Vietnam: May 20- June 10, 2013

Sometimes in life you forget what you are doing, why and how you came to be doing your current daily routine, or how an environment and the people in that environment have impacted you, until you step away for a while. That indeed happened on my recent three week trip to Vietnam when both leaving Laos for the first time in seven months and having to leave Vietnam after meeting lots of new friends & making connections with many people. For a long while I was was asked by many people when I was planning to go on a trip outside of Laos. I knew in due time I would get to see all the places I wanted, but at the same time I was content with staying in one place for a while and building friendships with those around me. It felt that for the first time in a long time my life had become “settled” and I liked that feeling quite a lot. I love Laos. Words can not explain that feeling. I was a bit afraid that if I had started leaving right away or often I would have a harder time connecting with the people around me in Laos. I think I was correct in my thinking but at the same time it was due time for a break from my normal routine ( and of course for my own health and sanity)!

Well, after spending three extraordinary weeks in Vietnam I think it is safe to say I am good at sensing what sorts of places I want to see and situations I enjoy being in, as well as the type of people I connect with the most. Living in Laos has changed me drastically (I have learned so very much), and it was hard to see the ways this has happened without leaving my typical life atmosphere.

Day 1: May 20, 2013

Madame Xuyen and I left for Vietnam at 11:45 AM. We first flew to Phnom Penh, Cambodia from Vientiane. After that we flew from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City. We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) around 3:00 PM. After arriving we debated whether fish close their eyes when they sleep (do they??… we do not know..) and whether the painting on the wall looked like an American home as well as eating Vietnamese snacks (rice pudding wrapped in banana leaves and meat/eggs wrapped in dough balls) from a nearby shop. Then we went to meet Madame Xuyen’s family at their home. Her family lives very near the hotel I stayed at- only down an alley way. The alley, along with being a road, is also the site of a large market. Madame Xuyen’s sister and many nieces and in-law’s live in Ho Chi Minh City. Madame Xuyen and her family are Catholic, as well as much of the neighborhood. The area is home to a school, which used to be a Seminary as well as a Catholic Church. Madame Xuyen’s nieces and her nieces children are all very active in the church. Madame Xuyen’s sister’s health has declined in recent years, but when she was more active she went around neighborhoods collecting offerings for the church and for different activities organized by the church. Before every meal the Lord’s Prayer is recited by the family in Vietnamese. Throughout the course of the first week we were there, we ate most of our meals with Madame’s Xuyen’s sister and family. (Madame Xuyen’s sister was so excited tobe reunited with her sister, always laughing and smiling!) Vietnamese meals often consist of steamed rice, vegetables, a vegetable soup, tofu, chicken or fish, and fruits for dessert. Tea is often very common in Vietnam served hot or cold after the meal. All very tasty and healthy for you!

Day 2: May 21, 2013

Today Madame Xuyen had five Vietnamese students over to her house to meet me and take me to see some of the sites in Saigon. As we first gathered we got to know a little bit about one another and then they all decided where they wanted to take me in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). Unlike in Laos where people calmly all agree or are satisfied with what whatever decision is made, Lao people go with the flow and are maybe at times very passive, Vietnamese people all have a different opinion. This was interesting and I was a bit surprised to see as it had been a while (back in the United States) since I had seen people voice their opinions directly.

We finally decided we were going to take the bus to the center of the city and walk around there. We first went to the Diamond Plaza, which is a big shopping center. I do not like shopping and so thankfully we did not do that. Plus, I came in touch with the world of wealth and material goods again. I have always seen something wrong with the fact that one item can cost more than all a person’s belongings and home. Since living in Laos though this fact is definitely NOT okay anymore. Luckily, however, we passed by all the really expensive perfumes and clothing and went to have lunch and played a few arcade games (totally different than usual). After eating lunch my new Vietnamese friends took me to the beautiful post office. I liked seeing the post office, it is very beautiful and much bigger than in Laos. The post office is also a good site to get Vietnamese souvenirs. After spending time at the post office we went to the Reunification Palace (formerly the Independence Palace). The Reunification Palace was home and workplace of the president of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. It was the site of the end of the war during the Fall of Saigon when a North Vietnamese Army tank broke through the gates. Now the palace serves as a museum for people to see and learn about Vietnamese history. We left after a while though because it was starting to rain. It is currently the rainy season in Laos, Vietnam and other areas in SE Asia, so it rains everyday, short but heavy rain. After going back to Madame Xuyen’s house we shared what we had done with others at home a had a short English lesson before the students left.

