Monday, 29 September 2008

Week 22 Have you ever raced a cloud?

Hey everybody,
Well it's been yet another eventful seven days in Hoi An, and to top everything off my parents are arriving here tomorrow, so it's all go this week! This past week has been full of fun events with the return of my weekly tennis match (yet another defeat), a night time trip to Da Nang, a house mate's leaving party, more trips to see local life in action including a trip to a university student's hall of residence!, and the start of 'rainy season'!

I'll start with the change in weather, because that has been the biggest change here in Hoi An this week. This also accounts for the fact that I now spend most of my day looking like a human condom... and that's because the local raincoats, are cheap and cover you from almost head to toe, but should you be like me and ride a bicycle, then the rain coat rides up over your knees and this requires you to look life a grandad and roll any pants (trousers) up over your knees! Not a sexy look I can tell you!!! See picture below!
During the week I took a trip with my friend Dung (see picture) to the city of Da Nang, where we were able to enjoy the 'city lights' and escape from the usual Hoi An scenery. Driving to Da Nang at night has it's risks, especially as it means you end up having a free meal consisting solely of insects that seem to fly towards your mouth the moment you open it! Still once in Da Nang, the city lights by the river give the place a nice feel and with a cinema, bowling alley , and nice coffee shops/bars it offers a change from the tourist trade in Hoi An!

The weekend offered the real adventure as on Saturday I returned to Da Nang to visit two friends. Firstly I met 'Vicky' who is someone I met through visitors to Hoi An (Florence & Valerie). Vicky ( real name Thao) was quick to invite me into her home in Da Nang, where I was invited to have lunch with her family, that consisted of her mum, dad, auntie, sister, uncle.... the family were very welcoming, and the food was plentiful and tasty! Vicky then took me to a nice new local coffee shop, which had a stage for live music (at night) and upstairs was a raised floor, that required you to take your shoes off to enter the room, and sit on the raised floor. It was very different from any place I'd been to before, and a place I hope to return to one evening!

After waiting for the serious rain to stop I went on to meet my neighbor Yen, who is at university in Da Nang, studying tourism. She invited me to visit her halls of residence, so after a 20 minute motorbike ride, we finally pulled up to a huge tower block, of 6-7 floors, with up to 20 rooms on each floor, and 8 bunk-beds in a fairly small room! Yep no single rooms here, each metal frame bed, had a small fold down table for the students to work on, and all beds had the typical wooden beaded matting, you might use to lie on at the beach) no mattress on the bed people here just don't sleep on mattresses. This entire block was full with just females, as the male block next door was much smaller and housed only a few boys by comparison. The boys appeared to be outside playing football and volleyball, whilst the girls seemed to stay in their rooms during my visit. As time passed more girls appeared to wander past where I was stood with Yen, to obviously have a look at this strange foreigner, and at the point that I actually left, and was saying goodbye to Yen, I looked up from the ground floor, to see at least 20 girls on each floor looking down to see what was happening.... it was a particular funny moment, one that I'd have loved to have photographed, as it looked like a scene from a movie.... and I'm sure Yen spent the rest of the day answering questions from the onlookers!!! No I know some of you may not be surprised to hear that I managed to find my way into an all female student hall of residence, but I have to say it was purely for research purposes!!! honestly!

The drive home was all the more entertaining because this was where I tried to 'race the rain cloud' home, and of course I lost drastically as not more than 20 minutes into the 50 minute ride home, the rain caught up with me forcing me to stop and wear my 'human condom' raincoat, and drive as slowly as is humanly possible on a motorbike, in several inches of rain. That evening we had a farewell dinner for Naomi my most recent housemate who had been volunteering at the Orphanage, the only problem was that she chose to have this dinner at the exact same time as Liverpool were playing Everton in the Mersey-side derby game, luckily the restaurant has a bar downstairs and the waitress was giving me updates on the game! she got a tip!!! especially as the news was good.. Liverpool won 2-0!

