Yet again I am given more from a country than what I came to give as part of the RAKlife adventure. This time it was in Vietnam, specifically North Vietnam – a place where the generation of my parents lost so many people. The Vietnam War (to us Americans) is long past and Vietnam, like Myanmar, ranks as one of the friendliest areas I have visited to date. Partnering with Jim Kennedy Photographers out of Orange County, California, the RAKlife team went 7 strong into rural North Vietnam to change the life of a deserving family and their little village.
Three of us got to Vietnam a couple days before the others and took the opportunity to explore the northern capital of Hanoi. The highlight of these two days was getting RAK’d by a couple young girls, Pie and Thuy, who took their Sunday to show us around the city. Out of the goodness of their hearts, they take tourists around Hanoi on weekends. Like most Vietnamese, they cannot afford to really travel outside of Vietnam. So they give these tours for free in order to meet people from all around the world and “experience” other cultures by meeting foreigners.
They were taken aback when we mentioned we wanted to see Hanoi like a local – saying tourists typically only want normal sightseeing. Off we went to explore, coming across Hanoi’s infamous temple of learning during school picture day. Great to see the smiling faces and joy of graduates just the same as we see in America. They took us to a local coffee shop that I think no foreigner would ever find – we went in an unmarked door, up 3 flights of stairs through homes, and into a place overlooking the busiest intersection in Hanoi (see picture for the absolute craziness!). Everyone in the city sits on little kid plastic chairs and naturally the group thought it was quite hilarious when mine cracked and I fell in the middle of conversation – not easy being a big guy!
Once we picked up the others on Monday, the real RAKlife journey began. Mai Chau is a poorer farming region located in the mountains about 4 hours west of Hanoi. One of the most beautiful areas of the world I have ever seen with everywhere looking like Eden- the most beautiful green. Staying in a homestay all in one room, we rented motorcycles and traveled an hour everyday to construct the restroom/shower/clean water facility for the family we came to help.
On Tuesday we finally met the family who we’d been planning this RAK for. I cannot put into words the emotions that went through me when I saw the current situation and sat down to talk with them (through our guide Quy). Making eye contact with Amber, we immediately teared up knowing already how much this facility would change their lives.
The family is one of the poorest in Vietnam. The dad has never had use of his legs, crawling on hands to move around the property. The 85 year old grandmother lives with them, but has minimal mobility and has never been more than 15 minutes outside of the village! The mother is the only one that can work, and must spend most her time providing food for the family – so there is no opportunity for any income outside of the very basic of necessities. Anything more than food is given to them as charity from local villagers. It’s one of the worst situations I have come across in my travels.
Every day, we worked doing various construction activities alongside the locals. Digging deep holes, mixing cement, laying bricks – we did all but the technical tasks left for the locals that were helping oversee our work. For 5 photographers and a management consultant, it was certainly an eye-opening experience to see first hand how much work construction is. I gained a very healthy respect for the industry, especially in countries like Vietnam with no advanced tools to work with.
Houses in this region are built on stilts to protect against flooding and animals; however our family’s was not because there were so poor. Around the entire structure was a large gap between the bottom of the walls and the ground, allowing chickens and other creatures to constantly run into and around the home. With our bathroom project we had extra bricks, so we spent some time closing up the holes along every wall of their house as well. The mother couldn’t keep a smile off her face when she saw what we were doing.
We finished on Saturday, 5 days after beginning the construction. We decided to make this a special day for the entire village who had already all come by at some point during the week to say hi, share laughs and make us feel welcome in their homes. We were able to bring 3 duffle bags full of donated children’s clothes from the States. The village children numbered around 25 and it was a thing of beauty to see the children “shopping” for the first time in their lives as we allowed them to pick and choose items from the piles we layed out. In addition, Megan, Cheryl and Jim had brought a bag of toys and goodies including a football that we handed out – one child threw a pretty good spiral every time!
But the real highlight of Saturday was the dedication of the finished facility to the family. No words will ever do justice what we all felt and the atmosphere in the room as we thanked them for the opportunity to serve them. They each told us in tears how much this will improve their lives and what it meant to have a facility that most of the world takes for granted. To top off the dedication, we gave a new bike to the daughter – her first ever. She was shocked and could not believe that she could have something that every other child had already. I truly hope that everybody reading this can join RAKlife and experience the happiness of giving a new life to people with so little.
Trip Highlights and Adventures
The construction RAK we performed was by far the highlight of this trip, but what made it one of the best weeks of my life was all the memories in between that happened while we were not on site…
Adventures to falls and cave – one thing you will never see in America is a family allowing a group of adult strangers to take a child to explore. But the trust and honesty is so great in Vietnam that a mother let her 10 year old daughter lead us on a 45 minute motorcycle and hike through the forest to a local waterfall. It was gorgeous and a place that only a handful of foreigners have ever step foot. It’s the off the beaten path adventures like this that make us really appreciate the beauty of another country. And later that week we climbed over 1200 stairs to a hallowed cave – it was huge and incredible. In fact, during the French war in the early 20th century, the entire valley population hid in it to escape the French soldiers!
Motorcycling near misses, and one crash - I’ve never been on, let alone drove a motorcycle before.. But that’s the only mode of transportation around so I had to learn VERY quickly. Not all went perfectly though… on one day Amber and I crashed into a ditch while making a U-turn. We were pinned right between a fence and the bike and are very lucky to have come away with only minor scrapes. Even MORE lucky was one day when we had the irrational idea to take the bikes across a very old wooden bridge. After the entire group but 2 made it across safely, Cheryl and Megan were the last ones left. It was Megan’s first time driving and with Cheryl on the back she sped across the bridge while swerving and accidentally speeding up. I can honestly say I’ve never seen somebody so close to death as I witnessed that day– we quit the bridge stunts after that!
Meeting the locals – Everywhere you go, you hear “xin chao” (hello) and people waving. The Vietnamese love to welcome strangers into their lives and homes. Tea as well as rice wine, the Vietnamese form of moonshine, is in every home you visit. We must have sat in over a dozen homes taking rice wine shots with people we stopped to say hi to along our daily journey and listened to their stories and answered questions. One day the mayor of the local village even came to our lunch break and sat with us taking numerous shots while doing the local cheers.
Local customs – If there’s anything I could recommend to all of you, it’s to immerse yourself in local culture when you travel. The more I explore the world, the more my barriers break down and I open myself up to the customs and joy of the differences that make each culture unique. A couple years ago, I would have NEVER put an insect in my mouth, but the local villagers in Vietnam convinced me to munch on a beetle! It tasted like popcorn! We stayed at a local homestay while in the village – everybody sleeping on floor mats in one room. Homemade local cuisine every night and even traditional dancers coming to visit us the last night there. The highlight being us involved in the last dance!
Until next time…
It’s impossible to both describe in one blog the numerous experiences we had as well as articulate the emotions we all felt as we helped some of the poorest peoples in the world. I hope I did a little justice and more than anything hope that through these words, every reader is inspired to join RAKlife at some point over the next year during our travels. Experiencing first hand the impact that a simple random act of kindness can have on someone who has almost nothing will change your life forever.