Tag Archives: volunteer

theBubbleBuster recommends: The Third Wave book

15 Nov

The Third Wave book motivated me to volunteer again. Click the image to read more about the book.

Alison Thompson was living in New York City when the Boxing Day Tsunami devastated Asia. Instead of watching developments on television or donating small sums of money to assist with aid efforts like many of us did back in 2004, Alison packed her possessions and flew to Sri Lanka to help in any way she could.

The Third Wave tells the story of an Australian volunteer who intended to work for two weeks and ended up dedicating the rest of her life to helping others. Despite the physical and emotional challenges that Alison outlined throughout her story, it’s easy to understand why she has committed to working in development for the long term. The Third Wave demonstrates the real power of individual efforts in generating positive change.

I strongly recommend this book if you are interested in learning more about disaster recovery or meaningful volunteering abroad, in addition to those people simply seeking inspiration again like myself.

By Marissa Toohey

I’ve seen how a simple investment in development pays dividends forever

23 Oct

In Vietnam I saw that individual cash donations provided bricks and mortar to build homes for people in need, which protected them from typhoons and severe illnesses like malaria, and even improved their education and livelihoods through stability.

I’ve seen firsthand how simple contributions play a part in creating better lives and futures for marginalised households.

Here is a short video that inspires me and demonstrates how you can also do something as simple as investing in a single girl to produce positive impacts for families, communities, women and even the world: it’s called The Girl Effect.

By Marissa Toohey

From a long journey to a single piece of paper

30 Aug

During the weekend I caught up with several members of my “Vietnam family” in Melbourne to reminisce and provide feedback to the organisers of our overseas assignments. As a reflection exercise, the event organisers asked us to illustrate significant moments throughout our time abroad.

An illustration of significant challenges and milestones during my assignment in Vietnam

I’m no Monet, so let me break it down for you: it was a bloody big year! It started like a party (represented by a karaoke microphone at the top of the drawing that looks like an ice cream) and there was plenty of time on the toilet as a result of my bad reaction to seafood and, well, stress from culture shock. I threw in a couple of computers to demonstrate that I actually worked when I wasn’t socialising or travelling. Really, I did.

In contrast, the bottom half of my drawing only signals a few of the challenges and questions I experienced as I removed the rose-coloured glasses and my understanding of Vietnam deepened. Flooding, poverty, censorship and language frustrations were just a few of the issues that caused me to question my position and future plans.

The problem was, I needed a larger piece of paper than I planned …

I’m no Aussie do-gooder

29 Apr

Australia is just full of do-gooders, and I never realised until I moved back from Vietnam.

There are rules for driving etiquette here, eating a meal properly, drinking, standing on an escalator, walking down the street, and every single person complies with these rules and leers at me when I step out of line. I’m constantly scolded for walking across intersections while pedestrian lights remain red – an action that became not only habit but an absolutely essential skill to get around in Ho Chi Minh City. It’s a hard one to crack now and I just refuse to wait when there are no cars in sight.

Worst of all, though, I’m not allowed to drink alcohol on the street! I’m not even able to have a drink with dinner on a weeknight without being labelled an alcoholic while, in Vietnam, I could get away with three or four beers per night without judgement. I could drink cheap beer at home, take one for the road and then carry the same opened can into the club with me, while sporting thongs and a slur that would surely get me refused service at a bar in Australia. It was awesome.

It’s the unspoken social rules I’ve discovered in Australia which have surprised me though. I’ve spent the past month greeting old friends and family with enthusiastic kisses on the cheek which have been returned with scrunched up noses, hugs with about half a metre of distance between us, and a tap on the back with the strength and passion of a ragdoll. It seems my European expatriate friends in Vietnam got me in the habit of lining up double-barrelled smooches that are way too close for comfort for my Aussie mates. Apparently a hand shake is acceptable and a hug if I really must.

I’ve been back for a month now and, still, I sometimes feel like a culture-shocked immigrant who’s fresh off the boat. Imagine the troubles refugees have settling in.

By Marissa Toohey

Helping vulnerable elephants in Thailand

18 Apr

Their skin looks tough and dry but the touch of an Asian elephant warms your insides. Volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, north Thailand, allows you to care for dozens of beautiful elephants that have been injured and vulnerable in the wild. I recently volunteered at the park and got some video footage while feeding the elephants, bathing them, and watching them thrive in safe open spaces. Check it out below.