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Day 3: May 22, 2013

Today the same students as yesterday invited me to go on an end of the year celebration with other students from their class at a fruit orchard. The fruit orchard was very far outside the city. We took two buses and motorbikes to get there, about 1.5 – 2 hours away. I really enjoyed the fruit orchard as I tend to like activities that are not touristy and natural more than shopping centers or famous sites. On the way there one of the students got into a motorbike accident, but other than that we got there safely. The fruit orchard was very large. The family that owns it however take very good care of it. We spent the day relaxing in hammocks, laughing, and eating lots and lots of fruit we picked from trees; sugarcane, jackfruit, rambutans, pineapple, guavas, mangosteens, and lots of other fruits not grown or found in the United States, so they don’t have English names. I had a lot of fun at the fruit orchard, getting to know a number of Vietnamese students better.

Day 4: May 23, 2013

Today I went with Madame Xuyen to the Open University in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) to hear a workshop on community development and social work case studies. Although the lecture was all in Vietnamese I could understand much of their attitude toward social issues, and their excitement to present and share ideas with each other. Most of the time was spent discussing and collaborating ideas on social work case studies that had been written by social work professors. The participants of the workshop shared ideas on how to get the case studies published into a book for students and others to use as reference material. After the lecture, we all went and ate spring rolls and noodle soup together; about 35 people came along. VERY DELICIOUS!

Afterwards it had started raining and so we headed home and spent the afternoon relaxing at Madame Xuyen’s home in Vietnamese pajamas (as our clothes had got soaking wet)! I really enjoyed having some time to relax more while in Ho Chi Minh City. It is so very rare that I get/ give myself completely free afternoons in Laos.

In the evening Mailo, a Lao student and friend arrived on the bus from Vientiane to spend the next 2.5 weeks with us. I think Mailo greatly benefited from having the opportunity to come see Vietnam and attend the social work and community development workshops (see future dates). Many Lao people never get the opportunity to leave Laos ever in their lives. Mailo’s English greatly improved being surrounded by more English- speaking people than he sees in Laos and although the workshops were in English with Vietnamese translation – I think Mailo still benefited greatly from being there. He wasn’t very confident at first and always asked people to get food for him, etc., but as days passed and I told him I didn’t know anymore Vietnamese than he did (! ), his confidence increased in being in a new environment!

Day 5: May 24, 2013

Friday I went exploring around the city- nearby the hotel. I walked a few miles to the Saigon River where I walked around and took photos. I then went back to the hotel and had a relaxing afternoon reading out of the sun and rain of the day. In the evening I went down to Madame Xuyen’s house and had dinner (what I did every day if I wasn’t already there) with her family. I quite enjoyed spending time with her family- and many of them became good friends. Vietnamese people behave and act differently than Lao people, and I think I was in need of some of the characteristics of Vietnamese people. Vietnamese people communicate with each other more directly and express their emotions more freely than Lao people. I also really enjoyed getting to know Madame Xuyen’s nieces , of which many speak English, and a few are my age, and sharing in meals and time spent getting to know them as good friends. In the evening on Friday, Yen, a niece took me on a night tour of Ho Chi Minh City by motorbike. She had seen I was interested in seeing the city, after I had done a little exploring earlier in the day, and showed and explained to me what different buildings and places were around the city. Ho Chi Minh City night lights and night life is very different than in the day, and I loved being able to see both sides of the city. It was a little strange to think about how Lao and Vietnamese people would react differently to this type of activity. In Laos I get questioned if I go exploring and no Lao person has ever given me a “tour’ of Vientiane ( No problem- I don’t need one- I have discovered many things over time). Nevertheless, Vietnamese people jump at an opportunity to host another individual or show him or her around their city.

