Just back from... Vietnam
15 Jan 2020, 10:52 by James Mc Geown
History teachers will know the Vietnam war is now part of the history curriculum, but our trips to this fascinating destination have lots more to offer too. Students experience social enterprise projects first hand, get their hands dirty helping local communities and learn brilliant life lessons. It's also surprisingly good value.
Our Worldwide Tours Manager James is just back. Here's his story.
Day 1. Arriving in Hanoi
Arriving at 5.30am after nearly 12 hours on a plane, I was a bit bleary eyed when I reached Hanoi.
Ahead of me were four action packed days of visits to social enterprises, accommodation checks and getting to know our excellent team here in Vietnam.
Even at that early hour, Hanoi was buzzing. Mopeds, cars, bicycles - people seemed to come from all directions. But it all seemed pretty organised and surprisingly clean. I'd imagined messy chaos.
We base our groups at Hotel Hoa Binh here in Hanoi. The location is ideal, just a 10 minute stroll from Hanoi's surprisingly peaceful Hoan Kiem Lake right at its centre. After a traditional Vietnamese breakfast of pork noodle soup I felt considerably more awake. (Probably helped by the fact that I put rather too many chilis on top!) We got to see the kitchens which were spotless. Fire certificates were all in order. This place ticked all the boxes.
First stop today was our Hanoi agent's office. Over 150 people work here and they have guides located across the country. I learned that all the guides have to come for regular training with the company and social enterprises they take our school trips to are carefully inspected.
Next we visited a project to learn all about the ancient Vietnamese arts of calligraphy and paper making. After 30 minutes in a darkened room seeing how communities in the mountains take three days to make paper using three different types of plants, my head was beginning to nod a little. But then they turned the lights on! It was time to try a little calligraphy for ourselves. Our teacher was an absolute master with 15 years' experience. The art is not to think, but to feel the emotion in the word apparently!
Day one was complete. It was time for some dinner and an early night.
Day 2. Cooking lessons and the Hanoi Hilton
Today we visited KOTO, which stands for Know One Teach One. It's a social enterprise set up to help disadvantaged children learn the skills of the restaurant trade. They're taught to cook, run a kitchen, wait tables and even manage a restaurant. First job was to buy ingredients. We headed off on foot into a maze of narrow, winding alleyways. Motorbikes careered past, through the windows of their little houses on either side we could see people going about their daily lives. This was South East Asia at its most enthralling.
At the market we shopped for meat, fruit of every colour - many of which I'd never seen before, and vibrant vegetables. We learned how to test for ripeness. Locals prepare and cook with fresh ingredients often shopping for food every day.
Back at KOTO we made Vietnamese spring rolls, pork balls and a green papaya salad with a sweet and sour dressing. There was pumpkin and vegetable curry for the vegetarians to feast on too. The whole experience was taste dazzling and thought-provoking. All our tour groups will have a lunch or dinner here at the very least but I'd highly recommend doing the cookery class. Meeting Mark who'd come through the programme and now runs the classes was genuinely inspiring.
Next stop was Hoa Lo Prison, often dubbed the ‘Hanoi Hilton’. The original prison was built by the French in 1899 but it was used to house US pilots captured during the Vietnam War. Considering they were carpet bombing the country, the pilots were treated extremely well. The museum was moving and informative, explaining the context really well. It's a great place for students to learn about this difficult period of the country's history and to learn first hand how indomitable the spirit of the Vietnamese people is.
We weren't finished with foodie experiences either! That evening we did a lip-smacking night food tour of the old quarter. Sitting side by side with locals on stalls by the roadside munching on pulled pork baguettes, salads, pho noodles and sticky rice with bean curds I decided you'll never go hungry in Hanoi!
Day 3. Not your ordinary packed lunch
Today we headed out of the city to visit another KOTO project called Hopebox. It's a social enterprise for woman who have suffered from abuse at home. The women live here at the centre and make and sell packed lunches for office staff in Hanoi. This teaches them how to gain extra skills to make a living as well as offering support and counselling networks.
Hopebox was founded by Huong Dang, a truly remarkable woman who was brought up on the streets. She set up Hopebox to help and support her sister who was going through a tough time at home. Huong Dang spent her years as a child living under a bridge. Her story literally brought tears to my eyes. Her passion for these people runs so deep and the work the team here does is so heartwarming.
