Tell the Fat Lady She’ll On in Five…

March 31, 2013

It’s late Sunday afternoon, and I’m sitting on a hanging seat with the sun beating down. Today is an exceptionally hot day, draining my energy so I’m sitting her, rocking back and forth thinking about the week I’ve had.

Not wanting to sound like a broken record, but I’ll repeat myself on more time. The primary objective for this trip was to lay down some ground work for Reaching Out; for the projects we may be supporting over the next twelve months as well as identify any volunteer opportunities for our mission next year. It is my intention to lead another group of volunteers back to Vietnam to help those less fortunate than ourselves and hope to make a difference in their lives.

Throughout this week I have visited a number of projects all of which seem very worthy causes. I also go the opportunity to reunite with he children of Go Vap (who we met during our Vietnam 2011 mission).

Words can’t really describe some of the things that I’ve seen, and I’ve also made a promise not to disclose too much information about the work that goes here which if course I will honour. However, I must say this, my hosts have been extremely accommodating and taken amazing care of me and my family. Despite my jest about their compulsion to feed me with the most tantalising flavours Vietnam has to offer. Most people would think my hosts have gone to extraordinary lengths in their hospitality, though I dare say this his part of their nature and no deed is too big for them. Having driven us over 400 kilometres across Vietnam, not only have we had to chance to see first hand the good work my hosts do on a daily basis, but gave us the chance to get to know each other a little too.

I wish I could publicly thank my hosts and allow others to share the recognition they deserve, but I know they are far too modest. Suffice to say, I will do what I can to raise awareness about the work being done when I return and I hope someday soon I can return and offer help of my own.

We have a few more days left in Vietnam before we return to the UK. As ever, I feel it’s far too short a visit and not ready to return to the cold northern hemisphere.



Last Leg

March 31, 2013

Our last few days will serve as a short family trip, to allow us to unwind and relax before we rejoin the rat-race. We have chosen to spend that time on the beautiful island of Phu Quoc.

We arrived very early this morning having caught the06:35 flight from Ho Chi Minh City (You see I can write a blog without mentioning the name Saigon). Again, there was little sleep to be had. We arrived at the great capital in the early evening of Saturday and got an airport taxi to our hotel (which I had purposely booked as it was a stone’s throw away). Our taxi driver was not a happy man; even less so when he saw me – I’m not sure why I have this affect on people.

As we made our way to the hotel, we thought we saw a sign for our hotel, so in my typical knee-jerk fashion I asked the driver to stop, as I suspected he was trying to go around the block a few times; this isn’t uncommon in Vietnam. Last time we were in Vietnam we actually tracked the Taxi’s route with a sat-nav and it clearly showed the driver was taking a much convoluted route.

The driver stopped the car, started shouting something at me in Vietnamese (probably about my mother) then got out of the car. So I joined him, got out of the car and started to walk back towards the sign we’d seen. I was a little embarrassed when I saw it, because the sign clearly had our hotel’s name on it, but it also had an arrow pointing into the side street which we hadn’t seen.

Is there a dish, Egg Foo Mi? I apologised to the driver, but he didn’t take it. He did however take an extra 15,000 dong which I didn’t contest :s

Our hotel, the Sunflowers Hotel was a pleasant hotel, as with most new hotels, elaborately decorated. It was clean, comfortable and cheap which is all we needed as we were going to be catching an early morning flight the next day – so barely even breaking into our suit cases.

After we settled in, we decided to go for a shirt stroll for find some food. We find a very contemporary establishment with a spacious garden seating area. We thought we’d give it a try. The prices reflected its look, it was Vietnam’s yuppie bar and no Saigon beer to boot. Not only that the menus were in Vietnamese only and the waiting staff just stared blankly at me as I asked if anyone spoke English.

Our next attempt looked a little more promising, but looks can be deceiving and this was no exception. A non-English trend was starting to form in my head. Perhaps we were just a step too far from the tourist hotspot even for me. We take a stab in the dark on the menu. As it turns out, it wasn’t typo bad and certainly nothing to write home about.

We eat up and head back to the hotel, it’s an early night for us as we have an early flight ( have I mentioned that already?). Except I can’t quit switch myself off again. Everyone is asleep and the hours slowly pass by as I lie awake in the dark trying not to wake anyone. Eventually the alarm goes off at 4am I’ve not really slept, but I still feel refreshed.

Ho Chi Minh City Domestic Airport is a hive of activity at five in the morning, I can say I’ve seen an airport that is so busy and crowded at that time in the morning. I’ve had my fair share of early morning flights, having had to commute between Cardiff to Glasgow on a weekly basis for extended periods of time earlier on in my career. I remember Cardiff International Airport being reasonably vacant for the mot part, maybe a few dozen sleepy passengers trundling along through check-in.

