My suspicions were proved correct. There I was having had the carnet signed off for me to be officially leaving Thailand and the engine wouldn’t start up again to get me across the border despite having driven fine the 5Km or so to get there. This left me with a dilema - I didn’t particulay want to drive into Cambodia with a dubious engine but I hade to because otherwise the carnet wouldn’t make any sense as it would show me leaving Thailand to enter Thailand. A push start got it going again briefly but it soon fizzled out. But it seems I’ve been paying attention at all these mechanics we’ve been to because the old screwdriver in the carb trick worked a treat. This impressed the Thai border official no end because it meant he didn’t have to deal with the sticky problem either. After the usual messing around on the Cambodian side where they overcharged us for the visas and took ages to sort the carnet while we marvelled at the large number of tacky casinos (gambling is illegal in Thailand) we were finally through and making headway into the amazingly flat Cambodian countryside. The difference between the two countries is marked - Thailand is far wealthier by comparison.
I’d heard about the poor state of Cambodian roads but I wasn’t quite prepared for how bad they would be. There was no tarmac on most of the route, just compacted red soil which kicked up huge dust clouds making visibility very poor. Luckily there wasn’t that much traffic so we could clip along at a fair rate of knots sucking up the bumps. By 3pm we had reached Siem Reap which much to my surprise was a decent looking town that was clearly reaping many tourist dollars from the Angkor temples. The huge number of swanky hotels was just one indication - the clean streets and western stlye bars another. We checked into a hotel which promptly gave us a large can of Raid flyspray along with our roomkey. The reason was soon obvious - there was a huge number of mosquitos in the room. We had no choice but to spray the whole room and leave for a while. When we returned the dead littered the floor. Much repelant was going to be needed for this country. In the evening we wandered around the blatantly named Bar Street but got an early night. The plan was to tour the temples on bike on Tuesday with a dawn start at Angkor Wat.
So there we were, peddling frantically through the dark streets at 5.30am trying to beat the rising sun as it cast its first rays on the legendary temple. The initial sight is impressive as you cross the huge stone bridge over the 90m long moat and enter the gate to see the Wat looming tall in the distance. The true marvel of the site though is in the detail that becomes apparent when you get up close. Hardly an inch of the 900 year old temple is left uncarved. The bottom levels have massive bas-relief carving that extend for the entire length of the walls and depict Hindu mythological stories such as the Ramayana. Having seen the Cham sculpture in Vietnam, the influence was obvious. However, the work here was far more complicated and intricate. On the higher levels, heavenly nymphs dance on the walls and eves in between complex patterns and lead to the ridiculously steep climp up the central tower. Apparently its not supposed to be easy to climb to the level of the gods. Angkor Wat is truely impressive and is remarkably well preserved considering its age.
From here we made our way (via an impromptu elephant ride) north to the second most famous temple in Cambodia - the enigmatic Bayon. This pyramid shaped structure contains over 50 towers each headed by four faces of Avalokitesvara (a Bodhisattva who shows compassion). Standing on the third level with all these huge smiling faces staring down at you is a bizarre experience. From here we wandered around some of the lesser temples and the long terrace of elephants (a wall intrically carved with a parrade of elephants) before taking the bikes on a long route around the north east side of the site. The heat was pretty intense but we found some shade at the jungle covered temple complex of Ta Prohm. This temple has not been restored and is being attacked by the encrouching jungle which has claimed many of the walls as its own. Twelve hours of temple seeing took its toll and at 6pm we called it quits and headed back for a well earned rest.
Wednesday we went to the Landmines Museum - which is a one man project led by Aki Ra. This man was a former child soldier of the Kymer Rouge but went on to serve with the Vietnamese liberators and the UN. Now, he adopts land mine victims from the villages and trains locals on land mine detection and disablement. He personally defuses around 20,000 mines a year. Afterwards we braved the rough road again back to the border. Interestingly there is a rumour that an airline company is paying off the govenment not to upgrade this road. This has some merit in the fact that other roads which are clearly less important for trade and the tourist economy have been upgraded while this remains a dirt track.
At the border there was a bit of a role reversal with the Thai side playing silly buggers this time demanding that I get insurance for the car. I tried to fob them off with some insurance docs that we had but they weren’t buying it and wanted me to go 6Km on a motorbike to get some. Luckily I ran into the geezer I had impressed with my mechanical abilities on the way in and he took it upon himself to give them a bollicking and wave me through. Happy days. On the Thai side we headed south towards Chanthaburi and camped up the the night.
