Monday, 27 October 2008

Week 26 - Singing in the Rain

Hello everybody,
The more the astute of you who realise week 26 is the 6 month mark, I guess this is my 6 month anniversary of being here in Vietnam, and it's been every bit the experience I expected, and so much more!!!

I can't really avoid talking about the rain again, even though last week's post was all about the rain and floods. Even as I type this the rain storms continue, knocking out my three favourite TV stations - HBO, Star Movies, and True Sports!!! Luckily no such disaster occurred last night as I watched the Chelsea vs Liverpool game (0-1 to Liverpool, but you all knew that right?). John my colleague (and Chelsea fan), and his girlfriend Michelle had cooked a meal, and I must say it was pretty tasty, a great warm up to the main event, as Liverpool broke Chelsea's 86 unbeaten games at 'Home' record. It had rained last night and was heavy enough to have me wear my rather large raincoat, which meant I drove all the way to John's house on a motorbike without realising I didn't have my helmet on!
The rain has got to my brain I think! It certainly has got to my wardrobe in more ways than one, as just today as I pulled out a pair of pants (trousers) which I haven't needed to wear for weeks, and they had mould on them!!! In the wardrobe!! And I really don't have that many clothes to be throwing away! In fact, recently I notice that some of my clothes seem to be dirtier after being washed than before the wash! And don't get me started on how difficult it is to try and get clothes dry after washing! Thank god for some room to dry clothes in the house, because there isn't a radiator in sight! Today was a great example of how the weather affects my routine.... because the morning was reasonably dry, I decided to rush home at lunch to get some washing out, this meant having to settle for some bread (2000 dong - 8 pence) and some instant noodles for lunch at home... getting the washing out was one thing, but I then spent the entire afternoon watching the clouds swarm overhead, and I got so paranoid that the rain would come, I left work early to get my washing inside! You'll be happy to know I managed it... and now I won't have to wait a week to have dry clean clothes! The picture below shows you just what kind of fashion I have had to resort too in these desperate times! (see below)

Tuesday night this week was yet another night filled with wet weather incidents, as literally seconds after I had arrived home and sat down for a beer with my neighbour, a rain storm began, and soon had the next door cafe flooded within minutes.... see below....

The interesting part of this picture, is that inside the cafe, two girls had just finished their cooking class, and were just tucking into their food, as the water began to run into the cafe, within ten minutes the girls were eating their food in 3 inches of water around them! It was quite the amusing sight!

Leaving the rain behind us for now, I'll just mention a few things that have been happening at work recently. As I mentioned last week, we now have two German volunteers who bring another cultural element to the mix, and add a fourth nation, to the now multicultural mix of Vietnamese, Australian, English and German. I must also say I admire their desire to try and offer their expertise through the use of a second language (English with Vietnamese staff), I have to admit I still struggle to understand the Australians as much as anyone! I think it's all the sun that goes to their head! Just kidding - but I have learnt a fair bit about the Australian mentality that is very different from my own!

So, not that I like to use these blogs to publicise myself as an OT, but i do want to talk a little about my work, and my best achievement of the past couple of weeks has definitely been with a boy called Sy, who is a real trooper (works really hard) in physio. He has Cerebral Palsy and finds it difficult to walk normally and has to use a frame to walk by himself. I was told he walks a few hundred yards to see his grandmother, and having seen the state of some roads in the countryside here, that's a real achievement. few weeks ago I managed, quite randomly, to find a tricycle, which had some straps on it, and wondered if Sy would have the strength in his legs to use it. When Sy first tried to ride the tricycle, he just couldn't push the pedals hard enough to make the wheels turn, as his feet and legs are badly affected by his condition.... this was going to be a problem! This is a problem we have, when we put him on a stationery bike seat in the clinic. But in the clinic, we bandage his feet to the pedals... so, using this idea, we tried the same technique on the tricycle, and it worked! Now I know what you are thinking.... you can't bandage the kids feet to the tricycle every time he wants to use it! - and you'd be right, we couldn't do that so another solution was required!
The solution had to be something a little more inventive. So realising we needed to simulate the added support given by the bandages, I figured we could simply strap his shoes to the pedals, this would act in the same way as the bandage, but still would leave the problems of a shoe being strapped to the pedals. In the end, we bought some new sports sandals, (with the normal Velcro straps), and made some additional straps, out of additional Velcro, which we used to strap the sandals to the pedals... this would allow for the shoes to be taken off the pedals easily, in case of heavy rain! (see picture of finished tricycle below)

