Ho Chi Min City, Vietnam - I honestly had no pre-conceived notion of what the Vietnamese culture, people or landscape would be. Sure, I have seen Vietnam portrayed through the lens of films, but as a student of medium I tend not to build my worldview on that which is spoon fed to me by Hollywood. The culture was a fascinating mix of incredibly industrious individuals who lived against an ancient backdrop of pagodas and rice paddies. The urban settings of Ho Chi Min, Da Nang and Hanoi were frantic and energized with motor bikes, shops selling all manner of consumables and large billboards promoting socialist agendas. Yet just outside these mecca’s were rural communities struggling to exist and support each other. On any corner, on any roadside there were individuals making the most of what they were given. If they lived by a river and could catch fish, it was fish they would sell. If they lived by mountain made of marble, they carved and sold elaborate statues made of marble. Everywhere I traveled, someone was selling something. At times I would simply think, who is buying? Then I realized it’s the local community that’s buying. There is no “one-stop” shopping in the Vietnam I visited. If you want building lumber you go where the wood is. If you need the nails, that’s next door. A hammer or saw, that’s down the road a bit. Each one of these stops supports individuals, not the stock options of shareholders or overseas mass produced products. While the American viewpoint would simply dismiss this shopping “inconvenience” as annoying, to the masses around the world this is life. To them, this community is their lifestyle. As an outsider looking in, this community seems to instill a greater sense of purpose among the individuals. Sure they are poor. Sure they want to improve their quality of life for their family, but so many were grateful for what they had – and most did not have much. It made me think when America reflected this sense of individual industriousness and community and how in our great quest for convenience we seemed to have lost it. We always seem to refer to countries like Vietnam as “developing” - it makes me question the end goal if America is the model of “developed”.
Wednesday, March 31, 2010
Tuesday, March 30, 2010
Monday, March 29, 2010
Hanoi, Vietnam - In an non-descript section of greater Hanoi, down a long alley you can find a small miracle workers shop dedicated to changing lives. When Dr. Do retired from a long and distinguished career as a maker of orthopedic devices for handicapped people, he chose not to retire. He turned the first floor of his home into a clinic where he regularly sees children in need of prosthetic devices. Dr. Do’s patients are the poor children of Hanoi. He knows by name, more than 1,000 children in Hanoi who need prosthetic devices but whose families cannot afford them. Dr. Do is systematically working his way through that list with the goal in mind of providing the needed devices to the children free of charge to them or their families. UniReach helped fund the establishment of Dr. Do’s clinic, the oven for curing plastic, cast saws and numerous other tools. They continues to support the clinic by purchasing the materials needed to construct the devices for the children and teen-agers. The average cost per device is around $125 with the most costly ones at about $250. Meeting Dr. Do and seeing the work he is doing among the limbless poor in Hanoi made me think about the last time I spent $125 for something that perhaps I didn’t need.
Hanoi, Vietnam - When the bus dropped us off, the was no school, no playground just a typical busy Hanoi neighborhood. We walked down a narrow ally, past a couple of street markets, dodged a few motor bikes, down a still smaller alley to arrive at a non-descript four story house with a plaque outside – Trung Tam Hy Vong (Hope Center). According to UNICEF there are about 1 million disabled children in Vietnam. Putting that in context, every 90th person living in Vietnam is a handicapped child under the age of seventeen. Many believe that the Agent Orange sprayed in the 60’s and 70’s invaded the ecosystem and the national gene pool, impacting the countryside and the people even until today. Dr Nga has created the Hope Center from a determined desire to help as many of those 1 million special needs kids as possible – at least in the Hanoi area.
Saturday, March 27, 2010
Friday, March 26, 2010
Son My, Vietnam - After visiting the Chau O playground site that UniReach constructed two years ago, we spent a few hours at the site of the My Lai massacre outside of Quang Ngai. This was the site of the mass murder conducted by one unit of the US Army on March 16, 1968. Between 347 to 504 unarmed citizens of the town, all of whom were civilians and the majority of women, children (including babies) and elderly were sexually abused, beaten, and tortured.
The village was burned and a large number of the dead were piled in mass graves, including a drainage ditch which is a focal point of the site. The US military first congratulated the unit for “outstanding job” claiming that “128 Viet Con and 22 civilians were killed” during a “fierce fire fight”. A year later in March of 1969 a former member of the unit sent a letter detailing the events at My Lai to President Richard M. Nixon, the Pentagon, the State Department, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and numerous members of Congress.