By Marissa Toohey

Gut instincts about settling back in

28 Mar

The plane pulls into the terminal and I see a mob of red and white kangaroos – the symbol of Australia’s greatest airline and an icon of the hours I used to spend travelling as a corporate employee. It’s been ten months since I earned points for my silver Qantas frequent flyer account but it feels much longer, especially when I think about all I’ve done.

In all-Australian fashion, dogs are sniffing out the crowds – beautiful pedigrees – and laid-back officials deal instructions to visitors trying to make sense of the system. “Go ahead mate”, “You’re gonna have ta get a move on if ya wanna be out by this arvo”. I laugh because I’ve learnt how difficult it can be for others to decipher Aussie slang.

The electronic chip in my passport enables me to skip queues at immigration and I can’t contain my excitement when customs officials check the items I’ve declared. “I’m so happy to be home,” I tell the woman who examines my chopsticks and other wooden items. “Welcome,” she smiles and lets me through the gates without scanning my belongings.

Brisbane is just as I left it, except for areas damaged by the floods, including the Southbank beach pictured (photographed the week before I moved to Vietnam).

I expected everything to feel backwards – driving on the other side of the road, eating with a knife and fork, cooking dinner at home, even spending every hour with my partner instead of my friends – but, instead, everything feels just as it should. It’s familiar because it’s the same as I left it.

It’s only when I walk around the area that I get an uncomfortable feeling in my stomach. It takes up to one whole minute for a car to pass me in the city. It’s so quiet I wonder if something horrible has happened to Brisbane! There are no motorbikes or obstacles on the footpaths, no people calling out “hello” or trying to sell me something. I often run across intersections when the signal remains red because I can’t stand to wait while there are no cars in sight like everybody else. “You think this is traffic,” I think, “You should see Ho Chi Minh.”

To celebrate my journey home, my partner shouts me a great big feast for dinner at The Smoke BBQ restaurant in New Farm. My vegetarian Vietnamese diet is forgotten as I devour half a rack of smoky beef ribs, spicy chicken wings and french fries. It tastes even better than I remember.

As I finally lay to sleep in the most comfortable bed in the world, my mind shifts back to Ho Chi Minh where my closest friends remain. My first day in Brisbane has proven that it won’t take long to settle back into Australia and my life in Vietnam will soon feel like a distant dream. It brings a tear to my eye and I fight back more when … uh oh … like a sledge hammer to the gut, I get a painful warning that it really is going to take me, and my body, a while to get used to Australia again.

By Marissa Toohey

It’s time to go home

25 Mar

I always expected my backpack to send me home early, that’s why I invested in one of the most comfortable bags on the market. I didn’t want to throw a tantrum after months of struggling with it. I underestimated myself, though, as I’ve proven to be one of the most patient and understanding travellers amongst friends.

It took an anxious night alone in a State of Islam to conceive the idea of returning home; a thought that was fostered when dozens and dozens of people aggressively accosted me for photographs the following morning, and finally a pack of arrogant Vietnamese men lacking queueing ettiquette (one of the only pet peeves I just couldn’t adjust to) solidified the idea the same afternoon. And once the idea was cemented in my mind, it was all I could think about. It was time to go home, and it was almost right on schedule.

I wonder if people will continue selling food on the street until I return again?

By the next morning I was in Hanoi and just hours away from boarding the flight that would take me back to my homeland, my partner and all the things I used to take for granted. I took photographs of the Old Quarter – which already looked more developed than when I saw it eight months ago – and I fantasised about how it might look when I return again. I also met with a great friend to laugh about all the things we love about Vietnam: street bars, the ability to have a cheap massage and without an appointment, the way men wear pink helmets and cuddle on motorbikes. Weight, of course, was a more sombre conversational point as we both expected to lose weight in Asia but had produced sizeable beer bellies. Patting my round centre, I kind of hoped a parasite was stirring in my last Vietnamese meal, just to help me lose a few of the kilos I had gained.

