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Posted by on May 17, 2016 in Life Reimagined, Vietnam | 2 comments

All Good Things Must Come to an End…

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We made it – almost two years to the day since we arrived and we still are enjoying hanging out together.

As we post this blog we are boarding our flight back to the U.S. After two years in this ancient and beautiful country (and at time yes, hot and downright sticky), this segment of our life’s journey has come to a close.

We want to start by reminiscing on the things we will miss the most about this enchanted land.

1. Early morning bike rides with the fragrance of Ban Da Cu (crab noodle soup) wafting thick in the early morning air.
2. The genuine kindness of the people who never cease to surprise us with their smiles and offers of generosity.
3. $10 massages (enough said)
4. Daily farmers markets full of fresh vegetables, fruit and flowers.
5. Sapa (our favorite place in the country)
6. Hoi An (our other favorite city; the amazing cuisine, tailor made clothes, and a great “motor free” walking downtown).
7. Ao Dai outfits, graceful beautiful dresses that women here wear
8. The rich ancient culture and incredible respect for the family and ancestors.
9. Extremely affordable cost of living, seriously dirt cheap!
10. Motor-biking, especially in the countryside
11. Exploring the vast number of beautiful temples and pagoda’s.
12. The use of every vacant piece of property for growing vegetables and flowers.
13. The lack of “road rage’; the patience and understanding people show each other even in high stress situations is inspiring.
14. No guns, no wild west shootings here.
15. And most importantly the very, very good friends we have made. They have made our stay in this foreign land, with an unfamiliar language and ways, so very enjoyable and fun.

Our last few days were full of goodbye’s, some quite tearful. Although excited to get home to our family and friends the time we spent in Vietnam will stay in our hearts for a very long time.

And now – we are ready for our next big adventure, what will it be?

Photo’s from our last few days in Vietnam

Trainer interaction 12-2015

PWA Trainers finishing up with the project

Trainers PWA

John with staff and trainers at goodbye lunch

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Yoga goodbye lunch with friends from the Hai Phong International Women’s Club

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Our last “event” with friends from Hai Phong Cares.

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Saying goodbye to the kids at Hai Phong Orphanage

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Our first friend in Vietnam, it was so hard to say goodbye. I hope her kind heart can find its way to visit us in the USA.

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Our last day in Hai Phong, visiting with friends at an incredible garden restaurant.

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With Phuong (Volunteer Extraordinaire) at the orphanage.

 

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Some of our furniture and my bicycle heading off to their new home.

 

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Posted by on May 2, 2016 in Life Reimagined, Vietnam | 2 comments

Lost in Đồ Sơn

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Every weekend whenever possible we get lost in Hai Phong. We do this by jumping on our bicycles and heading out to new neighborhoods. We have come across incredible old French style catholic churches, historic pagodas, cemeteries that also host vegetable gardens (yes this is true) beautiful old homes and very poor areas. This weekend was extra long as Vietnam is celebrating two national holidays; Reunification Day and May Day. With extra time on our hands and nothing to do we decided to borrow a motorbike and throw our circle a little wider.

Đồ Sơn is a Vietnamese resort community about 30 minutes by motorbike from Hai Phong. This beach community is more attractive to Vietnamese than foreigners and gets pretty crowded on the weekends. It is also home to the annual Buffalo Fighting competition each August. We have driven to Đồ Sơn a couple of times by car. Each trip I have noticed this mysterious pagoda located on top of one of the hills. Our mission on this day was to find the pagoda.

We did no research ahead of time, just got on the motorbike and headed to the beach. It was the perfect day for ride. Not too hot, but sunny. Even with the holiday the traffic wasn’t bad except for the many bikes and buses full of red jersey’s. Not sure but I think that there was a football (soccer) match going on somewhere nearby.

Have you ever tried to get somewhere when you can see where you want to go but you can’t find the way to get there? It should be easy. We could see it off in the distance, on the other side of the rice paddies and past many huge water buffalo, we just couldn’t figure out how to get there.

This video is a little long, but you can see the tower off in the distance. 

We finally found a pagoda that backed up to the hill and hoped to find some stairs or path up the hill but – only found the pagoda with an awesome dragon on the side.

