6 September 2016
After almost two years of planning and preparation, fundraising for the project and researching the destination, 42 fifth and lower sixth form adventurers under the guidance of technical leaders and Abingdon staff Mrs Mansfield, Mrs Engel-Hart, Miss Widdern, Mr Deasy, Mr Ghosh and Mr Hall explored the northern part of Vietnam for three weeks in July and August this year.
Two groups went to Sapa in the north for scenic trekking while group two trekked into their project village in Pu Long nature reserve west of Hanoi. It was tough walking with 15kg in our backpacks at over 35C in extremely high humidity and hilly jungle terrain.
The landscape in the north is stunning with its magnificent limestone karst towers, whether at the UNESCO World Heritage Site Ha Long Bay, or further inland where the same mountains can be found surrounded by lush, deep jungle and rice paddies.
All three groups completed their charitable projects in remote villages of ethnic minority people - ethnicity still plays an important role in Vietnam - and were bowled over by the natural beauty of water falls and plunge pools, lush jungle full of bamboo, banana and lychee trees, the hospitality of the various people we stayed with in home stays, the amazing food sourced from within a few miles around the villages and cooked to perfection and the contact with the local people. We learned that ginger tea is the cure for pretty much everything, especially an upset stomach. We explored caves that few had ever been to before, watched the most impressive thunderstorm and ensuing rainbow over rugged mountains and danced with Vietnamese people at our good-bye parties. It was only when we arrived back in the noisy and densely populated city that it became obvious that we had been practising mindfulness automatically everyday while in the countryside. In our busy lives here, we often try so hard to focus on the task in hand, there it seemed natural.
One reason could have been the absence of phones and social media: we actually talked to each other, read and exchanged books and talked about those, discussed impressions, put the world to rights and played games or just chilled in a hammock overlooking mountain peaks and green jungle.
In the bustling city of Hanoi we could sample street food on tiny plastic stools at mini tables on the pavement for less than a child return bus fare to Oxford or - even better value - in the markets spoiling us with abundant produce of tropical fruits, beautiful silks, fragrant spices and a good deal of tat. Hanoi is all not short of museums or souvenir shops.
We all travelled on the night train to the old imperial city of Hue in central Vietnam and further south past the crazy hotel and holiday developments south of Da Nang to the beautiful but slightly disneyfied Hoi An, another UNESCO World Heritage Centre, which is famous for its tailors. Look out for boys in sharp, well fitting navy suits this year and you can spot some of the adventurers in their finery. Most managed a trip to the beach before it was time to travel back up north to Hanoi to prepare for departure.
Many gained valuable insights and learnt valuable lessons, at least that you do not eat your pot noodles in your sleeping compartment on the night train because it brings out dozens of cock roaches that you do not want in your bunk a few hours later!
Our next trip is very likely to be Nicaragua in two years time, so watch this space for the launch soon!