“Farewell Vietnam” I mouthed to the land during the drive to the airport. “It’s been swell, really swell.” The taxi driver smiled through his rearview mirror. He could see how much I loved his country and he was proud.

Over eight months I learnt the importance of development work, the hardships people endure around the world, the realities of communism and socialist countries, human rights, advocacy. I realised Australia really is “the lucky country”, ranking at the top of the UN’s Human Development Index for years while Vietnam ranked 113th in 2010 (one being the highest quality of life and 169 the poorest on the scale). My work in the development field is not over yet, just the first amazing chapter of it.

By Marissa Toohey

Building hope in the Mekong Delta

24 Mar

Click to read the full article in Exchange Magazine.

Our eyes locked across a flooded road at the Mekong River Delta in Vietnam. The man was standing in the doorway of his thatched, weary house on the banks of the river and his eyes told the story of decades of hardship. His pants were rolled up to his knees, just centimetres above the level of floodwater that had consumed his entire house.

I was on the other side of the road in the protection of a taxi. I was overwhelmed by the situation unfolding in front of me. Suddenly, the man smiled at me, happy to see a new face and I realised I have an opportunity to make a small difference.

Prior to my Australian Youth Ambassador for Development assignment in Vietnam, I wasn’t aware of how seriously the natural environment threatens the lives and livelihoods of people living in the Mekong Delta, which accounts for twenty per cent of the population. Before my assignment, I had never been to a developing country. Now, having stared into the eyes of an old man across a flooded road, I understand storms, floods and associated issues are affecting thousands of people every day damaging mass production of crops and fish, threatening the quality of surface and groundwater and exposing people to serious illnesses, including malaria and pneumonia.

In my position as Communications and Media Support Officer at Habitat for Humanity Vietnam (HFH Vietnam), I have also seen evidence of how simple, decent and affordable housing can improve the lives of people in the Mekong River Delta and around the country. Decent houses provide stability, improve health, safety and security, and enhance education and livelihoods for individuals and families.

Click here to read the full story on page one in Exchange Magazine.

By Marissa Toohey

Leaving behind the easy life

22 Mar

I freaked out when I landed on Vietnamese soil eight months ago. It was dirty, overwhelmingly busy and there were no familiarities – not even a 7Eleven. But the things which challenged me at the beginning are now my greatest comforts. I cherish moments lost in twisted networks of old alleys, thrive when negotiating for fresh fruits at the local market and I prefer to enjoy a warm beer with ice on the sidewalk than to sit in an elaborate hotel bar.

The thing is, I’m now more afraid of returning home to Australia than I was of settling into Vietnam. Once I overcame the culture shock, life in Ho Chi Minh City was a breeze, and this is why:

  • I haven’t prepared a single meal in eight months. It’s difficult to justify the efforts of cooking when it’s usually more affordable to eat out in Ho Chi Minh City.
  • The weather is warm all year round! The sun isn’t always shining but the temperature varies from just around 30-35 degrees.
  • Where else can you catch taxis regularly, effortlessly and affordably? It sure beats overcrowded trains and buses of Australia.
  • There isn’t a day that passes without someone telling me I’m beautiful! Seriously, blondes do have more fun in Vietnam because they’re still a novelty for the locals.
  • My HCMC home has a rooftop terrace with amazing views of the city. I finish most nights relaxing on the roof with friends, drinking Ba Ba Ba beer.
  • I have been able to travel (often internationally) every second weekend, literally. Budget travelling is so easy to do spontaneously around Vietnam and South East Asia, and you can reach many more places during a weekend than you can from anywhere in Australia.
  • Meals cost as little as $1, DVDs just 50 cents, t-shirts $3 and rent around $200 per month. Vietnam is one of the cheapest countries in South East Asia.
  • The greatest thing about living in HCMC, though, is the supportive, enthusiastic and warm-hearted network of expatriates. I’m going to miss my friends – who I have grown to know very well over shared meals and beers almost every day – immensely.

You know the feeling when you walk through your own front door after weeks away on holidays? Instant relaxation, comfort, ease of mind, bliss even. That’s how I feel when I return to Vietnam after weekends travelling. I hope that feeling gets me through the first tough weeks of reverse culture shock in Australia too.