On Thursday it was only a couple of hours drive to the coast where we bordered a car ferry for Ko Chang Island. Despite a bit of engine trouble on the island, we chilled out here for a couple of days. I wandered around the shore, admiring the beaches and gorging myself on fresh squid while Natalia did her Advanced Diving course.
By Sunday morning it was time to leave and it was a straight forward drive back to Bangkok. There we met up with Richard, Jasmine and some of Richards mates and had a few beers in the sleazy Sukhumvit area. Unfortunately, 6 bomb blasts went off at various locations in the city throughout the evening killing 3 people and resulting in most of the official New Year festivities being cancelled. Luckily, we weren’t affected and aside from some street closures we passed in the taxi there was little obviuos sign that anything had happened. Natalia flew out the next morning and since Richard wanted to take his mates to see Northern Thailand and Angkor Wat, I had to make plans for seeing another country for a week or two.
The train arrived into Hanoi at 12 noon giving me a few hours to see the temple of literature and Ho Chi Minh’s tomb before gettting a bus to the airport and flew back to Bangkok. Vietnam had proved to be alot friendlier than I’d thought it
would be and I would have liked to have spent another week or two there to see some of the other areas.
The next few days were spent bumming around Bangkok and periodically visiting the Land Rover garage to push the mechanics to do something constructive. I first showed up on Tuesday and they confidently claimed it was sorted.
Unfortunately, this wild boast was quickly disproven when the engine failed even to start and showed no sign of a spark. This was actually worse than when we’d brought it in. Choking back some oaths I calmly explained that I’d be taking the
car by the end of the week so they had better pull their finger out. Several more days passed and we entertained ourselves by watching pirate copies of Borat and Casino Royale in some of the bars and cruising around on the river
boats and sky train.
My friend Natalia was due to fly in from Dublin on Friday but the fog in London caused a day delay so she had to suffer a night in Heathrow. Apparently she slept soundly on the floor with a cute little mouse for companion. Arf.
On Saturday I returned to the garage while Richard swanned off to Burma. Needless to say I had to wait until 6pm to actually take the machine for a test drive but miraculously it did drive pretty well. Since they hadn’t opened the engine
and had only fiddled with the carbs it seemed that there was a possibility that the trouble was carb related afterall. It still ran like crap on LPG though which made me suspicious. However, I had no choice but to take it and hope for the best
while preparing for an inevitable breakdown. There was no way I was going to leave it there given the sheer slowness of the work that had been done before. I had half an hour to get to the airport but luckily the way was well signposted and
the roads in Thailand are good. Natalia duely arrived and we headed into town to see the sights. A few bars and a few beers later and I was ready to try the dreaded street food. The fired locusts were surprisingly good, as were the things
that looked like maggots. However, the huge cockroach looking creatures which the guy proclaimed were water bugs were decidedly revolting.
The next day we did a quick whistlestop tour of the Grand Palace, Temple of the Emerald Buddha and Wat Pho before picking up the landy and heading for the Cambodian border. We stopped for dinner at a random place in some unknown
town and were treated to the Thai version of a Chinese hotpot. The gist is the same - you get a pot of boiling liquid and some raw ingredients which you cook at your leisure but was slightly different in that the pot had a raised grill which you
fried meat on. Quality. We parked up for the night in a field close to the border ready for the bureaucracy which would no doubt follow in the morning.
After breakfast we got back on the boat to sail back to the mainland then hoped on the bus to Hanoi. After a few hours there we took a taxi to the airport and flew to Ho Chi Minh City. Then we took another taxi into the Pham Ngu Lao area of the city to find a hotel. After trying a few we found a decent one and slumped exhausted.
The next morning we were up early to go to the War Remnants Museum. Previously known as the American War Crimes Museum, it is an impressive but disappointingly one-sided display of the horrors of the North Vietnam/American war. Especially harrowing are the extensive photos of napalm and agent orange victims. After this we went to visit the project sites in the Go Vap area of town. (see separate post http://www.antipodeanadventure.org/blog/?p=179).
