A little over a month ago, I went with the Ngan Hac Giay Organization on a trip to help the Gia Rai people in Chu Prong and Duc Co, two small cities in Central Vietnam near Pleiku. Pleiku is known by many in the United States as one of the main staging areas for the American military during the Vietnam War and the site of the war’s first conventional battles. My trip with the NHGO was only going to be for a few days….we left on a Friday and would return Sunday night.
Most of the Gia Rai families that we were going to help suffer from Leprosy and live in small villages isolated from the nearby Vietnamese communities. The local Catholic Church has been organizing aid missions to help the surrounding Gia Rai villages…which is how the Ngan Hac Giay Organization in Saigon got involved. This was just one of the many trips that the NHGO has been making to the Gia Lai province in the past few years. The goal of the NHGO is to not only deliver aid (food, clothes, toys, medicine) to the Gia Rai people, but to further help them become more self sufficient, by teaching them how to plant crops and raise farm animals…not to mention providing them with educational tools like TVs and DVD players. One of my primary motivations for coming to Vietnam was to be part of volunteer efforts like this.
I was told that there were going to be about 25 people going on this humanitarian mission, including some foreigners and doctors, however the turnout was much higher with about 50 people showing up…including 4 doctors, but no foreigners aside from myself. The NHGO rented a big bus and a driver for our trip up north and we departed from Saigon a little after 6pm on 01/29/2010 (Friday). In The States it would only take about 5-6 hours to travel the approximately 500 km (a bit over 300 miles) to the Gia Lai Province…home of the Gia Rai ethnic minority..but with the road conditions (80% of which seemed to be in various states of construction) and the generally slower speeds that motor vehicles travel at in Vietnam; it would take us at least 12 hours to reach our destination.
We ended up arriving in the Gia Lai Province about 14 hours after leaving Saigon. Our bus broke down twice during the trip, but luckily our driver was also a mechanic and he managed to fix the first breakdown in about half and hour; the second breakdown which occurred about halfway through our trip…took about an hour to fix. From outward appearances our bus appeared pretty new and modern looking, but in addition the mechanical difficulties….there was no air conditioning at all. We had to leave most of the windows open….which was a problem in itself since there was so much dust flying around outside from all the road construction. By the time we arrived in Gia Lai, the inside of my nostrils were completely black….no telling what color my lungs were. Also I failed to anticipate that the weather in central Vietnam was much colder than in Saigon. I had asked Son (NHGO Coordinator) if there was anything in particular that I needed to pack for the trip….he said “only clothes”….but he failed to mention what kind of clothes. Since we were only going for the weekend…I had only packed a few jeans and a couple of T-shirts. When we finally arrived early Saturday morning, the temperature felt like it was in the 50s (Fahrenheit)…which if I was still in Indiana….would be hot for this time of year. But after getting used to 90+ degree weather in Saigon….it was freezing!
Our host during our stay up north was the very same Catholic Church that helped sponsor the aid to the Gia Rai people. After we had a chance to freshen up a bit after our long journey…the Church provided a big lunch for our group. The food was ok, but I only took a couple of bites. First of all, I never eat breakfast so I didn’t have much of an appetite….secondly, those that have read some of my earlier posts (Where to poop in Saigon & Hygiene in Vietnam) know that using the public restrooms is one of my biggest phobias about being in Vietnam….and on this trip I would have to share a couple of small restrooms with 50 strangers….and maybe even have to do my business out in the woods once we got to the Gia Rai villages. I figured that the less I put inside me the less would come out. I might have eaten about a day’s worth of food during the entire trip. I also took the advice of one of the commenters in an earlier post and forced myself to drink a cup of nasty dark, bitter coffee each morning to “seal the deal”. It worked!! I absolutely did not have to poop at all in almost 3 days.
After a quick lunch….our group spent the next couple of hours loading up supplies onto the bus and trucks we were taking out to the villages. It was a lot of hard work. There were big bags of rice and salt, cooking oil, ramen noodles, clothes, medicine, and a surprising amount of orange soda. Speaking of which….although I wasn’t hungry….I was dying for a soda. It started getting really hot around noon and my energy level was completely zapped from lack of sleep and I really needed something with sugar in it…all there was to drink at the Church was water and hot tea. Although I probably wouldn’t have stolen a can of orange soda if no-one was looking (ehhh…..maybe), if someone would have offered to sell me a can for a hundred bucks at that point I probably would’ve agreed to it.