Day 6: May 25, 2013

Today I met up with Xuan, one of the Vietnamese students from earlier in the week. We went together to Ben Than Market- a large market in the center of the city. The market is filled with lots of Vietnamese souvenirs and food. We drank Che a Vietnamese drink with jellies in it. We then spent the next few hours at a bookstore. Yes, Vietnamese people like to read books! Most Lao people do not like reading, partly because in school they are not usually told of the value of reading or what books can teach you about the world. It was refreshing to find people again that liked to read! The bookstore included three floors of books- my heart was happy! At the top of the bookstore was a craft area. Xuan and I painted pottery together before going home.

Day 7: May 26, 2013

Sunday I went to Catholic Mass with Madame Xuyen and her family. We happened to be at church on a perfect day as on this day Nogc, a niece, had finished Catechism (after studying about ten years) and there was a ceremony and time of proclaiming promises to God by all the students that had finished. I enjoyed being able to be there to see Ngoc. On the day she wore a ao dai, the traditional costume of Vietnam and was presented with a Vietnamese Bible and certificates as one of the best students in her class. She was very excited! Nogc’s mother and sister are also teachers and were present for the ceremony. The Catholic Church sits right behind Madame Xuyen’s family’s home. The church used to be located in a northern province, but when it’s members when the country was divided and more people moved to the south, the church got resettled in Ho Chi Minh City. The church is very beautiful inside and it’s members are very faithful, talented, and dedicated.

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After lunch we headed further into the city to find the American group. We were on our way to Social Work and Community Development Workshops held in An Gaing Province, in the south of Vietnam, which was conducted by a joint arrangement between professors at the University of West Virginia and An Gaing University. An Gaing University does not currently offer social work courses, but has allowed a summer workshop to happen on the topic of public health and social work. We took the bus down to An Giang Provience with the West Virginia Professors and students that come along as part of a study abroad trip with the school to attend workshops and learn about SE Asia by traveling around sites in Vietnam and Cambodia. In addition Dung, a social work student came along on the bus ride. She would spend the first week of workshops with us. We had met earlier in the week and had a lot of fun at the fruit orchard and in the city together. On the bus we taught each other Vietnamese & English respectively. Over the next week we had lots of laughs and good times together, such as when we decided to wash our clothes together in the hotel, completely flooding a room with soap.

The bus ride from Ho Chi Minh City to An Giang Provience took about 4.5-5 hours, with a ferry ride at the end of the trip. Most of the trip was spent talking to Dung, a good Vietnamese friend and teaching her new English words, and she taught be some Vietnamese words. The bus ride was also excellent as it allowed us to see Vietnamese landscape, including lots of house boats and life along the river, where many Vietnamese live. Once arriving in An Giang, Long Xuyen, we ate dinner at the hotel where American students were staying, before going to our hotel, which was closer to the university where the workshops were to be held in the following days. Over the course of the two weeks we spent in An Giang, the family who owned our hotel became our family and their hotel a “home with many rooms” and a roof balcony with great views of Long Xuyen. We talked with the family a lot, invited them to eat meals with us, and I taught their 12 year old daughter, Vi, some English a couple of days. (Vietnamese children have a lot more stamina to learn English than Lao people- as she sat learning with me for nearly 3 hours straight one night) . We were all a little sad to leave our new found friends after the 2 weeks we spent in An Giang, (Long Xuyen).

We also ate many of our meals at a nearby cafe to our hotel and the university while in An Giang, and got to know the family that owns the restaurant and taught them a little Lao and English.

Day 8- 10: May 27-29, 2013

Managing Difficult Children and Adolescent Problems Workshop

This workshop explained theories and ideas on how to take care of and deal with children and teenagers problems including loss and violence or other disorders, such as attachment disorders. The workshop discussed individual, group, and family interventions for working with children and adolescents who may have behavior concerns.

