Project Vietnam Inc – Building Project 11-24 March 2012
This year’s building team project for Project Vietnam was based in Phu Ly, the same as last year’s. Phu Ly is a small provincial town about an hour’s drive South of Hanoi in Ha Nam Province. The actual site was a small kindergarten in a small commune of Trung Luong, another 30 minutes South East. Originally, we were to upgrade two kindergartens, but by the time the job started, the decision had been taken to put all the resources into one and close the other. When we arrived, work was already well advanced, with Tony, our building supervisor having been on site for a couple of weeks and organised a local building team. They had already done the brickwork for two new classrooms, leaving our team to roof 4 classrooms, fix doors and shutters, install electricity, build some toilets, convert a room into a dining room and build a kitchen. With painting and cleaning, not too much to ask of 30 workers and a team of locals in a shade under two weeks. Shortage of storage space was an issue and we moved our main store several times throughout the job to make way for renovations as we proceeded. Piles of rubble were created, shifted and recycled, the Vietnamese letting nothing go to waste.
Last year, on the job at Ma Nao, the local team tended to come as we left. This year, we all worked side by side, creating some wonderful moments and developing a huge amount of mutual respect. The local women are amazing, often hefting weights that have us working in pairs. The language barrier often made for some puzzled looks, but luckily, we had the support of two excellent interpreters, Miss Hanh and Miss Moon, who worked tirelessly throughout the day. The teachers laboured too, carting bricks and mortar in their high heeled shoes and clean clothes. As the fortnight progressed, more and more workers could be seen wearing Aussie hats and shirts bearing Australian logos. Villagers would stop in to say hello, children would stop by after school to play games or try out their few English phrases and occasionally a University student would come by to practise their English conversation.
Christine took on the role of “organiser of smoko”, making many friends at the local markets and causing much merriment by riding a bike through the village. She weaned the workers off a steady diet of sweet biscuits and “choco pies” with fruit platters and tempting savouries. Lunches were provided in a nearby house by a committee of kindy mums. They tried very hard to please our palates, sometimes producing “oohs and arrhs” and at other times getting a polite excuse of “too full” or “funny tummy” when some of the more unusual local dishes were not so well received. Certainly, the appreciation of our efforts in the village was demonstrated over and over, with everyone making some great friends and feeling highly valued.
I laboured; dug ditches, laid drainage pipe, dug a sewerage tank, scraped walls, painted and moved rubble. I left all the thinking work up to a crew of people much better qualified than me. At the times, the body protested, at other times the work was slow and finding a job was hard while we waited for the next step in a process but all in all we were busy, and came home each evening exhausted.
The usual run of minor illnesses ran through the crew, less than last year but still enough to give a few the odd day off to be close to a toilet. Christine maintained a strict regimen with water supplies on site and I think this definitely lead to a reduction in tummy bugs.
This year, we were fortunate to have quite a few younger members of the team with us and their enthusiasm and energy with the local kids was a pleasure to watch. Impromptu games and singing sessions would break out and create a very happy feeling that spread across the work site. Even though we had a large team working in a small space, the peace was always maintained.
Working hard means that we had a great excuse for a beer after work and the Bia Hoi right next door got our full attention. I’m sure they have been counting down the days until the return of the Aussies and rely on us to fund their next improvement. One night, we even surprised the other regulars with a St Patricks’ Day celebration, complete with green beers, green tinsel and green leaves adorning the tables and beers mugs. Green balloons festooned the keg and we printed out the words to “Danny Boy” so we could loosen the tonsils. The night was combined with a birthday celebration for Del. The birthday the Vietnamese could handle, and Del was swamped with men coming over to toast her good health but I think the St Pats thing passed over them completely.
The culinary opportunities in Phu Ly are a little limited. A few good street food offerings are to be found, everyone seems to adopt their favourite little Pho or rice restaurant and sometimes we went off to the only Pizza and hamburger joint in town. We made up our own names for places, like “Rice Heaven” or “Aunties”. We had some good meals, some not so good meals and even some inedible fare. Everyone tries so hard to please and most seem motivated by more than profit to earn approval. Unlike last year, when we were the only Westerners around, there seems to have been a regular trickle of Russians, French and even a group of 90 primary students from an International school in Singapore staying in our hotel for 2 days to work nearby in an orphanage. A flash new Russian-backed supermarket has opened up in town, complete with electronic scanning, although we tended to stick to the regular old small shops where we were known and had developed a kind of sign language for getting by. We did find that when we wanted to buy something different, using Google on the iPhone to get a picture up usually solved the problem.
It is really amazing what wonderful sights there are out in the rural countryside. The area we are in is known broadly as the Red River Delta. The Red River flows down from the highlands of China and spreads out over an enormous floodplain, providing the basis for a flourishing civilization of many thousands of years. Water is everywhere, the villages really being built on little more than the narrow dykes and earth lanes that divide the rice paddies. Houses are extremely narrow, often rising 3 or even 4 stories to conserve ground space. Churches are very common, with Catholicism being strong (around 15%). Many of the churches are grand, built in the French style and far bigger and more majestic than buildings rated as cathedrals back in Australia. Buddhist temples and pagodas also abound, and we were privileged to be shown through some wonderful examples near where we were working. One was an incredible all-wooden building which dated back to 1310. The timber was in superb condition. The structure was supported on massive solid posts over a metre in diameter. The roofing timbers were also solid and intricately carved, with joints neatly morticed and held with wooden pegs.
A leisurely walk always produces a few surprises, whether it be a wonderful old pig sty or lean-to, some amazing handcart in use, local ingenuity in the use of a motorbike or bicycle or stopping and exchanging greetings with and ancient old grandmother complete with betel-juice stained gums and peg-like teeth. These are the sights and sounds of a Vietnam that one can never hope to fully encounter on the many “whistle-stop” tours that are on offer in the weekend travel section of the daily papers.
Our team was big this year, the building team alone exceeding 30 sometimes. A medical team also ran a project, largely out of Hanoi but sometimes joining us in Phu Ly for a day or so. People came and went, some staying for only a week, a few joining in after we had been in Phu Ly for a few days. The camaraderie is wonderful. The Sunshine Coast forms the mainstay of PVI but there is a smattering of others, with the Horsham crew (Vic), us West Aussies (3) and even one from Tassie. Many of the team will go on to join up with another project in Cambodia but events will bring us home. The committee has been hard at work reviewing prospects for jobs in 2013 and wherever they take us, we know that we’ll see lots of the same faces again and a few more new ones. We can’t wait.