Saturday, February 23, 2013

Some thoughts on dignity and pride

RIght now, in early 2011, I'm living and working in the Quang Nam province of central Vietnam - a poor part of a relatively poor country. GDP per capita for the region in 2007 was 8.76 million Vietnamese dong, (around £280) - 65.2% of the national average. Agriculture and forestry are the main sources of employment. A lot of people here have very very little by way of money or material things. The average house is basic; little more than four walls and a tin roof, with a wood and bamboo shed for animals. Furnishings consist of an altar, a TV, a table, a hard bed or two, a double gas ring and a rice cooker. A lot of people still cook outside on wood fires, and draw their water from wells. The majority of people don't have a bank account. Some families still can't afford to pay the (pretty low) school fees for their children, and some people in rural areas still do not have enough money to feed their families well.

Before coming to Vietnam I spent five years working in Sandwell, to the North West of Birmingham in the UK. This area is very densely populated and economically deprived (ranked 14th most deprived out of 354 UK authorities), with high unemployment (6% of the 'working population' claim benefits for being jobless). Approximately 81% of households in Sandwell experience at least one of the following: high unemployment, low educational attainment, poor and limiting health and disability, or poor and overcrowded housing.

There are definite similarities. Life is hard. A TV is considered an essential. Women like to chat, and are concerned with weight. Men like to drink beer. Teenagers are pre-occupied with fashion, and with the opposite sex. There are some wonderful kind people. There are some less kind people.

But what I want to talk about today is the differences I see...

I'll describe the people of Quang Nam as dignified. They are (in the main) honest, hardworking, self-controlled, quiet and patient. They show self-respect, and respect for others. They take pride in themselves, their families, their home and their work. Community is important to them, as is their community's opinion of them. They have good manners, and are accommodating to others. If you come across a bolshy, loud, impatient Vietnamese, I'd put money on them having lived in the U.S. for a significant amount of time. 
I often travel on the local transport, and never once have felt vulnerable because of the character of the people. Physically uncomfortable, yes, and fearful of the road, but never unsafe or at risk. I walk or cycle alone around the streets, and feel completely safe. People smile in the street, and stop to chat. People watch out for one another. They care about one another. If someone is sick or old and has no family, their neighbours, or local leaders will help them out.

Of course there are negatives - petty theft does occasionally happen, most people seem not to have an awareness of or respect for the environment, nepotism and corruption are rife, and the population (for various reasons) aren't moved to question 'unquestionable' decisions and directions from Hanoi. But in general, people live decent, open lives.

Sadly, I could not describe Sandwell in the same way. How often I have sat on the bus trying to block my ears as parents speak harshly and aggressively to their children, swearing at them and pulling them around. How often I have had to get off because someone's rude or harassing me. How often the police have climbed on the bus to remove someone being antisocial. How often I have felt unsafe walking up the road in the dark. How often I have felt vulnerable walking past the local shops, as kids shout obscenities  How often I've avoided eye contact with people to avoid trouble. How many times was my van vandalised, just parked up in the road. I know I'm painting a pretty bleak picture of life in Birmingham, but it's all true, and it's been thrown into sharp relief in my mind by the safety and gentleness of the Vietnamese people.

And apparently we're the 'developed' nation..... 

Monday, February 28, 2011

Noble truth number 1 - bad things happen

Literally the day after I'd prepared a long blog on the peace and safety and general loveliness of central Vietnam, and the day before I left for Thailand, someone broke into my friend's house and took my laptop. So for the foreseeable future I won't be online much, and won't be blogging. I still have a lot of things I'd like to share about this incredible year, so I'll post more when I can, but for now.... 'hen gap lai' amigos.

Thanks for reading

Monday, February 14, 2011

A splash of colour...

I'm working in a small village, where everyone knows everything about everything. So back in January, when an orphanage opened nearby, we were invited to visit and join the small party.

