Hanh

voices from abroad

Tambiet Vietnam, see you again! August 31, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — Hanh @ 10:36 pm

I make up stories when I people watch. I used to do it all the time sitting on the subway in New York. I think that’s also what I did when I first came to Vietnam five years ago…when I first saw old grandmothers with teeth worn away from beetle nut…men with baskets of rocks perched atop their heads, clad in sandals and shorts…kids playing kickball in the street. I imagined what their lives must be like.

This trip has been different. I have a slightly fuller picture of the story and there aren’t as many blank spaces to fill in. I’ve been lucky enough to meet with nearly 200 women in Thanh Hoa. I’ve sat with each of them, asking a page of questions – taking many more pages of notes, pictures and videos. As I sit on a plane heading back home, here’s what I’ll remember most…

I’ll remember sitting on a train, looking out at the beautiful rice fields and wondering how Vietnam will change over the next decade, and at what cost.

Rice paddy field

Rice paddy field

I’ll remember trying to maintain my balance while stooping with Ms. Lien at her worksite. I’ll remember her generosity. I’ll remember the realization that she and her family live on less than $100 a month, and that she often has to choose between paying her children’s school fees or her husband’s hospital visits.

Ms. Lien at her worksite

Ms. Lien at her worksite


Ms. Lien's work uniform

Ms. Lien's work uniform

I’ll remember feeling thankful that these incredibly hard-working, humble women allowed me in for glimpses of their lives.

Flowers for sale

Flowers for sale

Pineapples for sale

Pineapples for sale

I’ll remember hearing grandmothers sing folk songs to their grandchildren, diligently pushing them around on plastic play carts.

I’ll remember feeling conflicted… in my thoughts about development…in my definition of wealth …in my interactions with people… in my expectations …

I’ll remember thinking about last summer…mud huts, water wells, oil lamps and stone faced babies…Tanzania pole pole (slow) time, warm hugs, morning chai and silhouettes of graceful women carrying pots of water up winding burnt tangerine paths.

I’ll remember realizing that it is impossible to compare poverty… it can take a different form in each country and even within countries at times.

I’ll remember the many karaoke renditions of “Heal The World” (R.I.P MJ) and “Jingle Bells.”

I’ll remember spending a day at the beach and bonding with fellow volunteers over BBQ and watermelon.

I’ll remember engaging in friendly conversation with curious strangers on the train, bus, street…

I’ll remember small moments of complete satisfaction- feeling like I was where I was meant to be for just that moment.

Beautiful Hoan Kiem Lake

Beautiful Hoan Kiem Lake

I’ll remember people watching at Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi and thinking that we’re all really very much the same. Is it really so different the way two close friends share inside jokes and laughter? Or the way a mother brushes the hair out of her child’s eyes? Or the way a couple in love can hold hands and sit in comfortable silence? Or the way small children run around in circles shouting in delight? Or the way two strangers exchange swift smiles?

Advertisements
 

Women Warriors

Filed under: Uncategorized — Hanh @ 4:30 am

Women warriors loom large in Vietnam’s history. The Trung Sisters, with a district in Hanoi bearing their name and statues appearing in temples throughout the country, are among the most famous of these women warriors. They are said to have raised an army that defeated Chinese occupiers around 43 A.D.

A painting of the Trung Sisters

A painting of the Trung Sisters

To me, the women borrowers whom I’ve interviewed during the past three months are women warriors – hard working, smart and humble. These women truly earn their living. Along the way, I’ve met:

Widows who bear the weight of caring for an entire family. Ms. Tuyen Nguyen Thi, the group leader of 42-Quang Hung group, lost her husband during the Vietnam War. She has raised three children on her own, putting them through school and paying for their weddings. Ms. Tuyen sells fish at the local market and with her profits and savings, she was recently able to build four rooms in her home to rent out to students from the local university.

Ms. Tuyen at a borrower meeting

Ms. Tuyen at a borrower meeting

Spirited entrepreneurs whose successful businesses provide jobs for others in the community, adding value to their local economies. Ms. Do Thi Thanh is a perfect example of this. She started her business 12 years ago with 5 people on staff (her family members). Nowadays, she employs 35 people (all women) in her neighborhood. Ms. Thanh sells Nem Chua, a pickled sour pork sausage that is usually paired with hot chili sauce. She takes pride in her Nem Chua recipe, which has been passed down through several generations. Ms. Thanh is also someone who has a sincere desire to help others, and her business decisions are not only based on her needs, but also her employees’ needs. She offers zero interest loans to staff members who are encountering financial hardships. She says it’s her way of giving back to the community because she has the cash flow to cover the interest.

Employees wrapping Nem Chua at Ms. Thanh's house

Employees wrapping Nem Chua at Ms. Thanh's house

Unwrapped Nem Chua

Unwrapped Nem Chua

Younger borrowers, in their early twenties, who dream of more. Ms. Ngô Thanh Thuỷ is one of the youngest members of 31 – Nam Ngan Group. She uses her loan to purchase clothing for resale in the market. Money from the sales has helped her fund classes in accounting and she is pursuing her dream of finding a stable job at a company.