Sy's father took the tricycle home today after we completed the final trials, and I hope Sy will soon by a little more mobile around his neighbourhood. We will go and visit him this week to see how he's going! I think the state of the roads where Sy lives may be the deciding factor in how mush he can use the tricycle to get around.
Other work stuff, has included more visits to An, a boy with Muscular Dystrophy, who was hit, in whilst his wheelchair, by a drunken motorcyclist, breaking his femur bone. This has left An with a plaster leg cast for almost 6 months, as surgery is not an option. This leaves him unable to sit up, which contributes to the already existing weakening of his arms and chest muscles. Our major contribution to An's situation has been to design a specially shaped (triangular) wedge cushion, which allows him to at least partially sit up, and coming up with fun ways for him to strengthen his chest and breathing muscles - by blowing up balloons, and my personal favourite, playing the harmonica, (which he told me he had done previously) - though i don't think his neighbours are so happy with the introduction of the harmonica. Signing a person's plaster is a very common thing in the UK, but not here. However, An allowed me to start this trend, and write on his plaster cast as you can see from the picture below!

So I promise I'll try and leave the rain out of the next weekly update. Here's to a dry week! Hmmm...
Regards from Vietnam

Sunday, 19 October 2008

Week 25 - Flooding in Hoi An & Singapore Airlines come to my rescue!

Hello everybody, this week has been the most dramatic week of my time here in Vietnam, and possibly the most dramatic week of my life since I left England in August 2007! Now that's a big claim to make, considering I have been through a Romanian (Transylvania) winter, visited the Swiss Alps, and competed in a Triathlon here in Vietnam in the past 13 months. Still, the events of this week have kept me occupied for entirely new reasons...
...firstly, I will get to telling you all about how close I came to be returning home next week, but first I must try my best to convey the picture that surrounds me here in Hoi An, where we have had the first floods of the rainy season. The pictures will tell the story...

I have never personally been in a place that actually flooded, so forgive my dramatic descriptions of the floods here this week. Heavy rains last weekend left the river overlapping the footpaths by the river, but after 2 more days of intense rain, the old town, was almost swimming under water, see picture blow, the contrast between last week, and this week's flooding...

...and locals had already begun to use boats just to get out of their homes, and travel around the affected streets. People were telling stories about how they had been forced to rush to move everything they had up stairs (if the had an upstairs), and my colleagues were telling me how they would be unable to go home, as the boats that carry them and their motorbikes across the river were not able to load up anymore... It took me a little while to actually make it to the river in daylight to see the extent of the problem, but the speed of the flood was what was so surprising. I had been at the river side Thursday morning, but by Thursday evening the markets were completely flooded and the river had risen to well above the 1 metre and covered the ground.. entire streets had begun to disappear.... see below...

As the pictures show, life here gets pretty tough with the water level stranding people in their homes, though I guess it's a fair excuse why you can't get to work in the morning! Still, the people of Hoi An have taken this in their stride with the kind of acceptance and resilience that puts most of us to shame... I can honestly say I'll never complain about it raining so much in Manchester (and that's a lot of rain!!!) after seeing the conditions here during rainy season... despite the tough conditions and serious inconvenience caused by the flood, the locals continue with life as though the flood hasn't happened, and you'll still see plenty of smiling faces around the place, non more so than the old ladies giving tourists boat rides through the flood water... see below...

Heavy rains will continue to batter this part of Vietnam, often made worse by the storms in the China Sea, yet this was all part of the experience that I 'signed up' for as I wanted to experience living through a 'rainy season' such as the one here. The more serious issues of flooding are that of the water-born diseases, and there have been plenty parts of this town, where it is clear sewage water has mixed with the rain water, and piles of garbage float by, not a pretty site, but a common one! I'll leave this part of the week's events by showing a few more pictures from Hoi An this week....

