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Pressed:  Eighteen Hours by Chris Crawford

23 May

Source: Eighteen Hours by Chris Crawford

A lot of things can change in eighteen hours. I discovered this recently. It started by boarding a Boeing Dreamliner. Shelley, myself and about three hundred other people, partook in a flight from Vancouver, Canada to Inchon, Korea.

The flight was great and the food amazing.  We flew along the Pacific Rim of Fire heading north along the Alaskan Pan Handle. After an eleven hour flight of volcanoes, and an open ocean, we were greeted by Mount Fuji on the other side of the Pacific.

Upon arriving in Korea, we disembarked the plane and I stepped onto terra firma  for the first time in eleven hours. It dawned on me that I was now standing in the Far East. On first inspection, every thing seemed the same as Vancouver; however, I seemed to be one of the taller people in the crowd, but otherwise, there was no real difference. After a two hour layover, it was back on an air plane again and heading for Hanoi, Vietnam.

Once on the plane, things were noticeably different. Korean Airlines is the way to fly in Asia. Before the usual  safety announcements, all of the attendants who were dressed impeccably, lined up in front of three hundred passengers and bowed in a show of respect. Five hours later, we landed in the capital of Vietnam, Hanoi.

The airport is the showcase of Vietnam. Everyone working at the airport was sharply dressed. All customs people were members of The Peoples Republic of Vietnam and were in military uniform. We had just arrived into a communist country. Shelley, having travelled to so many countries and having a passport with stamps all over it, always gets the second look. After a stern look from the person at the counter, the visa was stamped with a loud thump and we were free to explore Vietnam.

Once we made it through the customs, we were met by the hotel driver and walked out to the car. We were transported to the Old Quarter in Hanoi and the driver held up the traffic so we could make it across the road without being run over. This was our first taste of south-east Asian traffic. Even though it was eleven pm, the hotel manager Max and his assistant greeted us at the door with a large smile and a hot cup of ginger tea.

Eighteen hours of travel had taken us around the world.  It had landed us into an ancient culture and a city of 7.7 million people to explore. It would prove to be a trip of a lifetime. In two weeks, we saw people like us with all the same dreams and realities living day to day and working hard to provide for their families. We enjoyed seeing people sitting on little benches on the street sharing a meal or drink with friends talking on the street corner and sharing a laugh.

The continent, culture, language, religions, and customs were all different, but everywhere I have travelled the people are the same. The more that I travel, the more that I am starting to think on a global scale.  We are all on this planet and we are all the same.  If some being stumbled upon our planet and took a look at us on a global scale, they wouldn’t notice any of the differences that cause conflict amongst the different groups of people. To them we would just be of one origin. It’s a place called Earth.


Pressed:  Good Morning Vietnam

23 May

Taking the Plunge:  What a wonderful world we have discovered nestled in by the South China Sea. Vietnam always captured my attention as fellow travellers assured me that it was the country to see filled with kind people, good food, cheap accommodations and a beautiful countryside. After considering options as a couple to get off of the North American grid, we started exploring volunteering and work options on a site called HelpX. Chris had learned that some people he had met at a hostle in Vancouver had travelled the world while working for free food and accommodations doing odd jobs in various organizations, and private enterprises. We took a look at SE Asia, and there were many places in Vietnam that jumped out.

We started doing the math. To live in Canada means to stay locked into a financial grid where we work hard to pay a lot to keep inside a lifestyle box. It is a nice box, but it is a box never-the-less. We work from morning to night to sustain a way of living. How much time have I spent working for, minding the paperwork of, and tending to the management of my home inside a culture where everyone is doing the same thing? At the end of the day, the savings are nominal, and unless I am frugal and vigilent with my finances, money just gets used up. It disappears. Therefore, we felt that if we could live leanly working for an organization that supports our room, board, Internet connections and cultural interactions, we would be able to manage. We could pick up extra work, and possibly save money in the end if we were motivated.  As well, we did other math.  As a couple, at most, while working we spend three hours a day together.  By working together abroad, we have far more time together.  This means that in one year, we can potentially increase our time together to be equivalent to three or four years of time of the average working couple.

