I can’t believe it has been 3 months (1/3 or our planned time in Vietnam) and I haven’t written a blog or update yet. While this is the first (my apologies for the length) and just scratches the surface, I promise more to come with more in-depth views of our experiences and feelings along the way. Mainly, I just want to share the comedic gold that living in a foreign country for the first time brings. Beth of course has written quite a few blogs already focusing on struggles and general lessons learned and are a great read – they can be found on her blog site here.
The last 3 months has both flown by as well as felt like we have had a lifetime of new experiences. The cultural differences, working experiences and our general travel along the way have created more than enough laughs to share.
When it comes to culture, I think about the people, environment, food and language. We have approached all of these things with a sense of wonder and openness. We have found that we usually start with WTH or WTF, while getting a good laugh at the stark contrast to what we are used to. Upon reflection and further questioning for understanding, we usually end by diving deeper into questions of perception being the factor that most often times determines what we believe to be right or wrong, hard or easy, or even happiness vs. suffering. While I will go into further depth in future blogs, today, I just want to catch you all up on some of the fun adventures we have been on since leaving Seattle on September 29th, 2015.
We were surprised the first few weeks in Dong Hoi to find that the city is far more developed than we had expected. It was a welcomed surprise as some of the comforts of home we thought we were leaving for 10 months are here now – specifically, a shop that sells cheese, a restaurant with a great tuna sandwich, and a hostel and pub that play western music and are attracting more foreigners to speak English with.
The people we meet, wherever we are in the country are warm and welcoming, with a genuine desire and want to meet and talk with us. This isn’t always the most efficient of conversations, but we are committed to learning some Vietnamese and more committed to having fun and using the experience to meet and interact with any and every one we come in contact with.
Two of the biggest shocks that we felt have to do with traffic and language. Both are beautiful, chaotic, and seemingly impossible all at the same time.
Traffic for instance seems to flow like water most of the time, although this stream goes in all directions at once. We heard it is a result of having millions of people in the space planned for 300,000. After having to re-learn how to cross the street, I can believe this to be true. We learned there are two methods to crossing the street, the ‘look’ method and the ‘no look’ method. The names are telling enough! In the look method, you look for any opening where you can take a step into oncoming traffic without immediately being hit and you keep walking at a slow pace as traffic weaves around you. You look towards traffic, but not in the eyes of the drivers. The ‘no look’ method is one for the brave of heart – while trying to avoid getting creamed on your first step, you quickly turn your head to where you are going and trust the traffic will move around you as you walk at a steady pace. AMAZING!
The language is a beautiful compilation of mono syllabic words strung together with 6 tones, rising, falling, broken and distinct. The first few weeks were filled with listening and zero understanding for the structure – everything was foreign and meaningless. After taking 6-2 hour courses in our volunteer onboarding session, we now know without a doubt how incredibly tough it will be to learn. An example is the letters ga. Ga can mean chicken or train station or any of 4 other meanings based on whether your voice is rising/lowering or following the rules of the other tones. Needless to say, we have decided to just have fun with learning the language and use it as a way of interacting and getting to know the people around us.
We flew out of Seattle about 9 hours late due to a devastating typhoon that hit Taiwan. This change caused up to have an unexpected night in Taiwan while we found new flights. Re-routed through Saigon, our luggage unfortunately stayed on its own path through Hanoi, only to be reunited with us a few days later in our final destination of Dong Hoi in North-Central Vietnam.
It seemed like we have been on the road ever since, starting with three separate trips to Hanoi, a conference in Penang Malaysia, central Vietnam trip by train, 2 trips to the mountains, a mini honeymoon on the southern Island of Phu Quoc and an unexpected, but extremely fun trip back to the States for a Christmas surprise in Indiana.
We are about to leave Dong Hoi for our full honeymoon in the Gili Islands of Indonesia, which will take us through Saigon, Singapore, and Jakarta – a true ‘planes, trains and automobile’ experience to be sure.
I thought moving from a 16.5 year Microsoft employee to being a volunteer in a new country would be a difficult transition. Although I have missed my former employer, especially the paychecks, I can say it has not yet been as difficult as I had thought it might be. This could be due to all of the travel and movement we have had or maybe my perceived importance of the work we are doing. I’ll have to check back in a few months from now to give you an update. As of now, if you are thinking of taking a similar plunge – i’d say do it!
We learned at the Global conference on drowning prevention that drowning is a health epidemic that needs immediate attention. Although the systems and infrastructure have been set up in the U.S. over the last 100+ years starting with the Red Cross, in developing countries, we are on the front line of development. In Vietnam, 30+ children die from preventable drowning each day. In the time it will take me to write this post, on average, there will be a few children that die. I find this to be an unacceptable current fact.
We are working to learn from others work in country as well as around the globe to create a program in our province that can be replicated and sustained far after we are gone. We work daily with one staff member of Golden West Humanitarian Foundation setting up the infrastructure and procedures for the upcoming season of survival swimming lessons. We are also looking at how we can promote awareness outside of the pool with all school-aged children as well as the community. This is keeping us very busy.
In addition to the work on the Swim for Life program, we have been asked to help the local provincial University as well as an organization for the empowerment of persons with disabilities.
Appreciation for helping hands:
Thank you to the Microsoft Alumni Network and Foundation for creating a video of our ‘can’t not do’ move located here.
Allison Morton for helping to create a soon to be released brochure.
Erik Knutson and Jamie Wallace and the DLI team for working to produce a video for public television in Vietnam to raise awareness of the drowning issue.
Tim Kasen for helping on a website that we will publish in the new year.
Always a need for additional help:
If you want to get involved in any way, large or small, let me know as we can always use extra hands – employer volunteer matching benefit is a plus as well! I know, old habits of a volunteer program lead die hard! Experience in water safety is not needed. If you are interested in visiting Vietnam and seeing our work up close, we’d love to host you.
More to come!