Journey to South East Asia
For 18 months, 45 students and 5 teachers had been growing in excitement and apprehension for the 2017 Garin College trip to Vietnam, Hong Kong and Cambodia. On the 9th of April, we began our journey to the other side of the globe. A 10 hour flight to Hong Kong worked well with our busy schedule, landing in Hong Kong around 9pm local time, 1:30am New Zealand time. Our first full day in Hong Kong was spent exploring Disneyland, most students boarding the ‗high thrill‘ rides multiple times. The famous disney parade was also an unexpected highlight of the day.
The following morning was our first 4am start, catching a flight to Siem Reap, Cambodia. This was a massive culture/poverty shock for most of us. Our first tour of many was on two extremely noisy boats through a floating village. Here the locals live, work and attend school all on top of metres of water. The main stop of the tour was a crocodile and catfish farm, that was also displaying our first seen boa constrictor, which only Mr Birch was happy to accommodate on his shoulders (the rest of hadn‘t yet warmed up to the idea). Siem Reap was where the heat was at its height, reaching around 38 degrees. This temperature was definitely noticed on Day 4 where we watched the sunrise over Angkor Wat temple, before visiting Angkor Thom and a few smaller temples.
The trip to Phnom Penh from Siem Reap had us on two buses for 6 hours, stopping off for lunch and a few markets (as well as topping up our stocks of oreos and pringles.) The most memorable part of Phnom Penh was our visit to Cheung Ek, which is more commonly known as the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Museum, a beautiful high school which was converted into a Security Prison (S21) in 1975. We were absolutely honoured to meet a survivor of the horrific events that took place in that building during the war. A quiet reverence was among the group that day. The fields and prison harshly awakens one to the horrific reality of war.
Ho Chi Minh was our next major city on the map. Day 8 of our trip was a city tour, the highlights being The Reunification Palace, The Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica and a War Museum, which displayed a number of tanks and fighter planes. As interesting as all of this was, the tour had an air of excitement for the ever-nearing visit to the orphanage. Lunch flew past, and we were finally there. Dieu Giac Orphanage is home to a more than 90 children. We gifted them everything we had brought from all the different business who generously donated goods - which significantly lightened our suitcases. The small classroom/dining room looked like Christmas had arrived a few months early. Wrappers and toys lay about everywhere, and excited children ran from here to there. A serious game of soccer was being played outside, while somewhere within the building Kinsey was singing with a girl our age who was talentedly playing guitar. Some really amazing connections were made in such a short amount of time, and we were heartbroken to leave.
That night was spent in the Un Trinh homestay on the shore of the Mekong Delta river - 2.5 hours out of Ho Chi Minh. Before a lesson on Vietnamese cooking, we took a leisurely bike ride through the neighbourhood, stopping off at a small field to play soccer with the local bulls under an outrageously orange sunset.
Hoi An is a 2.5 hour flight away from Ho Chi Minh. Here we stayed in a five star hotel, enjoying the giant pool and quality service. Hoi An is very french influenced, with small art shops lining the quaint walking alleyways. Tailor shops were everywhere, so we spent half a day there, some of us getting fitted for our custom-made clothes.
On Day 12 we left Hoi An for a day trip to My Lai Village. In 1968, 504 Vietnamese civilians were massacred here by American soldiers. My Lai, like the killing fields and S21, was a pretty sobering experience. Level 2 and 3 history students who have studied the event in detail were especially moved by the visit. It was beautiful to see trees and butterflies thriving in the area, like mother nature was healing the wounds of those who survived and the many who now rest in peace. My Lai village holds a very eerie atmosphere. A village once thriving with life, now empty and quiet.
Our last Vietnam flight was Hoi An to Hanoi. The Hanoi city tour held it‘s own special aspects, including a visit to the first university of Vietnam, otherwise known as the temple of literature, which was built in 1070.
By day 15, we were all getting pretty tired, and in need of some serious relaxation. Cruising through Halong Bay on a luxurious ship was bound to pick up the team morale. We stopped off at a small beach (which we had to pay to get into) some of us choosing to swim and and some of us walking to the top of the rock formation to gain a 360 degree view of the area. However, when 200 other people are trying to do the same thing at the same time, it can get pretty tight. My thoughts of Halong are conflicted. With a breathtaking view everywhere you look, it‘s hard to not love, however it‘s so disappointing to have plastic bags and rubbish floating by every few minutes. The following day we travelled back to Hanoi. Our very last cultural experience in Vietnam was catching a rickshaw into town with a top speed of 1km/h, before settling into a peculiar Vietnamese water puppet show. I‘ve decided that cultural puppet shows aren't really my thing! Our flight to Hong Kong was the following morning.
In Hong Kong, our last day of the entire trip was spent shopping and experiencing the ‗subway,‘ which for many of us kiwi kids was absolutely fantastic and unforgettable fun. I learned the hard way that not all escalators lead to the same place. Thankfully Miss Butler came to my immediate rescue. I may or may not have cried with relief.
The April 2017 trip to Cambodia, Vietnam and Hong Kong was an unforgettable experience. Each of us took away different memories and experiences. Personally, my appreciation of my own life has skyrocketed, and I truly understand how lucky I am to live in a country with clean water available through my tap and the opportunity for a good education. Not everyone lives such a life. I‘d like to thank Justine Butler, Paul Bucknall, Sarah Rankin, Tom Speers and Roman Birch for the massive role they played in safely taking 45 students to three international countries and back again. I think it‘s fair to say that staff and students alike have caught the travel bug and can‘t wait to get back out there.