Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Holiday Greetings from Vietnam

It is 7:30 PM on Christmas Day night; I am sitting warm and dry in my candlelit living room listening to a Christmas concert on my favourite NPR station. I am finally feeling assured that the only thing I have to be concerned about at this moment is what time I should go to bed in order to get up to make an early-morning Christmas phone call to my family.

The Christmas-letter writing season was a wash for me this year; it always seems life implodes in on iteslf around this season. So, finally, on Christmas night I have found the moments of peace necessary to reconnect with all the people brought to mind by the season.

The end of 2007 is also the end of my first complete year in Vietnam. Last year at this time I was shivering in the dark and damp that was so shocking after the recent heat and long days of a Madagascar summer. This year the cold doesn’t seem nearly so shocking. It’s actually quite pleasantly warm (highs of 65-70 (15-20) degrees during the day), but far wetter than the Malagasy winters I’d grown used to. The darkness from the almost constant overcast and fog in the mountains can be depressing, but that’s what good indoor lighting is for.

I suppose the defining factor of my life in Vietnam is my work. This year has seen a lot of changes in that also, as our organization moves through a period of strategic growth and development. It’s a very fluid time – I’m calling it the organizational adolescence – and I don’t think I have worked at the same job for more than two months at a stretch this year. Officially my title has changed from “Health Coordinator for the Cao Bang projects” to “Northern Regional Manager.” It’s a big change in words and in actual responsibilities. It means that I’m less project-based, and far less technically involved in the actual projects. It also leaves a lot of room for job growth as I increasingly focus on program planning, proposal development and other aspects of organizational expansion. It also means a lot more time given to capacity building for the staff coming up behind me – they have to cover a lot more of the nuts-and-bolts of day-to-day project management that the health coordinator used to do. It’s a good thing all around, but like adolescence, it’s also suffused with growing pains.

I feel very, very lucky to have been blessed with the opportunity to work with this organization at this stage in the development. I am doubly blessed with a committed project staff who are also capable of high-quality work. It speaks volumes about both the culture and the program managers who came before me. I am the one benefiting from my predecessors’ investments. The result is a program that is in many ways (and not just in my humble opinion, but also the opinion of external evaluators) an example of how development can work. Here, in Cao Bang, Vietnam, I have every confidence in the achievability of that often unattainable goal: the opportunity to work myself out of a job.

Much of that also speaks for the culture of Vietnam. Far from being a war-ravaged backwater, Vietnam is fast becoming an economic powerhouse in Southeast Asia. Some of my colleagues in the development arena here are beginning a pool to guess when Vietnam will declare itself independent of external aid, much as Thailand has already done. Unlike in the development situation in Africa, Asian countries refuse to be eternally propped up by external money. Just as our own organization is in an adolescent phase, Vietnam itself is reaching vibrant adolescence, with all the joys and pains and questions that goes with it. Perhaps it is appropriate that one of our major projects is an adolescent education and counselling program – we could offer advice and support to the country as a whole.

That brings us to 2008. For now I look forward to the continuing (albeit exhausting) changes that will persist in the coming months. My contract is until the end of June. It is difficult for me to say what I will be doing two months from now, much less in July. I have recently moved into a new house in Cao Bang and am continuing the search for reasonable housing in Hanoi city (a large reason why I have been incommunicado for such a long period). My job requires me to spend increasingly long periods of time in Hanoi; times which are suddenly filled with meetings and conferences and fighting the endless motorbike traffic jams. I am improving my motorbike riding skills by the day – and my ability to disengage my mind from following the rules of the road.

While it seems impossible to see into the coming two or three months with any clarity, I do have a vision of myself enjoying my first American Christmas in five years at home in 2008. What or where I will go between now and then, or beyond that, will be a story for me to tell in a year’s time.

Each day I rely on the words of Jonh Lennon:

Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans.

And so, unless I can retire next year, I will continue to make those plans and discover after that I am living that life already.

Best wishes to all of you at this holiday season. As I thank the Lord for the blessings of another year and for the gift of one very attentive and adventurous guardian angel, I pray that each of you may receive just such a gift in equal measure.

In loving peace,


P.S. For those of you that are more interested in the details of my daily life in Vietnam, I do continue to update my blog at fairly irregular intervals over the months. Currently I have several juicy ideas for upcoming posts – so check back regularly as I will write more very soon!


1 comment:

Tim and Karin said...

Merry Christmas Erica, and to all the Brewsters. We enjoy all the care and storytelling that goes into the blog entries. Congratulations on your impressive sounding new title and job description.

Ho Ho Hodag.

Tim and Karin
Galena, AK