That is the first thing I said to my boyfriend when I landed in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. It was night but you could not really tell from the heat and the bright flashing lights. When I looked out the taxi’s window and saw the masses of motor bikes swarming in and out of traffic, I was scared for my life. I had never seen such a ridiculous scene. I would soon come to learn that there would be countless things I had never seen, never experienced, never felt, and never imagined before. And if there was one thing that could summarize my trip in Vietnam, then that was it.
Arthur and I had done plenty of research for every aspect of our trip. We had looked through numerous hotels and decided on a hotel because of its location and reviews on the internet. Thien Vu Hotel was in between Go Vap Orphanage and the notorious District 1 of Ho Chi Minh City. The hotel is a family run business with kind and gracious owners. We definitely made a great choice. We got very close with the owners as they even made us dinner on our last night in Vietnam, but the fact that I knew how to speak Vietnamese and that they knew that we were here to volunteer at Go Vap Orphanage sure did help.
How do I describe my first day at Go Vap? Well, for starters, it was something I had never seen before. Thanh, one of the employees there who used to be an orphan there as well, gave me and Arthur a tour of the orphanage. At each ward, there were these precious darlings with unfortunate situations. I did not fall in love with everything right away. There were so many beautiful babies without a family and really, without good medical care. I had volunteered a lot of time at the largest public hospital in New York City and I used to think that place was unsanitary and disorganized but it was immaculate compared to Go Vap. The lack of the use of gloves, hand sanitizer, and sterile material put these children in a dangerous environment. Despite my disapproval of Go Vap’s hygiene, I went on spending some time with the children in the Down Syndrome ward, I immediately felt at home and at ease. A little boy, maybe of seven or eight years old took me by the hand and showed me around the place. He told me to sit down and tugged on my hand when I did not listen to him the first time. He pulled me down to the floor to show me one of the caretakers feeding another child. He said to me “Look, she feed him! She feed me too!” The caretaker looked to him and told him to leave me alone in the most endearing way possible and proceeded to hug and kiss him. This was my first glimpse, and certainly not the last, at all the love at Go Vap.
I walked into the hydrocephalus wards and went slowly through all the three rooms. It must have been most heartbreaking moment of my life. Never had I seen so many sick children with such poor prognoses. I felt helpless because there was nothing I could do. I walked into the youngest room of the hydrocephalus ward and found the sweetest children. I think I had recognized some faces from spending so much time on the Vietnam Volunteer Network’s website and Facebook, but to see these faces actually in person was a totally different feeling. After being so heartbroken, I was really down. But almost immediately, their smiles could warm you in an instant and their deep gazes into your eyes could capture you attention for a very long time. After that moment, I did not really feel my initial sense of powerlessness because I finally saw that there was something I could do. All these children desperately needed attention and love. The caretakers had too many children to take care of and could not give in their heart and soul, besides; they had their own children to take of too. However, I was here just for these children and was ready to give them all my loving.
The first lesson I learned about the Vietnamese people was from Co Loan. The people in Vietnam were not really goal oriented and preferred not to have a plan. I always walked into Co Loans office with a very clear agenda. I had a list of things I had to talk to her about from Kim (Kim Nguyen Browne, founder of the Vietnam Volunteer Network), a list of questions I had from myself, and other business issues. But Co Loan would have none of that. She just wanted us to relax and enjoy our time at Go Vap. Every time I tried to talk about a situation or an issue, she would say okay and proceed to feed us and talk to us, ask us about our own lives, about America, and about anything else you could think of. But then again, I am American, I am a New Yorker. I always have an agenda and I always mean business. I asked Kate, another wonderful VVN volunteer who spent a lot of time with us, in response to constantly reminding her to take pictures of the toys and receipts, “Are we really planned out and always stressful?” She replied with “You two accurately depicted my vision of the typical New Yorker, always serious and very organized.” I did not at all take offense to that because it was a precise summary of my own upbringing. David Wagoner (Kim’s American friend & producer of the Dowry of the Meek), had said something about Australians being able to vacation for months on end, and not knowing when they would go back home, while Americans vacation for a couple of weeks, if at all. Maybe Kim would agree with Kate as well, as I always bullet point my emails to Kim.
I was at Go Vap every Monday through Thursday from about 7:30 am until 12:00 pm, some days I ended earlier, some days I ended later. Co Loan would typically have something for us, whether it be a drink or a sandwich to take on the go, some candy, or all of the aforementioned. Being at Go Vap in the morning meant I had the rest of the day to spend around Saigon. (I say Saigon here because I mean it sweetly because my family is from South Vietnam and still call it Saigon and not Ho Chi Minh City, which is typical of most southerners, especially in America.)