Sunday proved to be an even more interesting day, as I travelled to the 'My Son' region with my neighbour - Tuyet - who works at the restaurant next door. he asked me if I'd teach her English, and invited me to spend the day at her parents house in the countryside. After a 45 minute motorcycle ride, at 0700, we arrived at her family home, to be greeted by her mother, and eventually her father and younger sister joined us, for breakfast/lunch. It was duck, in a curry, very nice, but with many parts of an animal that I would not normally including, liver, and attached arteries, and I have to admit I struggled to eat it all, just because of the floating internal organs! Nothing is wasted here! The beer at 1030 in the morning was clearly contributing to my tiredness, (the beer they had sent their youngest daughter (12) to the shop in the pouring rain, and for the second week in a row I found myself being invited to sleep (after lunch) in the house of a family I had only met just hours earlier! This time I was less uncomfortable at the idea of sleeping in the middle of the day, in the middle of this family's house, this time on a bed made up on the floor. I awoke to everyone else having disappeared, and the feeling that I'd slept for hours.... I came around to see the Tuyet's father grinning at me, and speaking in Vietnamese After fully waking up, I was shown the four very cute pigs in the back yard, that were being fed up to be eaten at a later date! More neighbours arrived to have a look at me, and after some more English lessons with both Tuyet and her younger sister, we ate again, more soup/curry, before leaving for home. We unfortunately got a flat tyre on the way home, but were fortunate to have been passing by the only 'repair' shop for 10 miles at the time it happened! I even got charged the local price! just 5000 dong (15pence) to get it repaired! Bargain. We did stop at Tuyet's grandparents house on the way home to deliver some of the mother's home made duck curry/soup, and her grandparents welcomed us in to the home, and offered Tuyet to me as a potential wife! It was a kind offer, and one that I don't often receive the first time I meet a person's family! The view from the grandparent's home was pretty spectacular, looking out towards the rice fields with the mountains of 'My Son' as a back drop!

This weekend will be one that lives long in my memory, because it was a weekend full of real life experiences, and mostly spent in places that belong solely to 'real life' Vietnam. There has been no greater privilege than to be welcomed into people's homes the way I was this weekend, (and to have the single daughters offered as potential wives)!

Regards from Vietnam

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Week 21 - A Day in Da Nang, Tin-roof weddings, & Open Air Theatre

Hello everybody,
Here in the quiet little town of Hoi An, we have been having more interesting and unexpected events; that help the weeks just fly by! Take this week just passed, it began with yet another farewell party. This time, Roz, a volunteer with the children's home 'Blue Dragon' who had been here nearly 5 months, returned home to Australia, but not before we all joined her for a leaving dinner just across the road at my neighbour's place 'Cafe 43' ( a must for all visitors to Hoi An). Roz's 'best bits' are too numerous to mention here, but she was well known around town, for being the most focused cyclist in town, usually because she crash at any given moment, with the slightest of distraction. Roz also kept us entertained with her many embarrassing stories, no more so than the sun burned bottom story which was acted out for full dramatic effect! God bless you Roz, and we hope to see you again soon! Roz can be seen in a fare few of my facebook antics, and is in the centre of this picture below, (next to me). Wednesday lunchtime will certainly be remembered as being the closest I got to going to a Vietnamese Wedding. I arrived back at home at 1130, for my regular 2 hour lunch break, ready to make my instant noodles, when I could hear this incredibly loud noise, and it seemed to be coming from right inside my house, from the kitchen! The 'noise' turned out to be some guy on a microphone with loud cheering echoing around the house... I ran in to the house to find the intruder, and on entering the kitchen I found the reason! No word of a lie, the space directly behind the house, which for 4 months has been a dumping ground for building materials, was cleared no more than a week ago, and there in front of me on this day, stood a mini-shelter, with a temporary tin-roof, lots of plastic chairs and tables with people siting all around, and a little stage, with great huge speakers, a man with a microphone, and a guy with a keyboard... I knew this could mean only one thing! Wedding Karaoke. No sooner were my noodles boiling, than the loud and tuneless screeching began, from men and women, in between the numerous toasted being made from the stage... shouts of 'mot' 'hai' 'ba' (one, two three) were frequent followed by the swigging of alcohol. It's just amazing how people here don't place importance on the place they celebrate their wedding day, the only thing that matters is the company, and the karaoke!

