Dates: November 1 - 15 , 2008
On Nov. 15, an 11-person Roadmonkey team completed its first adventure philanthropy expedition in Vietnam, cycling portions of a stunning 450-mile arc through the northwest, near the Chinese and Lao border regions (click the map on the right) for one week, then spending several days building a playground for orphans west of Hanoi.
"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime." ~ Mark Twain, 'Innocents Abroad'
During the first eight days, we mountain biked through the dramatic hills and valleys north and west of Hanoi, over the Tram Ton Pass, thro ugh alpine meadows, past crashing waterfalls and onto verdant rice-paddy filled plains. We used our Ford transport van to cover particularly inhospitable (or steep) mountain roads. Each day’s ride was flexible enough to accommodate individual preferences for speed and distance. Our journey began in Hanoi, where we boarded a Vietnam Railways train to the mountain region near Sapa, nestled in the hill tribe region near the Chinese border. Sapa is where our cycling trek began. From there, we pedaled west to Lai Chau, a provincial capital with enormous new socialist boulevards, and then southward to Muong Lai, an ethnically rich region...
...at the bottom of a gorgeous valley that will be flooded in 2010 for a hydro-electricity project. From there, we drove a grueling road to Dien Bien Phu, site of the decisive Vietnamese victory over French Army forces in 1954, then followed the Black River southeast toward Hanoi. We also made time for day hikes and wanderings in and around Black H’mong, White Thai and other tribal villages on our route.
On Nov. 10, four hundred fifty miles from Sapa, we rolled into Ba Vi, a village an hour’s drive west of Hanoi. There, we spent several days building a playground at an orphanage that is home to several dozen children born with HIV. The orphanage sits, peacefully if incongruously, amid the sprawling acreage of a rehabilitation center for men and women; our access to the grounds inside is made possible by the Vietnamese government and our non-profit partner, Worldwide Orphans Foundationand its founder, Dr. Jane Aronson. The playground and a roof over it were purchased from local Vietnamese manufacturers. The roof is being completed in late November and early December, with oversight from Ba Vi officials.
The Vietnam expedition included lodging at clean, well-maintained hotels and inns along our route, and featured “soft landings” at superior hotels in Hanoi and Ba Vi, to recharge our Vietnam batteries. The expedition included 13 breakfasts, 11 lunches and 12 dinners.
During the first week’s adventure, a Roadmonkey support van and a Vietnamese driver and translator trailed behind us each day to provide short-haul transport, quick refreshments, mechanical help and, once after a spill off a bike on a steep descent, minor first aid. The support van worked as a daily free shuttle of sorts; expedition members used it when the road turned particularly grueling. The group rode together, in a halfmile- long wheeled posse, on many scenic stretches, and at each member’s own pace in several others. Spontaneous wandering was encouraged, though support was always at hand. Vietnamese are extremely gracious and generous people, and their hospitality is extraordinary. This proved all the more true in the countryside and in small villages.
During the second week’s volunteer project, our friends from Worldwide Orphans Foundation helped supervise the playground’s construction. Our workday lasted several hours, including a couple unexpected idle hours here and there as we coordinated with the Ba Vi facility officials our preferred method for building the playground.
We also took time each day to visit and play with the children at the facility; their faces radiated pure joy at the attention. By the end of the week, we had built a beautiful playground and outdoor gym for the children!
Roadmonkey believes in small-group expeditions, generally accommodating no more than 10 members. That not only makes the logistics of traveling much easier, it also gives you a meaningful investment in the daily decisions we’ll make en route. Small groups also allow you unfiltered access to Vietnam’s many subcultures, traditions and ethnicities that large groups usually brush by all too quickly.
This was Roadmonkey’s first group expedition. Our trip leader, Paul von Zielbauer, has extensive experience traveling in Vietnam, including a 1,200-mile solo cycling trek from Hanoi to Saigon, a month-long journey by boat and bus through the Mekong Delta, and riding through dozens of endless monsoons. Paul also speaks a decent amount of Vietnamese. Roadmonkey’s co-leader, Brent Wexler, is a true world citizen who, as all our expedition members saw firsthand, communicated through pure positive energy whatever he couldn’t say directly in Vietnamese. Our local expedition guide, Quyet Tran, also proved invaluable to everything from negotiating our restaurant prices to finding scenic cycling shortcuts off the main highways to securing our invitations to his extended family’s home for dinner (and plenty of rice wine). Because of our staff and, importantly, because of Worldwide Orphans Foundation’s access and partnership in Ba Vi, Roadmonkey expedition members got to know Vietnam in a deep and meaningful way. Things didn’t always go according to plan: mudslides, bike spills, inter-cultural miscommunications and other challenges came our way almost daily. The group took it with extraordinary good cheer.
What you are doing has had a huge affect on all of us, internally. Externally, there is a playground where there was none and a bit more hope than there was just a week ago. There are ties forged by the experience that go both ways, and cross oceans, that will never be undone. It's a beautiful thing.
~ John, architect