Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Young and the Elderly


Our plan for the day was to team up with a couple of members from a charitable organization based in Saigon to distribute food items to an elderly home and an orphanage.

A few people stayed behind from our group because they were ill.

Before we headed to the elderly home, we stopped by a huge hospital in Saigon to pick up heaps upon heaps of boxes of ramen noodles. We were able to shove most of the boxes onto the bus, using every little nook and cranny available. The bus was literally overflowing with boxes of ramen. In the end, not all the boxes would fit, so they hailed a taxi to carry some of the noodles.

We continued on our way to the elderly home, which was in District 8 of Saigon.

The elderly home was located in the back of a Buddhist temple on a tiny street where no cars could access. The bus dropped us off at the side of the road, and we unloaded all of the food we brought. It was all loaded onto a small motorcar to deliver to the temple, which went ahead of us as we followed.

The streets were a maze. They were so narrow and they winded this way and that. To get to the temple, we had to get through an outdoor marketplace, and there were people on both sides of the street selling produce, meat, you name it. What an experience!

We finally made it to the Buddhist temple. The building was a faded yellow color from years of wear and tear. It definitely didn't look like the temple we had seen the other day with such vibrant colors that it resembled a Christmas ornament. There was a gigantic Buddha figure presiding out in the courtyard, right behind the entrance gate.

All the food we'd brought had been carried in already by some of the adults in the charity and people who worked at the temple. When we got inside, we began packaging all of the food into bags to be distributed to each elderly person: a box of ramen, two cans of milk, sugar, crackers, and some other food.

After we prepared some one hundred or so bags, we began distributing them in the rooms. The director gave us an introduction of the place. There were three large rooms, and each room accommodated about thirty senior citizens.

As we walked into the first room, we realized how incredibly crowded it is. Tiny beds were all squished next to each other, and there was barely any room for us to walk in. We learned from one of the charity members that these elderly folk had no family - many of them had been found on the streets. Here, although care was minimal, they had a place to sleep, had food to sleep, and the opportunity to enjoy others' company.

Some of them were there because they did not have another place to stay, but others also had mental problems associated with old age and living out on the streets. One of our guides pointed to a lady who apparently lost her sanity when her children abandoned her. Most of the elderly folk were women, but there were a few men. One of the old men we saw had lost an entire half of his skull, but was still alive, which was really amazing.

We gave a bag to each person and said "Hi" to them in Vietnamese. Even those of us who couldn't speak the language gave it our best.

After distributing all of the bags, we took a picture next to the Buddha and then left the temple to head to our next destination.

We arrived at the orphanage in Cu Chi early in the afternoon. The place wasn't as well kept as the other orphanages we'd been to, so we assumed they were probably even poorer.

There was the most adorable little boy who was seven supposedly, but actually looked more like he was two years old. He was so malnourished that he looked 5 years younger than his actual age!

The children assembled at a few wooden tables, and we handed out all of the goody bags. There were kids of all age ranges and even some older ones who were our age. Then we played some games with them like the version of simon says we had played with the other orphanage as well.

The people there were amazing. The kids might have had some disabilities, but that sure didn't stop them! They were a really lively bunch, and they loved to play! They had so much enthusiasm for life!

After that, we toured the orphanage for a bit. They showed us to a room where there were girls on sewing machines making cute baby clothes like socks. That was one of the ways they could make money to keep the orphanage going.

Then we headed to the backyard where there were little kids washing dishes. They were so adorable, and they really seemed like a family. It was really touching to watch them go about their daily lives like that. They were so lively, happy, and carefree - and it's amazing how they can be like this when they don't have that much. That's such a huge contrast from the US where people have so much more, and yet we're still dissatisfied with everything. I guess we never learn to appreciate what we have, and that's such a shame.

They had a guitar in the back, and Christian played a song for us!