After meeting with some people who have worked in some English as Second Language (ESL) learning centres in Vietnam, we realize that our English skills are pretty marketable. As well, a couple of these people have made it a lucrative experience. One fellow told us that he would never go back to England. “What would be the point,” he told us. He felt that he was making more in Vietnam for half of the stress. As well, an older fellow who had come from what he called the “US rat race”, explained that he would never go back either. It was just too nice to live in such a pleasant culture with fewer “issues and pressures”.

Learning About Vietnam: Now visiting Vietnam, we can see the richness of the culture, and the very real opportunities that abound in a culture where this country that has really only been free of war since 1995. Vietnam wants to network and connect with other countries. The hotel manager in Hanoi talked about knowing that he is about 20 years behind where other countries are in terms of the hospitality industry. He wanted to hear our suggestions about how his hotel could improve. He knew that we had travelled in other countries, and as a result, might be able to give him insight into what foreigners wanted when coming to visit Vietnam. We were complimentary of the hotel that afforded us everything we needed, and gently reminded him that people from all over the world all have different expectations. Unfortunately, in my travels, I have learned that unless people are already happy, no one can ever truly assist in making them happy. They are quick to find fault, and make things difficult for hotel owners hosting them, especially in some undeveloped countries. (I notice some trends in the foreign travellers who seem to be the most disgruntled–but I won’t generalize at the risk or sounding judgmental.  This discontentment by my estimation is the following formula: “high expectations”=unhappiness).

What we are enjoying about Vietnam is only a small commentary on the North which is the focus of our visit so far.  Today we head further South to Hoi An, and I am certain that we will have many more experiences to write about.  Hanoi and Hai Phong have much to offer people who are interested in getting off the beaten track into the noisy cacophony of the scooter culture. The tastes of the real Vietnamese food are both exciting and disconcerting to a more conservative taste pallet such as my own. The food is as diverse as the families running each restaurant, whether in a little space with real tables, or on the street on tiny plastic chairs. I find the people to be both innocent and filled with raw enthusiasm for anything such as cherry blossoms shipped in from the country to experiencing music and technology; and as well, shrewd as they are able to find ways to rip off the unsuspecting tourist. Here are some interesting things that we are enjoying about our visit to Vietnam:

– People are very friendly, but English is not the universal language that we expect it to be here. We had to really try to speak Vietnamese and our language translation book came in handy many times. Google translate was a real God-send. It allowed me to communicate more complex information without as much difficulty.

-There are literally millions of scooters. What was once a bicycle culture, has quickly become a motorized scooter population. We had difficulty crossing the roads. Scooters were never following any traffic laws, and were often turning corners, going in the opposite directions, driving on sidewalks and generally freaking me out.

-People eat dog here. Need I say more. This was pretty hard to get used to right out of the gate. I have been pretty careful to avoid anything that looks like “thit” on the menu. Other crazy foods such as frogs, eel, tongue, pork feet, and creatures that I have never really associated with a digestable food, keep paying close to the menu. I am getting braver every time I order something, but I draw the line at eating dog.  My favourite meal was the hot beef noodle soup.  (People with peanut allergies should beward here).

-People rise early here with their desire to be fit through aerobics on the main streets, and Tai Chi in the parks and court yards. Exercise here means loud music. There is never a quiet exercise routine by our observation.

-People like to say that it is a foggy environment, but the polution is pretty intense. Some of the people who we met along the way seem genuinely concerned about it and are hoping that the government will set up some policies to start helping with the problem.  Being a country of almost a hundred million, and being South of China, smog is a fixed part of the scenary. It was disappointing to see Halong Bay through a haze of pollution, but we still appreciate the amazing beauty of the countriside.