By Marissa Toohey

2010 year in review

29 Dec

2010 YEAR IN REVIEW  I am due to splash into the New Year while dancing up a storm on Sentosa Island in Singapore! At just over an hour away from Ho Chi Minh City by plane and with budget priced tickets, it’s an easy trip to make for just a couple of days, and it prompts me to reflect on all of the spontaneous journeys I have been able to take since I moved to Vietnam in July.

During August I ventured on my first field trip with Habitat for Humanity. My Tho City in the Mekong Delta was the scene where I joined a group of American volunteers who built two houses for needy families.

Mui Ne was my second destination and another trip with friends from Habitat for Humanity. The country’s wind surfing mecca was a fun destination for team bonding and brainstorming activities and the perfect way for me to get to know my new friends.

In October I spent a day in Kuala Lumpur on route to Malaysian Borneo to meet my partner Shea. We dove what was described by legendary scuba diver Jacques Cousteau as “one of the greatest dive sites in the world”: Sipadan. With countless sharks, turtles, anenome fish and dozens of interesting species I’d never even heard of before, it certainly topped my list of adventures.

The following weekend I flew to Phu Quoc Island for a relaxing retreat with Shea. We stayed at eco-friendly resort, Mango Bay, with no phones, computers or televisions and went diving with Rainbow Divers on the southern tip of the island.

Click here to see photos of some of my adventures.

One of my favourite weekend journeys was to Soc Trang province in southern Vietnam. My friend Jess had been doing great work in the area of water and sanitation in the region and she took me on a heartening motorbike ride through the local villages.

The weekend trip I was most looking forward to since learning of my position in Ho Chi Minh City, was to Phnom Penh in Cambodia. The purpose of the trip was actually to join friends for a floating birthday party on the Mekong River, but I made the most of spare time to see the sights of the city and to gain more insight into the nation which causes me the most heartache.

November saw my first solo trip to Bangkok in Thailand. While the first day was jam-packed with around 18 hours of sightseeing, I saved Sunday for indulging in things I’d been missing, like strolling around western shopping centres in air-conditioning, eating McDonalds and relaxing in the cinema.

My parents came to Vietnam for a whirlwind 8 days during November, including a few days in Danang and Hoi An in central Vietnam. I don’t think I’ve ever seen them as happy as when they held hands to cross busy roads, explored Cham ruins at My Son, climbed hundreds of stairs at the Marble Mountains and laughed at me as a local tailor felt her way around my body to take measurements.

The day after my parents returned to Australia, I flew to Vietnam’s capital: Hanoi. As I’d already seen the sights during my first week in the country back in July, this time I got to know more people in the volunteer network and experienced the wicked effects of Hanoi Vodka. It was the first time I celebrated International Volunteer Day.

My second trip to Phnom Penh was in December to support the efforts of friends who organised a charity Christmas ball to raise funds for youth-focused NGOs. After living five months without make-up or hair maintenance, it was heavenly to straighten my locks, wear heels and to enter a glitzy venue without feeling guilt.

My latest retreat was to Cua Dai beach near Hoi An, where I joined my sister and her friend Carlia for the Christmas holiday. I planned to snorkel Cham Island but it was cancelled and I was happy to remain on the beach to be consumed with the pages of a new book.

Click here to see photos of some of my adventures.

Now embarking on the eve of the new year, I’m saddened that my departure of Vietnam is becoming closer. I’ve fallen in love over and over again with South East Asia, and especially with the ability to travel frequently, affordably and effortlessly. During 2010 I have worked really hard but clearly I’ve been able to play really hard as well.

So then, looking forward to my upcoming departure and with no plan of what’s ahead, what do you suppose my new year resolution should be? To settle down? No way! To travel more? That might be considered selfish. To ditch a few of the kilos I’ve gained over here? I think there are greater things I could focus my attention on. What do you think it should be?

By Marissa Toohey

Vietnam, my parents and ba ba ba

14 Dec

VIETNAM, MY PARENTS AND BA BA BA  It doesn’t matter how old you get, it’s always comforting to see your mum and dad. Home-made dinners, cups of tea and big gossip sessions are always the highlights during our meetings. But my parents and I recently had a very unique reunion … because it happened in Vietnam!

