My two-and-a-bit weeks in and around Hanoi have been incredible. Bloom Microfinance are doing great work giving rural communities access to investment capital and training programs. They’re also giving tourists a glimpse of the everyday life of Vietnamese villagers.
Here are a few things I’ve learnt on this program with Bloom:
Good land is in short supply in Vietnam. With a population density of nearly 300 people per square kilometre (in comparison Australia has around 3) that’s not surprising. This puts huge pressure on farming families, who need to grow enough rice to feed themselves, plus some extra crops to sell for cash.
For a communist country, Vietnam seems to love capitalism. I’d read lots before I came about the business boom that’s been happening in this country over the past decade – and it’s obvious in nearly every part of Vietnam. Everywhere you go there are ads for goods (foreign and local) and lots of new development. The good news is that the standard of living seems to be increasing for most Vietnamese people. The bad news is that the gap between the rich and poor is getting wider all the time.
Harvesting cassava is really hard work! In fact, all farming in Vietnam still uses a lot of manual labour. Workers here are just as likely to be women as men. And people work well into their 60s and 70s. I really admire the strength and stamina of the farmers we’ve met.
The only thing stopping NGOs from helping more is revenue. Raising funds is tough and time consuming. Most NGOs rely on foreign donors, who can influence how funds are spent. This can limit the options open to NGOs.
Traffic in Vietnam is crazy. From the incessant beeping to the motorcycles taking shortcuts through parks to the cars driving down the wrong side of the road, the streets of Vietnam are no place for the fainthearted. One of our Vietnamese guides told us that we were the bravest group they’d come across. We definitely embraced the gung-ho ‘just walk slowly into the on-coming traffic’ attitude very early on!
Young people in Vietnam are working hard to learn English. I was stopped on the street by three different sets of strangers wanting to practice their English on me. From tourism students in their mid-twenties to girls in their early years of high school, each of them wanted to improve their skills as they knew it was the best way to improve their career opportunities.
NGO fieldwork requires patience and empathy. Working with a community requires trust and that only comes with time and consultation. While that might make change frustratingly slow, it’s the only way to make it long-lasting. Communities need to be responsible for their own decisions, even if they’re making the “wrong” ones. All outsiders can do is offer their knowledge (when asked) and assist with resourcing programs that are truly desired by the community.
This is an excerpt from Dan’s blog 17 Days in Hanoi. Check it out to read more about her experience in Vietnam on the Poverty Reduction through Microfinance program in January 2014.