To be perfectly honest, Austin and I did not want to return to Nghi Son, Vietnam when he received the staffing email. It’s not that Vietnam is not a beautiful country, or that the people are not so friendly and lovely, but it was a hard assignment for our family last time. So, coming back here was not on our wish list, to say the least. This city has sprung up over the last few years because of the construction of a power plant, cement plant, and new refinery, and before that, this was one of the poorest areas in Vietnam. It is uncomfortable for me for a few reasons. Things here are very third world. The water is not clean, the trash situation is not great, and people are just trying their best to survive and make the best life possible for themselves and their families. I just want to help them all, but it is hard to know what to do without coming across as offensive or condescending. Aside from that, there are very few places for the kids to play, and not much for us to do. I can’t let Owen out of the stroller while we’re out and about except for a few clean places to play because of cow pies and trash. There is a small “playground” near the dirty trash beach with some broken plastic play equipment that we frequent. The boys are learning to swing themselves! It seems that whenever I am feeling comfortable, and giving myself the peptalk, “Yeah, this isn’t so bad, I can totally do this!” then someone gets bad diarrhea. Maybe TMI, but it’s reality. There are just too many ways for us to get diarrhea here- something at breakfast, inadequate washing (with clean water), peeling or boiling of produce, getting water from bath in the mouth, or swallowing some water at the beach.
I think it’s my fault that we’re here. When praying to know what we should do next with our lives, and where we should go, I prayed to be brought wherever God needed me to be. I pledged my willingness to do whatever work He wanted me to do. Well, last time I did that, we were shipped off to Vietnam. This time, same thing happened! So I know that we are here for a reason. I’m just not sure what yet. If nothing else, I am more committed than ever to find meaningful ways to serve in my community wherever I am. There is so much need in the world, and many people have no idea the realities that people around the world face everyday. I am a first-hand witness to their struggles, and I will dedicate time for the rest of my life to helping in whatever way I can. If anyone has suggestions of reputable charities with low overhead that I can partner with/donate to, let me know!
So, building codes are not quite the same here. It seems like there is always construction going on- either tearing down or building up. There are abandoned houses with missing walls or roofs all over town, and new houses/shops being built! We can see the construction from far away because there is a pile of sand and a pile of gravel in front of the site. To make mortar, the workers (usually just the owner of the house and family or friends) mix a bag of cement, water, sand and gravel with a shovel and cart it off in wheelbarrows to wherever it’s needed in the house. For multi-story projects, and improbable number of thick, dried bamboo rods are used to hold up the ceiling until the cement dries. Scaffolding for multi-story projects is typically just a bunch of bamboo tied together, and it’s frightening to see how off-kilter some of the buildings are that are under construction near our hotel. Hopefully they stay standing for a long time!
Bicycles and scooters are the transportation of choice around here. Very few people can afford cars, and so the only cars we see are owned by the refinery and used to transport workers. I see so many tiny kids riding tiny bikes. People here are tiny, and so their kids are so small! The five-year-olds are at least a head shorter than Landon, who is turning five this month!
The pictures with frames in this post are courtesy of Landon, who is quite the budding photographer. He takes his camera to the market with us, so the pictures are the things we see from his point of view- the front seat of the stroller. Most of the stores on the “main road” to the market do not have doors. Instead, they have metal gates or a roll down garage-type door that they close at night. So, all day long, all of their wares are exposed to the dust and grime of the street. Since our last time in Vietnam, I’ve noticed a few more clothing stores pop up, a kid’s clothing store and a few more shops have doors on them. That’s a big deal! That means that they are doing better economically!
I don’t think there is any way to describe how much water is in Vietnam. It makes everything so beautiful and green, but there are also problems. We had a few storms within the first week of our arrival, and the main street turned into a giant puddle. It was impassible for several days, so we had to take the main highway road around the puddle section in order to get to the market. Those on scooters just rode through, though. Eventually, I think the water is absorbed or drains into vacant fields behind the houses and in between the houses, but for the few days after the storms, there is a lot of standing water. There is no such thing as a rain gutter in this town. And when it rains, it rains buckets and buckets of rain. And not just a few downpours, but buckets and buckets of rain all day long!
