21 Jan 2012
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!
15 Jan 2012
My trip to Soc Son province with Bloom Microventures is one of those things that just happened – I was looking around TripAdvisor for tours around the city. Yes, I know, tours. Me. The trouble with Vietnam is that there is very little public transport. Or rather, there is, but at a local level, there is a good chance that people will not allow a tourist to use it – an experience I made in Hanoi when trying to use the public buses. As a tourist in Vietnam, they expect you to pay. More than in neighbouring countries, but still only a fraction of what you'd pay in the west, so it's ok I guess.
Anyway, if you want to explore the countryside, you basically have three options: 1) Rent a motorbike – but even if you can ride one, maps are scarce, and not in English at any rate. 2) Rent a personal driver/taxi/motorcycle driver – expensive, and not the safest way to travel if you're on your own and at the mercy of the driver who can dump you in the middle of nowhere if he chooses. 3) Go on a tour. Cheap and easy. And surprisingly, in Vietnam, I took half a dozen of them and all were very interesting and didn't make me feel like I was tourist cattle being ushered around (well, 90% of the time).
So, the 4th best result for tours in Hanoi on TripAdvisor are BloomMicroventures' Microfinance Tours. If you aren't familiar with microfinance, it's a concept where organisations give small loans to people in developing countries to invest in their businesses. Because of the way finance and banking works, if you already have a house, car and a load of debt, it's easier to get another loan then if you live in a hut in the middle of nowhere, even if you only need $100 to invest. This is where microloans kick in. The most famous of such websites is Kiva, which has done extensive online marketing in the last couple of months.
Bloom Microventures was started by a group of students from the UK, was meant to be run in Central America, but through a couple of random events, they ended up working in Vietnam, lending money to women below the poverty line (that means less than $20 a month in Vietnam!) in Soc Son Province, a little north of Hanoi. They combine the concept of microfinance with tourism, letting small groups of people visit those benefiting from your money.
For my tour, we were picked up at the amazing Opera House in Hanoi in the morning. The group was a British family living in Hong Kong, four American ladies and me – and unlike Thailand, all of them had amazing things to tell and amazing projects or life stories! Vietnam seems to attract interesting people. The same goes for the Bloom team, with two Vietnamese girls who just started working there having their first tour that day.
We went for a walk in the countryside, went fishing with bamboo rods (well, some did...) had an amazing homecooked lunch (no place does tofu like Vietnam! Not even Japan), and went to visit the ladies...
To be continued, to not freak you out with a shitload of text ;)
14 Jan 2012
So, after Vietnam was a blast, I expected similar things for Cambodia. I am invincible, some kind of super travel woman and nothing and nobody in the world can do me any harm.
I was so wrong. Cambodia hit me. Hard. I'm not used to that - the shit always happens to other people, not me. Arriving in Phnom Penh was easy, of course there was the expected trouble with the tuk tuk driver who insisted our hotel doesn't exist and kept taking us to other places while actually driving past the hotel. That's not trouble.
A weird feeling started creeping on us when there was 'tourist police' with AK-47's walking along Sisowath Quay. When the prices in the restaurants where on par with London, and when we couldn't even look at the menu without having about 10 street kids begging at our table, let alone eat or do anything else. It got worse when on the second day, two kids followed us around town for 5 hours.
And then, trouble started. By card was eaten by an ATM and the bank said I could only have it back in 2 weeks (when I was planning to be already three countries further away). My main money source was gone, and I said to myself, how great that I am not on my own for a change. Except that my companion hadn't told me he was at the bottom edge of his overdraft. So he wasn't too sad when the next evening, some kids stole his purse with card and $30 dollars and when on the way back, three teenager boys threatened us with a knife he willingly dropped his phone. Police, you say? Well, good luck, unless you try to sell them coke or a 10 year old prostitute, the police in Cambodia does fucking nothing.
Even on my flight back out from Cambodia to Singapore, someone went through my backpack and stole the leftover notes of various currencies I had put in a little purse (not a lot of money gone and I was sure than I wouldn't use most of it ever again, but still, I saw them as souveniers with an emotional value).
We're slowly getting our stuff together, but worse than the loss of money or plastic is that of security, of confidence. I've had to admit that I am not invincible and there are things out there that are outside my control. It made me realise for the first time in years why people want security and stability, and what can happen to you if you not give those up willingly (like I did when I quit my job and moved to London, and later, quit my job and started travelling) but when you are forced or born into poverty and the feeling of being powerless. It reminded me of what it's like to be stuck in a place - a painful feeling, even if you do know that eventually, you'll make your way out of there. I can't imagine what it feels like if you know you probably won't.
Anyhow, there are good things I learned and experienced through this. I have some awesome friends who rushed to help and comfort me (and are going through ridiculous shit with Western Union, sorry Jana!). Surprisingly, it was my mother who jumped to help me out, for the first time since I was 11 years old.
Yet, I rode a horse through rice paddies. I cooked a curry in the jungle and ate dinner on a pavillion surrounded by a lake. I had a good cry at the shoulder of one my oldest friends. People from all walks of life, strangers, friends, acquaintances, even the hotel cleaners tried to reach a helping hand.
Cambodia was painful and beautiful on many levels. And exhausting!