This was a different kettle of fish; so many people impatiently pushing along through the queues, trying desperately to get to the check-in desks before the person in front. If I’ve not said this before, I’ll say it now… The Vietnamese have little or no patience; neither do they have any sense of orderly queues (Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum notwithstanding). The queue can easily be ten deep, and a little boisterous Vietnamese woman will happily push past you as if you were just a goal-post.

The flight to Phu Quoc is short and sweet, just under the forecasted hour and fifteen minutes. The airport we land in is unfamiliar to me. The last time I came here (with Mr Carter) we walked across the Tarmac from the plane to the tin-shack of an airport terminal.

Phu Quoc International Airport is now open boastign a shiny new glossy terminal building atis very modern and fresh. Vietnam moves at such a fast pace; these buildings seem to spring up faster than a flower blossoming in the sun.

The new airport is fed by neatly laid roads that were mere dirt tracks when I was here last. The place is barely recognisable.

As we head out of the terminal, i search earnestly for a Vietnamese driver with a piece of paper with my name on it, as I’ve already arranged a transfer pickup with the hotel. The confirmation email arrived only a few days previous, s it should be all good. It’s not. 😦 As each of the awaiting drivers start to peel away as they find they respective guests, we’re left standing alone at the terminal doors. All the drivers are gone, and so are the taxis. I’m a bit perplexed. As I reach into my pocket for my phone, a short Vietnamese chap (yes even shorter than I – I’m actually a touch above average height in Vietnam I have you know;)) approaches me and speaks perfect English. He says that he can get me to my hotel. I tell him that I have a pre-arranged transfer, to which he tells me there are no other drivers and he can help. He asks me for the hotels phone number and starts dialling. After a very brief chat on the phone he grabs my bags and tells me to follow him saying that he’s sorted it out with the hotel and he’ll take me there. It’s all happening too fast, and I’m getting a little flummoxed.

Wi little choice, we all bundle into his people carrier as he loads in our luggage. I notice he’s not a licensed taxi, but what am I to do… There are no more taxis left and its 07:15 in the mornings… I decide to go with the flow and see what happens. I’m more than aware that something dubious is happening, but I’m hoping i can still manage the situation. As we reach the airport gates, the security asks the man for the nominal airport taxi tax. The little chap smiles and points at me, casually saying I need to pay them 40,000 dong. No chance! I haven’t given him any money yet, and I’m not about too. I feign ignorance, but he’s no fool either (that’s a little too obvious at this point). And presses for the money. I flatly refuse and tell him to take us back to the terminal.

The next thing I know, he puts his right foot firmly to the floor with his accelerator pedal firmly gripped in between and his van speeds off through the gate. Somewhat startled, I just stare at him, but no sooner are we out of the gates, he slows down and then starts to talk to me casually. E reassures me that everything is on the up and up, and that the hotel will pay him once e explains the situation. I know he can sense that I know his game, but he carries on regardless. As we continue along the road, he pulls out a tourist map and asks if I’d like to stop off at any of he key tourist stops, as he’s more than happy to do so. “Dear God, it’s 7 in the morning is anything really going o be open at this time?” Is my most polite response, “Lets just get to the hotel shall we” I try my best not to sound aggressive or threatening. He smiles back, and says “Yeah sure, no problem”

We arrive at the Resort Hotel, and it’s a mess. There is a lot if building work going on, and the place looks grubby. Just behind reception around the corner from the swimming pool is a cement mixer, on full spin and the labourers next to it feeding it with sand. The day isn’t getting any better.

The receptionist can’t find the booking, until the manager arrives. Eventually the booking is found and an explanation is given for the lack of driver at the airport. They mixed up our reservation with another guest. ‘Le-Thanh’ is such a common name over here, it’s not surprising they mistook me for some six foot German tourist with a shaved head and goatee.

The manager assays that the hotel will pay for the taxi, as it was their mistake. I can stop with the German accent now.

We finally get taken to our room by a very unenthusiastic concierge, who more or less just throws our suitcases in throw the door. I’m sure I’ve seen this sketch on TV, though I’m sure it was funnier than it is now. We’re not happy. We’ve had the worst start to the day imaginable, followed by a second grade Vietnamese knock off of Faulty Towers. I’m half expecting the concierge to tell me his name was Manuel and he’s from ‘Rach Gia and he knows Nothing’ :s

It’s time for a family meeting, an emergency meeting. It’s agreed that this place is awful, and we can’t stay here. Lucky for me I have my laptop and their wi-fi security is appalling. Within minutes I’m connected to the web and searching for some alternative digs. Somewhere further down the road, more expensive but it have far better reviews than this place.

