I have been thinking about how to write this post for a long time. In fact, I have been thinking about it for nearly 6 months, which explains why I abandoned you, my few but faithful readers. There are several reasons why this has come to be. Let’s go from my last post in April in which I described my travels in the Mekong Delta in March. It was at this very point where my Vietnam life became hectic and took some unexpected turns, thereby causing me to neglect my writing entirely. It went something like this: Read More
Our next stop on our two-week excursion was back to Vietnam to spend a few days in the Mekong Delta. But first we had to get there. Our hotel arranged our passage across the border which involved a bus from Cambodia to the border an hour away, as well as a pick-up at the border to take us to Ha Tien, the town a few kilometers away, and finally a bus to Chau Doc, another 2-hr journey.
Long story short – we made it across the border at which point we were basically abandoned, forced to pay our own way to get to Ha Tien on motorbikes and then thrown onto a perilous ancient local bus for which we had obviously overpaid at least 10x the normal price. We were jammed between mothers holding grown kids on their laps, men smoking out the open windows (no A/C of course) and chickens. Yup – there was unmistakable clucking behind me. Please know that I am not spoiled – I am totally tolerant of these types of travel conditions but… only if I choose them myself and if I am not being totally and completely ripped off. I’m also petrified of these particular busses which crash on a daily basis (see most recent HERE). So we got the hell off, grabbed our bags, negotiated a private car to Chau Doc and checked in to the Victoria Nui Sam, a training hotel for the 5-star Victoria Hotel chain located halfway up Sam mountain with 360 views of the Mekong Delta. Green as far as the eye can see, we watched the sun set on the horizon by the pool and let the frenzy of our travels wash away. Another South-East Asian travel adventure under our belts.
After 2 nights at the Victoria we headed to Ben Tre, known for both its coconuts and involvement in the war. It was after the senseless destruction of Ben Tre that the Americans realized that there was nothing but bloodshed and disaster ahead of them and a high-ranking Major declared famously: “We had to destroy the village in order to save it”.
We spent 3 nights in a homestay – a very basic lodging in a wooden hut shared by an older man and his wife, who cooked us tremendous meals and nursed James back to health when he was hit by the inevitable Vietnamese stomach bug. As with all my travels here, so much more about the reality of life here was revealed. It was undoubtedly poorer than anywhere I have been in Vietnam (although apparently the villages in the North are worse off). On the other hand, these are people who are enterprising – they live off their land – fruits and vegetables are plentiful and their family units are tight. People look after each other. It is a quality of Vietnamese culture that we are less familiar with in North America. When the state can’t look after them, they can turn to their family and neighbours. It is this loyal, dependable community structure that holds this country together.
We ended our journey in Saigon where we met up with James’s friends – Nelson and Ghislain, who had taken the opportunity to spend their vacation on this side of the planet. After some exploring in Saigon, I brought them all back with me to Phan Thiet which was without incident until our train hit a tractor pulling its crop, killed a guy and stopped for 2 hours. And I thought bus travel was dangerous.
After a dip in the pool at the Doi Duong Hotel, I brought the boys out to Mui Ne where we spent an evening overlooking the sea with friends, drinking rice wine, getting rowdy and eating the freshest seafood imaginable.
James stayed another two weeks and we joined the boys over the next weekend outside the beach city of Nha Trang (4-hrs by train), staying at the craziest little b&b run by an 85 year old French-German-Swiss guy who has both a 62 year old and a 14-yr old son – different wives of course. It was peaceful beyond words.
While the boys continued their travels, James joined me back in Phan Thiet where he wound down the last 3 days of his trip with more beach time, spectacular food, and a whole lot of rides on the back of my motorbike. I can hear him now, goading me excitedly to go “faster! faster!” as we ride through the abandoned streets of Phan Thiet. I can make out his pink helmet in my side mirror, feel the heat and wind of winter, and despite the speed, the feeling that time could just sit still.
As many of you know, I used to be the proud owner of a 1993 Toyota Camry, a car that had been lovingly given to me by my late Grandma Ada. It came to a tragic end in the fall of 2013; the result of a spontaneous combustion of the engine of the car parked behind mine, which burnt out the entire back of my car, leaving it permanently inoperable. After a month of battling my insurance, I came out victorious which a cheque worth more than the car but still without my beloved 20-yr old Camry, with its 220,000km, which many of you can testify could battle any plowed-in icy parking spot with just a couple revs.
