I arrived in Saigon in Mid-August of 2007. I could feel the wave of humid air wash over me as our plane descended into Ho Chi Minh City International Airport. As the communist officer questioned me on my reasons for visiting Viet Nam, his guff tone made me stumble over my words, as I struggled to find the right words to describe my trip in Vietnamese. “I’m here to meet the Catalyst Foundation, an NGO.” I stumbled again. “We are going to build housing and a school.” He remained suspicious but allowed me to pass anyway.
The streets of Saigon were smoggy with vehicular and industrial air waste. The constant honking of motorcycles and scooters sounded obnoxious at first, then quickly became so familiar that its absence would have been disheartening. “It’s not so much an angry honk,” another volunteer explained, “it’s more like, ‘I’m here, let’s not accidentally kill each other.”
We took an eight-hour bus ride from the dense urbanity of Saigon into the sparse countryside of Kien Giang in the Rach Gia province of VN. I stared at the murky grey water as we waded across the Mekong Delta in a ferry, and caught my first glimpse of a woman balancing a load three times her size on top of her head. We got back on the bus and we all awoke from a sleepy haze as we arrived to our destination. We checked into the Linda Hotel, and had dinner with city officials that night to discuss our plans for Kien Giang and its inhabitants. One of the white-haired men leaned over to me. “We’ll be sending an officer to watch you.” Mentally, I cringed.
The first day was food distribution. With our limited funds, we had procured rice, noodles, and cooking supplies for families who had been living in the local garbage dump. Where I was and what I was doing never became more poignant as the moment in which I observed the village women looking inquisitively at Magali, one of the French volunteers. They had never seen a white person before. “Co do biet noi tieng Viet khong [does she know how to speak Vietnamese]?” One of the women inquired. Sadly for me, the “nguoi phap” speaks Vietnamese better than I do. My San Diego surfer talk unfortunately isn’t valued in rural VN.
Day two brought us our first visit to the local garbage dump, the residence of more than 300 people, mostly families and dozens of children. We took mopeds there, the narrow road unable to accommodate our bus or any automobile. I was strangely accepting of the fragrance of the dump, the pungency of fish sauce combined with motorcycle exhaust fumes was unfamiliar, yet not so extrinsic as to find it intolerable. One of the founders of Catalyst, Loan, gave us a tour of the dump when we first arrived. We suddenly found ourselves surrounded by dozens of children, some of them carrying small watermelons that grow within the dump. As we walked over tons of sewage and old rice bags, Loan told us the stories of some of the families that live there. “Most of these girls are at risk of being trafficked,” she explained. Rach Gia lies so close to the Cambodian/Vietnamese border that girls can be easily taken into Cambodia and not be seen again. “The men sometimes tell their families that they have a great job lined up for the girls being a waitress or working in a factory, but it just isn’t true.” The “fun vacation” part of my trip began its descent and the harsh reality began to set in. I think the most sobering part was when she showed us “the shack” where the traffickers take girls to rape them one at a time to see which ones scream the least, to find out which girls are easier to transport and tame. A few families invited us into their meager homes, we politely turned down a meal or two of fried rat, said our goodbyes and headed back to our construction site.
The local workers who were helping us (at a rate of about $50/month, which is more than the average wage in VN) expected us to take pictures and leave, but we stayed to help lay bricks and mix cement for the school. Most of the children living in the dump had never attended school before, vying instead to stay in the dump to collect things to recycle and sell for about 8-12 hours each day to help their families. As the day becomes dark, we return to our hotel. I stared at the strangely decorated walls with perfume with American “ROSS: REDUCED PRICE” stickers strewn on the shelves as I drifted off to sleep.
I awoke the next morning around 5:30am to the sound of Beyonce and Shakira’s “Beautiful Liar” on the television. That day was to be another day working at the construction site, then the kids from the dump would come see it for the first time. We worked until about 3pm when dozens of excited children started banging against the gates. Our director, Caroline asked me to open the gate. I apprehensively complied, as I felt the deluge of what seemed like hundreds of children pouring into the gates of the school. We distributed toys generously given to us by fundraising efforts from various Vietnamese Student Associations from across the US. The kids seemed to enjoy their new American toys and candy. A few of the younger kids try to steal things from each other, but one of the older girls kept letting the younger kids have hers.
Another week or so of construction work, and it was time to return to Saigon and end our expedition. We bid our bittersweet goodbyes to Kien Giang and Rach Gia and boarded our plane back to Saigon (we realized that taking a plane back would be more efficient). As our plane ascended, I watched as the Kien Giang’s grey fog dissipated from my sight.
We’re all aware of the existence of disadvantaged people and when we experience a glimpse of their situations, we feel some sympathy. However there always exists this distance between this small bit of sympathy and the internalization of the reality of it all. “Helping poor people,” for me, went from being a pretentious act of condescension to “doing what I have to do,” working with people who were just unlucky to be born into the situations that they were. Had my parents not been Vietnamese Boat People in 1975, I would most likely be in a similar situation. Reflecting on my teammates, the Catalyst Foundation, and the people of Kien Giang, I’m lucky enough to be able to say that I met the most amazing people in the world. They helped me stay grounded and continue to do so today. My experiences in VN have also made me feel much closer to my community of Vietnamese and Viet Kieu (those part of the Vietnamese diaspora). As an American-born Vietnamese person, I often feel so disconnected and displaced, and the people I met and experiences I had in VN succeeded in leading me back home.
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