into?”
“I wonder.” said Frodo. “But I don’t know. And that’s the way of a real tale. Take any one that you’re fond of. You may know, or guess, what kind of a tale it is – happy ending or sad ending, but the people in it don’t know. And you don’t want them to.”

(No, I am not comparing Vietnam to Mordor. Today.)

We Don’t

•March 14, 2013 • Leave a Comment

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