I discovered a lot of Vietnam in this time, once again seeing and experiencing things I had never seen before. There were weird customs that I thought was odd at first. For example, when one walked into a store, there was always an employee to follow you. At first, I thought it was completely rude and obnoxious until I realized it was customary and rather very respectful. In Vietnam, they also charged for wet towelettes which I did not like. Another thing I had to get used to was not leaving a tip. In New York City, tips are almost mandatory. Not leaving one could justify a fine, imprisonment, or both. Okay, not really but it would sure feel that way. In Vietnam, a tip is not customary. Sure, they will take it but not without making with a confused face. Probably the biggest thing I had to get used to were the stares and glares. I do not know if it was me, a Vietnamese girl, taller than the average Asian girl, dressed in really American attire, or my boyfriend, a Russian-American, blonde, muscular, soaring at six feet four inches, also in really American attire, or perhaps the both of us together. Saigon, though much more improved and enhanced from the Saigon I knew when I was ten, was still very conservative. Arthur and I had made it a point to not really hold hands, unless we were crossing the impossible streets. To be honest though, it was too hot and humid to hold hands anyway. The couple of moments where we managed to hold hands, or perhaps sneak a hug, I am sure the folks around were watching and saying things.
We did a lot in Vietnam. We went to Cho Banh Thanh, Cho Lon (Chinatown), Mekong River (Mekong Delta), Phu Quoc Island, everything in District 1, and ate everything in between. Cho Banh Thanh was quite the experience. Everyone was pulling us, literally, left and right to buy their merchandise. Everything was overpriced and most sellers hated my bargaining, even though I don’t think I was even that good at it. To avoid the mob, Arthur told me to pretend that I don’t speak Vietnamese. That really worked! I ignored every Vietnamese thing I heard, walking away as if I never heard it. But soon enough, I discovered that the people would bad mouth you right in front of your face. Things like, all profanity reserved, “Look at that b*@$#. she dresses all pretty and can’t even look at our stuff.” Or, “What a m@7*%r f~%*$r, too cheap to buy anything!” Usually, my temper would not let this fly but it was Vietnam. It’s too hot to start anything and they’re just doing their thing. Crisis averted. We walked everywhere in District 1 which was funny because I had not wanted to go to the most tourist flooded places. Ironically though, I felt most comfortable there because it felt like a city.
The Mekong River was eye opening. People lived in conditions I could never imagine. There was also a natural beauty to the Mekong River that I had seen before. The water, boats, trees, and the landscape, maybe that’s why everyone lived there. The most beautiful place in Vietnam though, must have been Phu Quoc Island. The beaches were pristine and magnificent and I am happy that we were there before the construction of the international airport was completed. It was a very raw side of Vietnam. The roads were still not yet paved, red sand was everywhere, and people just living on day to day, not really looking back or ahead.
I thought I would get sick eventually on my trip but maybe the sanitizing everything every ten minutes helped. Or perhaps it was the constant drinking of water and water with added electrolytes that kept me healthy. Regardless, it was not that bad. Sure, some food stands were quite shady and some just out right illegitimate, but I would say everything was palatable and some even very delicious. I do not know if my boyfriend would agree but you can ask him later. There was just so much food! It was all irresistible. I was constantly comparing the foods in Vietnam to that of my mother or my grandmother, judging whose was better. Oftentimes, I found that mother and grandmother had been keeping out on me. So many things had a different sort of flavor, regardless of the same fish sauce that was served with every single dish. I was fortunate that I was Vietnamese and knew what things to order and what things to try. I hope everyone that travels to Vietnam gets a try out all the different tastes and dishes of Vietnam!
The children at Go Vap were always ecstatic to see us, especially the special needs children. Our first session with the special needs took a lot out of us. We were running around everywhere, playing with them, chasing them down, and trying to teach them. We were to acquaint ourselves with them first before teaching them how to brush their teeth. In the end, we taught them how to brush their teeth individually, as it was impossible to get them to sit in one spot listening to us. That’s when we met Thay Nhut. Thay (meaning teacher in Vietnamese) Nhut was amazing. He walked into the VVN room told everyone to sit down and behave and all the kids listened. Amazing! He taught me a lot about these children. He told me that these poor kids have no one to love them and so they just need some love, some discipline, and some understanding. He really has a pure heart of gold. I guess in this aspect, the children at Go Vap got it good.
