Monday, 28 January 2013

Vietnam adventure- Day 7- Hoang, his family and a day that will forever make me sad and happy in equal parts

Vietnam adventure- Day 7- Hoang, his family and a day that will forever make me sad and happy in equal parts

Guys, heads up, this is a long one. But it's been a long day. Pull up a chair and grab a beer- that's what I had to do to get through this blog...don't say I didn't warn you...oh, and these pictures are crap, one of the Actionaid staff were taking proper shots, which she will email to me tomorrow, which will be far better than these...

I was looking forward to my nights sleep last night with all the anticipation of a football fan on the first day of the season before he remembers how shit his team is. That is to say, having Skyped my Dad and cutie Charlie, I was sat on the toilet (sorry for the unattractive visual), when I saw something move. A gecko I thought, how sweet! Except this was the gecko's slightly less wanted in your bedroom, cousin, the lizard. He was obviously, as these things are, more scared of me than I was of it and went scuttling under the mini bar. I ran, I am ashamed to say, out into the corridor in my dressing gown, where I encountered a slightly inebriated German couple, who duly came in and helped search my room. Having not been able to find it, they said goodnight and left me the parting phrase "lets hope it doesn't get into your bed with you!". Still bitter about the war, I reckon. 

I took advice from you lot on Facebook as to what to do and I called reception. Two night guards were dispatched to deal with the situation. They didn't speak English, and so I found myself in a farcical sketch where I was miming being on the loo whilst a lizard ran past me, and then googling images of lizards to show them. Having pulled out the fridge and looked the room over, we agreed there was nothing more they could do, and they made to leave. Showing the guard the lizard picture once more, I asked, "could it be dangerous?" He shrugged in the non-committal way a Parisian does when you ask for directions, and left me to a fitful nights sleep.

After breakfast today, Kin drove us to Hoa Binh, a medium sized city about two hours from Mai Chau. During the drive we saw a lot of paddy fields- even more than I have grown used to. Until relatively recently, the Vietnamese MOUNTAIN countryside folk had avoided growing rice, fearing that the climate would not be right, but although in the Delta areas, they get 3 harvests per year, in this area, despite the cooler climate, they still average two harvests a year and are  currently in the process of preparing the land for the first round of planting.  Vietnam is a country with huge natural resources, and a population of around 90 million, and is second only to Thailand as the worlds largest rice exporter and also the number one exporter of coffee in the world. Yep, coffee- this was a surprise to me when I first heard, but then I don't drink the stuff

After a quick hours sleep, we went to pick up the ActionAid representatives from their nearby hotel. Kelly, Huang and JP are the Actionaid girls who I have been corresponding with to arrange today's meeting with Hoang and his family- they have been incredibly supportive and have really gone to a lot of effort to make sure that I am getting an in depth experience of what Actionaid do in this area of Vietnam.

We stop at a local shop at my request to buy gifts for Hoang- I gravitate towards a football- after all, what else would a 15 year old boy want- only to be told that actually, something practical like a coat might be a better idea. He doesn't have a coat. And he only has one pair of sandals, which, from what I understand, he shares with his mother. Yep, you did read that right. I buy him a warm coat (these parts of the mountains are cold, I have no idea how he has survived without a coat up until now), a pair of trainers and the football. It costs £25 in total- I think I got ripped off.

We drive up into the mountains, passing some stunning countryside which I am too nervous to take in. What if he doesn't like me? What if he hates the idea of being a "charity case"? What on earth do his parents think of all this?

Arriving at Hoang's family home is, in itself, like a kick in the gut. I don't really know what I was expecting, I guess one of the bamboo houses on stilts that Vung had shown me over the last few days. But this wasn't a picture postcard house. This was a mud hut. A one-roomed mud hut. You can see the walls and floor in the background of the photos above.

I was introduced to Hoang, wearing the brightest white shirt I have ever seen, and he shook my hand and after some ferocious prompting from his mother, he asked me in to his home. I was offered a chair to sit on because of my foot- a chair that had been borrowed from a neighbouring property. Yep, no chairs. The floor of Hoangs home was mud. The walls, packed into the bamboo structure, were mud. There was two hand built timber frames (no mattresses) which served as beds for the whole family. There was no other furniture in the room- the room itself was probably 15 ft square.