Thursday night was 'pub quiz' night, the only reason I mention this very non-Vietnamese event, is because our team won, even though it was by default, as the real winning team were disqualified for not writing their team name on the paper.. oh thank god for technicalities!

Friday night was another unexpected surprise as I joined my Vietnamese colleagues and friends, Loc, Binh, Anh, & Lai, to go to an open-air theatre performance. I didn't even know there was a theatre of any description here. The play theatre as you can see from the picture below, was pretty large, and the 'natural seating' was damn uncomfortable, especially after one and a half hours without an interval! My bottom was killing me!! The interesting thing about this play, was not the performance, but more the reaction of the audience to either serious or 'romantic' moments. People just starting giggling and laughing, at what seemed to be very serious moments... this is something I have noticed here in Vietnam, and whilst there are times when it seems to me that people here 'appear' to be immature when dealing with anything of an emotional nature, I think that they just deal with with these kind of issues differently. People do not seem comfortable discussing very personal issues here, or even entering a conversation about anything of a sexual nature. Of course this could be that I don't know people well enough to enter into such topics of conversation here, and of course I don't want to generalise these observations to other places in Vietnam! Still I find this kinda thing interesting to talk about! (see the theatre below)

On to Saturday's exploits. Before 0900 myself and my colleague Anh, set off on our motorbikes to Da Nang, to visit another colleague Phuong. We arrived at Phuong's house, an hour later, and were greeted by her father and brother. I spent the morning talking with Phuong's brother and father, whilst I hardly saw Phuong, as she was preparing lunch. Oh boy, what a big lunch. As it took a while to prepare, me and Anh were encouraged to do some home karaoke, and Phuong's brother ventured off to one of the neighbours to find me an English Karaoke CD! Luckily the food arrived just before I murdered any more old pop songs that seem to be the only ones available to sing here! The meal was different kinds of noodles with egg, shrimp, meat - anything you can think of! I was so full afterwards I could hardly move! Phuong's father insisted that after lunch I should have a lie down, (now, I really don't feel comfortable to actually sleep on someones bed, the first time I go to their home...) after several refusals, I eventually gave in, especially after he has gotten a blanket and pillow, and placed it on the bed, which was in the same open-style room. Within minutes I was fast asleep, no worries, and I did not feel uncomfortable at all... I woke up to some more Vietnamese karaoke singing, from Phuong's dad, which including some pretty groovy moves! We eventually left to go to the city centre and catch up with another colleague, Lai. The 3 girls then took me on a shopping tour of Da Nang, including shoes and clothes! They wouldn't allow me to buy anything without their approval, and when I did eventually lose them and buy something, they told me how bad my choice was!!! Charming I thought! As a thank you, I took the girls bowling as 2 of them hadn't been before, and despite one broken nail, (not mine), we all had fun! The girls have now started calling me Miss Dan, as opposed to my usual 'Mr Dan' title. They find this highly amusing! The main thing I took from this day, was just spending time in the home of my colleague, and how relaxing everybody made me feel - to the point I slept for 2 hours in the middle of their house!!!

I don't have any pictures of this day so this picture of my & Phuong at my house warming!

Ok, so that's enough for this week...

Regards from Vietnam


Sunday, 14 September 2008

Week 20 - Mid-Autum Festival - The Dance of the Dragon

Hi Everybody,
This week in Hoi An has been a very unique week for me for a number of reasons. Firstly, there has been more rain than sunshine, (this is normal for me back home in Manchester of course) but a very unusual experience here - until rainy season starts in October! Secondly, because it has been 4-5 days of constant drumming in the streets, this drumming has a purpose, it is linked to the Mid-Autum festival, a national celebration in Vietnam, where kids spend 2-3 weeks, making dragon costumes, practicing drumming, and creating dance routines in for their Dragon. It's almost like Dragon Cheer leading at times, as they stand on each others shoulders, climb 15foot high poles and any near by balcony where tourists may then feel obliged to give money!

