Nguyen Ngoc Thin, Cao Thi Loan, and Their Two Sons

Profile by Karen Delaney, January 2018

Nguyen Ngoc Thin, 54, joined the army in 1984, which means he does not receive compensation for AO exposure. He had five children – 1 died at the age of 3, and 2 died when they were 25 (they had cerebral palsy). The two remaining sons also have cerebral palsy.

The family tried to get compensation for AO. Mr. Thin tells me they did all the paperwork but were denied assistance as they can’t prove the conditions of the children were caused by AO. They only get compensation for persons with disabilities, which is 540k dong per month person ($45 total). I ask about Mr. Thinh’s health, and he tells me he has blurred vision, so he can’t read or write. He has also had polyarthritis – a pain in 5 or more joints. He tried to get AO compensation for himself but was denied.

Mr. Thin had 600 chickens but they all died from diseases, which left them in tremendous debt. They also had 10 pigs, but now only two are left. Cao Thi Loan, 55, the mother, tells me they’ve tried to sell the remaining animals but they aren’t worth much and people are not interested. Mr. Thin doesn’t’ get much money from farming – just enough to feed his family.

When I asked about the sons, he tells me they are completely dependent on them. The youngest is laying down on a bed behind us. He keeps moaning. The mom goes over to calm him down. The other son is in the next room in a hammock. I’m told he cannot lay on the bed because he would roll out, so they keep him “tightly wrapped” in the hammock. Mrs. Loan tells me that their disability is physical, not mental, and they can both understand what people say. They can also recognize their parents and relatives.  Nguyen Van Phan, 23, the youngest son, can say some words like “cold”, “hot”, but his mom tells me it is hard to understand him.

I ask about medication, and they tell me they only take it for “normal diseases” – flu, headache. There is no medication for cerebral palsy.

Mr. Thin says he would like to develop gardening and grow grapefruit. Ngoc tells me AP and AEPD could provide him with the seeds for this.

I ask to take pictures of the children. The youngest, Nguyen Van Phan, keeps moving and moaning but doesn’t seem bothered by us there. The oldest, Nguyen Van Lan, 30, gets a bit agitated when we approach him. He has scars all over his face.

January 15, 2018

We go back to Mr. Thin’s house with Mr. Truong Mihn Hoc, the outreach worker, to create a business plan for the family. A neighbor joins us to write the business plan for Mr. Thin since he has blurred vision and can’t read or write himself. Ngoc tells me we cannot write for them, because the process needs to be transparent to the family and local authorities.

AEPD’s model is to empower families affected by Agent Orange, by giving them advice on how to improve their economic situation. The plan, however, comes from Mr. Thin, and AEPD gives them the tools to make it happen.

Mr. Thin says he would like to grow grapefruit to bring income to his family. Mr. Hoc asks him why he wants to grow fruit, rather than to raise an animal (a popular model for many AO affected families). He points out that there is plenty of grass around his house so it would be easy to feed the animal. Mr. Thin tells us that he raised animals for 5 years, but they all died and put him in terrible debt. Right after Ngoc translates this to me, his neighbor who is there to help receives a call to say that his pig has died. Mr. Thin laughs at the irony and explains that this is very common in this region, which is why he doesn’t want to raise cattle.

Mr. Thin has 20 grapefruit trees in his backyard, so he knows how to take care of them. He tells us that the Government gives pieces of land to families living in mountainous areas, so they have 14 hectares of land 1 km away from their house. He tells us he would like to plant 500 trees there. He tells us that his area (Lam Hoa Commune), is famous for the low price of grapefruit, for many people come to buy the fruit. When I ask about competition, he says very few people sell grapefruit there, so he is confident that there would be demand. AEPD agrees that he has a model that works, and we should help him to expand it. The 20 trees don’t bring him a profit, but 500 would. He says his health is good enough to be able to manage the trees himself, without having to hire outside help.