I was told that they washed and cooked in the hut next door- that is to say, that is where they light the fire and bring the bucket of water- they have no stove, no bathroom, no facilities.

I was offered, as seems to be the way throughout the Vietnamese minority culture, a cup of green tea, which I accepted- grateful to have something to do with my hands. By now, a crowd of around 20 people, including 4 local government officials had gathered at the entrance to Hoang's family home. The Government officials, I am told were there to make sure that we weren't corrupting the villagers with any anti-communist talk. It seems I was causing quite a stir. Now, usually I LOVE a bit of attention- but this was making me cringe- I was being treated like a celebrity- Kelly made a joke about me feeling like Angelina Jolie- but I didn't, I just felt embarrassed. Embarrassed that I was being treated like a star simply for coming to visit someone worse off than myself. And then I had a few moments where I questioned my motives. Was I doing this to make myself feel better, why had I come here? I'm not sure. There isn't really any such thing as a true altruistic gesture- is there? All I know is that I want to help- and I am in a position to. So i should.

Hoang and I, through the translation of Vung and Kelly, talked about his school, his family, my family (the first thing he did was ask after my "sons"- ie, Frank and Ted, my stepsons- I have mentioned them in previous letters and sent pictures), my job and his love of football. We talked about my broken foot and how I did it and his Dad marvelled at the effort I had gone to to get to them.

I then asked his Mum whether Hoang was good and if he helped her around the home. She explained through Kelly that he was a very good boy, who looked after his sister well and collected firewood every day after school. It is this firewood that the family use to cook with and to sell at the market for income to supplement the food that they can get from their land.

A great show was then made of Hoang putting on his ceremonial clothes. These are handmade by his mother and given to children at around 15 as a "coming of age" gift. It will be what he wears on his wedding day. His parents had wanted him to wear them for my visit- unheard of as these garments are not meant to be worn until marriage, but they were the smartest thing he has. As is the case with teenagers, there was an argument and Hoang won, hence the crisp white shirt.

Having heard  so much about Tet, The Vietnamese New Year that starts later this week, I asked about preparations for this- what were the family doing? There was much shifting around and Vung explained that this family was too poor- they wouldn't be able to do anything out of the ordinary. Later on Vung explained that Hoang's family were amongst the poorest he has seen- and that they were certainly the poorest in their minority tribe in that area.

Having been in Hoangs home for about 45 minutes, we were then all taken outside for photos. Not something his family are used to- as you can see by the expressions! There are some better ones to come- and even Grandma joined in.

Note the red flower that Hoang's Mum is wearing- she had saved this for today- and I was told that all of the village had put on their best clothes in anticipation of my visit.

Next I was asked whether I would like to meet the village elders and attend the festival. In for a penny, in for a pound, I thought and we all went together (Myself, the Actionaid girls, Vung and Kin, The government officials, Hoang and his family, and by now about 25 people from the village) up to the village hall (read- hut) where the monthly village meeting was taking place. This is hosted and controlled by the elders of the tribe and this month's is particularly important as it is used as an annual review and to look forward to the New Year.

I was greeted outside by yet more villagers- all of whom wanted to shake my hand. Or stroke me. One young guy (late teens I would guess- but aging here is hard, so it's not easy to tell) was determined to practice his English on me-"How are you" What is your name" "how old are you" and the like. A bit like me trying to use my GCSE French.

Lau, one of the Actionaid officials, who had been following us with a camera took charge. Now, Lau is a comedy character- if the situation hadn't been so serious, I would have thought I was being set up. Have you seen "Father of the Bride"??? You know "Frank", the camp wedding planner? Well, he isn't dead, he grew 2 foot (first tall Vietnamese person I have seen), learnt another language and moved to Vietnam. He was all jazz hands, spotlight smiles and overblown gestures. He requested that I sit in on the elders' meeting. The dude in charge (the one with the least teeth) said yes...and so, I found myself with another cup of green tea, sat on a bench in another mud hut being stared at by ANOTHER group of minority tribesmen. Except this was different- the atmosphere wasn't right. It had an edge to it... and the smell of the hut, well, enough rice wine had been drunk in there that morning that if I had lit a match, the entire thing would have gone up.