Home-made dinners were replaced with Vietnamese food at local restaurants, tea was exchanged for “cafe sua da” (a super sweet Vietnamese coffee), and gossip sessions focused on the quirkiness of Vietnam rather than the latest happenings amongst friends in Sydney.

What’s most exciting, though, is that it was their very first trip abroad and it couldn’t have gone any smoother. Ho Chi Minh City is an intimidating and intense destination, even for individuals who are well travelled, but my parents embraced the madness like a fat kid embraces lollies; they just dove straight in and savoured every flavour and taste! They were dazed by the volume and logistics of the traffic, with a system of more motorbikes, cars, buses and trucks ever seen before in Australia that somehow manage to exist without road rules. They ate green bean cake, fresh catfish, ban xeo (Vietnamese pancake) and drank plenty of “ba ba ba” (333) beer. They quizzed their tour guide so much that they were only able to see one sight in the time they planned to see three! And they fell in love with the romanticised tales of Uncle Ho. What’s even more amazing, is that it never even rained! Now that’s just unheard of in the tropics …

I’m really thankful I had the opportunity to share my life and loves in Vietnam with my parents as I know it’s an experience which is changing me and, hopefully, has given them more perspectives as well. Anyway, life only gets better when you learn about “ba ba ba”. So cheers to my parents!

Mum stands in the entrance of the caves in the Marble Mountains.

Dad climbed through caves to get to the peak of one the Marble Mountains (pictured).

Dad and me on the bridge in Hoi An.

Dad and his tour guide floating on the Mekong River.

Mum climbs into the Cu Chi tunnels.

Dad and mum at the Reunification Palace in HCMC.

By Marissa Toohey

Introducing my home in Saigon, Vietnam

16 Nov

By Marissa Toohey

Keeping it interesting – discoveries of an expat in Saigon

15 Nov

KEEPING IT INTERESTING – DISCOVERIES OF AN EXPAT IN SAIGON  I’ve been living in Ho Chi Minh City for nearly four months now and recently realised I’ve been experiencing the “three month lull”. I’ve noticed it amongst my friends as well. The honeymoon period is over with Saigon and we’re becoming bored with our routines. We go to work each day, have lunch at the same old places, battle with traffic on the way home and then usually have an early night for work the next day. It’s almost like being home in Australia, except I can’t cuddle my boyfriend and I sometimes see people defecating in the streets as I walk to the office. But I have to admit, in between the boring bits, I have continued to discover and learn some new and wonderful things. Here is a collection of photographs picturing some of my experiences, discoveries and lessons over the past month. Oh, and by the way, I’ve broken out of the lull period again now and can’t wait for the month ahead!

My heart was warmed as I met friendly Vietnamese people while riding through the countryside in Soc Trang in south Vietnam. My friend, Jess, gave me a motorbike tour as she has been living in Soc Trang for the past few months.

I went to my very first Vietnamese wedding, for my colleague Thuy, and it was very memorable. There were around 400 guests, loads of glitter and sparkles, stage performances, seven courses of food and it was all over in just an hour and a half!

I took a boat to explore Can Tho River and was heartbroken by the poverty of hundreds of families in fishing villages. Families living in houses similar to the one pictured have trouble accessing clean water and don't have sanitary toilets.

During Shea's recent visit, we tried 'Birds Nest' drink which is exactly what the name suggests: it consists of sweet syrup and birds nests!

I became sick of floods over the past month. Flooding in HCMC is caused by high tides in the rivers, heavy rain fall (during current raining season) and very poor drainage systems.

I discovered my local pet shop on a street around the corner. Unfortunately but not surprisingly, a nearby pile of dead goldfish was evidence that many fish can't survive days in the sun.

I discovered Caz Bar and smoked my first shisha! Caz Bar has a rooftop terrace with stunning views of the cathedral.

I have been to a few great music gigs, which are rare in Saigon due to very few appropriate venues. Pictured is Mouse on Mars at The Youth Cultural Centre.

I started looking around more closely at my local markets and realised frogs and turtles are readily available for fresh meals. I previously thought they would be harder to find and more expensive.