Once we agree that planting grapefruit is the best option for this family, Mr. Hoc starts talking logistics. He explains that it takes 3 years for the trees to give fruit, so that is when he would be getting the benefits. He also explains the risks of planting grapefruit – insects – and how to prevent them – planting garlic, chilli and neem leaves with the grapefruit. Moreover, Mr. Thin will need to buy fertilizer and equipment to water the plants. This all goes into the business plan. I am amazed at how much the outreach worker knows about the logistics of grapefruit specifically. Ngoc tells me they are very experienced, so they know the risk, benefits, and profits of different economic livelihood plans – from raising a cow to planting grapefruit.

Mr. Hoc explains that the first step would be to get a 20 million dong ($880) loan from the local “Social Policy Bank”, which has a low-interest rate. Ngoc explains to me that this is a government program that lends money to “the poor and vulnerable people” to start their business. AEPD’s good relationship with the local authorities guarantees a low-interest rate for Mr. Thin’s family. This money will be used to buy fertilizer, which is the first step in the grapefruit business plan. After that, Mr. Thin will depend on donors to get the seeds for the trees. AEPD, Ngoc tells me, never give a family the complete package. They give them the tools, to get the family’s commitment, before giving the financial assistance that buys the seeds, animal, etc. One of the outreach workers’ most important roles is to connect the families with local authorities and make them aware of available resources. 

The calculations continue and Mr. Thin’s sister-in-law comes to do the writing since the neighbor had to leave. grapefruit, I’m told, has a stable price so it is unlikely that the price will drop. In the end, Mr. Hoc estimates that in 3 years, the family will make 268million dong ($11,800usd), an average of 7.4 Million dong ($325 USD )per month. The calculation counts on 300 of the 500 trees giving fruit. It is worth noting that the family won’t start making money until the third year.

In the end, the sister in law reads the agreement out loud for Mr. Thinh, who agrees with the commitment and signs the paper. He then takes the business plan to the local authorities for the approval stamp.

I take a few more pictures of husband and wife before leaving. Mr. Hoc asks for their permission to use the photos, which they grant us. He also explains that we can’t promise anything other than posting their stories and trying to get the support of donors. Mrs. Loan and Mr. Thin say they understand and then thank us once more.

Update by Marcela De Campos, July 2018

I had the pleasure of going on my first field trip on the fourth of July to the Tuyen Hoa district with Mr. Hoc (an AEPD Outreach Worker), Ngoc (AEPD staff), and Ashley and Seanin (summer interns from Canada). We met with Mr. Thin’s family—the tenth and latest Agent Orange Campaign beneficiary. We arrived at Mr. Nguyen Ngoc Thin’s home around 10:00 am after a three-hour drive from Dong Hoi City. The air was hot, the landscape lush, and the raw cement floor refreshing. He welcomed us into the home and instantly shared their experiences as a family affected by Agent Orange and the plans he and Mr. Hoc had developed in January when Karen (Advocacy Project staff) met with them for the first time.

Mr. Thin's Home

Mr. Thin’s home

Since Karen’s visit in January, Mr. Thin has been able to secure a loan for grapefruit and banana tree seeds and plant them. During this visit, the business plan was updated to reflect these accomplishments and determine estimated revenue, costs, profits, and the remaining need. The female cow’s manure will be used to fertilize the crops; the calf will be sold for income, as will the following seven calves she is expected to bear. The income from the calf sales and the crops will be used to support the household, purchase food and medicine, and begin repaying the loan.

Mr. Thin and Ms. Loan are the primary caregivers of their sons, Nguyen Van Phan (23 years old) and Nguyen Van Lam (30 years old). Their sons’ quality of life is severely impacted by their cerebral palsy associated with the couple’s environmental exposure to Agent Orange. They had five children, all with cerebral palsy. Lam and Phan are the surviving two. Nevertheless, it is obvious that Mr. Thin and Ms. Loan take good care of their sons–keeping them clean and preserving their dignity.

