Vietnam – a trip and a project about “Community Connections through Craft”
In the beginning........
There are specific things which have motivated my trip to Vietnam - personal and business. The personal, is a travel goal that I have held for a very long time and have transferred it, one New Years after another to my Long Term goal list for that year coming in, never losing my resolve to go. So many things happen in life to delay these sorts of plans. Some of us have children, dying and aging parents, responsible jobs etc. Before you realize it – you are beyond middle age and need to get a move on.
I traveled a lot in the early part of my adulthood and then eventually established a business that imported handicrafts and garments from mostly Bali, Indonesia and Nepal but also Thailand and India. I loved that time in my life – so interesting and such a freedom.
This past September, I started a program called “Woman Leading the Way” which is a leadership program hosted and facilitated by the Minerva Foundation – structured up similar to a mini MBA program. http://www.theminervafoundation.com/ The Minerva Foundation BC mission is to elevate the visibility, influence and contribution of woman leaders. For anyone who doesn’t know -this organization, it offers a number of different programs and I am proud to refer woman to the programs that I have participated in. The Minerva Foundation has had a powerfully positive and profound impact on my life and career.
The “Woman Leading the Way” program was nothing short of excellent and the end of February marked the end of the “in class” sessions. Helen Dewar has been an excellent facilitator of this program and one that I took previously. From my opinion, she is a key piece to the success of these programs and she has been incredibly supportive of me with employment search, issues and also the formation of this Marigold Collective. I am grateful for the Helen Dewars of the world and very very appreciative of her generosity of time and her sincere care. Now we are to move onto producing our project – kind of like a mini thesis. My project is one of the main focuses of this trip.
The objective or purpose of the project is to produce a piece of work that will effect positive change within the community. My project is to set up a non-profit organization or social enterprise business that will bring consulting services via corporate volunteers to fair trade artisan/handicraft cooperatives in developing countries. For most of, the past 4 years, I have worked with Ten Thousand Villages as the Regional Manager for BC and Alberta – Villages is the largest fair trade retail organization in North America. Through my time working with Ten Thousand Villages, I became very familiar with the 130 cooperatives that Villages worked with as the main suppliers of the product. I am therefore, very aware of the issues that they faced in their businesses.
I chose Vietnam as my pilot country, to start the assessment process country by country, to determine whether or not this was a useful service to offer there and I needed to get some firsthand feedback in terms of what cooperatives identified their needs were in terms of business assistance. I figured why not combine business with some pleasure and satisfy my travel goal which had remained outstanding for so long. So, I made contact with 4 cooperatives and organized meeting times and date with them, prepared to leave my world for a month and then headed out on Feb. 25th, 2012.
The flight from Vancouver to Seoul, Korea was 10 hours in duration but not so bad. I had a nice 14 year old Korean lad as a seat partner who was on his way back to Seoul, after spending the previous six months studying English here in Vancouver. We watched movies and ate and relaxed for the entire flight. Only comedies for me as I had seen the rest already. Then came the 4 hour wait in Seoul for the flight to Hanoi. That is when the lack of sleep started to slowly wash over me – I was exhausted. Finally on a plane again and that 4 hour flight seemed infinitely longer than the 10 hour flight I had just gotten off of a few hours before. By the time we arrived in Hanoi, I had been up for 24 hours and it was starting to feel like it. The Hanoi airport is dated in design and pretty basic sort of 1950 -1970 with drab lighting – welcome to northern Vietnam, the time warp that is slowly morphing into modern times. Customs was pretty quick to get through and out through the door to find the taxi driver that had been sent to me by my hotel. It was about 11:00pm on Sunday evening and he was clearly impatient to get this drive over with so he could go home to sleep and likely be up by 4:00am again to work. The ride into the city was about 45 min – dark highway with minimal traffic at that time of the night. Low outdoor lighting as well, raining and all in all – it all looked kind of worn. I kind of expected as much but it felt the opposite of uplifting at that stage of the game. The young university student at the hotel front desk was to stay up - waiting for me to arrive. We had cut off the highway and then swung into the quadrant called the “Old Quarter” which is where most of the tourist accommodation was located. I checked in and fell into bed and crashed for 10 hours. So tired. Next day got oriented with the location for restaurants, walking etc. .....and changed rooms. Average day’s temperature at that time was about 15 degrees and so combined with the rain, it was cold and damp. I needed a heater. Best thing about Vietnam is that it is so “wired” - internet everywhere or wifi. Love it. The “Old Quarter”, near Hoan Kiem Lake, has the original street layout and architecture of old Hanoi. At the beginning of the 20th century the city consisted of only about 36 streets, most of which are now part of the old quarter. Each street then had merchants and households specialized in a particular trade, such as silk traders, jewelry, etc. The street names nowadays still reflect these specializations, although few of them remain exclusively in their original commerce. The area is famous for its small artisans and merchants, including many silk shops.