Ms. Thuy

Ms. Thuy

Grandmothers who have yet to retire, still working for the benefit of their children and grandchildren. For instance, there’s Ms. Pham, a widowed grandmother who tells me she hopes her children can break the family’s cycle of poverty. Ms. Mai has borrowed two loans from Kiva. Her chicken business is booming, but she has even bigger dreams…

Credit is a tool that plays an important role in poverty alleviation and the loans that FPW extends to their borrowers certainly does make a difference. However, the level of success varies depending on the entrepreneur, their skills and circumstances. To most of the women, the results are incremental– two more pigs for the farm, more food on the table, a school uniform, a new sewing machine, a television. Change takes time and borrowers who have utilized increasing credit over multiple loan cycles have seen greater successes. In a few cases, access to credit has led to enormous change – opening up a new shop, purchasing a motorbike, paying for a child’s education.

Eating Coconut

Eating Coconut

In the end, it’s not the power of microfinance that has struck me the most during this fellowship. Rather, it is the resilience, grace and beauty in these women warriors – rising, dancing, laughing, somehow always moving forward – patiently.

This lady could not be any sweeter if she tried

This lady could not be any sweeter if she tried

 

Surprise… August 10, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — Hanh @ 2:30 pm

One of my co-workers, Tinh, is getting married. She invited me to her “dam hoi,” which is the engagement ceremony. I arrived…was pulled into a room, told to put on a ao dai (traditional Vietnamese dress) and instructed to walk out with one of the groomsmen. The bride has to be accompanied by several unmarried friends and I was recruited since everyone else was married. Remember when The Backstreet Boys were popular? Well, that trend never faded in Vietnam. “I want it that way” was blasting in the background as we walked into the room… “Tell me why…ain’t nothing but a heartache…” Interesting choice.

waiting for the boys

waiting for the boys

Then there was confetti everywhere...

Then there was confetti everywhere...



During the ceremony, the groomsmen bring 5 trays of gifts to the bride’s home as an offering.

During the ceremony, the groomsmen bring 5 trays of gifts to the bride’s home as an offering!

II have no idea what was in this tray - but it was heavy!

I have no idea what was in this tray, but it was heavy!

 

Chia Buồn August 5, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — Hanh @ 4:02 am

I’m addicted to my beloved Flip video camera (well, technically Kiva’s). I never leave home without it. But there are many instances when I fail to pull it out in time to capture some of the strange and striking things I pass on the street everyday…like the tiny elderly woman I saw yesterday, sitting in a big wire basket with about 100 little chickens at her feet. Not only that, but the basket was strapped to a bicycle being pedaled by a young boy who looked like he was 8!

How many kids can you fit on one xe om?

Riding home from school

But then there are times when I am tired of filming everything…or when I capture a moment on video – and I have no idea what to do with it. When you are interviewing people each day and they trust you with their stories, there’s a great sense of responsibility to represent them with dignity. It can become overwhelming. I had one of these moments yesterday.

Ms. Ha and Ms. Hoa at a borrower meeting

Ms. Ha and Ms. Hoa at a borrower meeting

Chief Credit Officers, Ms. Ha, whom I’ve grown very fond of, and Ms. Hanh (yes, there are many of us here!) gave me instructions to meet them at Nuoc Mam Que Huong for a borrower meeting. This is the area where the popular brand of nuoc mam (fish sauce) is made in Thanh Hoa. I hopped onto a Xe Om (motorbike) and told the driver to take me there. I knew immediately when we had reached the vicinity of our final destination…distinct harsh and pungent whiffs of fermented fish floated through the heavy, humid air. Nuoc mam is a staple of Vietnamese cuisine. I grew up eating many meals with nuoc mam, and still, the scent is too strong for me. I was glad that I had recently caved in and bought a facemask to avoid breathing in the dusty Thanh Hoa air…and in this case, the strong fermented fish odor. If you’ve had nuoc mam at a restaurant and you’re thinking. “hm, it didn’t smell that bad,” think again. Nuoc mam is usually served diluted with water, sugar, lime and perhaps some tiny chilies…delicious! But the original nuoc mam is much stronger in smell, taste and color.

A dish of nuoc mam

A dish of nuoc mam

Ms. Ha flagged me down from the side of the road and led me to a small house with a front room that doubled as a garage. A small white car took up the majority of the space so we huddled on red plastic stools in a corner. Several members in this group sell nuoc mam and shrimp sauce (mam tom), including Ms. Nguyen Thi Thanh. Through the other borrowers, I learned that Ms. Thanh had passed away several months ago. After the meeting ended, Ms. Ha and I walked two blocks to Ms. Thanh’s fish sauce stand and met her daughter, Ms. Huong. She is now managing her mother’s fish sauce stand and will be responsible for paying back the loan from FPW.

