Laurie Kanefsky

Tam Biet Viet Nam

 Posted by Laurie Kanefsky at 2:05 pm  Vietnam  Comments Off on Tam Biet Viet Nam
Aug 222013

It was with very mixed emotions thatI left La Jolie hotel for the trip to the airport to take me back to New York.

My last day in Saigon was purposefully going to be relaxing.  I was not scheduled to meet Thu until noon so in theory I could have slept late.  Of course I was up at 6.  I relaxed and read before going down for my last breakfast around 7.  Afterwards I showered and organized my luggage.  Remember that half of my carryon had been filled with cloth diapers for the Centre.  That left plenty of room for the gifts I was bringing home.

I was planning to give Thu my Vietnamese phone so that another volunteer could make use of it.  When she picked me up on her motorbike for lunch she was the southern version of Hahn.  Petite, energetic, smart, warm and open.  She took me to a Pho restaurant near where she lives.  Unlike Hahn she does not live at home with her parents.  Her mother still lives in the village that she grew up in.  Her father was killed in a motor scooter accident when she was 15. This may explain her maturity.  She is only 23 and has responsibility for many volunteers.  She coordinates 20-30 local (Vietnamese) volunteers and 5-10 international volunteers at any given time.

We discussed the centers that she works with.  There are 2.  One is run by the catholic church and the other is highly unusual.  A woman who was working as a garbage collector and found herself so distressed by the homeless children she took her own money and raised private funds to start an orphanage.  As Thu descibes her she is selfless.  The children and the center are her life.  While the staff has a room, she has none.  She is with the children.  She sounds like the Mother Theresa of Viet Nam.  It also sounds like both of the centres here in Saigon provide a superior environment to the children than we had in BaVi.  It is probably not a coincidence that neither is state run.  My regret is that we did not have the time to visit.

After lunch Thu had arranged to pass me onto a local volunteer- a university student who took me to the market and I took her for coffee.  She had never had a cappachino so it was a treeat for her.  After we finished she dropped me at the hotel.

I realized I had just enough time to go have a drink on the roof of the REX hotel before getting picked up for the airport.  Yes, it was everything I had heard.  A truly breath taking view of the city and all the history that goes with it.  I actually enjoyed a very chilled beer (and a half since they were 2 for 1).  Not sure it was a good idea to drink before the flight but, hey, you only live once…..

Cai Be, Vinh Long and Can Tho- so this is the MeKong Delta

 Posted by Laurie Kanefsky at 11:27 am  Vietnam  Comments Off on Cai Be, Vinh Long and Can Tho- so this is the MeKong Delta
Aug 202013

MeKong Delta was a place that I remember from the VietNam War of my childhood and when I knew that I would be here I felt a strong need to visit.  Maybe it was driven by this early memory but the trip was not what I expected.  Then again this has been a trip that was beyond any expectations. This was a day of contrast and contradictions on so many different levels. Being a tourist is clearly not in my comfort zone.  I am being driven by one man and guided by another- It feels like “driving Miss Daisy” x’s 2 with a Viet Nam twist.

So the day began with Cong and Mr.B picking me up at 8:30 to drive to Cai Be (105km from Saigon south).  Fortunately the roads were in far better repair than the ones that we too yesterday to the tunnels. The MeKong is lush with tropical fruits and vegetables-literally growing on trees. Longans, dragon fruit, mangos, coconuts and the sweetest most delicious bananas you can imagine.  When we got to Cai Be Cong had arranged a boat to take us on the river past the floating markets.  Our first stop was a factory, family owned, where they made by hand rice candy of all sorts.  There was a demonstration of how they puffed the rice that was amazing.  Of course they sold all the products and I am bringing home lots of treats.  Cong explained that there are probably 1000 factories making these products but most of them use machinery.  This was set up as a tourist attraction but that did not diminish its interest for me. Also, according to Cong, Viet Nam is only second to Thailand in rice production.   From there we went on the boat to lunch.  Another feast.  Clearly I was not having dinner tonight.  The presentation was beautiful- I took lots of pictures.

