During the summer holidays, a group of Thames High School students visited Vietnam. The trip, organised by Antipodeans Abroad, was about more than just seeing the sights, as Evan Chang explains;
For three weeks in December, 10 of us Thames High School students travelled to Vietnam for an exciting expedition. We did a community project in a poor village, went hiking in Sa Pa and we went exploring and sightseeing in Hanoi, Halong Bay, Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh City.
Our first night was spent in Hanoi where we explored the city, from going to dodgy shops selling knock-off designer gear to joining in Tai Chi at the lake. The next day we made our way to a village called Na Chao, where we stayed for five days. During our time here, we helped build a dam to provide water for the rice paddy fields and we spent a lot of time interacting with the locals. We enjoyed an embroidery class, learning how to weave a basket out of bamboo, a cooking class, participating in a local village dance (hopefully without offending their culture!), playing sports with and teaching English to the local village kids. After many sad goodbyes, we departed Na Chao and returned to Hanoi for another night where we watched a water puppet show.
The following day after some shopping in the city we boarded a sleeper train northbound for Sa Pa, where we hiked through the rice paddy fields for four days, where we were entertained along with stories from our amazing guide Mỳ. We explored Sa Pa town, and it was almost impossible to walk into a shop and not find fake Nike shoes or The North Face clothing. It was then time to head off back to Hanoi for a bit more exploration, including going to the night markets where we enjoyed bartering to get some good deals.
It was then time to go to Halong Bay, where we spent the night on a junk boat in beautiful rooms with ensuites and balconies. We kayaked around the islands and found some monkeys, before having an amazing 10 course dinner. The following day we explored some caves before we bussed back to Hanoi for the night.
We then took a 16-hour train ride to Hoi An, an old town in the middle of Vietnam, famous for its local markets and tailors. When we arrived at the hotel, we were greeted with watermelon and juice before we headed off to the markets. After an afternoon swim in the hotel pool, we explored the town and shopped around. The next day we hired some bikes and rode to the beach, where we enjoyed a game of beach volleyball before it was time to board our final sleeper train that would take us to Ho Chi Minh City.
A couple hours after we arrived in Ho Chi Minh, we were off to the Củ Chi Tunnels, where we explored the booby traps and the tunnel entrances hidden under the leaves before crawling through the tunnels themselves, learning about some of the history and the Vietnam War along the way. We explored the markets and found some more bargains as well as some aggressive salespeople! We enjoyed the beautiful lights of the city on Christmas Eve.
The next morning, we awoke to our final day in Vietnam, where we relaxed at the spa, did some last minute shopping and enjoyed a Christmas lunch at a 54th story restaurant, during which we exchanged our secret Santa presents. It was then time to go to the airport for the journey home.
The trip was definitely an adventure and a half, and we had an amazing group that bonded really well which made the trip really enjoyable. The part of the trip that had the biggest impact on all of us was undoubtedly the village of Na Chao, where the average income was just NZ$30 per month. Although they were the poorest people we’d ever met, they were also the happiest people we’d ever met. They had a really tight-knit community and they were really friendly people. They showed great appreciation to small things because they don’t have a lot themselves. It was amazing watching a kid’s face light up when you gave them a Kiwiana sticker or a Frisbee. It really was a one of a kind experience teaching the kids English and sports. It was really satisfying seeing how we’d helped the community at the conclusion of our dam project and Na Chao will be in our hearts forever.
The $7,000+ price tag was definitely worth it for the priceless experience we got. This trip definitely seemed like a once in a lifetime experience and was a great opportunity to take while we were still young. It’s inspired many of our group members to do more volunteer work overseas when the opportunity comes up again. Vietnam was a really special experience and it would be awesome to do more of it, and on top of that I’m sure we’d love to return to Na Chao one day. We made a lot of memories and seeing how the less fortunate lived was really impacting, and it proved you don’t need money to be happy.