To the other big event of the week now, and here is where I must do a little bit of free advertising for Singapore Airlines... I have no problem singing their praises, because without them, I would be packing my bags right now, in preparation for coming home in just 5 days. Let me explain... My 6 months is actually up this week, and my visa is due to expire, so my plan was to extend my visa, and then extend my flights by one month to November... I was told I could change the date of my flight for free, just once! When I called to extend the flight, I was informed that my ticket had a 6 month expiry date, meaning I could not extend it past October 25th... 'Oh bugger'... was the more polite form of what I was thinking right then. How could I possibly finish my work in less than a week?, and was I to forget the chance to go and work in one of the government hospitals in Da Nang before I left?, not to forget the chance to say goodbye to people!
The Singapore Airlines office in Saigon (who were my real saviours) confirmed this was the case, and I should speak to my travel agent in UK, and the UK based Singapore Airlines office.. My travel agent, (Trailfinders) told me there was nothing I could do, and this rule was written in my contract with them... hmm...., but the Manchester based Singapore Airline office, told me they would need 48 hours to see if they could let me extend my ticket.. ( typical of UK based call centres) the guy was nice enough, but the "please call back" line did not fill me with confidence. The Saigon office then stepped in and emailed me to say they had contacted the London office to plead my case! (so I now had 3 different airline offices on the case). The very next day I received a call from the Saigon office to inform me of the good news that for a mere £132 I could extend my ticket to December 31st... the only catch was that I could only fly home between December 24-31st! That's a big catch considering my Gran's birthday is December 24th! Still, I will be home on Xmas day, and could I ask for more than that?? No, Of course not! So I will be home on December 25th... (so don't think you can strike me off your Christmas card list this year!) I promised Singapore Airlines I would give them some hefty praise so here's a picture for them.. and I would say this anyway, their service is the best I have ever had on long distance flights! Thanks Singapore Airlines!
Regards form Vietnam

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Week 24 - ...and the rain finally came...

Hey everybody,
I have been waiting to experience 'rainy season' for a while now, and after several heavy storms this week, the 'non-stop' rain finally arrived. Thursday was a relatively warm and sunny day, whilst Friday allowed me to play that much loved English game of 'get caught out by the rain storm'. A seriously heavy storm woke me early on Saturday morning, and it has not stopped raining since, more to come on that note...

This week I have spent more time in Da Nang than I have in Hoi An, for a number of reasons. Monday & Tuesday I had to go and try to arrange to obtain some specific (cerebral palsy) wheelchairs, after the shipment arranged by the wonderful 'wheelchairs for humanities' group, arrived three weeks early! The guys there were amazing technicians, and have grown from fixing and maintaining wheelchairs in their garage, to delivering specialised used wheelchairs all over the world... I had to give them a mention, because I really was overwhelmed by their experience, good nature, and very helpful attitude, especially as we needed to find a way past the obstacles of obtaining equipment from local Government officials! Thursday I returned to Da Nang, with my colleague Vy, to visit some special education schools as we are trying to develop a very basic 'play therapy/education' room for our children at CHIA. The places we visited, (Sacred Heart & Village of Hope) were two incredible institutions, who catered for mainly hearing impaired children, but Sacred Heart also catered for disabled kids with Cerebral Palsy. Both places had associated vocational training programmes, but the one at Sacred Heart had managed to have hearing impaired kids working and managing public shops, in the a main street in the city centre....including, Internet cafe, copy shop, and a cafe...truly amazing, especially in this context! I also spent most of this weekend in Da Nang, but i'll come to that later.

At work we have begun to have some kids start in our 'Play/Education room' and in addition to that we have had three new staff member start this week. A Vietnamese girl called Giang, and two government assisted German volunteers, Karl & Corinna. Karlis a Doctor, whilst Corinna is a teacher and has additional training in therapy related techniques for children. Considering the entire organisation was made up of 14 staff, (volunteers included), 3 new starters is a big deal. We also celebrated the birthday of Van (CHIA physiotherapist), with another big cake at work!! any excuse!!! see picture below.
So back to this week's main event, (and I don't mean the England football team's 5-1 win yesterday). Whilst collecting the wheelchairs, as previously mentioned, I met a woman, (Linh) who was working for another NGO near Da Nang. By chance she was in Hoi An for the night, so I met with her, and some of her colleagues at a local coffee shop here. I needed to get a young local couple to ride their motorcycle with me, to find the damn place!!! Everybody seemed nice, and so I agreed to meet up with Linh this weekend in Da Nang, during my now weekly trips there each weekend. Given that the weather was pretty severe, riding my motorcycle along the coast road presented a few challenges, including trying not to end up with a mouth full of mosquitoes!
Linh met me and took me to her home, where I met her house mates Nguyen (female) & Phuoc (male) see picture below....
After having some impromptu English classes and watching the rain fall, we finally headed out into town for a bite to eat and what turned out to be 3 hours of karaoke! The food we ate was a new experience to me, not just because I couldn't pronounce the word for what I was eating, but because it seemed very different to anything I have eaten here before... (examples include a prawn in a jelly substance, wrapped in banana leaf). The karaoke session was also a fun time, with hits such as 'Copacabana', 'Don't let the sun go down on me', 'With or without you' and 'mack the knife' being completely ruined in the name of entertainment.... I have to say in my defence that they don't have any modern songs on the karaoke play lists here!!
When we finally called it a night, we drove home with the idea of getting some beers and watching the football, as Phuoc was also a fan, but the TV station had other ideas! Ah Well... So after illegally kipping (sleeping) on their coach, (laws here do not allow non nationals to stay in the home of locals), I was awoke by yet more torrential rain, and Nguyen leaving for work on her motorcycle! Sunday was spent eating: breakfast, lunch and more... plus drinking coffee, or in my case tea, as I have never gotten over my strong dislike for the taste of coffee, and being stared at by interested locals who eyed me with what felt like suspicion, and then usually followed these stares with kind smiles. The last meal we ate together today was just 30,000 (£1) for all four of us.... now that's what I call living the local life! I managed to get back to Hoi An after over an hour of driving at just 20kph, through rain and wind, and what seemed like small rivers running across the road! (mum, you've seen me drive so you know I'm careful here!)

