Stawell College students embrace alternatives

Farm work, mud fishing, exploring caves and even building a house - nothing phased the group of young people and adults who travelled to Vietnam as part of Stawell Rotary Club's second annual Alternative to Schoolies trip.

Tour leader Pauline Shirrefs said the group was led by an excellent tour guide named Huy.

"Huy expressed surprise that most of our group had not met each other before the airport, such was the bond that was quickly established," she said.

"A busy day of sightseeing found the group taking in Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum, the Hoa Lo prison - named the Hanoi Hilton by the American pilots imprisoned there, museums, temples, pagodas and lakes."

Each of the group arrived in Hanoi with their suitcases half full of clothes and blankets knitted and crocheted by Joyce Dowsett and the late Pat Gaffney.

Their guide arranged for the gifts to be taken to the region of Sapa on the Vietnamese/Chinese border which is populated by poor and marginalised tribes that live in a cold and hostile climate.

The World Heritage listed site of Halong Bay, where the tour group stayed overnight on a boat was voted one of the group's favourite destinations.

"No one wanted to leave the historic port of Hoi An. The peaceful atmosphere such a contrast to the frenetic pace of Hanoi," Ms Shirrefs said.

Here the group enjoyed cooking classes, massages, shopping and having clothes made.

One day was spent on a vegetable farm, where the group was dressed in the farm's clothes and taught to prepare, plant and water a garden bed. After their toil, the group had lunch at the farm restaurant.

Next stop was Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), before the final leg of the journey took the group into the Mekong jungle where they helped to build a new house for an impoverished couple.

Ms Shirrefs said this was the highlight of the trip for many people.

"Here the group was accommodated in a 'homestay', and it soon became apparent that the extended family had all moved out of their home, and set it up to accommodate the group of fifteen," she said.

"Meals were eaten in a large open air dining room, and a shower was a dipper in a bucket of water, a jug full of warm water added if requested.

"Most of the building work entailed transferring building materials from the side of the road to the building site."

The hot and humid working conditions were a new experience for most of the Australians. Each day, there was a group of curious villagers watching on.

Ms Shirrefs said the group was among the first 'tourists' and first westerners to visit the Mekong to do charity work.

"On the last day, our guide Huy told us that he really had expected us to do a small amount of work, just a few simple, little jobs, but added "you have worked like professionals," she said.

"These young people who volunteered to go to a third world country to help people who have so little have again proved to be wonderful ambassadors for themselves, their towns, and their country."

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