Vietnam, Vang Vieng and Visiting COPE

Blog number 4 and I’m almost at the end of my time here in Laos – it feels so surreal now, I have already started re-entry calls with the PULSE team and my manager talking about my return. It is coming to an end : (

So, before I get all maudlin about my pending departure, there are a few experiences I had before Christmas that I didn’t get to in my last blog. The word ‘experience’ truly does sum up the whole PULSE journey – it’s like being on an express train of doing new things, being submerged in new cultures, challenging your own views and making changes within yourself in a short period of time and I feel incredibly fortunate to have experienced so many.

Hanoi, Vietnam – What to talk about first – the trip to Hanoi in Vietnam is probably the best place to start. Jyoti (my housemate from GSK Dubai who was on assignment with CHAI) and I visited Hanoi for a few days and we met up with 2 other PULSE volunteers Annemarie and Mohammed based in Vietnam.  You kind of stay in your own PULSE bubble when you are on assignment so it was great to understand from both Annemarie and Mohammed the work they were supporting on their respective assignments.  Despite the proximity to Laos, Vietnam is very different.  The traffic, the pace of life, interactions with locals, Laos is such a laid-back place where someone can cut you up on the road and all parties calmly go about their business, where in Vietnam, you only need to blink before the horns are blaring back and forth.  On the flip side, historically both countries draw many parallels, especially from an ethnic minority point of view, and the visit to the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology coupled with a trip to the ‘Hanoi Hilton’, the infamous Hoa Lo where prisoners of war were kept and tortured in the Vietnam War (or the American War as it is referred to by SE Asia) was incredibly eye-opening.  We also got to visit the stunning Cat Ba Island (that’s me and Jyoti in the distance on the island, after a bit of swim from the boat) followed by a floating fishing village all in monsoon season and Annemarie took us on a Hanoi street food tour to truly savour Vietnamese cuisine, (and we made sure there was no cat or dog meat).

Vang Vieng, Laos – Another amazing part about PULSE and being open to going to new places that you didn’t know existed (yes I am ashamed to say when I was told my assignment was in Laos, I was simultaneously on Google Maps muttering “err… how do you spell that exactly?”) it opens up the eyes of others. Now, my mum has never been the most adventurous person in the world but she is definitely getting better over the years thanks to my step-dad, and I loved the fact that in October they came and visited Thailand and then to see me in Laos. They enjoyed many firsts but I think our best story is our weekend trip to Vang Vieng 3 hours north of Vientiane, where I am based.  Now a hot air balloon ride is on many people’s bucket lists and it was no different for me.  So, when we saw a hot air balloon ride at sunset at half the price of what it would be anywhere else (that should have been our first clue) we of course jumped at it.  When I saw ‘we’, me and my step-dad Ian convinced my mum what a great idea it would be, once in a lifetime blah blah blah and she finally agreed (poor thing!)  So, on the day, we were picked up at 5.30am when it was still dark and taken to what looked like a long stretch of tarmac where 2 ‘balloons’ were laid out and seemingly a lot of people for just 2 baskets.  And when I say baskets, that’s exactly what they are, oversized laundry basket looking things.  This was the precise time I decided to look up the reviews for the company we were using – they weren’t so great funnily enough (clue number 2).  But hey in for a penny in for a pound, against our better judgement we jumped in the basket when it was our turn and up up up we went.  The views were spectacular, we had actually completely missed sunrise due to how slow the set up was, but nonetheless the endless rice fields, the mountains in the distance, the sprawled-out villages…it was breath-taking.  After about 30 mins, we saw the first balloon (we were in the second one) land in the distance and we were still going, we thought “great – we are on the long one woop woop”.  After a few times of ascending and descending and looking out over Vang Vieng, it became very apparent that the pilot (and I use ‘pilot’ very loosely) did not know how to land the damn thing which was why we were still going.

Our stunning peaceful panorama turned into the ‘pilot’ shouting down in Chinese (the Company was a Chinese one) to the truck below that was frantically following us screaming back up at him (clue number 3 that this was not going to end quite as well as we had hoped). We did not understand a thing being said, nor did any of the other tourists with a death wish in our basket but we got the gist.  There was not enough gas left in the huge cylinders to keep going and we were approaching the forest which means no place to land $&@*!  So, the pilot did what anyone would do when they find themselves flying a hot air balloon with obviously limited experience and running out of fuel, head for the tallest tree and crash into it!  When I tell you how surreal that moment was – we had branches and leaves in the basket and the flames were still going (it took a few seconds for our esteemed pilot to turn the gas off!), there was a woman curled up in a ball on the floor of the basket crying who my mum was comforting and then the realisation hits you that if this piece of wicker tips over there are these 2 huge tanks that are going to fall with it.  Luckily that did not happen and the basket toppled through the tree without capsizing and after about 20 mins we were close enough to the ground to able to climb out of the basket.  The next bit was simultaneously humiliating and hilarious, when we walked through the trees, as we were now in the middle of a forest, we found a clearing which brought us out to a local village, chickens running around and locals just staring at us like – ‘and you lot thought you could go up in the sky in an oversized wicker laundry hamper, a balloon and fire and get back down again – ok’.  It was really was as terrifying and funny as it sounds.  The truck came and picked us up and took us back as if this was a common occurrence – as per the reviews!  So yes, that truly was a once in a lifetime experience and yes, my mum has forgiven me…eventually.