Feeding my family is one of my biggest challenges. We could just order room service every night, but that would get old fast and is fairly expensive vs. home cooked meals. Last time, we had a hotel room with a living room, dining table and kitchen. I was still unhappy to be there, mostly because Owen got diarrhea for two weeks and I had a bad attitude. This time, there were no kitchen rooms available when we checked in, so we’re in a slightly bigger room with a curtain separating our sleeping space from Landon and Owen’s sleeping area with a couch and refrigerator. After a few weeks, a small kitchen room opened up, but there was not going to be room for the boys to sleep, so we just stayed put. Fortunately, the hotel has a communal kitchen downstairs where we can cook. It’s become a fun part of our routine every day- I grab a bag and stuff all the things I need to make our meal in it, and Landon packs some toys and books for him and Owen to enjoy, and we head down to the kitchen. Usually we are the only ones there, but sometimes we have to share. As far as buying food to cook, the nearest supermarket is 30 minutes away, and the nearest large supermarket with meat and butter is an hour away. We don’t have a car here, and so those taxi rides get expensive, just to get to the store! I will not buy meat locally, as it is freshly butchered in the dirty street with flies all over, but I’ve heard the seafood is really fresh if you go to the open-air daily market early in the morning. Unfortunately, Austin commented that the plants operating in this area are dumping some pretty nasty stuff into the sea, and so we should not swim or eat the fish from here. Ick.
Aside from meat, peanut butter, jam, sliced bread, and anything in the refrigerator section, I can buy the other things I need in my area. It is a major treasure hunt, though. There are many small stores that are just the front room in people’s houses. The shelves are normally stuffed with dusty merchandise, and I think it’s supposed to operate like a general store. If I knew Vietnamese, I could ask the shopkeeper for what I want, and they would find it for me. Unfortunately, I do not know Vietnamese, so I must search. I’ve found flour, oil, shelf stable milk, diapers, wipes, cups of noodles, soy sauce, salt, sugar, and rice in these little shops. I also buy most of our produce at the open-air market. It’s always an adventure, and Landon does not like the noise or the smell. The noise comes from all the motor bikes whizzing by on a narrow street, and the smell comes from the fish and meat just sitting out in the sun, exhaust from the motor bikes, plus the live chickens and ducks for purchase.
You wanna know the worst part? I feel SO GUILTY for complaining about any of it. Sure, it’s not ideal, but I feel guilty just existing here. I feel guilty for not having to work, and having the time to play with my kids whenever I want. I feel guilty for having a nice double stroller to push them around in so that we don’t have to stay in the house or carry them with me when we go to the market. I feel guilty for having the means to eat enough food to necessitate exercise to burn off excess calories. I feel guilty for not having to do laundry by hand out in the street in plastic tubs. I feel guilty for being able to buy whatever I want for my family. I feel guilty that my kids have so many toys while the kids here only have one or two, and most of them are broken. I feel guilty for working up a sweat and then being able to go back to my nicely air conditioned room to cool off. I feel guilty for having lights that I can turn on whenever I want, and running water inside our room. There is so much need that it is really hard to know where to start. I contacted some humanitarian missionaries from my church to try to help out, but their projects are in the major cities, not out here in the boonies. I asked the hotel manager if there were any orphanages or homes for the disabled here where we could visit or volunteer, but there are not. I think it would be easier to find ways to help if I knew Vietnamese, but I don’t! I knew that we came back here for a purpose, but I am having a hard time figuring out exactly what that is. One thing that came to my mind was to try to invest as much of my money into the community as possible. Buy from the local shopkeepers. Buy produce from the farmers at the market. Buy a few toys for Landon for his birthday, and have him clean out his toys when we leave and give some away to the kids who don’t have very much. I walked past this certain seamstress shop a few times. Like most of the other shops, the front of the building just opens out onto the street. A certain really pretty blue fabric caught my eye, and after a few times passing it, I knew I needed to ask about her making me some funky, comfy pants. I love Asian comfy pants!