After visiting the project on Wednesday morning I booked a flight to Hue for that evening. Standing by the roadside waiting for the airport bus in the sweaty heat wasn’t much fun especially when the fecker ignored my waving arms and sped right past me. There was only one option - the ubiquitous moto. Having been assailed by the constant chant of “Hello, moto” every 3 - 4 seconds in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh, I wasn’t particularly keen to have to haggle with these guys but luckily one of them had seen the bus incident and offered to take me to the airport for 2 dollars which was a fine price considering it was a half hour away. My good luck continued when I got to the airport and they put me on an earlier flight.
Hue is a pretty town with obvious French influence but was fairly quiet. After booking into a hostel I went for a wander before hitting the sack early. I had booked myself onto a tour of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) for the next morning starting at 6am. The DMZ is the area around the former border between North and South Vietnam. Historically it was a narrow band of terrain extending from the Laos border to the coast, five km on either side of the Ben Hai River, roughly on the 17th parallel north latitude.
The DMZ tour was interesting historically but the sights themselves weren’t terribly exciting with the exception of the underground village at Vinh Moc. Due to the massive bombing campaign in the DMZ, no villages were left standing. Villagers instead began digging extensive networks of tunnels where they could hide from the bombs. The network of tunnels at Vinh Moc is one of the biggest constructed in the area with a total length of nearly 2 km, structured into three floors with the first 13 m beneath the ground, the second 15 m, and the third, 23 m. The village was built over two years and during the war, 17 children were born in the tunnels. The last time I’d seen underground living quarters like these was in Turkey at the underground city of Kaymakli which was constructed by Hittite tribes 4000 years ago as a refuge and defense against invaders. Thousands of years later, the practice was occurring again for much the same reasons. Other sites included the remains of former American bases complete with left over equipment such as tanks and choppers.
On Friday morning I went to explore the old Imperial Citadel complex which was the home of the ruling Nguyen dynasty from 1802 until 1945. It must have been an impressive set of structures once but decades of war had left much of it in ruins. Several of the more impressive buildings had been completely restored though and work was underway at some of the others. At 2pm I got on a bus to the picturesque town of Hoi An. This small town is the clothing mecca of Vietnam with over 200 different tailor shops crammed into its streets. I had to get fitted out and ended up getting 2 silk shirts, 2 cotton shirts and 2 pairs of trousers hand made for 25 quid. Quality.
Saturday I pootered around town in the pouring rain while waiting for my clothes to be finished and had the best meal I had in Vietnam - pork stuffed squid. Heavenly. On Sunday I got on the bus to Danang where I visited the museum of Cham sculpture. The ancient kingdom of Champa was situated in South and Central Vietnam from the 7th century until the early 19th century and was constantly at war with North Vietnamese, Chinese and Kymers. Heavily influenced by Indian Hinduism, the Chams were devotees of Shiva and constructed many temples and sculptures. The remains of the temples can still be seen near Hoi An today though war have had its toll on them. Luckily, many of the sculptures were removed for their preservation and the biggest collection is at the museum in Danang. After a while here I got on the train for Hanoi. The overnight train wasn’t bad despite being 18 hours and would get me into Hanoi for 12 noon on Monday.
Urban Projects in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
Locations: Go Vap District, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam.
Date: 12th December 2006 - 13th December 2006
Despite getting in late on a flight from Hanoi on Monday, we were up at 7am to visit the War Remnants Museum in the centre of Ho Chi Minh. The
horrors of war are graphically depicted through stark photography in an unfortunately one-sided, no-holds-barred approach. Afterwards, we made our
way to the ActionAid office in the Go Vap District of the city again in the company of Ms. Van. Here we met other members of the ActionAid staff and
discussed the 5 main themes that are being worked on in this area.
Food Security: Most of the people involved in the city project are migrant workers who have come to the city from remote villages seeking work. The
Go Vap area is a run down and therefore cheap area of the city to rent accommodation. There is also alot of industrial estates in the area where migrants
workers seek employment and live on the sites. ActionAid operate a Micro-Credit scheme here similar to that in the northern areas to allow people to set
up small business selling bread, fruit or other items. They also provide training for the scheme members on how to best invest the money and make
profits. The scheme ideally gives sex workers an alternative employment and has been in operation since 2003.
