It didn’t take long for us to realize that we all underestimated the heat and humidity here in Vietnam. The temperature seems to get up near 100 degrees Fahrenheit on a normal day with about 70% humidity… it will definitely take some getting used to. Let’s just say, we were very grateful for the air conditioning (or air-con as they call it here) in our hotel room! The first day in Ho Chi Minh city was a free day which was spent sightseeing around the city. We were fortunate as our hotel was within walking distance of everything that we wanted to see on our first day! After some pho for breakfast (my first time having pho… it was delicious and just $1!), we made our way to the Vietnam War Remembrance museum where we saw airplanes, machinery, and photographs and read many personal accounts. Just like any museum of its kind, its definitely interesting to learn about but never an exciting reason for the museum in the first place. We also learned a lot about dioxin and agent orange and its huge impact still today. I was a little shocked to come across a photo of Bob Kerry, a former Nebraska governor, at the museum… unfortunately he wasn’t in the museum for positive reasons but still shocked to come across a familiar name! After the museum, we headed back out into the boiling temperatures and made our way to the Independence Palace, home to the Southern Vietnam Ruler during the Vietnam War. We saw many meeting rooms, the President’s office, and the grounds of the palace. Everything was beautiful and way over the type, I suppose you could say everything was very palace-like. The palace was captured during the Fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975 which officially marked the end of the Vietnam War. Ironically, here in Vietnam, the Vietnam War is called the American War as there was so much American influence. Following the palace, we headed to see the Notre Dame cathedral… well, a replica of the Notre Dame cathedral… which didn’t even really look like the Notre Dame cathedral… the colors were quite different but that’s alright! We needed an air-con break after all of that walking so we stopped for ice cold drinks and lunch on the way back to the apartment. We had a bit of a crazy layover while flying here as we were escorted through the airport with only 15 minutes until our next flight took off. Luckily we made the flight but our bags did not so we had to be back at the hotel as the bags were to be dropped off that afternoon. After a full morning of exploring in the heat, we weren’t too disappointed to relax for a few hours. Once our luggage had arrived, we were back out exploring–this time to the Ben Thanh Market near the city center. Essentially the market was tons and tons of shops closely packed together in a small area with little airflow. We wandered through a few of the aisles looking at the knock off purses and wallets, bags, and watches before deciding that it was time for dinner. The food here has been amazing and very inexpensive… in fact, a pop tends to be more expensive than the main entrée… of which the boys in my group have been ordering 2 or 3, ha. We finished up the first full day at a karaoke place where we got a private room for about an hour and sang a bunch of classic hits… it was a great way to end the first day!
We began our second day with by volunteering in the morning at Christina Nobel Children’s Foundation. Although the foundation has numerous (20+) projects that it is involved in (running a school to lots of community outreach to girls and boys shelters to building kindergartens and bridges to improve infrastructure), we spend the morning at the rehabilitation center. We met with the volunteer coordinator who told us all about the organization and about the founder of the organization, Christina Noble, who was an impoverished child in Ireland growing up. After going through the life struggles she experienced, she knew that she wanted to make a difference. She had a dream one night about helping children and Vietnam and just a few years later, her dream became a reality as she established the Christina Nobel Children’s Foundation here in Ho Chi Minh city in 1989. Today, her work has expanded in many ways and the foundation makes a huge impact here in Ho Chi Minh city. It was very inspiring to see one person’s dream become a reality… and something that we got to experience firsthand. The rehabilitation center houses 100 children between the ages of 0 and 7 who just need some extra help. Some of the children come from orphanages while others come from families who can’t afford to get their child the help that he or she needs. Each morning and afternoon, the children rotate through physiotherapy (PT as we call it here in the states) before enjoying a morning of play. We got to help with the toddlers in the areas of practical play and free play… essentially playing with the children all morning until it was nap time. We worked with other volunteers of the program who stay at CNCF for 3+ months and really get to know the children well and they told us a lot about their own experiences here at the foundation and the impact its had on themselves. The other volunteers were great and we were all quite bummed that we couldn’t stay longer as the foundation was extremely clean, organized, and overall well-run. After our morning with CNCF, we stopped for some lunch then headed back to pack up our things. We got a little spoiled with the hotels here in Ho Chi Minh which are actually 2-bedroom apartments with lots of space… at a very reasonable price! Anyways, we packed up our things then headed across the city, dropped off our things at our new hotel, then continued to Mason Chance, an orphanage, where we will be working for most of the next week. We met with other volunteers and staff members and had a fabulous dinner with them, just getting to know each other. We will be helping out at Mason Chance in any capacity that we can along with teaching basic public-health about the problems that arise with smoking, drinking, and living a non-healthy life. Fortunately we have a translator but it will be interesting to see how these go in the coming days!
Overall, so far so good here in Vietnam. We enjoyed a day of sight-seeing and getting acquainted with the city before jumping in to volunteering. The traffic here in Ho Chi Minh city is absolutely insane–there are motorbikes EVERYWHERE…. They pack the streets, come from all different directions, and somehow I have yet to see a crash yet. They navigate through cars and buses with no particular order to the madness. It certainly made crossing the street interesting the first day. During our explorations the first day, we came to a street which just had a constant flow of motorbikes and cars… we stood on the side of the street for a good two minutes not knowing when we would ever get the chance to cross until a security guard came up to us and essentially took us across the street. The trick: just walk. Motorbikes will ultimately just go around you… we’ve been practicing and although we have gotten much better, there is still a bit of hesitancy walking into a street of oncoming motorbikes! I have also been surprised at the access to WIFI over here in Vietnam. Many of the coffee shops and restaurants (non-street stalls) seem to provide free WIFI as well as the hotels… definitely not what I was expecting but it certainly makes it a bit easier for keeping in touch!
We’re off for day 3–stay tuned for our experiences at Mason Chance in the coming days!