Phu Ly Week 2 March 12-18 2011

The project has come to an end. As I write, we are waiting to head off to Trung Luong Village (the other job) for a hand-over ceremony. Our job, at Ma Nao Village, was completed yesterday and handed over amid much speech making, dancing girls (5 year old ones), karaoke singing and beer drinking. It would have been a real hoot if it wasn’t for the sub-10 degree temperature and the persistent rain. The weather has been terrible for the last 3 days, making it very difficult to put the finishing touches on our project. Some walls remain unpainted, but all the structural work has been done, the kids have lots of new puzzles and games to use and they have a wonderful new kitchen, complete with gas cooker, fridge, fan, rice cooker and tiled benches. This is a far cry from the old lean-to with charcoal brazier and limited water. The biggest change is the provision of electricity to all the rooms. The major structural change is the removal of the old rotting roof and erection of a new colourbond steel roof and suspended ceiling.
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Christine has conducted her own personal project along the way, taking on the task of restoring two ancient old pieces of play equipment. One, a merry-go-round, was very drab and had a lot of holes in the fibreglass horses. She could not source any hardening filler anywhere, so we located some styro-foam packing and mixed it with petrol, making a gel-like bog to patch up the holes. Next she painted the horses and added some astro-turf matting to cover and hide all the rusted holes in the base. The result was acclaimed by all. The other piece was a rocking cradle with a chicken head. It needed a new seat so an old door was cut down and a rainbow pattern added. With a good lick of paint, the whole thing came up like new.
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The reaction of the village inhabitants was charming. Every day, we were greeted warmly and farewelled with genuine friendliness. We all received gifts of tea sets made locally in Ha Nam Province. During the afternoon, the villagers joined in with a game of cricket, mostly children but a couple of elderly people also taking up the bat. As the deadline to finish the work drew close, the local contractors increased their efforts and the whole thing came together very well. A very satisfying ending to a terrific two weeks.
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The collegiality of the members of PVI will bring us back again. We have made some wonderful friends. Like all groups of people, there are many diverse personalities and viewpoints but I guess we all share several things in common; a concern and compassion for the people of Vietnam, a sense of adventure and the ability to work together as a team. This made the project work and is what has driven things over the last 15 years of its operation. We both envy those people who have a long standing association with PVI because they have been able to see and track the incredible changes taking place in this country.
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As for Phu Ly, I think two weeks is long enough for a while. As a purely provincial city that lacks a tourist infrastructure, life is a bit one dimensional (2 dimensions if you consider the Bia Hoi stall). We have found the food to be generally disappointing, although the lunches have been absolutely amazing. In town, many places sell only one or two dishes and communicating what you want or don’t want is tricky. The good thing is that if you get it wrong, it doesn’t hurt the purse at all. Life here is very cheap indeed. Some members changed $200 on arrival and still have money left over. After a big session at the Bia Hoi, we all dob in to the pot. The standard rate we seem to have settled on is 10,000VN each which is around 50 cents.
Throughout the fortnight, the local shopkeepers and residents have become more accustomed to seeing “round-eyes” in their midst and greet us with enthusiasm, rather than shying away. The school children, in particular, love to practise a phrase or two of English from school and giggle and blush when we reply. In reality, the language issue is a serious problem in Phu Ly, whereas in other parts of Vietnam, one can usually find someone who can speak enough English to get by. We have struggled with Vietnamese but the language is very difficult, with inflection being just as important as words and structure. I do not find it a “pretty language” by any means, particularly when people are in a hurry and sound as if they are arguing. On the other hand, when speaking gently, or formally, the language can take on a poetic lilt that is quite soothing.

From here, we move South to Hue, the ancient capital of the Nguyen Emperors. We will catch the train from Phu Ly tomorrow morning, a trip of around 12 hours. The others will bus back to Hanoi today and head off in all directions, although those planning on heading up into the mountains are reconsidering given the weather. We are both well satisfied with our work, but looking forward to getting on the move again.