From the minute we stepped off the plane we were immersed. In sweat. Trackies and jeans – relics from a harsh Sydney winter – stuck to the backs of our knees as we strolled down the moped-swamped streets of Hanoi. Our group, consisting of eight white guys and a Fijian, stuck out like, well, eight guys and a Fijian in a Southeast Asian metropolitan area.
We settled on a cheap and cheerful eatery for our first meal of the trip, and Fr. Dave Braithwaite’s favourite local delicacy: some boiling hot bowls of pho. Reinvigorated from our mad feed, we charged across the street to continue our adventure. It was then that we required our first cultural adjustment.
In Vietnam, traffic doesn’t stop for pedestrians. Giving way is an oxymoron. James Tracey learnt this the hard way when, having made it across a few lanes of traffic, he stood paralysed with fear in the middle of a busy intersection. Luckily, the Vietnamese-versed Tim Boyd was on hand to impart some local knowledge: just keep walking slowly and the mopeds will go around you. It was the first life lesson of a trip on which we, despite embarking with the best intentions to serve, ended up receiving a lot more than we gave.
Much of that receiving occurred in a home for disabled and orphaned children operated by the Sisters of The Lovers of the Holy Cross, located near the Vietnamese coastal city of Dong Hoi. The devotion with which the nuns cared for these children was the purest demonstration of love and sacrifice I have ever seen. Rising before dawn, the Sisters would attend mass in a chapel built with funds raised by The Cardoner Project, before beginning a day consumed by obligations to feed, bathe and entertain children with all manner of severe intellectual and physical disabilities. Some, as young as six and light as 20 kg, could not leave the one square metre of ceramic floor space upon which their broken bodies lay. But for a dedicated woman who sat beside them, shooing flies and holding tiny, crumpled hands, these kids were forgotten by the world. We watched, amazed. They never asked for thanks.
Our duties largely consisted of playing with and feeding the more mobile children with disability at the home – not that it felt like a burden. A trip to the beach with 20 of these kids packed into an 8-seater minibus was an OH & S nightmare on paper, but an uplifting celebration of the human spirit in reality. Language and age barriers were shattered as we ran through the waves and staged tug-o-war battles on the sand. Songs and smiles filled the bus trip back, despite the sweaty, sandy messes that we’d all become.
The village of Huay Tong in the mountains of northern Thailand was the other backdrop to our experience. We were warmly welcomed into the house of Old Aloys boys currently spending their gap years teaching English to students from the Karen and Mong tribes long persecuted by the Thai and Burmese governments. While they taught, our Immersion group assisted the local Koren builders in digging the foundations for a church hall. Despite their smiles and laughter, it was pretty obvious that we weren’t much good on the worksite. Nonetheless, they saw how much fun Fr. Dave “Thor”* Braithwaite was having with the sledgehammer and allowed us to toil away.
This was typical of a generosity of spirit that pervades every interaction with a Karen person and community. Sitting cross-legged on the wooden floor of a local family’s modest home, surrounded by other village faces as we celebrated Mass and ate dinner together, the authenticity of their communal ties really hit home. Coming from a culture that prioritises individual attainment, it was perhaps the first time we had experienced a community that was built on a true intention to give, rather than to trade. It was a privilege to be invited to experience their rich culture and overwhelming hospitality.
A thousand thanks must go out to Fr. Dave for leading and Eleanor Koh for organising our Immersion. Huge shoutouts to all the Sisters of the Lovers of the Holy Cross, especially Sister Huyen, and to Maliwan and Fr. Vinai for being absolute legends as you looked after us. We all hope our paths cross again in the near future.
* self-appointed nickname