There is a saying in Vietnam; Smile, breathe, and go slowly…
A simple phrase with unusual resonance, the words were still with me when I first arrived in the late evening to Vietnam, after rushing from plane to plane, in bustling Hanoi. There, I stayed for one night, only to be carted off in a taxi in the early morning hours in order to catch my final flight to Dong Hoi, Vietnam.
On the plane, I was seated next to an elderly Vietnamese woman, who threw me curious glances. She wore a face mask to avoid the germs that circulate onboard planes. Her eyes peered merrily at me over the top of the mask, and upon landing, she gave me a hearty high five. I returned her sentiment of acceptance with gratitude. I thought to myself that she likely had memories of the wars here. Here I am, I thought, an American in post-war Vietnam, what will people think of me? Her high-five said to me, hey, welcome!, and I’ve encountered that same sentiment again and again, here in the quaint city of Dong Hoi.
While traveling by taxi toward my hotel, I was greeted by a sense of calm that the city carries. Dong Hoi is quieter and smaller, with fewer people on the streets, and feels a bit empty after the rushing crowds of Hanoi. I was soon to learn that this was because of the heat at the time of day I arrived (2 p.m.), and that most of the city was still napping. In Dong Hoi, between the hottest hours of the day, 12 p.m. and 2 p.m., you will find many colorful open storefronts, yes, but their proprietors can be found napping in hammocks artfully tied close to the floor, sleeping through the worst of the heat. After 2 p.m., the streets come alive again with patrons of tea shops, cafés, hair salons, restaurants, and tiny supermarkets.
In spite of its quaintness and beauty, there are many people in Dong Hoi that are facing grave challenges. The challenges faced by people with disabilities and the plights of poverty are global maladies, and Vietnam has experienced these problems more intensely since the American/Vietnam war. According to government statistics, 6.3% of its population, or more than 5 million people in Vietnam are affected by a disability, and these figures are low due to underreporting.
After the American/Vietnam war, troves of landmines and unexploded ordnance (UXOs) were left behind, later to cause many avoidable injuries to innocent Vietnamese civilians, including countless children. In addition, many Vietnamese were injured due to the American use of Agent Orange during the war. The Vietnam Red Cross estimates that Agent Orange has affected 3 million people spanning three generations, including at least 150,000 children born with severe birth defects since the war ended in 1975. Finally, poverty inevitably follows war on battle territory as inexorably as night follows day, and Vietnam was hit hard.
8a.m. Monday, I was greeted by my hosts and began my work with the Association for the Empowerment of Peoples with Disabilities (AEPD), and immediately, there was action! AEPD has been working on a partner-project with Zabunet Funds-France, giving micro-loans to people living in poverty in Vietnam so that they can start small businesses, raising and selling pigs and cattle. On Tuesday, Ms. Dung, my effervescent boss and Chairperson of AEPD, and Ms. Linh, Project Manager, and I traveled to the village of Quang Van in the district of Quang Trach in order to usher in the latest loan recipients.
There, 58 women and 2 men received loans for pig and cattle raising, which they will pay back in 2 to 3 years with their new profits. This new start will help them to raise needed income to support themselves and their families. The atmosphere was jovial, and the happiness of these enterprising small-business owners was palpable. “This will really change things for these people,” said Ms. Dung, “they will create sustainable businesses that can support their families into the future.”
Over the years, AEPD has assisted more than 1,000 households with economic opportunity activities, contributing meaningfully to community resiliency and lessening poverty in the Quang Binh region, an area that was gravely affected by the Vietnam/American war, and is presently often damaged by disastrous floods that affect the region nearly annually during Vietnam’s rainy season, destroying homes and cropland.
“We are broadening our reach” says Ms. Dung, “…as we can see there is a need. We are doing more in the realm of inclusive education for people with disabilities, as well as in climate change education and disaster prevention and relief.” The loans that AEPD has secured to help the people of Quang Binh province have helped alleviate some, but not all, of the need here. But for Ms. Dung, it is well that AEPD can have the impact that it has had, and AEPD looks forward to the future as it reaches more deeply into Dong Hoi’s surrounding communities.
Posted By Kelly Howell
Posted Jul 24th, 2013