Back to the Blue Dragon

Our main destination this day was to be the Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation, the charity I raised the cash for when I did my Walk. We picked up a taxi to get there, though it turned out not to be so far out and closer to the old building than I’d thought.

The new premises are great. Much more spacious and professional and simply more convenient having all the facilities under one roof rather than spread over three buildings in a street. There are still some “annexes” such as a couple of houses for sleeping in which are close by.

Time whizzed by as we played with the kids and shared lunch with them. Mike showed off the new building and all the facilities and then they had a little presentation for me – a video they’d made followed by a gift of a cuddle blue dragon of my very own! Thanks to everyone, you didn’t have to but it was massively appreciated!

Sadly, we had other places to be later in the afternoon so flagged down two motorcycles and haggled them to a reasonable price to take us to the Sofitel Metropole for the chocolate buffet. We were meant to meet Kat here, but she never showed up and we splurged far too much money on posh chocs and lemon juice by ourselves. It’s gone up in price since my last visit to $15 plus service charge plus tax. Our $40+ bill was more than we paid per person for our 3-day Mekong trip… It’s every day from 15:00 to 17:50 if you have the stomach for it.

We found Kat back at the hostel where she’d been busy sorting things out as she had to catch her bus down south that evening. Fortunately we did get a chance to say our goodbyes as she and her new travelling companion (her original ones having to go on without her) were picked up.

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Another day in Hanoi

Next day we walked the streets with Kat and Hanno. Nothing new, just checking the shops and seeing what’s changed. And believe me, Hanoi has changed since my last visit. Prices are higher, housing is making way for businesses and there are four or five KFCs including one at the top of Hoan Kiem Lake where we had lunch. Madness.

As the day wore on I seemed to develop a rather annoying cold but managed to survive by eating all my remaining painkillers. And drenching a hanky. And every paper tissue I could lay my nose on. Not a pleasant way to spend a day.

Back at the hostel Kat discovered that her package had turned up so she could leave the next day. To say she was over the moon was an understatement! We also met three lads from England who were here to volunteer at a small village outside town, playing with children and attempting to teach them English. We took them to the City View where I found that the prices had gone up, but so had the quality of food and service although the menu’s still a little bizarre. I had pork with an apple sauce, potato, pasta with tomato sauce, and veg. Yes, potato and pasta on the same dish. Weird.

Of course, we followed that up with Bia Hoi. Back at the hostel, my attempts to buy a beer were met with cries of “put your money back in your pocket! If you don’t know how to get your own beer now, you shouldn’t have come back!”

I ended up tending bar (for myself and others) for an hour. I was also informed that next time I was just to check myself into the hostel and not bother the staff. I’m going to try that…

Afterwards I had a late night tapping away on the laptop as an Irish guy and an English girl sat near me in the otherwise empty bar telling each other how fantastic they were… before sucking tongue and finally leaving me in peace before I was sick. Seriously, people – there are alleyways for that kind of thing. Think of my sanity.

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Hanoi – again!

We walked down the road to have breakfast in a boulangerie which supports a local charity. The pastries were excellent and just right for a starting meal. We panicked a little as it got close to the time when our bus was meant to pick us up, so flagged down a taxi to take us to the office with our luggage. Actually, at first we thought the taxi was there to pick us up, but we rapidly realised he was just cruising and looking for a fare!

Fair do’s though, the driver was polite and helpful and despite a language barrier between us we got where we needed to go in good time to jump on the coach… and watch as it rounded the block to stop in front of our hotel and wait for us. Oh dear. So for those of you who book a Vietnam Airlines bus in Hué with pickup – it will come for you. If you’re patient.

We chatted to a French couple on the bus who had been visiting their daughter, a medical student based down in Hoi An. They were on the same flight as us and seemed remarkably unphased by the whole Vietnam thing. Hué airport isn’t huge, but here’s a hint – if you don’t like people smoking round you then go through the security check as soon as you have your boarding card. It’s not obvious from outside, but there’s a waiting lounge on the other end with seating, a TV, food and a no smoking policy. I wish I’d known this before I came close to vomiting on the guy next to us.

Our flight was called and we piled down stairs and were shoehorned onto the little shuttle bus. Which then – and I kid you not – did a U-turn then let us out at the plane doors. I do not exaggerate one bit. The bus travelled more distance doing the turn than we would have covered walking directly to the steps in a fraction of the time. The bus engine was running the whole time. Madness.