-There is noise everywhere. Traffic, construction, music, animals, alarms, talking, singing, whistling, and animals, are all the regular sounds in a normal day in the lives of the urban Vietnamese. It takes some getting used to this type of constant sound stimulation–noise. I found that Ihad to manage it by bowing out into a temple for respite, or taking some time in my hotel or hostel bedroom to re-group. This noise must take a toll on people’s hearing, but everyone seems immune to the volume of sound that I find new to me.

-People stop working at certain times of the day, and on certain times of the week. Not everything is open all of the time. Not everyone is available all of the time. Lunch hours mean that doors close for approximately an hour and a half. Sundays are quieter as shops and businesses are often closed. Mondays are sometimes closed as well. Signs appear in windows, and, guess what?  No one seems to care.  And, guess what?  We were okay with it too.

-Things are cheap in some places, but not in all places. You have to do a bit of looking, but there are deals to be had. However, some shop owners are catching on to the value of a dollar or Euro and charging people accordingly.

-The men congregate, drink beer, play games in local bars, and once again, I am sometimes left wondering where the women are hiding. I am finding this to be a common trend across all of the countries that I visit … and live in. Men rest and take time outs together, and women seem to be…somewhere else.

-The greenery is lush here in Vietnam, especially in the countryside outside of the cities which include:  tropical trees (bamboo, banana, mangrove, palm); different types of cacti; and other tropical growth. I have a lot to learn about the different varieties of trees and flowers, but we are learning that the 100% humidity in the air, makes everything grow like crazy, and prevents my hair from drying and doing anything even remotely manageable.

-The signture feature in many photos of the country side are the limestone karsts that jut out of the land and sea.  Inside of many of them are massive caves that are drawing visitors from all over the world.  What the Vietnamese have explained to us is that they are upset that foreigners who have the money to visit them are experiencing this incredible opportunity to see the wonders under the earth; whereas, the Vietnamese who are less able to afford it, cannot.

-Chris notices that the matters of health and safety (as this is his work background) are left pretty much to chance. Seeing people up on ladders without safety measures, or working without what we consider due diligence to standards that keep people from dying is not as common as in Canada where we are likely hyper-vigilent about these kinds of things. People just work hard here in Vietnam and get the job done–no matter what, even if it means short cuts that might be dangerous, but are obviously more affordable.

-Historically, this is a culture that has been through many wars.  We were impressed by how many countries have tried to conquer, invade or destroy Vietnam, and yet, these people successfully defended and kept their country to the Vietnamese.  These are strong, resilient people.

Connecting with Educators: I have enjoyed travelling with Chris on this exciting holiday. It has really been a cultural experience as I find ways to learn more about the education and culture by visiting some of the schools and universities. I am learning that everyone here is interested in the same types of things when it comes to teaching and learning: “How can we make it interesting and engaging for the students?” This is the common topic. I think the key is to keep everyone applying their learning to the real world.  As well, educators seem interested in building new curriculum (locally developed courses) and teaching students new information.  Communist philsophy is a big part of the school programming in Vietnam.

One of the most exciting times was visiting one of the ESL centres, and going with the adult students to the museum. Through the field trip, the conversational English opportunities in the museum provided multiple opportunities for the students to ask and answer questions in English where textbooks could not provide the same connection points. We enjoyed the whole experience from riding on the scooters to eating some wonderful food with the students and staff, very much. Overall, we are finding that by visiting Vietnam as explorers and researchers, we are thinking of the opportunity to travel (not tour) as something that is more manageable than we initially expected. Where there is a desire to really connect with another country, and to do so affordably, there lies the opportunity to stay longer, dig more deeply, and really find meaning in the experience.

Will we come back to Vietnam to do some work within it?  I think it is much more possible now that we have dived into the deep, and came up swimming. It is a beautiful place to visit, and quite possibly a place to live for awhile.  Time will tell.

Source: Good Morning Vietnam