Give credit where credit is due, the Manager was more than helpful when I explained the situation. He even promised to ensure that I to a full refund on my booking (which was fir three night) less the cost if the taxi. I can only take his word on that, but to be fair he sounded very sincere.

I’m now sitting in the sanctuary of a different and very new holiday resort which was nothing more than rumble which I rode over on my moped 15 months ago. This place is amazing, there is something true in the saying, “You get what you pay for…” In more ways that one, I can agree with that.



Thank you for Small Mercies

March 30, 2013


That is our last day in Quy Nhon. It’s been a busy few days as we’ve been visiting a number of centres that are working very hard to help the poor and destitute. Coming from the west, us easy to forget what’s its like to have what you want when you want it.

I haven’t written much about our visits because I’m saving that for the official Reaching Out blog, but today is different. I feel I should at least share a little of my experience.

Today we visited a small village on the outskirts of Quy Nhon. Given the resort nature of the Quy Nhon you can be forgiven of not expecting to see a village as this. I am told that the people who live here are extremely poor, and mostly live from the kindness of others who are generous to give them their time to help and care for them. There is something unusual about this town, something I wasn’t quite prepared for, even though I had been told about the visit.

Today we visited a village that is populated entirely by people who suffer from leprosy. I’m a little embarrassed to say that half of me was a little alarmed t the thought if the visit. I know it’s naive, but still you can’t help having some slight prejudice. I’ve never met anyone who had suffered from this disease, or know much about it. And that’s why I think you harbour this prejudice inside – its more fear from the unknown and unknowing.

We visited a hospice close to the village centre which cared for the elderly. There were probably a good hundred r so people here, mostly in their late fifties or older. All suffering the affects of the disease. It has hard to watch. There was nothing gruesome to see, per se. No severe disfigurements as your imagination would have you believe. The reason it was hard to watch was because of the shear poor conditions these people were living in. Most of the people I saw, elderly men and women, had signs if multiple amputations… The primary areas seems to be the fingers, hands, toes, feet or legs. There were some, who appeared to have lack of facial muscle control which meant that half or all their face sagged and their lower eyelids just hung.

There was a room, which had about a dozen people lying in large beds not too dissimilar to the cots we’d seen at Go Vap only larger. They seemed to be very immobile. I spoke to one lady who had her fingers on both hands as well as her left leg amputated. I was advised that this was their last room; the room where they would spend their inal days.

We entered another room, full of men (most off the wards were segregated for men and women). All of whom appeared to be bedridden. However, there was one chap who seemed in high spirits and very chatty. The room was dark, gloomy and an overpowering smell of stale urine. As I looked around, I cold see that strapped to the sides if several beds was a makeshift catheter using just a plastic tube nod used plastic water bottle.

As depressing as the room was, these people appeared to be in good spirits. Despite the conditions, they had someone who came to visit and care for them on a regular basis.

I have no photos to share, because I felt it in appropriate. Perhaps I should n be describing this so openly, however I think that people should know something about. I need to ne’er stand and learn more about this disease and how it affects the lives of those it touches.

I hope there is a way Reaching Out is able to offer some support, how ever small, to the people who help he’s people.

Please spare a thought…



March 29, 2013

I’ve come to the conclusion that our host is a feeder.

Not that I’m complaining, though I’m going to have to work extra hard when I get back home 😦

The food has been non-stop, not only that, but she doesn’t really take no for an answer. The quality has been amazing too, probably better than most Vietnamese restaurants I’ve been to I the UK. Some of it probablY isn’t for the faint hearted. Personally, whole squid (tentacles and all) is just delicious especially when it’s so fresh. We had more shrimp the size of you palm than you can possibly imagine. I’m told its just so incredibly cheap here, it’s like having a bag of chips (though I dare say a little more healthier).

Today, when we were out visiting a centre we were asked if we liked chicken. Which we said yeah, sure (I mean who doesn’t?). Our host then asked how we liked it, boiled for fried. I was presuming she was asking as a per-cursor to determining the main dish for our next meal. I wasn’t far off the mark, however, I was a little surprised by the small white sack she gave me a about 15 minutes later.

I didn’t think much of the sack, until it started moving. Curiosity took the better of me so I took a quick peak inside the sack… Lowland behold, sat three live chickens staring back at me probably as startled as I was.

It’s a good job she didn’t ask if I liked beef.



The Only Pot Belly in the Village

March 28, 2013

The Vietnamese are very blunt; they tend to just say what they think – there is no malice to it, it’s just plain and simple honesty.

