The story of this trip starts in Singapore, actually, in the training session I led for Writing Through prospective volunteers in 2016. At that time, a wonderful trainee named Stephanie took me aside and said I had to bring the program to Vietnam, her home country. My response was, ‘Sure. But not now. Try me again in 2018.’ Now fast forward to this past summer when I opened my in-box to find Stephanie there, gently reminding me that 2018 was on the way and it was time to think about the Vietnam expansion. She even explained that she had already been in touch with friends in Hanoi, and everyone was waiting for me. How could I say no?
So my husband and I spent this Christmas in Hanoi. And what an amazing time it was. I had never been to Vietnam before, but this was no tourist trip. We did take time out for a completely indulgent Christmas, but other than that, we spent several days in meetings. Stephanie had arranged for me to hold an introductory training session, which we did for over 20 people. It was held in a totally cool place called 1995, owned by one of the remaining members of Vietnam’s first big break-out rock band, called The Wall.  I had done my homework and had already learned about the Vietnamese school system and how Writing Through could augment it. But I wasn’t prepared for the outpouring of enthusiasm and excitement. Before the day was over, I knew that our expansion into Vietnam was no longer a dream, but a reality. Then on Boxing Day we visited a High School and a volunteer organisation, and each one asked nothing other than, ‘Okay. When?’ I could hear my husband and the rest of my Board of Directors in my head saying, ‘slow down, girl.’ But all I wanted to do was say, ‘Great. Let’s go!’
I loved Hanoi. It is a city full of complications and dichotomies. The war and it’s political aftermath is never far behind. And yet it is like a boom town, with small businesses and coffee shops everywhere you look. It is very much a big city on the move, and yet from what I hear, it is dwarfed by Ho Chi Minh City — the next place on my must see list.
But as much as I enjoyed Hanoi, the highlight of the trip was Sa Pa, a place I had never heard of before. Sa Pa is an old French colonial resort in the northern mountains, now finding new legs. It was a five hour drive through intense fog and we arrived after dark. All we could see were the neon lights of new hotels, and to be honest, I was pretty skeptical. But the next day, the fog eventually cleared and I saw we were sitting on the top of the world. And it was cold! Stephanie had arranged that part of our trip as well, and we were met by a lovely woman called Mai, who runs a home stay and an English school. She came with a young Vietnamese man who was one of her main volunteers. When he opened his mouth, though, he didn’t sound Vietnamese at all. Indeed, although he was from Hanoi, he was also in the middle of his Sophomore year at a college in Florida, and he sounded like any American twenty year old. It soon became clear that there was much we could do here, too, and not only with Mai’s organisation. She also took us to another NGO which supports the local Hmong people living up in the mountains, who are basically ignored by the government. Sapa O’Chau uses their social enterprise of leading trekkers to support the education and training of many of the local students. The founder, Shu, understood completely what we do at Writing Through, and we were quick to realise we could partner with them, as well.
After that meeting, our new college student friend, Son, took us into the mountains to visit a local village. What we saw there was the sort of poverty we have come to know well in Cambodia. The environment, though, was like  nothing I had ever seen before. There is no doubt in my mind that Writing Through will be back here. I can just imagine the Facilitators clambering for the chance to work with these amazing people.