The second instalment from our visit to Vietnam. See the previous post for an introduction.
By Kiri Carter
Today is the day we drive out to the communities in Cao Bang that New Zealanders will be helping on the road to self reliance. On the way, we drive past fields of ploughed earth that look to me like they are ready to be planted but then Hanh Lien tells me a lack of water has prevented sowing. People are in fact desperately hoping for rain.
After bumping along a road that reminds me of a goat track we arrive at Quang Uyen, where the community hall and a rundown health clinic stand along with a small number of village houses that reminded me of a tropical island resort. There are 530 families spread out across the area that are part of the Quang Uyen community – some can be reached by motorbike but others can only be reached by foot.
We meet with the local leaders and the doctor who list the community’s unhappy statistics such as one in five children under the age five is malnourished, 60 per cent of women suffer from urinary tract infections, young children have to walk up to 5kms to school in all weathers across rough terrain and all I can think is what a hard life.
We are shown around and visit the local health clinic. It’s very run down and the birthing suite – a very small room with a medieval looking contraption – looks fairly clean but nowhere near sterile. There’s another room with a bed to allow patients to stay overnight but in fact the nurses use it during the weekdays. The community is so remote the nurses travel a long distance from their homes and transport is not easy to come by so they have to stay in the health clinic.
Unprotected borewater well in Hong Quang
We are shown the water source for the community – a well with several pipes running from it and a larger pond. The well is unprotected; nothing to stop the ducks from splashing around in it and the water is murky and there are things floating in it.
From the centre we get back in the car to visit a local family. There are small collections of houses flung around the countryside but despite the distances between families there’s a real feeling of solidarity amongst people.
We arrive at a collection of small buildings. I’m a little bit nervous about just walking into someone’s home but we are warmly welcomed and soon everyone is grinning broadly. The mother shakes our hands vigorously and then puts her arm around her son who I assume is about 6 years old. I’m shocked to learn he is 11, he’s so small. His older sister is in the fields minding the cattle, but she arrives back in time to see us. Both children are quiet and reserved, but give us shy smiles.
Family around cooking fire at home in Hong Quang
Despite my initial thoughts about tropical resorts, it turns out the houses are anything but idyllic inside. This house, like most houses here, is made of ill-fitting wood slats, weaved flax and roofed with dry leaf providing little insulation against the weather. There is an uneven dirt floor that floods easily when it rains heavily. There’s an open fire for cooking indoors. We ask mum whether it’s a good idea to have an indoor fire. Through our interpreter she tells us that it keeps the insects out. But ChildFund Vietnam’s program assistant Bui Van Dzung say it also creates a smoky environment inside that’s not good for youngsters’ lungs, and both children suffer in winter with persistent coughs and colds.
There are no water or sanitation facilities. Water has to be collected from down the road and the toilet is a piece of land behind the pigsty at the back of the house.
In the afternoon, we travel even further into the remote highlands of Cao Bang. We follow the rocky road up and down and around hills. Even driving slowly it’s a jarring experience.
We stop at a crossroads where our driver checks he’s following the right road. One of the roads leads off and peters out into a small track. Several months ago, while carrying out an assessment of needs in the area, Dzung had walked the track for four hours in order to reach villagers.
Reaching the next community centre at Luu Ngoc, we find another dilapidated health clinic. One of the issues is poor building practices – buildings often don’t last more than 10 years. ChildFund’s policy when commissioning construction is to only pay for work once the building has been constructed and inspected to ensure it meets all building codes. I see the difference when we visit a health clinic in Bac Kan built with ChildFund’s financial support – it’s rated to stand for 50 years.
Despite it being late in the day we walk to visit one family that can only be reached by foot. The house they live in is on stilts and I take care as I walk on the creaking floorboards to avoid the gaps. We meet a father and his two children. Mum is out foraging for food, which means she must be climbing the near vertical jungle-clad hills. The children are very shy and hide behind their dad. He tells us how his daughter has recently had an operation on her leg to correct a weakness, which was a result of calcium deficiency.