The workshop started out with groups performing the human knot. The human knot exercise works best in groups of ten people or so. Groups gather around to form a circle. Once in a circle individuals grab the hands of others in the circle, making sure that they are holding different people’s hands with each of their own hands. One “knotted” together the challenge is to get untangled without letting go of anyone’s hand. The lesson to be learned from the human knot is communication. The importance of communication as well as what happens when no communication exists or when all people try to communicate and voice their opinions at once. From the human knot game ideas about leadership can be discussed, in terms of what happens when all the group members are leaders, when no one is a leader, when natural leaders form, or when a leader is assigned. I have done this activity many times with groups of summer campers as well as other adult groups. Nevertheless it is new and different depending on who you complete the activity with and to play with lots of fun to see the reactions from Vietnamese students who had never done the human knot before.

Throughout the first worksop we learned about motivational interviewing. Motivational interviewing is about establishing rapport with clients, begin change conversations with clients, and establish ideas with the client on how they can stay committed to their goals. We discussed the fact that change can be hard for clients and take a LONG time, especially those that may have behavioral issues. We also discussed the topic of empathy and making sure to familiarize and work with the support systems of the individual.

After that we spent the rest of the first workshop watching the film, “ Born into Brothels.” “Born into Brothels” is a film about the children of prostitutes in Sonagachi, Kolkata’s red light district (an urban area) which is home to sex-orientated businesses and prostitution) in India. I recommend “ Born into Brothels” to anyone who may not have seen it. I really liked this film and do not think I had seen it before. It did a great job of depicting life in this part of the world as well as serving as an example to apply the concepts on communication and motivational interviewing.

For the first workshop two students from Dong Thap University, in Vietnam came to join us in workshops and at our hotel. We had lots of fun and I was thankful to meet them, as they are contacts from Madame Xuyen’s work at Dong Thap University.

Day 11-12: May 30-31, 2013

Introduction to Marriage and Family Therapy Workshop

Out of all four workshops that I attended, I enjoyed this one the most. I think the professors, Neal & Susan Newfield, that gave this workshop are very passionate about this topic and thus great at presenting information and lecturing.

We started out many days before workshops singing songs or dancing together ( for example, doing the Macarena or watching the monkey dance of Laos) or just sitting in silence for a few minutes ) (very much needed). I liked starting the mornings/ sessions / workshops off in this way.

This workshop focused on working with families and couples rather than in the first workshop that was centered around the individual. Lots of role playing was done to show how to work with couples, what to say or not say, and how to respond to statements a couple may say to each other or to the social worker directly. The workshop addressed change also, and how people each deal with change differently. Information was also provided on families and the different roles each family plays in a family and how those roles can be different from one family to the next. Throughout this workshop we got to eat “Bangsaow”- a Vietnamese pancake sometimes prepared with chicken, eggs, or shrimp and bean sprouts inside. It is then wrapped in greens. It is very tasty, but I think the group of Americans we were with were a little less adventurous and would have preferred just sticking with steamed rice.

Throughout the second workshop we also developed a small community of Vietnamese students to share and tell about Laos to. At first I wasn’t so sure about this; I don’t like to brag about myself nor when others do too much. There are many great missions/service programs in many corners of the world that all deserve acknowledgement and to be learned about, and frankly some people don’t really care. This was really good though and the Vietnamese students were all very eager to listen, share, and learn, etc. Madame Xuyen taught them all about Laos, shared lots of photos, told them about Donkoi school, and we taught each other by singing songs in Vietnamese, Lao, and English. We finished our time by eating dinner together. It briefly became a small little loving memorable community!

Madame Xuyen also showed me and a few other Vietnamese students photos from her trips to the United States one evening. This made me a little homesick. People in Laos are always with their families (family is very important part of culture) and here we were in Vietnam- where Madame Xuyen got to see her family. I don’t miss America at all, I just miss people in America some days. I however will get to see some of my family soon, so no worries, I’ll be okay… While it made me a bit sad to see her pictures because it reminded me of other people, we had some good laughs at stories she had from people she has met in the United States.