Well, all good things must come to an end. We left the orphanage late in the afternoon, and headed to get some food. We hadn't eaten since the morning, so we were starving. A boy from the orphanage led us out of the maze of streets on his motorcycle to a street-side restaurant.

We each got up from our seats to get our meals. The different dishes were displayed in a glass case, and you had to point to which ones you wanted to get, and the lady would scoop some onto your plate for you.

It started raining as we were eating and it was so refreshing!

We got back pretty early, so some people went to get massages, while others rested back at the hotel.

We met with Lisa to have a discussion, and after that we relaxed and had fun.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Simon Says...MONKEY!


We woke up to another sunny day in Vietnam!

On the agenda for the day? A children's orphanage in the countryside called Can-Gio to give goody bags.

To get there, we had to take a ferry, which was a fun experience! All of us filed off of our bus and lined up to go on the boat. When they starting admitting people on the ferry, we all went up the stairs and sat on the top level, enjoyed a pretty view of the area. The bus followed us onto the ferry, but it stayed in a section designated for automobiles.

After three hours of travel, we arrived at the Can-Gio orphanage and school. There was what is presumably a church behind the front gates, and the classrooms were located towards the back.
The orphanage was Catholic-affiliated, just like the other one that we had visited just a few days prior.

However, these children were not just merely deaf of mute. They had a wide variety of disabilities and suffered from physical as well as mental impairment. In any other place, these children would not be able to attend school or get an education, or would have ended up on the streets (some of them actually were homeless). They all came from very poor families in the surrounding area.

Looking around the place, some of the kids had inconspicious disabilities while others we saw were clearly handicapped. There were a few who had Down Syndrome and other signs of mental impairment. Although most of them were young children probably from ages five to fifteen, there were a few older kids sitting at a bench on the side. They had obvious physical deformities, which was really heartbreaking to see, especially since some were very old. One of them was in his late thirties. They had to stay at the orphanage because they had no where else to go and probably didn't know much about the outside world. After conversing with them (to the best of our ability), it was clear that although they suffered from these defects, they were some of the most kindhearted people we'd met. We were touched by their stories. Through them, we learned to appreciate our own lives that much more.

Kelly suggested that perhaps some of the congenital defects were caused by Agent Orange, which the US sprayed in Vietnam during the war. The effects were devastating.

We passed out the goody bags that we had packaged. They consisted of a notebook, pencils, milk, and mini chocolate cars. Then we played with the kids. Several people like Carolyn, Sanjeev, and Christian gave them piggy back rides, which was so cute to watch! A crowd of kids also gathered around Amos, fascinated with his muscles!

Later, we got our first dose of game that kind of resembled Simon Says. If you lost, you were made to stand in the "mush pot". Then the kids would sculpt us into weird poses, which we had to keep. It was a lot of fun to see these kids with all these big smiles on their faces, laughing and playing along.

Lunch time!

After lunch, the majority voted that we would go to Monkey Island.

As we waited for the bus to arrive, Thuy couldn't keep her eyes from a big, fat juicy coconut hanging off a tree in the front of the restaurant. A few people tried to climb the tree, but all those attempts failed miserably. We even attempted throwing rocks...which didn't work either.

Finally, Sanjeev boosted Thuy up and finally she could reach the coconut. She tugged on it, but it just wouldn't come off. Stubborn coconut. She put all her weight on it, hanging onto the dangling coconut, until it finally snapped off and hit Sanjeev squarely in the jaw.

Thuy named it Wilson.

Our ride pulled up next to the restaurant and we headed to Monkey Island.

Aha...and there it was. Monkey Island. We bought the tickets, then parked the bus, and got off to do a little exploring in this monkey haven.

The group that did not want to see the more aggressive monkeys walked out of the park and waited by the bus for everyone else. Stephanie and Evangeline got their sodas snagged by monkeys. Sneaky little buggers.