I'll also just share with you pictures of my next door neighbour's puppy... he's tiny!!! (look below)
Ok, time is ticking on, and I need a good nights sleep...
Regards from Vietnam!

Monday, 6 October 2008

Week 23 - The folks are in town & A weekend in Saigon

Hey everybody,
Hope you are all settled down to read this one because it's going to be a long one, as the weekend in Saigon alone was so full of incident that I could write all night about it.

My parents arrived in Hoi An this week, for a quick 24 hours on a tour of Vietnam. Having been soaked to the skin with almost torrential rain in the north, their arrival in Hoi An coincided with a spell of pretty nice weather. Having met them for lunch in a rather flash restaurant (posh for me, as I normally eat street food for a ridiculous price of 12,000 dong (30 pence). After lunch we walked around the warm and sunny 'old town' taking in the bizarre sight of a river decoration turtle being transported over land (see picture below)...

After a relaxing coffee by the river we called in at my office, to introduce my colleagues to my parents. This was not without incident, as my neighbour, (who had very kindly offered to give my dad a lift on his motorbike) clearly got confused and left my dad standing alone outside the orphanage! Something was definitely 'lost in translation'. After finding my dad, and bringing him to my office for introductions, I dropped the folks off at their rather swanky hotel, with beautiful pool. I was quick to join them in their nice resort for an evening swim, before heading off into the nicely lit old town for a nice meal at the 'Before & Now' restaurant,, where the chef tried to convince us to eat the biggest sized shrimps & prawns I have ever seen... we politely declined and went for the more renowned pasta speciality. A short walk around the town at night was followed by a return to the folk's resort, before I left on my motorbike to come back to my house.

Breakfast was next on the itinerary, as I joined mum and dad at their hotel once more, for a bite to eat, before they were heading off to Nha Trang for 2 nights. It was a short but eventful visit to Hoi An, and my neighbours were telling my folks how lovely I was... no prompting required! Honestly! Though my work colleagues (especially Miss Lai) were far more interested in telling my parents about my social activities, or at least their version of my social movements, which weren't all complimentary! Cheeky buggers!!!

Friday I flew to Ho Chi Minh City on Friday morning, but not before I faced the dilemma of how to get to the airport in Da Nang. I was desperately trying to find a cheaper way to get to the airport other than take a 200,000+ dong (£7) taxi. I was considering hiring a motorbike for the three days and leaving it at the airport over the weekend, when my neighbours very kindly offered to help me out. My neighbour two doors down, (who I rent the motorbike from) said I could have a motorbike for free, whilst my next door neighbour said she's come with me to the airport (45 minutes drive away) and drive the motorbike back. to Hoi An. HOW NICE!!!! This kind of help and generosity are the kind of things that I will always remember. So after arriving in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) I did the local thing ans instead of getting the $15 taxi, I took the 3000 Dong (10 pence) local bus to the city centre, which took me right into the centre of the tourist district, and less than 5 minute walk from my hotel! Bargain!!

Checking into my room took some serious persuasion on my part, as I had received no email confirmation and the receptionist was assuring me there were no single room available... we eventually realised, after a phone call to the other end of the country, (the booking agent) that because my name was written as Taniel, instead of Daniel.. clearly this was too much of a difference for the receptionist to realise I could be one and the same person!

