I am writing from the hotel, having spent the day resting up with a “touch of belly”. After the things we have been eating, it’s not surprising. Christine, as usual, had a quick bout of mild illness then straight back on deck while I seem to take a couple of days to get over anything.
The experience working with Project Vietnam (PVI) has been all we hoped it would be. We are part of a group of 29 wonderful people, most from Queensland but with a smattering of New South Welshmen, West Aussies and Canberra-ites thrown in. We spent the first night in Hanoi, getting reacquainted with the Bia Hoi stall down the road then travelled approximately 75km South East to Phu Ly, the provincial capital of Hai Nam. Phu Ly is home for the next two weeks, which puts us nearly half way through the current project. We are staying at the Hoa Binh Hotel, a very comfortable (and even luxurious by our usual standards) seven storey building in the classy part of town. The room is setting us back a whopping $18 a night.
PVI is running two projects in the area, both kindergartens that are in need of rebuilding. They require re-roofing, concrete cancer taking care of the old ones, ceilings, the provision of power points, lots of painting and replastering as well as any odd maintenance jobs we can manage. The team has several builders, with one having been on site for several weeks planning the work and assembling materials. A lot is sourced locally, although the roofing steel has been imported from Australia. Some labour is also sourced locally, mostly bricklayers and plasterers. We also have an electrician with us . The building codes here seem very loose to non-existent. Seldom is anything done with a level or a string line and the lack of cavity walls or damp courses means that most buildings rapidly succumb to damp and rot.
Each morning, we head out in a bus (actually two buses because the two jobs are in opposite directions). The weather has been cool and very misty, although the rain has been restricted to the night. Most days, we return totally exhausted, especially after a day on the roof clambering around. We are very well fed along the way. At our site, some locals provide an amazing array of dishes; fried chicken, roast duck, calamari, deep fried prawns, buk choy, sweet cabbage, and rice have all been on the menu. Sadly, the other site has not fared so well and there have been numerous complaints about the chewy broiled beef and sticky rice or plain noodles.
As a learning experience, the project has been terrific because not only have I learnt a lot about Vietnam, I have learnt some new building techniques. The work is very hard but very satisfying. Access to power is one of the issues we face. As a power saving measure, the village only gets supplied for half a day so the electricity goes on or off at noon. At other times, we rely on a very noisy diesel generator that can just run two power tools at a pinch. Our biggest need is for ladders and scaffolding. One aluminium 4-way folding ladder was brought in from Australia but often we have to use a long bamboo job. While this is undeniably strong, it does twist and groan when one is up near the top so it takes some getting used to.
Throughout the day, there is a steady stream of locals dropping in to see the progress and to say “sin cheow”. We use our very few Vietnamese phrases and they respond with their very few English phrases. The Principal and teachers are often on site, organising things for us or helping clear away the continual mess that builders always seem to create. School is held in two shifts. Just after noon when the first shift finishes, the yard fills with curious kids. At other times, the Principal closes the gate and they mill outside, keen to watch the strange “round-eyes” at work. Christine sat with one group and they worked through their English lessons, practising phrases.
One of our favourite times is the walk back through the community to catch the bus, an easy trek of around a kilometre. In the afternoon, the narrow village streets are full of people who all greet us or wave. Everyone around seems well aware of who we are and what we are doing and appear to be very appreciative. We also pass a large duck pond and each day we mentally count the ducks to see whether the day’s lunch diminished their numbers.
At the end of each day, most of the team members will congregate in the nearby Bia Hoi. This sells local keg beer in tankards, along with a variety of nibbles. A heavy session on the Bia wouldn’t make a monkey drunk so we tend to consume quite a bit of the stuff. The whole bill for the group is shared out, usually coming to around 25,000VN each (about $1.25). For evening meals, most just head off in small groups to find some Pho (noodle soup) or similar fare. Often, we just take a couple of bread rolls and cheese or bananas back to our room because we a so tired or lunch was so filling.
Yesterday, Christine and I travelled East to Thai Binh, about 50kms away, to take part in a ceremony handing over bursaries to 5 final year medical students. This is an annual award from PVI to the University and we enjoyed the hospitality of the Vice Rector and the Vice Head of International Cooperation, including a sumptuous lunch at a hotel. The five students were very appreciative of the $200 they were receiving, an amount that will support them for 5 or 6 months of their final year. We also took the opportunity to visit an orphanage in Thai Binh, the scene of an earlier project. There were only 4 children present, most being off at school. The other team members that had worked with the orphanage were greeted with much enthusiasm. The children were given some knitted toys and soccer balls. Christine and I thought that the standards the children were enjoying were higher than some of the aboriginal students and communities back home in Australia.
Tomorrow, a film crew from Channel Seven’s Sunrise arrives (Natalie Barr) to film the work we do. At this stage, I’m not sure of just when and how this footage will be shown back in Australia but I’ll post up the details as soon as they are known.