voices from abroad

A glimpse of the borrowers July 14, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — Hanh @ 3:53 pm

Visiting FPW borrowers during the past three weeks has taught me that interviews can take place just about anywhere– standing in the middle of a noisy market, sitting on very short stools near a street stall or squatting on someone’s kitchen floor.

If I could, I would spend hours talking to each borrower. I realize the questions that I am able to ask during the short amount of time I have with the women only offers a glimpse into their lives – a small chapter of the full story. Yet, in these few moments, there is a connection The hours pass by quickly and at the end of the day, I have footage, pictures and pages of notes about each person. Here are a few of their stories.

Meet Ms. Lien
When Ms. Lien told me that she makes “than” I had to dig in my bag for my handy pocket dictionary. In the time it took me to find the translation, Ms. Lien had brought a bucket of coal blocks to show me what “than” was.

Ms. Lien and her husband can make 1,000 blocks of coal in one day. The recent loan money was used to make repairs to the machine that they use. On rainy days, the business comes to a halt since the coal needs to dry in the sun. Each coal block sells for 200 VND. Ms. Lien tells me that on a good day, she can sell 300 blocks for a profit of 60,000 VND ($3 USD). A woman of few words, Ms. Lien then takes my hand and pulls me outside to demonstrate how the coal blocks are actually made (see the video below).

As Ms. Ha and I watched Ms. Lien work with the sun beaming down on her hat, I hoped to myself that the profits from Ms. Lien’s business would help provide more opportunities for her two young children in the future. We said our goodbyes and Ms. Lien continued her work– you never know when the rain will come.

Meet Ms. Phuong

Ms. Phuong at her vegetable stand

Ms. Phuong at her vegetable stand

I would describe Ms. Phuong as kind, elegant and talkative. She has two children who are both in secondary school. Although our interview began at her house, she did not hesitate to take me to her street stall at the market down the road.

On the way to the market, we passed a large lake full of fishing boats. She points to one of the fishing boats and tells me, “I used to live there.” People in this community only started building houses 10 years ago. She laughs and tells me that she’s lived on a boat longer than she’s lived in a house.

It is clear that Ms. Phuong is well liked at the market. We must have stopped at least five times on our way in to talk to some of her friends. This is where she has been selling vegetables and rice for the past 6 years. She makes a profit of 1,400,000 VND ($78 USD) to 1,600,000 VND ($89 USD) each month. When I asked about her dreams, she thought for a second and then said, “I want my children to have everything.”

Meet Ms. Trinh
We found Ms. Trinh sitting in between a stall lined with assorted spices and a stand selling sets of baby clothing. Interviews at the market are some of the most interesting that I have had. It’s amazing to watch the women in action as they answer questions and make change for customers at the same time. Talk about multi-tasking!

With her youthful energy, Ms. Trinh tells me that she “sells many many things!” At 60 years old, she recently expanded her stall with an impressive variety of kitchenware – pots and pans, fish sauce (nuoc mam), teapots, spices, mops, rice cookers, scissors, chopsticks, dishwashing liquid…the list goes on…take a look for yourself!

Ms. Trinh has been operating her business for more than 10 years. She says that the market is like her second home. She has no intentions of retiring any time soon because her profits are needed to pay for her daughter’s tuition and lodging fees at Hanoi University. This is her second loan from FPW and Ms. Trinh estimates that her monthly profit has grown from 1,500,000 VND ($84 USD) to 1,800,000 VND ($101 USD) since taking out her first loan. Full of energy, she told me that she wants to travel. I’ve heard this answer before, but then she adds, “I want to visit the places where people have given loans live – I would go there to say thank you.”

These are just 3 of the 30 borrowers I interviewed this week. To make a loan to ladies like these, visit www.kiva.org and search “Thanh Hoa”. Don’t worry – if you don’t see any borrower profiles, check out the link later this week, more will be posted!


