Sunday, February 7, 2010

March 20, 2005 Hue, Fly to Ho Chi Minh City - Karaoke Madness

This was to be our last full day in Vietnam. We took an early morning flight with Vietnam Airlines to go back to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) for our flight home the following day.

We spent the day doing some last minute tourist type things...going for their famous noodle soup at Pho 2000 restaurant, touring and purchasing souvenirs at the lacquerware factory, and picking up some last minute bargains at the local "department store". My biggest find was DVDs of first rate movies for $1.20 each (did someone say pirated copies???).

That evening we were guests at the home of our guide, Anh. In Vietnam, the entire extended family lives together, so we had the opportunity to meet them all.
His mother is said to be the "Mother Teresa" of Vietnam and is very involved in all types of humanitarian works there. She has been instrumental in setting up many of our contacts in Vietnam as well as procuring many of the humanitarian goods that we donated to the various organizations there. Often his sisters were delivering the goods or shipping them to us via bus so we could deliver them.

One of the gifts we delivered to Anh's mother was a plaque representing a special humanitarian award bestowed upon her by The Pope. Tony, our counselor had worked the full year since his last trip there to obtain this for her and she was truly blessed and honored by it.

After dinner, we walked around the corner to a karaoke facility owned and run by Anh's sister. Karaoke is big in Asia, but this was the first time most of us had seen it in person. The room was fairly small, like a private party room. They had two microphones, a very large TV screen and a very LOUD sound system. Once we got started with it and a couple Vietnamese girls got going with it, we had a lot of fun.

If someone every tries to convince you that I got up and did a solo of "Wind Beneath My Wings" to my dear husband...don't believe it. I cannot sing and I do not drink so why in God's earth would I ever do such a thing...other than I dearly love him and wanted to make a public statement of that. He got the message...even if I did see blood coming out of his ears!

That morning when we had returned to Saigon it had been again to the Rex Hotel where we had stayed upon our arrival in Vietnam. It was a strange feeling of "coming full circle". Somehow after all we had done, seen and participated in the Rex did not look the same.

Thinking back on it now...I know that the Rex had not changed, I had. I cannot speak for Gary on this, but I know that personally this has been a life changing experience for me.

All of Life is an Adventure,
You just have to be open to life changing experiences

March 19, 2005 Hue , DMZ, A Shau Valley - Even the Leeches Remember Gary

This day consisted of a considerable amount of driving for visits to more fire bases and battle sites of of our participants. Due to sensitivity of the areas we had to have special permissions to travel there and also have a local guide aboard at all times (in addition to our regular guide/interpreter, Anh).

We visited the "Rockpile", saw Hamburger Hill, crossed over the Dakrong Bridge and up the Ho Chi Ming Trail. Several times we saw signs warning us that we were in "Frontier Area" along an illusive not well defined area bordering on Laos. We were cautioned again to be especially careful not to take pictures around any military installations or of any police officials.

In this travel we all got a better appreciation for the size and complexity of the general A Shau Valley area. Previous areas we had visited did not have the same thick jungle undergrowth we witnessed here. Also the lay of the land is often very treacherous and difficult to negotiate. Now I can understand how difficult it was for them to move around from point A to point B. It is like nothing else I have ever seen.

We also witnessed dramatic illustrations of the impact of Agent Orange on the vegetation even 35 years later. You can definitely see where it was sprayed and the few scattered areas that were missed. The missed areas still have huge trees and demonstrate to you what the rest might have looked like if it had not been sprayed.

One of the stops we made for Gary was to Fire Base Bastiogne which he helped to build/set-up. This fire base ended up not being as accessible as Camp Eagle had been and he had to let the more athletic of the group go on ahead and be his eyes and legs. We will get photos from them later but they said they got good shots of the area and what still remains.

Dispite our protests, Gary tried to walk a portion of the trail with the assistance of me and a couple other participants. He ended his walk the equivalent of 2 blocks off the highway in a lovely but heavily vegetated area along a stream and drainage ponds in between some shacks. There we waited about 15 minutes for the others to return. When they came back they were bearing a few battle field momentos they brought for him, plastic from a claymore mine, etc.

It was getting late so we headed back to the bus. All of a sudden Gary asked me to check his back and when I pulled up his shirt I found a leech on his lower back. He had described these to me before and how a number of them would attach themselves to you when you were crossing a stream or something. WOW, now I understand so much better. It was just a little one, not yet filled full of blood but it was so well attached to him it was a real chore to get it off. I cannot imagine having to live with those for a full year!

Again to balance out our experiences, we had a lovely dinner that night aboard a traditional Vietnamese river boat with a Royal music performers. The lights of the city shone on the water. There was a virtual light show going on a nearby bridge. The traditional costumes were beautiful. The music was unique and very entertaining (I've never seen tea cups used in pairs as castanets). In Vietnamese tradition, we made a wish, lit candles which were set in a lotus bag and placed them floating on the surface of the water.

All of Life is An Adventure,
You just have to beat your way through the jungle to experience it

March 18, 2005 - Hue Street Children's Lunch & Orphanage

Each year TOP sponsors a lunch for street children. The word is put out and they show up in droves. This year they had 150 children show up. A local restaurant fixes the food (rice, meat and a bottle of pop) and we serve it up.

What an experience that was. Little kids so dirty and hungry shovelling in the food and sharing with each other. They had been given generous portions so many took the leftovers with them in a plastic bag. Gary noted there was one little girl making the rounds with her pop bottle pouring into it any leftovers out of other bottles. It was also apparent that the children live in "family" groups as you could see an older girl taking care of several younger ones. To bad our children do not appreciate more what they so easily take for granted.

As they left the lunch each child was also given "goodie bags" containing toothpaste,toothbrush, comb, pencil, eraser, madigras beads, candy and stickers. They were delighted and I was very thankful we had appointed a couple of our volunteers for "crowd control" as the kids definitely demonstrated their eagerness and enthusiasm in the hand-out line.

As a balance to the mayhem at this event, our next stop was at a pagoda run by Buddhist nuns. They served us a delicious all vegetarian lunch and sang the sweetest songs to entertain and relax us. I made friends and exchanged addresses with one of the young nuns who is working on learning English. She is a very special young woman and stood at the door of the pagoda longingly waving me goodbye. You have to be cautious when visiting with the Vietnamese people. They take you at your word and remember everything. If you say you will come back to see them again, they really expect it. I was cautious not to promise anything I am not sure I can follow up on.

After some sight-seeing, late afternoon found us making another heartwarming humanitarian visit. We arrived at the Duc Son Pagoda Orphanage to be greeted by shouts of excitement from a few of the children who were outside. This is a regular stop for TOP so many of the children remember their visits from year to year.

We were ushered into a receiving hall to meet and have tea with the head nun at this Buddhist orphanage. I was especially struck with how clean and well kept everything was. The children behaved perfectly and were very happy.

We were warned by the head nun that our visit with her would have interruptions. I loved the reason why. Out of respect, as each child returns from school they stop at her door to repeat a type of Buddhist chant and greet her and any visitors. It was precious and heartwarming. She says it also helps to keep track of the children.

