The Heat is on in Saigon

•November 21, 2009 • Leave a Comment

I first encountered Saigon when I was in eighth grade. I went to see the musical Miss Saigon and fell in love with the story. As we made our way down the coast of Vietnam towards Saigon, I couldn’t help but burst out into songs from the musical. (The title of this post is based on one of the songs from the musical… my feet are tapping as I write this post!) Though I loved the idea of Saigon, I wasn’t really that interested in the city itself. Word on the backpacker street was that Saigon was like any other major city – okay, but nothing really special. I went into the city with low (or no) expectations.

We ended up spending more time in Saigon (now officially called Ho Chi Min City or HCMC) than we had anticipated, but that was mostly because I ended up getting sick!

Ho Chi Min’s bust and a Vietnam flag found
in the Reunification Palace.

Once the sickness had subsided, we decided to head out and explore the two main tourist sites in HCMC. We started off at the Reunification Palace. This palace was built in 1966 and served as the presidential palace. The building is probably most famous for the role that it played in the Vietnam War. On April 30, 1975 a North Vietnamese tank drove through the gates of the palace and the war was declared over.

In the basement of the palace are the war
rooms. They reminded me a lot of Winston
Churchill’s war rooms
in London.

“Don’t touch the object!” Oops…
I just couldn’t help myself…

The tanks moving into the yard of the
Reunification Palace on April 30, 1975.

In addition to the Reunification Palace we also visited the War Remnants Museum. This museum aims to collect and display artifacts from the Vietnam War. It was certainly an interesting museum with a very pro-Vietnam stance. While there was lots of propaganda to surf through (not more than what you might find in an American equivalent though), the museum also provided lots of moments for contemplation about what had happened to Vietnam during the war. The Agent Orange that was used destroyed many lives and continues to affect the population today. The information that was displayed about the use of this pesticide during the war was heart-breaking.

In addition to spending time at the more touristy places (we checked out a local market and just wandered around the city), we discovered a lovely little café in downtown Saigon. Sozo serves delicious baked goods, something that can be hard to come by in Asia. We were delighted to stumble upon this little oasis in the big city. Sozo was set up with the aim of providing people with low (or no) income with the skills necessary for them to find work. Sozo’s vision statement is “Restoring hope, Changing lives”.

During our second visit to Sozo we ended up participating in an English exchange program. Every Tuesday night (I believe….) foreigners and Vietnamese people come together to build community, with the aim of providing a place for Vietnamese people to come and practice their English with native speakers. We ended up chatting with a bunch of locals for the evening. I think that this was definitely one of the highlights of our time in Saigon. It was nice to just spend time talking to people, and to learn more about Vietnam.

Our new friends. What a great night!

Though we never had the opportunity to completely devote ourselves to volunteering during our travels, it was nice to be a part of such a neat vision. I’d certainly recommend others to stop by the café if you’re in the area.


How to Build Community

•November 6, 2009 • 5 Comments

Turn off your TV.

Leave your house.

Know your neighbors.

Look up when you are walking.

Greet people.

Sit on your stoop.

Plant flowers.

Use your library.

Play together.

Buy from local merchants.

Share what you have.

Help a lost dog.

Take children to the park.

Garden together.

Support neighborhood schools.

Fix it even if you didn’t break it.

Have pot lucks.

Honor elders.

Pick up litter.

Read stories aloud.

Dance in the street.

Talk to the mail carrier.

Listen to the birds.

Put up a swing.

Help carry something heavy.

Barter for your goods.

Start a tradition.

Ask a question.

Hire young people for odd jobs.

Organize a block party.

Bake extra and share.

Ask for help when you need it.

Open your shades.

Sing together.

Share your skills.

Take back the night.

Turn up the music.

Turn down the music.

Listen before you react to anger.

Mediate a conflict.

Seek to understand.

Learn from new and uncomfortable angles.

Know that no one is silent although many are not heard.


