Vietnam

It’s My Blog’s Day!

Last October, I proposed to Heifer International that I visit 12 countries in 12 months in 2012 to visit their projects around the world…. and they said yes!

Heifer 12 x 12 was born in January 2012, and today— 12/12/12 — I’m celebrating this journey of discovery & inspiration that is almost coming to an end. Thanks for coming along on this wild, joyful ride!!

Categories: Appalachia, Armenia, Cambodia, Cameroon, China, Ecuador, Guatemala, Haiti, Heifer International, Malawi, Nepal, Peru, Photography, Romania, Rwanda, Travel, Vietnam | Tags: , , , | 59 Comments

Thanks4giving!

Guatemala, January 2012.

The following faces have been brought to you by … you.

Haiti, February 2012.

You see, in 100,000 miles of travel to Heifer projects around the world this year, one thing has been utterly consistent.

Peru, March 2012.

People will take my hands, look in my eyes, and tell me to thank you.

China, April 2012.

Thank you for helping them to feed their children.

Nepal, April 2012.

…and send them to school…

Cameroon, May 2012.

….and stand with dignity…

Romania, June 2012.

…and have the chance to create a better life.

Appalachia, July 2012.

So this Thanksgiving, I’m bringing you their thanks.

Rwanda, August 2012.

Thanks for being so compassionate…

Armenia, September 2012

…for being so generous…

Cambodia, October 2012.

… and for your willingness to share your good fortune.

Vietnam, October 2012.

Look at the beautiful things you’ve done!

Malawi, November 2012.

Have a spectacular Thanksgiving weekend!

(And if you haven’t given to Heifer yet, I still love you ( : )

Categories: Appalachia, Armenia, Cambodia, China, Guatemala, Haiti, Hunger, Malawi, Mothers, Nepal, Peru, Photography, Romania, Rwanda, Travel, Vietnam | Tags: , , | 45 Comments

Bon bons, lots of mud, and the Lotus position.

I hate to pick favorites (my favorite country is always the last one I’ve been to). But in every country I visit with Heifer, there will be (at least) one person that I can’t get out of my mind. A person that I know I’ll be thinking about and worrying about for years to come. In Vietnam, that person was Thach Thi Sa Phinh of Koko Village.

Whatever she’s selling, I’m buying – what a cheerful face!!

Pretty Koko town, population 718, in Suc Thong province lies in the heart of the Mekong Delta and is primarily a Khmer community. The Khmer ethnic group, originally from Cambodia, seems to be regarded by the hard-working Vietnamese as an obstinately poor group that gets an inordinate amount of help from the government– but from what I saw in Phinh’s household, that stereotype is miles from reality.

Phinh & Quy, quietly talking business under the gaze of the Buddha.

Phinh and her husband Kim Sa Quy are in their early 30s with three children. They joined Heifer’s Self-Help Group in 2010 and received a heifer in August that year. (That cow is now blessedly pregnant.)

Phinh is gentle and tender with everything — even her heifer.

Then, with a $100 revolving loan from Heifer, Phinh opened a small business stall in her house, selling necessities like tea, seasonings, cookies, sugar, flour, and oil. Every day she and her husband get up at 3 a.m. and drive their motorscooter to a big market an hour away, buy and load up 15 kilograms of fish, pork and vegetables, and bring it all home to sell, opening their store at 6 a.m. when people stream to Phinh’s house to buy food they can quickly cook and take with them to the fields where they’ll spend the day working.

Phinh grew up very poor and can’t read or write but she’s taught herself to do numbers; her 12-year old daughter helps write the customers’ names and keep the books. Because no one in Koko has much money, everyone buys from Phinh on credit and she is repaid at harvest time, without fail.

A good team… Phinh runs the store, her daughter keeps the books.

After the shopping surge ends at about 8 a.m., Phinh goes to tend her 2,000 square-meter lotus field that’s a bit of a walk from the house. She and her husband, who works day labor, saved $1,500 and then bought another 3,000 square meters, which they are devoting to growing grass for their cow, a little rice, and bon-bons (I couldn’t find a translation but stubbornly kept visualizing a field of gorgeous chocolates).

These are the real bon-bons and yes, that is Phinh’s very sharp knife.

Of course, I was dying to see both fields, so we trekked out through the mud and sat admiring the lotus plants that will earn Phinh $20 every 3 days. She learned how to grow lotus from her grandfather and knows how to pick each root at just the right time – individually plucking each plant from its watery home. Twice a week she harvests 20 kilos of lotus root (it’s SO delicious!) and sells it for $1/kilo at her store.

