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Monday 2 Nov 2015
Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

Blue Dragon Foundation

Our itinerary took us out to the beautiful Halong Bay for the next two days.  Because we were staying on board one of the ubiquitous tourist junk boats, we left our main luggage at the hotel and took only a day pack with us.  I wouldn’t fancy trying to climb on board with a full backpack even if there had been room.

Intrepid have built their reputation on the principles of responsible tourism – refilling water bottles and recycling where possible, avoiding activities which exploit vulnerable people or animals, using local guides and supporting the local economy and so on.  The Intrepid Foundation matches any donations made and uses the money to support local groups and charities which aim to improve the lives of local people.  Often on Intrepid tours, they will include a visit to one of these organisations to demonstrate how that money is spent.  Before leaving Hanoi, we were taken to meet some of the children helped by the Blue Dragon Foundation. 

Blue Dragon was set up by an Australian teacher, Peter, who had planned to retire and travel in Asia.  In Saigon, he was approached by a young boy offering to shine his shoes.  He asked why the boy wasn’t in school, but received no answer.  After a couple of meetings, the boy trusted him enough to reveal he had been sold to a gang by his family, who believed they were sending him away for an education. Like many other street children in his situation, he was forced to work by shining shoes, selling souvenirs or cigarettes, and surviving on only a few hours’ sleep and a bowl of rice a day.

Peter set up the Blue Dragon foundation to help these street kids.  They provide food, clothes, and most importantly education.  Most street kids have had little schooling, but the foundation provides lessons from basic maths and reading, to languages such as English and Japanese and skills that will help the children find a proper job in future. 

We were greeted by one of the volunteers who run this particular school.  She introduced us to five of their ‘kids’, who ranged from 15 to 23 in age.  Some have been coming to Blue Dragon for several years.  The oldest two girls are now at university and doing well.  They introduced themselves and taught us some Vietnamese phrases so we could introduce ourselves too.  Then they joined us at the table, where they had prepared fruits and pastries for breakfast.  They told us about their football team, which has been doing well in local competitions.  That led to the inevitable discussion about the English Premier League – it always amazes me that children halfway round the world know more about players and managers than I do!

We talked for a while and then watched a video about the foundation.  That first street boy that Peter had helped is now in his 20s and still working with Blue Dragon to help others in his position.  They now have teams of volunteers across Vietnam’s major cities, talking about Blue Dragon where they know the most vulnerable children gather.  Word of mouth is a powerful influence.  Many of the children who come to the shelter are brought by a friend at first.  After a few visits they realise it is a safe place and come back with more friends of their own.  The ultimate aim is to reunite the children with their families, but where this isn’t possible, they will look after them until they are old enough to be able to support themselves.

The whole visit was very sobering.  It really made me count my blessings and consider once again how fortunate I have been in my life so far.  The work that Blue Dragon do can make such a huge difference to the lives of the children it saves.  We bought some souvenirs to support them and I will definitely be making a donation to the Intrepid Foundation when I get home.

After bidding farewell to our hosts, we piled into a coach for the four-hour trip out to Halong Bay.  The roads weren’t too bad getting out of the city, but got progressively worse as we headed out into the countryside, bumping over potholes and roughly surfaced roads.  Although it was technically a dual carriageway, this seems to be more of a guideline in Vietnam.  People generally used the outside lane for overtaking, although this quite often involved tailgating and beeping horns until the vehicle in front moved over, and generally used their own side of the carriageway, but it wasn’t uniformly observed.  There was a smaller separate carriageway at the side for motorbikes – of which Vietnam has millions – but they often nipped up onto the main carriageway and occasionally backtracked in the wrong direction to cut the corner off.

I’ve seen my share of crazy Asian traffic, but even I flinched and applied the virtual footbrake a few times, before deciding the side window provided a more sensible view than the front.  It wasn’t long before we all nodded off though.

To break up the journey, we stopped at a community craft centre.  There are a number of these in Vietnam, particularly in the most popular tourist areas.  They are a combination of showroom and workshops where traditional Vietnamese crafts are demonstrated for tourist groups, before they are herded into the vast showrooms and encouraged to buy as much as possible.  Many of the craft workers are disabled – often a legacy from the Vietnam War – so these craft centres give them a means of supporting themselves.  The one we visited on our way out to Halong Bay included a silk picture workshop.  Beautiful pictures are made up of long stiches of fine silk threads, depicting rural scenes, vivid sunsets, Vietnamese people or views of Halong Bay.  I can’t say I wasn’t tempted, but it was a bit early in the trip to buy something so delicate.

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Scenic Vietnam 2015

Travel blog by zobeedoo

Halong Bay boat trip

Halong Bay boat trip

18 months after I came home from my travels, I finally dusted off the backpack and set out for Asia again. Vietnam was one of my favourite countries and remained high on the list of places to revisit. This time, I went back on the road with Intrepid

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