The entire weekend, kids troop around the place dancing through restaurants, hotels, bars, (anywhere that hasn't had the foresight to close the doors!) and get money for their efforts... here in Hoi An, the town does come to a stand still, as traffic builds up at major junctions to watch passing Dragons, big carts with drums are more common on the roads than cars, and where there is no escape day or night from these festivities. Any tourists here for a quiet weekend would have been sadly disappointed!
We were lucky enough to have a private showing from the kids at the children's home my flatmate works at... they actually came into our house, dancing and climbed up to the first floor balcony in costume... it's pretty dangerous watching these kids stand on a board held up by their friends, and then stand on each other to climb into first floor windows, but nobody seems to be worried... and hey, considering that these kids spend weeks preparing, a few broken limbs seems to be small price to pay for such enjoyment! ( i have to say i did not see any injuries, and that includes watching 2 kids in full dragon costume climb up a self-made 20ft high pole!) I also noticed a second fashion of sorts occur here this weekend... where the dragon goes, so too does a masked child who collects the money, and many of the boys, opted to dress as women, with rather large false breast (this is Asia after all) , and hey people seemed to enjoy watching these 'boys' in action!

Despite the constant noise, I have to say it was a really impressive sight seeing all these young people getting involved in such an event and spending time preparing for it. I can not imagine teenagers on mass back home (in UK) putting so much time, effort and planning into something public like this, unless it involved getting drunk in the park, being abusive to the public, or playing hide and seek with the local police! (That could just be my negativity! sorry if you don't agree!)

Of course those of you that know me well, may already be surprised that I have yet to mention the biggest event of the week, indeed one of the biggest events in the football calender! Yeah that's right! In the midst of the dragon dancing and madness there was the matter of Liverpool vs Manchester United on Saturday! I watched the game and as I'm sure most of you will know Liverpool beat Man Utd for the first time in 5 years in the league! Well done Lads, and Rafa! This has certainly added to the magic events of this week!

I also took yet another trip to Da Nang, (on motorbike) with my neighbour Yen. The reason I mention this is because we did this after getting caught in some fairly heavy rain, and I assure you this was probably one of the scariest things I have ever done, bungy jumping included! Driving in the rain here, means almost no visibility, (without a visor) and people still whizz past like they were trying to reach the bar before last orders! Having survived the experience I have to say I feel more confident on a bike, but would prefer to walk in the approaching rainy season!

(Me, Caoimhe, Roz with kids from children's home)
( Our private dragon showing at home)
(Me and my neighbour - Yen)

I think that's all for this week, I'll let the pictures tell the rest of the story!
Regards from Vietnam

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Week 19 - Public Holidays

Hello everybody!
Well this week's main event has been the public holiday (National/independence day) which was on Tuesday 2nd September. Public officials (and us volunteers) had the day off, and whilst there may have been little in the way of any kind of festival or mass public celebration, I decided that I would celebrate by braving a motorcycle journey to the nearby city of Da Nang. My friend Dung came along and after a lovely drive along the coast road, followed by a nervous drive through the centre of the city to the park and lake, we parked the bike, and joined many other city dwellers sat by the lake. As it was a typically baking day... we got a drink (Dung had a Pepsi, which they poured into a plastic bag with ice, and a straw). Whilst sitting by the lake taking in the nice view, it took me a while to notice the dead fish floating at the lake shore.... nice eh! With me being perhaps the only westerner in the park, I was attracting attention, especially as I was with a Vietnamese girl, and I must admit it took me a while to relax, as it was clear people were talking about us, in a not so discrete manner.. nothing is done discreetly here! After a bit of sunning we headed off to watch the new Batman film 'the Dark night' which was great, before heading home, via a local noodle street cafe place... A late night (2300) drive back down the pitch black coast road, ensued, leading me for the first time in 4 months to feel cold.. it felt great!!!

(Pepsi in a plastic bag)

There have been more preparations for the mid Autumn festival (September 14th) with the sound of distant drumming becoming more and more common through the streets of Hoi An. Many dragon costumes can be seen in the shops, and kids are heard practicing drums all over.. apparently, kids will dance around in the dragon costumes and it customary to place money in the dragon's mouth.... hmm... this sounds like another money making scheme! Though perhaps a more genuine scheme than most here!