The actual flight was probably more ecological as it was fairly full and we got into Hanoi pretty much on time. I feel like I know this place backwards now, and we walked outside and straight onto one of the Vietnam Airline minibuses which took us into the Old Quarter for 30,000 Dong each. Apologies to the French couple as we got the last two seats on the bus, meaning they had to wait for the next one to fill up!

At the hostel I got my usual “What the hell are you doing back here?” from Mike and Max, as well as a welcoming beer and a hearty handshake. Luggage dumped, we made the most of happy hour (believe me… I really made the most of it) loading up on beer and cocktails before attacking the burger bar for dinner. This is three nights a week, and on the balcony bar of the main building.

Ah, main building. Yes. The Hanoi Backpacker’s Hostel is now in three buildings along the same street, such is the popularity of the place. There’s the original place (now with a new bar on the ground floor), The Annexe and The Other Side across the street. 179 beds and almost always full to the brim. They even had two camp beds down in our dorm at one point to accommodate overflow.

We met a girl called Kat who was in much the same state I was 2 years ago – sat waiting for a new bank card to arrive after hers had been stolen. Also in the hostel was Hanno, a German guy on holiday from working on his thesis at the Primate Centre in Ninh Binh. As we settled down to eat, Mike announced a second happy hour in my honour as I’ve been at the hostel so often!

Along with a bunch of other people we headed out to the Bia Hoi, which was a lot quieter than I remember. I have a feeling the police have clamped down on the way the chairs used to spill onto the roadside. Bunch of killjoys. The beer’s also now 3000D, up 1000D from my last visit but still cheap enough!. Leah and Kat headed back to the hostel, but I stayed out with a couple of other guys for a few more beers in the Buddha Bar. Apparently it was around 4am when I got back to the hostel. All I know is I spent around eight quid and had a great night out!

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VSO meeting in Newcastle

Voluntary Service OverseasOur Man in Newcastle (formerly Our Man in Hanoi) will be speaking at a meeting of Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) at the Civic Centre in Newcastle, on June 10th at 7:30pm. In his words:

There’ll be me and (I think) other ex volunteers all taking the stand for seven to eight minutes to tell our stories. I believe there will also be an opportunity for questions too.

Not sure what form my speech will take but there might be some brief readings from Our Man in Hanoi detailing my experiences in Vietnam.

Just to reiterate, yet again, if you have ever thought about VSO but dismissed it for whatever reason – think again. If your really want to do it then find a way. If the problem is the mortgage, or the kids, then think about doing it in your retirement. VSO just loves oldies.

Some more facts to dispel any myths:

1. It’s not all floppy haired gap-year kids

2. It is people with skills and experience doing in the developed world what they get paid for back home.

3. It used to be all two-year stints but there are some shorter options now available.

4. You might end up in a mud hut in the middle of nowhere but, then again, you probably won’t. I lived in rather a nice house.

5. While you’d be advised not to pick and choose too much, you can say what you’d be prepared to do and what you just couldn’t do without. Don’t be too picky though or they might not be able to find anything.

6. You do get a living wage and your flights are paid for. It’s enough to cover the basics. Volunteering for VSO shouldn’t cost you anything. You even get a resettlement grant when it’s all over.

VSO Flickr pool here. Facebook here.

As a final spur here’s a brief snippet of something I wrote about the experience:

“I am so proud of what we have achieved at KOTO. So proud just to be a part of it. So proud that the new KOTO is going happen. And if you’ll forgive me the indulgence, I’m proud I stuck it out. Not just the two years but the extra time to see this through.

“It is easily the single best thing I have ever done with my life.

“My future has many more adventures ahead but I will see and experience nothing like this ever again. I am the luckiest guy in the world to do this.”

For more info, or if you’d like to attend, go here.

For my own part, let me say the following. There’s not a doubt in my mind that I’d be happy as Larry living in Hanoi again for a few months, year or whatever. I’d certainly second everything on the above list. I only did 6 weeks in Hanoi on my longest stint getting Blue Dragon’s website and stuff sorted, but I was made to feel so much a part of the team by the kids that I simply did not want to leave.

OurMan mentions the pride at the end of it. Hell, yes. Sure, it’s good to feel proud of something you did in the office when you’re home and getting your monthly wage. But when that thing you’ve done, you’ve done for little or no financial reward; and when you can see how much it matters to people who have a hell of a lot less than you ever will… then you experience pride. Then you know what you’ve done is more worthwhile than anything else.

People – don’t have second thoughts. It’s a meeting. In Newcastle. It will, I assume, involve a bunch of people having a right old chat and probably a beer afterwards. What a great way to spend an evening, and you might even find yourself walking off with some life-changing ideas.