By Marissa Toohey

The most personal post yet – A shit day in a developing country

8 Nov

A SHIT DAY IN A DEVELOPING COUNTRY  The heavy rains of Ho Chi Minh City make everything hard; it’s hard to see, hard to hear, hard to avoid traffic and especially hard to catch taxis. I’ve been hopelessly standing on the side of the road out the front of my office now for over ten minutes, watching taxi, after taxi drive by. But it’s six o’clock on a Friday evening, so what else could I expect? I’m just about to admit defeat and retreat to a nearby cafe for a lonely beer when I hear, “Maggie! Maggie!” That’s what my favourite xe om (motorbike taxi) driver, Mr Minh, calls me. He appears out of nowhere like a white knight.

We set off into the rain wearing ponchos for protection. Mr Minh is one of the fastest xe om drivers in the city but he judges the seemingly unpredictable actions of other drivers well, which normally makes me feel safe. But the traffic tonight is unusually chaotic and he’s darting in and out of lanes like we’re in a pinball machine. “Wow Anh Minh,” I say nervously, “You are very fast.”

“Mr Minh motorbike number one!” he yells wickedly and accelerates onto the footpath to bypass more traffic.

Suddenly, though, we hit a wall of hundreds of motorbikes which are standing still. Even Mr Minh can’t find gaps to penetrate this wall of people. We’re on my street as well. It must be floods, I think. But my street floods every single day and it never causes traffic like this. Maybe it’s an accident. Oh no. My stomach sinks, heart starts racing and I get a seriously hot flush. Please don’t let it be a motorbike accident. I can’t bear to see another body underneath a car.

Police are berating the crowd and forcing everyone onto one side of the road. So Mr Minh sees his opportunity. The police officer looks away for a moment, the crowd moves to the side as directed, and Mr Minh pulls out onto the open side of the road to jump the queue and reveal the real cause of chaos.

There’s been a house fire. Two house fires, in joint terrace houses that are side-by-side. Dozens of people are gathering at the doorsteps, consoling each other and watching fire fighters sort through debris on floors above. It’s all pitch black. Shit. There must have been dozens of people living in those houses and, with security bars on all windows (which is important due to high numbers of desperate crimes in the region) there would have been almost no way out for the poor people trapped inside. It looks like people must have died tonight. My neighbours must have died.

My street floods daily. Pictured is the view of my flooded street from the rooftop terrace.

Another policeman waves his baton at Mr Minh so we shift back onto the right side of the road. The traffic is moving now but we’ve hit floods and the scene becomes more desperate with every metre we progress. Hundreds of onlookers are standing out on the street, knee-deep in flood waters and getting pummeled by rain from above. The entire community is watching the devastated families.

I realise the community is like one big family, though, as all of the people around me have been working, speaking and eating together on this very street, seven days per week for years. It feels like a disaster zone; the shock, desperation and helplessness are palpable.

We continue driving and, as the number of people on the side of the road starts to thin out, the street becomes darker and darker. The fires have caused a major electrical black-out across the district. Mr Minh pulls up to my house and I have no choice but to jump off the bike and into the black, slimey flood waters. It makes me feel sick as I know there are all sorts of dangerous substances in the water which spread disease, including unfiltered sewage. I hope there are no cuts on my feet – an open door for Typhoid or Staph.

I close the front door behind me and let out a sigh of relief. The power is out and I’m home alone but at least it’s quiet.

I grab my trusty torch and start ascending the stairs to my room when I realise my feet are still soaking wet, and I know it can’t be from the flood waters outside. I lower the torch, squint into the darkness and see a layer of water on each of the stairs in front of me. What is that? Where is that water coming from? It can’t be from the street, can it? I’m so puzzled now, shining the torch all around me to see that I’m surrounded by water. I continue, slowly, creeping up each of the stairs, one at a time. They’re all flooded.

“Hey!” My housemate, Flo, jumps out from his bedroom and scares the shit out of me. “You’ll never guess what happened. It’s crazy,” he says in his distinctively German accent, “The drain on the rooftop balcony is blocked…”

It’s been raining for hours and hours and our drain has been blocked on the top storey of the house. Just half an hour earlier, our staircase was like Niagara Falls. And as the waters descended over four floors, a network of river systems branched off into each of the bedrooms. Shit! My room’s at the top of the house and I don’t know what I left on the floor. Panic sets in and I start leaping up the stairs towards my bedroom when my other housemate, Quentin, appears. He loudly proclaims: “This is not a house. It’s a swimming pool!” We burst into fits of laughter.