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Further down we came upon another pagoda. This one looked more promising. There was a parking area and a group of old ladies selling vegetables and votive paper items to burn at the pagoda.  There were also several paths leading somewhere, although we weren’t sure where.

We also noticed a fountain that the sweetest of the old ladies motioned to me that I needed to go and wash my face in the fountain. I am not sure why, but since  I was suddenly very, very warm I decided to go ahead. After our little splash bath we started exploring.

Our first trail led to a growling dog, so we turned back. Our next path ended up next to some lovely pools where we believe the water for the fountain was coming from.

 

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We found another path which led straight up the hill. The farther up we went the narrower the path got. We realized that all along the path were grave-sites which were once again interspersed with vegetable gardens. It really makes a great use of extra space. Every time I see this I imagine a little garden spot over my grandparents grave. It sounds sort of weird, but I think my grandparents would appreciate us using the space so wisely.

The higher we got the narrower the trail got. I kept remembering a conversation we had just had about poisonous snakes in Vietnam, and watched the bushes carefully. We talked about turning back but could see the top of the hill just a little further on.

Once we got to the top we found . . . a road. A dirt road but certainly the road we had been looking for. We were not going to back down and get the motorbike and we could see the pagoda so we walked on. The view was incredible. We could the Tonkin Coast in all its glory. Many fish farms and boats and there was a welcome cool breeze.

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It took us about 20 minutes to walk to the Pagoda. We think it is called the Louc Dan Pagoda or temple. There was a gory story in Vietnamese with lots of pictures of people being gored, dragged by tongues, etc. We were fairly certain it was explaining a folk tale of the site but couldn’t understand exactly what that was all about. We have searched through all the guide books and asked Mr. Google but can’t find anything that says that name or any description that describes these beautiful buildings. 20160430_150016 20160430_150247 20160430_150100

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While we were there we came across some women chanting.

 

We had carefully observed where our trail met the road so we could find our way back. When we got to what we thought was the trail head we had a moment of doubt but decided to head down. When we started we were about 60% sure we were on the right trail. The further down we went the more sure we were that this was the right trail, all the way until we stumbled over the growling dog again. It was the wrong trail, but we were able to sneak past the dog and make our way back to the motorbike.

Mission accomplished.

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Posted by on Mar 9, 2016 in Life Reimagined, Vietnam | 0 comments

the war that won’t go away . . .

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War veteran, son of war veteran.

It has been said that “war is hell”, and I can’t think of a more accurate truism. Any war and especially those that have abounded in our modern history which include taking innocent civilians through the gates of hell, reflect the absolute worst in our humanity; and when you add the human made atrocities that seem to be inherent in war, you compound the evil of war and the hell becomes even (if possible) more savage and disgusting. Then there is the Vietnam – U.S. war in which the dimension of conflict gets expanded even further into a horrid legacy that refuses to be left behind.Agent Orange Related Facts (to the best of my research and knowledge).

Agent Orange: An herbicide mixture containing the poison Dioxin (tetrachlorodibenzodioxin / TCDD)
Agent Orange was one of 15 types of herbicides used by the U.S. military in Vietnam between the years of 1961 to 1972 to defoliate the jungles of South and Central Vietnam in “Operation Ranch Hand”
19 million gallons of Agent Orange was sprayed over 4.5 million acres of Vietnam between 1961 and 1972.
Agent Orange was supposed to be diluted, 20 parts water to one part herbicide however firsthand accounts from some Vietnam veterans report that the spraying of undiluted Agent Orange was not uncommon. The Agent Orange Record (agentorangerecord.com) has veteran testimonials and accounts of their experiences with the dioxin.
Dow Chemical and Monsanto were two of the primary manufacturers and suppliers of Agent Orange to the U.S. Department of Defense.
As many as 4 to 5 million Vietnamese were directly exposed to Agent Orange and it is reported that another 5 million Vietnamese spanning 3 generations of Vietnamese are suffering from medical conditions related to Agent Orange.

The following are some of the diseases linked to Agent Orange exposure:  Diabetes, Hepatoma, Hodgins Disease, Lymphoma, Spinal Bifida, reproductive abnormalities and over 15 classes of Cancer including Prostrate and Respiratory Cancer.