I didn’t write this, but I do believe that it speaks the truth… Do you do this in your community?

Walking for a Cause

•October 4, 2009 • 2 Comments

Gidion, Theo, Jen & Kids

Back in 2004 I moved to Uganda to work with Rwandan refugees. I implemented sport and play programs in the refugee settlement with the hope of helping to build community and to help with the development of the children. It was an amazing experience that I’m sure will stick with me forever. I still remember my people, the Rwandans (and Ugandans) who touched my life and my soul. When I returned home I worked with an organization called GuluWalk. GuluWalk aims to raise awareness and funds for the people of Northern Uganda. There has been a civil war happening in Norther Uganda since the late 1980s. Thousands of people have been displaced, thousands of children have been kidnapped and forced to become soldiers. The situation is not great. While I didn’t work in Northern Uganda, I have a heart for the people there. For three years I worked with GuluWalk, raising money and organizing a walk in my hometown. This year there is no walk in my city, but I’m hoping to join one of the other walks in a nearby city. I’m hoping that you might consider walking for the children of Northern Uganda.Curious

I’ll leave you with the top 10 reasons for joining the GuluWalk this year (as posted on the GuluWalk website).

    #10: Ashton Kutcher, Ellen Degeneres and Britney Spears all have more than 3 million followers on Twitter. That is slightly frightening. But also a good lesson in trends – can we change them? Let’s prove that we actually DO care about less superficial things.
    #9: We are all global citizens.
    #8: While serving as the United Nation’s under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, Jan Egeland called the LRA conflict in northern Uganda ‘the world’s most neglected humanitarian crisis.’  If you don’t know the history, learn it.*
    #7: Scars from 23 years of war do not heal overnight.
    #6: When GuluWalk began in 2005, thousands of children were walking each night to seek a safe place to sleep; a place where the risk of abduction by the LRA would be low. They were known as ‘night commuters.’ Night commuting has stopped. There is a tentative peace in northern Uganda. But these children are still growing up, having known only war for the majority of their lives. They need support, they need a voice, they need leadership.
    #5: There are close to half a million people still living in IDP and transit camps in northern Uganda.
    #4: The LRA continues to wreak havoc in the region, mostly in the Congo, Sudan and now Central African Republic. It’s history in northern Uganda is a big piece to this puzzle and its impact there must not be forgotten.
    #3: You still have an extremely high chance of earning an all-expenses paid trip to northern Uganda. Become a ‘founding builder’ (one of the first 500 people to raise $500 online) and you could receive that trip, see first-hand the need for programming and gain a deeper understanding of the conflict.
    #2: This year, by walking, you will be raising awareness and funds for the Gulu Youth Cultural Centre: a home for much-needed youth leadership training; arts and cultural programming; rehabilitation and rebuilding.
    #1:Take real action. Because as easy as it is to click a button or join a Fan Page or change our Twitter profile picture, I think we are still capable of being roused; of feeling inspired; of using our free time, our voice, our combined effort, to act. Your voice will be heard.


•September 23, 2009 • Leave a Comment

As we have begun to adjust to life back home things have been busy. I’ve started working – teaching at a school in the region for eight weeks. Jeff’s been working on various projects, from staining homes and decks to bookkeeping to tutoring. We’re slowly figuring out how we fit back into life in Canada.

It’s nice to be back home. I feel a sense of pride when my national anthem plays on the announcements every morning. It’s funny, for the past two years I’ve stood for the national anthems of two other countries and never really thought about how I felt about that. Being back home I get goosebumps listening to the Canadian anthem.

We’re still sorting through our pictures and will post more about our trip soon.

Homeward Bound

•August 13, 2009 • 1 Comment

Well, it’s been an absolutely fantastic eight weeks through Indonesia, KL, Vietnam, Cambodia, and a little of Thailand.  We didn’t have the time to make it to Laos, but that just means that we’ll have to return someday.  We’ll continue to blog about the rest of our journey once we return home, but for us, it’s the end of the line.  Our flight leaves in less than 12 hours, so it’s time to get a little rest before an early morning departure to the airport.

