Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Dec. 17 - villages outside Hue

I have been amazed by the poverty here ever since stepping off the plane. I knew (of course) coming to Vietnam would be eye-opening in itself, because I haven't really ever in my middle class suburban white lifestyle been exposed to real poverty. But going to the villages yesterday...it was like nothing I expected. It's difficult for me to describe the way that these people live. 

Yesterday we left in the morning and headed out away from Hue to the villages south of the city. Not that Hue isn't already quite poor, but driving farther out was like slowly entering into a different world. As we left the city, the buildings became fewer and fewer and the flood damage was really evident. The roads weren't paved, and animals were everywhere. Water buffalo, cows, and mangy dogs ran all over the place. We were driving along the river, and the water is so disgusting. It would take ages of filtration before that water would be good for anything, really. There is trash everywhere in Vietnam, especially farther out in the country. It is very dirty, and there is a distinct smell here that only gets stronger the farther out you go.  There is even trash in the trees along the river, from where the flooding made the river rise. You can really see how hard these people were hit by the typhoons. And it happens to them every year. Even though they know it will happen, they are still so poor there isn't anything they can do to prepare. They simply go to a shelter when the worst rains and flooding are upon them and wait, while the water washes their homes away. When the flooding is over, they rebuild their shacks for another few months before it happens again. Natural conditions like flooding are just one of many reasons why these people remain in such destitution year after year.

After driving past miles of countryside, we finally arrived near the villages along the South China Sea where Think About the Children has donated supplies to recently. We couldn't bring anything with us (the government is rather unreceptive to foreign aid, as I think Sophia mentioned before. It it understandable in a communist country, but it is a little frustrating when we have the resources to help but there are so many hoops for us get through before we can actually help the people) but we still got to see the people and where they lived. We also got to talk to them about what they needed, so that even after we leave, Think About the Children can better provide them with supplies.

After walking along the beach which, like everywhere else, was absolutely covered in trash (shoes, plastic, cardboard...everything you can imagine but mounds and mounds of it), we came upon a group of primitive boats, which was where the village was. As soon as we walked up, we were surrounded by people who recognized Liz as the girl who had given them supplies before. They look so dignified, these people. The women look wise beyond their years and speak to us with only their children in mind. When we asked them what they needed, they said everything, and meant it. They told us they would rather send their children to school than feed themselves. Everyone here seems hungry for education. It makes me want to never take my schooling for granted ever again. I have gotten to go to school for so much longer compared to most Vietnamese. School over here is no longer compulsory after the age of 9, but out in the remote villages, some children can only dream of going to school that long. Most of the parents have never been to school, either.

The children wore clothes that were tattered but clean, and most had shoes on their feet. But every single one was smiling, from the moment we arrived to the moment we had to say goodbye. They would smile for photos, play peek-a-boo, and they are so curious. Many of them have never seen white people before, and they just want to touch you. They like to run and play and laugh. Families are very close. The parents are all very hardworking and just want the best for their children. Seeing these things has really reminded me of what human beings all have in common. Beyond our material possessions, we are not really all that different, as cliche as it sounds. So I know these people are capable of so much, if they can just be given a chance. And really, it takes so little for any one of us to help them. It would only take about $9,000 to build a school here, Dr. Murray said. Our American money can go so far in a country like this one.

After we left the villages south of Hue, we went to the grocery store to buy more supplies for the children of the Duc Son orphanage. We went there on the way home, and were again greeting with so many happy little faces. I have never seen such beautiful children. If I come home with a Vietnamese baby, don't be surprised. It was hard enough for me to put one down in time for another one to come running into my arms. The orphanage is run by Buddhist women who are the most selfless people I have ever seen. They have such kind faces and are so thankful every time we walk in the door. They don't speak much English, but everything they want to say is written all over their faces. They give up every semblance of a normal life to provide for these children. And the children are truly all they care about. Their devotion is really promising to me. It restores my faith in humankind, that someone could be so selfless.

It was hard to leave the children that day, but knowing that we can go back (and with more food and toys to bring them) makes it a little bit better. I can already tell that those children are going to stay with me. Just another reason it is going to be very difficult for me to say goodbye to Vietnam.

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