One of the "council", at a guess about 60 years old asked Lau where I was from- when he told him England, the old dude stared in wonderment at me. He said that he had heard of the place as he had once seen it on the TV but he never thought he would meet anyone from there as he wasn't sure it was real. He had never seen a white person before. Never. I think this goes some way to explaining how remote these people's lives are.

Suddenly a very cross man comes into the hut, shouting and gesturing wildly towards me. Sensing danger, Vung has me out of there before I can even say thank you to our hosts. I was mildly surprised that he didn't haul me out over his shoulder in an Officer and a Gentleman style. He was NOT happy about me being there. It turns out that although the eldest of the elders (or however it bloody works) had given his blessing but some of the others hadn't. The village is run quite democratically, you see. Ironic seeing as we are in a communist country.

We said our goodbyes to Hoang and his family, and drove up to Hoang's school where I was given a guided tour. This school is state funded, but Actionaid have been doing their bit to better the facilities available to the children- and staff. Up until they got involved, there were no toilets- the children relieved themselves in the woods before lessons. Now there are two toilets- one for boys, one for girls. Actionaid have introduced a children's charter, which they are implementing in this area- it lays down ten basic rights for children- the right to schooling, the right to fresh water etc- their aim is that it is stuck to- they have to work very hard at the moment to convince the elders in minority tribes to allow village children even to be educated. Actionaid have also installed a new water system- it isn't quite running, but it IS a well, and it IS safe. The money that I give Actionaid every month has also helped to buy Hoang and his classmates books, pencils and paper. And last year they kitted out the 230 pupils with uniform jackets. Is uniform really that important? I asked- "No, but jackets are", came the reply- most of these children didn't have one before.

My trip had come to an end- I had met pretty much the entire village, caused a drunken altercation, joined in a lesson at the school, drank so much green tea that I will be up all night, given Hoang a hug, met his family and learnt his way of life. I was shattered.

There is a phrase I have heard back in Blighty "Charity begins at home". Bullshit. All I can say after today is that it shouldn't. I'm not going to get too political here, but I am also not going to apologise for this summing up. 

The things that our children take for granted, even the very poor ones- including clean, running water, 4 walls that aren't made of mud for us to go home to, a bed, 3 meals a day (Hoang has just rice for breakfast and lunch each day as there isn't an alternative) the opportunity to gain an education, a pair of goddamn SHOES, a toilet- I could go on- are not a 'given' out here in the mountainous countryside of Vietnam. Not only are they not a given- they are a fucking privilege- and they shouldn't be.

Hoang is a brave, clever, engaging, polite, kind young man- if you can tell me that he deserves less than a British child does, and you can keep a straight face whilst you tell me that, then you should stop reading this blog right now.

Charity does not begin at home- charity should be available to anyone who needs it to get to a basic standard of living. Thank god for charities like Actionaid, because without them, kids like Hoang wouldn't stand a chance. Please call 0800 blah blah blah to donate now. Every penny counts.

In all seriousness, today has affected me in ways I never thought it would- the emotional highs of meeting Hoang and his family, and then the lows of realising what an uphill struggle he has to get out of that hut. Hoang wants to be a doctor. I hope he achieves his dreams.

I am returning to the village tomorrow to see some of the projects, including a vegetable growing initiative, that Actionaid have set up in Da Bac, Hoang's village. Vung and I are going to market first thing to but some food for Hoang's family. This year, they WILL celebrate Tet.

For the record, Hoang and his family don't have a mobile phone...


  1. Awww Katy - today I read your blog - I smiled, I filled up, I felt for you and I, and my brood, take our hats off to you!!! You are amazing and have the biggest heart!! Loved Hoang's new coat - hope he takes the label off though!!! Love your descriptions of different things - specially the smells!!!! Go girl!!! Big love to you!! Jxxxxx
    PS Gaby sends her love too!!

  2. That was emotional!! You have a heart of gold and today you made a difference xx

  3. Thanks Guys- your love and encouragement is very much needed and appreciated today xxx

  4. I've just got round to reading your blog - better late than never, and I couldn't agree more.

    The same is true in Cambodia. John and I visited and stayed at Who Will Village when we went back at Christmas time and we threw a party for the children, which consisted of a BBQ, a can of drink each and some music. I've never seen such gratitude or enjoyment from simply being fed and having some music.