From there we moved into a long narrow dining hall where all the 190 children were already seated at tables in age groups. They started out by singing to us a song of greeting. We had stacked our items for presentation at the front of the room.

They run a training program for their older children to teach them tailoring skills and had requested a donation of fabric for their use. This was obtained by us for them through contacts in Vietnam.

We personally had one special donation of $150 which we obtained from a veteran who learned about our trip via the internet. These funds financed the purchase of milk for this orphanage. Nutritional needs for the babies is a high priority and this gift will help immensely.

A generous donation from our Oregon Vietnam Veterans group financed a large stock of medicines for this orphanage. I was the one to do this presentation and wanted to speak of something they might relate to. I told them that like they ride motorbikes in Vietnam, we ride larger motorcycles in the United States and that we have a group of veteran friends who ride together with us and sent money for their medicine. I told them that next time they have a tummy ache or runny nose and the nuns give them medicine, I hoped that they would think of us riding our motorcycles in the United States. They seemed to related to it.

After the presentations, it was time to sing some more and then play. The children impressed me with the number of English songs they had learned to sing to us. Finally we started passing out stuffed animals, toys, balls, stickers, pencils, hot wheel cars, balloons and bubble blowing supplies. They were having a ball playing and so were we. There was not so much of an issue of everyone getting the same items or same numbers as children in orphanages are taught to share their toys so there seemed to be less urgency on the part of the recipient. "Crowd Control" was not needed at this location.

Next on the agenda was dinner for these kids. The nuns had told us that they are always short of funds for a decent meal so we financed probably the best meal these children had seen in a long time. Again, like the street kids lunch, it was stir fried rice and a generous portion of meat. We helped to serve it and then watched them enjoy it. The nuns explained to us that it takes about $65 per day to feed these 190 children (11 cents per meal per child is pretty reasonable) and most times they do not have the funds to pay for it.

What a concept if they could just get 30 people to finance one day of meals per thinking out loud...something to consider.

Once we said our good-byes, we returned to the reception hall to find that the nuns had fixed us dinner also. Oops! we already had dinner being prepared for us elsewhere so we had to courteously decline and hope they would just save the food over for the kids use the next day. At that point there were still a few children we had yet to meet. Here came a procession of nuns with tiny babies in arms. The youngest baby was just 4 weeks old. Her mother had serious mental problems and could not care for her. As if they had not yet captured our hearts, they proceeded to put these tiny bundles into our arms.

When we finally headed for our bus, many of the nuns and children lined the corridor and patio to shake our hands and say good-bye. There were many hugs from very needy, lonesome kids. One little girl in particular (about 3 years old) ran out and locked herself around my legs. I picked her up and she wrapped herself around my chest. All of a sudden I heard a little sucking noise in my ear. She was blowing kisses into my ear and unknowingly "tearing" at my heart.

All of Life is an Adventure
You just have to play with the children to put it into perspective

March 18, 2005 Lang Co to Hue - Magically Enhanced Moments

This morning we departed for a day "packed" with special moments. In route to Hue we were able to visit the site of Gary's old fire base "Camp Eagle". We had some maps which Gary had printed off the internet but they were not as detailed as we needed. Consequently we ended up making one of our usual random impromptu stops to ask for directions (yes, in Vietnam it is acceptable for men to stop and ask for directions). It was magic...the woman we ended up asking used to work at Camp Eagle and could tell us precisely where it was!

Now let me explain to you that so far on this trip every previous visit to significant battle sites had been very remote, requiring beating down brush and hiking for considerable distances. It was like "someone" knew that Gary could not handle that type of site.

As we drove down the paved side road Gary began to talk about his memory of the site and it's location adjacent to a graveyard. Here we were driving through the graveyard and right up to within about 100 yards of the high spot where the command post had ben located.

Gary was able to walk very easily to that high point on an old asphalt road. We could not have asked for a more "accessible" site...again magic!

We were only there a few minutes and the lady who had given us directions showed up to make sure we had found it and visit with us. She had worked at the camp for a number of years and had an American boyfriend. We thought she was telling us in her broken English that she had heart problems but what she meant was that her heart had broken when he left. She greeted Gary and the other veterans very was magical!

Gary was describing a stream that ran through the camp. When he was there the soldiers had dammed it up and skinny dipped in the pond they created. I was his legs as I wandered down into the ravine in search of that stream so I could capture it in pictures for him. Once I had my pictures, I searched around for some special momento to take back up the hill to him. All of a sudden I saw beautiful purple and red flowers growing wild and started to pick some. About that time Gary was calling to me and the others that we needed to come back up the hill. Just one more flower and I would have a bouquet so I continued to pick before I answered the voices that called to me.

As I reached the top of the hill I was able to present to Gary what I called a bouquet of "Peace Flowers" replacing the bad memories of so many years ago. Again a magical Kodak moment. (Anyone too young to understand that term just ask your parents.)

Once we were back on the bus I was filled in on the two reasons why they were so anxious to get us back to the bus.
#1 - The local lady had pointed out that there was a danger of land mines or unexploded armaments.
#2 - The local police had shown up and were unhappy we were exploring close to area they deemed to be "sensitive"...not sure why but this is common here and you just don't want to get them upset.

All in all the visit to "Camp Eagle" was very rewarding...magical and we are so grateful to have been able to make it.

All of Life is An Adventure
You just have to be willing to go back and heal old wounds,

March 17, 2005 Hoi An to Lang Co - Sand between our toes

We had a late start this morning (9 AM versus our normal 7 AM) and then visited Marble Mountain. Did some "tourist stuff" there visiting a studio where they carve and sell marble statuary and many smaller stone items. We were so impressed with the beauty of the items that most of us will be carrying a small stone Buddha or something home when we go. Thank heavens I purchased a small enough "Happy Buddha" that will not have to pay for an extra seat on the aircraft to get him home.

We made a visit to the famous "China Beach" where many soldiers enjoyed a bit of time away from the horrors of their war posts. China Beach is actually a long stretch of beach and there is a resort being built which promises to definitely change the now remote feel of the area.

We traveled through Hai Van pass and arrived at a resort called "Lang Co" with deluxe cottages overlooking the ocean complete with French doors leading out onto patio and the spectacular view.

This was to be a special evening for the group. After dinner we proceeded down to the beach where we convened our usual evening "group" session gathered together on beach blankets with glow sticks and citronela candles. We each talked of our original goals for the trip and the impact it had already had on us. It was a very special time of sharing and healing.

All of Life is An Adventure
You just have to be willing to get some sand between your toes,

March 16, 2005 Quang Ngai to Hoi An - My Lai Massacre site visit and Hoi An Nursing Home

Today was the anniversary of the My Lai massacre and we timed our visit to coincide with special ceremonies being held by the Vietnamese to commemorate that event. We arrived with a special flower wreath to present and were invited to join in the burning of incense at the memorial site.

They have a very informative exhibit there. The pictures inside are difficult to look at due to the extensive loss of life. They have reconstructed various homes as they appeared after the pillaging and burning of the village. The concrete pathways have bicycle tire ruts and footprints of all shapes and sizes (like when a kid sets his hand print in the concrete when it is still wet). However, these impressions are not for fun but rather an illustration of where the village people would have been running in an attempt to escape the bullets that killed so many of them. Each house site has a plaque telling you who lived and died there, it includes not only their name but age at time of death. There are two large stone wall encased plots with the graves of entire families, again marked with names and ages.