Education: The education schemes in the city are mainly aimed at migrant children who are often forced to work during the day to provide money for the
family. The children who can be seen selling chewing gum, postcards or lottery tickets on the streets are often migrant children. Some also work as maids
or cleaners in cafes and restaurants. They do not work in garment factories because they do not have the skills required. The working children can attend
free evening classes in the locality. Other work under this theme includes funding improvements in local school infrastructure, scholarships for HIV affected
other disadvantaged children and the running of 4 counselling centres in local schools to advise children on various issues.
HIV/AIDS: ActionAid set up groups for sex workers to educate them on protection from HIV and provide support for medical treatment, especially
mothers - there is now a drug available which reduces the risk of transferring HIV to offspring to 30%. Other work fronts include financial support to
families for funerals resulting from AIDS deaths, provision of a milk alternative to breast-feeding for HIV negative children of HIV positive mothers,
testing for HIV and the creation of peer groups for monthly gatherings. These gatherings are also used to discuss other issues such as domestic violence,
trafficking of women and children, life skills etc.
Gender: ActionAid work with the government labour department and trade unions to protect the rights of workers, mainly women in garment factories.
The law has a 8 hour day working limit and a minimum wage but this is commonly flaunted. They also organise seminars with local business leaders on
labour issues such as Vietnams entry to the World Trade Organisation.
Capacity Building: This area includes the training of ActionAid staff, training for relatives of drug-users or HIV positive people on medical care and
alternative education activities for working children e.g. drama and music.
Later, we went to the home of a woman - Ms Sun - who was a member of the Micro-Credit scheme. One of her sons had died from HIV contracted
through drug use and his wife was in prison for drug-dealing leaving Ms Sun to care for her young grand-daughter. Previously, she worked wrapping
candy. This labourious task earned her 20,000 dong (1.2$) a day. Using a 1.5 million dong loan from ActionAid, she set up a business selling freshly
made bread from a trolley. This work earns her 30-40,000 dong a day for 6 hours and she still wraps candy in the evenings. The loan is being repaid
through a closely monitored account whereby 62,000 dong is repaid every week and 14,000 is invested in the group savings fund. This allows 24 weeks
to repay the loan, after which another can be applied for. The Micro-Credit scheme allowed Ms. Sun to find alternative employment which although is by
no means easy, nets a larger profit for less hours than the candy wrapping.
Afterwards, we visited the rented accommodation of a family which had recently migrated to the area due to lack of opportunity in their home village. Ms.
Dzung and her husband sell fruit and earn 40-50,000 dong a day. One of her two daughters has a scholarship (i.e. ActionAid pay the school fees). She is
also a member of the Micro-Credit scheme and thinks the interest rate is excellent. Because she is a migrant, her citizenship card is not valid in this area
which excludes her getting a bank loan and the black market rate is 20%. Before using the loan to set up the fruit selling business, Ms. Dzung worked as
a maid earning 15-20,000 dong a day for 30 days a month with no holidays. Also at the house was Ms. Phi, a ActionAid employee who directly
approaches sex workers to educate them on HIV prevention and to convince them to come to monthly meetings. She found that HIV awareness was very
low among sex workers in the city but through her work she has educated a large number on prevention of STDs.
In the evening, we attended a group meeting. The participants were female migrant workers and the theme was stress management. Issues identified that
were causes of stress were school fees, rent, low income, unstable careers, high inflation and spousal conflict.
After this meeting we attended a working children’s education class. These children aged from 7 to 13, all worked during the day selling things on the
streets or as maids/cleaners. As this was the last meeting before Christmas, ActionAid pledged to give a small gift to each of the children (Christmas has caught on in Vietnam in a similar vein as in the west). 13 year old Nghia has health problems, including an eye infection and a heart condition but works selling lottery tickets. Uyen has a drug-addicted mother and works as a maid in a small workshop.
The classroom was a purpose made building constructed by ActionAid in 2003 and was used for these classes and as a venue for other group meetings. As part of their exercises, the children had drawn Christmas cards which they very kindly presented to us. Its easy to imagine that working on the streets from the age of 8 or 9 would harden these children and rob them of their childhood but while this is no doubt partly true, they still retained their curiosity and sense of fun and within a few minutes had lost their wary attitude and were clambering over Richard to see his photos.
