Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Reflections of Vietnam

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”.

Socialist Reminders

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Vietnam Story

Sac Son, Vietnam - We traveled north to visit one of Hanoi’s poorest areas, the Soc Son District were UniReach and its partners had assisted in the construction of a new school designed to be a prototype for inclusive school buildings throughout the country. Handicapped children have traditionally been ignored in Vietnam. Literally hidden away from society by family and overlooked by the socialist government. Today this prototype school educates 300 students, with 120 having special needs.
While we were there we encountered a recent graduate. Although 19, here physical impairments made her looks far younger. A girl had such a sweet spirit and a smile that lit up the room. The school had taught her a trade – sewing, and she had gone on to become a seamstress. Although a success story on the surface, after more discussion we learned she worked from 7am to 6pm seven days a week. For her labor, her monthly income was $30 – a staggering $1 a day. Due to here impairments she lives with here parents to which she gives all her income. When we asked her if she liked her work and what she wanted out of the future her countenance sank if only for a second – an expression I will never forget. Then, almost as if she realized she was required to be optimistic for the sake of foreigners or the cameras, she rallied, flashed a smile, and responded she didn’t know what the future would bring – after all she was handicapped.

Happy Socialists

Monday, March 29, 2010

Dr. Do's Clinic

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.

Dr. Do's Clinic

Dr. Do's Clinic


Special School, Special Kids

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.
What exist within the four stories of the Hope Center is a dedicated staff of 12 educating and challenging 50 special kids in a loving educational facility that has a certain felling of family – Dr Nga’s family. The building, the staff, all the educational materials, even the school lunches for the children come directly from Dr. Nga. She has build an incredibly reputable and progressive educational facility largely on her financial abilities with some outside support by organization such as UniReach International. The cost for this institution is about $2/day per child. The “recommended” tuition has never exceeded $90 for each child, although most parents have no means to pay close to that. The balance comes from of Dr. Nga. As we visited each of the classrooms I was surprised at the holistic nature of the education. Mathematics, reading and writing were mixed with stretching and yoga to assist in the children in developing their bodies not only there minds. I remembered back to earlier in the morning as each child climbed off their parents motor bikes as they were dropped off, how fast they each ran into the school, placed there shoes in the appropriate cubby and rushed up to there respective classroom. They all seemed so excited to be there – now I understood why. It was clear this was not your ordinary school, and these were not your ordinary kids – they truly were special.

Learning to Brush at the Hope Center

Friday, March 26, 2010

My Lai Massacre

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.

Passing the Time

For The Kids

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.

Playground Fun

Dr. Bill Hoyt with the Kids

Playground Kids

Local Supermarket

Road to Quang Ngai, Vietnam - As we headed out to experience how a simple playground had transformed a community we came across a street market in a small town an hour outside of Da Nang. Markets like these are common among most nations around the globe. As I watched people stop there motor bikes along side the road and barter for there groceries, I was sadly reminded of how we have lost this sense of community in the US. Our neighborhoods are filed with the big box stores that if one were locked inside could subsist for the better part of a decade. There was something extremely refreshing about needing fish and buying it from someone who had caught fish. Although I was shooting video on this project, these markets were one of the most visually interesting sights as we traveled through Vietnam.

Drive Through Duck

Street Vendor

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.

Language Barrier

Xuan Hoa, Vietnam - We traveled a few hours north of Ho Chi Min to visit the future site of a community training center that UniReach was partnered in. As we interviewed a couple of member of the community and discussed the impacts a center would have, we were introduced to one of the most fascinating characters encountered in my time in Vietnam, or anywhere for that matter. He was a 92 year old gentle man who had a story to tell. What ensued was the most hilarious interview of my life. Our director would ask a question, which would then be translated by our interpreter. From there the elderly gentleman’s grandson would literally yell the question into his ear. Like a windup toy, once our talent got started I could not stop laughing. He recounted his days during the war when he was driving for the Red Cross and being shot at (by whom I never did figure out). His mind was tack sharp and his whit was delightful. For nearly 15 minutes he acted out his driving skills, being shot at and who knows what else. By the end I was laughing so hard, I have no idea what he was talking about or what the translator was saying. I will always remember that interview. I still don’t know what it was about, but I will always remember it.

Monday, March 22, 2010

8 Million People, 8 Million Scooters?

Ho Chi Min City, Vietnam - We landed in Ho Chi Min when most cities would be subdued. The calm that follows a busy day in any major urban environment. No Saigon. I was invited to work with UniReach International, a Christian based non-profit that exists to deliver vital health care and educational resources for children, women, the poor and the sick in Vietnam. Although not an underwater assignment, or even a still photography project, I thought I would share a few images and observations from the trip.

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

Dreams of Aquanauts

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.

For those of you not familiar with rebreathers, the principle is very simple – and very old. While underwater diving on SCUBA, rather than releasing all those bubbles when you exhale – and wasting all the air (or gas) your carrying – a rebreather keeps all that air in the system and you re-breather it. Sounds simple enough - if your willing to trust your life to a tiny electronic computer that has been tasked to operate in a water environment. Perhaps one of the best analogies regarding rebreathers was passed on to me by a friend awhile back while shooting an episode of the DeepSea Detectives television show. “A rebreather is like a very beautiful girlfriend who cheated on you”, John Chatterton said. “You love her and as much as you want to be with her, in the back of you mind your just waiting for it to happen again”. As much as you love diving the rebreather and the benefits its brings, in the back of you mind your waiting for it to simply die and take you with it. That’s where the training and disciple pays off.

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.

We ended our dive with a debrief as every member of the team recalled child hood stories about living in an underwater house. Dreams of an aquanaut, apparently they are shared by those who have pursued a career under the sea.