The most moving portion of this experience was meeting with survivors of the massacre. They are very dedicated to the site, visiting to lovingly tend the grounds and tell their stories so no one forgets.

Some of them survived because they hid in a bunker with their family or they were gone from the village fishing or farming in the outskirts. Our guide sat with us and interpreted as one special 85 year old Vietnamese lady told her story.

She spoke of how friendly and kind the American soldiers had always been to them, bringing gifts and supplies. That was why it was such a shock when one day the soldiers came in and opened fire on them. They herded them up and told them to move to over by the river bank. She was wounded, fell to the ground and survived only because the bodies of her sister and mother fell upon her. She passed out and woke hours covered with the blood of her now dead family.

With tears in her eyes, she graciously accepted a beautiful necklace we presented to her. She hugged us all and expressed in her own way her gratitude that we are now friends.

From there we went to the Hoi An Nursing home. At this site we personally contributed 135 pieces of adult clothing which were sorely needed and greatly appreciated. TOP contributions included a water filter/sanitizer, medical supplies and other items that had been specifically requested by the administrator of the home. We met with the director and staff of the home to make our presentations. Each of 20 staff members received mirrors, combs, hand sanitizer, a pen, and a scented candle. Such basics and so much appreciated by the recipients.

We had brought toiletries (tooth brush, tooth paste, comb, travel shampoo, small soap bar, and any other items we could manage) for each of the 150 residents. TOP had also brought canned milk, two for each resident.

We made the rounds of each of the residential rooms to distribute these precious items. The rooms were starkly simple but clean. Up to 8 persons shared each room which was about the size of most of our bedrooms at home.

Each resident sat on their beds waiting as we made the rounds. I spent most of this tour in the hallway handing items to the rest of our team to distribute. I was missing out on the one-on-one contact that I have come to enjoy so much. When we reached the last room, I left my distribution post in the hall and moved in to get my dose of "warm fuzzies".

I did not even make it beyond the first bed where I encountered a 90 year old man sitting silently cross legged staring off into the distance. I greeted him in English and was immediately rewarded with a half toothless smile. I sat on the edge of his bed and held his hand. He raised his other hand to touch one eye which was glossed over with cataracts as if to tell me he could not see. Undeterred, I raised his hand up to touch and feel my face. He smiled again and held tight to my hands but still no speech. He had been clutching a small bar of soap and I raised it to his nose so he could enjoy its fragrance and understand what it was. My reward was another big smile.

Out of the corner of my eye I could see Gary seated on the steps just beyond the door to this room. One of the other TOP participants were in the room with me and I asked her to go tell Gary I had someone he needed to meet.

It was a special moment as Gary sat beside us on the small wooden bed and together we held this man's hands and spoke to him in hushed tones. A Kodak moment to be certain.

Finally one of the attendants came by and spoke in a very loud voice to our new friend and lo and behold he spoke back. That was how we found out his age of 90 years. You cannot truly imagine how hard it is to leave these precious people after you once communicate with them in this way but soon it was time to move on.

Our agenda on this trip has been packed and well balanced in terms of the variety of experiences. This day was no we went to a dinner at which we were treated to a lesson in cooking Vietnamese. It was very entertaining as well as tasty.

All of Life is An Adventure
You just have to allow yourself to be "touched" to truly experience it,

March 15, 2005 Mystery Village -The price of having fun at the end of the road

Today we were off trying to locate another battlefield site for one of our veterans. Based on old wartime maps, we drove backroads, and stopped several times for directions. In Vietnam if you want to find something bad enough you stop for directions and ask the oldest person around. It usually works and they are gracious and very willing to help.

We ended up well off the beaten track and in the middle of a village where the road goes no further. We were still looking for a large pile of boulders that marked an attack site. Consequently the majority of the group took out on a walk down a path on their search.

Gary and I stayed in the bus with the driver and another nice woman on the trip. The people of the village were sitting around on their decks/porches chatting and the kids were curious about our bus. I decided to be adventurous so I headed outside the bus with a tennis ball. Of course it was one of the ones with a smiley face designed by Gary.

One little 6 years old boy started playing catch with me but it was his 1 year old brother who fascinated me. He stood with one hand on mama and one outstretched toward me. Each time I tried to direct the ball to him and each time his older brother intercepted it. Finally mom's arm restrained the older one so the little one could take a couple halting steps and then excitedly scramble for the ball. He beamed once it was in his hand and did not want to give it back.

After playing a bit with the baby the mother picked him up and handed him to me. Then she was trying to tell me something and motioned to some money she had in her hand. My stomach turned as I was afraid she was trying to sell me her baby!!! And the villagers around were encouraging her to do it.

Later, I quizzed our guide/interpreter about it and he said she was joking. Evidently the Vietnamese joke about selling their kids to Americans so they can go to the United States and have a better life. How sad that they acknowledge so much the difference in cultures and advantages.

In this closely gathered group of Vietnamese people, the women talked to me in Vietnamese and we joked and laughed at what communication we could accomplish. They are curious about us, our size and skin. They were not shy to grab my arm and feel the extra flesh on it, compare the color of my skin to theirs, compare sizes of our hands. Suddenly one older lady was showing me her watch...K-Mart blue light special style...then she motioned to my Seiko watch. I kind of smiled and said yes, nice watch. When she stated to take off her watch I realized she wanted to trade watches. Whoa! I had to tell her NO and she must have known she was asking for too much because she did not push the issue any more. Still our group was not back yet and there was one elder lady who kept shouting something at me and pointing on up the path. When I did not respond she finally grabbed me and literally pushed me across the town square and stopped only when I was face to face with a very old man! ...I finally breathed a sigh of relief when the rest of the group arrived and "saved" me from the conversation I was trying to have with this Vietnamese gentleman.

Later, I asked our guide/translator about what happened. He explained that it is usual protocol for you to "pay respects" to the village "chief" before you interact with the people of the village. I had obviously stepped on some toes. Oops!

Since we were already interacting with the village people, the decision was made to make this one of our impromptu "Mystery Village" stops. Two of the guys went aboard the bus to retrieve bags of goodies which included shampoo & toiletries from our hotel rooms, candy, mini cars, empty water bottles, pencils, etc. Once they stepped off the bus, they were mobbed. The guys later said that was one for which they deserved "combat pay."

As we departed the village and headed down the narrow back roads we had a chance encounter with a low hanging power line. It scraped along the top and side of the bus and then snapped with a real twang. We proceeded down the back lane like the kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar...What me?

About a mile or two down the road we had another encounter, this time with a mad Vietnamese woman. She was blocking the road with her bicycle and stood there with her hand up in the universal language of "STOP." We did and found there was no doubt in her mind who was responsible for the power outage which evidently extended a fair distance. She demanded that we pay to have it fixed.

Before we could proceed on our adventure, we had no choice but to pay what she demanded... $6.00 US.

