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The can-do spirit of Vietnam: on a recent visit to Vietnam, British teacher Rob Neal found a nation that refused to be held back by its suffering. (First Person).

Weaving through Saigon's Sunday night traffic on the back of a Honda Dream, it is impossible not to feel the energy and vibrancy of Vietnam's largest city. Local teenagers, resplendent in their dazzling ao dais and designer shirts, exchange furtive glances, as we race past hip nightclubs and trendy bars. The atmosphere is intoxicating. Yet behind the sophistication and sartorial elegance of these young Saigonese lurks a very different Vietnam.

Most of our party of 12 had spent the last year or two teaching English in Japan on the Japan Exchange Teaching Programme and we had all travelled to Vietnam, laden with school supplies, toys and clothing, to take part in a volunteer project organized by the Friendship Foundation of American-Vietnamese. The FFAV was founded by a remarkable Vietnamese lady, Gia Hoa Ryan, in order `to build bridges of friendship' between the peoples of Vietnam and other countries.

ORIGAMI

Gia Hoa had worked as an interpreter and secretary for the US military during the Vietnam War and, since emigrating to Ohio, has campaigned tirelessly to help the growing number of Vietnamese and Cambodian immigrants in America, as well as organizing countless volunteer projects in Vietnam. Having taken part in a similar FFAV volunteer project in December 2001, I was thrilled to be back in Vietnam only eight months later and have the opportunity to learn more about this beautiful country.

One of the most enjoyable activities was interacting with local children in rural villages. Although their English was usually as limited as our Vietnamese, they would clamber over each other to play with us, sing songs or simply smile, laugh and touch. With the aid of gestures, facial expressions and smiles, we managed to play some simple games, teach some basic songs and even give a few origami lessons. We rewarded good behaviour with pens and pencils donated by our students in Japan. The songs and games were intended as an easy, informal way to help the children learn some English.

It was heart-wrenching to know that a significant minority of these children were too poor to attend school. It seems unlikely that they will ever be able to rise up the social ladder. Understandably, most are more concerned about where their next meal is coming from. Moreover, a worrying number have no relatives and are left to fend for themselves.

Yet it would be inappropriate to paint too gloomy a picture. All the children appeared to look out for each other and I never detected any self-pity among them, just a quiet determination to make the best of their lives. Perhaps this was most vividly illustrated on a beach one day when an 11-year-old boy selling postcards greeted me in five different languages.

CYCLO DRIVERS

This can-do spirit was very much in evidence at a school for the handicapped we visited in Rach Gia on the Gulf of Thailand. Many of the students were deaf, and some of their disabilities were caused, we were told, by Agent Orange and napalm. Yet our group was made to feel incredibly welcome as our new friends attempted to teach us some basic sign language and showed off their embroidery and woodwork. Gia Hoa decided the best way we could help (and possibly open up future markets) was by purchasing some items for display back home. As we snapped up tablecloths and embroidered pictures, it was clear that this meant far more to the students and the sisters who ran the school than any money donation.

No trip to Vietnam can ignore the war. Although it has been consigned to history by a large proportion of those born after 1975, there are stark reminders everywhere; from Saigon's cyclo drivers who idle around street corners, still unable to return to their pre-war professions as punishment for `fighting on the wrong side', to the millions of maimed and orphaned. But wherever we went, we were greeted by radiant smiles and genuine friendliness.

None of us will forget our visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels, which were used by the Vietcong in their fight against the South Vietnam Government and American forces. It was claustrophobic to crawl along a narrow tunnel for about 60 yards, dodging the bats and trying not to think about rats or snakes. Yet Commander Tung, our guide for the day, had lived in these tunnels for years on end. We emerged with a deeper appreciation of the Asian fighting spirit.

Back amongst the urban chic in Saigon, my brain struggles to process all the thoughts and images of the previous two weeks. I can't pretend that I understand Vietnam but, like most places, it is a country of contrasts with a growing gap between rich and poor. As the constant stream of motorbikes ploughs relentlessly on under the Saigon night sky, I feel an enormous sense of gratitude for being able to experience this beguiling part of the world--I will definitely be back.
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Publication:For A Change
Date:Dec 1, 2002
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