The photo above: Walking around Hoan Kiem Lake.
The day after I landed at Hanoi, I had my first meeting scheduled with the Executive Director of one of four Fair Trade organizations I visited in Vietnam. I always like to have some sort of sense of purpose when I travel or do most of anything in my life. I love to learn, I like to be productive with my life and I enjoy the process of creativity. So, it felt quite satisfying to have the purpose in the front of my mind, of meeting with the cooperatives that I had connected with and use that time to data collect as well as relationship build. I strongly believe that face to face human interaction is one of the most important keystones to building working relationships.
I worked for two weeks here in Hanoi and formed a solid partnership with the coop I believe I will work long term with.
Sapa and Bac Ha – Northern Vietnam This brought me to the end of the week and I had booked a night train sleeping berth to travel to Sapa, in the north of Vietnam with the intention to attend the Sunday Market at Bac Ha which was further east and more north than Sapa – 2 ½ hours on the bus. The train ride was interesting – reminded me of catching a train in India in the 1980’s – wow! – the first class “Orient Express” was adequate in the way that your brothers’ room in the rec room was adequate when your mom put fresh sheets etc on. My compartment travelers were an older couple from Australia – she was a vet and not sure what he did, but he was friendly and tall. The other berth mate was a Vietnamese man from the north who couldn’t speak a lick of English but had a wonderful smile. We were all older – we turned in shortly after we departed and were all lulled to sleep by the sway of the train. When I woke, it was about 6:30 and we were behind schedule as it turns out. Never found out conclusively why. The older Australian man was up and had opened our berth door and gone out into the narrow aisle to lift up the window to see outside. Rural agricultural mountain Vietnam in the lifting hours of the sun under mostly cloud cover. So many exotic trees and lush landscape with small gardens everywhere – even beside the train track. Misty clouds low lying. I felt like I was finally in the Vietnam I had imagined. Arriving at the train station, I boarded a bus as did many of my other train travelers and headed for Sapa which was up the mountain. Lo Cai (the train destination) is right on the border of China to give you a perspective of where I was. When we arrived I couldn’t help but feel it was like so many other mountain towns I had been in – the air just smells different. Clean. I rested a bit and had a shower and then went out walking around the town for the rest of the day. I ate delicious food, I met a nice young woman Marie-Claude who it turns out is Canadian. She is a free lance writer for “Chatelaine” magazine. I ate dinner at the restaurant in the hotel – they had very good food.
Next morning I was up early to have a quick breakfast and board the bus that was going to Bac Ha – the Sunday market, for the day. In the lobby of the hotel, I met another man who, as it turns out, was also going to the market on the bus that day. His name was John and he was from Australia – we grabbed the last seats on the bus. When we stopped for a break, we were able to grab seats together and gabbed for the next few hours. It felt like I knew him forever. He is 61ish and in my general age demographic which means he is a free spirit and hippy sort of person and an interested traveler like me. We became fast friends. The market at Bac Ha was really cool in many ways. There was the usual tourist layout of the market for textiles but there was also the veggie, fruit and animal market where the domestic trade flourished for the area. Many ethnic minority peoples feed into this town for the Sunday market with their wares – textiles as well as live stock and garden produce. There was an incredible display of culture and community.
I got off at the main town as I was catching the overnight train that night to go back to Hanoi. We had a ”bus people’s” group photos and lots of goodbyes. John and I swapped emails and made a plan to meet up in Hue the next week. The train was uneventful – I had an upper bunk again and made a cozy nest and went to sleep. We arrived in Hanoi at 4:30am and once I got off and meandered through the rail yard, hit the front of the station thought – what the hell am I doing here by myself at this time with all these men roaming about. I was advised what a cab should cost me to travel back to my hotel and found the driver and bargained him to that price. Feeling sort of cranky and brave but real happy to be in the cab and driving.
Back in Hanoi
The rest of that week until Thursday morning when I flew out to Hue, I spent time at my partnering coop and then preparing to leave Hanoi.
I flew to Hue on the Thursday of that week, March 8th for three days. I was looking forward to leaving Hanoi as even with the break of the weekend in Sapa (where I could have spent more days), Hanoi is a city and I get tired of all the noise and sameness after a few days. I flew because it was so economical – maybe $100 to fly half way down the coast as opposed to a 12 hours plus bus ride or train. I stayed at a hotel that was close to the hub of the travel restaurants etc and close to the river side. It was the Hue Nino – tucked away in a side alley, wonderful staff, super clean and very artistically decorated, internet, delicious food and the owner is an artist and an eccentric architect.