After what seemed like forever, the rest of our group finally got back, and we headed home. On the way back, our bus got stuck on the ferry behind the one we were on, so as we waited for it to arrive, we did a little exploring. Some of us went to see a really colorful buddhist temple. Others got sugar cane drinks.

Dinner at Pho2000.

After dinner, we shopped around the vendors surrounding Ben-Thanh and had a myriad of interesting conversations. We bought lots of yummy exotic fruit, and planned for a fruit party later at the hotel to relax.

Sure enough, when we got back, we powwowed, ate tons of fruit, and had a good time talking about random things.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Our Goodies...And Other General Debauchery

Good morning, sunshine!

We all got a chance to catch up on our beauty sleep the night before and didn't wake up until pretty late in the morning. Our task for the day? Scouting around the city to find prices for the goody bag fillers: instant noodles, milk, sugar, and MSG. With limited funds, we of course didn't want to miss out on the cheapest deal.

Everybody else met downstairs to divide into groups and go price hunting. Thuy's group went farther away into another district because her family lived in Saigon and were gracious enough to help us out.

We all convened in someone's room and compared the prices that we had found.

Thuy ended up with the best prices for everything because she went to a cheaper district. The district we were in (district one) was the most expensive because it catered to tourists. We decided to purchase all our products from Thuy's places and to package them the next day so that they would be ready for our trip on Friday.

Michael suggested a BBQ place that he had stumbled upon earlier during the day, and we all decided that was where we would go for dinner. The restaurant was crowded and had a lot of customers, but in the end, some of us never got our meal or what we ordered.

We headed out to the karaoke place at New World hotel.

The karaoke place turned out to be well designed and a lot of fun...but watching those sketchy middle-aged business with scantily clad girls dangling off of them was a little disturbing to say the least.

We lounged around on the big plush seats, and flipped through the song book to find tunes we could sing along to. Whenever one of our songs came up, we would all get really into it and scream really loud - well at least some of us did. Amos did a rap number, which was so much fun to watch. We all cheered him on!

Ah...the end of another spectacular day.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

On A Roll!


We wake up and get breakfast for ourselves. Some of us order from the hotel, while others venture down Le Thanh Ton street to buy freshly prepared goods from a bakery down the street. We're tired from the day before, but nothing can quell our excitement for the day ahead!

We left for the same orphanage/school that we went to the day before. As we cruised down our street, we stopped by the bakery to pick up some lunch for later. After that, we went to pick up the doctors, but we also wanted to pick up some ChocoPies for the kids (which was their favorite treat!), so we parked near the doctor's home and went shopping around the nearby streets. It was supposed to be the kids' graduation day, and we wanted to bring them something special.

We started by visiting some street-side shops, but the ChocoPies were more expensive than we'd expected. The doctor led us to a supermarket nearby (we had to check our backpacks in first) to do some shopping. The ChocoPies were even more expensive at the supermarket than on the street! Still, some of us bought chocolate and other candy for the kids.

We set up our medical stations quickly, the same way as the day before. The line of children progressed quicker this time because we had two doctors instead of just one.

It was so rewarding to work with these kids. The hardest part that we anticipated was the non-Vietnamese speakers communicating with the patients. But because most of them were deaf and mute, all of us were on equal footing in terms of communicating with the children. Although most of us knew little sign language, we learned just enough to help us get by! It felt wonderful to be able to say things to them, and have them answer back.

Stephanie, Norris, Minh-Thanh, Evangeline, Christian, and Sanjeev tried perfecting taking blood pressures. Thuy and Kristie helped weigh the kids and write their names, and Megan had so much fun asking the kids in sign language how old they were! Kelly, Jennifer, and some of the other girls helped teach the kids how to eat their gummy-vites, and it was adorable! The kids were too precious!

After a hot morning, we sat down for some lunch on the school steps. We ate sandwiches that we had bought from the bakery on Le Thanh Ton near our hotel. Some kids wandered over to watch us eat, and we took some group photos with them.