Thanks to all who have joined us for the ride.

Hoi An, Vietnam – A Quaint Town That Employs Half of the World’s Tailors

•August 11, 2009 • 3 Comments

Hoi An is famous amongst backpackers for its tailors. Word on the street is that Hoi An is the place to get cheap, new, tailor made clothing – that word is right. While in Hoi An we found a tailor (though they aren’t hard to find, the tailor shops line the streets, it’s hard to go anywhere in this city without bumping into someone who wants to make you some kind of clothing!) to make us a few new pieces for our wardrobes.

Hoi An - Motorbike in MarketBe careful walking through the market… you might get run
over by a motorbike!

Hoi An - Jeff at the TailorsJeff getting measured for his new suit.

In addition to its tailors, and probably more important on a cultural level, are the historical architectural sites of Hoi An Old Town that are littered around the city. We spent a couple of days roaming around the city, taking in the sights (and the sites).

Hoi An - Chinese Assembly HallThe courtyard of the Chinese Assembly Hall.

While the sites were interesting, we came across a few that left a lot to be desired. Despite this, it was nice to walk around the city and learn a bit more about it’s history.

Hoi An - IncenseIncense hung from the ceiling in the ancient temples.

While in the area, we also made an early morning trip (5am) to My Son (pronounced Me Son), an old Cham ruin. These ruins were simply the beginning of what we were to see later in Angkor, but they were still amazing, especially so early in the morning before the rush of tourists arrived.

Hoi An - My Son RuinsThey aren’t sure how the buildings were created. The bricks are
melded together with no mortar in between.
Experts believe the
Cham people may have used a glue derived from sap that is found
in a tree common in the area.

The Cham people originally came from Indonesia to Vietnam. They were pushed down the coast and left their mark in ancient buildings scattered throughout Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand. My Son is 2,000 years old and was built by various kings throughout the years. It was a temple for the king and his family, a place to worship the Hindu god Shiva. During the Vietnam war the US bombed this site, but it is still fairly intact. They say that these are not the best examples of Cham ruins, the buildings are not in great shape, but because of its placement in the jungle, they are the most interesting.

Hoi An - Jen at My SonTaking in the beauty of the surroundings.
It was so peaceful and quiet.

We met a French family who were disappointed by My Son. I’m not sure what they were expecting, but we’ve learnt to go into things with either low or no expectations. It means that things are usually more enjoyable and we aren’t disappointed very often!

Hoi An - River Lights at NightYou can see the French influence in these buildings on the river.

Hoi An - Street Life at DuskThe streets were small and full of souvenir shops,
places to stop for a quick bite to eat, and tailors.

Aside from the shopping and the history, Hoi An is simply a quaint town that is a nice place to relax from the hustle and bustle of Hanoi and Ho Chi Min City.

Hoi An - Motorbikes at NightMotorbikes at dusk.

Two Years Down and How Many to Go?

•August 9, 2009 • 5 Comments

Well, it’s the day that Jen never remembers:  “When did we get married?  I don’t remember!!”

I love her anyways, and I’m lucky enough to have her love me too.  Today marks our two year anniversary!!  Incidentally, we’ve always been away for our anniversary – I wonder where we’ll be next year – we got married in Costa Rica, spent last year in Jeju, Korea, and now we’re in Bangkok, Thailand.

Jen and I have really enjoyed our time in South East Asia, but one thing that we keep forgetting to do is to ask others to take some photos of the two of us.  The most recent photo we have is at Angkor Wat, taken about a week ago.  (We’re a bit behind in our blogging!).

Angkor - Jen and Jeff at Angkor WatJen and myself on the path leading to Angkor Wat.

If you want a refresher of a few of our wedding photos, check out last year’s anniversary post.

Happy anniversary, Jen!