Monday, April 5, 2010

So seven weeks into my VSO experience and the blog finally commences.... henceforth this will be where I try to record all ruminating, pondering, celebrating, outpouring, stories and general philosophising. I'm not going to promise regularity.... and most of you would know better than to expect it from me!

Obviously I won't be naming names of people at work or the organisation I'm working with, and we've been warned not to get too political, so any blogosphere fence-sitting does not necessarily mean a lack of opinion. Please do add comments, disagreements, ideas, discussions, or skype / email. It always makes my day to hear from friends and family, and its great to hear other points of view. 

I'll backtrack a little to do a quick run down of leaving and 'in-country training' in Hanoi, and hopefully sometime catch up with myself here, two weeks into placement in Vinh Dien, in rural, central Vietnam

Leaving the UK was a typically chaotic and fabulous extended Otto-Walton-Stephenson affair. All 6 of us Ottos, a Bon and the mini Bon-Otto cosied together for a night at Nat and Mir's lovely home in Bristol,

before the next day meeting more than 30 family members (ranging in age from to 93) in Bath to either run, or give moral support for, the half marathon.

After a huge, rowdy and well-earned Sunday lunch, much eating, drinking (oh how i'll miss Bath ales... obviously not as much as i'll miss the FAMILY, but really, quite a very very lot) and merry scrummy family-ness, there were emotional goodbyes in the pub carpark, and I was off to Vietnam.

Obviously I'm biased, but I think my family's pretty special. When people ask what they all think of what I'm doing, and whether they worry, I'm able to tell them that this adventure is really quite tame in comparison to the adventures and escapades of family members through the generations. It's in our blood, and I'm very grateful for it.

I can't recommend 16 hours of flying as post-run recovery, but at least I slept well!

Hanoi was cool and grey, with a good few metres of pollution dispelling any hopes of sunshine. We were a group of seven for our VSO 'in-country orientation', comprised of 3 Brits, 2 Canadians (one of Japanese origin), one American and one Indian, so a stimulating and entertaining group. We spent an intense and enlightening three weeks in the care of the VSO office staff (all Vietnamese); 

- making a start at absorbing Vietnamese history, culture, and current issues through a variety of talks and discussions (and a very elegant night watching ballet at the Hanoi Opera House, SOOOOO cultured!). Thanks to VSO staff and volunteers, UNAids, IDEA, Oxfam Vietnam, Professor Huu Ngoc (see pic below), and host families.

- enjoying (!?!) four hours a day with the unbelievably patient Mrs Thao, who got us contorting our faces around the six Vietnamese tones and crazy vowels. Four times a year she has the challenging remit of teaching newly arrived volunteers enough vocabulary to be able to make friends, avoid the inadvertent ordering of boiled pig intestines in food shacks, buy essentials at the market and not get ripped off in the process. She did a great job, although uberhealthy vegetarian 'Chi Kathy' spent quite a number of days eating every type of fried noodle before mastering the difference between 'rao' (vegetables) and 'xao' (fried), and one night at dinner four of us very nearly ended up with enough chicken for twenty-four. Practical learning. Awesome.

- learning to cross the road. We needed several demonstrations before we started to believe that if you just start walking, then (most of the time) things avoid you. If you hesitate, change speed or step backwards, you're in trouble. Group strategy is to form a line, shoulder-to-shoulder, down-traffic of the bravest person. It's kind of like a computer game. Only sadly with real dying (four-five deaths in traffic in Hanoi every day). Not fun.

Professor Huu Ngoc - multi-lingual, author of numerous books on culture and history in several languages, astoundingly articulate and knowledgable, and ran up 5 flights of stairs quicker than any of us. He's 92....

Big love and hugs to my Hanoi family - L-R: David, Dipak, Shimpei, Sarah and 'Chi Kathy'


Hanoi was as bustling and vibrant as I'd read and heard, and an incredible place to explore. The streets are narrow, with tall skinny houses (4-5 stories high with sometimes as little as 3m width. Apparently it's for tax reasons). Open fronts spill life and retail, with the same hard-working space used for everything. Almost all of life's activities take place outside - buying, selling, cooking, dental work, fighting, hairdressing, slaughtering, shaving, pissing....