All of Life is An Adventure
You just have to be willing to pay the price!

March 15, 2005 Qui Nhon to Quang Ngai - Toys and Tears

After leaving our luxury accommodations, we proceeded to the Qui Nhon Orphanage and Old Persons Home. This is a very old but well kept facility which houses orphans, disabled children and the elderly.

They were excitedly expecting us and many were gathered in their open air meeting hall.

As we walked from the bus two severely disabled young men approached from the nearby walkway. One of them was moving on his belly on something similar to an automotive creeper. Gary hobbled over to him on his crutches and proceeded to produce one of his special smiley faced tennis balls from his long shirt sleeve. The young man's face lit up as they made a connection and he seemed to greatly appreciate the effort it took for Gary to approach the porch and present the ball to him. It was the beginning of a series of magical moments.

I had a few small stuffed animals in my pocket and used them as ice breakers as we walked down the path. We were like the pied pipers again and enjoyed every minute.

One of our participants had gotten WalMart to donate a bunch of yellow smiley face stickers. We had each been given a supply to hand out. Some of our first people to hand them out started putting them on the forehead of the recipients. It was a hit and hilarious to see these adult Vietnamese elders with yellow smiley stickers on their forehead. Of course we had them on ours as well so it was all in fun. A definite ice breaker as we proceeded to hand out pens, toys, party favors and cans of milk.

Some of the items we present may seem trivial but the gift is more what we are doing for their spirit and putting a bright spot in their otherwise bleak day.

Next we proceeded on into the meeting hall. Our humanitarian gifts at this stop included $150 worth of medical supplies that were purchased with funds donated by our Oregon Veteran's Motorcycle Association. It went a long way in purchasing locally things like vitamins, tylenol and other items which we take for granted and are so needed by these people. Gary was asked to say a few words to present the items and the people were very receptive.

As the result of our newspaper article which was circulated on the internet, we had received a donation of $150 from a Vietnam veteran in North Carolina. He is part of an organization titled "Veterans For Peace" and works with Afghan Orphans. With his donation, we were able to purchase a supply of milk to help meet the basic nutritional needs of the young babies at this orphanage.

From there a few of us proceeded down an additional hallway to deliver cans of milk to elders not well enough to come to the meeting hall. My spirit was so moved by these people that I wanted so badly to hold I did.

Sitting beside them, hugging them, holding their hands, speaking in hushed tones...both of us in different languages but at the same time a common language...that of compassion and love. A bond that women have, an understanding of family, the joys, the sorrows, and the hardships of life. As I moved from bed to bed and room to room, they each seemed to melt into me, clinging to me, not wanting the moment or the magic to end. Oh, God will I be able to leave with my heart?

At first a few of those with cameras stayed to capture the moment, but finally moved on. As I entered the final room, I was alone as I approached the frail little lady with her bright purple head scarf snug around her face. Her cheeks were concave and she was toothless. Once I connected with her and held her hand we proceeded to communicate in whispered "sweet nothings" her in Vietnamese and me in English.

As the tears streaked down my face I removed my glasses. She reached up and touched the tears on my cheeks. I'm not sure really how long I sat there but it seemed like an eternity.

As I "process it" now it feels as though I had the opportunity to visit again with my grandmother, my mother, my step-mother, my father-in law, mother-in-law and my father...oh Daddy, yes how good it would was as though this dear, old Vietnamese woman can carry all those "sweet nothings", hugs and caresses to them and tell them I've done right by them.

When I reentered the courtyard I was greeted by the ever present counselor, Tony, who gave me the big hug I needed.

The rest of the group had moved on to the separate building which houses disadvantaged kids. It was time for tissue to the face and a "refill" of my pockets in the bus. I filled every pocket of my cargo pants with small stuffed beanie baby toys placing them so they were peeking out. It has been awhile since I had to walk sideways down the aisle of a bus, but with all my bulging pockets that was the only way I could maneuver.

As I entered the porch balcony, where the rest of the group were handing out toys and playing with the kids, I raised my hands above my head and did a little dance around as the toddlers squealed with delight to see the contents of my pockets. As they helped themselves to the contents of my pockets, I had a fleeting thought that I might be teaching them some bad habits of picking pockets. However, we had a ball and it was so rewarding seeing the way they share toys and help each other.

Many of those stuffed animals were donated by American children with way too many toys. The pictures I have to share with them of these children should give them a good lesson in the power of giving to someone less fortunate than yourself. One boy was a double amputee but held his toy with the stubs of his arms. Several were blind and I saw them enjoying the smells and textures of their gifts.

Finally I moved to a inner room where two very severely handicapped children lay on the bed. They were both born with "spina bifida" as a direct result of their parent's exposure to Agent Orange. There, bending down beside their bed was Gary, reaching out to touch and comfort them. Later he related that although they had been almost screeching prior to his visit, they quieted down quickly with the comfort of another's touch. He was obviously moved.

Once we were again out on the porch, Gary got down on his hands and knees to help a young boy play with his new hot wheels toy. It was both touching and magical.

Did I mention this trip was predicted to be an emotional one ???

All of Life is An Adventure
You only need to know the universal language of compassion and love to experience it,


March 14, 2005 Qui Nhon - Artifacts in the dust

On the way to Qui Nhon we made some site visits for our participants. We were in very sensitive Vietnamese areas which required special permits and a local guide for us to enter. Even then we had to be cautious not to photo any sensitive facilities or personnel.

One of our members had served time at a military base and wanted to get as close as possible. No way could we proceed any closer in the bus so our guide Ahn borrowed a motor bike from a total stranger and our vet jumped on the back and off they went. They proceeded into the base until encountering military guards fully armed which prompted them to do a quick U-turn on the bike and come back down the highway to where we waited. Everyone sighed with relief when they were within was a risky thing to do but it provided some closure for the vet involved.

Later we stopped at Hill 42 where another of our vets was involved in an ambush. Upon walking to the top of the hill we discovered an original fox hole. Once we started looking around and disturbing a light layer of dust we discovered remnants of claymore mines and bullet clips. You could imagine the carnage that occurred at the site and it felt like sacred ground.

Two very old, NVA veterans showed up and were gesturing very excitedly. Not speaking Vietnamese, we had to wait for our guide to join us and interpret.

As he talked with them, again they were talking with vigorous arm movements pointing down the back side of the hill. We waited anxiously to hear the English translation of what must have been a wild battle they were describing having taken place there.

Finally Ahn turned back to those of us who were gathered to tell us "They are farmers now and have lost their cows and want to know if we have seen them!!!" Once we regained our composure, we did exchange information on war posts and found that they and some of our vets had served in similar areas, but on opposite sides. Hugs, handshakes, pictures together, that is what this is all about...putting a peaceful end to the memories of war.

I continued to scavenge around until one of the other participants cautioned me to be careful of the poisonous snakes. Yikes, that finally headed me back to the air conditioned bus.

Every night when we meet the vets have the opportunity to explain to us in advance the sigificance of their sites we are going to visit and then after the fact debrief how the visit went for them.

