Anne often accuses me of being overly sentimental. I on the other hand am glad she is not; as with many of our other traits, we have found that we balance each other out on this front. On holidays, the differences between us become a little more pronounced. From our first Halloween to our last 4th of July, I have gained more pleasure from the anticipation and excitement leading up to the holiday than the holiday itself. I feel let down when something doesn’t go as I had hoped, while Anne enjoys the day regardless of how it goes.
2006 is the year of our Vietnamese Thanksgiving. Since my sentimentality is not grounded in tradition, I was happy to abandon all semblance of the common American Thanksgiving in favor of an Asian one. We would exchange turkey for pork, potatoes for rice, and pie for glutinous rice balls with bean paste. This is our regular Vietnamese menu, so to mix things up, I thought about going to a 5-star restaurant in honor of the special day. A quick look at the guest list, which included Kieran and Asher, made this a pipe dream. They are trained enough to make it through KFC or a mellow cafe, but the certainty of a spill, the likelihood of launching the periodic food projectile, and an inability to sit for more than 20 minutes keep upscale restaurants off our agenda. At home we’ve talked about skipping a Thanksgiving or two to work in a soup kitchen but as of yet have not. As far as we know there aren’t any soup kitchens in Hanoi.
In fact there appear to be no homeless or beggars in Hanoi. This was a big shock to us after China, where we frequently ran into both. We didn’t expect this, and I joked with Anne that the government had bussed them out to the country because APEC was in town. Well, it turns out they did one better and rounded up all the street kids as well. The city’s undesirables were taken to a rehabilitation centers out of town in an unofficial effort to sanitize the city for foreigners. Journalists and human rights groups are not allowed inside the center, but according to witnesses, it is a horrible place where detainees suffer abuse and deprivation. It sounds like something out of Dickens or the genesis of Australia.
The street kids tug hardest on our heartstrings. We knew we couldn’t help those being held in detention nor those who escaped the recent dragnet. They’re beyond our traveler’s reach. We found two organizations, however, that are helping some of the kids. Both Koto and Cafe Smile take homeless youth off the street, give them a place to live, and train them in the hospitality industry enabling them to one day get jobs in hotels and restaurants around the city. These are great examples of organizations teaching men and women how to fish rather than simply giving them a fish. (As most of the kids come from rural villages the statement is particularly relevant and slightly ironic.)
One of the ways we can support these organizations is to eat at their restaurants. We ate lunch at Cafe Smile on Tuesday and planned on making Koto the location for our Vietnamese Thanksgiving dinner today. We spent the morning doing laundry, purchasing train tickets for the Reunification Express to Hue, and navigating the 3-4 kilometers through hordes of motorbikes to Koto. When we arrived ready for a feast, we were greeted by a sign telling us the restaurant was closed for the next 2 weeks for renovation.
Our responses are where Anne and I differ. I was crushed. To me this would have been a perfect way to celebrate the holiday. In one fell swoop, we could have filled our bellies (a Thanksgiving requirement), had an opportunity in this faraway setting to reflect on all the comforts we enjoy at home, and played our own small part in the empowering of a few young Vietnamese. Anne rolled with it and suggested we go to another restaurant a few blocks away. I moped momentarily then grabbed a couple of cyclos (bicycles with passenger carriages in front) to take us to the other venue. I was, and still am, a little bummed our plans didn’t work out, but I realized there was still something I could do to help. I’ve replaced one of the pages on this site with a new page listing all the non profits we work with or get to know through our travels. We can’t vouch for the efficacy of any money you might choose to donate, but we can assure you we have first hand knowledge of the work they do and attest to the difference they are making in people’s lives. If you have a moment, check them out by clicking on the “Nonprofits” tab above.
We hope your Thanksgiving was filled with gratitude and look forward to enjoying our traditional tryptophan-induced stupor next year. I for one, already have the whole thing planned out in my mind.