Brother and sister at home in Luu Ngoc
I ask dad what time he and his wife go to work. They are both up well before the sun rises and out in the fields working, with only a stop for lunch before working until the sun has set. They use oxen to plough the fields and sow seeds by hand. It’s back breaking and time intensive work.
Every three weeks or so, mum will walk to the market to buy essential supplies and if the children are lucky a small treat. The journey there and back takes the best part of a day. I try to imagine carrying groceries across the rocky path we came along. I suddenly feel rather abashed thinking of the times back in New Zealand when I’ve tried to get a park as close to the supermarket as I can.
Our visit has to be cut short because of the failing light. We are waved on our way by the family and neighbours. I ask Hanh Lien whether the various ethnic groups get on together. Yes she replies because they are all poor so they depend on each other for help.
To me, it feels like people in Cao Bang are living on the very edge of Vietnamese society and without help they will eventually just disappear. I was really impressed by the dedication and determination of the team at ChildFund Vietnam to help these children and families.
On the way back from Cao Bang to Hanoi we visit Bac Kan where ChildFund has run programmes for several years. Here we discover that ChildFund’s support has been invaluable in improving children’s health, giving parents the means to make a good living and helping families break free from poverty.
In Bac Kan province, we drive to Don Phong along a very narrow and rutted road. The rice paddies brimming with water are a noticeable difference to Cao Bang. At two points we have to ford rivers in the vehicle.
In this area, incomes have risen up to 40 per cent. This has been achieved several ways – by providing micro-loans for livestock and feed which then gets paid back and put back into the community, training in animal husbandry and agriculture practices which help to increase yields, creating irrigation networks that allow more and different crops to be grown all year round.
Learning about healthy eating, Don Phong
The most remarkable difference however for me was how confident, self assured and talkative children in Bac Kan were compared with children in Cao Bang. The children’s clubs and the training in nutrition, hygiene and how to reduce risks to children clearly have an enormous impact on children’s health and wellbeing.
We go to the school were there are a few young children playing. They look curiously in our direction and wave hello. We go into the office to meet the head teacher. As we sit there more children arrive and the little crowd comes closer by degrees until they are barely a few feet away. When I start taking photos that is it – it’s all on. They practically burst into the room in and around me with beautiful smiling happy faces and squeals of laughter.
My new friends and me
One little girl in a pretty yellow top says to me, “My name is… Ling,” and then she points at me. “My name is Kiri,” I reply. Ling is 10 years old and it takes her one hour to walk to school.
We ask a young boy what his favourite activity at school is. He replies: “Football.” A young girl says her favourite activity is dictation.
The children say they come to school every day except during winter when they get sick with coughs. The girls all want to be teachers. Do you have nice teachers? Yes, they roar.
Every time I take photos I have to show them. When I film the children singing and show them on the camera there is a near riot when they see themselves on the tiny screen.
We leave the school and the children to meet with families at their home. In one home I meet 13-year-old Quynh and her 6-year-old sister Tuoi. They are bright, healthy and confident girls with a positive outlook. When I ask the girls if they had one wish they wanted to come true what would it be: Tuoi says she wants to be a doctor so she can provide healthcare to her village… oh and a teacher; Quynh thinks for a moment and replies, “For all my dreams to come true”. Both girls are doing well at school so perhaps their dreams will come true.
I realise listening to these girls that the children in Cao Bang with our support could be given the same opportunity to do well. That’s why I decided to sponsor a young girl in Cao Bang: 9-year-old Thom. Reading Thom’s profile I could visualise the conditions in which she lives and I knew that ChildFund would have a hugely positive impact on her life.
Healthy girls with happy mum and grandma
I just hope that I get the chance to return to Vietnam and meet Thom in person one day. But even if I don’t I know that her life will be better just because like many other kiwis I have chosen to care and take action.
If you would like to sponsor a child from Vietnam please click here or call 0800 223 111 in New Zealand.