The accommodations on these trips are generally very good but this night in Qui Nhon was the exception, it was SUPERB. We stayed at the "Life Resort" along the beach at Qui Nhon. I can hardly put words to it but would liken it to something you would see on "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous". I'm sure they have a website with pictures and would invite you to do a search and check it out. (I found this site that shows some pictures of the resort... Added by Cindy )

All of Life is An Adventure
You just have to scratch the surface to find it.

March 14, 2005 Pleiku to Qui Nhon - Who Is That Masked Rider?

This morning, prior to our departure, I had a brief opportunity to take one of my favorite walks of discovery down a couple blocks near the hotel. This town is not tourist oriented so we were right in the middle of a very informal, authentic, street market which was a sharp contrast to some of the tourist "hawking" we had seen in the larger, tourist cities. We had seen large baskets and bundles of fruits and vegetables in the street the night before. Now we could see that the merchants had slept right there in the streets with their goods.

The colors of the produce were vibrant. The faces and interaction of the people priceless. I love the zoom on my camera because it can take me up close to a grouping without spoiling the moment. I had one group of men (behaving just like the kids had) scrambling to get into my pictures and then giggling when I showed them the resulting images.

Of special fascination in Vietnam is the way the people, and women in particular, dress. To understand where I am going you need an insight into how Vietnamese value "light skin".

In America for years we have felt that tanned skin is a sign of affluence. It says, I have time to vacation and sit in the sun.

In Vietnam it is the opposite. Dark skin says you have a manual job and need to work out of doors. Light skin says you have an important inside job with air conditioning and must be affluent.

So, almost every woman and many of the men outside, and in particular riding on scooters and bicycles, cover every inch of their body possible.

Everyone wears hats...very few motorcycle helmets...certainly not DOT approved like in the US. Then they add a mask (you see everything from smaller medical style imprints and all colors to full flowing cowboy style handkerchief masks).

They most often have long sleeves and gloves or short sleeves with very long opera style gloves. It is quite a sight and actually very entertaining.

The rest of the picture to paint for you is the fact that a scooter is often the"family" vehicle. We have seen a family of 4 or 5 all together on one scooter, sandwiched together and, if there is a toddler, they are in the front standing on the front floorboards of the scooter. So much for child protective seats...they are non-existent. The scariest one is a woman on the back of a scooter holding an infant in her arms. She has no way to hold on so it would not take much to propel her and the baby off the vehicle or crush the child between mother and driver.

If it is just a couple on the scooter, often the passender is riding "side saddle". Young women on a date with spiked high heels riding side saddle behind their date. Business women (as in working in offices) dressed up in business skirt and jacket masked and riding to work...all shapes, sizes and cargos. We have some awesome pictures of scooters carrying all sorts of packages, tools, mattresses, produce, flowers, you name it, they carry it. I could seriously just sit and watch the show!!!

Bikes are nearly as bad, they just don't move as fast. The best one yesterday was a bike with rider, passenger on back, and third passenger sitting on shoulders of passenger.

Last discovery from today to share with you...during my walk this morning I discovered a Vietnamese Fabric Shop!! Wow, what a discovery and if it had not been for the imminent departure of our bus I would have been making some very interesting purchases.

So again I will say:All of Life is An Adventure
You just need to find it in local style,

March 13, 2005 Nha Trang to Pleiku - Smiley Faces in the Countryside

On this day, while enroute to Pleiku we stopped at what we affectionately call a "Mystery Village". It is a mystery because we never know when or where it will be, we just stop some where enroute and do it.

The ethnic village we stopped at was on both sides of a country road. As our bus pulled to a stop we could see curious faces appearing at the doorway of the rustic wooden shacks. Most of the shacks are built up about 4 feet on stilts to ward off the ravages of the runoff during the monsoons.

Each of us emerged from the bus with some type of goodies in hand. Ellen had red licorice sticks which proved to be the icebreaker. What kid could resist candy?

We went in informal groups of 2 or 3 to each of the "homes". I had an assortment with ball caps, a few small stuffed animals and some special tennis balls.

What's so special about tennis balls? you might ask, well they were special because Gary had decided (while riding on the bus) to add to them a very elaborate smiley face and our organization logo "TOP". WOW were they a hit. One lady saw a child with one and searched me out to get one for her child. When I handed her a plain one without face she made it known that she wanted one of the "special" ones. Needless to say, Gary has now been busy "decorating" more of them for future stops.

The assorted ball caps I brought were also very popular. The young boys love them and just beamed when I put one of them on their head. Then I was blessed with a subject for a picture to capture the special moment.

My favorite hat presentation was made when I approached a shack with a young girl...maybe 14 months old...naked from waist down (no need for diapers here!). She sat on the floor of the meager shack with her mother, father and a couple of brothers while they watched TV. How they came by a TV and had the power to run it I do not know but the rest of their existence was very meager. Anyway, I had a very small baby size ball cap that fit her perfectly and she beamed upon receipt. That hat plus a stick of licorice which became 4 sticks of licorice, as she stole them from her brothers, certainly seemed to light her up (yes, Cindy I took lots of pictures).

Final presentation for me was at another of the homes. This one was constructed of brick with broken windows in the front. Over the window openings were rod iron grates. From behind the grates peeked out a number of faces. It was obvious that a very large, extended family shared this house. Out on the front concrete porch sat a group who included a very old, toothless man, a couple middle aged women and a small child about 2 years old. I had a small stuffed dog left so out it came and the baby's face lit up instantly. I did a very American thing holding the small dog in front of her face and said "Woof, Woof" Instantly the little one wrinkled up her face in fright, started crying and ran into the house. Boy, did I feel like a jerk! However all the adults laughed and smiled at my effort at interaction. I further added to my popularity by placing a very special ball cap on the old man's head, and was rewarded with his toothless grin and a prime opportunity to take his picture before I left.

By this time I was out of goodies but circled back to check out a group of kids playing and posing for other group members. One Vietnamese woman had brought a very small baby out to share him and have his picture taken. She was obviously very proud. It was very moving when one of our members who had not just a digital camera, but a Polaroid camera took a portrait of mother and child. There were tears in her eyes as she clutched the precious picture to her chest and said a heartfelt thank you.

As we drove away we could see the kids enjoying their new toys, playing ball and trading hats with each other. You could not see it, but the love was also there and we hope it perhaps made a difference.

All of Life is An Adventure
You just have to approach it with a smiley face,

March 13,2005 Nha Trang - Waking Up With A Shout

As we work up this morning, I thought there was a fire alarm. We were on the 8th floor and our window was open a bit. All of a sudden I could hear shouting and a number of people. It was 5 AM so it was startling. I went over to the windows which overlook the beach, concrete boardwalk along side and 4 lane road between us. I was very surprised to see the road and boardwalk crowded with Vietnamese people obviously out for their early morning exercise.

Most of them were doing a brisk walk but some were participating in a number of beach front activities in an exercise circuit along the boardwalk and a grassy area.

Several brave souls were out swimming in the looked like he was drowning as he raised his arms in the air...but I finally figured out it was the backstroke. We have found the Vietnamese people to be a very happy, health conscious people so this should not have really surprised me. Perhaps we could take some lessons from them (have you ever seen an overweight Vietnamese person ?).