After lunch we transfered to a sampan (a low wood boat with someone standing in the back with a paddle- there is not motor)  I think this is Viet Nam’s version of a Venice gondola.  Not sure which came first.  Not that it really matters.  Just want to give you the visual.  The boat enabled us to go in the narrow canals off the main river.  I took alot of photos of the vegetation.  It was extremely peaceful and calm. From there we were back on the “big” boat where we motored back to the dock to meet our driver to go onto Can Thi.

There is this amazing bridge that was completed in the last several years.  Designed by a Japanese architect it had three towers that look like contemporary Eiffel towers.  It is rather elegent.  From a practical standpoint Cong explained that before the bridge people relied on ferry and the trip would take 4 hours rather than 1.  Travel here is not what we are used to back in the states.

It was quite the jolt for me when we pulled up in front of the hotel.  Can Tho is the largest town/city in the MeKong (almost a million people).  It was the antithesis  of the boat trip.  My first thought was “get me out of here”.  Once I registered that I was able to go with the flow and see what would unfold.  It was one night and as I have learned I can make things work even if they are not exactly as I had planned or expected.





Chu Chi Tunnels and the Cao Dai Temple- August 19

 Posted by Laurie Kanefsky at 2:36 am  Vietnam  Comments Off on Chu Chi Tunnels and the Cao Dai Temple- August 19
Aug 192013

Cong came to pick me up at 7:30.  It took about 1 1/2 hours to get to Chu Chi.  I am always amazed at how quickly the urban congestion turns into quiet narrow roads with cows grazing and sometimes crossing.  When we got to the tunnels there was hardly anyone there.  It was fascinating and reinforced my belief that there is an enormous strength and resiliance in the Vietnamese people.  I took lots of photos of the various devices that they made to torture and trap the US soldiers.  They were extremely clever and motivated to keep their land.


I actually went down into the tunnel.  You may know that the real tunnels were too small for the average American.  There were soldiers in the army called tunnel rats who would scout the tunnels.  Not a job I would be applying for.  Anyway, it was extremely interesting and, by the time we left, the parking lot was full of buses bringing tourists from many countries speaking many different languages.

We then drove another 1 1/2 hours to the Cao Dai noon service.  This is another experience that pictures will do greater justice to than the description with words. They followers are all dressed in white with the exception of several men in gold, blue and red who clearly are senior in some way.  This group has 2 million followers.  Apparently they combine Buddism, Taoism and Confusious  principles.  Sounds complicated to me.  The service was very beautiful.  There was a chorus of women singing.  They were accompanied by a group of musicians playing instruments I was unfamiliar with.

By the time we left and stopped for lunch it was 2pm and we had a three hour drive back to Saigon.  If the roads were better and the traffic was not so congested it would probably take half that time.  I have become accustomed to the time it takes to travel and I hope that makes me more patient when I return to NY.

Touring Ho Chi Minh/ Saigon-August 18th

 Posted by Laurie Kanefsky at 1:56 am  Vietnam  Comments Off on Touring Ho Chi Minh/ Saigon-August 18th
Aug 182013

Well, I am not sure I am cut out to be an American tourist in Ho Chi Minh City.  Maybe I am better suited to be a working person.  I actually find being a tourist more tiring than the work I was doing at the Centre.

You remember that I got to the hotel at about 6am after taking the day/night train from Hue.  I showered and had breakfast and was picked up at 9by my guide Lien.  She packed alot in from 9-3.  In the morning we went to theIndependence Palace a 1960’s designed structure where President Thieu lived until the North Vietnamese crashed through the gates on April 30, 1975.  This has been preserved as it was for people to see.  The most interesting aspect for me was the basement.  Set up as a bunker and rooms that were very similar to what I saw in London at the Churchill War Museum.