Unfortunately, the family is ineligible to receive government-funded Agent Orange compensation because Mr. Thin joined the army after 1975. Instead, the family receives social assistance for persons with disabilities but it is not enough to maintain the household. Mr. Thin supports the family through agriculture; in addition to the 600 banana and grapefruit trees he has recently planted, he currently maintains 20 grapefruit trees and keeps two pigs. He mentions that while there has been no change in Lam and Phan’s health, he and his wife are aging and are no longer very healthy. Unfortunately, they are only able to access treatment in the local clinic because the hospital is far away and they cannot leave their sons alone.

Mr. Thin, Nguyen Van Phan (23) (left), Nguyen Van Lam (30), and Ms. Loan.

Mr. Thin, Nguyen Van Phan (23) (left), Nguyen Van Lam (30), and Ms. Loan.

Lam and Phan spend the majority of their time enveloped by their hammocks. This is the most secure place for them to stay. The family has found that they otherwise roll off beds and injure themselves. It allows Ms. Loan, as their primary caregiver, some peace of mind. Lam is the family’s oldest surviving son. His hammock is nearest the window. The sun gently beams against his skin as he sways. I greet him as I approach and he repeats “Hello”. Ms. Loan mentions that he repeats sounds he hears but does not understand them. His eyes track the camera as we continue to engage with him, Phan, and Ms. Loan.

Mr. Thin had slipped out at some point during our conversation with them to obtain local authority approval for our visit. Mr. Hoc explains that we will meet him at the station. We say goodbye to them and see ourselves out. As we are leaving, I glance back at them and see Ms. Loan swiftly, yet gently, lifting Lam from his hammock onto the mat where she will feed him lunch. It feels so natural, so practiced and then I remember she has been doing this for the last 30 years. It was a privilege to meet Mr. Thin and his family and I am thrilled to collaborate with them throughout my fellowship. AEPD and AP have launched a crowdfunding campaign to support Mr. Thin’s business plan. 

August 22, 2018

This update documents the official exchange of the cow and calf between Mr. Thin’s family, Ms. Hue (the cow salesperson) and liaisons of the process (AEPD, AP, and Lam Hoa Commune’s Local People’s Committee).

As soon as we had raised the amount necessary to set Mr. Thin’s cow-rearing business plan in motion, Ngoc informed Mr. Hoc (AEPD Outreach Worker). Mr. Hoc then let Mr. Thin know it was time for him to get quotes for cows and calves from different salespeople in the region.

All Campaign beneficiaries are required to secure the resource(s) necessary to begin their business plan. The program’s model is set up this way to establish an additional layer of buy-in and to ensure that their resources, in this case, a cow and calf, are 100 percent suitable for the family’s needs. For example, Mr. Thin wanted a particular breed and size of a cow, etc. that would meet the fertilizer needs of his grapefruit and banana trees because the specific kind of grapefruit Mr. Thin is growing requires a larger quantity of manure.

He received three quotes from local salespeople for a cow and a calf: 28 million VND, 25 million VND, and 23 million VND, approximately $1,200 USD, $1,072 USD, and $987 USD, respectively. He chose to purchase the cow and calf for 23 million VND because it was the most affordable and suitable and of the best quality.

The cows had arrived before we reached Mr. Thin’s house. The family was so excited about the cow and the calf that Ms. Loan put Phan in his wheelchair and introduced him to the cow and calf. Phan was so elated upon seeing them that Ms. Loan put the rope in his hands. She told us that he tried to pull the cow and walk with her in his wheelchair. Lam, hearing the commotion outside, became agitated and Mr. Thin brought him out to see the new animals as well. He seemed equally as thrilled, according to Mr. Thin.

We entered their home to formalize the cow exchange and were met by Phan’s smiling face as he lay on the bed (rather than the hammock). Mr. Hoc facilitated the exchange and had Mr. Thin sign the contract and agreement between himself and AEPD. Mr. Tan witnessed the process and formally approved the purchase. Ms. Hue signed additional documentation and received the amount owed to her for the cow and calf.

