I recently went on the APS tour to Vietnam and Cambodia from 7 February to 3 March 2009. I went with fellow West Australian Association of Counselling Psychologists committee member, Marika Van Renselaar. We were the only two representatives of the APS from Western Australia on the tour. Thirty three people, mainly from Victoria, started the tour and nineteen individuals continued on the optional extension tour to Cambodia. The idea for the tour was developed by energetic and charismatic Professor Trang Thomas from Melbourne who is originally from Vietnam. Listening to her fascinating and emotive family-of-origin story helped greatly in understanding the socio-political history of that country.
The tour started in Hanoi in the north of Vietnam and progressed southward ending in Ho Chi Minh City, 20 days later. During that time, I encountered constant learning opportunities and cultural challenges. Finding myself situated in the old city of Hanoi, never having travelled in South East Asia before was a cultural shock. I thought I'd never be able to cross a road that required traversing a seemingly constant stream of chaotic traffic. I wondered if I'd be able to find my way around amidst the maze of narrow lanes and alleyways, all of them buzzing with life at all times of the day and night.
I gaped in awed fascination at family life that was played out on the street pavements cluttered with the following: motorbikes, bicycles, small plastic stools, tables and diners that constituted an informal restaurant, hawkers, vendors, colourful merchandise and narrow shop frontages. I was surprised at the relative ease with which I was able to adapt to my new surroundings.
On the first morning, Marika and I rose early hoping to have a walk around a nearby lake. I was enchanted by the warmth, humour and friendly attitude of the elderly folk doing their early morning Tai Chi exercises. They waved and smiled at us and one young woman, upon finding a willing listener for her English language practice, gave me an appreciative hug. Being hugged by a stranger on my first morning in unfamiliar territory was quite heart-warming! After a day or two, the best strategy for crossing the road I discovered was not to look at the oncoming traffic and to put my faith in the knowledge that no-one really wants to run over a pedestrian, especially not a tourist. It would damage their vehicle for a start!
Throughout the trip, Professor Trang had scheduled and organised various Professional Development (PD) events. For example, we visited the Institute of Psychology in Hanoi and heard about current research projects. Our group was curious and had many questions to ask the Director and students. Hearing about "relatively new" issues relating to child addiction to video games and being disrespectful and uncooperative in the school environment led me to think that Vietnam is currently experiencing a stage of cultural transition whereby Western influences are being superimposed on traditional cultural norms. Professor Trang skilfully added to our awareness and understanding of cultural diversity: During several PD sessions she presented cross-cultural case studies that prompted considerable discussion and reflection. Other psychologists, including myself, also provided PD presentations to the group on diverse topics such as "ethical dilemmas and solutions when working in small communities" and "critical incident responses". In total, I accrued 25 PD points during the tour, learnt a lot and was appreciative of others' expertise and professionalism in their divergent fields of psychological interest.
The tour was sometimes quite hectic and ambitious in what it attempted to achieve and accomplish in the available time. As well as PD events that stimulated my brain, my senses were totally stimulated by the sites, sounds, smells and tastes of Vietnam. We visited many places of general tourist interest including: Halong Bay, where the tour group floated past fishing villages nestling among dramatic islands in the Gulf of Tonkin; Hue, where I enjoyed a memorable visit to the Imperial Citadel; Hoi An, where we had an adventure snorkelling in the South China Sea; Nha Trang, where enchanting, colourful lanterns illuminated night-time cameos of human activity; Dalat where we enjoyed the cooler temperatures of its elevated and picturesque location; and Ho Chi Minh City from where we were able to visit the Mekong Delta and reluctant shoppers (perhaps I was the only one?) had time to purchase mementos and gifts of a unique experience.
In Cambodia, based in Siem Reap, I visited the historic and inspiring antiquities of the Angkor complex including Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. The newly-opened museum in Siem Reap was well worth a visit and added to my understanding of the religious, historical and cultural significance of the temples. The group also visited the world-heritage site of Tonle Sap fishing villages.
I have described only a fraction of the activities, events and experiences I enjoyed on a very well-organised tour. The tour guides were charming and excellent as they openly exchanged knowledge and information about themselves, their families, facts about their countries and anecdotal stories that added to the enjoyment of learning about life in culturally diverse societies. The accommodation surpassed my expectations and was comfortable and well chosen for its easy access to places of interest. There was no shortage of fresh Vietnamese food.
Back in Perth I reflected on how much I had learnt and experienced in a relatively short period of time. I was grateful for the opportunity the APS provided and that I had been able to take. I have already re-watched the movie "The Quiet American" and could identify some sets as places I had recently visited. In the introduction to that movie Michael Caine says, "I can't say what made me fall in love with Vietnam..." Maybe it has something to do with the charm and vibrant energy of the place and the people. If you haven't been there I'd recommend a visit and the APS tour.