During this workshop a Vietnamese friend and social worker,Yen, came to join us.

Day 13 : June 1, 2013

Saturday we joined the American students on a fun day trip. We took a bus about 170 km from Long Xuyen to the Cai Rang Floating Market. I really enjoyed seeing the floating market and was different from anything I had ever seen before. We took a boat out to the floating market which is set beside the Hau River. Boats fill this area of the Mekong River Delta and sell lots of fresh fruits, vegetables and other souvenirs to people going through, mostly in the early morning. Many people in Vietnam live on the water and lot of the people that sell produce and products at the floating market also live on their boats. Hence, you can see people fishing, swimming, or washing their clothes in the river, etc. After seeing the floating market we went on to this resort. At the resort we walked around and fed crocodiles. That was all fine and dandy until I realized that the crocodiles were partly being raised to make crocodiles handbags… gross.. (Sorry, I am a bit opinionated some days!) We did eat crocodile though, which isn’t too bad. Another friend, Hoa, showed me a fruit garden which was very beautiful on the edge of the resort.

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Day 14 : June 2, 2013

Today Mailo and I joined the American students again. We first traveled to a Vietnamese village about 2 hours away from Long Xuyen. The village is predominately Muslim, and home to a beautiful Mosque that we visited. The village is in a flooding area and so all the homes are raised above the ground. The community also makes an income by producing and selling weavings and Vietnamese souvenirs. This was really interesting to see, although naturally most of the Americans were interested in buying lots of products at the shop in the village rather than learning about the community. The village has a sewing factory where they train and hire local people and sell some of the products / clothes to other countries, such as Malaysia. After visiting that village we went on about 30 minutes to the Temple of Lady Xu. I really enjoyed this, although not so much all the tourists. The Temple of Lady Xu is one of the most famous religious attractions in the Mekong Delta. Being with the Americans more than I usually am had it’s pros and cons. I liked being able to hear and talk a bit more English than usually, but I was also a bit shocked by how they acted. I realized just how much Asian culture has become very normal to me as the Americans reported to me numerous times I was “fearless”. Many of the Americans were a bit apprehensive to try new things and were beginning to experience culture fatigue. I was patient with them, reminding myself many of them were new to SE Asian culture and way of life. Nevertheless, I can’t go back and hear/ be part of that American life/ view.. not yet… I love my life over here too much. That is not to say that I am the “perfect person” at my job, there are days I wonder, but it’s important to have open mind. I have dug myself really deep into SE Asian culture and the Americans allowed me to see this fact more clearly.

Day 15- 17: June 3-5, 2013

Healthy Workers, Social Work Administration, and Community Practice: A Sampler of Topics Workshop

This workshop focused mainly on stress and burnout, of which social work jobs carry a lot. We discussed many methods for taking care of yourself and dealing with stress. We also talked about ways to prevent getting to stressed out and burned out with a job or situation. This workshop also addressed community practice and how to work as a social worker in macro practice- much larger scale not just one individual at a time. We discussed how to assess community strengths and weaknesses and how use those to understand certain communities.

During this workshop Madame Xuyen had lots of the workshop attendants over to our hotel for La Lot. La Lot is a typical snack from Thailand and Laos. Foods are wrapped such as lemongrass, dried shrimp, onions, coconut, ginger, chillies, and lemons… inside greens and sauce. It is very delicious! After eating La Lot and lots of fruits we shared stories and then danced… of which the dancing ended in musical chairs (The winners receiving more La Lot & flowers!) ! Lots and lots of fun!

During this workshop two other social workers came to join us. One Madame Son who works as a Vietnamese hospital social worker and another young social worker in Vietnam, Nhung. They both were lots of fun to get to know, although Nhung was a bit shyer than Dung. We had fun though and I even spent a night in their room. (Since living Laos I had been reminded about how I don’t like being alone anymore- which is quite the opposite it used to be- but so is the way I feel now).

