January 1st, 2017
I departed Chicago after a long night of rowdy bluegrass to ring in the New Year and a celebratory last-supper with my family. I landed in Ho Chi Minh City on January 3rd and my senses sprang into overdrive. The movement of this city was fast and aggressive. Motorbikes, taxis, buses, bicycles, and thousands of pedestrians lined the streets, carrying their workloads and serving their livelihood in bowls. Of the few words I learned in Vietnamese, Pho was my go-to. I soon forgot all about the leftover meatballs in my mom's fridge and indulged in a hot noodle dish and cold coconut every chance I could get. The tiny neighborhood of Thao Dien was easy to get around and offered fruit markets, homes with lavish front gates, luscious green palms and tons of hidden places waiting to be found. Our volunteer group was grateful to be here and away from the hustle of District 1. We were invited to visit 2-3 orphanages each day, as some of the sites were a few hours outside of the city. In total, we visited 2 orphanages specific for children with HIV & AIDs and 2 orphanages specific for children born with disabilities that affect their growth, motor control, joint mobility, and cognitive processing. For the next 14 days, I would devote my life to these darling youngsters.
Things that big cities have in common: 1) Lots of people 2) Lots of trash 3) Smoggy air. These commonalities were taken to the extreme in Ho Chi Minh City. Also, it was hot. I was thankful for the air-con bus rides and accommodating facilities we worked with, otherwise I was sweating out of every pore in my body. In 3 days we had visited all 4 orphanages and each was a special group of children. Some of the kids are able to interact with us, particularly by practicing English and Vietnamese words together. Xin Chao. Mat xa? is "Hello. Massage?" You pronounce X's like Z's and that's as far as I got because once you get Vietnamese children going around their friends, their giggles would end any serious tutoring sessions. They are adorable. I had fallen in love instantly, particularly with the little ones who don't have much to say. This trip has taught me that there is nothing like a smile and figuring out situations through body language. Some days were challenging, whether I was trying to buy jackfruit off the street or soothe a young one's tears, the days were long and I probably felt about an ounce of the immense dedication it takes to survive in HCMC. The Vietnamese were tough. And gracious. After all that happened between the 50's and 70's, I was surprised to be walking around a city that had been destroyed and overthrown, which now seemed to be thriving in certain areas. The city was bustling with shops selling decorations, flowers, and anything with a rooster on it to celebrate the lunar new year (Tet) coming up at the end of the month. We got to witness our kids practice their singing and dancing for Tet. Yep, I was in love, and just maybe one day I could take one of them back with me.