From there we went to the War Remnants Museum.  The physical reaction I had to this was similar to Yad Vashem.  The horror of it was overwhelming to me.  I felt physically drained.  Yes, I was probably tired from all my train travel and lack of a proper nights sleep but I think it was more than that.  The museum is not large.  Two floors of photos and quotes and descriptions of the actions of war and the consequences.  The after math of the defoliants, agent orange,etc has continued to reak havoc on the people here and, as we know, in our own country.  I am now, more than ever, firm in my belief that a military should be for peace keeping NOT destruction.  Ok, I know that I digress.  So the bottom line is I was pretty drained after this museum and despite Lien’s effort to reassure me that the people in Viet Nam have forgotten and moved on I was not able to let it go so easily.

So after lunch where I had little appetite  we went to yet another Pagoda and the Chinese market.  As much as I usually love the energy of the market today I just wanted to go back to the hotel and collapse.  So by 3 I was able to do that.  I also induldged in another foot massage at the hotel spa.  It was a little different than the one I had before I left Hanoi but quite relaxing.    It rejuvenated me enough to take a walk to another market to buy tea and ginger (for Paul) and have a quick bowl of Pho for supper before coming back to the hotel to get to bed early so I can be refreshed for the day tomorrow.

Hue-Ho Chi Minh- August 17-18

 Posted by Laurie Kanefsky at 2:00 pm  Vietnam  Comments Off on Hue-Ho Chi Minh- August 17-18
Aug 172013

Breakfast at the hotel.  Nghi picked me up as promised at 7:15 to go to the Thein Mu pagoda.  We were traveling by scooter and it was a beautiful ride along the perfume River.  This Pagoda is the only Pagoda on the river and it is the oldest dating back to the 1600’s.  There is a very large laughing Buddha and there was a couple with a new baby to have prayers and blessings.  It was quite beautiful.

Also here is the baby blue Austin that drove the monk Thich Quag Due to Saigon where he set himself on fire and burned to death in protest of the excesses of the Diem regime.  The car is beautiful and kept in a covered space.  I took pictures if you are interested

Another interesting thing about this pagoda is that it is a place whre young boys are left by their families to be cared for and educated by the monks.  At the age of 18 they are then given the choice to leave or stay and become a monk.  According to Nghi most of the boys will leave.  They were studying Chinese at the time we were there.  It was quite interresting.  Especially so since the physical surroundings are well kept and in great contrast to the conditions up at BaVi.

From the pagoda we went to the very, very large market- everything imaginable from shoes and clothes to housewares and foods of all sorts.  The women with cleavers were wacking pigs, chicken and things that I do not know the names for.  It was quite wonderful.

From there I checked out and was taken back to the train station which was much less chaotic than Hanoi.  When it was announced that the trian would be an hour late arriving everyone sat patiently- yeh, just like New York!  The train was similar to the one I had taken down from Hanoi with one very BIG exception it not only had a real toilet but there was actually toilet paper (for a short time).  Even though this was a longer ride it seemed to go more easily.  I arrived in Ho Chi Minh at 5:30 and my guide Cong was waiting for me.  He drove me to my hotel and although it was very early Sunday morning and there was little traffic it was clear that despite the fact that Saigon is a much bigger city and far more cosmopolitan than Hanoi the traffic was going to be a bit more predictable.
When we got to the hotel the room was ready.  It is a large bright room on the 8th floor with a view of the river and BIG jaccuzi tub.  Only down side is no computer in the room so I will need to email and post in the lobby.  No big deal.  I am now waiting for Cong to pick me up and begin the touring of the city.  By the way, I have had no rain in many days and I seem to be better tolerating the heat.  I will let you know how humid it is down here after the day today…

Night train and Hue- August 15-16

 Posted by Laurie Kanefsky at 7:53 am  Vietnam  Comments Off on Night train and Hue- August 15-16
Aug 162013

Leaving Hanoi I shared a soft sleeper air conditioned cabin with a German couple.  I was in one of the lower births and they were up top.  The train made several stops early in the night and at one point a young Vietnamese couple and a baby joined our cabin.  At some point they got off and a single Nietnamese woman with alot of syuff took the other lower birth for the evening.  My big anxiety was how was I going to get through the night without using the WC.  Well the answer is I did.  At least until 6am.  The train was supposed to arrive in Hue around 8 and I debated whether I could wait.  As it turned out I could not wait and I will report that without going into too many details I was able to have an am coffee.  It turned out that it was a very good thing that I braved the facilities because the train did not arrive in Hue until 11 AM!  So much for the schedule.