The family has decided to use the cow and calf’s manure to fertilize their grapefruit and banana tree plantation. Mr. Thin intends to keep the cow and calf and continue to breed them. He will generate additional income by selling calves when he has a large enough herd. He confesses that they have made this decision because they “are thinking about [their family’s] future.” The income will be used for household expenses (food, medical supplies, doctor’s visits, etc.) and to help repay the loan he took out to plant grapefruit and banana trees. To add to the good news, the family’s grapefruit trees have already started to bear fruit and they have earned 4 million VND (approximately $170 USD) from selling grapefruits this summer.

Once every document had been signed and discussed, Mr. Thin led us to his field where Mr. Hoc officially handed over the cow’s rope. And with this swift gesture, Mr. Thin and his family were the official and rightful owners of a cow and calf.

To ensure sustainability and longevity, we will continue to monitor and evaluate the Nguyen family’s progress as a result of their cow-rearing business plan; Mr. Hoc will continue to visit the family fairly regularly to check-in. We have high hopes for their success. Cheers to them, the Campaign, and to our donor’s kindness!

 

Update by Mia Coward, August 2019

Mr. Thin, Nguyen Van Phan (23) (left), Nguyen Van Lam (30), and Ms. Loan.

Mr. Thin is very proud of his garden

After two hours of traveling, we arrive at Mr. Nguyen Ngoc Thin house. His house is far in the mountains and the air is dry but the sun is not so bad. He and his wife Caos Thi Loan welcome us in his home. He is a very cheery man and full of laughter. He made jokes during the entire visit. His wife is much more reserved, a very quiet and sweet woman and stays with the boys most of the conversation. There has been no change in their sons’ conditions since our last visit. Today they are awake and talking in the background.

As mentioned in previous blogs Lam and Nam are both not able to walk or take care of themselves. Sometimes if they are not able to wash them every two days their skin will develop a rash that can easily get an infection so it is very important they work together to bathe them together. However, earlier this year Mr.Thin was in an accident with a buffalo ( the buffalo hit him in the eye) that has caused him to be almost blind in his right eye. He went to the hospital in Hue and asked his siblings to help pay for traveling cost which was 10M VND in total for going back and forth to the hospital, the hospital cost was covered by health insurance. In March of this year, his wife also went to the district hospital because of her dry throat but then the doctors wanted to transfer her to Hue, the family decided against this because there would be no one to take care of her sons. The doctors also suggested she go to Hanoi to see another specialist or doctors but they are still debating if this will be possible since it takes both of the parents to manage the boys and their disabilities.

As we chat, both sons are also talking in the background and Mr. Thin jokes that one can understand english. When the conversation is over and we walk around to take pictures, I actually say hello to one of the sons and he repeats it back with a smile and he moves back and forth in the hammock. He shares that they can watch TV as well and they are very protective over their mother.

Mr. Thin’s cows are developing very well. They are very healthy growing nice. He tells us that in one month the mother cow will give birth to a new baby calf so he will have 3 cows in total. The calf that AEPD and AP provided him has not conceived a baby as of yet but is growing strong. He is very excited for us to see his grapefruit and jackfruit farm later during the visit. Since there has been a drought the grapefruit trees have not been as productive and they are smaller than usual. Mr.Thin is also planting 700 grapefruit trees and 50 jackfruit trees. It will take about 2 to 3 years for his farm to fully flourish. To watch over the farmhe stays in a shed he made and that is where he is able to manage the farm, cows, and not so far from home. The farm is about 1 Kilometer from the home. Mr. Thin takes care of the farm and the cows while his wife takes care of the pigs and chickens and their sons while he is away. Sometimes at night, his nephew will come to help him in the farm.

Mr. Thin, Nguyen Van Phan (23) (left), Nguyen Van Lam (30), and Ms. Loan.