I had really connected with a lot of the special needs children, especially after our trip to Vung Tau, a beach city in Vietnam. Phuong, a blind child, was so happy that I could speak Vietnamese and show him a lot of things. Co Loan had asked us to buy a piano for him and I had never seen such a grateful child. Usually, he was really talkative and followed me everywhere like a shadow and always enthusiastic. When he got the piano (which the Vietnam Volunteer Network paid for), he was quite, turned down a notch, and hugged me really hard. I take it that he was just so grateful that he really did not even know how to respond. I tried to teach him a tune and the right positioning of his hands and fingers. After all, I used to be a piano instructor a long time ago. He thanked me, thanked Co Loan, and thanked Kim in a sweet little video. He loved being recorded, as he always asked me to record him singing. At the end of the trip, he sang a song in front of everyone on the bus and dedicated it to me. Thuy, a deaf and thus, mute child was also my shadow. She was such a sweet fragile child and loved playing with me. I would speak to her through my body language and some sign language that Co Loan taught me. I was so happy for her when I learned that she was in the process of being adopted by a Canadian family. I even have a new pen pal, Hao, who is not a special needs child but is a thirteen year old living at Go Vap. Hao and his two younger brothers lost their mother to cancer last year. His mother was a friend of Co Loan and after a lot of talking, the brothers decided to stay at Go Vap. Hao and his brother Minh were constantly going up to Arthur and saying “Wow! Big man! Big muscles!” Arthur had given them some New York City caps and a U.S. two dollar bill. They were so ecstatic and grateful about everything. Co Loan told Hao that if he studied hard and did really well, that she would let him visit me here in New York, and I would love to have him here. He is such a sweet, responsible, kind boy in need of perhaps, an older sister like me.
The trip to Vung Tau was so fun. These children were just so happy. The littlest things would put the biggest, purest smile on their faces. The host would hand out candies and balloons and these children would have to sing for it. There was no lack of participation and I was certainly much shyer than these kids! At the beach, everyone was in the water. They were so happy to be rolling around in the sand and flopping in the water. I remember I used to complain about trips to the beach. It would be too sunny and hot, sand would get everywhere, and everything would be dirty. Watching these truly happy children made me feel like a brat, and certainly a brat I will never be again. One night, they took us out on a tour of Vung Tau on the bus. The driver broke out the disco lights and club music. Who would think that 50 special needs children knew how to club and party? In the narrow aisle of the bus, they got down and dirty. They pumped to the music, jumped to the beat, and screamed so loudly. One child managed to do the caterpillar in that aisle! I was astounded. Thay Nhut came to the front of the bus and said “I better not catch you guys doing anything dirty or else I’m breaking this party up!”
The last day at Go Vap was so said. It was Friday, a day we usually don’t come in but we could not help it because we knew we had to go back one last time. We were really going to miss these kids. I spent a lot of time with Thao, probably the baby I spent the most time with. She was a very extremely tiny 6 month old baby with hydrocephalus. While holding her, anyone could feel the shunt that was placed in her brain to drain the fluid through her chest. I didn’t want to leave her. I wanted to take her home, but that was impossible. I was a 21- year old dependent student. But if I could, without hesitation, she would be in my arms right now. We visited each ward. The special needs were saying bye profusely and hugging me every second, not wanting to let go. The saddest ward to leave was the hydrocephalus ward. The babies were too young to understand that we were going back home and they all said bye with smiles. I wish I was not able to understand that I was saying good bye to them because it was the most painful experience to say bye to such beautiful, happy, unfortunate children. I went around to Hien, Huong, Thao, Nghia, Ngoc, and many others before leaving. I probably went around to them more than twice, giving out so many kisses. But more importantly, I managed to get a couple of kisses from them! It was such an emotional goodbye. I came to terms with myself on leaving and said I would go as soon as I would feed Thao. The caretakers told me that Thao did not let anyone feed her; she would take her bottle when anyone was holding her, except with me. And so, I put Thao in my arms and gave her the bottle. She was sucking away with wide eyes and a wrinkly forehead. She always had eyes that wandered everywhere and a body that would squiggle. She stared at me a lot, I think, and was probably really hungry. Halfway through the bottle, her eyes started to close and open, then close and open, until she had finally fallen asleep in my arms. It was really hard for me to put her down at that point. She was sleeping so soundly in my arms, with half her bottle still unfinished. I wanted to take her with me but instead, I had to place her down, wrap her in a blanket, hold her tiny feet, and kiss her forehead. I cried on my first day at Go Vap and I cried on my last day at Go Vap. And that’s how I left Go Vap.
When people ask me how my Vietnam trip went, it is really hard for me to answer that question. I usually reply with “It was eye opening, rewarding, and fun to say the least”, but they really do not know anything. I do not think that there is a way to answer that question, if at all. If there is anyone with any sort of questions about VVN or Vietnam in general, I hope they come to me because I want to tell them everything. I feel that this essay was all over the place because I had so many things to say and not enough space or time to say it all. I will never forget my moments in Vietnam, and certainly not Go Vap. My heart is still with the children at Go Vap, as it will always be. Someone told me that I should not be so sad or upset because I am going to go back one day. And that person is absolutely right. I am going back one day to see my Thao, Huong, Hien, Nghia, Phuong, Hao, Minh, Thuy, and all my other babies and children. I wonder what Co Loan will cook for me then.