There I met Co Minh Hanh, a nun from Saigon, who raised the money to build and open the place, Chu Hung, the director, and the 15 children living there (either orphans or from families who just can't afford or cope with them). Some have physical disabilities, some have learning difficulties; all are gorgeous and deserving and fun to be around. Over the next few weeks the centre will become home to up to 30 children. The staff somehow find the money to pay for the children's meals, school fees, medical fees and clothing - allowing them to continue in education and live in a safe environment.

Since the party I've visited them regularly, enjoying games with the children and scrumptious vegetarians meals with Mrs Minh Hanh, the director, his wife and the ladies living there to look after the kids.

I was feeling sad that while the people were really loving and positive and nurturing, the building itself was very dull - typical blue/green walls, tiled floors, barred windows....  no toys, no colour....

So I asked some friends from nearby Hoi An to come and help me with a little decoration.....

A massive thank you to Yves, Matt, Stephanie, Thilo, Sue and Rob for making the trip and for bringing toys, books and colouring pencils, and to the kids at the centre for the creative input, help with the painting and just generally being fabulous.

Today I went back to do another wall. Big smiles all round.
And I got a big ol' Valentine's kiss.....


More food, glorious food....

One of my favourite things to do here is to set out from the house. on foot, with no destination in mind. I love to wander around, sometimes for hours, just looking and listening and smelling and tasting. Moving slowly, with your senses alive, leads to some incredibly beautiful experiences, and some, well, slightly less beautiful ones....

Here's a few of the interesting street dishes I've found on my wanderings, both alone and with friends, over the past few months.....

Steaming bowls of bún riêu cua. This tomato, pineapple and shrimp flavoured broth is served with crab meat balls (sometimes with shrimps, tofu or cabbage), and served over thin rice noodles. Shredded herbs and beansprouts add colour and flavour, along with a squeeze of lemon, a couple of teaspoons of pickled sour veg, and a good dollop of chilli jam...... mmmmmmmm 

A breakfast favourite (particularly after a night drinking Bia Larue) is now 'Bánh mì ốp la' - a fried egg sandwich, Vietnamese style. They are so delicious it's making my mouth water just talking about them. A hot baguette is broken open and stuffed with fresh salad leaves, herbs, shredded spring onions and cucumber. Then in goes the hot egg; quickly fried with some minced pork and seasoning, the yolk broken and runny. The final touch is a good squirt of soy and chilli sauces (some would say it has to be Maggi, but soy sauce is amazing too). The resulting sandwich is warm, a bit crunchy, a bit moist, very difficult to eat with any kind of elegance, and just perfect. An incredible mix of flavours, and very 'Vietnam'.

'Xôi' - You have to be up early to enjoy this dish of sticky (glutinous) rice. They're normally sold out by 7.30am. It can be cooked on it's own or with all sorts of things added - sweetcorn, green beans, black beans, coconut, meat, peanut, cassava, mung beans..... and then on top you can put coconut, sugar, salt, peanuts, meat, fried onions, onion oil, chilli oil, egg, shrimp..... these really are the difficult decisions of life. I tend to stick to the sweet varieties (as in the picture below, which is black bean xoi) with coconut, peanut, sugar and salt on top. I find it's the perfect mix of carbohydrate, sugar (to replenish energy after a long sleep), and salt (to balance electrolytes and set me up for another long day of sweating!)

'Bánh xèo'. These small rice flour pancakes are cooked in shallow pans (8-10 at a time in the market) with shrimp, pork, shallots and bean sprouts. They're taken by hand and rolled in dry, translucent rice paper, with a heap of leaves, herbs, fresh beansprouts, cucumber, green papaya, banana flower....  into what looks like a huge fat spring roll  (I'm still teased about the first time I ate this, when I had to roll it up on my knee - I watched and learned, and now roll deftly in the air like everyone else). Then you dip into a delicious sugary, vinegary, garlicky, chilli-y liquid, which helps to cut through the oiliness of the pancake. It's incredible to watch my teeny tiny colleagues eat these things. I can manage 3 at the most (and I have a good appetite, as you all know...) They can eat 7 or 8, easily. I honestly don't know where it goes. They don't even stop talking.