All of us were parched because it was so hot, and we didn't have enough water to go around. Because we had a lot of time to spare (the children were still eating lunch), we decided to explore the area and buy some water.

We wandered down a dirt road, talking and laughing on our afternoon adventure. The first shop we came upon wouldn't bargain with us, so we decided to try farther down the street. It was good that we did because the lady who owned the second shop we came to was absolutely wonderful!

She gave us a discount for our water and let us all sit in her shop to talk. She pulled up chairs so that we could all fit under the shade of her store, and we talked and joked as we relaxed. At one point, we went around the circle and each person said what kind of a doctor he/she wanted to be. We heard internal medicine, surgeon, OB/GYN, plastics - and of course Y-Nhy wanted a joint MD/PhD - figures! Hehe!

The lady who owned the shop offered a basket full of this really funny fruit (can't remember what it's called - anyone?). The inside resembled a lychee, but the out side was reddish-brown and had soft spines like a porcupine. We tried to pay her for them, but she wouldn't take the money. She was so nice! Her husband seemed really nice too - he was sitting on the threshold of their house, holding their adorable little baby boy. Finally, right before we left, Stephanie ended up hiding the money in the fruit basket. The lady tried to bag the fruit for us to take on our way babck, but we ran away before she could give it to us. Her kindness really touched all of us.

We got back to the school and did some more of the same medical work. Each of us took turns at each station, and some of us played with the kids who were waiting in line.

It was adorable watching Amos play with the kids - he's so good with them. They all loved him to pieces and treated him like a celebrity. It was so cute! They were amazed at his biceps, and they would have him flex so they could touch it, and they had fun hanging off his arms.

Before we left, we dropped off some clothing donations for them. Some people also bought artwork from them.

On the way back, we stopped at another pharmacy to get prescription medicine with a doctor. It took a really long time, but all of us were optimistic, because we were going to be working with the doctor the next day at a rural clinic, and all of us were looking forward to that.

One of the biggest problems was that we were told we weren't allowed to give out medicine, and that we couldn't get any doctors to work with us for fear of the communist government. This was very stressing. Also, a lot of the places we could visit wanted "goody bags" filled with noodles, sugar, MSG, and condensed milk instead of receiving medical care. This really surprised us, and we didn't know how to resolve this problem. Sure, we still had money in our account, but it was money that had been donated for medicine.

In the end, we decided to fill up our free day the next day by going shopping for goody bag fillers. We divided up into groups and were given different locations to scout for prices of various food items.

By the end of the meeting, a lot of us were really pooped out, but others were pumped for a night out.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Ready, Set, VMO!


Y-Nhy helped Carolyn order a pho for breakfast, and she said it was the best pho she had ever had in her life. We all donned our cute little scrubs, and got ready for fun! Everyone was excited because this was our first working day, and we couldn't wait to meet the kids!

We left our hotel, the Nhat Thien, and took an hour bus ride to an orphanage/school in the town of Binh Duong. Along the way, we picked up the doctor who would be working with us for that day. After we filed off the bus, the nuns and other ladies showed us around the complex. They gave a brief introduction of the place in Vietnamese and led us to their infirmary, where they kept medical records of the children in small green notebooks.
After that, they showed us to another room, where there were a few beds upon which some sick kids lay. They were absolutely adorable! We gave them some toys, and took some pictures with them. They looked so young - some of them looked five years old when in reality they were in their mid-teens!

Some of us wandered around another corner where a teacher was teaching a class full of children around kindergarten age. After gushing over them, we turned back to the infirmary where kids in blue button-up shirts began filing in. They were so cute! Many of them had hearing problems because it was a school for the deaf/mute, so they couldn't understand the Vietnamese speakers either.

We played with them for a while as everything was getting set up. Although they couldn't speak, their smiles and laughs spoke volumes. Some of them were initially quite shy, while others played along with us enthusiastically. The kids especially adored Amos, and couldn't stop poking at his biceps! It was awfully adorable! We passed out notebooks to them, and the teachers helped write their names on the front of their notebooks.

