Monday, December 29, 2014

Tour of Peace 2014: by Bruce

There are many layers to our Journeys of the Heart. For me, one of the most meaningful is the eight-year personal journey I have been on from warrior to soldier of peace. The monthly check I receive from the Department of Defense for my 25 years of service is not called a pension. It is retirement pay – pay because it is considered compensation for ongoing post-retirement service. I serve by working with Elaine, through our unregistered charity, to help marginalized persons in Vietnam  become independent and productive. Many of their difficulties are part of the legacy of the war in which I fought as an infantryman those forty-some years ago.

But the service from which I derive the most satisfaction is helping American veterans of the Vietnam War find the sites that are significant to them. These could be fire-bases, battlefields, helicopter crash sites or base camps.  When I see these old soldiers' eyes flood with tears as emotion washes over them, my heart becomes full. I've just returned from my second trip to Vietnam in 2014. This was a two-week tour with TOP (Tours of Peace) Vietnam Veterans. We traveled the length of the former South Vietnam to deliver food, medicine, toys and compassion to orphanages, elder care centres and a Leprosy village. As well we visited the veterans' important and memorable sites.

In this picture we were at the former Khe Sanh combat base. The location where 6,000 Marines were besieged by 20,000 North Vietnamese for over ninety days in 1968. One of the members of this group was gravely wounded here, and very lucky to have survived. 

A group-hug at the Khe Sanh combat base site. The C-130 Hercules in the background is a war relic that the Vietnamese have restored to be part of a museum display of US military equipment at the battle site. 

Above (2 pictures). Working at a Leprosy village. Note the ravaged digits on the victim's hands, He was the village spokesman -- effusive in his gratitude. 

Above: Handing out tooth brushes, tooth paste, shampoo, soap, razors  etc. in a Hill tribe village enroute to Khe Sanh. TOP's motto is "By helping others we help ourselves." These humanitarian activities are very healing for the veterans, some of whom have had struggles with PTSD.

At the Duc Son orphanage near Hue. The kids loved our visit and I wished I could have taken several of them home.

I  cannot  close this post without a tremendous thank you to the founder and organizer of TOP Vietnam Veterans, who was a Marine Corps rifleman during the Vietnam War. He has been returning to Vietnam every year for the past two decades to do humanitarian work and take veterans back for closure and healing. He, along with our intrepid Vietnamese Guide, Anh, are the heart and soul of TOP. Elaine and I are grateful to both these men for launching us on our new path in life and our retirement "career" with Journey's of the Heart and mine as the Deputy Duck or Chief Research & Reconnaissance Officer (CRRO) (aka Map Reader).

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Let's Help Build a New School

One of the very special things about our recent trip to Vietnam this year was that we found a way to support a local Vietnamese charitable organization called Ong Vang ....Same Same But Different.

We have discovered through them the plight of a village, Ka Doong in western central Vietnam. This remote mountain village suffers severe poverty.

What struck me were these pictures of the school.

The children are underfed and have little clothing. The winters are harsh here and the rainy season must be terrible to bear.

Journeys of the Heart is hoping to contribute to the building of a new school, where the children will be at least protected from the elements while they try to study.

Thanh Huynh, our contact in Hoi An, who leads the activities of Same Same But Different has told me that their target is to raise $3500 US.

Surely we can help!!! Think of this as a Christmas gift that will change the lives of these little tykes.

Please e-mail us at if you would like to get on board with this initiative or message us through Back to Vietnam or Journeys of the Heart on Facebook.

Better yet, mail a cheque to:

Journeys of the Heart
#10-115 Upper Ganges Road
Salt Spring Island, BC
V8K 2Y3

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Time to Say Good Bye

This Journey of the Heart has drawn to an end.

Good byes in Vietnam take a long many wonderful people to whom to say "hen gap lai nam sau"....see you again next year. Tears, hugs, smiles and thank you's over coffee, a meal, in the street, as the taxi arrives for the airport!

This has been the most wonderful Journey of the Heart. A balance of work and play; old friends and colleagues, new friends and neighbours, witnessing people succeeding, encouraging young girls to study, seeing our Reaching Out family learn the joys of yoga, hearing about the successes of our micro-loan recipients, being honoured by the Government for our work with victims of Agent Orange, playing with our "grandchildren",  eating new delicious dishes and being absolutely pampered by our Vietnamese family.

                                     Quyen, Sesame kneeling, Binh and Gao sitting on the grass.

We bought new bikes to get around and to exercise this year. Great to get up and cycle in the countryside and have a swim before tackling our work.