Visiting COPE – I have been very fortunate to get 2 sets of visitors during my time here, my folks in October and my boyfriend came out for my birthday in December. Tom loves history and after enjoying the recent Vietnam War documentary, a trip to COPE in Vientiane (about 10 mins from my house) was definitely in order for us both.  COPE stands for Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise and it’s a non-profit organisation that runs rehabilitation centres and provides prostheses to UXO survivors as a result of the Vietnam/American war.  Learning about this was equally heart wrenching and shocking.  During the Vietnam/American War where you hear very different version of events (as most people know many historical events are often not reported factually but rather from the bias point of view depending on what country you are hearing it in), a secret war was waged on Laos by the US.  What happened is that when the  US Airforce was fighting against the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong during the war, their planes had often not used all of their cluster bombs (large missile looking objects that released tens of ‘bombies’ about the size of oranges in one dispatch) and they did not want to bring them back to their base so they would release them…over neighbouring Laos.   Have a look at some of the photos below: “Between 1964 – 1973, the U.S. dropped over 2 million tonnes of ordnance over Laos in 580,000 bombing missions. This was the equivalent of one planeload every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day for 9 years”.  I mean when you hear that, you can’t quite fathom it.  And this is the reasons why sadly Laos is the most bombed country in history.  Can you imagine being bombed for 9 years and not being in the fight?

So that was history right, a long long time ago…however, unbelievably Laos is still being impacted today, 45 years after the war ended which is the reason for COPE.  During the war, 270 million cluster bomblets were dropped and not all of them exploded.  Between 10-30% did not explode so they have just been sitting there, just under the ground years later and exploding when locals dig into the ground, light a fire, children play outside – this continues to happen today.  These are mainly remote areas where there is no medical support, people are losing limbs, their eyesight and their lives from a war that ended 45 years ago.  The clean-up of the UXOs is a long and expensive process and it’s only in the last couple of years where the US has provided money to this clean up when Obama was the first President to acknowledge that the secret war actually took place and visited here with Michelle.  Hence, the need for COPE providing rehabilitation centres and prostheses for those affected and are continuing to be affected in the future until all of the bombs are destroyed.  Needless to say Tom and I left pretty bereft and shocked, but glad that we got to hear the stories, watch videos of those affected, were able to contribute to COPE and the share the experience with others.

End of 2017 to the Present Day – Ok on that note, back to the light stuff , 2017 ended on an emotional high for me.  The work I was doing with Save was progressing well, the re-org work I had been doing up until that point had turned a corner, a new Country Director had joined, I had recruited for key roles who were going to be delivering key programmes for 2018 supporting maternal and child health in the poorest provinces and I had finally secured a HR Manager to start in January to begin transitioning my work to – which was one of my largest achievements based on the candidate pool available and the fact that there hadn’t been a HR Manager here for the last 4 years.  I was also involved in the Literacy Boost project (you can spot my tall head in the newspaper article below) and the country office has just signed some key MOUs with the Lao Women’s Union looking at how adolescent girls can be supported further.

On a sadder note, Jyoti also left end of December. Jyoti and Devon, my housemates have been a huge part of my journey here and when she left to return to GSK Dubai (she started her assignment earlier than I did), it was a lower lip trembling moment.   I did get to go home for Christmas though which was lovely and then was straight back into the thick of things for these last 6 weeks.  The new HR Manager started in mid-January who is a fantastic hire and will absolutely run with the foundational work I have put in place and I have been spending these last few weeks completing the re-org and transitioning over.  And now I find myself in the last week with Save the Children and it just feels……weird.  I have become so embedded in the projects here and I so want to see some of the work I’ve started until the end, but I know I can’t.  On the other hand, I have massively missed Tom, my family, friends and colleagues in both the UK and the US and am really looking forward to getting back to lovely North Carolina in about 10 days.  So, I’m sitting here in the HR office with Phelee, my colleague who has been with me each day for the last 6 months, finishing off my transition and sadly knowing that my days in lovely Laos are numbered.

Looks like I will be seeing you all very soon…







  1. Stefania what a lovely recap of your journey, even the harrowing parts! Your kind spirit is evident in all that you do and I’m certain you’ve made a bigger impact than you know. Good luck with your transition back to the everyday. I believe we are forever changed for the better by this Pulse experience. It was my pleasure hosting you and Jyoti. Hugs and kisses,

    1. Made it in the Laos’ papers as well! (Not surprised my super star)
      It’s amazing to see all that you achieved in these 6 months – I still remember how a slow start in the early days would affect you but your patience and perseverance paid off massively! So so proud of you Stef.
      PS – loved each bit of this post; brought back some good memories 🙂

  2. I’m speechless, entertained, in awe and simply hold great admiration for you and all the GSK Pulse volunteers. Well done. Travel safe. James

  3. What a wonderful experience you relate with such colour and joy – even the hot air balloon incident (what a great mum you have!). I am sure you will excite your GSK colleagues with the possibilities there are for those with courage to experience a new culture and bring their skills to a worthy cause.

  4. Inspirational stuff and a fascinating read as always Stef! I can’t wait to catch up with you when you return and hear more 🙂

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