Take care because All of Life is An Adventure
You just have to exercise your body and spirit to enjoy it,

March 12, 2005 Nha Trang - Enjoying The Small Things

On this afternoon we cast out in our bus to visit two street children's homes.

First one is for adolescent and teen boys. There are about 30 boys living in this very basic facility in the inner core of Nha Trang. It is very meager and worn but they are in off the streets, receiving regular meals and schooling. A couple years back a couple TOP participants sponsored a set of tools for the oldest boy to receive training as a motorcycle mechanic. He came by special to see his TOP friends on this trip out of gratitude for that act.

After arriving we carted in our gifts for the group...rice, noodle dinners, 2 fans, table tennis equipment, 2 soccer balls, school supplies, shirts, etc.

They were lined up against the wall and it was our job to get them to interact so we could dispense to them our real We got them to sit in a circle on the floor with us intermixed into the group. Plates of crackers and wafer cookies which we brought helped to break the ice. You could tell that this was a rare treat for them so you politely made your one cookie last so they could enjoy the rest. They love to shake hands and exchange names. Giggles and smiles, a few broken phrases on our part and Vietnamese interpreters to convey the more important parts. It was well worth the stop.

We are like the pied pipers when we arrive at these stops as the bus is a dead give away and our TOP (Tour of Peace) shirts are recognized by them on return is magical.

The best stop was yet to come. Next was a home for children (many of them orphaned) who have ben rescued off the streets. Ages range from 7 to 19 and they are so well cared for that it really warmed your heart.

Again we carried in the gifts which included shirts, rice, noodle dinners, apple juice, balls, toys, school supplies, hair combs, stuffed animals, candy and their special request a 21" TV to replace theirs which is broken.

We proceeded to arrange and sit on chairs in a circle only to have the lights go off. Power was out to the entire area so they started lighting candles to set around the room and illuminate the group. The candlelight helped to mask their shyness and actually made the interaction better.

The principal of the group spoke in very broken English to tell us of the history of the school and minimal funding they receive for a few of the children. Next a young gal, age 18 stood up and welcomed us on behalf of the students.

Then the children favored us with their favorite song and it was expected that we would reciprocate. Jess said the only song we probably all would know would be "Jingle Bells" and so we all sang jingle bells...we were a HIT.

Again cookies and candies
brought by us were shared. The kids however were very polite and wanted to make sure their visitors were also enjoying the treat.

Soon the lights came back on and the presentation of gifts was accomplished. After the words were spoken, the kids literally "dove" politely into the toys on the table. I searched out a hidden treasure I had brought. It was 2 different types of pretty little simple hair clips and hair pins (about 60 clips total). I took one and put it in the hair of the little 7 year old who had been sitting by me holding my hand. She beamed and proceeded to take a clip and put it in my hair. There were 5 orphan girls there and soon they were all in the act putting hairclips in everyone's hair. With a gleam in her eye, the little 7 year old took a clip and motioned for Jess (our leader) to bend down. She proceeded to put pretty little hairclips in his BEARD. Lots of pictures were taken, clips exchanged, and soon you could not look at someone else without giggling for how silly it was. Such a simple material gift evolved into a magical experience and interaction.

As we left the home, I congratulated the principal for his work with these fine children. He said thank you but commented that he worries they do not truly have what they need to survive. I questioned him and he elaborated that he was concerned they do not get enough LOVE for proper development and asked us to come back soon.

All of Life is An Adventure
You just have to be silly enough to let yourself enjoy it

March 12, 2005 Nha Trang - Happy Buddha

Something new for our trip...we slept in on this morning. While most of the group headed off for a lunch out and trip to the "mud baths" we opted to kick back a bit and then hired two "cyclo cabs" to take us for 2 hours around to some of the city sites.

A cyclo cab is essentially a rickshaw with a bicycle on the back to push it. Half the fun of riding in them is that they go pretty slow (or at least they did with us in them) and you are right in the middle of the rush of all the motorbikes plus an occasional car, truck or bus.

As passenger on this cyclo cab, you are right there out front as the other motorized traffic zips on all sides and often directly in front of you, often missing you just by inches.

Our first destination was the big white Buddha on the hill overlooking the city. We have pictures of Gary visiting this Buddha on his first "visit" to Vietnam.

Gary had just recently told about being shot at as he stood by this Buddha. He was curious to see if he could locate the bulletholes and resolve some of the issues that bring back this site in his nightmares.

Our cyclo cabs parked to wait in the shade as we walked up the multiple steps winding around this mountain, past a temple, a monastery and a reclining Buddha, they call "sleeping Buddha". The foliage and views were magnificent.

We were instantly joined at the base of the steps by several "school girls" from the monastery school next door. They gathered around Gary as I took their pictures. The Vietnamese are very impressed by stature and, to them, even hunched over his crutches, Gary casts a sizeable image. They playfully rubbed his belly and dubbed him "Happy Buddha".

Gary quizzed them on how many steps there were to go up...176 they replied and proceeded to count off with his each step as he achieved it.

"Don't worry Mam, we help you go up the stairs" was what they told me but also at the same time they were trying to sell us a pack of postcards to help them "work their way through school." Once we bought some and gave them each a dollar, they magically disappeared to wait at the bottom of the hill for another tourist.

Well a beautiful day, awesome setting and again very determined husband, we made it to the top of the mountain. It was however like one of those unsuspecting jokes when we reached the top and found a young man who had gotten there BY ROAD!

Once at the base of the Buddha, Gary made some discoveries about his experience there so many years ago that seemed to put the issue more at rest. The bullethole in the statue has been patched and it was more likely a random ricochet (bad spelling) rather than sniper fire.

Next stop on our cyclo cab tour was a stop at a magnificent Catholic church atop another mountain just across from the buddha. This church was built brick by brick by the French during their occupation of Vietnam. Gary waited in the shade with his driver while mine walked with me up the hill to see the church up close. The statuary was impressive and for the ashes of their deceased they have incorporated tiny vaults in the wall winding up the hill to the church.

All in all the cyclo cabs gave us an enjoyable ride and we got an additional insight of the beautiful beachfront city if NhaTrang.

All of Life is An Adventure,
You just have to be willing to rise to great heights to find it,

March 11, 2005 Overlooking the beach in Nha Trang

Our accomodations tonight are on the 8th floor of this luxury hotel overlooking the white sand beach in this post war town that is now more resort like. We sit at our corner window and watch the busy traffic cruising the boulevard below. It is 99% motor scooters and bicycles. The night lights are beautiful including the ones just 5 buildings over where they are utilizing the evening cool temperatues to weld on the superstructure of a new high rise hotel being built.

Tonight Gary shared with the group pictures of when he was in Nha Trang over 35 years ago. We are just 3 buildings away from the old French hospital where he was treated for wounds. It has changed considerably but he says he can still recognize it.

Tomorrow we will venture up to the big Buddah on the hill where Gary was nearly hit by sniper fire and then participate in visits to two homes for street children.

Watch for more postings soon.

All of Life is An Adventure
You just have to stop and enjoy the view.