Hue is a small city about 900,000 people and was once the Imperial City and the home to UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites. The seat of the Nguyễn emperors was the Citadel, which occupies a large, walled area on the north side of the Perfume River. Inside the citadel was a forbidden city where only the emperors, concubines, and those close enough to them were granted access; the punishment for trespassing was death. Roughly along the Perfume River from Hue, lie myriad other monuments, including the tombs of several emperors, including Minh Mạng, Khải Định, and Tự Đức. Also notable is the Thiên Mụ Pagoda, the largest pagoda in Huế and the official symbol of the city.
I walked around the first day I was there to get the lay of the land and the next day I walk the afternoon throughout the city with John, my Australian friend who I had met up with again here. So great to be out of a big city. We ate and we walked………and booked our bus tour of the UNESCO sites for next day through the regular city tour outlet. That day was incredible – aside from all of the fun people we met on that bus tour/journey – I have never seen so many incredibly old, beautiful sites in my life – in one day. I realized afterward that really, I should have taken 2 days at the least, to do this round of historical sites. The architecture was amazing, the environment was out of this world and all it took was a bit of imagination to dream what it must have once been.
If any of you ever get to Vietnam, put this on your itinerary and spend at least 2 days visiting and touring the Citadel and the Tombs. Absolutely amazing!
Hoi An From Hue, I took the train to Hoi An and it has been described as one of the most beautiful train journeys in the world. It was pretty incredible and I luckily had a window seat and played some great Canadian music on my IPod during the journey. The 3 hours trip had me arrive there mid afternoon and I taxied it to the hotel. Hoi An Town is an exceptionally well-preserved example of a South-East Asian trading port dating from the 15th to the 19th century. Its buildings and its street plan reflect the influences, both indigenous and foreign, that have combined to produce this unique heritage site. Hoi An is pedestrian-friendly: the Old Town is closed to cars and the distances from the hotels to the center are walk-able. It’s a great place to rent a bike. Perhaps more than any other place in Vietnam, Hoi An retains a sense of history that envelops you as you explore it. This is especially true on ‘Hoi An Legendary Night’. Every month on the full moon, even motorbikes are banned from the Old Town, which is transformed into a magical land of silk lanterns, traditional food, song and dance, and games in the streets. Emphatically the most enchanting place along the coast, this is one spot worth spending time at. Here is a listing of Hoi An as a World UNESCO site: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/948 I love this town more than any other I visited in on my journey. It was super easy to walk around and accessible on foot but many rented bikes. I mostly walked and walked very day taking photos, eating, shopping and people watching. The thing that enchanted me the first night I was there was that that many merchants and restaurants that had silk lanterns that they illuminated at dusk and it turned the whole of the river front area into a lantern lite wonderful town. You will see what I mean from my photos.
One of the best things I did on my trip was attending a cooking class while staying at Hoi Ann. I booked through the “Morning Glory Restaurant”. Morning Glory Cooking School is run by Ms Vy, Vietnam’s most famous Chef, restaurateur and cooking educator. Her cooking classes are so highly regarded across the globe because of the state-of-the-art facilities, education about Vietnamese culture and high caliber of food produced. The restaurant is one of the best in town and very reasonable for the quality of dining it is just plain crazy not to go as often as you can – but there are others that are great as well. They had the best cooking class that I found in town.
Here is cool project that is based in Hoi Ann. “Streets” restaurant, set in the historic central district of Hoi An in a beautifully restored shop house and is a training project for disadvantaged youths. All trainees spend part of each week at the restaurant, applying what they have learned in their classes. All the restaurant revenue goes towards supporting the comprehensive program. Food is inspired from chefs around the world and the menu features contemporary Vietnamese as well as international cuisine. I ate there a lot as I wanted to support the project as well as it was one of the best restaurants in town. Of course, I made friends with the staff there and that also made it fun to keep going back. Awesome project – check it out: https://www.streetsinternational.org/home/28-history-streets-international.html
Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon)
I flew from Nha Trang to Ho Chi Minh City and had the hotel driver pick me up and take me to the Duc Vuong Hotel which is situated right in the heart of the traveler's district in HCMC. Sounds a bit bourgeois but most hotels offer this service if you ask and hey, why waste time and undergo more hassle trying to figure out how to get a decent price for a cab to get to your hotel. I found this service excellent especially for solo, older female travelers and was grateful for the ease.