'Bánh cuốn' - rolled and sliced steamed rice noodle sheets, with a variety of fillings; sometimes something pink coloured and savoury and completely unidentifiable, sometimes mushrooms, sometimes crumbled pork meat. The noodles are often topped with pickled julienned vegetables and chilli, or a fried spring roll, and drizzled with a sweet, vinegary liquid. Described in words, it sounds pretty unappetising, but it's really tasty, especially with a glass of fresh hot or iced soy milk. (The name 'bánh cuốn' refers to the rolling of the noodle sheets, so fresh spring rolls go by the same name, and are equally as good) 

'Bánh rán' - golden balls of a gluey rice/cassava mixture, deep fried to crunchy outside, with a gorg­eous grainy filling of bean/sugar paste inside. Warm, very tasty, and at least 10 billion calories per ball.

'Hến trộn' - baby clams fried with lemongrass, chilli and spring onion, served with crushed peanuts, fried shallots, nước chấm (a fish sauce, sugar, chilli and garlic dipping sauce) and a crunchy rice cracker to break and scoop them up with. A great snack to tuck into with friends.

This picture is borrowed from  - I was so hungry last time I ate it
that I forgot to take a pic! I'll put my own soon
Another delicious snack dish, 'bò bía', consists of a pile of shredded pickled vegetables (carrot, unripe papaya and daikin), a dark thick sw­eet, caramel-y, soy-saucey, open-sesame-ey sauce, caramelised shredded dried beef (I think, although it might be jackfruit), roasted and crushed peanuts, heaps of fresh Asian basil, and again, a big dried rice cracker to scoop and scoff it all up with. I've never eaten anything like it before, and I'm sure I won't find it anywhere else (when I googled it for recipes I found that in the rest of Vietnam it's a different dish - a form of spring roll with Chinese sausage). It was astoundingly good.

A common sound on the streets of Vietnam is that of the 'Bánh bao' sellers, as they cruise around on their motorbikes. They carry ingenious dispay cabinets, small charcoal fires and metal steamers around with them, from which they pull fluffy steamed rice flour pockets filled with spiced and peppery vegetables, rice noodles and pork fat.  They're very cheap, and popular with kids.

Fresh seafood at the beach. Bliss.

This street barbeque smelt absolutely amazing. I was a bit unsure when I realised what was sizzling on it, but I didn't let myself w­imp out. The marinade ­was delicious, and I actually enjoyed the small hot crunchy birds. The fresh beer ­­was pretty good too   :o) 

My favourite evening snack is hủ tiếu from the cheerful mobile vendor up the road. Mien (vermicelli noodles), lots of beansprouts, pork broth, meat and crackling, a heap of lettuce leaves, a squeese of lemon, soy sauce, chilli jam.... I can rarely stop at one bowl (and at 15p a pop, why would I?)

Over the winter, I really enjoyed hot chè, to be found bubbling in in Tam Ky's markets, in huge vats over charcoal fires. I think I described chè before - it's basically any type of legume (red bean, green (mung) bean, black bean, lentil) slow-cooked with a heap of sugar - but there are a million varieties and all sorts of things are added. So far I've tried sweetcorn chè, tapioca chè, fruit chè, banana chè, seaweed chè, sweet potato chè, coconut chè, longan chè, lotus seed chè, ginger chè, rice chè.... but I'd never eaten hot chè before, so I had to sample it.... a small bowl of sweet green bean soup with chunks of taro and ginger and a good splash of cool coconut milk on top. Ridiculously sweet, but delicious.


So now I'll move onto dishes I'd put into the 'glad I tried them, but won't eat again' category....

First up is mực khô, a whole dried squid, barbequed in front of me, and served with a potent and fiery jammy chilli/tomato/fish sauce dip. Really Not Good. Tough as leather, and very very fishy. I could neither bite a piece off or swallow the stringy mouthful I finally managed to rip off with my fingers. I managed to wrap half the thing in newspaper and hide it in my bag to dispose of later.

I would never have ordered this next dish, but ettiquette forced me to try it when I was invited out for dinner one day. It was either frog or toad, I'm not sure which. It had big dark blotches on it's skin, which was still very much connected to the 'meat', and lots and lots of little bones. The dogs under the table got a good meal from me that night. I'm getting pretty good at the subtle dropping of things...

