Sheila Parry recently joined our Vietnam Jungle Trek, here she reflects on the journey and the vast differences that exist in standards of living.
Village life in the Tan Lac province (home to the Pu Luong Nature Reserve) is a tough existence, offering most people a meagre choice between keeping a few cattle or tending the rice fields on the terraces. Most homes are one or two-roomed huts with no power or utilities, other than an occasional cold water pipe provided by Government grants in 2011 and the most basic levels of sanitation. Rice farmers produce 2 or 3 harvests annually and earn about $25 per month, so few are able to afford education or health care for their children. Daughters can reportedly earn a family a healthy dowry - 400m Dongs - or $20,000 US Dollars, but most seem to be kept busy at home, tending their siblings or crossing treacherous mountain paths to trade eggs or vegetables at the local markets. Some wholesalers have emerged selling soft drinks and cigarettes at roadside sheds or from mobile stores and there are weekly markets selling fresh produce, although meat is generally in short supply. Currently a relatively hidden gem of Vietnam, Pu Luong is a beautifully rich jungle settlement, with rice fields and deep valley floors lying between heavily vegetated mountain ranges. Ecotourism is on the up and treks such as the Help For Heroes jungle challenge in April are an important source of economic growth for the region.
The trekkers themselves – fundraisers from all walks of life - face both physical and mental challenges: a 90km walk across four and a half days, in humid heat, including a day of 2 hours steep climbing followed by a 9 hour descent, the last two in complete darkness, save for the light of a few head torches. Four nights in homestays, in pretty basic conditions, 12 men and 16 women sharing two huts with sleeping quarters over the animals, usually a few pigs and several chickens. A staple diet of sticky rice, tao soup, steamed vegetables twice if not three times per day and the occasional highlight of water melon and sweet bananas. As always when trekking, breakfast seemed to be the most welcome meal of the day, and it was great to rise to freshly made pancakes, rough granulated sugar and slowly-brewed strong Vietnamese coffee (a kind of coffee treacle) served with sweetened or evaporated milk. We weren’t allowed them every day: "Too slow, too slow" the guides said, and we weren't sure whether that meant the cooking time or the eating time, as such treats made for a more leisurely breakfast than cold noodle soup and guava tea. Everyone’s favourite meal was a packed lunch of sticky rice sprinkled with peanuts, wrapped in a palm leaf, but sadly it wasn't repeated, despite several heavy hints to the cooks.
There's also the physical shock of having to deal with the enforced intimacy of living in close quarters with new people, something that we are simply not used to in the UK. We had to get used to sharing a cold shower and hole in the ground loo between 30 people (or going in the equivalent of the village high street) and dressing and undressing under a mosquito net shared with a bunch of total strangers. Sleep is an issue for most people, who find it hard to settle down to sleep cheek by jowl, exhausted and trying to relax yet anxious about disturbing other people, losing your head torch and hand sanitizer in the dark should nature call and then putting your ear plugs somewhere safe and then losing them again minutes later and unable to drown out the few inevitable snorers. All of this makes for fitful sleep and low energy levels for the challenges of the day.
The physical effort of trekking and living conditions like this inevitably takes its toll but amongst Help for Heroes supporters, few actually buckle. Most people have enough spirit to overcome their own fears and misgivings. I found the way to deal with the grim reality of the homestays was to concentrate on documenting it, so in fact I started taking pictures of real life at the camps, the locals feeding the chickens at 5am, the cooks' primitive cooking area, which looked impossibly small spaces from which to cater for 30 and the toilet queue at 6am (prompting the question "what kind of person takes a camera to the toilet at 6am?" from one trekker). The conditions drew bravado in some and a warm charity in others, who started to help those who were struggling. Some participants said afterwards that they never knew how much inner strength they had, but others mentioned the kindness of a few stalwarts who were always there to help other people. Everyone seemed to be able to help someone - either guiding people down the mountain or providing a steadying shoulder or simply cheering tired or hungry people up with good humour, conversation or emotional support.
For all its natural beauty, I found the reality of life for the indigenous population of Pu Luong quite grim. I felt for the farmers, for the lack of infrastructure, transportation and healthcare. I felt for the children, for the inaccessibility of education, for their lack of day to day activity, and limited prospects in a world that is developing so quickly around them. And I felt particularly for the women, for their lack of freedom and choice, for living in a country where there is one political party, one social order and one way of life. So when I am asked how I felt after completing the trek it isn’t so much about the physical effort but about Vietnam. And the fact that I have been reminded that I am blessed to have been born into a western democracy, where there is infrastructure and sanitation and healthcare and some remnants at least of a social conscience, where women have access to equal education and broadly speaking, have the same chance as men to be happy, successful, independent and secure; and where we have freedom to move.
Walking through Vietnam with members of the British Armed Forces, the Army, the RAF, the Marines, I also felt acutely aware that they are the ones who put their lives on the line to defend our precious democratic rights. I believe we all owe a massive thanks to the people who defend our freedom but I want to say thank you for the insight they shared with us on this trek. The single most rewarding thing about this trek for me was meeting some of the blokes who have been, or are currently in active service. As a civilian, I cannot contribute to defence of democracy in the same way as they do, but I can show them the respect they deserve by understanding their psyche. Through Help for Heroes, we can also support them when things go wrong. Walking with us in Vietnam were three very special Heroes, James, Sean and Ed, all of whom have been injured in service and who have, as Sean described it, ”gone through the system.” That’s quite a euphemism for the massive rehabilitation they have all needed. At close quarters, we not only heard their individual stories of heroism, saw the impact that their injuries have had, but we were able to walk with them - physically and metaphorically - for a few days on their road to recovery. Walking with these Heroes was important not just to make us feel better about what we are doing, but to show the deep impact that their injuries have made on their own lives and to prove the ongoing lifelong need for us to continue our fund raising efforts.
I know that when I come off the trek I will slip back into my own differently demanding yet comfortable existence, with my lovely family and in a fulfilling job, doing what I want to do, going where I want to go, free in so many ways. Other women in Vietnam, in Afghanistan, in other developing nations are not so lucky and many will be stuck in a life of servitude and inequality. But the Heroes, serving or in recovery, they will go back to something different again. To another tour of duty, to a round of operations, to skin grafts, to physio or to punishing occupational therapy.
I hope they do so knowing that their stories have been heard by a few more people this month in Vietnam and that, having been inspired by them; we will spread the word beyond the intimate surroundings of the trek.