Walking around Hanoi, my impression was of tenacity, hard work, creativity and optimism. Vietnam, under it's Communist single-party Government, has managed to meet the Millenium Development Goal of halving poverty between 1990 and 2015 more than a decade in advance. The percentage of households below the poverty line (considered as the cost of adequate food plus non-food essentials) fell from 58% in 1993 to below 24% in 2004. Extreme poverty (food costs alone) dropped from 25% to less than 8% (figures from Oxfam and Thats pretty impressive. It's now the norm rather than the exception for people in the city to have scooters, mobiles, a TV and a computer at home. There are no old bangers on the roads in Vietnam. 5-10 years ago people could not afford cars. There are now apparently more than 30 Bentleys in Hanoi, and with cars carrying 2-300% import tax, there's obviously some serious wealth going on in some places.
Don't get me wrong, it's brilliant that there is more money in people's pockets, and Vietnam is quite rightly enjoying riding this wave. But this period of change and rapidly increasing prosperity is coming with risks to many elements of life here, and it will be very interesting to see how (and if) the government and people of Vietnam manage these. I'm talking about the environment, the traditional culture (a fascinating blend of Buddhism, Confucianism and Daoism - heavily centred on the family, respect for elders and ancestors and community life, eshewing individualism, consumerism and personal gain), rapid urbanisation and increasing inequalities between rural and city areas. I'm sure this is a topic I'll come back to.
My new Vietnamese husband and I enjoying the twinkly lights of Hoam Kiem lake in the old quarter..... (Kidding, ma! Sorry to the unsuspecting lovebirds, I didn't ask permission for this one.)


I was intending to move onto describing the food next. If you're reading this, then I imagine you know me. If you know me, you'll know I like my food....! Looking over my photos from the seven weeks, a ridiculous number of them are of meals. With a few very noteable exceptions, every dining experience has been delicious, nutricious and inspiring, although the MSG they somehow squeeze into every meal is leaving my mouth dry and metallic. The strange and exotic fruits and veg and herbs and spices, the markets.....

But.... the power keeps failing, blogspot keeps failing and now my patience is failing. My food loving friends (yes, you Telf, Han, Luce, Ed B, Kerry...) I will leave you waiting for pictures and descriptions and recipes in the next post!
In the meantime, I hope everyone in the UK is enjoying spring with it's light and rejuvenation, and I send love and hugs to all who think of me. I value you all incredibly. xx


  1. Great to hear your story so far.

    Can't wait to read those recipes!

  2. Hey Lucy, fab start, you'll be a blogging legend before you know it!

    Great early insights, interesting to compare with experience here in Cambodia. Certainly the importance of grasping a crazy language in order to avoid pig's intestines strikes a chord. Also the multi-national VSO crowd - it's certainly not a bunch of white Brits anymore, I'm in a distinct minority on that one!

    Maybe not so similar regarding the prosperity though - Cambodia seems much less developed, and the pockets of wealth are very much in the hands of the connected and the corrupt here - how did Vietnam manage it?

    And great job on navigating Blogspot as I find it seriously un-unser-friendly - hope some folk work out how to comment...

    Looking forward to more! Olyx

  3. oly - to reply on the 'all-in' country-wide shift up the economic scale, i'm trying to get my head round it. it seems that a benevolent single-party state focussed on national well-being can sometimes manage things that a democracy can't. they have devolved control of markets, encouraged business development, and improved international opportunities, and they've somehow transferred a significant amount of the resulting money into the rural areas. they've certainly invested in rural roads, schools, hospitals etc, but i'm not sure if they had any other way of putting money in the hands of rural people. i'm investigating! there is still a significant (and perhaps growing) imbalance, and i think reduced state control has also has had the effect of reducing state support for those in need. i'll update as i find out more. under a democracy, any party suggesting transfer of money from successful urban businesspeople to less-well off rural areas would never have won any votes. thought-provoking....