The streets of Can Tho in the Mekong Delta were flooded on our arrival as well.

I don’t think I’ll ever know what actually happened on Friday night. I can’t read the local newspaper and I don’t speak enough Vietnamese to ask the few friends I have made on my street. I will always remember that night, though, as it marks another huge turning point in my perspective and attitude.

It wasn’t the end of hardships for the weekend either, as I travelled to

Even the bus terminal was flooded when we arrived back in HCMC on Sunday evening.

regional areas in the Mekong Delta on Saturday and Sunday and was met by floods in every town. Thousands of families who live in fishing villages along the banks of the Can Tho River were flooded daily by the rising tides. Imagine dealing with a flooded house every single day for your entire life? I saw people walking through their living rooms in waist-deep water. Most of the people living in these houses can’t even swim!

Households like this, along the Can Tho River, flood from rising tides every day.

This post is not intended to make you feel sorry for me, my Vietnamese friends, or to donate money to my organisation. It’s simply to help you understand; to understand why Vietnam is making progress against some Millennium Development Goals and not others, why families cannot break the cycle of poverty, why climate change and rising tides are an important issue, why sometimes I’m tired and can’t reply to your email. This is Vietnam and its dealing me the hardest and greatest challenges of my life.

By Marissa Toohey

The Angkorian weekender

3 Nov

THE ANGKORIAN WEEKENDER  Phnom Penh is known as “the pearl” of South East Asia. The city, Cambodia’s capital, is described by travellers as a genuine old Asian city, with timeless infrastructure, captivating Angkorian and French architecture and, it’s greatest asset, friendly and optimistic Khmer people. It’s easy to spend an entire weekend eating, drinking and aimlessly roaming the city just to absorb Cambodia’s distinctive culture. But these charming attractions are a stark contrast to Phnom Penh’s dark history, which is another important reason the city features on many travel itineraries.

I recently went to Phnom Penh from Ho Chi Minh City for a weekend trip, which was just enough time to see it’s main attractions.

I battle with rain and wind in front of The Royal Palace. It's surrounded by beautiful gardens and stunning Khmer buildings.

The attraction of The Silver Pagoda is it's silver tiled floor. Just one section of the floor is uncovered for display but the tiles are tired and taped together.

Wat Phnom is a quiet temple on the city's only hill. You will see monkeys and an elephant called Sambo at the foot of the hill as well.

The Independence Monument towers above Phnom Penh's largest roundabout. It was modelled on Angkor Wat's central tower and built to commemorate independence from France.

Over 8,000 victim's skulls are displayed at The Killing Fields as evidence of the brutality Cambodia experienced under Pol pot's regime of the 1970's. Plan your following activity carefully as The Killing Fields are an emotional experience.

Tuk tuks are the easiest and cheapest way to travel around Phnom Penh. It costs around US$2 for a trip across the city. Choose your drivers carefully though; my friends and I survived a tuk tuk crash on the way to The Killing Fields because our driver played chicken with a motorbike.

Phnom Penh's markets are fantastic! They offer much more variety and often greater quality than HCMC in Vietnam.

I was lucky enough to enjoy a private nighttime cruise along the Mekong for a friend's birthday party. To take a sunset cruise along the Mekong River, contact tour operators located on Sisowath Quay.

Weekend travel from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh

Browse the travel agencies on Pham Ngu Lao street to find the best deal (consider cost, travel times, visa handling and comfort) and prepay for your ticket to secure a seat. I took a Friday overnight bus which I very strongly do not recommend. The overnight bus took nearly 12 hours, as opposed to the usual six to seven hours, due to hours wasted waiting for the border to open overnight. Take a Friday 3pm bus or leave on Saturday at 6.30am.
I stayed at Top Banana Guesthouse which was cheap (US$15 per night for a room with two double beds), clean and ideally located.
I returned to Ho Chi Minh City via a 2pm Sapaco bus on Sunday afternoon which arrived in Ho Chi Minh City around 8.30pm.

By Marissa Toohey

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