In Hai Phong City alone, over 7000 people have been certified as having Agent Orange related diseases or afflictions.

Dioxin remains in the soil and in the sediment of rivers, streams and coastal waters for an indefinite period of time.

U.S. Military personnel affected; 2.8 million U.S. military service men and women had boots on ground between 1962 and 1975. I could not find an accurate estimate of how many of those 2.8 million Americans were affected by the dioxin, but some estimates are in the hundreds of thousands up to over a million; and those numbers do not reflect the effects of agent orange on the children and grandchildren of those directly exposed to and affected. In 2010 the U.S. government appropriated $16.2 million   in compensation to veterans with Agent Orange related diseases or disabilities. The Veterans Administration did not correlate this compensation directly to Agent Orange. And as far as I can tell the children and grandchildren that are affected are not covered by this or any other monies appropriated.

 

My father towards the end of his military service

1965

I was 11 years old when my dad who was in the USAF at the time was deployed to Vietnam. The Vietnam war was beginning to get more publicity but at that time it was still a war in a far off land. A war against the “communists” and there probably weren’t too many people, Americans anyway, that thought that this war against a small communist country would last very long. We were the strongest, most powerful country in the world, and by God we were the United States of America, no one was going to beat us. That said I still remember that day, and like thousands of other American military family members I was very sad to see my dad going off to the “jungles” of Vietnam. I had no idea of what he would face, or for that matter what either country would endure over the next 10 years and because of that war, beyond.

My father who was stationed in Bien Hoa, one of the agent orange “hot spots”, returned to the U.S after his year in Vietnam, retired from the air force and passed away in 1983 at the age of 51. Cause of death, not certain. We know that he was a heavy smoker and a heavy drinker, either or both could have led to his early death. As to whether or not he suffered from PTSD and possibly the effects of Agent Orange, is unknown for sure. Personally I have no doubt that the answer is yes to both, but we will never know for sure.

2007 – 2015

Through our involvement with KWB both Dawn and me over the last 8 years have seen probably hundreds of babies and children in orphanages from Hanoi to Saigon that were victims of agent orange. The devastating stories of these babies and children that are often handed over to orphanages shortly after birth is beyond heartbreaking. Parents that are not equipped financially or emotionally do deal with a child that is partially or in many cases totally incapacitated both physically and intellectually sometimes have little choice but to give their babies away. The orphanages KWB supports and others do their best to provide a nurturing and safe environment for these children. It is difficult to look into the faces of these babies and children, for to do so is to look directly at the war and the horror of its legacy. Many of these children will not survive to adulthood.  Understanding the gravity of this situation compelled both Dawn and me to learn more and if possible, do more.

2016

January 2016, just before the Chinese New Year or as it is named in Vietnam, the Tet New Year, Dawn and me were approached one of our “Kids Without Borders” (KWB), volunteers (Phuong), to meet with the one of the Vice Directors of the Vietnam Agent Orange Victims Association (VAVA) in Hai Phong province.  VAVA (vava.org.vn), VAVA is a national Vietnamese non-profit organization that among other things represents victims of Agent Orange and coordinates efforts to assist victims through government as well as private humanitarian means. We had a cordial information sharing discussion and we were surprised to find out that although there were over 7000 “certified” victims of Agent Orange in Hai Phong Province, VAVA has estimated the total number of victims at closer to 17,000. To be certified the government has to perform a physical on the potential victim and conclude through testing that indeed the person’s condition is directly a result of dioxin poisoning. Many of those afflicted live in small villages or elect not to get medical care for their conditions and so the number is probably much larger. Although the spraying of herbicides was primarily in the south of Vietnam, hundreds of thousands of North Vietnamese soldiers fought in the South and thus were affected and then returned to their homes in the North of Vietnam unknowingly bringing with them the poison that would later cripple and kill many of their offspring.

A few weeks before the Tet New Year Phuong organized a quick (over 3 weeks) fund raising drive in order to help those families of Hai Phong affected by Agent Orange that are in the most need of assistance. Primarily through her efforts we were able to raise close to $1,500 to donate to these families. With that money we purchased food and some household goods for 20 families with enough cash left over for each family to buy whatever they needed or wanted.