Ms. Loan with her son Nguyen Van Lam

By this time, Mr. Thin and his wife have shared some grapefruit with us that he planted around the house garden. Unlike the grapefruit trees he planted in the farm, the trees around his home serve as food for the family and if he sells some he does not get much money since they are very small. In 3 years he will be able to sell the fruit from the farm but did not give a number on how big the profit would be. Their main income is still dependent on the social allowance for persons with disabilities. He gets a total of 1,620,000VND per month for one caregiver, and both his sons who have disabilities. He is unable to calculate how much he gets from selling small things from his house garden or a small chicken to provide an amount on how much money he makes per month or even weekly. However he spends about 5M VND per month for family needs like food, food for the pigs and chickens, or medication. He gets a loan from the district government for the chemical fertilizer and that also helps out with the household needs. The family does not receive the Agent Orange compensation, just a social allowance for disabilities. Mr. Thin tells us that they are unable to get the AO compensation because Mr. Thin participated in the border wall with China after 1975 and not the American war. Even though the poison from Agent Orange was still in the fields and air, only those in the American war are able to get the compensation and they don’t recognize others that were not in the American war.

Since receiving the Cow and calf, Mr.Thin has had to do more plowing and raising of the animals but now he does not have to go far or ask neighbors for fertilizer and it is now easier to manage family and the farm since it’s not too far. Mr. Thin tells us that the fertilizer for the cows is the best one for farming. Having cows also helps his capital even if he is not selling them. Once the cow and calf get big he could sell one but he does not know yet when and if he will sell because he wants to increase the scale of cows. He explains that if he has more cows he will have more fertilizer and have more capital. He says the only way he will sell a cow is for an emergency but for now, he will keep them. Mr.Thin says that cows are also more reliable because it makes him credible and if he is unable to pay for something the banks, relatives, and neighbors know that he can sell the cows for money. He says if he did not have the cows he would have to walk to his neighbors and ask for fertilizer and growing his garden would be really hard. It is also easier for him to get a loan if he has cows. He is also raising 12 pigs and 100 chickens. Right now the chickens and pigs are small but when they are bigger, he can get about 150 VND per chicken and he will sell the pigs for about 50 VND per kilogram.

I ask Mr. Thin if he has an opinion on what animal in his opinion is the best to raise out of the ones he has and why. He tells us that cows are the best. They are the easiest model for farmers because he does not have to buy food because raw food is provided from the earth and he does not have to spend a lot of time to take care of them versus chickens and pigs. There is also a higher risk of buying chickens and pigs because of the diseases they are easily accessible to. However, you need more money to buy cows, in many cases you must pay around 14M VND but for pigs and chickens you only have to pay between 3 to 7M VND.

After talking with Mr. Thin for about 40 minutes we ask him if has had to get any loans recently. Mr. Thin has a loan from the bank for 30-40M VND. He got this loan to buy chemical fertilizer for farm. The loan has no deadline and no interest rate but he has to pay it off in about 3 years. He is hoping that the money from the fruit and the selling of chickens or pigs can pay for the loan. We ask him if he would be interested in another to help his business and Mr.Thin has a lot to say on this matter. He is interested but he believes that the loan should be for more than 50MVND and have an interest lower than 0.659% per month and a time span of about 7-8 years. He would use the loan to grow his farm and cow-rearing business.

Mr. Thin, Nguyen Van Phan (23) (left), Nguyen Van Lam (30), and Ms. Loan.

Mr. Thin with the AEPD outreach worker

At the moment, he does not have money for saving but Mr.Thin tells us that in the past he bought something close to life insurance and when he got into his accident with buffalo and had to go to Hue for the treatment he was only able to get 900 VND and knew that he had been cheated because he has placed more in account. He has no income to contribute to a savings group. We also ask if he would want to participate in a group grant or loan but he says that it would be very hard to do this because managing a group would have to have strict regulation and each person would have to agree on what the business goals would be in order to effectively use the money and that is really hard for people of his age. It would be easier if they were all doing farming or a cow-rearing business and it would also depend on the interest because some might not agree with the same rate as Mr. Thin.

After taking pictures of the home and sons, we leave to the farm which I initially though was behind the house but it was actually up a narrow dirt road further into the mountains. We walk around and Mr. Thin shows where he has the grapefruit and jackfruit planted. We did not get to see the animals since it was almost midday and hot they were far under some shaded trees. Mr. Thin was proud of this land and showed every part with much excitement explaining that he is even thinking of raising some ducks since there is a small pond on the land.