It was with great relief that I saw a sign with my name on it being held by a young man who greeted me with excellent english.  He introduced himself as Nghi and told me that we would be meeting our driver and he would be my guide during my time in Hue.  During the brief car ride to the hotel Nghi made sure my room was ready.  The town was quite different than Hanoi.  It was smaller but in some ways grander.  The traffic was less and DEFINITELY less chaotic.  Significantly less horn honking.  If I was going to be around longer I might even consider renting a push bike.  We agreed that I would shower and change and have lunch before we began the touring.

After lunch we went to the Citadel and the Imperial City as well as several pagoda.  I took lots of pictures and found out about the lives of the emperor’s lives including the mandarins, wives, concubines and eunichs.  This actually lasted through 1945 when the last emperor was replaced in leadership buy Ho Chi Minh.

I had already been alerted to the fact that there would be differences in the north and south.  Hue is considered central and I was able to have what I think was a pretty frank discussion with Nghi about the cultural and political differences.  He explained that his parents were both born in Hue and his grandfather was an officer in the South Vietnamese army during the Viet Nam war.  Yes, I called it the Viet Nam war.  Nghi believed that is the correct name and that only North Vietnamese call it the American War.  He sees the north as being reluctantly open to change and not as comfortable with the more western ways of the south.  Hue was the location of a 25 day battle between the north and south that ended with both sides claiming victory.  The Vietnamese people are very resilliant.  It reminds me of the children’s book- The Little Engine that Could.  It is very small but if you look at the history they have managed to come together and are growing and moving forward despite many efforts of bigger and more powerful countries to control them.  It is hard for me not to admire the people and their resilliance.


More goodbyes and leaving Hanoi-Thursday August 15th

 Posted by Laurie Kanefsky at 11:09 pm  Vietnam  Comments Off on More goodbyes and leaving Hanoi-Thursday August 15th
Aug 152013

On Wednesday, back at the Essence hotel was like coming home and seeing old friends.  It is such a warm and friendly staff and of course the room was great.  I organized stuff in preparation for the train to Hue and took a bath.  Heavenly!  I knew I had alot to do in the morning before Hoai, Hahn, Xi and Terry came to the hotel at noon to have lunch so I tried to get to sleep early.  As usual I woke early.

I had finished breakfast before 8 but the electronic store that I needed to take my camera to did not open until nine So to not waste a minute I figured out how to get to the Spa that Paula had told us about.  Turns out it was 2 quick rights from my hotel and no streets to cross.  Even though it said open and they welcomed me in I saw that they really did not open until 9 but they found someone to give me the foot massage that I had been hearing about for two weeks.  Well, first of all it was better than I could have imagined and it was way more than just a foot massage.  Arms, neck, back and of course the legs.  I ended up being there for an hour and the cost was 250,000 dongs. FYI that translates to less than 20 dollars.  Of course I gave a nice tip.  Quite a contrast to the start of my days in BaVi.  But honestly I was enjoying it while at the same time missing the kids and the routine.

I was also nervous about getting the camera either fixed or if necessary replaced.  As it turned out there was no need to worry.  The shop was right across from the Lake and I had passed it many times- less than 5 minute walk from my hotel but I did have to cross 2 streets.  However I am a pro now!  So it turns out the camera can not be fixed but the price of the same camera was 65 USD so I now have a brand new camera just like my old one.  perfect for someone who points and shoots.  I also was able to get my phone working again.  Feeling very accomplished I did some gift shopping on the way back to the hotel.  I washed my hair, showered and packed.  I needed to check out before noon.