So it came as a surprise and delight when I landed at the Phnom Penh International airport, hopped onto a tuk-tuk, and next to me, behind me, ahead of me and parked nearly everywhere, were 1990’s Camrys. Truly, Cambodia is the graveyard, or perhaps the place of resurrection, for old Toyota Camrys.
It is not just a place for resurrected cars but a country that itself has been resurrected. When James decided to come visit me for a month during my 2-week Tet vacation (Lunar New Year), we figured there was plenty of time to take a trip across the border to Cambodia. As usual, we decided to break the mold and not go to Angkor Wat (what is being called the 8th wonder of the world and a Unesco world heritage site). James had been there 8 years ago (and let’s be honest – ruins don’t change) and three days of climbing ruins in the scorching sun wasn’t appealing. Moreover, am afraid it would have ignited another fury of anti-tourism since Siem Reap now has as many hotels as Phnom Penh. If that was any indication of the throngs of people we would encounter, I was not interested. I envy James, and anyone else who visited more than 5 years ago, the opportunity to have explored the ruins in general isolation and freedom.
I knew very little of Cambodia’s history until I watched an incredible (Academy-award nominated) documentary called The Missing Picture which is the story of its writer, director, narrator and artist who tells his heart-wrenching story using hand-carved wooden figurines and miniature sets. My cinema writing days have long since passed so I may not properly be conveying how painfully beautiful the movie is. Suffice it to say that it left me with a very real vision of a country that didn’t just suffer a loss of a population, but the total annihilation of its cities, its culture and its prospect as a modern Asian centre.
To give you a better idea of its beauty, I’m sharing the trailer with you here.
I have always thought that Vietnam is a country of dichotomies but Phnom Penh out-dichotomizes Vietnam by leaps and bounds. We stayed closer to the Mekong River, not in the tourist area but within walking distance. So my impressions of the city after our first evening were not exactly glowing. The riverfront is just bar after bar, after restaurant, after cheap hotel. For every block you walk, 5 tuk-tuk drivers accost you: “tuk-tuk? tuk-tuk?”. After a week of this I can tell you where I wanted them to put their tuk-tuks. Down the side streets are what are not very discreet “gentleman’s clubs” and I am putting that very nicely. They are brothels – without hesitation. 6 girls sitting outside underneath a sign announcing “massage, nightclub, lounge”, doing each others hair, glued to their smartphones, dressed ready to woo the next lonely visitor who has come to the country for an easy cure to their sadness. Add to this sideshow, streets of garbage, expats who arrived 20-yrs ago and never left after years of cheap booze and hallucinogenics, and poverty which may exist in Vietnam but is not remotely as evident and open. I watched older foreign men walking with girls who looked 16 – whose lives were plagued the moment they were born to a country that had been stripped of its humanity. The whole scene made me very very sad. I could only try to put together the pieces of video and images I had seen of a Phnom Penh in the 60’s – vibrant and full of promise.
A visit to S21 or Toul Sleng Prison, the infamous school that the Khmer Rouge turned into a torture prison for its own “traitors” within the Khmer Rouge, was a reminder of the truly inhuman, vile and vicious ideologies that makes present Cambodia a country struggling to recuperate and repair the injustices of its history.
Phnom Penh was not all doom, gloom and tragedy. In fact, we were able to track down the ex-pat neighbourhood of the city and some of the newer revived areas that have tried to preserve the vestiges of an older colonial French culture. For dinner we found Malis, a swanky Cambodian restaurant that has been bringing back old lost recipes in a modern setting and presentation. Can’t say I wasn’t impressed by the picture of Gordon Ramsay on the wall with his arm around the chef and owner. The food wasn’t remarkable, it was pricey – by Vietnamese standards – (as much of Cambodia was) and the service left a lot to be desired. I still really enjoyed the experience of a refined dinner… no mini plastic chairs in sight. We later tracked down (after roaming up and down dark sketchy streets), Chez Rina, an intimate wine bar with outstanding cocktails. I could have been in New York if it wasn’t for the tuk-tuk driver outside waiting in anticipation for our departure. The piece de resistance for me was our last dinner at Deco, a bistro in the expat neighbourhood where I indulged in BBQ ribs drowning in sauce, crispy thick-cut fried and coleslaw…and a sublime glass of red wine. The benefit of a city with such a significant expat community is that the luxuries of international cuisine are prolific.