And then I was devastated when I realised what I'd ordered at the little stall by my house, when I'd just moved to this town, it was very late, raining heavily and I was desparately hungry..... 'trứng vịt lộn' are considered very nutritious for children and people recovering from illness, and are apparently recommended for guys wanting to enhance their, erm, performance. They're boiled duck eggs - with an almost fully developed duckling inside. Yep.. feathers, feet, beak... I took a deep breath and managed half a spoon. With my eyes closed. And kept it in my mouth as I escaped to spit it out at home. Sorry - I'm sure a lot of people love them, but I couldn't handle it. I went to bed hungry that night!
 Tr?ng v?t l?n, an sao cho b??  - (?nh 1)
Again, this isn't my picture. Mine came out dark and blurry, and I'm not about to repeat the experience to take another one. This picture comes from a website if you want to see more.

And now onto Tet food....
Tet (the lunar New Year) is a really big deal in Vietnam - it's like Christmas, New Year and the entire nation's birthday rolled in one big 5-10 day party. And as with every good holiday,  a considerable part of the celebration revolves around eating. There are a lot of traditional and symbolic dishes for Tet. Unfortunately I went off without my camera for the two week holiday, so I don't have pictures of any of it! Some dishes were very good, but the most memorable were the more 'challenging' things.... a spoonful of pig brain eaten straight out of the boiled pig's head (it looked like moist blue cheese, and tasted a bit like creamy pate), being woken up with a bowl of rice porridge with a chicken head sticking out (a big honour - the bird had spent the night on the altar before being hacked up), endless bánh chưng and bánh tét - traditional sticky rice cakes stuffed with pork fat and mung beans, and chalky dry green bean biscuit/cakesIt was a real pleasure to spend time with families over this important holiday, but I have a renewed appreciation of our UK festive cuisine - I'll stick with warm homemade mince pies and mulled cider, thanks!

Well there you go. A few more Vietnamese treats. I hope you enjoyed reading about them as much as I did discovering them.

Now, what to have for tea....   :o)

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Some favourite Vietnam things....

Just for you, ma, here's some of my favourite things.....(I'm not going to include foods - it'd take about a couple of years to write!)

The smell of warm damp tropical greenness

Smiles and games with the children

The patch of sunlight that comes through the mosquito net at 5.30am

Ca phe sua (nong hai Saigon) any time any where 

Stopping on the footpath to watch old nanas with crinkly faces, beady dark eyes and pointy bamboo hats carrying veg to the market. And having them smile back and stop to talk

Walks and yoga on the beach

The way it takes just a couple of years of alternating strong sun and intense moisture to make buildings look prematurely ancient, in a very beautiful and atmospheric way

Understanding the naughty jokes of the women I work with. And being able to crack some too

Squatting to play the Vietnamese version of 'Uno' with Thuy and other friends in a village doorway, slamming cards down, crunching watermelon seeds and joking around for hours on end

Riding my bike along the winding mud paths between the rice paddies in the sun

A cold beer as the sun goes down at La Plage, playing chess with Stephanie-oi (and keeping an eye out for Dons, of course, eh missus?!)

Picking salad leaves and herbs from Chi Thong's garden, as we prepare the evening meal. Being considered family enough and capable enough to help.

Riding on the back of friends' motorbikes as we zip along, wrapped in warm nights, and tilting my head up to look at the stars

Thought-provoking discussions with other development and health workers - life stories, achievements, ambitions, ideas, different opinions....