The original lotus position.

Phinh’s bonbons in her new field looked like baby leeks but tasted sort of sweet. Those vegetables are collected once a month and sell for about 55 cents/kilo (75 cents) during the lunar festival. Her new field will produce 300 kilograms in a year’s time, which means that all her wading through thigh-deep water and bending over harvesting each root will yield about $150.

As we were sitting with our toes in the water, talking about my life and hers, Phinh said poignantly, half in jest, “Our life here is so hard. Why don’t you take me back to the United States with you?”

It was so pretty in that field, I couldn’t imagine wanting to leave, but then, I also could see the incomprehensible difficulty of  life here. And I knew Phinh was worried about her oldest daughter, who had just quit school after Grade 5 so she could stay home and help out with the younger kids (5 and 3) while her parents are working so hard in the fields and store.

Such a smart, beautiful girl .. I hate that she’s not in school!

Phinh and Quy have bought her a bicycle to try to persuade her to go back to school, but she feels it’s more important to help her parents with all their work. And that’s kind of breaking Phinh’s heart, although she is deeply touched by her daughter’s sense of devotion. I was torn by my undying belief that education is the key to a better future, and my feeling that I couldn’t possibly understand the complexity of what this family is going through.

Saying goodbye is hard to do.

But what I knew for sure was that whatever happened in the immediate future, Phinh’s family was moving forward. I wished I could bring some of America’s great abundance to this beautiful little family, but I also know Heifer already has. Now it’s up to you & me (and Phinh and Quy) to keep it going.

Godspeed, Phinh … you’re in my heart!

Categories: Agriculture, Heifer International, Inspiration, Mothers, Photography, Travel, Vietnam, Women | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 17 Comments

On the banks of the Mekong River.

If you (unlike me) are a big lover of frog legs, this is gonna be your favorite post ever. In the event that you (unlike me) are an eel sushi aficianado, you’ll probably think I should be Freshly Pressed. But if you just like stories about people succeeding against all odds, you’re also in luck. Because this is the tale of people with virtually no land, living by the mighty Mekong, and making their way with a lot of clever ingenuity and a little help from their friends at Heifer.

Not much land to farm here.

Ms. Vo Thi Kim Hoang is 39 years old and lives in Phuoc Loc in the heart of Vietnam’s 15,000 square mile Mekong Delta. Her tidy little house lies on a canal and she is using every square inch of her small back yard and water frontage to maximum advantage.

Ms. Vo Thi Kim Hoang: Frog Whisperer & Eel Queen.

In the canal, she’s raising 2,000 frogs (and tadpoles) in cages she and her husband built.

That’s a whole posse of frogs!

Kim started her enterprise with a $100 revolving loan she got from Heifer (and has paid back). She spent $150 on commercial feed to promote her frogs’ growth, and just sold 1,000 frogs for $250 (that’s just half her crop; she’s fattening up the others for larger profit), and she intends to double her production this year.

Ribbit, ribbit.

That includes selling tadpoles at $50 for 1,000 tadpoles –about the output of one couple’s eggs. Kim is really good at mating her frogs (they have a special “love room”) and 5 days after mating, the eggs hatch and the tadpoles develop. In three weeks, they’ll become baby frogs and four months later, they’re ready for… you know what.

If you’re going to mate frogs, you better be able to tell the boys from the girls.

There’s an almost limitless appetite in Vietnam for frogs’ legs so Kim has no problem selling her frogs to a food aggregator for the supermarkets. The same goes for eels, a big delicacy in this fish-loving land. But eels are a bit more demanding to raise than frogs.

The whole back yard is devoted to eels (and one heifer).

First, she and her husband built four big plastic-lined tanks in their backyard (at @$20 each). They paid $300 for 120 kilos of eel fingerlings (about 3,000), but they don’t need to buy commercial food because Kim feeds her eels snails, which the eels love.

Yep, those are the ones!

Snail eggs… eecchhh!

Snails grow wild in all the rice fields, and they’re a huge pest for the farmers, ravishing the tender rice plants. So every dawn and dusk, Kim does her farmer friends a favor and goes out to the fields and collects about 45 pounds of snails, scoops out their flesh, chops it up and feeds it to her eels. In six months, her 3,000 eels will weigh between ¼  to ½ kilo each, that she can sell for $5/kilo directly to the supermarket, netting her about $3,000. Now that will be a big slimy day!