The next day we visited Le Hon Primary School which employed a counsellor funded by ActionAid. This is one of 4 schools which employs a counsellor and was chosen because many of the children who attend are involved in other ActionAid projects. Many of the children are linked to sponsors through ActionAids Child Sponsorship Scheme. The scheme links a child with a sponsor who pledges 30$ a month. 70% of the money raised is spent on project activities in the area, 10% on administration, 10% on direct child related projects and 10% goes to the general fund. It may seem surprising that only 10% goes to directly child related projects which include improving school infrastructure e.g. furniture, clean water. However, by funding the project activities, the whole community benefits including the child’s family and other children in the area.
The ActionAid project in the Go Vap area of Ho Chi Minh City was our first visit to an urban project and was very informative. It was interesting that even in the city area, the poorest people are those who come from the villages - forced to migrant to seek work and a better life. Often though, the city cannot provide any legitimate work due to the low skills of the migrants and the already over-crowded labour market and it is the poor and underprivledged of the country who are again forced to take the lowest paid and most demeaning jobs. The work that ActionAid is doing in these areas gives these people the opportunity to make a better life for themselves but it is government policies that are at the route cause of many of these problems. However, the influence that NGOs have on government is small in a political system such as Vietnam’s so until such time that more can be achieved through political methods, ActionAid is working with the country’s poorest and most disadvantaged people at a grass-roots level to make important differences to their lives.
For more information:
Getting into a taxi at 6am on a Monday morning is always fun but less fun was discovering at Bangkok ariport that they charge a 500 Baht departure tax - feckers. The flight to Hanoi was uneventful and it was easy to get a bus into the city from the airport. Then the fun started. We were due to visit the ActionAid projects in Dien Bien Phu on Wednesday and Thursday so needed to sort out a bus ticket. The chaotic streets of Hanoi are not a good place for wandering around trying to find out where the bus station is. There are 2 million motorbikes in Hanoi and alot of them are parked on the pavement which forces you to walk on the road, which is of course full of moving motorbikes. Added to this is the extra stimulus of people trying to sell you things - mostly rides on the back of a motorbike. We eventually found the main bus station and got a ticket for Dien Bien Phu leaving Tuesday at 6am which only gave us a night to enjoy the wonders of Hanoi. The old town area is packed with small shops selling all manner of handicrafts and clothing. The buildings are tall and narrow similar to China but with more obvious French influence. The noise is relentless and the bustle continous. I liked it.
The 6am start on Tuesday was joyous until we realised that the bus trip was going to take 11 hours with only one brief stop. I finished one book and got half way through another before we reached the small town of Dien Bien Phu. There was a range of hotels in the town but the brewery hotel was the clear winner. The evening was spent wandering around and marvelling at the wonderous things that Vietnamese people drink. The market is full of bottles of “medicianal wine” which contains either a pickled cobra, scorpion, lizard or hundreds of caterpillar pupai (seriously). Whole villages in Vietnam breed snakes for use in this liquor which of course results in a booming trade for frogs, toads and rodents which snakes like to eat.
Wednesday and Thursday we visited the ActionAid projects in the area and got a bit of sight-seeing done on the side (see seperate post).
Friday was another 6am start back on the bus to Hanoi. On our arrival we booked a flight to Ho Chi Minh for Tuesday next week and booked a trip to the famous Halong Bay on the NorthEast coast of Vietnam leaving the next day which gave us another evening to pooter round the old town of Hanoi.
The next day we got on a bus to Halong Bay and then on a boat to cruise the waters. We visited a cave on one of the many islands but it had been heavily remolded to make steps and pathways for tourists. Not as good as the untouched caves in Laos. Cruising around the bay was cool though and the food on the boat was quality. Later we did a bit of Kayaking before settling in for an evening on deck with some beers. The boat was charing 20,000 dong for a beer but luckily there were several local ladies rowing around in small boats stocked with beer and nibbles. This led to probably the easiest piece of bargaining I’ve had to do on this trip. “How much is a beer?” “50,000 dong.” “How about I give you 10?” “Ok.” Marvellous, if only it was all that easy. We spent the night on the boat and headed to Catba Island the next morning. A walk in the heavy forested national park was followed by free time to explore the beaches. Catba was nice and there wasn’t many tourists about which made it a good place to relax after the chaos of Hanoi. It was also about 15 degrees and cloudy which was heavenly for us. Our first week in Vietnam had been eventful and we were looking forward to getting down south to further explore the country.