Beaming smiles when I banter in Vietnamese at the market

Hair washes and head massages (and the way it's something that all women treat themselves to, regularly, and cheaply) 

A glass of iced sweet lemon juice, with a tiny, salty, preserved peach sunk in it, on a hot hot day

Cooking experiments and hanging out watching movies and 'The Good Wife' with my buddy Sam, before a beer at her local (600m away on the beach)

Watching and listening as my interpreter works and gets into what she's explaining - and seeing people understand the concepts

Getting lovely emails from lovely friends at home. Thank you so much

The rare but deeply special appreciation of imported treats - a small bowl of olives, some brie, a glass of good red wine (as opposed to Dalat!) - a reminder me that these things are so much better when you can't have them whenever you like

The everyday enjoyment of simple local food - fresh vegetables, seafood and rice (and the communal spirit of preparing and eating)

Rice, in all it's forms, but particularly when it's just freshly cooked. A little bit sticky and moist and utterly delicious (I know I said I wasn't including food, but it's just too big a part of life to leave off the list)

Simple text message conversations with my friends Khai and Thuong in Hanoi, who speak no English at all. Despite the language barrier we have a strong bond. I like to think of them, and know they think of me too

A Mango Guapo at Mango Mango with the 'Friday family' after the stressful journey - you know who you are guys xxx

Sitting outside looking over the fields, having afternoon snacks with the kids and staff at the small rural centre

Having more, and better conversations with my parents than I ever had in the UK

The view to the right along the river from the bridge as you ride back to Hoi An from Cua Dai

Watching lightening storms from the rooftop of Cargo - with girlfriends, something dark and chocolatey and lots of giggles

The astonishing depth of love mothers can have for their children, and the un-ending and un-complaining care and attention they give them

The beautiful quiet dignity of most of these people

Observing and being infected with the child-like joy at karaoke - a few hours of freedom for people who have to conform and follow rules in almost every other aspect of their existance. singing, dancing, drinking, losing track of time....

The noise and bustle of the markets, and the freshness of everything

Witnessing the magic of my nephew's transformation from a baby into a little boy, via Skype. The astonishingly rapid development of his language and communication, his funny faces, his tummy, the squiggle wiggle, and the little games we play. Knowing that he knows me. Thank you internet, you crazy flying electromagnetic fantastical thing you

Listening to the pounding tropical rain on the metal roof, when I'm snug in bed

Knowing how lucky I am to be seeing this world from the very inside

Knowing how lucky I am to be able to leave

Wednesday, January 26, 2011


Hi everyone

I've figured out how to change the settings on this 'ere Blogspot, so now anyone can leave a comment without having to have a google account or anything. So please feel free.

Any requests for topics?


Wednesday, January 19, 2011

To change or not to change...

As part of this job, my interpreter and I often visit young people with disabilities in their homes. I am often close to tears.  

Even the worst situations I came across in Smethwick and West Bromwich seem like luxury compared to the lives of some of these people. 24 year-old Định didn’t mind me sharing his story…

Định's father left his mother as soon as they realised their son was disabled. Throughout his childhood and teenage years, Định stayed at home in the small hut, alone, while his mother worked in the fields to provide enough food for them both. Định's mother died four months ago. Now his aunt brings him food, and his cousins visit occasionally, but other than that his only human contact is in the evenings and mornings when his uncle comes to lift him on and off his bed. Định has severe pain in his hips and his neck. He was given a plastic wheelchair, but it broke a long time ago.

A wonderful NGO called Orphan Voice are now supporting him and his aunt and uncle with food packages, and I'm organising a new, stronger and more comfortable wheelchair for him through the organisation I am working with. But it's not much of a life, is it....

My point in giving this example, is that when we visited Định, neither my interpreter or the local volunteer who took us to see him were at all surprised or distressed at what they saw.

They don't see any particular problem in the way these young people have to live.

Here in rural Vietnam the difference between the lives of poor people with disabilities, and the lives of people who are just very poor is, sadly, not that huge. The people I work with see similar dirt, discomfort, barrenness, poverty and lack of opportunity in 'normal' fully-able-bodied homes. People here have, very recently, been through times of such hardship and suffering that their concept of a ‘decent’ standard of living is far far lower than my relatively-very-privileged UK standard.

My role here is to convince people of the benefits of doing some kind of creative therapy with young children with disabilities, and then to teach them how to do it.
But if people don’t see something as a problem over and above other problems, how can you convince them to work to change anything?