From Phnom Penh we moved on to Kep, a seaside town on the southern coast just 20km from the border with Vietnam. My hope in choosing Kep as our second destination, was that we would get the best of both worlds: a beach vacation along with some culture and adventure. The other idyllic beach areas in Cambodia were tempting but significantly more expensive and seemed to be booked up, which marred the picture I had painted of an isolated, paradise beach vacation. So we settled on Kep, not realizing of course, that on weekends – and this lunar new year weekend in particular, Kep becomes the ultimate destination for every Cambodian family. Only a 3-hr drive from Phnom Penh, it seemed as if everyone had left the city to come to Kep. The long stretch of beachside boardwalk was overwhelmed with people picnicking, grilling, lounging on hammocks and leaving their garbage literally everywhere. Actually, it became clear very quickly that they were actually sleeping on the boardwalk. Every few meters or so was divided off as a rental space – a sort of outdoor hotel it appeared.
Thankfully, our hotel, the Spring Valley Resort, run by a savvy local who brought in a semi-retired New York designer to help him run it (as well as bring in a high-end rum collection which James truly enjoyed), was away from the hub.
Our 3 nights in Kep were filled with outings to the crab market which included, yes, crab – as well as squid in pepper sauce – a local specialty and meals at our resort – expertly conceived events which included street food night and the next evening, an all-you-can-eat seafood BBQ– where squid, crab, shrimp and oysters just kept appearing at our table.
I would mention that Cambodian cuisine is not particularly mind-blowing. It is mostly a blend of a select few Thai and Vietnamese dishes with a few twists. There were dishes unique to Cambodian regions before the Khmer Rouge had annihilated not just the Cambodian people but anything revolving aorund its culture and heritage. It is only in recent years that these recipes are being un-earthed as is the depth of atrocity inflicted by Polpot and the Khmer Rouge.
And I digress. Back to Kep where admittedly, I was disappointed by the lack of serene beach. Even the day-trip getaway to Rabbit Island I had hoped for seemed impossible given the throngs of people ferrying back and forth. Thankfully, James is the ultimate glass half-full traveler and always manages to pull me out of my half-empty mentality. Day one we popped into a crab market stall for massages only to be ushered up to a second floor for a serene couples massage overlooking the sea.
The next day we found The Sailing Club – the restaurant of a high-end resort on the fringes of Kep where we revelled in a lunch of chilled rose, crab cakes, and seafood spaghetti. We reserved loungers the next evening for bruschetta and a stunning sunset. A last evening in Cambodia before returning to Vietnam for the second leg of our adventures…
It’s official. My 4-month stay in Vietnam has been extended for another 3 months. Yeah I know – Pho Mo Months just sounded better. I had considered staying 4 months originally but I wanted to avoid the deadly heat of the rainy season and get home in time for summer!
Sorry to my friends and family anxiously awaiting my return on Saturday. You’ll just have to hold out until June 29th when my new contract ends.
I applied for this position last October on a whim. My job search wasn’t improving and the air was stagnant. But if you had told me on that fateful day that I would end up spending not just 4, but 7 months in Vietnam as a marketing consultant, I would have choked on my spaghetti. So it goes without saying that this has been a pleasant surprise. And as an aside, this is the 3rd phase of Uniterra and plenty of new postings have been announced on their website – for those of you aching for adventure, this is great way to go.They are volunteer positions with monthly stipends. Mandates are anywhere from 3 months to 2 years and are in Vietnam, Malawi, Nepal, Senegal, Peru, Guatemala, Mali and Ghana.
So why am I staying in Vietnam?
Between multiple holidays, a trip up north for workshops and some scheduling issues, I just feel that there is so much more work to do. I have spent the last few months piecing together the challenges of the college, I have worked with each faculty and their continuing education centers on SWOT analyses (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats), given two workshops, had a million meetings, worked on a couple videos and I have finally, in what was supposed to be my last week here, come up with a recruitment strategy and new marketing tools.
Now it’s implementation time. One of the biggest challenges faced by volunteers like myself is the sustainability of our work. I have looked at numerous presentations and documents left by previous volunteers but few of them left the schools with concrete steps they could take to enable change. The staff at these schools are unfathomably underpaid and overworked. Many are expected to hold down multiple jobs, come into school evenings and weekends for meetings, or do jobs that they aren’t really being paid to do. As a result of a hierarchical (and dare I say communist) system, most do not have a voice. So it comes as no surprise that when left with 25-page documents of suggestions on how to improve their college, very little is actually implemented…not for lack of wanting but because of a struggling under-funded infrastructure. I feel very strongly about making things happen even if it means holding some hands at the beginning until they can accomplish things on their own. I think that getting a few projects off the ground will really show them how much new marketing tools and strategies can change the perception of their college and the relationships they build with their community.