This weekend has been taken up with the return of my French friend Florence, and another friend of hers, and I mention this because yesterday we headed to the beach at her insistence for the crazy time of 0430... so I have added a couple of pictures to this weeks blog... I have to admit it was worth it to see the entire sunrise, and have a swim at such an early time in the morning!

(sunrise, Hoi An 0430)

I am wary of writing too much in this week's blog because my computer has recently started to just turn its self off, and it is obviously overheating, so despite my idea of sitting it on chopsticks to give some extra airflow, it is slowly dying a death, and I have been frantically trying to save all my photos in case my computer burns itself out! Any ideas would be welcomed by you technology wizards!

(parking in the supermarket, Vietnamese style)

I guess I should also mention I visited a Hospital in the city of Da Nang this week, with my American physio friend, and the purpose of this visit was to discuss the possibility of some work there, because the rehabilitation department wants to start delivering Occupational Therapy, so they were very keen to invite me to meet the director of the rehab department, when they learned there was an OT close by.... that's the kind of opportunity that can be available in a place like this, because I know if i tried to meet a hospital director back home, it would take a series of phone calls and probably a bribe along the way! (or an act of misconduct! - no reflection on Manchester Mental Health Trust there!). Oh and I also found another Occupational Therapist here in Hoi An, who is by chance working at the orphanage here... small world eh!

Ok my final mention must go to the England football team, who once again underachieved against the mighty Andorra, winning 0-2. Come on, lets get rid of Lampard and Downing, and not embarrass ourselves against Croatia on Wednesday, especially when I have to get up at 0145 to watch the bloody game!!!!

Regards from Vietnam

Monday, 1 September 2008

Week 18 - Work, Coffee dates & Domestic Violence

Hi everyone, I appreciate this weeks 'title' may seem a little unusual, but after much thought I came to the conclusion that these posts should reflect my real experiences here, and whilst much of what I report on, has a comical aspect, many experiences here are not always funny or pleasant!

Week 18 has been a busy social week, for a number of reasons, including Wednesday night's dinner and karaoke session with my great colleagues, which included my now regular rendition of Copacabana on the karaoke. The computer keeps saying I score only 85 from 100, but I think the wiring is definitely off, especially as myself and John scored a perfect 100 when murdering Elton John's 'don't let the sun go down on me'! Thursday night saw the return of the England vs Australia tennis match, which is pretty much having the same outcome as the cricket games between the two countries... (for those of you who don't follow cricket, it means Australia is winning every time!). Sunday night the whole nation of Vietnam was focused on the Miss Vietnam 2008 contest (won by Miss Da Nang) which was based here in Hoi An, with the most questionable outfits, interesting security arrangements, and freakishly tall Vietnamese women,- the likes of which I have never seen around, so I can only presume they are grown in special scientific laboratories for this single annual purpose!