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On a cool drizzly morning in early February I drove with Phuong and the Director of Hai Phong VAVA to a town about 90 minutes outside of Hai Phong.  I wasn’t sure what to expect or knowing in advance that I had to speak, what to say. Once in town we were met by a few city government officials and two other representatives of VAVA and we proceeded to into a small government office meeting room where a crowd of approximately 35 individuals sat waiting. There were several war veterans and family members, some of them had deformed or missing limbs, some had less obvious affects, some were just there representing family members who so incapacitated by their impairments, they could not make it to the event. A few of the officials gave short speeches and in not one of those speeches was there a negative statement against the United States, and it almost seemed ironic that everyone in attendance seemed eager to hear from me and genuinely excited to shake my hand and say thank you. For my part I did give a short speech and thanked them all for being there and presented the money we had raised and the household goods. After the event everyone wanted to take pictures with me, including the war veterans themselves. Before returning to Hai Phong the VAVA took us to a two homes of veterans who could not make it to the event. In both homes the veterans were incapacitated and in one of the homes an older grandson was also incapacitated (paralyzed from spinal bifida) and has been bedridden for 3 years. There homes were small and sparse but clean, and again they the hospitality the afforded was (given their situation) humbling to say the least. This was indeed a day of mixed emotions from gratefulness to these people’s humility and kindness to a deep rooted shame for the history that resulted in so much pain and heartache.

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Young man paralyzed from spinal bifida

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Conclusion

War is never moral, there is no virtue in war. War is not glamorous, it is pure evil and it is never final, never really over. It lives on in the memories, in the heartbreak, in the nightmares, and the faces souls and of those scarred, maimed, those who suffered, those who loved those that suffered and loved those that died. Dead soldiers do not come back to life after war

And so here I am immersed in Vietnam, almost 2 years into a 3 year tour. One part discovery, one part penance, one part a search for answers that are not and probably will never come to me. Is there anything, anyway to salvage a shred of decency from this hell, any rectitude at all?

Not really, because the pain does not die, the memories do not die and because after war, dead soldiers do not come back to life. But once you have become intimately aware of this war, once you have looked into the eyes of victims, seen the cost of this ongoing evil, you have to do something.

 

A special thanks to the QSI International School of Hai Phong whose administration and families  donated a majority of the funds collected for the Hai Phong victims of Agent Orange.

 

Recommended reading/viewing:

Agent Orange Record (agentorangerecord.com) A comprehensive look at agent orange and the effects on both the Vietnamese and Americans.

Penlive – The 40 Year War (www.penlive.com/protect 2014/agentorange/  Tells the story of several veterans and their lives post Vietnam.

Vietnam Reporting Project (vietnamreportingproject.org/2011/1/agent-orange/-vietnams-last-battle

Aspen Institute (aspeninstitute.org/policy-work/agent-orange/cleaning-dioxin-contaminated/soils

 

 

 

 

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Posted by on Dec 25, 2015 in Life Reimagined, Vietnam | 0 comments

Christmas Day 2015 – Vietnam

Lost in Hai Phong

My husband is a much better writer – this is from John.

While most of our fellow Americans would be celebrating Christmas with family, opening presents, perhaps going to church service and of course eating a big meal; we had a different kind of Christmas and it would please our parents to know that church was indeed a part of it.

It was by all accounts going to be a fairly boring but very nice Christmas day in Hai Phong, Vietnam 2015. Granted no decorations, no snow and most important and most regrettably no family. That said Dawn and me have made the best of our time here and this day was going to be no different.

We started off with eggs, hash-browns, toast and phone calls with some of the family to wish them a Merry Christmas on what was their Christmas Eve. Then off to burn off our breakfast calories on a long (10 miles, long for us) bike ride. It started with a very light drizzle and no particular direction in mind and ended up being the start of a quite different and sort of magical ride.

