The Heart of Vietnam . . . It's People

Trip Start Oct 23, 2011
Trip End Nov 12, 2011

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Where I stayed
Linda Hotel

Flag of Vietnam  , Kiến Giang,
Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The first thing that comes to mind as I look back on my visit to Vietnam and Cambodia is the people, the heart and soul of the country. I have had images dancing through my head since I returned and expect they will be there for a good long time, they are images of people.  What impressed me most was the good humor and gentle beauty of both the Cambodian and Vietnamese people; they are quick to smile, exude warmth, openness and sincerity. 

From the first day on the work site our group was a curiosity that brought people out.  Men would line the sidewalk, squatting for the better part of the morning, to watch us work then the children appeared, always curious, smiling or giggling, we must have been quite a sight in this little community.  The women were more reserved and trickled in over the course of the first few days. 

By the second day everyone we encountered on our walks through town, on our boat ride and walk to the work site had warmed up and we received shy smiles.  By the third day we felt like part of the community being greeted by waves and yells of "ello". We had the most interaction with the children and they were enchanting.  

The neighbors near the work site were very curious about us, about our enormous size, blue eyes, red hair and even gray hair, pointing and laughing or touching to see if somehow colored hair felt different or if was even real. 

A few of us were invited into neighbors homes where we sat and “talked” and smiled not really understanding each other's words but still getting acquainted with one another just by time spent together.  For me this was a very touching and personal experience and one I will treasure. 

 Our “lunch ladies” were such great ambassadors and took wonderful care of us all, feeding us, tending to our sick and injured, and offering us a place to rest.  They fed our ragtag, muddy group of 18+ each day preparing a feast that was not only beautiful to look at but nutritious, and delicious and they served it with love.  The truly amazing thing about the meal preparation was where it took place, in a very small kitchen with a two-burner propane stove and small outdoor wood-burning fireplace.


I saved the best for last, Ngan was our guardian angel, mother, friend, taskmaster, interpreter, nurse, and without whom this would have been a much more difficult experience.  She works for the Habitat affiliate and was on site with us each day.  She made sure we drank enough water, were careful, rested when tired, washed our hands before eating and made sure we worked but always with a smile and good humor.  She ran interference when there were problems and acted as our interpreter and answered endless questions.  She had her share of problems to solve and did it with a quiet grace.  She had a great relationship with our team leaders, Julie and Alicia and together they brought us together into a cohesive bunch.  My hat is off to all three of them, jobs well done!

Even in Rach Gia after a few days we could be walking down the street (sidewalks are for motorbike parking) and would hear “ello” and see someone waving as they sped by on their motorbike.

One evening at dinner a member of our group was invited to join a group of men sitting at a table nearby.  They bought him a beer and were curious who we were and what we were doing in Rach Gia. This happened on a number occasions, Rach Gia is not really a tourist destination so there were not many Caucasians and we were an oddity.

One of my favorite memories was the little girl who would come running full speed out of her house every afternoon as we walked from the boat back to the van.  It was always a little like a parade down the narrow street where we walked single file and she would stand and wave until everyone had passed by, such a sweet little face.

Even the lady at the internet café that Jean and I frequented who never really spoke and barely looked up from her desk finally, after a few days, smiled when we came in and even let us turn on the fan after a few days; that was a big deal because it was like a sweat shop in there, no air movement whatsoever, the fan was a big improvement!  We never did learn what the rates were but each time we visited she held up 5 fingers no matter if we were there, 10 minutes or 45 minutes, it was always 5,000 VND, about 25 cents, no extra charge for the fan.

The city was another story, like big cities everywhere; the people were in a hurry and not quite as open or friendly as in the rural areas. Our hotel staff, restaurant workers and shopkeepers were unfailingly helpful and I will say they have a keen understanding of customer service.  However, on the streets and in the marketplace everyone was scrambling to carve out their niche and make a living so we stood out like giants with $$ signs tattooed on our foreheads in a land where poverty and petite are the norm.  I don’t want to give the wrong impression here, I was never uncomfortable walking around the streets or the markets other than for the frightful traffic but life is hard here and they do what they can to make a sale, it did not bother me a bit.

The exception in the midst of urban chaos was my day in the park spent talking to the young Vietnamese lawyer practicing her English; she was so open and honest with this stranger, me. I found her quite charming and can only hope she will someday have the job of her dreams and a good life.

I could go on and on about how wonderful the people are but would rather hope that sometime in your life you too are able to share in a similar exchange in a far off land.
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