It was our plan to donate the bicycles once we were on the way home to Canada. Quyen helped us to get the bikes to poor children in our village.

At the appointed hour I showed up at Quyen and Binh's house to meet the People's Committee member for our village. We hopped on his motor bike, with me clinging to his tiny waist. We zoomed off for all of two blocks and entered a yard not four houses away from the one where Bruce and I had been living for two months.

The young boy who would receive my bike in a couple of days was home alone, excused from school at the request of the Party Representative so that he could meet me.

The shy lad was terrified of me and the pomp of the occasion. He is twelve years old. The altar behind us honours his mother who died ten years ago. Father is raising three boys on his own and they live with the barest of necessities.

I was thrilled that the bike was going to be used by a neighbour, someone that I had probably seen in the lane playing marbles with a pack of cronies!

This year living in a tiny fishing village, which is on the brink of development but still very traditional, was a closer look at this country of Vietnam where we have learned so much about ourselves and about living in the world.

                                                      Bruce and Binh in the "office".

                                                                      Two Grannies

                                                        Yogi Tea at Reaching Out Tea House

Thank you for all the comments, e-mails and encouragement from our home team.  We are now settling in on Salt Spring Island. It is good to be home although we miss our family, our little house and our colleagues in Vietnam.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Same Same but Different

There are so many deserving people here in Vietnam who are not getting the social assistance that would help them break through the cycle of poverty.

Thank goodness that many of our donors send along funds which are discretionary. They trust us to find avenues through which we can funnel their funds directly to those in need.

We always have a struggle making the decisions about which organizations and individuals will be the beneficiaries of our donors' generosity. Reaching Out, VAVA, Children's Education Foundation and the Global Village Foundation have all been trusted partners through the years, providing hope, opportunity and education.

This year we had about $2000 in discretionary funds. A good chunk went to AIM in Cambodia to assist with their prevention, rescue and rehabilitation of young girls and women who have been victims of trafficking.

At home here in Hoi An we struggled with a decision whether to send funds to an orphanage or support a local charity.  As the orphanage was gaining interest from several NGOs we decided on Same Same but Different.

 We are so enthusiastic about this small grassroots organization because it is run by and supported by local Vietnamese. Under the guidance of Thanhhuynh Huynh, these young people venture far into the mountains to bring goods and services to very remote and poor villages.

With the help of our dear "daughter" Mai Thi Kim Quyen we were able to get  provisions to two villages. Perhaps surprising is that individuals from Reaching Out the social enterprise for which we work supporting disabled artisans also participates on this charity.

Journeys of the Heart funds bought, in part ,the goods which were delivered a week or so ago. Quyen and other Vietnamese put together school packages and clothing ( warm jackets and hats for the coming winter) for 45 kids from two different villages. The families received basic food stuffs, rice, noodles, oil and dried fish. What a haul!

The trek up to these mountain villages is quite arduous so we were pleased to let this youthful group provide the muscle.

We do wish that we could have been there to see all the smiling faces!

Thanks to Same Same but Different for their dedication to serving their less fortunate and their families. It takes money, brawn and heart to do this work.

Huge hugs to all of our supporters in Canada and the USA!!!!

A Day in Da Nang with Children's Education Foundation

Many donations to Journeys of the Heart are channelled to Children's Education Foundation. This grassroots organization's mission is to educate girls so that they grow to be women with choices. In poor families, the girl children are often denied an education as boys are favoured if there are any funds at all for schooling. Girls often stay at home to cook and clean and take care of their younger siblings.

We believe that educated young women marry later and raise healthier children when they do marry. In addition attendance at school keeps girls off the street, out of factories and away from traffickers.

Happily, Linda Hutchinson-Burn and her staff are able to arrange for us to visit some of the girls sponsored by Journeys of the Heart donors. It is always such an honour to be the emissaries for these generous people.

Last Sunday we took such a trip and were as usual heartsick at some of the circumstances under which these young girls are living, but overjoyed at the impact of educational support.

This is My Linh a very sad and introverted little girl. The socks from Canada caused Mom to smile, though she too is in deep mourning for her late husband. The shrine which honours him dominates their tiny home. As is the custom this shrine will remain fro 2-3 years, with daily and festival offerings being made.

New books chosen for the CEF portable library finally put a smile on My Linh's face, even though she struggled to choose from the array that Linda's staff member Ngoc had brought along. Journeys of the Heart donors, all former educators have contributed generously to this library.