When I stopped at the shop, grabbed the fabric and started pantomiming what I wanted, the seamstress got up off her chair to measure me. I noticed that she seemed to have a moderate case of spina bifida, causing her to be disabled and not able to walk normally. Her legs were very skinny and did not have much muscle mass to support her. It was amazing how well she was able to get around, even with her disability. Spina bifida is one of the most common birth defects associated with Agent Orange, a chemical defoliant used by the U.S. during the Vietnam War. It stays in the environment for a very long time, and there are still children born today with birth defects caused by this terrible weapon. I knew right then and there that I wanted to help her family. She lives with her mom, husband, and baby son. Her husband seemed to always be home- he has some vision problems, so I’m not sure if he works. After taking measurements and picking out fabrics, she set out to make me custom comfy pants for less than $10/pair! I know she probably over charged me compared to Vietnamese clients, but I don’t even care. The fabrics were gorgeous and she did a great job!
She finished my pants in only two days. I took orders from family for pants, and went back to her shop with all of the measurements. It took a little while for her to realize that I was trying to order for other people, but the process went pretty smoothly after that. I ordered 10 additional pairs of pants, which totaled out to more than month’s worth of pay for the typical Vietnamese laborer. I hope it helped her family. She was very happy to sew for us, and always invited my boys to come play in the front of her shop while we did our business.
Ok, enough depressing stuff. Let’s discuss some of the good/funny/quirky things about Nghi Son. Owen is in paradise because there are random animals EVERYWHERE. From the herds of cows (new babies right now!) to the goats that wander around on the main road, to the live chickens, roosters, and ducks at the market, if we set out to find animals, we can find them. There are also herds of water buffalo wherever there’s a field. Farmers use the buffaloes to plow their fields! There are many stray dogs, but we try to stay away from them. No rabies for us. At first, I wondered who the cows belonged to. Recently, I realized that at critical times like at the end of the day, cowherds (usually women) come out and herd the cows. I’m not sure where they are taking them, but it makes me happy that the cows belong to someone. The baby cows are SO CUTE! Thankfully, we’ve only seen one dead baby cow, and it was already skinned and getting prepared for butchering. Today, we saw a roasted dead dog at the market. That was pretty sad. We also saw a family in the process of killing a goat the other day. We were walking down the road and I thought a child was crying. I looked around and saw a goat tied up and hung upside down. They seemed to be trying to kill it, but it was taking awhile. That was pretty sad. It’s summer here in Nghi Son. The temperatures are in the mid-nineties with a real feel of over 110 degrees F most days. It’s very hot and very sticky. The sun comes up very early, and sets by 6:30 or 7. So by the time we go outside to walk to breakfast at the restaurant, it’s already 90, and the sun just beats down in the morning. Last time we were here, it was winter time. It was in the seventies most of the time, and pretty comfortable. I wore shorts and T-shirts, and dressed the boys in the same. All of the native Vietnamese were in sweatshirts and pants and commented in sign language that my boys were cold and needed jackets! So, I thought that coming here in summer, people would be dressed differently. The kids are all in T-shirts and shorts, but they are not allowed to go outside in the sun very much. We find them playing in the shade or in their houses. When the adults MUST go out in the sun, or those that have outdoor jobs, they wear long sleeved jackets, pants and a hat so no skin is exposed to the sun. It’s a cultural thing, and we’ve seen it throughout Asia, but I have never had so many people- especially women around my mom’s age- try to tell me in sign language that I need a hat and to cover my shoulders! When we go out in the mornings, I wear my workout clothes and power walk/run wherever we are going because otherwise I overheat and sweat through my clothes. Then I take a mid-day shower before lunch and nap time. Anyway, I’m a former competitive swimmer from California. I legitimately thought that my skin was the color of my tanned skin, and that belly skin was just a lighter color for everyone until I moved away to Utah for university and started swimming indoors. So, I love being tan. I feel better when I get my Vitamin D. For the Vietnamese, they think that tan is ugly and a sign that you have a hard labor job and can’t cover up. In southern China, everyone carried umbrellas for sun protection, in Korea, there were crazy big hats and visors. In Vietnam, people cover up and wear the traditional domed hat or army helmets to keep the sun off the face. Our hotel room is on the second floor and looks out on the ocean and the drive of the hotel. Hotel workers just going in between buildings will use whatever they have to shield their faces from the sun- even for short walks in between buildings! Jackets, books, aprons, papers- anything to prevent sun exposure! I should add that sunscreen is not really a thing here. I was at the beach the other day, and these two tiny ancient fishing ladies came up to me. I was in a swim suit, and did not have a hat. They started motioning basically asking me to put on a hat, and I showed them sunscreen. Then they left me alone. This isn’t my first Asian rodeo, but this is my first time with so many motherly figures trying to take care of me and keep me from becoming tan and ugly.