Education and Skills Training Projects and Running Water Project in Vietnam
Locations: Dien Bien Phu Town, Tin Toc Village in Moung Pon District, Village in Thanh Nua District, Vietnam.
Date: 6th December 2006 - 7th December 2006
Having endured the 11 hour bus journey from Hanoi to Dien Bien Phu on Tuesday, we were slightly unhappy to be woken up by unknown people early on Wednesday morning asking for our passports. As it turns out, they were from ActionAid’s partner organisation in the area - TechnoAid - and copies of our passports were necessary for us to be granted permission by the government to see the project areas. At 2pm we headed to a hotel on the north side of town to meet with Ms. Pham Thai Hong Van (we stuck with Ms. Van) from the fundraising department of ActionAid Vietnam. We then headed to the nearby office of TechnoAid to find out about the sites we were going to visit the next day.
TechnoAid are a local NGO consisting of 7 full time staff. These members were previously employed by ActionAid for five years up until 2004. At that point, the ActionAid projects which had been undertaken were nearing an end but the team members had alot of ideas for further projects in 7 provinces in the Dien Bien Phu area. They set themselves up as an independant NGO and currently work with several large NGOs including Care International, Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA), Netherlands based international development organisation SNV and of course ActionAid.
During our meeting they expanded upon some of the themes in which they get involved.
Micro-Credit: The Micro-Credit scheme is a method to encourage people to save while giving them small loans by which they can set up or improve an existing business. The NGO effectively acts as a bank with a credit fund. Members of the scheme invest set amounts into the fund each month and the fund is used to extend small loans to individual households. The interest on the loans is very small especially compared with a mainstream bank or as is more available to the scheme members - loan sharks. Bank interest is typically 8%, a loan shark rate will be 20% while the Micro-Credit scheme rate is 1.5%. The interest just covers the rate of inflation costs and the administration costs for the 7000 members so is effectively non-profit. Loans range from 300,000 dong (20$) to 2.5 million dong (200$) with a graded scale whereby smaller loans must be applied for and paid off before larger loans can be granted.
This scheme has proved very successful and useful to the members. Due to their remote locations, there is little access to mainstream banks which are unlikely to grant loans to subsistence farmers anyway. By becoming members of the scheme, the participants can regularly save money and use the loans to expand their business when ready.
Literacy Education: Due to the mountainous regions in which they live, many communities have no access to secondary schools. Primary pupils are educated with no tuition fee (though other fees apply) until the age of 9. After this, they must attend a secondary school. Many children must travel a long distance to the school and therefore end up boarding Monday - Friday. Unfortunately, the schools are not in a position financially to provide any accomodation so pupils have to build their own shelters and bring enough food with them every week. They live in small groups, in poorly constructed shelters and have no supervision. Most carry rice and salt with them to eat, with the wealthier ones having rice and eggs. The monsoon season tends to destroy most of the shelters. Faced with these conditions its not surprising that many children stop education at age 9 and that 70% of the secondary school pupils are male.
The education scheme that we saw in Laos was a copy of this project. Its purpose is to teach reading, writing and numeracy to previously illiterate villagers. Through the education classes, the pupils are taught literacy and numeracy using themes that are relevant to their lives e.g. health issues, agriculture, law, gender issues etc. There are three graded levels, each taking between 5 and 8 months. The education classes are conducted by teachers supplied and trained by ActionAid.
Governance and Local Democracy: Despite the heavy bureaucratic policies of the communist government of Vietnam (as shown by having to present our passport at regional offices before being allowed to visit the villages) there is some local democracy. Members of the People’s Council are democratically elected and they appoint members of the People’s Committee which seems to have the task of day to day running of services such as schools. TechnoAid encourage people to become involved in local politics by reading the information released on planned expeditures in the area and raising any concerns in the committee meetings.
Water Projects: 800 villages in the Dien Bien Phu area do not have clean water which accounts for 80% of the population. The government has introduced a water program in recent years but it only provides water for agriculture, not for domestic use.
Other themes that TechnoAid are involved with include Gender Equality, HIV/AIDS, Food Security and Children’s Rights.
Having been given the run down, we headed off to see the historic sights of Dien Bien Phu which include defunct French military equipment and the still intact bunkers and tunnels which surround the hillside battlefield of A1. This position was the last to fall in the 1954 Vietnam-France war which ended France’s colonial ambitions in Inco-China thereby gaining independence for both Cambodia and Laos aswell. The massive defeat of the French army by Ho Chi Minh’s peasant army despite American support was to prove an omen of things to come in the North Vietnam- South Vietnam/America war which began due to the partition of the country after the French withdrawal and ended with reunification in 1975.
