Day 786, chronicle 101, Hanoi (N21°01.670′ E105°50.537′) Vietnam

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Vietnam, 28 March 2012 11:50 am – On 5 March 2012, last day of our stay in Phnom Penh, Marta and I followed Andrea and Paloma of CIAI (Italian Centre for Aid Childhood, www.ciai.it) to visit the project “From the street to school”, that the association runs in the village of Andong about twenty kilometres south of the city.

Here the government forcibly settled hundreds of displaced families removed from around the lake Tompum, lately becoming one of the capital most sought areas of estate development. Andong is a place of filthy huts of brick and metal roof with no running water and open sewers.

A true suburban town in the middle of the countryside that resembles the Indian slums, although the number of residents is not in the order of millions, but of tens of thousands. Here CIAI built wooden spacious classrooms for about 300 disadvantaged children from the nearby community who are given remedial courses for those who have dropped out of school, so as to reintegrate them into the corresponding class.

The centre also hosts recreational activities and entertainment such as sports, dancing, drawing, in addition to the monitoring of socio-economic situation of families of origin and psychological support services, education, safety and specific medical treatment. When we arrived, we were surrounded by dozens of rowdy and joyful kids, welcoming us with their innocent smiles.

Marta, unaccustomed to such a warm behaviour of children in developing countries, was visibly moved by it. With the help of a translator, I spoke of my trip to an audience of young listeners, who understood perfectly what I am doing and, when asked if they had questions, they literally bombarded my with their queries, all perfectly relevant.

After we left, Martha made comparisons with Western kids, and was impressed by the simplicity of these poor children and how little is enough to make them, if not happy, at least pleased with respect to the very hard to please children of first world. The next day in the late morning, we got on the bicycles leaving the city of Lady Penh behind our shoulders and heading towards the “nine dragons”, as the Vietnamese call the branches in which the Mekong River divides itself creating the gigantic delta. We crossed one of the largest branch on a ferry and we continued on the elevated highway that traverses this land mostly covered by water. We spent our last Cambodian night in Bavet, in a small guesthouse hundred meters from the border, surrounded by the glittering neon signs of huge casino-hotels hosting players from China and Vietnam, both countries where gambling is strictly prohibited.

On March 8th in the late afternoon we reached the city of Ho Chi Minh, a megalopolis where just a hundred years ago there were only two small fishing villages, Sai and Gon, on the banks of the river. Here we were guests at the house that Mauro, formally still my employer because I have never resigned but I just took a long sabbatical!, still rents even though he moved with his family to Bangkok. The arrival in Saigon was for Marta also the achievement of her goal, surely one of the happiest and most rewarding moment of her experience as cyclo-traveller.

A great achievement considering that she went from riding for a few tens of kilometres on Apulian roads to cover 2100 kilometres in six weeks on rough roads, under a scorching sun, at temperatures well above 30 degrees and humidity between 70% and 90%. She slept in guesthouses with beds as hard as wooden boards, seldom washing herself and eating new kind of food to which she was not used. Also, 24 hours living with me, who at times can be really unpleasant and not the kindest of travel partners, can be quite a traumatic experience. Finally, it seems to be that I snore while I sleep, but this is not scientifically proven! Anyway, from the first moment I met her and we started talking about this trip together, I knew that would make it.

Congratulations Martina and see you on the road for another ride … On 13 March, while Marta was climbing the ladder of the first of four aircraft and three trains that in the next 48 hours would take her back to Manfredonia, I started cycling on Highway 1A, from 1975 called of the Reunification. For the first few days, I continued to talk with my former travelling companion. I imagined she was still with me and I said things like: “Marta would have liked this dish” or “Marta would have surely loved this place”, then I adapted to the fact that I am alone. I lived in Vietnam for two years and, as guide for groups of tourists, I have been in much of the country, but always by plane and bus.

Thus, that was the first time that I crossed overland the entire length of this long nation. It was like rediscovering this land, of which I thought I had seen the most beautiful and picturesque corners and, as often happens, these are not necessarily the most popular tourist destinations. I was amazed and delighted to ride on the 1A that, from Phan Tiet leaves the plain of the Mekong and, until Da Nang, runs between the steep hills of the Annamite range and the south China Sea, which the Vietnamese call the East Sea. It is a succession of beautiful mountain landscapes, with the dark green tropical jungle in contrast with the deep blue sea.

The water is dotted by fishermen’s boats, and it becomes light blue to almost white in the many golden sand bays and lagoons.