Now, despite my earlier reports that breaking down the social and cultural barriers, (to be come part of the community) feel like an impossibility at times, this week has allowed me to at least spend time with local people, and through talking over coffee, get a better insight into 'local life'. There were some sad departures too, as my fellow friends (and Triathletes!) Jo & Liz left Hoi An, along with another good friend and co-volunteer - Carole. After a very late Monday night goodbye party, Tuesday night offered me the chance to do the typical Vietnamese friendly thing of meeting up for a coffee (you all know I don't drink coffee, but you get the idea...) with a new friend of mine, Dung. I had previously met Dung, through another Vietnamese friend Bau, who was friends with Liz. Now the great thing here is that people are always asking you to go for coffee, and I am certainly not one to turn down the offer. So avoiding all the tourist style places, we drove /cycled to a really nice looking local coffee shop, where we began chatting about all kinds of stuff, when out of nowhere, a woman appeared to fall to the floor next to our table, it soon became apparent that she had been pushed to the floor by a man standing over her, with a couple of other people standing close by the pair. Suddenly in the middle of this coffee place, the man began to try and seriously beat the woman, as the other people tried to stop him, (I won't give any detail of what happened because it really was some of the worst violence I have ever seen between a man and a woman). This argument then spilled out on to the street, where more local onlookers tried to free the woman from this guy's grip, before she finally managed to run back into the coffee shop. The man then again ran into the coffee shop to find her, but could not and eventually left. I meanwhile had been trying to insist to the staff to call the police, but they continually told me there was no need to call the police and I should stay away. The most shocking thing was how public this entire event was, because I can assure you, here in Hoi An you do not see any serious display of emotion of any kind in public, by local people. Admittedly this man was drunk, but the reaction of other people really surprised me. And you have to ask yourself, why people would not want to involve the police in such a serious assault? I have heard stories of people fearing the police, which explains why people in motorbike accidents just get up, check they are ok, and ride off quickly. This would not have happened in a tourist area, not a chance... I am aware of many situations here where women are treated very poorly by their husbands, and women certainly are expected to make many sacrifices once they are married, whilst the husband appears (to me at least) to be able to continue as he pleases. I must say that I have met many very nice Vietnamese men, who clearly adore their wife and family, but this event certainly reinforced to me just how fundamentally different life can be here in Hoi An.
To more work related matters, I have come across some more very touching cases this past week, including a family of 6, both parents lives near the beach and fish, with 4 boys, 2 of which have muscular dystrophy, one 11, and one 14. Neither can longer walk independently, and it is likely that with the form of the disease they have, both will have died by their late teens, early 20's. I visited them yesterday with our Physiotherapists to check and maintain a wheelchair we have provided for the older boy. Whilst we did this both parents were checking and repairing their nets for fishing, and the younger boy of 11 was sat on a little scooter board, (seat with casters -wheels) so he could at least push himself around.

A second case which really had me thinking, was that of a 21 year old girl with cerebral palsy, whose mother was blind in one eye, the father was almost completely blind, and had an amputated arm, and whose grandmother was allegedly senile... we were actually there to see one of her younger brothers to see if we could sponsor his education as the family could not afford to send him to school. This girl had been given a 'wheelchair' made out of plastic garden chair attached to a metal frame, by some guy who proudly documents his 'achievements' on some website, but this is not as good as it seems. Many people have come and donated things in good will, but this help has only worsened some children's condition because the person trying to help does not have any knowledge of what is required. This poor girl had very inflamed and scratched skin at the elbows where her arms rubbed against the plastic, and the chair offered no head support, which actually worsened her general body position....

The third case I want to mention is a particularly sad situation, and not one I came across though work. Its the case of a 12 year old boy who was born with HIV, his older sister and both parents have already died, (his sister at the age of 12), and he know lives a very isolated existence with his grandmother. He is not 'allowed' to go to school, because the other children's parents and even the teachers are scared that he will fight and pass on the HIV to other children. Even the other children who live close by, of which there are not many, are told by their parents not to play with him because of his illness. He already lives in a remote little village, but the isolation he faces is perhaps the saddest part of this story.

Finally, I must share one of my other work cases with you, it is another boy with muscular dystrophy, he is around 15, could no longer walk, and had stopped attending school, he had already described how felt ashamed to go out places because of his 'disability/illness'. There is nothing wrong with this child's mind, and he enjoyed going to school and likes watching football and listening to music. I saw him maybe 2/3 months ago and he looked ok. When I went back to see him this last week, he was in a plaster cast form below his left knee, all the way up to and above his hip. You need to understand that his muscles were already wasting away, so being stuck in this plaster for three months, is really not going to help. The doctors at the hospital did not fix the fracture of his femur bone, they just put him in plaster... (this could have been due to him having problems with his breathing, so very risky to put him asleep for an operation), so now this boy can not even sit up, because the plaster stops him from bending over... he has to lie on a nappy to go to the toilet, and the reason for all this?????... a drunken motorcyclist hit the boy, on the road/pavement, whilst he was in his wheelchair.... the family can not force the driver of the motorcycle to pay or do anything, they simply must accept it and move on... and pay for the help at the hospital...

I simply hope this weeks email gives people a little insight into what life can be like for people in this region of Vietnam, just ten minutes away from the cafes, tailors and the beach, live the real faces of Hoi An, of which most tourists will never see.

The pictures I have on this weeks blog are of kids I work with, but are not of the children who I have talked about, and I just want to say I have asked permission to use these pictures on my blog.

Regards from Vietnam.