While My Linh's Mom works as a garbage collector all day, Granny takes care of the children. Bless the grandmothers in all impoverished countries for their steadfast care of their families.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Gift of Yoga

We give gifts in many ways. Often it is money or goods. For us here in Vietnam it is that and more. We find ourselves most often giving our talents, skills, labour and of course our love.

Our daughter Hamsa Eliza, a qualified yoga teacher and yoga therapist has been dedicating her skills and guidance to the staff of Reaching Out by teaching yoga classes.

They started with five days a week, but now have reduced the classes to three days a week to prevent teacher AND participant burn out.

There is such enthusiasm for the classes, even though the spaces are small and the heat intense. Here we are in the court yard of the Reaching Out craft shop. This is a mixed class of able bodied participants, although some are speech and hearing impaired. Another class, which addresses the needs of wheelchair users meets in this same court yard.

None of the employees had ever practised yoga and at first they were pretty shy about participating. Now, however, after only a little over a week, they are all eager students and have even reported early benefits to their backs. Eliza says that there are now big smiles of recognition and enjoyment as the classes proceed.

The idea is that they will be able to take breaks throughout the day to relieve the stress of repeated upper arm movements to embroider, stitch, craft jewellery etc. By the time of our departure in another week and a half, Eliza will have given them several, easy to practise routines. A video is being filmed to remind them of the sequences.

Two classes are held in the afternoons at the Reaching Out Tea House where 90% of the participants are speech and hearing impaired. Perhaps it is their lovely ao dai uniforms, which flow in the breeze (of a fan to help cool the "studio" down) or the graceful sense of movement that these women have, but these classes are beautiful to watch. Silent, graceful with joyous countenances including the instructor's.

Eliza has remarked on how lovely it is to teach the Reaching Out team. She will leave the gift of healthier bodies and peaceful minds.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Across the Miles

When we began Journeys of the Heart and this blog seven years ago, we did not dream that our work would offer us so many gifts.

Personally we have had the joy of meaningful work in our retirement. Writing our book, Back To Vietnam, about our adventures was a passionate exercise and the partnering in that endeavour was yet another layer of "glue" in our marriage. Although sharing our creative processes was challenging, edifying, frustrating and demanding it was ultimately rewarding.

We have continued to learn about ourselves and how the world works. We have met wonderful people and "adopted" a family. We have learned over and over again to be patient and trust that things will work out even when we are hopelessly lost geographically or emotionally.

One of the most precious gifts has been to witness and be connected with the behaviour of good people. Friends and family at home have been constant support for us personally and many have been faithful financial contributors to our many "causes". We have also met many people here in Vietnam both Vietnamese and ex-pats who are committed to doing what they can to alleviate poverty, ignorance and disease.

Our faith in the kindness of humankind is renewed almost daily...sometimes in delightfully surprising and serendipitous ways.

Back to Vietnam, our book about our adventures in Vietnam was reviewed by a young woman in California, a Viet Kieu (a person of Vietnamese heritage living overseas). We did not win the book prize for which L read the book, but we did win a supporter for Journeys of the Heart.

After reading our book, L was moved to contact us. She raved about the book and its significance to her as a Viet Kieu, but she also stepped right up to see how she might help. It took only a contact with  our pal Linda at Children's Education Foundation who of course had a child waiting desperately for some financial help so that she could finish her education.

As luck would have it, Linda managed to arrange a home visit for us to meet V and her family.

We approached V's home with some of the usual trepidation. We were carrying a letter from L in California, along with some pictures of her, with her young family and a small school related gift. As emissaries we wanted to make the meeting one of celebration and joy.

Along with Linda and her staff person and translator extraordinaire Ngoc, we entered the yard. After all this anticipation V did not appear to be home. We wandered the yard and inspected their small soy milk making facility, the family's source of income when Mom, Dad and Granny are well enough to manage the physically intense process. We first met Granny, who was bent with years of hard labour, but had a big, betel red toothless grin (which she only showed me after much encouragement and the reassurance that I thought she was "dep" (beautiful)

V suddenly appeared on her bicycle. She had gone to the main road to meet us and show us the way, but had some how missed our car. But there she was shyly making her way through the back gate.

We wasted no time in introducing ourselves and with Ngoc's translation we think that she understood that we were bringing her a message from her sponsor in California.

Once in the house V opened her letter from L and surprised us all by reading it aloud, translating the English into Vietnamese as she went. V only needed a little help to get through the three pages. L's gifts of shiny new pens and a tablet were just right for this young scholar.

Of course, as is always the case, the neighbours were right there, faces pressed against the window grates and the little ones prancing right in, curious about what all the fuss was about.