On Thursday 7th, we took a car into Muong Pon District and submitted our passports to the local officials before driving further into the mountains to the project villages. As we wove through the rice paddies cut into the steep hillsides, we noticed that 90% of the people working the fields were women - the previously mentioned education problems were no doubt a major contributing factor. When we arrived at Tin Toc Village, we met local villagers to talk about the running water project that had been implemented in 2000 and any other issues. The village consists of 39 households with 250 people altogether almost all of whom are from the Black Thai (the name comes from their traditional clothing) minority ethnic group. Before the running water project, the only available water was from ponds several kilometers away. The pond water, being stagnant, was frequently polluted by buffalo and cow droppings resulting in many villagers suffering from disease. The running water project installed 3 cisterns in the village which take water from a pipe which runs several kilometers up the mountain. Because of the height of the water source and because it is always running, this guarantees clean water for domestic use. The funding, management and maintenance of the water system is all funded by ActionAid. Moung Pon District has 10 villages, 5 of which have running water projects installed. The other villages are not suitably located for this type of project (i.e. the cost of installing a pipeline is exhoribant due to distance) so must still use pond water.
Aside from the water issues, the mountainous land gives rise to a whole host of other problems. The farm land area is small so there is little surplus crops for sale. The farmland cannot be extended uphill as the resulting deforestation would lead to flooding. The transport problems result in the difficulty of access to education for children which tend to be taken to the fields with their parents due to the lack of any childcare facilities other than elder daughters.
During our visit to the village we had a long conversation with Ms Ni, a 46 year old mother of 8. She told us that she was one of the luckier people in the village because her husband works hard and doesn’t drink. 9 out of the 39 households had alcoholic fathers. Two of her children have married and left the house leaving her with 6 children in school. Each pupil must pay a fee of 86,000 dong each year for the various fees - building upkeep etc. However, despite paying these fees the school is in a delapidated state and the government is claiming lack of funds for not repairing it. There is no transparency as to where the fee money goes or what it is used on. Indeed, when we asked the local school-teacher about this issue she got very angry and left. Draw from that what you will. Ms Ni is involved in the Micro-Credit scheme and used loans to branch into pig farming as an alternative source of income to rice. Her youngest child is 3 years old which is the same age as one of her grandchildren. Apparently this is not very unusual and with the population of Vietnam already reaching 85 million, may force the government to adopt a similar one-child policy as that of China.
Next, we visited an agricultural water project which had been completed in 2000 by ActionAid Vietnam. The project had cost 600 million dong (40,000$) to construct a weir and channels to direct river water to a large area of previously dry paddy fields and benefited 200 households (1200 people).
Afterwards, we entered into Thanh Nua District so had to go to the regional government office again to get permission. In the village we visited an education class that was being conducted. The classes teach literacy and numeracy through the use of relevant themes which inculde HIV, Gender Rights, Agriculture etc. At the time of our visit, the theme was domestic violence. The women didn’t believe us when we told them that there is the odd case of women being violent towards men in the UK. As in the Laos projects, all the students were female and most were attending the classes after spending the day in the fields.
On our return to Dien Bien Phu, we visited the 1954 war memorial, which was also being visited by a number of aged veterans. Despite decades of brutal warfare which affected almost every family in the country, Vietnam is undergoing huge change from a centrally planned agricultural economy to a socialist market economy. Having long signed trade agreements with Europe and America, the country has now been admitted to the World Trade Organisation. It remains to be seen whether the change in economic policy will benefit the minority groups of Vietnam whom inhabit the mountainous and remote areas of the country. In the mean time, these people are keen to help themselves and the work of organisations like TechnoAid provides this opportunity.
Leaving Vientiane wasn’t a great loss. The other parts of Laos were much more interesting than the sleepy capital. We got the bus to Paksan where we met with members of the Government’s Education Center and spent that day and the next seeing the ActionAid projects in the Lak Sao area of Laos (see separate post).