A left turn into a nondescript village took us first to a cemetery, not just any cemetery but a very large cemetery with what must have been thousands of gravesites. First through what must have been the non-Christian section and then to a separate Christian section. I have to admit we felt a little like trespassers wandering through the vast sea of headstones but there were so many that were unique and colorful and somewhat mystical in look and design. Needless to say lots of pictures were taken.

where there aren't graves, there are gardens.

where there aren’t graves, there are gardens.

From the cemetery we could see a church in the distance and decided (because we love churches) to trek through a village or two to find the church, and we did. What a treasure; an old church with statues of saints and a mock Jesus in the manger scene outside. We wanted to go in but it was rather dark and there was someone inside praying so we admired the interior of the church through the windows, and took lots of pictures of the wonderful exterior of the building and the grounds.

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But our spiritual journey was not over; from the cemetery we had also seen a pagoda in the distance and decided to find it as well, and we did. A beautiful entrance and courtyard and the rich ornate shrine was incredible. As we were leaving we met an elderly Vietnamese woman who let us take her picture. She insisted on telling Dawn some story related to the pagoda that we could not understand but it didn’t seem to matter to this very nice elderly woman, she just kept talking and smiling.

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And then the long ride home with the rain getting rainier and the temperature dropping, but after heading in the right direction and getting a little lucky, we made it home wet and tired. And then we did have our Christmas dinner, enchiladas (lots of enchiladas).

I imagine my religious friends and certainly my mom would say that God had called us to this spiritual journey on this holy day. Perhaps so, perhaps just a bit of quirky irony. In any case a very special day.

More photos from our wanderings.

 

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Posted by on Dec 18, 2015 in Life Reimagined, Vietnam | 4 comments

Seattle Freeze vs. Hai Phong Happy

I had only heard about the Seattle Freeze a year before moving to Hai Phong. I get it, I believe it and I am one of the people responsible. A summary of the Seattle Freeze is people in Seattle are outwardly very friendly, but when it comes to actually making a plan, especially with someone who is new to the area, we are very reluctant to do so. Even though I love meeting new people and talking with them, it is difficult for me to actually make a plan or invite someone to my home that I am not really comfortable with. To make matters worse my husband is the same way. If I do decide to break out of that cycle then I have to convince him to give up an evening of our favorite TV or gin rummy. We can easily talk each other out of expanding our circle.

The wonderful people of Hai Phong wouldn’t stand for that in a minute. I know that we stand out in Hai Phong and that our non-nativeness is obvious. In Seattle it would be hard to tell who is a recent immigrant or transplant. I guess it is easy for the locals to know we aren’t from Hai Phong. I don’t thing that is the reason that the people here have been so wonderful to us. They often invite John and I to dinners out or to their homes, to talk and to share their culture. Even with all the friendly gestures it was difficult for us to step outside our comfort zone and accept, but we have been so glad for those experiences.

School kids who stopped us to practice English.

It isn’t just people we know either. Last weekend on our walk there were two lovely ladies sitting on a park bench. When they saw me they smiled and held out their hands to say hello. We held hands as we talked and for once I wasn’t uncomfortable with that. We couldn’t understand each other at all but it was such a warm, welcoming moment.  The thing is that here that isn’t unusual. Kids will shyly smile and say hello; adults will sometimes shout and wave as we ride by, and everywhere we go people offer to help and to share their culture with us.

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My husband tends to find playmates wherever he goes. Notice to two photobombers in the back.

Becky Henchmen of Sammamish writes a great blog about this called Eat, Play, Thaw, de-icing the Seattle Freeze, one invite at a time. An enjoyable weekly read with practical and easy ways to build meaningful relationships. I enjoy reading it so much and it even motivates me all the way here in Vietnam to try to be more welcoming.

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Members of the International Ladies Group of Hai Phong out on a city tour.

One thing John and I really feel is our immortality, for some reason here even more than back home. We are on the backside of 50 and have seen friends and family leave us all too early. I don’t want to have regrets and at age 80 wish I had gone out more, made more friends and had more life experiences. One thing I know is that it is the people you meet along the way that make life enjoyable and worth sticking around for.

If you suffer like I do from the Seattle Freeze, perhaps you can add “reaching out” to your New Year’s resolutions. I can guarantee that you won’t regret it.

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