Vetting hotels is a really important part of these trips and today I visited no less than eight! All the time I kept thinking about the stories I'd learned at Hopebox. Bringing school groups here to meet people like this will set them up for life. If there's anywhere to learn that you can succeed if you have determination and passion, it’s here.
Day 4. Village life in the mountains
It was time to head out of the city. I was really looking forward to the next couple of days. I was going to gain first hand experience of the projects we work with around Mai Chau, deep in the countryside. Under cloudless blue skies rural Vietnam was spectacular - bright green paddy fields, tiny tiled-roofed houses, jagged granite peaks rising steep behind.
I loved the guest house where we stayed here. I'd been worrying it might be a little basic, but I was very wrong. A simple but cosy bamboo cabin with gorgeous views out across the paddy fields, it had a lush comfy bed and hot water shower.
We inspected the student areas too. They're on the top floor in one massive room with mosquito nets, mattresses and bedding provided. The rooms are spilt by gender. Having repped many a group I know that the students will love this place! The teacher rooms are below on the first floor so you can easily see what the students are up to if they venture out.
After lunch we headed up to the villages in the mountains with the Head Coordinator. We visited some of the homestays and then explored the village which some 100 families call home. There were more amazing views: lush bamboo forest, paddy fields interspersed with small holdings. We visited two schools, the football pitch and a newly built library. The library doubles as the village's main meeting place. So it was the ideal place for a really interesting Q&A with the village elders - with the help of our interpreter. We were also invited to learn one of their traditional dances, which they said they'd like us to perform for the rest of the village the following evening - no pressure then!
I thought Vietnam would be hot all year round, but up here at higher altitude it was chilly when the sun went down. So don't forget to pack a jumper!
Day 5. Building roads and being Superman
Today dawned bright with a chill in the air. Waking up to that view over the slow ebbing river and watching mist lifting off the paddy fields as the sun rose above the mountains was the best possible way to start the day. Students and staff alike will remember these views for a lifetime!
Today it was time to muck in. After a hearty breakfast we set off in our scruffy clothes ready to help build a road. The village Coordinator and our guide Toan, explained that we would be doing lifting and moving supplies from the main road into the village. All our tours that feature community work have an English speaking guide like Toan and a Community Coordinator with them. This ensures the smooth running of the activities and means the group is in safe hands.
We were given the all important Health and Safety chat and also shown the site rules. Suntan lotion on, dust mask and gloves at the ready! Before I knew it, I was stuck in laughing with the locals and moving sand, stones and other supplies. We left it to the experts to do the complicated stuff like making the concrete and laying it!
After our labours we went to a local homestay for some well-earned lunch: chicken, rice, vegetables, fish and then fruit all served in the traditional communal style. In the afternoon we got to see other aspects of village life like basket weaving. I helped Mrs Lam plant some rice in one of her paddy fields!
After a little down time it was time to get ready for the evening's entertainment. I normally jump on any stage I see, but I wasn’t feeling too confident about this one! A small stage had been set up in the middle of the village and everyone was there. Pumping Asian techno was blaring out of the speakers. When most people in the village don't have TVs, you make your own entertainment!
A group of young dancers took to the stage. And then it was our turn. We got our dance terribly wrong much to the delight of everyone else. Obviously we couldn't leave it at that - we had to show them a little about our own culture. What could be better than teaching them that great British classic Superman! by Black Lace - with all the actions, naturally. By half way through everyone was on their feet clapping and doing the actions too. It just goes to show that you don’t need to speak the same language to dance together and have a great time!
We'd just had a quick taster and I've loved every minute. School visits are longer than this and the students get to do lots of other activities. They're just the most brilliant learning opportunity. I'd go as far as to call them life-changing.
Day 6. Reflections on the way home
After another chilly night, we had just enough time to try our hands at making bamboo rafts and visiting several other homestays and hotels in the morning. We offer a range of hotel and guest houses with these kinds of visits. Then it was time to head for the airport.
As we took off into the night and I watched the lights of Hanoi disappear I reflected on the trip. In just a few short days I'd seen some truly inspiring projects that really made me stop and think. I'd cooked and eaten lip-smacking new foods. I'd got my hands dirty helping a community build a road and I'd made some brilliant new friends.
Along with fantastic life lessons like these, Vietnam offers insights for students of history, geography, travel and tourism and even art. It's without question one of the most rewarding places we offer. I'd highly recommend it.