The reason for the weekend in Saigon was because my parents were there as was my good Canadian friend Jessica, who I first met in Bangkok in 2002. Jess was in Saigon with her husband Jason, who I hadn't met, I hadn't seen Jess since 2003... I'd arranged to meet Jess for lunch, but hadn't decided where to meet... I thought I'd just wander to her hotel, but she had exactly the same thought and began wandering to my hotel... rather bizarrely, in this city of 8.5 million people, (and 3.5 million motorcycles!) Jess saw me passing by on the street!! This was to be the first of a few strange (chance encounters). After a nice lunch and the opportunity to finally meet her husband, I returned to my hotel, but not before finding a large group of people gathered around a street corner. When I investigated further, it was none other than Jeremy Clarkson (TV presenter) and the 'Top Gear - television programme' team! (see picture below).
I went on to meet my folks later that day, as they arrived in Saigon, and enjoyed a free complimentary drink at their rather swanky hotel. Later that night I joined Jess & Jason and their cycling group tour, for their farewell meal, and after a great meal, we hit the city nightlife. the bar we went in was not exactly spectacular, and after only 30 minutes of being in the bar, who was to walk in? (yeah you guessed it - my new celebrity stalker) Jeremy Clarkson and the top gear team.... the world is too small.... and just to prove he is stalking me, he and the film crew were here in Hoi An last night too!!! Maybe I need a restraining order? now just a quick mention of 'street life' in Saigon, during a walk down the street to /from the bar, I had one guy step forward from the side of the pavement, put his finger to his nose and sniff... he was trying to offer drugs! On the way back from the bar, near my hotel, a young Vietnamese girl grabbed my arm, and began asking me if I wanted to have "good time for one hour" in a near by hotel room, needless to say she was 'working'! She spent a good five minutes grabbing hold of my hand trying to persuade me to have "good time" with her... but eventually returned to her area of the street!

Saturday in Saigon was another eventful day as I met my mom and dad in the city centre, before we walked around and did some tourist things, like visiting the markets, where I had to barter with the local traders for my folks as they wanted some souvenirs. When I kept insisting that I was not offering enough money, I explained that I lived in Hoi An, so I was used to cheaper prices... one trader just said - "Hoi An - second hand"!!! Cheeky Bugger! Saturday night whilst me, my mom and dad were looking for places to eat, we randomly bumped into Jess & Jason and two of their friends. We all went for dinner together in a pretty nice restaurant where we all ate a serious amount of non-Vietnamese food!!! After saying good night to my parents, I nipped into the local bar 2 doors down from hotel, to watch the football - Man Utd played Blackburn, and needless to say Man Utd cheated their way to victory after disabling the Blackburn goal keeper! - but enough about that! The point of telling you this story was because this was a bar I had been in before, 5 months ago, and the bar girls were very friendly, and wore English football shirts (see picture).
They remembered me, or so they said, and as one them was finishing up her shift, she came chatting to me. I was desperate to get to a nightclub, after 5 months of a quiet night life, so when Thuy (the bar girl) agreed to take me to a place in town, we soon found ourselves heading back down the road, with her flatmate, and found a fairly obvious tourist style bar! I was pretty surprised to find a 150,000 charge for Vietnamese, (not for westerners) clearly designed to keep local people out... I got suspicious and my suspicions were confirmed as it soon became apparent that there were a number of 'escort/working girls' circling the bar, looking for an interested western customers! The drinks were pretty expensive too, so I was relieved to see both my Vietnamese friends drinking Orangina!!! phew!- As I was paying!
We left the club after 3, and after a slow walk home, the girls said they were hungry, so we found a local street food cafe, and sat eating a huge bowl of noodles at 0400!!! It was a real fun and unexpected night, and I have to thank Thuy (in the Arsenal shirt) for showing me the night life!

Sunday was a more relaxing day, as after lunch with Jess & Jason, I met my folks for a coffee in the afternoon, and a teary goodbye with mum, before getting the 10 pence bus back to the airport. All was going well, as I had arrived with plenty of time to spare... I was just contemplating my fun weekend as I took a quick sleep at the gate. Though my 'quick sleep' had overrun, as I awoke to a completely empty airport waiting area, and a realisation that all the other passengers had left.... fortunately I got to the gate as I could hear an announcement saying "this is the last call for passenger Daniel Johnson..." I was lucky to board the plane, and even luckier to be sat between two pretty Vietnamese girls. One girl I had a nice chat with throughout the flight, whilst the other girl appeared so scared of flying that she could barely speak. The plane was quite cold, so I gave the scared girl my jumper to keep her warm, and as we landed back in Da Nang, she leaned over and kissed me, saying thank you for the jumper... this is not normal behaviour here... as we boarded the bus to take us to the terminal building she was stood next to me, and again leaned over and whispered to me " you are very handsome"... I love this place!!! ha ha

Being a fully fledged Hoi An Local - and being desperate to get home in time for the Man City vs Liverpool game...(an amazing come back from Liverpool, eventually winning 2-3), I took a motor bike taxi back home. The only problem with this plan was that the rain had returned to Hoi An, and I got soaked sat on the back of a motorbike for 45 minutes in the rain storm!! A crazy end to a crazy weekend!!!

Enjoy the pictures below, from Saigon

Regards from Vietnam