When it comes to the effectiveness of rehabilitation centers, lack of information is surprisingly rarely the problem. I’ve uncovered all sorts of useful booklets, advice sheets, CD’s and information packs (all in Vietnamese, often with pictures) from dusty cupboards. The staff and parents just don’t think to read or make use of it. They’ve attended numerous good training events, with financial incentives, days out, lunches and certificates, but for some reason they don’t apply what they've learnt. They say “thank you very much, that was very interesting and helpful”, and lose 95% of it on the motorbike home. It’s wasted.


As I mentioned above, I think firstly people don’t have any motivation for change. A lack of physical ability is not the only barrier for these children. Even if we help a child to develop physical skills to the point that he/she can get around, they will most likely still not be able to attend school, or get a job to earn a living. The improvement to quality of life that I promote as a benefit of therapy are often not considered worth the thought and effort and time that the therapy requires. What we (in the UK) would consider an achievement is relatively meaningless for these families – “Wow, look! Jimmy lifted his hand up all by himself!!” is not something you’d ever hear here…. it's just not relevant.
What these families want, and need, is a child who can support them in their later years (there is no social security to speak of) – so understandably they will reserve the majority of their time, attention and money for an able-bodied sister or brother. (That’s if they have an able-bodied sibling… unfortunately some Dioxin/Agent Orange affected families don’t seem to realise that after 2 or 3 children born with disabilities, they should stop trying for an able-bodied child…)

Secondly, staff and families don’t have a lot of faith that ‘therapy’ works. It’s impossible to know whether a child develops better because of therapy, or whether they would have got there anyway. Whilst we can understand why it works, and demonstrate improvements, and explain benefits, we can’t prove, scientifically, that therapy works. It's almost impossible to get robust evidence, because it's inethical to withhold treatment if it can be offered. What makes it even more difficult to convince people is the fact that children can take years to do things. Changes are slow, and difficult to measure. And in addition, some kids with severe brain damage will never be able to do very much, no matter how much therapy we try invest in them.
So for these rural farming families, time and effort are far too precious to be risked on something that can’t be proven to work, and which won’t, at the end of the day, affect their disabled child’s inability to support them later on in life.

Quality of life is a luxury. Things will only ever change significantly for those with disabilities here when the area as a whole is lifted out of such grinding poverty. And this is out of the hands of the individual families and volunteers I am working with.

Still. I’m quite stubborn. I’ve come here to do a job and I won’t give up on potential. My ma used useful gardening terms to refer to the work we’re doing here –  sowing seeds and drip-feeding. Gradually, slowly, consistently, planting and nurturing ideas. So I continue to promote movement and play and engagement with the children. I show by example, and explain to families and staff again and again, in different ways, the benefits of having children who are slightly more independent and happy. I try to make everything I teach easy to do at home, and try to use materials and items that they can get hold of very easily and cheaply. And I do believe it will have some impact, however tiny. And that's enough to keep working for.

I’m also going to produce a short storybook, telling the concurrent stories of two families in a village. Both families new-born babies with a brain injury (cerebral palsy). One family have no hope and no motivation, and do no therapy with their child. He lies on his back all day, and learns nothing. The other family decide they want to see what their child can learn, even though her body is awkward and abnormal. They try things. They make things using materials in the home and the market. They get advice. They go to the rehabilitation hospital.

The story will hopefully outline how one child has absolutely no chance to develop, and the other slowly but surely learns to do some things. It’s very difficult to write, because I need to be careful that parents don’t read it and think that if they do the same things as the fictional family, then their child will be able to do the things that the character learns to do (every child is different, every child needs different treatment). It’s the concept that I want to get across, not the specifics.

I’d like to distribute this storybook to doctors, so that there’s a chance they might discuss the ideas with families when they diagnose disabilities in the first place (as opposed to “Sorry, we can’t do anything about it. Just take your child home.”) Ideally, they could give the families a copy. Other potential places to distribute would be therapy departments, child health nurses, and Government Red Cross departments….

But at the same time as I’m putting a lot of effort into this, I’ve still got a horrible feeling that in a year’s time, my booklet will be found nesting in dusty cupboards along with the rest of them….