Dad and Mom were silent and shy, but graciously offered water and tea.

We entertained the little neighbours with balloons and transfers. Then all too soon it was time to say goodbye.

We wish V the best for her continuing education. She seems to have buckets of potential.

What a blessing for V to have connected with L in California through CEF.

We all feel good!

L sent along this quote in a recent e-mail:

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it's the only thing that ever has."  Margaret Mead

Monday, September 15, 2014

Thoughts While Bicycling

Early mornings have been our only break from the unrelenting heat here at An Bang Beach near Hoi An, Quang Nam, Vietnam. So, up we get to mount our bicycles to exercise and explore the village. At 5:30 or 6:00 am the roads are already busy with bicycles and motorbikes; people dashing to work, school or the market.

We have a number of routes that we can choose through and around our village or down the road to the Tra Que vegetable village.

This organic garden is a co-operative where neighbouring families work together to produce vegetables for hotels, restaurants and locals lucky enough to live close enough to stop by for their produce.

We watched one morning as several workers prepared the soil for yet another harvest....3 or 4 a year....lettuce and small greens more than that. The seaweed that they were shovelling into the earth had come from a kilometre down the road. Everything is so fresh and green here.

The southern end of An Bang is not so attractive. As we have written in our book, Back to Vietnam, this area has been targeted for big development and the evidence of that is all around. For much of our ride out of the village, we travel on a small seaside road where simple and small fishermen's and sod farmers' houses once stood.

Now on the oceanside of the road, there is nothing but rubble. The families have been relocated and although the houses across the road are large, the streets paved and streetlights glow at night, we wonder how many of them are actually occupied by the fishermen and their families. There is some evidence that these new abodes are not occupied by the villagers.

Back on the main road, we pass a row of houses made from metal shipping containers. They are new, but obviously small, crushed close to the roadside. When I asked Quyen whether they were indeed containers, she said "Yes, the building supplies for all those big new houses came in those containers." The fact that the last container in the row has been set up as a shrine, with an altar, incense and a Buddha gives me hope that these "refugees" have taken their spiritual strength with them to their new homes of tin.

In I admired a young girl on her way to high school. Dressed in the traditional white ao dai she floated along like a swan. I was so struck by her elegance and upright posture that I almost missed the fact that she rode upon a very new electric bike. Unlike most of the youth she also wore a very spiffy helmet, and of course a face mask to protect against sun and dust. But it made me laugh to  also see that she had a cell phone to her ear.

What a the Swan floated by with her cell phone, she too would have passed the container "condos", their metal already sizzling as a mother fed two children sitting on stools by the roadside. Did the Swan see them? What would she be thinking?

I have thought about this all day!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Just Look at Us Now!!!!

Reaching Out,  the social enterprise where we began our volunteering in Vietnam six years ago is celebrating its 14th year! Founded in 2000, the early years were a struggle, but through the diligence of Le Nguyen Binh and his dynamic wife Mai Thi Kim Quyen the business has blossomed.

This staff photo was taken just the other day. Not all of the now 70 strong staff are pictured here, but the size of the team speaks for the expansion that has happened over the years.

You might be able to spot four Western faces in the crowd.Annette Ellen and her husband John are to the left rear and Bruce is in the rear on the right. I am squatting on the right.

It was a festive occasion and we were thrilled, along with Annette, to be honoured as volunteers with bouquets of flowers and a little gift. Annette is from Australia, a Human Resources specialist. She preceded us as a volunteer but remains a friend of Reaching Out and Binh and Quyen, returning often to Hoi An.

Our work continues this year with more long term planning, writing correspondence, interviewing.

We often eat with Binh and Quyen at their home with their two delightful boys, Sesame and Gao.

Gao is a very sweet 2 1/2 year old. He snared the first noodle in this picture.

Sesame at 10 years old is still an avid reader and Lego fan. His spoken English is excellent.

I try to pitch in with the meal preparation but a lot of it is a mystery to me. Vietnamese food is lovingly prepared, and at Quyen's house it is always with fresh ingredients.

We have also had our first meeting with the lovely Phuong from VAVA (Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange). So far the recipients of the micro loans are paying back their loans faithfully and their small businesses are thriving. We will visit a couple of them soon.

This meeting is taking place in our wee house. The heat keeps us inside during the day. We are blessed with an air conditioner! But there is also the ocean a few steps away where we are enjoying swimming in the early morning.

We are well...eating wonderfully flavourful and light food, cycling and swimming, surrounded by loving "family" and friends and loving being useful in our old age!