So what’s in store for me the next few months?
- Major changes to their website. Making a new one is out of the question within the time of my mandate but there is definitely room for improvement.
- Implementing email marketing on Mailchimp for them to develop stronger relationships with prospective students, partners and alumni.
- Helping them to plan for the design of a school brochure.
- Helping them create posters for recruitment purposes.
- Training them on Facebook best practices and getting their page moving.
- Designing a process to gather leads
- Providing a recruitment process with new tactics to reach out to students
- Working with the continuing education centers to develop their own marketing materials
This is just with my school. In a couple weeks I am off to Hanoi again for a week to work more closely with a school I had presented to originally, as well as give another social networking presentation to partners in the north of Vietnam. I will also probably be going to do some training on branding and web best practices to a tourism school in Saigon. And in early June I will be going to Kien Giang Community College in the Mekong Delta where I will be working with them on their website and recruitment marketing.
Aside from work, I simply have not had enough of this incredible country. I will unlikely be doing much more traveling within the country given my busy schedule but there may be a trip to Malaysia squeezed in there somewhere. There’s still more food to try, more morning swims in the sea, luscious smooth velvety coffees to be had, working on my volleyball serve, enjoying the freedom of my motorbike, more sandwiches and soups for breakfast, improving my increasingly comprehensible Vietnamese and some cooking to learn.
Oh and I would like to thank my incredibly talented neighbour and fellow (former) volunteer, Mariette Bayton, for all of these stunning photographs. She left this morning to return home to Vancouver and will be missed!
Hẹn gặp lại! (see you soon!)
At the end of January, we were invited to meet up in Hanoi at the WUSC head offices for the annual review workshop where volunteers and their partner organizations all come for a meeting to look back on the year, as well as accomplishments over the past 5 years of the project.
1)Being with my mom in Asia!
Leading up to my mom’s visit in December, I kept anticipating how she would react to the somewhat chaotic, developing-world nature of Vietnam. I knew there would be hilarity and I figured she would probably be a bit shocked by the astounding differences from the west. You’d have to ask her yourself, but I think she adapted extremely well and quickly. Granted, she’s traveled a ton and as she pointed out before coming, she was in China and Thailand 30 years ago…
After our extra-terrestrial new years in Phan Thiet, we took a car to Dalat, a city 4-5 hrs north-west of here. Our car ride was epic. Read More
So I’ve divided this post into two parts simply because things have been so crazy that a month has gone by without a word from me! SORRY! My days have been filled with meetings, workshops, putting together presentations, helping with translations and a plethora of other stuff. My evenings have been filled with 1-holiday stuff 2-My mom’s visit and 3-countless (obscenely cheap) meals out with friends. I simply didn’t want to bombard you with so much – as a web consultant I am well aware that we are generally limited in our abilities to read long texts online so, despite my verbosity, I am always trying to keep things to their most basic, yet still entertaining. So here we go…
Finally, life has settled down. At least as settled as I think it will ever be here. I have moved out of the hotel and into the “guest house” on the college campus. I loosely call it a guest house because it is far from a house and although yes, I am a guest, I am living on top of the offices and under student dormitories. I will spare you pictures of my accommodations for the simple fact that they are completely underwhelming. Don’t get me wrong – I am very grateful that they are housing me at absolutely no cost and so I overlook the slightly leaky sink, the piping in the kitchen that emits strong odours of, well, bathrooms above me, the TV that has all of the Vietnamese channels and the only fuzzy ones are the English ones because the cable provider keeps changing, the blackouts twice a day and the motorbike parking directly below us. But you won’t hear me complaining. I made a vow to myself to stay positive no matter what – to eliminate all expectations and let things slide. I laugh and accept it for its uniqueness. I am not apathetic either, I ask repeatedly for what I need until either it gets done or I face the reality that it never will. Such is the nature of a country with a 2-hour lunch.
So what is my job like you must be wondering…
Yup. You heard me. It’s Ms Harlie to you…that is, if you’re Vietnamese and working at Binh Thuan Community College in Phan Thiet, which is where you’ll find me these days. I’ll skip the intros, but feel free to read about how I ended up in Vietnam for these next four months.
It has now been one very overwhelmingly crazy week in Vietnam. As of yesterday I was finally completely cured of my jet-lag and severe headaches as a result to the 35 degrees and humidity I have found myself in. That being said, I now have the energy to tell you a bit about the first days of my journey. I know, I can be long-winded, so I’ll try to keep it to the essentials. Read More