Johannesburg, South Africa – While the trips and the cultural experiences were all great, my roommates and I still found many opportunities to get out of the house and experience Hanoi in our little way. Between the restaurants, bars, markets, and other similar venues and events, we had plenty of potions to choose from and plenty of shenanigans to get into.
Singapore – When you live like a local, work with locals, and hang out with locals you can expect to have what I like to call “cultural experiences”. The people of Vietnam were so warm and open – always smiling and laughing and willing to help – that you couldn’t help but be pulled into the country’s and the culture’s embrace. Vietnam will always hold a special place in my heart, not because of the trips I took or the volunteer work I did, but because of the people I met and the cultural experiences and exchanges I had with them. I may not have seen much of Vietnam besides Hanoi, but I wouldn’t trade my time there for anything in the world.
Hanoi, Vietnam – Football is the world’s game, but that doesn’t mean it’s my game or my country’s game. Like many American kids I grew up playing baseball and watching American football and basketball, which means my natural instinct is to catch and throw a ball, not kick it. So, you can imagine my trepidation as I stood on a football field after entering the game as a sub on defense. My roommate and I had been invited to play by our office, and when they said it was just a friendly game I figured it would be fun to try my hand, er foot, at the game and see what made it so popular.
Hanoi, Vietnam – I arrived in Hanoi along with ten other volunteers from all walks of life and corners of the globe. To paraphrase a famous Latin saying: We came together, We saw together, We conquered together. As with most things in life, everything started at home. Possessing the same mindset helped us all get along, but not having TV, internet or other distractions the first couple days forced us to interact and get to know each other. Throw in the other four volunteers who were already here, and we had a very close knit group that only enhanced everyone’s experience in Vietnam. Not everything was perfect, or went according to plan, but we still had a ton of fun.
Hanoi, Vietnam – As much as I love Hanoi, sometimes I just need to get out of the city and away from the noise and congestion. The nice thing about living with 13 other people is that getting away doesn’t have to mean going it alone. So, on two separate weekends a group of us headed out of Hanoi on a day trip to the Perfume Pagoda and a weekend trip to Ha Long Bay. Both were excellent trips and nice escapes, but they were made better by the fact that you could share the experience with new found friends.
5:00 AM Wake up to rooster crowing
5:01 AM Roll over and try to fall back asleep
6:40 AM Alarm goes off, hit snooze button
6:45 AM Alarm goes off, hit snooze button
6:50 AM Get out of bed and take ice cold shower (helps with trying to cope with the sweating caused by excessive heat and humidity)
Hanoi, Vietnam – Within about 5 minutes of stepping outside the airport in Hanoi, I realized I was in a place much different than anywhere I had ever been before. There were no signs in English, or any other languages besides Vietnamese. There were no other languages spoken except Vietnamese. Although not as bad as China, the smell of smog and pollution instantly assaulted my nostrils and lungs. There was absolutely no escaping the fact that, for better or for worse, I was in Vietnam.
Hanoi, Vietnam – In 1975 the ruthless communist dictator Pol Pot came to power in Cambodia, ushering in the reign of the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot’s vision was one of an agrarian society founded on equality and self sufficiency. To achieve his goal, Pol Pot exiled everyone from the cities, closed the country’s borders with land mines, disbanded modern institutions associated with education, medicine, free trade, and the media, and forced all people in Cambodia to move to collective farms (ie. work camps) throughout the Cambodian countryside. The mass migration from the cities tore families apart and forced people to leave all of their belongings behind, while the loss of all social institutions completely halted the Cambodian economy and led to great sickness and starvation.
Hanoi, Vietnam – Voluntourism. The word and the concept – to volunteer while on holiday abroad – has the world of travel abuzz and the world of non profits seething. Open any Lonely Planet travel guide, and you’ll probably come across at least a small section on how to volunteer while vacationing to gain a more “real” experience with the country’s culture and people. Go on a travel forum discussing voluntourism and you would think the world is coming to an end because some kid on his or her gap year wants to travel and volunteer. Considering I’ll be voluntouristing (not sure if that’s word, but I’m running with it) in Vietnam, I thought I would share my thoughts, viewpoint, and expectations on the eve of my start date and see how they change by the end of my time here.
How does one pack for a five month trip, especially when traveling abroad? It’s a question I’ve been hearing quite often lately, and my answer is quite simple: keep everything to a minimum (insert laugh track here). To help reduce the load I can do laundry along the way, go to the store for unexpected needs, and ship things home if my bags start to get a little on the heavy side. However, I’ll still need to be prepared to deal with weather (it will be the rainy season in Southeast Asia), a range of temperatures (summer in Southeast Asia to winter in South Africa), mild maladies and injuries (colds, traveler’s diarrhea, sprained ankles, etc.), and differing airline luggage requirements.