Then, between Da Nang and Hue royal city, the road climbs to the 500 meters of the majestic Hai Van pass, where the warm tropical air from south meets the cooler one from north, creating a perpetual, magic and velvety haze, like in a fairytale landscape. From here the terrain flatten again and becomes a plain covered of rice paddies glittering carpet with blacks water buffalo wandering freely and the mountains as far background. Passed the city of Thanh Hoa, the 1A enters into the Red River delta, the cradle of Viet civilization, with Hanoi as its millennial cultural and architectural gem. On March the 18th, I stopped in Qhi Nhon to meet Rosella, AIFO’s (Italian Association of Friends of Raoul Follereau www.aifo.it) national manager, and Francesca from the Italian central office, who was my reference right from beginning of the trip two years ago.

The Association carries out a project called “From exclusion to equality” aiming to promote social inclusion and respect for persons with disabilities human rights. With the local Red Cross, AIFO seeks to improve the ability of people with disabilities and their organizations to speak and discuss about their rights and issues, as well as simplifying their access to education, health and transport. Rosella explained to me that AIFO organizes training courses to teach people rehabilitation skills that are then transferred to people with disabilities and their families. But it also deals directly with disabled people giving them vocational training and providing micro-loans to start income generating activities for their economic independence.

The other aspect of the project, that I find particularly interesting, is to provide technical assistance for the creation of new local organizations which implement self-help activities, awareness and community-based rehabilitation for persons with disabilities. It also follows and promotes networking and communication between persons with disabilities and their organizations to facilitate the sharing, discussion and exchange of experiences.

Clearly the ultimate goal is to create conditions for full participation in society for people with disabilities. During 13 days I covered 1700 km and I had the opportunity to experience the full potential of my new bicycle. One reasons is that I did not have Marta to slow me down.

But mainly because the rack-and- pinion for road bikes, rather than for mountain bike, that Enzo Longo (www.longobikes.it who assembled and donated me the bicycle) advised for me, allow me to go much faster with less effort. Thank you very much Enzo! Another novelty I am experiencing only now, after years cycling wearing simple sandals!, are shoes with locks to pedals that allow me to push as well as to pull, so that I make a perfectly circular pedal stroke. It gives me the impression that the axis of my pedals is the one of the world, a real “axis mundi” of my own … Yesterday morning at 6:30 I met Lien, who works for CIAI in Vietnam. We went to An Chau, a hundred kilometers north on 1A.

Here, since 2005, CIAI is running a project that has evolved from simply providing educational material for children to improve their health through proper nutrition practices. In industrialized countries, “good nutrition practices” would be to teach children to eat less candy, chips, snacks, etc. and more healthy foods. In these rural areas it means relieving the problem of child and pregnant mothers malnutrition. In practice, as well as providing nutritional support to malnourished children, the project aims to teach families to enrich the diet with fruits, vegetables and possibly meat and fish of their own production, which are not part of the traditional diet based on rice and some grass collected from the forest.

I went to the home of Hoa, a young widow with three children, where an agronomist was giving her the basic instructions and the seeds to grow a vegetable garden and planting vegetables rich in protein and vitamins such as pumpkins, cabbage, papaya, turnips. It is the practical implementation of the adagio “Give a fish to a hungry person and will eat one day; teach him to fish and will eat all his life”, simple but often overlooked and forgotten. Lien also brought me to the village school where I attended a lesson in good nutritional practices taught by an expert in nutrition to some slim young schoolchildren of both sexes for whom to eat some snacks would not hurt! We went to visit Liem, a girl of 16 years old with the physical development of a child of three, but a speech and intelligence far above average.

Unfortunately, as much as 10% of the Vietnamese population has developmental problems and physical and mental disabilities. It is a very high percentage of the population, a direct result of millions of tons of napalm and explosive devices but mainly of the infamous “Agent Orange”, the dioxin based defoliant, dropped by the U.S. aviation during 15 years of Indochina conflict. I find it very sad that even nowadays, after almost 40 years after its end, we can not talk about Vietnam and its problems without mentioning the war. Upon my arrival to Hanoi, I immediately applied for a visa entry to the Consulate of the People Republic of China. The forms are the most detailed and complicated I have ever filled, and after going there three times in five days, today I received the passport with the eighth page occupied by the adhesive that gives me permission to stay for 30 days in China, enough to reach the island of Taiwan. Until next time.

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