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Day 18- 19: June 6-7, 2013
Basic Counseling Skills Workshop

Day 18: June 6, 2013

Today Mailo and I joined the Americans again, only this was probably my favorite day out of all three days we spent doing fun activities/exploring with them. We first traveled about 1.5 hours to a beautiful village and temple. This temple was not so much a tourist site- I liked that and the village was quiet, people not trying to sell products (although I really liked seeing to different types of communities and comparing them- from this day and the day in the Muslim community). The temple was beautiful with paintings telling the story of Buddha’s life on the walls. We then went on to a swamp. This was amazing. I had never been to a swamp before. We took big boats and then smaller boats as we got further and further into the swamp and the pathways got very narrow. It was very beautiful and lots of birds and other animals to see and hear in the natural environments, minus the crocodiles that were further downstream. Afterward, we climbed a tower to see the beautiful swamp from above.

Day 19: June 7, 2013

Counseling Workshop

During this day of the counseling workshop we discussed ways in which to build relationship with clients where change can occur. Topics covered included listening skills (active and passive listening), how to ask questions, how to clarify what a client is saying by the social worker to make sure the social worker understands what the client is saying correctly. Throughout the day a lot of role playing was done to show what to do or not do when working and speaking to clients. The workshops were excellent and I was glad I could be there. Although lots of the information was not new, but review, I enjoyed learning with Vietnamese students. If I would have changed something, I would have preferred not to sit for so long each day, we needed more activities where we moved around. Also we didn’t always feel like one community together and I don’t think I ever knew all the people. Instead we needed more introduction/get-to-know you games at the beginning, which allowed all the Americans to feel comfortable with the Vietnamese and visa versa. Some days the two groups existed in separate worlds.

Day 20: June 8, 2013

Today Mailo, Madame Xuyen and I took the bus back to Ho Chi Minh City. We were sad to leave our new friends in An Giang. After we got back some Vietnamese students and I took Mailo to the Benh Than Market and the city center, as he had not been there yet and wanted to buy gifts for his Lao friends.

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Day 21: June 9, 2013

Malio left on the bus early in the morning for Laos and Madame Xuyen gave a presentation at Open University in the morning about Laos to about 30 students and adults. Madame Xuyen explained how social work started and came to be in Vietnam and then how projects and social work has started to grow in Laos also. Those who came to the presentation were very excited and interested in what was being explained. Many of them didn’t even understand the history of social work in Vietnam. They reported that they had the money and resources but projects, such as weaving, never had happened. I was surprised to hear that they didn’t know a lot about social work in their own country or that the projects and ideas as simple as weaving had never been created. The Vietnamese students and other listeners were very interested and impressed in what was presented. In the afternoon some of the students came over to Madame Xuyen’s (sister’s) house to gather again. We (including me) at fertilized duck eggs (Lao people also eat these, but I had not tried yet). It was not too bad, but later gave me a stomach ache)!

Day 22: June 10, 2013

Dung came over to Madame Xuyen (sister’s) house for lunch and then we taught her how to make (Lao) paper bags. Afterward we had to leave to get to the airport. We left Ho Chi Minh City around 5:30 and arrived back in Vientiane at about 8:00 PM with a stop over in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Our trip to Vietnam was excellent. I definitely needed a break from my life in Laos, and I really enjoyed many of Madame Xuyen’s family members and other social work students I befriended, in addition to speaking a bit more English than normal with the Americans from West Virginia. Like normal, as soon as soon as a I grew closer with many Vietnamese friends and we got to know each other, we had to leave. Upon getting back to Laos my family was really interested in what I had to tell them about Vietnam. I was a bit surprised, but I think they were a little worried I wasn’t coming back, as they were excited to see me. The Lao are right I do not want my life in Laos to end suddenly one day, that fact worries me a little somedays. I was , however, really sad to leave as I enjoyed Vietnam a lot and was able to find those things I had been missing some days in Laos ( i.e. , communication, intense laughter, & sharing thoughts, feelings, and emotions) among the people of Vietnam that I had really needed. I am grateful. I hope and plan to return to Vietnam again soon and meet up with some of the close friends I met there.