Sam Son

Filed under: Uncategorized — Hanh @ 8:17 am

I have this conversation every day:

Q1. Are you married?
A. No
Q2. How old are you
A. 26
Q3. Do you want to meet my son/grandson/nephew/neighbor?
A. No/No/No/No
Q4. Have you been to Sam Son? (There’s little to do in Thanh Hoa and Sam Son is the nearest beach)
A. Nope

I’m tired of getting looks of disappointment from these random strangers, and since I can’t (won’t) be changing my answer to the first 3 questions, I thought I would make a point to visit Sam Son this weekend. So I can finally say, “YES! I’ve been to the famous Sam Son.”

What I expected: Soft, sandy beaches, with cool clear blue water and plenty of sunshine!

What I got: Well, take a look for yourself…

The crowds at Sam Son
Yup, the water is indeed a sandy brownish color – very inviting. It was SO crowded. After fighting through the crowds to get to some cool water, I found out it was warm…very warm. There is no sun. It’s so hot during the day that people only go to the beach when the sun goes down. There were also many photographers walking around with a cigarette in one hand, a blow up animal in the other and a camera around their neck. I mean, who wouldn’t want their picture taken by a professional? 😉

So now, I have been to Sam Son. 🙂

Darren (Kiva Manager), Me (Kiva Fellow), Tinh (Kiva Coordinator)


The Women July 4, 2009

Filed under: women — Hanh @ 2:50 pm

My biggest and most exciting accomplishment this week has been meeting with some of the women borrowers of the Thanh Hoa Fund for Poor Women (FPW). Tinh, the Kiva Coordinator, accompanied me on my first visit. Since then, I’ve managed to get by on my own – with a translated questionnaire in hand and my handy pocket dictionary.

How to describe the women… well, first off, they are all very different. Most have strong personalities and others are very shy. One thing they certainly have in common – generosity. Everywhere I go, I am offered tea and treats. I am sure I will gain another 15 lbs (on top of the freshman 15) before the end of this trip!

At the meetings, groups of women gather – and I sit and listen as one by one, they tell me about their businesses, their families, their hopes and dreams. I write notes as quickly as I can, and circle words I have to look up in my Vietnamese-English dictionary. I sometimes feel like I am prying – asking their age, how much money they make, how their lives have changed. But they don’t seem bothered by the questions.

Two borrowers stand out in my mind. Ms. Thuy, in her early twenties, is one of the youngest members of 31 – Nam Ngan Group. She used her loan to purchase clothing for resale at the market. She is able to sell 5 pieces of clothing on a good day, for a profit of 35,000 VND ($1.90 USD) per day. She told me that she hopes to save enough to take accounting classes and to one day have a full-time job as an accountant (not my favorite subject, so I did my best not to cringe at the thought of sitting through another accounting class.) 🙂

Ms. Mai used her loan to expand her Pho shop with the purchase of chairs and tables. Pho is a traditional Vietnamese noodle soup. I LOVE PHO. 🙂 Ms. Mai’s initial startup costs for the Pho restaurant was 2,000,000 VND ($112 USD). Nowadays, she makes a profit of about 1,500,000 VND ($84 USD) every month.

Many of the women I interview tell me that before starting their businesses, they worked in the rice fields. They lacked the capital to do anything else. I am reminded of a quote on a pink post-it note I have above my desk in Brooklyn. It reads, “We have choices in the work that we do, most of the world does not.” Microfinance is not the answer to ending poverty in Vietnam as it is unable to reach the poorest of the poor, but I believe in its power to offer deserving women like Thuy and Mai greater choice in how they make their living.

Happy fourth of July!!


A bowl of bun anyone? July 2, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — Hanh @ 1:58 am

This weekend, I took the train to Hue, 10 hours South of Thanh Hoa, to drop off all that shampoo! A longer entry about my trip will be posted, but in the meanwhile, enjoy footage of how Bun (a traditional noodle dish) is prepared in my parent’s home village.