Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Vestiges of Interest

So this is my excuse for not blogging for several weeks: a week and a half ago, my dear friend Kristi came and took me on vacation - a vacation we both very much needed. And I must say, this was one of my best vacation efforts yet (as in, I'm getting better at being a tourist and not being afraid to actually spend money on occasion...I'm a slow learner).

The first couple of days we tootled around Hanoi, saw some of the most important tourist sites and ate some FABULOUS sushi and sashimi with Tomoko, our Japanese cultural translator. Kristi got to experience Hanoi traffic up close and personal (only a few brushes with death).

Kristi poses with the sword-delivering tortoise at the Ho Guom Temple.

Mmm, Japanese food - the REAL thing (or, as real as it gets outside of Japan).

But we were both thankful and excited to escape the city and board a plane destined for more relaxing locales.

Just what every airport needs...I wonder where you can collect on it? Or if the proceeds go to purchase incredible amounts of duct tape.
We went off to Hoi An, a UNESCO World Heritage site almost exactly in the middle of the country (just below the infamous 17th parallel and DMZ). Hoi An, despite being in the middle of the territory most torn apart by the war was almost miraculously saved by a common agreement from both the American and Viet Cong forces to protect the city and its history. Hoi An is an ancient sea port dating back perhaps as early as the 12th and 13th centuries - a multicultural trading port that hosted Chinese and Japanese (and later French) settlements for traders and shippers. Much of the original architecture still survives, despite yearly flooding that leaves most houses at least 3-4 feet deep in water. Conservation efforts have saved much of the original architecture and restaurants, shops, museums, and private homes alike are housed within these buildings along the narrow downtown streets.

Streets of downtown Hoi An - under construction to try to improve drainage for flood season.

Tourism has been the next savior of the local culture - one newspaper article claims the area hosts up to one million visitors each year - a quarter of all foreign visitors to Vietnam. we managed to pick the perfect time - May is a dry (if a bit warm, but not as warm as July) month with relatively few visitors. The fine hotel we stayed in only had two rooms in use for most of the week.

One of the major highlights of Hoi An is the SHOPPING! Yes, we were girl-y for the first part of our vacation and overindulged in the stereotypical feminine pursuits - but how could we resist? Hoi An purportedly is home to over 400 tailor shops, and one can hardly step out onto the street without being accosted by voices begging you to enter their shop and consider the possibilities. Artists in their own right, the Hoi An tailors can copy and improve almost anything you throw at them - from pants to shirts to shoes. If you don't have something you want copied "100%," then you can look through any number of J.Crew or similar catalogs, point at something, get measured and the next day look like you stepped out of the magazine pages.

Silk, silk, silk. And silk made into something.
Then there's the jewelry - silver and gold and jade copies of Tiffany originals or designed made-to-order, and of course all the standard tourist offerings of hats, t-shirts and chopsticks. When you're tired of shopping, there are restaurants and juice shops to fit any pocketbook and a little spa treatment to help you relax (we indulged in pedicures, facial massages and threading on one hot afternoon).

Then, when we had finally tired of the shops, we took a tour to a traditional lantern-making shop. We each made our own lantern (err, glued silk on the pre-made frame) after watching the workers ply their trade, and of course were enticed into buying more and better-made lanterns.

The lanterns we made... ...and the real thing.

We acquired another friend who came down from Hanoi for the Memorial Day weekend (she works for the CDC so she actually had Monday off) and we hit the beach. Then we toured the countryside (and got sunburned) while trying to find the ancient Cham ruins (a.k.a., some of the "Vestiges of Interest" according to the maps and brochures) at My Son by motorbike. We spent more time at the beach and topped off our trip with a stop by the Marble Mountains on the way back to the airport. We hardly lacked entertainment on this trip - and still Kristi managed to polish off 6 of the 10 books she had brought along for the trip.

The Cham "vestiges of relics."