I really liked the hotel that I stayed at here. It was not too expensive and the nicest one with the most amazing roof top restaurant with a wonderful garden. It was so noisy and crazy outside that I ate there, as much as I could. In fact, most days there, I would come in by 6:00pm or 7:00pm after walking the streets for the entire day or working and would stay in for the evening, eating at the roof top. You will see from my photos what an excellent little oasis it was. I loved the garden and spoke with the gardener a few times, praising him for his skill at raising these beautiful plants. If you ever go to Saigon – I recommend your staying here. In fact, my friend John who I met in Sapa and traveled and hung out with in Hue recommended it. He is a musician in a band that has toured Vietnam a few times (they play China this summer) and knew of it and gave me the thumbs up.
Ho Chi Minh City is the largest city in Vietnam and the population including the surrounding towns is now 9 million. That is a big, big city teeming with people everywhere. It is so far south, that the temperature when I was there, was average 30 degrees Celsius. I did not have much hot weather my entire trip or sun and so this was like hitting the mother lode. I know lots of people don’t like it that hot, but I do and so was happy to be there.
This is the economic center of Vietnam and is the leading receiver of foreign direct investment in Vietnam. Motor cycle is the primary transportation in this city and there are millions of them travelling on 6 lanes of streets. Speaking of streets – crossing streets in Hanoi felt a bit crazy as there are no real rules of the road as we have in Canada and pedestrian’s right of way doesn’t exist. You step off the side walk and keep moving and usually, you reach the other side unscathed. Saigon was a completely different kettle of fish. Holy smokes Batman, these guys don’t really slow down and you are crossing street usually of minimum 6 lanes of traffic. Better to walk an extra block or two and find a place to cross where there are lights or 2 or 3 lanes to deal with as opposed to 6.
The city's core is has wide elegant boulevards and historic French colonial buildings and the best way to see the city is on foot. First day there, I ventured out with a map and walked and walked and walked. You will see from my photos there are lovely shop fronts and lots of French influence here with bakeries and coffee shops. Otherwise, there are lots of restaurants of every genre and price points but then again, Vietnam and Saigon in particular is famous for its street cooking. There are outdoor restaurants set up everywhere and the food is amazing.
Some of my observations
• There were many young people and it seemed to me that close to 60% of the population were people under the age of 30 years old. There was something that was extremely hopeful about seeing all of these wonderful, vibrant young people everywhere looking to grow their country.
• Post secondary is highly valued and encouraged on the whole and most every young person I met was either going to a college or a university – or making plans to do so. The government, especially in the north, has obviously put a lot of effort into making post secondary as accessible as they can – which I think is key for the development of a country. Most of these young people were mostly working at the same time while going to school and if they were in college; their goal was to get to university. There was some concern, however, that there needed to be more job creation effort made by the government in their country so that they could put their education into play when they had graduated. Seems that so many of us around the world share the same lament.
• Everybody works hard here and looks forward to getting ahead. Again a solid sense of optimism and willingness to participate. It was a feeling in the air. The fair trade coops I visited were stellar examples of decent work places, working conditions and fair wages and I feel very good about my work in this field over the past 4 years and what my effort has contributed. This visit has confirmed my opinion that it is so very important to support those who spearhead this work in their countries and these operations and initiatives as they pave the way for moving toward a higher standard of living and being for everyone.
• This is a very safe country to travel in and there were so many wonderful Vietnamese people I met on my journey. They were kind and helpful and curious and polite. Although there is a very strong message from the government to the people to be helpful and hospitable to tourists – I got the feeling that even if they were not issued an edict – many of them would assist in the same manner because they are proud, hardworking and decent people.
• It is true – the food here is pretty great. I must admit I got a bit tired of noodles but hey – there is always rice. Ha. Everywhere you went there were steaming pots of something healthy, fragrant smelling, affordable and available.
• Everywhere I stayed and ate and walked was super clean. This has got to be the cleanest SE Asian country I have ever traveled in and I’ve lived and traveled in most all of them.
• Lots of older tourists travelling in Vietnam. I was surprised at the number. There were the usual younger traveler backpackers fresh out of university and then there were a ton of people in their 60’s and 70’s. I felt like a spring chicken. I think it is marvelous that older people are getting out now and travelling and experiencing the world in their retirement.
• Air travel is the way to go here – so inexpensive and fast if you have limited time. Air Vietnam has a new fleet and the service is excellent, time schedules good and on time. Trains and buses are fine when you: have time, have never traveled like that before and want the experience but if you are older or have limited time – book on-line and travel with ease.
• Speaking of on-line – this is one of the most “wired” countries I have ever been to. There was internet or wifi pretty much everywhere. I traveled with a Net Book so that I could work and get email etc. I also brought a Black Berry but never bothered getting a SIM card in it for Vietnam as I had SKYPE on my computer to speak with my family and stay in touch in general. I was waxing on to one old timer one day about how incredible his country was – wifi, awesome food beautiful young people and countryside. He just looked at me and smiled.