Vietnam Ties: A View From the Inside Out
by guest author Michaelyn Sloan
“Travel changes you. As you move through this life and this world, you change things slightly. You leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life – and travel – leaves marks on you.”― Anthony Bourdain
Shortly after returning from Vietnam Ties, this quote caught my eye. I silently nodded, and reflected back on the two amazing weeks in Vietnam, and the “marks” that had been indelibly etched into each of our souls during our Ties trip.
Our group of adoptive families traveled from all across the United States. We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City several days before New Year’s. The city was alight with brilliant Christmas decorations (the likes of which we had never seen before) and directly outside our hotel stood an amazing stage with a laser light and sound show.
The main boulevard had been closed off for pedestrians—a delightful break in the city with a million (or more) motorbikes. Mingling with hundreds of Vietnamese families who came to enjoy the festivities, we sampled foods from street vendors, moved to the music and watched the various acts on stage. The consensus of our group was no other New Year celebration in any of our lifetimes would come even close to this experience! Mark. (Life, and travel surely leave a MARK!)
Moving south to the Mekong Delta, we boarded sampans taking us up the river to a Vietnamese village. We learned about making rice paper, rice cakes, popcorn (Vietnamese style) and coconut candies, and yes, did a little sampling too. While some of us drank tea flavored with the local honey, some of our more adventurous participants allowed themselves to become entangled by a large boa constrictor one of the local boys had as a pet. Lunch was a feast with “elephant fish” as the main course. Mark. Mark. Mark.
Each year World Ties, a sister organization to The Ties Program, gifts a Vietnamese family with a sampan as part of a humanitarian aid project. In 2012, the recipient family was a widow and her two daughters. We left knowing they would now be able to earn a living through the sale of fruits and vegetables to other nearby villages, ending a life of destitution—the result of having no male figure in the home. Huge Mark.
On our last morning in the Mekong Delta, we once again boarded a sampan and visited the colorful floating market of Cai Rang and “shopped” on the boat ride back to our hotel as the captain’s sister modeled and displayed a variety of traditional clothing, crafts and arts. Mark, Mark.
Interspersed through our days, the kids had “Connect & Chat” times that took place during manicures in the market, and over milk shakes and pastries in Vietnam’s great French shops. The parents had their own “Talk Times” which provided needed processing time.
Individual families made adoption connection visits with orphanages, hospitals and adoption facilitators. Some met birth family. All had unique, life changing experiences. BIGGEST MARK.
Changing our flip flops and shorts for heavy scarves, gloves and rain apparel, we delighted in finding our way through the winding cobblestoned streets of this beautiful city. Hanoi is filled with endless markets, and centers around a beautiful lake where local people perform morning exercise or walk in the morning mist.
In Hanoi, we visited an SOS Children’s Village where children are cared for in homes by a mother who commits herself to raising six to eight children. We also visited Bo De Pagoda, an orphanage for more than 160 children, where we played with babies, bounced balls with toddlers and braided the hair of teenage girls. And, we “taught” English (“My name is— and “What is your name —-?) at a school, to 1st and 2nd graders, ending with “Itsy Bitsy Spider” and “Hokey Pokey” – much to their amusement and that of their teachers. Marks exchanged everywhere.
Next, we traveled to what has been described as one of the world’s most beautiful places, Halong Bay, overnighting on a magnificent junk which made its way through a water landscape of more than 3000 islands. We kayaked, fished and did Tai Chi on the lower deck with one of the boat’s masters and watched some of our fellow, Danish travelers dive into the icy cold waters of the bay. On our last morning we boarded rowboats that took us to a floating village of over 1,000 people. Multiple marks.
One of the most significant “marks” involved a North Vietnamese rice farmer and his family. One of the adoptees traveling with us wanted to experience what her life might had been like had she been raised in a local village, so we arranged a visit to a local rice farmer and his family. Greeted at the edge of the village, we walked through a village of stone homes surrounded by gardens with lattice work arches finally arriving at a gate that led to the inner garden and home of our host. Sitting on the floor, we dined on dishes of rice cakes, meats, vegetables, and soup. We raised our tea cups as they toasted us in Vietnamese and we toasted back “Good luck….good health……good life!”
Photographs in the home indicated that our host had been in the military and as we prepared to leave our Vietnamese guide, Chi, pointed out that he had been in the North Vietnamese army. Curiosity got the best of me and I asked his age. The translation gave me the answer – he and I were the exact same age! As a college student during the Vietnam War (referred to as the American War by the Vietnamese people) my host had been “the enemy.” Memories of protests, and marches during the 70s flooded me as we looked at each other and then slowly he stepped forward and we embraced each other. A wow mark at many levels.
Ties has a saying that reads “I am not the same having seen the moon shine on another part of the world.” These breathtaking moments, where we somehow feel “marked” by the experience, are truly the reason why.