Kim’s healthy crop of eels.

I love how the river people in Vietnam use absolutely every inch of their property to prosper– and grab every opportunity with both hands. Not only has the $100/family Heifer revolving fund allowed people in the Self-Help Group to start new enterprises and invest in themselves, each participant also receives 52 Heifer trainings in how to feed, shelter and breed their animals (or fish or amphibians)– and local representatives are also sent to other villages to learn their best techniques and good ideas.

Future eel farmer of Vietnam….

When you consider how quickly someone who’s raised themselves from poverty can sink back into it – with a crop failure, crash in meat prices, epidemic or natural disaster (this is flood country)—the logic of diversification deftly practiced by these river people of Vietnam is irrefutable.

Despite my fear of eels (of course they dropped one right on my foot, causing me to do the girly scream and 6-foot vertical leap), even I can see the beauty here. For one thing, what’s not to like about an animal that starts out female, lays eggs, then becomes a male (and has to raise the children)??

An eel and a snake met in a bowl….

Reely cool, right?

Categories: Animals, Food, Heifer International, Photography, Travel, Vietnam, Women | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 29 Comments

The life of rice.

If you want to understand Asia, you need to understand rice. But I realized that as many lusciously green rice fields as I’ve seen this year, I know nothing of how it’s grown. So I asked Heifer’s own Mr. Tham for a rice tutorial.

First, a little background: Rice is a cereal grain, the world’s 2nd largest staple crop, 12,000 years old, and responsible for providing 1/5 of the world’s calories. It’s a labor intensive crop (to say the least) and demands high rainfall, as fields are flooded to reduce pests and weeds, while or after young seedings are “set.”

Rice planting starts with letting the seed rest –as Tham put it, “at least 2 weeks of sleep after drying.” Then the seed can be planted either by throwing it directly onto the soil; or soaking it in water for 24 hours, rinsing and placing in a container to germinate in bulk for 48 hours, then casting the tiny young sprouts in the rice field and letting them grow for 20 days before transplanting. I have to say that I didn’t quite understand the transplanting deal, but when a rice plant is fully submerged, apparently you have to dig it up and transplant it to deeper fields. Which is really an insane amount of work.

Transferring seedlings.

As the seedling grows up, the very important arching protective leaf becomes mature, and the stalk develops many flowers inside. 30 days later the flowers blossom and male pollen fertilizes the flowers with the help of wind pollination. Every flower becomes a seed, and these rice kernels grow to fill the husk, become mature, turn golden yellow, and then the rice is ripe and ready to harvest.

Leaf, bud, full kernel.

At this point the rice is cut and bound into 10 kilo bundles, stacked and threshed.

Threshing rice by the side of the road.

The rice straw is blown out into big piles (we’ll get back to that later) and the empty seed husks collected, while the brown rice kernels are placed in big 50-kilo bags.

That’s a heavy load.

This unmilled rice, or paddy, is dried until it only has about 12% humidity (a farmer can tell when it’s ready by cracking it with his teeth), then either taken to a polishing mill where the germ and remaining chaff are removed, or stored for home use (or put down for a little nap and replanted). Polished white rice lasts longer than brown rice, but the brown is more nutritious, as I’ve told my unpersuaded children for years.

White is nice, but brown is better. (You’ll never win this argument in Cambodia or Vietnam.. or my house).

Because people in developing countries are masters of using every single thing for good, the rice by-products are never thrown away. Rice straw is used to raise mushrooms, feed cattle, cook with, make thatched roofs or dusters, mixed with mud for stucco, for handicrafts and paper, as bedding for poultry, and to mulch fields.

Green gold – rice straw.

Rice husks are used as fuel, in ash as potassium fertilizer, as a medium to raise mung bean shoots, to make artificial wood, or mixed with sand and cement to make roads. And just to complete the righteous recycling circle, when people aren’t using their rice fields to raise a crop, they use them to raise fish and ducks.

Lotus, fish, ducks – in the off-season, a rice paddy is a versatile thing!

So the next time you tuck into a big bowl of rice (Wild Rice Thanksgiving stuffing??), think of all these beautiful people around the world, working so hard to raise it.

And enjoy!!!

My tutor, Heifer’s Mr. Tham, loves his rice.

 

 

Categories: Agriculture, Farming, Food, Photography, Travel, Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , , | 30 Comments

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