Where did the time go?

Danielle Carriere joined PanNature for three months (May – July 2011) under the Students Without Borders program of World University Service of Canada. In the below blog post, she shares her experience with other volunteers on the website of Students Without Borders.

Where did the Time Go?
by Danielle Carriere

That is what I keep thinking to myself. I’m in my 6th week in Vietnam, and I can’t believe how fast time is flying by. I mean, people kept telling me it would, and deep down I knew it would – but I still can’t believe it.

Settling into life in Hanoi hasn’t been that difficult for me. I’m fortunate enough to be staying with a host family that is really going above and beyond to make sure that I have everything I need and am comfortable in their home. Also, meeting Gillian in my first week, the former PanNature WUSC volunteer, who also stayed with the same host family as I, was very helpful. She was kind enough to give me tips on which busses to take, that you have get on and off the bus while it’s moving (because why would it stop for you?), where the good bun cha is nearby, etc. which I think definitely took some of the potential stress out of my life.

My first trip outside of Hanoi was June 1st-2nd with PanNature to their field site at Hang Kia – Pa Co Nature Reserve (insert proper accents as necessary). It was great to get out of the city and see the beauty that the country has to offer! I got to meet the field staff and stay with them in their homestay just outside of the village, travel around Pa Co on the back of a motorbike, meet some of the local people of the H’mong ethnic group, and purchase some unique handmaid souvenirs. It was neat to see the projects that PanNature has developed to improve the economic conditions of these people (ie: building tourism infrastructure and diversifying their agricultural products) with my own eyes.

Sunday, June 5th, took me off the beaten path a little bit. I went to Soc Soc, a village approximately 40km outside of Hanoi with a tour company called Bloom Microventures, a microfinancing/tourism initiative where approximately half of the tour fees go directly towards funding a loan for women who would otherwise be unable to borrow from a traditional bank due to a lack of collateral. The countryside was beautiful (of course), and it was a privilege to hear about the lives of the women we met during the day. I would definitely recommend this for anyone coming to Hanoi who would like to spend the day learning about a way of life that is quite different from the Western one we live at home, and even the one we are leading here in Hanoi. There is also the added benefit of knowing that your money is going to a really good cause!

Daniel in Bai Tu Long. Photo: Sam Thanh Phuong.

I was asked a really great question by one of PanNature’s field staff when I was in Pa Co: do I think that the Vietnamese people are impoverished. That was definitely the first question I have been asked where I actually had to really stop and reflect on my experience – it was definitely a tough one to answer. Upon arriving in Hanoi, I was very surprised at how much more people had: fans, A/C, Iphones, televisions, and brand new luxury cars on the streets. I mean, you can definitely see that there is a huge divide separating the rich and the poor in the city, but everyone seems to have some sort of employment and eat relatively well. Also, I have not been approached by a beggar here, while in downtown Winnipeg (or even nicer suburbs like St. Vital) it has happened to me on several occasions (although I acknowledge I may only be visiting the nicer areas of Hanoi). However, when you leave the city for the rural areas, you can see the striking poverty of the people there. From what I’ve seen, people live in very basic or traditional houses with one or two rooms, without running water and very basic electricity. They farm for a living, and every one of them said that a farmer’s life is hard; although the work is hard, they get paid very little and it’s very difficult to raise their socioeconomic status by themselves. So I guess to answer the question: the country is definitely in the stages of development, and when I see how the economy is booming in Hanoi, I can’t help but worry that the poverty in the rural areas will be forgotten and left behind for the sake of development. From what I’ve seen and heard, it appears that the Vietnamese government is only interested in providing funding to rural areas in the context of developing tourism, not necessarily improving the quality of life for its rural citizens. I feel that more relief is needed from the government outside of the development of tourism to ensure that everyone is benefitting from Vietnam’s improving economy. Although tourism can help improve a community’s economy, what happens if/when the tourists don’t come? Although I would never claim to be an expert on this after a month, I don’t think that I’m crazy to question how sustainable this government strategy is.

Aside from my issues understanding their political system, I think my biggest struggle here so far has been trying to get a grasp of the Vietnamese language. Part of the problem is that I am spoiled; there are people in my host family who can speak English, and the girls at work also speak English and therefore either translate for me, or order my meals for me, which allows me to be lazy and not make a concerted effort everyday. Also, when I’m on my own, I can usually get by with basic English combined with miming and pointing at what I want. The other issue is that the words just don’t stick in my head. I generally ask what everything that I’m eating is (especially when it’s delicious and I know I will want to eat it again), and within five minutes of hearing what it is called in Vietnamese, it’s already floated out of my head.

I am really trying to soak up as much as I can in the short time that I’m here. I didn’t think I’d be saying this, but three months just isn’t enough time to do something like this – there’s too much to do, learn, and see! Unfortunately for my mom, her fears came true: I am loving this experience, and already wondering where I’ll be going for my next work placement…

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