On Tuesday night we arrived back in Vientiane, had dinner and hit the sack. Given that we had friends coming over to Thailand for Christmas and New Year and that we had to see Vietnam before then and get the Landy fixed properly, we decided to head into Thailand rather than go to the South part of Laos. We could always go back in later from Cambodia. After a morning spent chatting to the novice monks (surprisingly they get taught alot of subjects, including mathematics, history and English) in the Wat that we had parked in we made for the border which was only 20Km away. This border crossing proved remarkably easy although the Laos side realised that the goons on the China
crossing hadn’t filled in the carnet. A hasty bit of backdating was done and everything was hunky-dorey. driving into Thailand was a return to modern civilization, at least on
the surface. The roads were good, straight and we drove on the left (hurray). Petrol was plentiful and pretty cheap (25p/L). We headed to a Land Rover garage in the town of Udon Thani but given that we would be flying in and out of Bangkok, they advised us to get it sorted there. A long drive ensued. We drove long into the night and arrived in Bangkok
at 2.30am on Thursday morning. Another 2 hours later we had found the garage (Bangkok is big) and parked up nearby for a few hours kip.
Unfortunately, it turned out that we had to go to another garage as this one only did modern Landys. By 11am we had found that one, booked it in and ran straight to a hotel to sleep.
After a couple of hours shut eye we wandered around the area to get our bearings. We were stating near the infamous backpacker den of Khao San road which proved to be every bit as tacky as we expected. Luckily, by walking a few roads away you can avoid the other tourist goons and actually come across some Thai people who are a friendly bunch.
On Friday we pootered about the old part of town to see what was where and determine which sights were worth seeing. We booked flights for Monday to Vietnam and generally got leg ache and sweated buckets in the 30+ degree heat.
The next day we headed straight to the Temple of the Emerald Bhudda and the Royal Palace. The Temple is a truly magnificent set of buildings all of different architectural types. The Emerald Bhudda itself however is a very small bhudda statue carved from Jasper and looks disturbingly like Yoda. Amusing though and doesn’t detract from the superb sights in the Temple area. The Palace was closed however, due to it being a Saturday, but we’ll go back there after Vietnam. Also in the area was Wat Pho. Having seen quite a few wats in Laos we weren’t expecting much from this but it seems Thailand does a far superior wat to Laos. The architecture is quality and the intricacy of the design is superb. Also within the wat is the world’s largest horizontal Bhudda statue which is bloody big if a bit bizarre.
Later we took a boat up to the Zoo area but the King was having a celebration for something and all the bigwigs were out in force along with quite a few flagwaving locals. The king is hugely popular in Thailand and anything said against him can earn you a great deal of trouble not only from the police but from any Thai. I stayed for a bit to watch the ceremony but decided to sling hook after not too long. Not that I’m saying it was boring you understand.
Back at the hotel area I bumped into some people I had met while travelling in China and we decided to head to the Silom Road area which was supposed to have good nightlife. Luckily, we happened to get the worlds fastest taxi driver who had us there in no time even if we were carrying extra loads in our trousers. Silom road did indeed have alot
of bars and a huge number of street vendors selling all sorts of tat. The tat here was better than the tat in Khoa San though. After wandering around a few bars we came across the Patpong area which contains the more “specialised” bars. Hundreds of young Thai girls hang around these bars some wearing numbers while an even larger number of
grey-haired westerns enter by themselves and leave with a girl on their arm. It’s not subtle. There are clear reasons why Bangkok is the sex tourism capital of the world but I’ll go into these in a different post.
Sunday was a lazy day, spent bumming around and getting ready for leaving for Vietnam which we were really looking forward to. We had heard mixed reports with some liking it and others hating it. After the slow pace of Laos I was looking forward to getting in among the hustle and bustle.
Vietnam rocks and the post for Week 20 is up.
We visited the ActionAid projects in central Laos close to the Vietnam border and have now visited some projects in Vietnam near the Laos border. Amusingly, the China projects we visited were also near the Vietnam border so although we’ve travelled hundreds of miles to see these projects, they are in fact with an 80 mile radius of each other. On the 12th and 13th we are visiting some projects in the south of Vietnam so I’ll do a post on the Vietnam projects after that. My notes on the Laos project are in Thailand though so you’ll have to wait for that post.
The garage in Thailand has unsurprisingly done nothing so far. When we get back from ‘Nam we’ll have to kick some Thai butt but until then we are content with finding crazy things to eat. Dog, snake and battered frogs are all on the menu here.