“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
I am haunted by the memory of an image. A 10-minute encounter. Donating bags of rice to poor people in the Hoi An countryside. One of our recipients, a mentally handicapped woman living on her own in a “house” made for her by the Vietnamese government because she cannot afford her own.
A house with no doors and windows. In the summer, no respite from the searing heat. In the monsoon season, no shelter from the storm.
A woman with 3 children, 2 daughters and 1 son. All mentally handicapped. Both daughters have been raped in the past and have born children who are also mentally handicapped. The son has also fathered a child who is mentally handicapped. She jumps for joy because she has just received 4 bags of rice from us, she shouts to a passing neighbour and signals “four” with her fingers. A small donation from us, a big one for her. How perceptions change.
Welcome to the Grade 11 CAS trip to Hoi An, Vietnam.
Hoi An is a World Heritage town, famously famous for being a beautifully preserved old town, pronounced one of the top romantic destinations in the world by CNN, and a ‘must see’ entry on any trip to Vietnam. Rightfully so. But beneath the somewhat Disneyfied façade of the colourful lanterns all over the Old Quarter, there exists another part of Hoi An which most tourists do not see. The reality of a day-to-day existence. People struggling to make ends meet, who cannot afford to eat in the restaurants in which they work in the tourist Old Quarter.
We encounter children from an organisation called CHIA (Children’s Hope in Action) for the first two days. All of them either orphans and/or abandoned. At first the reality of a hitherto unknown world hits our own students hard. A classroom with hard wooden benches and open air ventilation. Creaking play swings, some of which are badly in need of repair. Rusty perimeter iron gates. And yet the children at CHIA are happy to call this place home because they are taken care of, they go to school and it enables a dream which predisposes better times ahead. Two days of hard labour and several hours of meaningful interaction later, the center of our own students’ universe begins to shift
Our next decentering experience is with a number of disabled people who run a workshop in Hoi An making various things like incense, paper bags and lanterns. The work is monotonous and repetitive, and communication almost non-existent except via body language because most of them do not speak English save one Vietnamese volunteer, herself disabled but she is not there all the time. Slowly but surely the students begin to realise that the work they call “boring” and “tedious” gives life, meaning and purpose to someone else. An urgency takes over the labour. The goodbyes are not easy.
Our next two days are occupied by an exploration of how the other half lives: the countryside where poor people live in “houses” opposite large plots of land occupied by 3-storey houses, village towns, labour in the rice fields, ordinary life. It is a very different Hoi An from the Old Quarter. Almost schizophrenic in its dual reality.
Hue, the last stop on the penultimate day. A long winding jaw dropping beautiful journey through the Hai Van Pass, a pit stop at Lang Co beach, and we are in the ancient royal capital of Vietnam. Another Vietnam emerges. A sleepy city, mostly rural, a population that’s desperately poor. Amazingly full of culture and monuments that are a testament to a rich history, but many of which have suffered the neglect caused by long years of war and damage. There is something heartbreaking about Hue I cannot describe. They call it the city of poets and literature, I can understand why. William Butler Yeats once said that poetry had a “beauty born out of despair.” An ache, the remnants of something once beautiful, disappearing but not disappeared…
“Do I wake or sleep?”
In the end, I hope we have achieved what we set out to do with this CAS trip. Opened eyes, shown new worlds…but we will not know for sure. All the reflections in the world are only window dressing if no one is inspired to lead a different life from hence. We can only hope.