I highly, highly recommend Da Nang and Hoi An to any potential international tourist - and if you have the pocketbook for it, they are building five-star resort hotels and golf courses faster than a tailor can make a dress. The whole 45 minute drive between the Da Nang airport and Hoi An proper is lined with resort after resort in various stages of completeness. This is THE new destination for the upscale (and not-so-upscale) traveler to SE Asia - and so far, much deserving of the reputation. And for us, a perfect get-away from the real world for a short time.

To the hills

Okay, so I'm waaaay behind in blogging. Here's one catch-up.

In early May I took my first trip to the far west of Cao Bang province - the real backwater of northern Vietnam. Bao Lam district is the furthest west district in Cao Bang, and while Cao Bang Province is 96% ethnic minority, the ethnic minority make-up of this district and the neighboring areas is completely different from that in the areas that I am used to working. This area is home to the White and some H'Mong - these are the cousins of the H'Mong that now call Wausau and LaCrosse areas home in Wisconsin.

San Chay girls in ethnic dress.
In addition to H'Mong, there are Dao, San Chay, LoLo and some Tay/Nung - the majority minorities in the area where I live. This diversity leads to a lot more challenges in language and communication. Poverty is a much greater problem in these areas - up to 90% of the population in these areas are below the national poverty line.

We came to Bao Lam to do a follow-up assessment for a safe motherhood (maternal health) project and a water project for the hospital. The district hospital is relatively new and very nice, but the water system can only provide water for the operating theater and the emergency room - leaving the routine care and families of patients in a real bind for assuring cleanliness after critical care. Traditional birth attendants in the villages have never received any formal training and many don't even understand the basics of hygiene for preventing infection. These are the true front lines in community health care delivery.

Bao Lam Hospital on the hill.
We're looking forward to expanding our work into this area - the beautiful countryside and local foods make up for the six hour drive to get there and the enthusiasm of the local workers inspires and renews my own passion for reaching the unreachable.

Mmm, Bao Lam fish - the local delicacy.

The view - hardly to be beat.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Where’s the Beef?

In Binh Phuoc, of course.

Where’s Binh Phuoc? Finally, an intelligent question.

Well, I got to find out for myself last week when we flew down to Ho Chi Minh City (f.k.a. and still unofficially a.k.a Saigon) last week to see the Beef of Binh Phuoc. The beef come in the form of 66 cows (or, when Vietnamese-English accents get a little intense, sixty sick cows) that have been given to families of blind people through an ADRA project called the “Cow Bank” project (not to be confused with the “Cao Bang” project – also sometimes a victim of Vietnamese-English accents).

Are you still with me?

Good…where was I…

Oh, yeah, Binh Phuoc. Binh Phouc is a province just northwest of the HCMC area (our [younger] guests from Down Under were momentarily confused by the double name – I finally explained it was for tourists: when you ask if you are in Ho Chi Minh City yet, your tour guide will say, no, you’re in Saigon, and then if you ask if you’re in Saigon, he will explain that you’re in Ho Chi Minh City – and then charge you double price for going to two cities. This is further supported by the fact that HCMC still has an airport code of SGN – is this because airport codes are so difficult to change because Eil in Somalia really doesn’t want to give up the HCM code…or is there some latent subversiveness here? Mental note – capturing and renaming a city may never be completely successful unless you can think of a good, unused airport code…)

…oh, yeah, Binh Phuoc.

So Binh Phuoc, to the northwest of that southern city boarders Cambodia on the west and is generally flat as the Mekong Delta. ADRA Vietnam has been working to nurture a start-up office in the south, and the Cow Bank project in the south adds a nice symmetry to the system, balancing out the Cao Bang project in the north.

So, this last week three of us from the Hanoi office flew down to meet the southern programs director and some visitors from a potential donor office. This was my first chance to see south of the 16th parallel (or south of Hanoi, really), and my first experience of the different culture of the south.

What I enjoy most about these trips is that we get to go to places that no tourist would likely go to. Binh Phuoc is a neat place – and the roads are generally in better condition that up in the remote mountains and the buildings are newer and facilities offer more amenities for the same or cheaper price. The socio-economic picture is also quite a bit different: rather than subsistence farming, most of the livelihoods in that province revolve around two major cash crops: rubber and cashews.

