Thursday, September 3, 2009

Laura continues her Southeast Asia adventure in... Hanoi

Destination number 4: Hanoi and the wonderful homestay with Lily's family and visit to her community development organisation!
I spent just over a week with Lily from GEF e.v., a German / Vietnamese NGO which works with orphaned children throughout Vietnam, and was given an amazing introduction to this great country.

After my long journey from China, Lily picked me up from the hostel and took me to the GEF office where I was introduced to the whole team and made to feel really welcomed! GEF have a large base of volunteers from the local universities and many of them came down to meet me and eagerly practice their English!

Next I was shown GEF's main project, the 'Second Home' where around 10 orphans from various provinces are housed, schooled and cared for by the GEF team in Hanoi. I was given the opportunity to teach a couple of short English lessons to help with their pronunciation, and was totally shown up by their beautiful handwriting when I began to scrawl the alphabet for them! Really great bunch of kids and there is a strong family-feel and community framework for them there.

Inspired by, I brought with me a bunch of pens and colouring pencils and donated them to the Second Home as I could see they would be clearly appreciated. The organisation has plans to build 2 more 'Second Homes' next year: one more in Hanoi and another out by Ha Long Bay, so I'm sure they will require as many volunteers as possible to help build them!
That morning, Lily and Chau treated me to the Vietnamese staple, pho, (a light beef noodle broth) for breakfast and now I am hooked! For lunch, the whole office eat together around the meeting room table, with mixed meals that get delivered each day - couldn't have been more different to my jacket-potato-at-my-desk lunches back in London! Everyone was very impressed with my now-honed chopstick skills, and after lunch, when I thought things couldn't get further from my daily office routine, Lily rolled out a couple of wicker mats and we had an hour's nap - a kind of SE Asian siesta! This is definitely something I will suggest at home!

To get to Lily's house after work, we jumped on the back of a couple of motorbikes and entered the noisy sea of Hanoi's rush hour traffic. This was my first experience of the city's roads and I spent most of it white-knuckled, eyes closed, simultaneously laughing and swearing, truly believing these would be my last moments on earth; my driver weaved through the dense tide of beeping motorbikes and crossed main highways with nothing but the 'just go' attitude! After a couple more rides I was somehow used to it and by the end I looked forward to the 30min suicide-ride each morning!
Back at Lily's house, I was introduced to her family, and again, was made to feel so welcome in their home. They are expecting another addition to the family in December with recently-married Lily 5 months pregnant! I had such a great week here, really enjoying being part of their daily life, and her mother's fantastic home-cooked dinners which we all ate together each evening. Although Lily and the volunteers tried their hardest to teach me as many Vietnamese words a possible, I think the most valuable one was 'nhar' (I have no idea how this is spelt!), meaning 'full' - crucial when fed by such a generous family! One night, we all went for karaoke and hotpot - neither of which I had experienced in Vietnam before so had no idea what to expect but had an amazing night out with everyone! Karaoke is an institution there and everyone is well practised - after a few beers, I was singing some MJ classics with Lily, and by the end, nominated to duet with any song with English subtitles, regardless of whether or not I had heard it before! Lots of fun, finished up with a 'lau' (hotpot) supper; about a dozen of us sitting around a couple of burners on little plastic tables and chairs on the street corner, while a huge plate of meat (at least 15 different kinds of red, white meat, fish, offal, shell-fish, and things I couldn't even hope to identify) was served up for us to cook in the wide-rimmed bubbling broth on the table, along with noodles and greens. Definitely the most fun meal I've had yet!

Feeling slightly ropey the next morning, I accompanied Lily to an annual national symposium on Alternative Care for Vietnam's Orphaned and Vulnerable Children. I was so grateful I had the opportunity to attend this as I learnt so much here about the current situation of foster care in the country. The next day Chau and Bao from GEF and some of the volunteers took me to visit Bat Trang village, famous for it's ancient ceramics heritage. We all made little clay pots and painted them, which everyone had a great time failing at! I have optimistically sent mine home so fingers crossed, it will be there when I get back! Being with the volunteers was like having my own exclusive tour guides, telling me about the history and culture of the place, plus I got to hear about what the kids here get up to and what they all do. I was even given a personal tour of the city, combining all the big tourist attractions with the best ice-cream parlours, street snacks, and local hangouts where they like to drink cool pure sugar cane juice (way too sweet for me!). They wanted to hear all about London, what and where I studied, what I ate, etc, and I received peels of giggling when I pulled out a couple of passport photos of my stubbly boyfriend! For my last meal with the family, I shared a beer and dried squid (traditional accompaniment I'm told) with Lily's father and husband, and thanked them profusely with 'cam ong's (thank you) for their hospitality. I previously asked one of the volunteers to translate a small thank you message which I wrote out and gave to Lily's family with some small gifts from Bat Trang so despite the language barrier, I hope they knew how thankful I was!

This was such a fantastic introduction and insight into Vietnamese culture, family life, history, food and day-to-day living, plus all the great things GEF are doing to help orphaned Vietnamese children. GEF's future projects sound like they will continue to find homes for these children in small, family and community orientated 'second homes' and will definitely require lots of extra hands to help with building them in the coming months! I greatly appreciate everything Lily and GEF did to welcome me into their fantastic country; I thoroughly enjoyed myself and I'm sure this will be the most memorable part of my trip. I wish them all the best of luck with their future development.

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