Friendship Foundation of American Vietnamese

People of Project XII

By Volunteer Chrissy Murphy
Project XII Participant

On my flight back to Japan I found myself sandwiched between two enormous, snoring individuals who considered my shoulders to be the most suitable alternative to pillows available on the plane. Consequently, I was quickly relieved of the burden of sleep and able to spend considerable time reflecting on my time with the Friendship Foundation's 12th Annual Trip to Vietnam. I can't remember now why I originally decided to join this project except that, upon seeing the yellow flyer with the heading “Do you want to make a difference?” I knew instantly that I would be spending my first Christmas away from home in Vietnam.

Once landed in Ho Chi Minh City, hauling my suitcase full of donations to the hotel, I still had no idea what to expect or what exactly I would be doing but never once questioned my decision in coming.

“It's like the Twilight Zone! We're the only ones alive!”

Looking back now, I certainly remember the experiences of the trip but as I know they will be expounded upon by other articles in this newsletter, I wonder if it wouldn't be more beneficial to write about the people who comprised this project, who made it what it was.

Gia Hoa, our fearless leader, translator and adopted mother, has devoted her life to the endless task of helping those less fortunate. Whilst we were dancing to Mariah Carey's “All I Want for Christmas” on Christmas Eve, she was downstairs contending with three government officials outside the gate of her mother's home. She was tireless in her efforts not only in organizing the shipments of blankets, noodles and other supplies from Ho Chi Minh City to our destinations in the more rural areas, but also in making sure that, throughout the duration of the trip and beyond, we were all well taken care of. When I realize that the majority of the work for this project was completed long before coming to Vietnam, I am astounded again by the sheer magnitude of the effort she continually invests in her beliefs.

When I think of Joe, who easily qualifies as a human memory bank with his remarkable ability to recite the complete history of Vietnam, I laugh at his equally impressive skill of talking most of us out of our money, should we have asked his opinion regarding a potential purchase. If ever I saw him in a market, I would invariably ask, “Joe, should I buy this?” knowing that his response would not only be affirmative but also buoyed by such logic as “It's one of a kind!,” “You'll regret it if you don't!” and the ever influential “It just looks so beautiful on you!” He also shares Gia Hoa's dedication to this Foundation, having offered continued support through his law practice as well as covering the inevitable additional expenses out of his own pocket. It is inspiring to see two people who are as kind hearted as they are hilarious, as hardworking and devoted to charitable causes as they are willing to jump in a fountain on New Year's Eve.

I'm also impressed by the people most of us never had the chance to meet: by Syllie, the Coordinator for the project who was not able to come to Vietnam but managed to introduce us all, organize our travel plans and answer all our questions through email and by the donors who so kindly give to this project every year, who enable this project to continue, despite living thousands of miles away and not always having the opportunity to see the results of their generosity.

Without a doubt I am also inspired by the fantastic group of people who comprised the bulk of the volunteers. I choose the word “fantastic” purposefully as it is often only in an independent traveler's fantasies that 18 strangers can spend two weeks together and have a wonderful, successful trip not only without the urge to kill each other, but actually becoming friends in the process. I remember getting a foot massage with Martyn on our second evening in the Hanh Long hotel. We sat side by side in massive, cushioned chairs as two women fed us watermelon and twisted our toes.

Martyn had the ill-fortune of being assaulted with a knitting needle under the guise of “reflexology,” while I was blessed with a woman who kept commenting on the beauty of my near-transparent calves. I shared a room with Ai-Ling in that hotel and, after having known each other for less than two days, we would have made the closest of sorority sisters jealous with our clothes swapping and matching laundry drying over the bathtub.

I later shared a bed with Annie, both of us sick and snoring beneath the mosquito netting of Gia Hoa's mother's guest bed.

In Nha Trang I bunked with Marianne who woke me one night with the first earthquake scare of my life. I had to forgive her, naturally, as she was forced to spend New Year's Eve with Jozen and Martyn in the room next door, as I had passed out and was incapable of letting her in, despite her knocking incessantly for twenty minutes and waking everyone on the third floor up, aside from myself. I was, however, capable of ripping one of the hotel's towels in two, for which she had to pay a fine upon checking out. (Sorry Marianne).

On a more sober evening I remember chatting well into the wee hours with Stephanie when, upon waking, we realized that we were the only two conscious people on our bus, which had pulled to the side of the road in the midst of the Vietnamese countryside to enable the driver to rest. I climbed into the seat next to her and said, “It's like the Twilight Zone! We're the only ones alive!”

Tawnee and I bonded at the health fair where we were continuously patted and pinched on our round, pale backsides, as well as molested on our stomachs and upper arms as several people tried to strip us bare to get a better look at these pasty land manatees who had wandered into their village. Adam, somewhere between playing “Red Rover” with the children at the health fair and agreeing to have his toenails painted flaming purple in a noodle shop stole all of our hearts, as did Gary mine when he pressed his face to my back and whimpered as I maxed the speed of my rented moped along the coastal roads of Nha Trang (a speed I am still unaware of as my speedometer, as well as my headlights, were broken).

Speaking with Julie, a Peace Corps veteran, and Renee, a fellow tea set-addict and accomplished world traveler, has helped me to formulate some ideas as to what I would like to do next in my life and served as an impressive impetus to match their own accomplishments. Jeff granted me the privilege of reading his journal throughout the trip, thereby assuring me that the whirlwind of impressions swirling through my mind was by no means abnormal. Erica told us stories of the frustration of living in Japan and being continuously mistaken for a fluent Japanese, despite her Canadian upbringing. Blair and I stayed up late one evening exchanging family histories, after having spent a day perusing ridiculously affordable galleries in Ho Chi Minh's art district. Becky and I reminisced about Britain while Jessica re-enacted the Little Mermaid on the bow of our ship off the Southern coast. Kris kept everyone, including herself, laughing throughout the trip and Jozen, despite arriving after Christmas (thereby missing the drunken “waiting for Gibson” party held in his honour) won us all over with his dry humour and flying toaster pajama bottoms.

These people will stay with me always. Even if, as often happens, their details become fuzzy with time and distance, the feeling of being with them will remain and will serve to inspire me to search out similar situations where a group of strangers, united by a common goal and similar interests, can not only share an experience but add to it, embellish it, make it more rewarding than if it were only an individual inspired to enact change on her own.

Gia Hoa, on the last day of the project, said, “You ask me why I care enough to come back to Vietnam every year. I care because I want to come back and see Vietnam as a country again.” To be honest, I believe she has her wish already and it is only her unwillingness to accept any form of injustice that motivates her to continually press for improvements on all fronts of Vietnam's social and education system. Vietnam is a beautiful, vibrant, inspiring country and all of us, thanks to this project, had the privilege of meeting her, of listening to her and are now able to set forth and share her with others.

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