Ms. Huong agreed to be filmed for an interview. I pulled out the Flip and began asking my usual questions…
What was the loan money spent on? Purchasing fish sauce for resale at the market.
How much are your profits? One jug of fish sauce brings in a profit of 5,000 VND ($0.18 USD). On a good day, Ms. Huong can sell 10 liters a day for a total profit of 50,000 VND ($3 USD).
How many people are in your family? Ms. Huong has a 6-year-old son and 21-year-old daughter who is currently attending university in Hanoi.

…and so it went….until the final question: what are your dreams for the future?

This is what she says…



Then, suddenly, Ms. Huong’s eyes become soft with sadness. This completely caught me by surprise. Dreams usually generate smiles. She looks away and tells me that her family has encountered much hardship since the passing of her mother. Ms. Huong tells me that her mother received a monthly retirement stipend of 1,300,000 VND ($76 USD). With a strong belief that education would draw their family out of poverty, Ms. Huong’s mother dedicated all of her retirement stipend and some of her profits from the nuoc mam stand to pay for her granddaughter’s university fees. I can see through these words that it is the memory of her mother combined with the family’s current financial struggles that brings tears to Ms. Huong’s eyes. She says that it has been difficult to pay for the children’s school fees with only one salary – she is concerned about their future. I turned off the camera. I could not imagine grieving the loss of a parent and worrying about how the loss will impact family finances at the same time. It must feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulders.

Ms. Huong at her mother's market stand

Ms. Huong at her mother's market stand

Chia buồn is a Vietnamese saying that means, “to share sadness.” The words are said in a low tone and the phrase itself sounds sad. In Vietnam, people will offer to share another person’s grief and sadness. Chia buồn. My imagination tells me it’s like splitting up the cloud of sadness into puzzle pieces and distributing them across the universe, until the pain no longer exists. Of course, that is not reality. Despite anyone offering to chia buồn, Ms. Huong’s sadness, just like yours and mine, cannot be easily delegated to others. I suppose then, it’s more like easing the pain by reminding someone that they are not alone and that in the bigger picture, we are all one people, one humanity. Then perhaps, stories that connect us to one another, no matter the distance, help us chia buồn.

on the mekong

 

By now, I’m used to…

Filed under: Uncategorized — Hanh @ 3:11 am

My hard bed – apparently, it’s better for your back. 🙂
Sweating all day long – deodorant is key. although I do think it’s unfair that I’m the only one who wears any…
Feeling tall (even in flats!)– yes, I am usually the tallest in the room.
Eating alone – its not all that bad because it leads to the next bullet on the list…
Talking to strangers – sure, there are crazies here and there, but some of my best conversations have been with random strangers
Doing laundry by hand – It’s hard work. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I miss my granny cart!

Laundry out to dry

Laundry out to dry

Xe Oms (motorbike taxis)– ah, feeling the wind in your hair as you hang on for dear life on the back of a Xe om.
Speaking Vietnamese – there’s no alternative. My Vietnamese is a jumble of the northern and southern dialect, but I’ve managed to use it to find my way around.
Rice, Rice and more Rice – honestly I’m ok with eating rice every day, but it couldn’t hurt to throw in some beans once in a while…boy do I have a craving for Chipotle!
Rain – Rain in New York generally makes me grumpy. I pray for rain in Thanh Hoa because it is a relief from the hot weather and I get to run around with my rainbow umbrella!
2-hour lunch breaks – Just enough time to eat more rice, take an afternoon nap and enjoy a sticky rice flavored ice cream bar during the brisk walk back to the office. Yum!
Brutal Honesty: People here are straightforward. They will tell you if you’ve gained weight, if you’ve lost weight, if your dress is unflattering…they will even tell you if your baby is ugly. But they really mean no harm in it. It’s just that, well…you’re baby is ugly.
Sharing: There’s not a train ride that goes by without my neighbor offering me some of their food. I’ve learned to do the same in return. 🙂

Note the rainbow umbrella in the back- these are everywhere!

Note the rainbow umbrella - these are everywhere in VN!

What I have yet to get used to…

Mosquitoes – still hate them and somehow they still love me
The countryside – still am in awe of the serene scenery
Rice paddies – are still a mystery to me. I refuse to leave Vietnam without a proper understanding of how rice is cultivated.
Second hand smoke – “no-smoking” zones do not exist here and it seems as if all the men smoke.
The absence of lines – last week at the train station I had to push a rude man out of the way to reclaim my place in “line.” Then I realized that the line was nonexistent as other people continued to push their way to the front. Arggggghhhh…
Bargaining – My mom is an expert at bargaining. I am really bad at it. Couldn’t we all save a lot of time if everyone just paid the same price?
Squatting – I’ve yet to perfect the famous Vietnamese squat. When people get tired of squatting, they just take of their sandals and sit on them.
Corruption – it’s everywhere with people in positions of power trying to make an extra buck to supplement their incomes.