One of the downsides to these trips is that we go to places that no tourist would likely go to. Binh Phuoc, for all its southern charms, is really just one big rubber tree and cashew nut tree plantation. The cashew nuts at least offered, if not a complete break in the monotony, at least the hope of getting to enjoy some of the delicious outputs. The rubber, as an edible delight, wasn’t nearly so appealing. But fortunately we were there to look at cows – not just rubber trees.

And so after the mandatory meetings with authorities, stakeholders and local partners, we were off to look at some beneficiaries and a few of the sixty sick…er, strike that…sixty-six cows. And look at cows we did. Big cows, little cows, baby cows and pregnant cows. And a few pigs, goats, chickens, cashew trees, pepper corns, pigeons, flowers, dogs, babies, worms, grandmas, motorcycles, rubber trees, cashew fruit, jackfruit, and their owners for good measure.

It was something between a circus act and a swat team investigation – a van full of five sweating foreigners, two Blind Association representatives and their handlers, four Vietnamese ADRA staff and three randoms that nobody seemed clear on relation to us and driver piled out in front of a house hauling video equipment and tripod, handheld cameras, still cameras, microphones, notebooks and launch in a series of questions that must’ve been baffling and then asking to see (and photograph, film and otherwise wholly document) “the cow” – yeah, that’s something that happens every day.

It was probably the most fun and relaxing for me – for once, I didn’t have to claim any previous knowledge about the project, the area, or the potential future of the project. I didn’t have to play any part in logistics other than being to the right place at the right time and not get left behind. I didn’t have to photograph anything specific or play any other role than to entertain the star-struck locals that weren’t actively being questioned or filmed (and score at least one marriage proposal from a toothless farmer). And to look at cows. Cows are fun.

This was a scaredy cow - hmm, 16 strangers all coming out of the forest at you at once shouldn't be that unnerving, now should it?

This single, old mother is caring for her blind son...and a cow that probably out-weighed her at birth...

The fatted calf...but not for butchering, yet.

And the real calf. Baby cow.

The principle of a "Cow Bank" is that a family is given a cow that will soon be ready for breeding. The family then cares for the cow until the calf is born, and when the calf reaches 9 months of age, it is returned to the "Cow Bank" to be given to another family. The first cow stays with the original family and continues to provide a source of income and financial stability.

The idea behind cows, as opposed to traditional micro-lending programs, is that a cow is a buffer against inflation. Cash loses value (and in the high-inflation Vietnam economy, that is particularly noticeable right now). Assets devalue. A cow, as long as it remains healthy and productive, however, can only increase with value along with the market. So, people like cows - and the financial stability a cow can bring. Hence the concept of a "cow bank."

And did you know cashew nuts grow on the end of a fruit that has a pleasant, sweet-sour taste? The fruit shrivels and dies and gives it’s life force to the forming nut. If it weren’t that that nut was so good, we’d be savoring cashew fruit. And if you found that cashew fruits have some amazing medicinal properties (as some people believe) would you sacrifice that precious end result to get to the fruit? That would be a difficult choice for me…

This cashew fruit is still unripe. When ripe, it will be a juicy and vibrant red.

Hot as it was, the trip was over as quickly as it started. The morning of the third day found us heading back to HCMC and straight to the airport. We never even got to see any of the parts of the city that tourists would go and see.

This is the shiny, new international terminal where we wandered to kill some batteries gave out before I got a picture of the domestic.

And a few hours later, on April 30, Vietnam’s Reunification Day, with the heavy air and flashes and rumbles from the dark, encroaching clouds acting the part of the approaching Viet Cong, I found myself in a sad reenactment of the anxious wait to escape the Saigon airport. Our flight was delayed by one…two…finally three hours and the heavy clouds kept us pinned to our spot despite the tempting nearness of downtown Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon itself. Ahh, well, the exotic pleasures of that mysterious city will have to wait for another, more fortuitous time.