March 11, 2005 Dalat to Nha Trang

This morning we were scheduled to visit the Dalat mentally challenged children's school. However, we had been notified by phone yesterday that due to a political issue they were not going to allow our visit. Since this is a regular stop for TOP, Jess was able to call his contact there who is a young woman teacher. They have become good friends and she agreed to meet us at a gas station near the school. There we were at least able to present to her some special gifts. One was a beautiful necklace one of our members purchased at home. It was stunningly simple and perfect for this vibrant young lady. She cried and tried to take it off her neck after the presentation, saying "I cannot accept something this beautiful". Another participant gave her some perfume samplers with the caveat that she could share them with the other teachers if she wished. She in return wanted to reciprocate with a gift and so had special Vietnamese tea for us. She was embarrassed and commented ! in humulity "I am a poor woman".

She also expressed her regret that we were not going to be able to visit the school this trip. She will be working to again get the "door open" to TOP on future trips. It seems that others of the teachers have a difference of philosophy regarding our visits and caused the problem. I guess we do have to remember that this is after all not a free country!

As we left this beautiful young woman, she was remounting her scooter for the return ride to the school. She wore the necklace with pride and treated us with her smile and warmth and a wish that we return again soon.

From there we travelled down the Ngoan Muc Pass and along highway 1 to Nha Trang.

Along the way we stopped for a picnic lunch at a roadside establishment. They had covered picnic type tables and served us hard rolls and fixins to make our own cold sandwiches. It was actually a pleasant diversion from the heavier multi-course Vietnamese meals we have had since we arrived (a topic for an entirely separate blogpost when I get the chance).

After the meal we were able to explore one of the centuries old Poklong Giarai ChamTowers. The setting was on a high hill above where the bus could take us. The weather was very sunny and hot so it was not surprising when a few of the group elected not to climb the multitude of unevenly spaced concrete steps up the hillside. What was surprising was when they witnessed the determination of my dear husband to"scale" the mountain. With a very halting gait and leaning heavily on his crutches, he took each of the 70 steps just as we all step at a time.

Soon all the others, with what they felt were excuses not to "tackle the mountain", looked up at his progress and muttered "NO WAY". Then they joined with us as we proceeded very slowly to make it to the top.

Stubborness and determination have always been traits of this husband of mine. Now, as the effects of his wartime Agent Orange exposure attempt to take away from him the mobility that he has always so cherished...he seems to be determined to fight the battle and win.

My daughter has remarked in a return e-mail to me that (based on my first 3 blog entries) she would know to have a tissue handy when she reads the successive ones...I am sure I have done it to her again. However this trip is truely turning into a very emotional one but hopefully with the emotion will come the healing of the invisible battle scars.

All of Life is An Adventure, Just remember to take along some kleenex,

March 10, 2005 Ho Chi Minh City to Dalat - The Scramble for Spilled Rice

This morning we rose early to have our bags outside our room door by 7 AM so the porters could take it down and put aboard the bus. Departure was at 7:30 as we had a humanitarian project awaiting us.

There are a number of "leprosy villages" in the area and we were headed for one TOP had not visited before. Medical and food supplies had been purchased in advance locally and our 25 passenger bus was full to the roof with all our bags plus the large bags of sugar, rice, and multiple cases (about 300) of noodle dinners (like cup of noodle at home but they feed their whole family off one). We literally were perched atop supplies for our 90 minute drive there.

When we arrived, we were greeted with a number of village residents to help cart (literally) the goods about 3 blocks back to their village meeting area. Each of the 150 families had been issued a coupon and told to send one representative to the gathering to receive our donations.

Gary is still having great difficulty walking so he was driven by car back to the village while the rest of us walked back up the small alleyway. I lagged behind and had such a wonderful time interacting with the families and children in particular who gathered along the way to greet us. I delighted in the spirit and happiness of these innocent individuals who are making the best of their meager life.

Mothers brought their babies out for me to take their pictures and then giggled as I showed them their images on the scren of my digital camera. I cried as I photoed the young toddler who scurried back up the narrow side alley littered with rubble...that's his home...oh heaven help my aching heart.

I was so glad for the T-shirt I had has a big red heart on it and says "I (heart) my veteran".

As I attempted to communicate with them I bowed slightly and held my hand over my heart and the big red heart on my chest. As I told the women how pretty their babies were and complimented the children on their smiles...the response was so moving...I will remember it for the rest of my life.

Upon arrival at the meeting area I was overwhelmed by the excitement of the people gathered. We were escorted inside a small room where we had the TOP presentation to the village the medical supplies to him specifically for disbursement as appropriate.

Leprosy bandages are cherished. They are specially crocheted out of cotton in a special stitch that allows application of ointments but yet lets the wound breathe and retards the ravages of the disease. I can see a new volunteer project for me working on those in the future. There is already a brigade of ladies making these for TOP to distribute and we had 75 to present on this trip.

We had lots of excitement at this site when the Vietnamese police and authorities showed up.
Evidently they had misunderstood our intent and did not obtain the correct government
approval prior to our arrival. This was not good but it was promptly resolved once they realized we were not there to distribute propaganda or insight an uprising amongst the Vietnamese people.

Finally our TOP volunteers assembled in a line to distribute the donations (including 120 toothbrushes we personally brought over). Each of the 150 family representatives got a couple cans of milk, two cases of the noodles, a 10 pound sack of rice, one toothbrush and two small sacks of sugar. After everyone had filed through and at last all the sacks and boxes removed from the raised porch we were on...we began to say our goodbyes.

Suddenly I spotted the small boy beneath our feet, he was perhaps just 2 years old but he was crouched low on his own picking up every small piece of rice on the concrete floor. The innocence of youth has been replaced with a survival instinct...knowing the importance of every small morcel of rice!! The tears streamed down my face as I snapped the couple of shots I knew I must have.

Then as it sunk in I was furious...furious at how much we have that we do not appreciate. Furious that I have lived such a wasteful life ignorant of the basic needs of others. It has always just been so easy to write a check or say "I gave through United Way" and feel so proud of myself when in reality I was doing so very little. I hope that God will now grant me the time and resources to start from this day forward to truely make a difference for others who are so needy.

I hope that does not come across like I have been "born again" or think I can save the world but I just know now that I can do so much more than I have done in the past.

Life is an it is time to share it!

March 9, 2005 Ho Chi Minh City (also known as Saigon)

This was our first "wake-up" in Vietnam. The Rex hotel serves a wonderful breakfast in their dining room. There were plenty of local dishes but also made to order omlettes for us Westerners. Fresh fruit here is a real treat with my favorite being watermelon which they grow year round.

We then traveled north of Saigan and made a brief stop at a fascinating cemetery. Only North Vietnamese soldiers are allowed to be buried there. We were told that the few South Vietnamese soldiers originaly interred there were dug up once the North"won" the war. The war memorial there was beautiful but dedicated to what was "the other side". The beauty of our small group is that we can experience things impromptu. We encountered a very old man (late 70's) who lives nearby and walks there daily on his battle ravaged legs to "caretake" this respected might compare it on some small scale to Arlington Cemetery in the US. Through our guide/interpreter we learned that this man fought during the French occupation. It was fascinating.