Eventually, the platoon’s Second Lieutenant William Calley was charged with several counts of premeditated murder in September 1969, and 25 other officers and enlisted men were later charged with related crimes. All the charges were eventually dropped with the exception of Calley who was convicted of life in prison. After President Nixon allowed Calley released from prison pending an appeal, his sentence was adjusted and Lt Calley served 4 ½ months in a military prison. In November or 1969, over a year and a half after the events at My Lai, the American public learned about the massacre and trials through the pages of Time, Life and Newsweek.Learning about these events for the first time, my immediate reaction was to wonder how often these types of atrocities occurred on both sides of the conflict through the war. Although very slanted toward an anti-American sentiment, the memorial was powerful and a true testament to those innocent civilians, ages 1 to 82, who lost there lives on March 16, 1968.
Chau O, Vietnam - One of UniReach International’s early project focus was constructing playgrounds in centralized areas around Da Nang and Hanoi. With so much need in so many places, one might ask why playgrounds. That is until you visit one of these completed projects and see the joy these slides and swings bring to the community. Playgrounds have also given UniReach the ability to work within the local government structure and determine other areas of need. Perhaps not apparent in the main street culture, but Vietnam is still a socialist country. Working within its borders in any capacity requires great patience and negotiating on the part of non-profits. It was clear by the smiles on the children’s faces and the tears it brought to Bill Hoyt, President of UniReach that all the negotiations were worth it.
Wednesday, March 24, 2010
Ho Chi Min City, Vietnam - It often seems like we live our lives constantly trying to not be tethered. Laptops with massive battery life, BlackBerry’s and iPhones that push our world right to our handsets and wireless internet that keeps us unplugged but connected to the world. In Ho Chi Min its quite obvious that the city is struggling to modernize. As the masses race around the city on their motorbikes talking and texting, its clear they are a society in transition. Everywhere you look the wiring stung along the streets was are astonishing. I noticed this man pulling on wires as if to make some sense of it all. We were told the majority of the cabling was for TV. Hard to tell if he was a repair man or a neighbor stealing cable. With wiring like this, one should be fairly careful about which one you cut.
Monday, March 22, 2010
The very first is motor bikes. For anyone who has been to Ho Chi Min in the past 5 years, that is all that needs to be said. For everyone else, it’s a difficult spectical to describe to be sure. The sheer number of individuals in Ho Chi Min is somewhere between 8-9 million. This number alone is not that staggering. The image that is staggering is how many of them depend on motor bikes in there daily life. The traffic is not just gridlock, in fact its quite the opposite. There is an extremely fluid nature to the city streets of Saigon. Every empty space is filled with motor bikes. Every few seconds with the sounds of horns. Sidewalks are fair game if they are needed. To say the lines are mearly a suggestion is even generous. Yes, there is a very unique energy here. Not the image of Vietnam I first expected.
Tuesday, March 9, 2010
Key Largo, Fl – One of my earliest childhood dreams I remember was swimming through an underwater house, room by room, unencumbered by gravity. Something about moving down hallways and hovering over the furniture that always stuck in my mind. From there, my dreams turned to the early Cousteau movies of men living and working under the sea. Those early pioneers were so far ahead of the time. Today, some of those memories came alive as I had the opportunity to visit the Aquarius Reef Habitat off the coast of Key Largo, FL. I am here training on a new closed circuit rebreather that will provide an increased level of safety and reliability as I dive throughout the National Park System.
As we descended down the anchor line and hit the sandy bottom I really was not sure what to expect. I have seen pictures of the habitat for several years, however images often lack a sense of scale or environment. The first part of the dive was spent doing “clever diving tricks”. Check the electronics; increase the oxygen in the breathing mixtures, and switch back and forth to open circuit bailout. All the skill you want to show up as second nature when you really need them and your life is on the line. As we swam to toward the habitat out of the gloom was this enormous submarine looking structure. The size was quite dramatic. We peered through the portholes where some of the UNCW staff were working away at maintenance and general upkeep. I had to restrain myself from tapping on the glass and waiving like a tourist. For the remainder of the dive we swam around the structure admiring the design and construction. The marine life surrounding this artificial reef was spectacular. It was an entire ecosystem both outside and in that supported life. The irony was how much infrastructure it took simply to keep humans alive, yet the dizzying array of life on the outside was much more beautiful.