The beach by our hotel is not very clean. The sewer runs straight out into the water, and although trash collection seems to have improved, many people still either burn or dump their trash near the ocean. But, when the tide is out far enough, there is enough exposed sand that I feel OK about the boys digging a little if we go far away from the sewer. There are millions of tiny little crabs that dig little sand holes and leave tiny balls of sand all over the beach. They are fun to watch! There are also really cool shells here that we collect sometimes. If we want a good beach, we head to Nghi Son Eco Island or Bai Dong beach which is on the other side of the mountain pictured below. It is relatively clean and very isolated and peaceful. We like it a lot. Vietnam is such a beautiful country. The landscapes here are so breathtaking. I hope that as the economy picks up here and things modernize, they can take steps to preserve their gorgeous natural resources. Nghi Son is on the coast, with green hills all around. Everywhere we look it is like a National Geographic photo!
I saved the best for last, everybody. The people of Vietnam are some of the most friendly and open people I’ve ever met. As we walk to the market, everyone smiles and says “hello!” or “xin chao!” When we get to the market, everyone wants to talk to and touch the boys. It blows my mind when an English-speaking Vietnamese person asks us where we’re from, and we say “America” and they respond favorably. We are living in a city on the Gulf of Tonkin, where the war started. We are in the former territory of North Vietnam. I’m not proud of the things that happened between our countries during the war, and I could totally understand if they were not happy about us being here, but everyone is SO HAPPY that we are here. This picture is from an impromptu play date we had at the market, in a dusty warehouse where the fruit seller charges people to park their scooters while they go into the main part of the market. Landon brought his backpack full of Hot Wheels, and wanted to show a few of them to one little boy. Within a few minutes of him getting the toys out, there was a whole pack of little boys who came over the play. They were so excited to play with new toys, just like Landon would have been in the same situation! Some other moms brought a few toys over as well, and everyone just played. Landon is starting to see some of the economic inequality. Many people don’t have money to pay for disposable diapers, so their babies just don’t wear anything on the bottom. There are tons of kids running around without shoes, and everyone else just has cheap sandals. Landon noticed that many kids don’t have shoes and asked me why. After I told him they did not have money for shoes, he was shocked and asked why they didn’t just go to a bank. We discussed where money comes from and that wages here are low. It’s legitimately shocking at times to see how these people live, and yet they are still happy, smiling, and glad to see us.
Coming here has been a nice reminder for me that I have NOTHING to complain about. In the U.S., I will have a dishwasher, air conditioning and heat, a washing machine and clothes dryer, a safe vehicle, and plenty of food. It certainly puts things in perspective for me, and I hope it can for you as well. Be grateful for all the things you have been blessed with! Assess your purchasing patterns and “needs”. Dedicate some resources or time to helping those in need! I know I will!