As I was finishing my check out everyone met in the lobby.  After much discussion a restaurant was chosen and we all helmuted up and took motor scooters to go eat.  This was probably the best meal I have had since being here and I think I have already told you how much I have enjoyed to food.  The only thing I am missing is salad and it was probably good to have a break because Paul thinks that is all I eat.  Anyway Hoai loved the water bottle I gave her that she will be able to use when she goes to New Zealand.  She surprised me with a bracelet that she bought for me when she went to Ho Chi Minh’s town where he was from.  The reunion was emotional.  And anticipating the good byes was also right there.  We managed to have alot of fun, eat well and go to a cafe for the wonderful Vietnamese coffee I am now addicted to.  Yes, condensed milk and thick dark coffee over ice is my new favorite drink.  While at the cafe we spent some time discussing the needs of the centre and ways we can affect change given the limitations of it being a state run institution.  So my hope is to try and figure out how to get some OT’s and PT’s ther to help train the staff to do more with kids so they all do not end up sitting in two rows staring at the walls and each other in Room 3 and 4.  Right now it is an idea hopefully I can figure out a way to make it happen.

I was being picked up by the car to take me to the train to Hue at 6pm.   The night train with a soft sleeper…..

Last Day at the Centre-leaving BaVi

 Posted by Laurie Kanefsky at 10:10 am  Vietnam  Comments Off on Last Day at the Centre-leaving BaVi
Aug 142013

It is not easy to summarize this last day in BaVi.  I would like to find a way to describe the mix of emotions not just about the children that I have grown so attached to but the staff and of course the many volunteers.

Let me start with the volunteers. What comes to mind when I think about the strong connections I have felt with each one of them even though we were from many different countries, cultures, languages and over all life experiences we all came with the same committment to the children.  I keep thinking about soldiers in battle.  I do not mean to overstate the circumstances , nor do I want to be overly dramatic, but there were moments at the end of the day that as I reflected on the experience , it did feel like we were commrades in the trenches.  Certainly I smelled like it.  Not to get too graphic, but I often left in the blazing sun to ride my push bike home smelling like sweat and pee. Sadly, I got used to it.  The pleasure of getting back to the hotel and taking a shower was enormous.  But, I can honestly say, that by 6am the next morning I was looking forward to seeing the kids and getting all sweaty and smelly again.  As I write this I realize to some that may be reading this it sounds crazy.

So getting back to my feelings about the volunteers I was privileged to share this experience with.  Many I have already mentioned and the work they began before I got there led the way for me and enabled me to guide those that came after me.  I hope that Paula will enjoy her last few weeks working with Nicole and Matilda (from Milan) and the new volunteers that will be coming from Spain and Australia. Paula was so generous with her knowledge and her self.  Despte the fact that I was a New Yor Jewish liberal and she was a southern military Christian who voted for the two Bushs, McCain and Romney we truly bonded.  Add the lovely  Xi from China/Oxford who was wise beyond her 19 years we made a great team!  Nicole and Matilda were a great addition. Much appreciation goes to Hahn who was always there to address the small and big glitches.  Remember, no one at the hotel spoke english and with the exception of Toan the first couple of days none of the volunteers spoke more than a few words of Vietnamese.  Calling Hahn on speed dial was often necessary.  Unfortunately my vietnamese phone kept terminating service and it was never clear why.  Of course Hahn was always there to correct the problem.  Not sure how- sort of like a computer snag at home that Jesse would fix and say to me- “You do not need to know, I took care of it”.

The staff was welcoming and supportive.  They were young women in there 20’s-40’s.  All married with children of their own.  It is common in Vietnam to ask -How old you are?, How many children you have?  It was interesting to have to say six zero and two sons 26 and 29!  Despite our age differences there was a bond and warmth.  I really will miss them.  Despite the hard work they were doing they were able to be playful and fun-with the  kids , the volunteers and each other.

Finally the children.  I have spoken a great deal about there circumstances but I can not describe them all so I will talk about saying good bye to Roi (pronounced Zoy) and Kien (pronounced Gee-an).  Roi with the the coal black soulful eyes and the deformed arms and legs.  He would very quietly use his limbs to move himself about and if food or a pencil was placed in his hand he could negotiate it in his own way.  He was not able to feed himself but he was the neatest eater!  He had a smile that was a hear breaker-  It came slowly and when he let it go it was electric.  In contrast Kien was a firecracker.  He had those dark sparking eyes and a huge grin on his face all the time.  He had the energy to go with it.  Watching him feed himself was an experience worthy of an admission charge.  You could take bets on whether more food would end up on him than in him!  He was so distractable he would forget that he had a spoonful of food and he would leave it hanging in mid air.  He always made me laugh.

