While I have made it a practice to make an entry to this blog every week, there have been none since the week before leaving on a journey to Vietnam and China. 

While I have made it a practice to make an entry to this blog every week, there have been none since the week before leaving on a journey to Vietnam and China. At that point I promised to blog about my exploits and “Tweet” every day. Well it did not exactly work out that way.

I will try to make up for it in this one post, but apologize for the lack of follow-through. Not so much to you as to me. Beyond my many vital human relationships I treasure my memories most of all. The way I lock in my memories is by way of photography and writing. So I call this “The Long Journey Home” because it has taken me a long time to recover from this trip - more so than usual. Not so much physically (although the jet lag kicked my ass), but more emotionally and spiritually.

I have had a hard time getting many thoughts grouped together into something that would resemble “coherence.” Still struggling, but I need to get this out. So I will apologize for the second time (this time to you) for what follows.


Home. That one word has such profound meaning in my life and work I can scarcely begin to describe everything it means to me. I am the second-born, first son, one of nine children. We were not poor, at least we did not think so, but we all lived in a relatively small space and were all close. My siblings and I were close in every sense of the word as we grew up and remain so to this day.

Home was dear to all of us. It never occurred to me as I grew up that my work would be tied directly to the process by which homes are built. At least the structures. Homes. Around 20 years ago, 15 years into a career in the roofing and construction industry, I became a partner and volunteer with Habitat for Humanity. Habitat builds homes in partnership with families in need of a simple, decent place to live. Habitat does not operate as a charity in the classic sense, but forms partnerships with hard-working people who must help build and pay for their homes.

Part of the work I do with Habitat is to occasionally join a “blitz build.” This year I was blessed to travel to Vietnam to build homes as part of The Mekong Build, which is the name of the 2009 Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project. The Mekong Build took place over one week in five countries that also included Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and China. We completed construction of 30 homes in Vietnam. Details on the build may be found at www.habitat.org/jcwp/2009/

Pham Von Chung and Rick Damato on the site of the The Mekong Build in Vietnam, which is the name of the 2009 Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project.

My assigned task was to be the house leader on House 8. The way the build is structured there are plenty of construction professionals that really run the project and the house leaders are there to shepherd the volunteers and keep the build moving forward. On the first day my volunteer team consisted of a group of five Americans assigned to House 8 and several locals from nearby Ha Noi. They were replaced on the first day by a team representing the sponsor of House 8, ExxonMobile Vietnam.

The team from ExxonMobile had the distinction of building the masonry wall including setting the front window, blocking in around the front door, and pouring the lintil. They were led by Russ, who leads their exploratory work searching for oil off the coast of Vietnam. Russ took the role of “servant-leader” by working as hard as he could. Of course his team had to do their best to try and keep up. They were great.

The build went fine and Monday through Friday noon we all worked very hard. The memorable moments came the day we were putting the roof on and I destroyed the Blackberry I had acquired just for this trip. Nice. But the great news is there were no serious injuries on the entire build site and only one trip to the first-aid station from our house. Sanding the concrete before painting caused some eye irritation but no damage.

I can tell you about the style of masonry construction and the uniquely Vietnamese dimension of four meters wide. The insulated metal roof will last a very long time and it went on with ease. The smooth masonry finish was the same inside and out. We painted only the front side of the exterior and the entire interior. The homeowner, Mr. Pham Von Chung, chose a light pink interior, calling it a “happy color.” The house is 4 meters by 9.2 meters (397 square feet) and the only walls, which do not reach the ceiling, separate the main living area from the kitchen and bath. The kitchen consists of a small countertop with sink and water comes from a well drilled 42 meters deep. An electric pump beneath the sink services the water tank mounted over the bathroom. The bathroom consists of a toilet and shower and has the only interior door in the house.

The water tank is there for distribution only and there is no provision for heated water. This is the standard for the homes in this area, although they do not all have electricity or running water. The Habitat homes do and they have a better septic/sewer system than was available in this village previously. It is by our standards woefully inadequate but a significant upgrade for the entire village.

  But the construction of the houses was not what I will remember from this experience. Not unlike any experience I have ever had building a house side by side with the future owner. It is the people, the faces of the families that remain with me. The homeowner for House 8, Chung, is my age. Like me, he is a father and grandfather. The similarities in our lives on opposite sides of the planet end there, but we grew to like each other in spite of the language barrier. We were bound by the task of completing House 8.

As the week moved forward I had a chance to speak, through interpreters, to my homeowner. Chung was a rice farmer and sold his field to buy land and build homes for some of his children and grandchildren. He and his wife will not occupy this house. Their number 4 son’s family (wife and three children) will live and the wife will work here (she is a tailor). This will free up some space for Chung and his wife. Chung makes a living selling candy from a storefront set up in the front of his daughter’s home. Many of the homes in this village double as retail establishments.

Besides getting to know and work with a lot of interesting folks who were there to volunteer (many from the U.S. and a group from New Zealand), one of my fondest memories will be of the village children. We built close to the churchyard which also serves as a play area for the children. The people of the village were all warm and friendly and did not seem to mind the intrusion and noise of hundreds of strangers working in their village. The week was capped by a traditional Vietnamese tea ceremony. Chung led one for House 8 and his wife along with most of their children and grandchildren were there.

Beyond the build, this trip provided a unique experience in many ways. To begin with, we were building 40 miles from Ha Noi in the northern part of Vietnam. We were close to Ke Sat. When I told an associate in Atlanta where we were building, he told me, “I bombed that entire area.” As happens with the Carter Work Project, Jimmy Carter came and addressed the volunteers and homeowners. He delivered a surprisingly frank and touching message. Carter told of how his oldest son had left Georgia Tech to join with our armed forces to come to Vietnam to fight. Carter shared that this was his first visit to Vietnam, which was a bit surprising given his history of world travel.

Carter spoke in plain terms about the continuing difficulty he has with Vietnam’s record on human rights. He was not rude but did not sugarcoat it in spite of the presence of several Vietnam government officials. While there has been a thawing of relations over the years, and trade has opened up a bit, there is still quite a bit of tension there.

But visiting Vietnam is getting more popular every year. After the build I headed over to China (more on that later) but some of my Habitat friends stayed in Vietnam and took a river cruise. They had a great experience seeing some beautiful lakes, rivers, and mountains.

If you have ever considered traveling to Vietnam for vacation, I can now say firsthand, “Go!” The people here are very nice and their country has a lot of beauty to offer along with a long and compelling history. And they have the sweetest little children playing in the churchyard that you will ever see.