The medical station that we set up went as such: height/weight measurement, blood pressure, seeing the doctor, and the pharmacy. After that, they each got a well-deserved treat! Choco-Pie! Each of us rotated around the various stations to get an all-around feeling. Working with these disabled kids was such a rewarding experience, and it also gave us a chance to interact with real patients (not to mention we were getting better and better at manually measuring blood pressure)!

By the time lunch rolled around, were weren't even close to being done with everyone! Because our afternoon was already booked, we scheduled ourselves to come back sometime in the next couple of days to finish our job.

The bus dropped us off at a very nice, scenic restaurant in the middle of nowhere. It was situated near a river, and all the vegetation around it was a gorgeous lush green! There were monkeys in cages, and even a huge python. Some of us took turns holding the python, but others of us kept our distance!

We had a choice of eating on a very large, beautiful boat or just outside near the river where we could also enjoy the spectacular view. We decided to skip the boat, and just eat outside.

They led us to a long table, and we took our seats. The menu was huge and it was quite interesting to say the least. The Vietnamese readers patiently translated the menu for those of us who couldn't understand it. Amos ordered crocodile and let us try some of it since most of us had never had any.

After our lunch, which probably took about two hours, we drove to a hospital where we were able to tour the premises. It was a hospital for alternative medicine, and they had employed some really interesting techniques, such as using wax to wrap the limbs of arthritis patients and using electrotherapy.

The ride home was long and tedious. Most of us were really tired, and the sweltering heat certainly didn't help that matter. Kelly had quite an adventure on the bus. We passed by the Americanized district of Saigon. There were a lot of designer stores and tall hotels. We decided we wanted to explore that area later.

Later that night, Norris called some clubs and karaokes around town to do some early scoping, because we wanted to get out and relax during some of our free days. The karaoke staff tried to pawn their call girls on us, and it was quite amusing.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Good Morning, Vietnam!

We finally arrived in Vietnam!

It was HOT!!!

We went out of the airport where we met Lisa, our coordinator, and boarded a huge bus to take us to our hotel! Although our hotel wasn't the one we had originally planned on, it was very nice nevertheless and we all moved in.

Most of us were exhausted after the long flight, but after the initial move-in, we met together to talk about what exactly we were going to do each day for next two weeks in Vietnam.

We were all relieved to learn that Thuy Nguyen, who had been denied passage to Vietnam with the rest of the group because of visa and passport problems, was able to get a flight the next day and was on her way over!

Lisa made reservations at a very cute restaurant that night, and we all had a blast!

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Friday, May 23, 2008

Let the show begin!


The 19 members of VMO began trickling into Megan's house. We packed donation suitcases with medications, multivitamins, and children's clothes and toys. Then, we went our separate ways to meet each other back at the airport!

JTran, Megan, Norris, Christie, Christian, Sanjeev all went out to dinner at Lotus House and La Burrita for one last hurrah dinner before going to Asia.

Bay Porter arrives and off goes the first group to SFO! The group gets there so early that the booths haven't even opened yet, and we are the first passengers to check-in. We wait there for a long time with Kelly too.

We check in. We meet Y-Nhy's parents, both. She has a giant package of donation clothes. It's over the weight limit, so her parents rip it open and start shoving clothes into little handbags for carry on, and some into other people's luggages (because Stephanie, Michael, and Thuy L, Thuy N, and Vivian have arrived too).

Megan pulls out Taboo and Apples to Apples. Many of us try to play, others just wanna hang out, many need their coffee/caffeine fix, and overall, starting to get to know everyone's names. Thuy Nguyen's passport and visa combo is unfortunately denied and Christie went to try to sort things out. Otherwise, all handy dandy.

We're off to Taipei, Taiwan, CHINA