From there we travelled 60 km northwest to the wartime guerilla stronghold of Chu Chi tunnels. They consist of three levels of tunnels which extend over 60 miles total and provided the VC access from nearby Cambodia and on into Saigon. It has now been developed with interpretative exhibits, walking paths and numerous entry points into the maze of tunnels. Vietnamese exhibit guides accompany you and check out any portion of the tunnel you may wish to enter so that your experience does not include an encounter with snakes, bats or other hazards. One of the gals in our group (3 gals out of 12 people) had a bat try to make a nest in her hair while she was down there so obviously the exhibit guides missed one.

These tunnels were specifically carved out to accomodate the small stature Vietnamese soldiers and entrap and US soldiers who may try to enter them. Thankfully they have enlarged afew of them for tourist purposes. In my search for adventure, I entered one of them...very step, deep steps and then low clearance that required you to hunch overfully at the waist and even at some point crawl. I had been warned and dressed was a definite experience that left me with a new respect for the soldiers who were forced to utilize them during wartimes.

Next stop today was at a rice patty in Tay Ninh province for one of our participants to visit the battle field site where his father was killed. He had pictures to share with us of his father and his service. Through a website posting of one of the pictures he had made contact with another vet who was there when his father died. The man still had his battlefield maps with the spot marked so even after 35 years we were able to search it out and allow the son to place some closure to the past.

March 8, 2005 Ho Chi Minh City - Experiencing Hands of Magic

Our first humanitarian experience in Vietnam was at the Nguyen Dinh Chieu school for the Visually Impaired. They have 180 students and of those 100 live in residence. It is a modest setting on the outskirts of Saigon. Typical stone buildings with concrete floors and some tiled spaces. Today was "Ladies Day" in Vietnam and so the male students were busy huddled around cooking pots on the floor cooking up a special meal for the females. They were very proud to show us their accomplishments and to have us shake their hands and greet them. Many of them tended to stick in groups of two or three...perhaps a comfort factor due to their very low vision.

A small group had a sweet welcome song to sing for us and short speeches to share. This is a regular stop for Jess and his group of TOP volunteers so the welcome is very warm and a coming together of friends.

Next we proceeded on to a nicely decorated meeting room to have the school principal, Mr. Tam brief us on the school and their work with the children. Many of these boys and girls are visually impaired due to very poor nutrition and lack of Vitamin A (something we take for granted in our "Supersized" America). There is just not enough food to go around and so, during the formative months of their mother's pregnancy and their early years of life, they do not get what is needed. This loss of vision is usually not correctable. Some of the children are born blind or suffer from an injury, but the malnutrition aspect was the one that seemed the senseless.

Also at our meeting with the principal we presented them with supplies and gifts. TOP in the past has provided inexpensive tape recorders for the students to use in their studies as well as for a little entertainment. They have 20 new students so TOP brought recorders for them. We also had some T-Shirts and other items. It gave me great joy to see the expressions of glee as 4 of the students opened and began to "play" music/make noise with the little 88 cent flutes I brought over. Had I only known I would have brought more. Also in the gifts from TOP were braille playing cards, chess, checkers and other games...all very much appreciated and I could tell from the overall setting that these will be well taken care of and last them for many years.

Once we had finished the meeting, greeting and giving...they wanted to give back to use. Part of the vocational training for some of the students there is a school of massage. Any of us who wanted were invited to go upstairs for a masage. Myself and another TOP participant, Ellen, ventured up the winding staircase to put ourselves in what we hoped were the skilled hands of these students.

The blind young gal who came out to lead me back was about 16 years old, very shy, and plain appearing. She spoke very litle English but had some basic phrases memorized. First one Ellen and I heard was "Take your clothes off". We complied and were soon laid out stomach down on massage tables.

Looks can be deceiving and I was amazed by the power of the hands that began to smooth out all the wrinkles from our long days of international flights. As the intensity of the massage built up I would have sworn that she was using a wooden hammer on my back, but no it was her skilled hands. She would pound a bit and then lean over and ask me "Are you comfortable now?" Not quite sure what the correct answer was, I woud say "Yes" and she would resume the strong rhythm of patter on my back. She must have known what she was doing as I felt great afterwards...not because she had stopped but because of the results.

It was almost something magical when I looked at her again after she had used such skill on me...She was beautiful and she beamed with the pride in her work and having a skill that will no doubt carry her through a life of means rather than the life of poverty she might have had without a pliable trade.

More is "rush hour" in Saigon and our bus is dodging bicycles and scooters...too rough for now to continue but lots more to share.

Life is an Adventure, you just have to let yourself experience it!

March 7, 2005 Good Morning Vietnam !

Time to update everyone on the progress of our trip.

I was overjoyed in Portland when they checked our VERY large, heavy bags without any hassle or charges. Gary proceeded to set of the security monitors with his cargo pants. Must have been a reason why they were on sale for $11 a pair. Perhaps they did not sell well due to other people discovering that zippers on all the cargo pants sets off the metal detectors. I thought he was going to have a "strip search" before we got out of there but finally they realized his crutches did not contain WMD and he is esentially "harmless".

The flight over was VERY, VERY long but nonetheless tolerable thanks to "upgraded seats" that we purchased on the EVA airlines flight at the recommendation of the travel agent.

We had a considerable delay in Los Angeles due to a bomb scare. They had all their security force out and did a ful "lock down" with no planes coming or going for a period of time.
We have to be thankful that they are so careful and that was also what we reminded ourselves when we had other delays at security check points.

It was pretty exciting to finally meet up with our new travel mates. Some from as far away as Bangor, Maine. She had already been traveling for 15 hours before we left LA on the international flight.

Jess who founded TOP was like "Mother Goose" making sure we all processed smoothly through check-in, customs and all the security.

After the delayed flight it was like a "Oriental firedrill" when it came to boarding time. Everyone was anxious, there were lots of oriental families with small children and elderly people. They insist in using a brigade of wheelchairs to "assist" the elderly and handicapped onto the plane. Gary frustrated them because he needed to be able to board early because of the tendency to trip on crutches but did not want to be pushed in a wheelchair. As it ended up he took the wheelchair at the last minute and got the "royal treatment".

The flight was mystical. As we started to reach Asia we were treated to aerial views of the night time lights of Hong Kong and other areas of population. We had a screen that showed us where we were at a given point in time and also provided stats regarding speed, time underway, estimated time of arrival and differences in time zones, etc. Made it very interesting.

Heading West we were essentialy outrunning the sun which was trying to rise. Behind us we could se the glow of the pending sunrise and above it a crescent moon and lots of stars.

Jet lag was a bit different since we were 16 hours earlier so you just skipped almost a full day, that we will regain upon our return.

The climate is mid 80's and humid but actually pretty tolerable. The only place I have to compare it with is Houston in the summer and this is not as muggy as that was.

Our initial accomodations in Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City are very luxurious in the Rex hotel. Elegant with top hatted door men and bellhops...not the typical economy accomodations we personally are used to at home.

All of Life in an Adventure You just have to find it,

Friday, February 5, 2010

Why a new blog?

This blog will carry both the story of our original 2005 trip to Vietnam and our upcoming return in March 2010.
Hope you enjoy reading it as we go along.