Posts Tagged With: Mekong Delta

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

Jumbo Shrimp … and no, that’s not an oxymoron.

 Duang Thi Anh Tuyet is a tiny slip of a woman—beautiful like a butterfly but in constant motion like a bumblebee.

The mother of two boys she has severe stomach problems and can’t work, but like most moms “not working” in developing countries, (or developed ones, for that matter) she does more before breakfast than most folks do all day.

Mrs. Tuyet at the edge of her shrimp pond.

Tuyet is part of a Self-Help Group that Heifer started in 2008 in her small village of Duc Tan in the Mekong Delta … and she’s made the very most of every opportunity presented to her. She got her first cow four years ago, and in record time had her first calf, passed it on to another needy family, then had another female calf.

Tuyet’s very photogenic (and curious) calf.

With the $100 in revolving loans that Heifer offers each family, she then bought 7 Muscovy ducks, 20 chickens, and a sow that is about a week away from having her third litter (and the piglets sell for $50/each). She repaid that loan, too.

An embarrassment of riches: the third litter is due in 10 days!

Not content with all that fecundity, Tuyet and her husband (who works in a rice-polishing factory for $4 – $6/day), dug a pond on their single acre of land and bought 50,000 black tiger shrimp larvae to raise in the dry season, when the salt water rises up from the sea through the Mekong River and floods their pond. The shrimp will feed for four months on plankton left behind by their saline-resistant rice crop, get bulked up for a few weeks with commercial feed, and then sell for about $3,300 – or $400 net profit.

Checking the size of her Black Tiger shrimp.

Tuyet’s beautiful 17-year old son.

With all the work she does with her animals, don’t think for a minute Tuyet is overlooking her sons. Her 17-year old is looking at universities and her 6th grader is tops in his class and earning a full scholarship – despite the fact that the family’s thatched roof house collapsed a year ago, and was only rebuilt to its current concrete sturdiness with a hand from Heifer’s Self-Help Group and its friends in government agencies.

Unfortunately, in Duc Tan, the majority of Heifer beneficiaries who got cows have sold them for easier-to-raise pigs and chickens (a faster way of earning income but subject to greater price fluctuations in the market, and diseases) but Tuyet wisely hedged her bets and raises all the above: cows, pigs, chickens and shrimp.

The final product … yummmm!

When I asked her group leader, Nguyen Van Hong, what Tuyet was doing that made her so successful with all her animals, he said, “Tuyet works very hard, harder than others. She takes care of her animals very well and knows exactly what they eat and what they need – from the good food she raises, to the vaccines she gives at the right time. She’s very precise.”

One precisely beautiful farmer

When I asked Tuyet the secret to her success, she replied, “I believe that if you try really hard, have good trainings, and are motivated, you can pull yourself out of poverty. That’s my goal.”

Tuyet is small… but she is mighty. I hope all her big dreams come true.

Categories: Animals, Farming, Heifer International, Inspiration, Photography, Travel, Vietnam, Women | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 27 Comments

Good morning, Vietnam!!

It’s impossible for someone of my (advanced) age to visit Vietnam without being overwhelmed with memories of the Vietnam War. I visited Hanoi and the North in 2005 and found myself blindsided by flashbacks, looking out over iridescent green rice paddies dotted with women bent over working in their nón lá  hats.

Forty years later, in the countryside, it still looks exactly the way it did on television in the late 60s, when we were first given a real look at modern warfare in this graceful land.

The day I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (the former Saigon) this time, I was gazing out the balcony window of my hotel when I suddenly realized I was looking at a U.S. Army helicopter. Across the street was the War Remnants Museum and since I had a few hours free, I paid my $1 and wandered in. Two hours later, I was staggering through the “Tiger Cages” exhibit, War Atrocities hall, and the Agent Orange gallery, feeling like killing myself, when the museum closed and I was free to leave.

The next day I traveled to the village of Duc Tan in the Mekong Delta and met the group leader of Heifer’s project, Nguyen Van Hong. He’s 70 years old and a great local organizer. But in his youth, he spent 14 years, from 1962 until 1974, fighting as a guerrilla – including 1 1/2 years spent in one of the infamous prisons I’d read about in the museum. In other words, he was Viet Cong and our enemy.

Nguyen weighs about 100 pounds and is frail as can be, but despite United States Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay’s promise that “we’re going to bomb them back into the Stone Age,” the people of Vietnam had been fighting for independence for thirty years before we arrived, and I can only imagine the tenacity and fierceness with which they battled.

Today, Vietnam is still a communist country and has been since 1975 when Saigon fell. (Which is ironic, since the Vietnamese are phenomenal entrepreneurs and terrific business people.) Every project that Heifer runs here has to include the government, so that’s a bit complicated, but when compared to “free” Cambodia next door, Vietnam looks like a model of transparency and efficiency.

The Vietnamese are elegant, graceful and lovely – particularly the women who seem to float down the street on their bicycles and look effortlessly chic, even in the fields. The men especially are also a little bit wacky. I never heard as much laughing as I did when I was in Vietnam; the people love to cut up, joke and laugh almost as much as they love to eat – and that’s saying something.

It’s a beautiful country; and even though I hear that as Americans, we’re never supposed to apologize (thanks, Mitt) here’s a statistic that should give you some pause: Between 1961 and 1967, the U.S. Air Force sprayed 20 million gallons of concentrated herbicides over 6 million acres of crops and trees. As of 2006, the Vietnamese government estimates that there are over 4 million victims of dioxin poisoning (the U.S. denies a causal link).

As you watch this peaceful video below, consider this: More than 3 million Americans served in the Vietnam War. By war’s end, 58,220 American soldiers had been killed, more than 150,000 had been wounded, and at least 21,000 had been permanently disabled.The average age of U.S. troops killed in Vietnam was 23 years.

A Vietnamese graveyard in a rice field.

Vietnam lost over 1.5 million.

Peace, y’all.

Categories: Heifer International, Hunger, Inspiration, Photography, Travel, Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 33 Comments

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