Saying goodbye was hard.  I can close my eyes and feel their skin and see them smile.  But in the end I can only hope that whatever little time I had with them will have some benefit to them.  For me, I know I will never see things quite the same.  I believe I am a better person from having had the privilege to be a part of their lives.






Monday and Tuesday at the Centre

 Posted by Laurie Kanefsky at 1:36 am  Vietnam  Comments Off on Monday and Tuesday at the Centre
Aug 132013

The days are hot and humid but the ride to the centre is beautiful and I only have to walk one hill with my new cushy bike seat. Room one and two in the morning with a lot of help from Matilda and Nicole.  They have jumped in and taken over where the Spanish volunteers left off.  They bring their music and passion for the kids.  Melanie’s girl we now call MG and she is  like a different child.  She is up and about all day happy, smiling and dancing.  Of course this is all in a wheelchair but that is far better than her previous state of lying all day in her crib.

Monday afternoon at the cafe Hahn and Terrry came to meet with us to talk about our experience and the future plans for volunteers.

On Tuesday morning I was chatting with Ian, a volunteer at the other centre .  I was telling him that Matilda had tried to buy bubbles last night and they did not have them.  He opened up his knap sack and took out three containers of bubbles.  I teared up in joy.  Really,  if you can imagine how little it  takes to bring a smile to the face of these kids you would understand.  If you talk to them, touch them or sing and dance with them they smile with joy.  So I knew the bubbles would be a huge hit. And they were.  I actually took them to room 4 after I brought back the children I had taken to the classroom.  I am not sure I have described this room to you.  There are about 20 children who sit in wood chairs lining two sides of the room facing each other.  They sit there all day.  It is beyond sad.  Anyway,the bubbles gave them a few moments of joy.  And I hope that will continue when I leave.

The staff in Rooms 1&2 have been so kind and appreciative of our work.  Today I was asked to accompany the staff person to pick up the food.  The meals are the same each day.  Rice, a vegetable, and some pieces of meat.  When you go to pick it up you bring big plastic containers for the rice and vegetables and a metal bowl for the meat. The kitchen was very clean and they have the biggest woks I have ever seen!  We brought the food back to the rooms and everything got mixed and served as usual.

Tuesday one of the children in room 2 had a visit from his grandmother.  This is only the second time since I have bbeen here that a child has had a family member visit.  The grandmother came with a suitcase full of delicious food, much of which she had prepared.  She insisted on feeding the children, staff and volunteers in addition to lovingly feeding her grandson.  She took out her phone and showed me a picture of him from when he was a baby.  He was beautiful.  Than she she showed me a video of him several years later.  Although I am not certain of his diagnosis, his behavior in the video appeared to suggest that he was autistic.  She was wonderful with him and he was very responsive to her. I found this to be a very emotionally moving experience.

I am anticipating tomorrow with a profound sadness.


Halon Bay- Sat-Sunday

 Posted by Laurie Kanefsky at 11:26 pm  Vietnam  Comments Off on Halon Bay- Sat-Sunday
Aug 112013

In order to get the bus to the boat we had to leave BaVi at 6am.  The taxi was there but the trip was another harrowing adventure.  Paula, Xi and I were not sure why, but the driver took a “scenic” route to Hanoi that made us questoin whether we would end up there or Ho Chi Minh city!  At one point the driver stopped to ask directions of a bunch of school boys on bicycles!  Crazy.  We did  get there and were met by the tour person.  We them had a four hour drive to Halon Bay to get the boat- Treasure Junk.  It was a beautiful boat.  Very  luxurious with way too much food.  We were able to kayak and go to the fishing village and pearl factory.  The weather was beautiful and we took lots of pictures.  The only downside was the very long 4 hour drive to and from Hanoi but it was worth it.  It was a nice break but we were all glad to get back to BaVi.

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