Teen Girl With a Satchel - Reflections on Vietnam

While 38 Year Eleven students embarked on Vietnam for a History excursion, for the vast majority of us, the actual historical benefits of the trip were the last thing taken into consideration when deciding whether to go or not. There were beach resorts, and tailor made clothing, hours of free shopping time, bizarrely cheap food and drink and no parental supervision for three whole weeks, but none of us understood the true emotional toll the trip would take.

We began with three days in Cambodia, staying in Siem Reap where we were lucky enough to get the end of a typhoon that caused the entire town to flood on a scale that would cause mass evacuation and panic in Australia; the Cambodians didn’t even bat an eyelid. They continued riding their bikes through the thigh-high floodwaters and just got on with their lives. For our group, fresh off the plane, it showed us just what people are capable of doing when they have no other options.

We visited two orphanages while we were in the country. The second orphanage we visited, in the tourist town of Hoi An, brought me to tears. I spent my time in the room that housed infants and disabled children. A young girl attached herself to me, and I spent the hour carrying her around. Just spending that time with her brought us both intense amounts of joy.

She had never seen a camera before, and I joined in her joyful squeals and laughs as she figured out how to take a photo. Then I began to cry as I realised that she will likely never own one, or even get to use one again. The orphanage received the equivalent of $30 per month for each disabled child, and less for each child without a disability. Hoi An was where we completed most of our shopping, and I felt sick to my stomach when I heard those figures as the night before I had spent over $400 on custom made clothing and shoes without thinking twice.

Those of us who had spent time with the infants left the orphanage last, and in a somber silence. Things that just hours before had seemed so important and major to us were suddenly put in perspective. For the first time, the true reality of our amazing lives hit us. We fought with our parents, and they wouldn’t let us do things sometimes, but we had parents. We have money. We have opportunities. We have the ability to one day change the world, and for that we should be eternally thankful, because we had just met 100 children who would never be so lucky. All I wanted to do was take the children home with me, but I had to turn and walk back to dress fittings, angry with the unfairness of the world, and at my own selfishness.

Visiting Sapa, in the North of the country, in the final few days of the trip also opened our eyes to the harsh life so many people are forced to live. Our guide called them ‘local people’, and signs around the town referred to them as ‘the Sapa minority peoples’, but they were basically women, many of whom where my age or younger, who would follow around tourists and try and sell them things.

We were told to ignore them, but doing so broke my heart. I finally cracked and bought some bracelets when a young teenage girl started following me on a hike. She was being led around by a pre-teen because she had horrendous cataracts covering both of her eyes. Cataracts are so curable in Australia, but because of her circumstances of birth she was forced to live a life of disadvantage and impairment. The unfairness of the situation made me so angry. I didn’t need the bracelets, and my friends told me to just ignore her and keep walking, but I couldn’t. She didn’t choose her life, giving her a bit of my money was the least I could do.

I realized just how sheltered I have been growing up in Australia. I had traveled extensively, yes, but to Europe and touristy towns filled with expensive shops and resorts. We have a sponsor child, but until I stepped foot into the orphanages, I hadn’t realised the true reality of life for so many people in our world. As terrible as this will sound, I had never thought of myself as someone who would be able to go overseas and volunteer. I rely on my Wifi, running water, and electricity. But after visiting Vietnam, I now want to go and volunteer in an orphanage for a gap year. I have been blessed with an amazing life, and trying to give a little bit back to people who need it so much more than I do is the very least I can do.

Georgie blogs @ Frangipani Princess


Anonymous said...

Hi Georgie, sounds like an incredible trip. If you do find any links to volunteering at orphanages in Vietnam such as the one you visited, can you please post them? I would like to do that too. But not for a year (can't afford that much time off), maybe just a month.
Thank you, loved the post

Anonymous said...

It's great that the private school camp you went on broadened your horizons, but there are lots of people in your own country who are just as worse off.

Adelaide Dupont said...

Hi Georgie.

Great to hear about your south-east Asian travels and learning.

Everything from the cameras to the cataracts. (Fred Hollows Foundation?) And that scene with a pre-teen leading a teenage girl.

Shows how while we need each other, we can help each other.

Have an acquaintance who went to Cambodia, and, yes, it changed her life.

frangipani princess said...

I just wanted to clarify to the second anonymous commentor that I actually attend a public school, and am well aware of suffering within my own country. For many of my peers, it was their first trip overseas and required them to save for two years to be able to go. I know how lucky I am. This trip also opened my eyes to suffering of all kinds, and to how lucky my life is. I want to help everyone, including those in my own country, state, town, and school...

Erica Bartle (nee Holburn) said...

Well said, Georgie - the comment was most unfair. Not all of us get a chance to go oversees to attend to needs, that's true, and there are needs everywhere you look, if you choose, and often it takes a harrowing personal ordeal, a relative or friend's plight or a trip to a Third World country to take you out of the comfort zone to have your eyes opened wide. We can't all possibly address every single need on our own Рand, as my mother says, charity starts at home Рbut if we all do our piece, then we can make a difference. I applaud you for saving up to go on your trip and thought it brave of you to confess your prior naivet̩ and ultimate revelation Рif I'd had your insight at just 17, well, I think I would have put my mind, money and time to better use. Go you!

Anonymous said...

This is an amazing post Georgie!

I feel bad because I saw so much on the trip but coming back to Aus, I slip into some old habits. But still I am much more optimistic and spend less time on the net and on outdoor things. But thank you for reminding me of all the experiences, that already seem so long ago!

Likewise I would love to either do volunteer work in an orphanage or fund raising. All my problems are nothing compared to the hard life of the orphans. I think you'd be great working with the kids, you had such a great rapport with all the orphanage children!

And second Anon, yes there is poverty in Aus, however it is miniscule compared to the abject poverty of millions in the third world.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful post Georgie. I had a similar experience last year - it's amazing how these kids have so little yet are still so happy and giving. Definitely puts things into perspective.