Hello from Ho Chi Minh! Sunday was largely spent travelling from Hanoi to HCMC. Got up at 6am to get to the airport and then arrived in HCMC at around 1pm (with my luggage this time whoo). The volunteer dorms are only a 10 minute drive from the airport but when I arrived none of the other international volunteers were here as some of them had gone away for the weekend and others were out, which was actually a good thing because I could get unpacked and have a shower and just generally sort myself out and adjust to the heat (30 degrees plus but very sweaty and sticky weather, no tan for me here but good not to be cold). The dorms are pretty standard: there are four small bedrooms with room for four people in each, but there are 14 of us at the moment (4 boys, 10 girls) staying from one week to six months and I’m the only English person (as one of the Aussies pointed out I’m the only Pom!). There is a small common area with a TV and a kitchen. At least everywhere is clean (although not tidy).
Yesterday was my induction in the morning and then a couple of hours for lunch and a break and then a class in the afternoon with the local volunteers who are around the same age as us but want to improve their conversational English. Then at around 6ish we got the bus into District 1 (central HCMC) and went to Saigon Square for shopping (although I only went to browse). Saigon Square is just lots of little stall type things with various goods (mostly fake branded clothes). We then went to a small night market opposite, which was fun to browse until a small incident with an aggressive stall seller who told me to f*** off and that people would hit me… Um thanks?
I love HCMC. It’s different to Hanoi in almost every way. Hanoi has an older feel to it while HCMC is more cosmopolitan with lots of parks, coffee shops, restaurants, well landscaped (in District 1 anyway), good shopping etc.
Today I did the city tour with a local volunteer. This morning we went to the War Remnants Museum, which is extremely harrowing. It basically takes you through the brutality of modern warfare that has effected Vietnam. The photos and the stories are very sad but I think it is crucial for people to understand what happened in order to try and prevent it from happening again. The rooms are divided into themes eg agent orange (the most hard-hitting room), photographers, torture and international opposition to the war (which provides some sense of balance).
You can’t believe what human beings are capable of doing to each other. The agent orange room has hundreds of photos of people who were and still are effected eg one little girl born in 2008 had deformities as an indirect result of agent orange dropped in the 1960s and early 1970s… How many people know about that? We have studied the Vietnam-American war as part of history but actually the effects are very much part of our present. Another thing that shocked me was the size of the bullets that were used and dropped, the photos probably don’t do them justice but they were HUGE. The most shocking area of all is the mock-up of the ‘tiger cages’ on Con Son island and information about the prison on Phu Quoc island. There is lots of information about the torture these inmates received and I honestly don’t know how people even invented these things to do to other people for example shoving nails up peoples finger nails and toenails (one of the less gruesome methods). All in all it was well worth the visit but it was a sobering experience.
After that we went to the Reunification Palace (renamed Independence Palace in 1966 after it was rebuilt following extensive damage in 1962). It was originally built in 1871 to house the governor-general of Indochina but after the French departure in 1954 it was used by Diem (president in south) as his presidential palace. It hasn’t been changed much since its working days and the interior reflects 1960s kitsch with banqueting rooms, a library, a cinema, the presidents private quarters (and the stairs that only he was allowed to use), relaxation room with a bar, meeting rooms and a dance floor in the penthouse. The most atmospheric and interesting rooms are in the basement, which acted as the command centre and still has the vast and detailed war maps, old school radio equipment and typewriters and desks. It was interesting but because we didn’t have a guide I only heard bits and pieces from some English-speaking guides with other groups and didn’t always know what I was looking at.
We then went for lunch in a really nice restaurant and then had a wonder down to Ben Thanh market, which has been the city’s busiest market for over a century and has both Vietnamese and foreign shoppers. It’s extremely big and bustling and busy and hard work in the heat if you’re just browsing like we were. We then just wondered round and stopped at an AMAZING bakery (one good legacy of French colonisation) called Tous Le Jours. It felt like we were in the middle of Paris not the centre of crazy HCMC. I keep feeling so tired here, I think it’s because of the heat. So tonight I don’t plan on doing much apart from eating and chilling.
Wednesday was my first day of teaching and it was so good! Six of us taught two classes (they all last an hour and a half) at a boys orphanage, I was in the class for 8-13 year olds. Some of them were really cheeky (eg go to high five but they miss and run their fingers through their hair) but their English was surprisingly good. We just went through the alphabet and everyone had to write down a word for each letter then we went through and a class and made sentences with the words and practiced pronunciation. At the end one of the girls bought out bubbles, which obviously the boys thought was the best bit of the lesson. I am meant to be teaching there three mornings a week, which I’m really looking forward to because it means I can spend a decent amount of time with one group. I thought that we would be supporting a full time teacher but we are actually running the majority of the classes by ourselves, which is a little bit daunting because we don’t know what they’ve already done or what they like doing.
When I got back to the house, I had lunch and then me and Kat went to the park for a wonder, its about 5 mins from the house and it’s GORGEOUS, the perfect place to ready my Kindle in free time. Then yesterday afternoon I was meant to have a lesson with the local volunteers (my age) but no-one turned up because most people are still in their hometowns because of Tet (unis start back next week) so I just hung out and had a nap and planned what I wanted to do on the weekends.
Then last night one of the local volunteers, Ha, who had taken us to the orphanage offered to take us out to a coffee shop. She met us at 8pm with a few of her friends and took us to an AMAZING cafe/restaurant that had water features and beautiful flowers and Western music and was just generally really great (and cheap). I only had a mini dessert because I’d already had dinner at the dorms but the food looked really yummy. I chatted to Hoa all night and it was surprising how much we had in common.
Then yesterday I had a class in the morning at a small local school. There were only 5 people in the class but it was a really great class because their English ranges from quite good to really good. The students are really sweet and call you teacher, which is strange. The other guy from the dorms who I went with (Andrew) is only here for a week and this was only the second (and last) time teaching this class and the students had got him a present (Vietnamese flag) and written a really sweet letter. I just helped out this lesson but have planned some stuff for the lesson next week.
Then in the afternoon I had a Vietnamese lesson and I can see why it’s the third hardest language to learn in the world! Not sure I’ll be able to learn much more than the four words I already know but we’ll keep trying. We then went into District 1 to book our tour to the Cu Chi Tunnels and a temple tomorrow. We also visited a tailor where a couple of the girls are getting dresses made and then went for a second dinner at a really great, cheap restaurant in the backpackers district. After that we came back, got changed and all went out in our rice hats as a goodbye to Andrew. Was a really good night but we didn’t get in until 3.30am and then had to get up at 7.30am today for teaching.
Today we went back to the boys orphanage and carried on from where we left on Wednesday… Everyone definitely had the Friday feeling (especially the boys!) but it went really quickly and it’s sweet when they remember your name and ask you to check their work all the time so that you praise them. It’s no surprise to say that we came home, had lunch and a chat about last nights antics and then had a long sleep. Tonight will be a very low key one, we’ll probably just watch a movie.