When I went back to Go Vap earlier this week and meet the director again, the first thing she said to me (via translation) was that I had changed shape; “you are narrower than before” she remarked.

I admitted that, yes I had lost a little weight since we last saw each other, taking this as a compliment.

“Why did you that?” She asked. I have to be honest, I was a little dumbstruck (which is very uncommon for me).

Even since my last visit to the country in 2011, I have noticed that there are much more ‘portly’ people in Vietnam. It’s not surprising though, and I guess it’s mostly in the developer cities. But society’s obesity is spreading its way across Vietnam too, it’s inevitable. This country is growing and developing at an alarming rate. Everywhere you looking in the cities you’ll see heavy western influences, there a recognised fast food restaurants everywhere; KFC, Burger King, Pizza Hut etc. Fortunately, I’ve not had the misfortune to see the Golden Arches yet and I hope never to see it in Vietnam.

When I first visited the county in 1996, the main mode of transport throughout Vietnam was by push bike. Good old fashioned steam power ;). My next visit would be almost ten years later and the change (Saigon) was incredible. The city was unrecognisable. Seven years on and the country continues to develop onwards and upwards with relentless determination.

Go to any major city, and you’ll be greeted with an endless sea of mopeds streaming along the roads. Crossing the roads themselves is a challenge.

So when you mix in the change to their diets and lack of exercise (as they’re now all scooting around on mopeds), then it’s not hard to see how these people are physically changing so much.

I have to say, I am a little conscientious of my size. It’s not glandular, I am fat. It’s something I am working, probably not as hard as I should, but then life throws you these curve balls like dumping you in the mid of a country with the most amazing flavours. It’s hard to resist, very hard.

The last few times I’ve come back to Vietnam I have felt even more embarrassed about my portly size. My wife used to jokingly call me her Vietnamese Pot Bellied Pig. The western world can be cruel, but sadly that’s all self inflicted.

It’s not so much the case any more. Nt only have I managed to lighten my load, but the number of pot bellied pigs living in the city has grown considerably. I’m no longer the only Pot Belly in the village…


The Long Road Down

March 28, 2013

In chaos there is structure, a pattern if you will. You just have to look very carefully. At least that is what I believe or have convinced myself.

In all the chaos that adorns the roads in Vietnam, with the vast number of mopeds darting back and forth, in and out of each other I never understand why there aren’t as many accidents as there should be. Riders and drivers see gaps in the traffic that you would not try in your wildest dreams back at home, and yet they seem to breeze through the gaps effortlessly. It’s like they have this on board telepathy. Try it back at home and that’s just going to be a mess.

The constant hoot of the horn is an odd one too. You get so used to the incessant drone when you leave the country you almost miss the sound in the silence. Unlike home, where horns tend to be used for rebuking, they tend to use them to inform or instruct other road users. It’s like a language unto itself. Like dogs barking, fellow riders and drivers will respond according at the sound of the horn, either making way, slowing down or pulling over as required.

We are in a nicely air conditioned Mercedes People Carrier, heading southbound for Quy Nhon. It’s going to be a long journey, and the air conditioning is a very welcomed companion. You have to treat it as such, because any disrespect or abuse is going to end in tears. When you’ve been sitting in an air conditioned space for a while you soon forget how powerful a foe it is,or more to the point how hot and humid it is outside. Open the door or window for the briefest of moments and you soon remember why.

Even though this country is developing rapidly, the infrastructure is still somewhat deprived of the finesse wearer accustomed to in the west.

We are travelling along a road blistered in pot holes, which probably accounts or our cruising speed of 60 miles per hour. The road has a contra flow that has a steady stream of oncoming traffic consisting of thick pockets of mopeds, bicycles and trucks. Lots of trucks. Despite the steady oncoming flow, when the opportunity of a gap appears, the smaller more nimble vehicles pull out to the left and accelerate in unison. It’s like a ballet, abet a little scarier. Sitting in the front seat, I get the white knuckle version.

If the is a motorway from Da Nang to Quy Nhon, we’re not on it. I’m glad too, because the scenery is amounting. In fact I’ve missed a ton of Kodak moments writing this blog.

We’re two and a half hours into our journey when we take our first pitstop at a roadside petrol station. It’s pretty minimalistic, the toilets are around the back. I don’t really need a visit, but I decide to give it a try as we’ve still got a good three more hours on the road.

It’s a grim picture inside. Not the best kept facilities. The kind of place you wipe your feet as to leave to go outside if you get my drift. I’m about to make use of the facilities when this monstrous spider drops from the ceiling onto the wall in front of me. Honestly, the thing is the size of my hand. I hurriedly brush my feet on the floor and make my exit. I can wait until the next stop 😉



March 28, 2013