When we entered some of the borrowers's houses, I really first though "So, this is not too bad" - neat poverty in the countryside, miles away from the hustle and bustle of Hanoi, where poor people do not disturb the rich. I am happy I waited to write this until after my unfortunate trip to Cambodia, a much poorer country where poverty hits you like a slap in the face. It's strange how we can easily accept some truths and decide to push others away because they are too close to us.
These women lived with their families in houses that had only 2-3 rooms, no real windows and old, but sturdy furniture. They have electricity and they have running water (although it's usually cold only and outside the house). It's funny when I look at the pictures now, because it didn't feel 'poor' or destitute at all. All of these people owned a house and some land and often even a motorbike – more than my family ever did when I was growing up. They were most welcoming, invited us to have some tea and joked around.
Things only hit me when we started talking about the family situation and their ages – the women who I thought looked to be in the mid to late 30s turned out to be around my age (mid 20's, that is), and had their first children in their late teens. Perfectly normal around here. You work in the fields, and then you have a baby. Maybe you cycle to town to sell some of your stuff all day, then cycle back, have some more babies.
While there is access to education in Vietnam (ironically for a communist country, it's not free, but not crazy expensive, either), many kids, especially girls, drop out early to look over their younger siblings while their parents work 24/7. Poverty, in this case, did not mean lack of food or a roof over their head, but a lack of hope and the option to move on and up in life.
While I am sure microloans are a good thing, I feel education is even more important – for example, one of the ladies was surprised that her kids were getting sick, although they had enough food and clothing. A brief look at their 'toilet' and hygiene explained why. The same goes for the animals – basically all the ladies said that they did not earn a lot through the animals they bought, especially the chicken, because they kept getting sick. This is where bird flu originated and yet, basic veterinary knowledge seems not to have caught up yet.
It's hard as an outsider to point a finger and tell where exactly things go wrong and what is the best to do, especially with a culture that's so different to the western culture. I'm not sure how to end this post, except with another recap of how much the people of Vietnam amazed me – their courage, their strong will to make things better, their playfulness in the face of hard work. I am confident they will build an amazing, prosperous country over the next couple of decades and I can't wait to be back!