We also had to load a bunch of 2 x 4s and bamboo stalks which we were going to use to build pens for the chickens and goats we were also donating to the Gia Rai villages. I didn’t see the chickens, but the poor goats were tied up in what appeared to be old rice sacks for most of the day while awaiting for their new homes to be built.
After we finished loading the supplies, our big group was divided into 4 separate teams with a leader appointed for each of the smaller units. All the directions were given in Vietnamese and it was hard for me to determine what was going on most of the time since I did not understand much of what was said. There didn’t seem to be anyone in our entire party that spoke much English so I was on my own. I just stuck close to my team leader and tried to be helpful. Although there were 4 people chosen designated “leaders”…there didn’t seem to be much leading going on at any point during our trip. Everything seemed a bit disorganized….with people just doing whatever they wanted. Even when it came time for us to head out to the Gia Rai Villages….I had no idea which bus or truck I was supposed to be on. I assumed that each team was heading out to different locations, but people just seemed to jump onto whatever vehicle had an available space. I decided that I was going to stick near my team leader and jumped onto a small van she got in. This little van was like a clown car. There must have been at least 15 people stuffed inside a space designed for maybe 8.
The Gia Rai Village we were assigned to was about 5 miles from the town of Duc Co. We had to drive down a red, dusty, unpaved road to get to the Village. The Village consisted of about 10 separate Gia Rai families who lived in small wooden shacks with corrugated sheet metal roofs. Upon arriving, we were met by a gentleman who acted as the village leader/translator. He was one of the few people living there that could speak Vietnamese. We parked and unloaded the supplies and building materials in his front yard. There was a small clearing to the left of his house where we were going to build the pen for the goats. There was already a chicken coop there; the product of a prior visit from the NHGO.
Most of the guys on our team immediately set out to put up the goat pen, and since I have no carpentry skills whatsoever, I along with one other fellow helped the women hand out the donations to the Gia Rai families. As soon as news of our arrival spread among the families, most of the women and their children showed up with bamboo baskets to carry their allotted portions of the donations. Aside from a couple of guys, including the translator….none of the men in the village bothered to show up. There was a very elderly blind woman, whose husband was simply referred to as “the drunk”; he was constantly lambasted by the local nun who accompanied us, for not showing up and helping his wife carry the rations for their family. “The drunk” man’s family was the largest (8 people) in the village, and as such the nun had initially intended to put the donated TV and DVD player in his family’s house, but as punishment for his absence she decided to put the TV and DVD player in the translator’s house instead.
About half the adults in the village showed various signs of Leprosy (missing extremities, facial deformation), but I didn’t notice any physical symptoms of the disease in the children. Leprosy is a contagious bacterial disease that can cause progressive damage to the skin, nerves, limbs and eyes if left untreated. We were told to wear gloves and not to accept any food or drinks while working in the village.
Sorting and handing out all the various donated foods, clothes, toys, and medicine took quite a bit of time because we had to try to evenly split the supplies into fair portions with regard to the size of each family. All the villagers, including the children, waited patiently and quietly for the names of their families to be called to collect their allotment. The women in the village seemed to be most excited about the donated clothes. We were told by the nun to pass out the clothes as evenly as possible….and to not worry about sizes or sex; the families would sort and trade among themselves later on.
After all the food, clothes and medicine was handed out to the adults, we had the children get in 2 separate lines….one for boys and another for girls. They were then given brand new t-shirts, candy and donated toys. They were so happy and excited to receive the toys….even though most of them were broken or were missing parts; but the Gia Rai kids didn’t seem to mind. There was a boy that looked much older than the others, maybe 16-17 years old and as tall as most of the adults in the village. He was given a pink, plastic toy sword that was most likely intended for girls around 5-6 years old…..yet he had the biggest smile on his face when it was handed to him. It was touching to see him and the other children carry around toys which most other children would consider rubbish….as if they were their most valuable possession. I think this was the most enjoyable and memorable moment of the entire trip for me.
