December 1, 2009
The primary purpose of our trip was to join 3,000 other Habitat for Humanity volunteers in the countries named, plus Laos, to build 166 homes - part of 50,000 to be completed in five years. With U.S. diplomats and foreign leaders, we also learned as much as possible about the host nations. It was our first visit to Vietnam and Cambodia. Chip, Becky, and Casey were with us. We traveled via Seoul, S. Korea, and arrived in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where we stayed in a lovely botanical garden resort, Horizon Village.
After inspecting our nearby work site, where we will build 82 homes, we did some sightseeing around the city and then witnessed the most remarkable animal show we've ever seen at Mae Sa Elephant Camp. After bathing, playing soccer, twirling hula hoops, performing tricks, and stacking logs, the elephants came out with attendants, acrylic paints, and easels.
Others painted landscapes and bouquets of flowers, while the female in front of us began drawing the Habitat logo, with the green roof and three blue human figures. She then proceeded to write underneath in clear letters, "HABITAT - CM 2009," commemorating our 2009 build in Chiang Mai. We were astounded at the intelligence of this animal. After we rode on a large male for about a half hour, the owners gave us the painting. They explained that the elephant had been given a month of schooling.
Habitat CEO Jonathan Reckford joined us for the next four days as we spent two days of hard hot labor in Chiang Mai building relatively sophisticated 400 sq. ft. homes. Then while our family members stayed on the site, we went Wednesday to Dong Xa, a fishing village about 60 miles southeast of Hanoi, Vietnam. Thirty-two simpler homes were being built among the existing houses along the streets for fishermen. They can move off their extremely small and dangerous boats, their children can attend school, and they can live normal lives. The large crowd and I were emotional as I talked to them about the symbolism of the new friendly relations being exhibited between former adversaries. Vietcong and U.S. veterans sat and raised their hands together.
That evening, Rosalynn and I had an extended discussion with President Nguyen Minh Triet. I asked about his profession before he was a political leader and he seemed perplexed. Then I asked what he did after his education and he said, "I fought Americans." I had to conceal the agreement I felt when he said he hoped we would soon see the last of the wars in the world – as in Iraq and Afghanistan – and an end to the persecution of innocent people – as in Palestine and Cuba. Vietnam seems to be thriving, and very eager to increase foreign trade and investment in the country. They are proud of their good relationships with China and the United States.
Thursday we flew to Chengdu, China and drove about 60 miles to Qionglai City, near the epicenter of an 8.0 earthquake and with buildings severely damaged. About 300 Habitat volunteers were struggling in very cold and wet weather to complete the first floor of a six-story apartment. They were in good spirits and we enjoyed our visit before returning to Chiang Mai. We learned that this weather is typical. A local saying is "In Sichuan Province, dogs bark at the sun."
We helped finish our Thai home on Friday, had photos made with all the work crews and homeowners (as at all other sites), and then flew with Chip, Becky, and Casey to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Saturday morning we drove to Sras Po village, near the ancient capital, where we were met by the preeminent deputy prime minister, his entourage of about 60, and an enormous crowd of several thousand neighborhood citizens and volunteers. We then dedicated 21 homes, already completed, to be occupied by families who had been scavengers on a large dumpsite and forced by the government to leave. We have never seen happier homeowners as they prepared for Habitat and government instruction in new careers off the garbage dump!
Without having time to visit our volunteers in Vientiane, Laos during a work day, we then flew back to Hanoi, where we enjoyed a Sunday of rest, shopping, and sightseeing before returning home.