The guys on our team finished putting up the goat pen not long after all the donations were parceled out. I helped set up the TV and DVD player in the translator’s house and we packed to leave. I felt good about the job our group did. The goat pen wasn’t the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen….but it was functional….and we provided the Gia Rai with essential aid….and means to improve the village and educate their children. We were done by about 5pm and headed back to the Church to clean up and then eat dinner. All in all, we spent about 4 hours at the Gia Rai Village….coupled with the 2 hours we worked to load up everything in the vehicles in the morning; we worked about 6 hours that first day.
That night after dinner, we walked about a mile up the road from the Church to the Nun’s quarters…..this would be where we would spend the night. We didn’t arrive until it was past 10PM….and as soon as I found the guest room I laid down on the floor to relax with my book “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho. I recommend this book wholeheartedly for anyone who has ever dreamed of doing something different with their life or has ever wanted to try to live in a different country, but has been fearful of making the leap. This book tells the fable of a young Shepherd that always follows his heart’s desires….taking extreme risks even when he is already “successful” and “rich”….and is constantly rewarded with happiness and fulfillment. The author believes that if you follow your dreams….everything in the universe will conspire to make your every wish come true. I couldn’t have picked a better book to take with me to Vietnam.
After working all day in the hot sun and carrying heavy supplies….I just wanted to lay down and relax with my book….but the NHGO kids seemed to have an endless amount of energy. Since most young people in Vietnam live with their parents before…and in many cases even after getting married….being away from home and being able to spend the night with friends and in particular the opposite sex is probably so exciting and intoxicating to them that they just didn’t want to sleep. I was practically dragged outside by a number of people to join in their games. A bonfire was built and everyone was ordered to make a big circle boy/girl and hold hands. Different people would then lead games like Vietnamese versions of “Simon Says”, or “Truth or Dare”, and various singing games. I humored the group for about half and hour before I snuck away and went back to the guest room to finish my book. When I finally decided to go to bed at midnight….I could still hear everyone singing outside. We were told we would have to get up at 4AM the next morning, but it seems that most of the people didn’t intend to sleep at all that night.
It was a pretty uncomfortable night’s sleep. The guest room where we slept was just a large bare room, where each individual was given a straw mat to sleep on the floor; I had to use my backpack as a pillow. I did not know what the plan for the day but I figured that if we were getting up so early….we must have quite a ways to travel to get to where I assumed we would continue our work with a different Gia Rai village.
I was a bit surprised when our destination, which took about 5 hours to get to, was a public park in Dak Lak called Draysap. It was a nice place…..lots of hiking trails and beautiful waterfalls. I thought we were only stopping to have lunch in the area and would continue to our final destination soon after. But it was starting to get late in the afternoon and I was wondering when we would actually begin our day since we were supposed to be driving back to Saigon that night. I asked Co Son what the plan was after we were done at the park. She replied, “we are going home of course”. I was shocked. I just couldn’t believe we were woken up at 4 AM just to go play at a park!! I was disappointed that we had traveled so far and long only to do 6 hours of actual volunteer work.
The trip back home on the bus was worse than on the way up…which I didn’t think was possible. At least on our trip up it was cool due to the fact we drove at night…but on the way back it was super hot….and the side of the bus I sat on bore the brunt of the sunshine….with nothing on the windows to shade me from the intense rays. I had also finally managed to obtain a can of orange soda at Draysap that I was craving so much the day before. The only problem was that I gulped it down so fast my stomach felt bloated from all the carbonation in the soda. I thought I might have to puke a number of times due to the violent bouncing of the bus on the horrible roads, which only acted to further agitate my upset stomach.
Although I don’t regret going to Gia Lai with the NHGO….I just didn’t think that my presence on this particular trip made much of a difference. There were plenty of people on the trip….more than enough to do the simple tasks that I did. I was hoping to make more of an impact than I felt that I did. And it was also disappointing to travel so far and have to suffer an entire day on that horrid bus only to do so little actual work.
Recently I have started to work with a local charity called DRD (Disability Resource and Development) in Saigon that helps teach disabled people English and job skills so that they can better integrate in society and the work force. I’m excited about this new center. It’s very modern and the staff seems extremely organized and motivated. I think I can make much more of an impact here than going than from within a large group. That’s the main reason I haven’t been able to post on this blog as often as I’d like to.