Last week, four of us from the office took a trip to the Son La Province for routine financial monitoring for the Enhanced Homestead Food Production (EHFP) project that is being piloted there. The province is situated about 150 km (~3 hours) west of Hanoi and is known for having one of the highest rates of poverty and malnutrition in Vietnam.
We started from the HKI office at 6AM (crack of consciousnesses for me, but prime time for jazzercize and badminton for the rest of the neighborhood). One breakfast pho pit-stop and 2 hours of snoozing in the back of the van later, I awoke to see that we were surrounded by layers and layers of hills, jutting limestone cliffs, and dipping valleys. Yes it was all very green, but a different kind of green than I experienced in Bangladesh; while Sylhet was lush and dense, here the green was open and dynamic, a more varied landscape and seemingly random patchwork texture (intentional and not) from myriad plants and crops.
It was about 11AM by the time we arrived at the project site and we were greeted by the district deputy. P and Q, the financial team at Hanoi, did most of the talking while T (the other intern, a local) and I sat back. Same goes for the meeting at the local HKI office with people I frankly don’t know about financial matters I frankly don’t know about. I did get to look around the clinic that the office is housed in– a modest but clean facility a couple of examination rooms and a few patient beds, the only one of its kind for surrounding communes– and stare at the landscape while fumbling through conversation with T (thank god for the Notes app).
After lunch at the only restaurant in the village, we all attended a cooking demonstration in Diet Village. Today’s lesson was on preparing pork meat and tofu spring rolls with herbal leaf, a nutritious dish that would be palatable to young children. It was encouraging to see how engaged both the facilitator and audience were in the process. The facilitator, an HKI field staff member, pulled some of the mothers to carry out the steps she was explaining, and other family members present asked questions about what was good and bad for children (“Why is MSG bad? We grew up with and we turned out alright.”). Everyone could sample the dish once it was done and most importantly, the children seemed to find it delicious–fried meat roll, who wouldn’t? More good news, a mother we later spoke with showed interest in being a facilitator herself for the next demo!
We traveled to three more villages after that, winding through narrow mud tracks on foot/motorbike/van and through vast open fields bathed in the golden late afternoon sun. I’m sure I looked like an idiot, but I couldn’t help walk around wide-eyed and mouth agape, in awe of each painting unfolding before my eyes and gratitude for the opportunity to experience it all. I am sap personified.
According to Q, things were carrying on rather smoothly and with impressive progress since the check-up in July. Not everyone was experiencing the same success with the project, though, as we saw when we visited to the poorest household in one of the villages. Atop a hill, a family of five lives in a sparse one-room wooden shack, virtually empty save the cups of tea the wife, Thi E. laid out on the floor for us. Her twin sons, quiet and slight for 3 year olds, eagerly sucked down the sugary orange drink P handed to them. A pig stays in a tiny pen and a couple ducks waddle around out front, but this is barely enough to sustain the family. As the wife put it, they cannot afford to plan beyond today and tomorrow. While they are dedicated to project activities, some families such as Thi E.’s are still struggling to climb out of poverty.
Our hotel was 25 km away from the sites, and on a side of town that was basically a ghost town of vague buildings and empty streets. We found one restaurant that was still open and ordered boiled duck. As we sat in this warehouse we had to ourselves, save the owners, we talked about breakups and true love. I joined P and Q in teasing T about having just gone through a break up and who kicked whose ass*. Now, the ladies at HKI are friendly and chatty, but they are some years older than T and I, married, with kids, so I wasn’t expecting that we’d all be getting along quite like this. T, one of two guys in the office and always the gentleman (pulls out chairs, puts food on my plate, etc.), generally shy and reserved, was laughing and dishing out dirt right back; P told us about marrying her first and only love; Q explained her more… efficient method for deciding on her now-husband; I even opened up some about my take on love. Away from our office desks and family obligations, we were more like a few friends on retreat.
We walked off some of the duck strolling around a micro amusement park nearby that only fit in to make the ghost town feel even more eerie. Luckily, my coworkers craved sweets as much as I did and we ordered che from a small cart. Che is basically a sundae made of crushed ice, milk, and a variety of mix-ins; mine had pomelo, red beans, peanuts, and what looked like rolled oats: surprising, refreshing, satisfying.
Day 1 covered more ground than expected, so we were expecting to wrap up and head back to Hanoi by lunch. First up, attending an early morning in a village where a VMF farmer from a different village was instructing residents on how to plant the right seedlings for the approaching winter season. I was later told that the residents of this village are predominantly Dou (pronounced zhou), an ethnic group known for its strong communal bonds. When the EHFP project first initiated in this village, it didn’t quite take and participation and individual behavior change was low. Once community members began working on the gardens together and instructions were translated into their dialect, the project gained major traction.
In addition to selling surplus vegetables as encouraged by HKI, we found out that many households were also selling bio-compost to their neighbors for profit. This was a happy surprise because it was completely out of the participants’ own initiatives and a hopeful sign for the project’s long-term sustainability.
Last stop was the home of the community leader for the village, a young man in his 30s whose fresh thinking completely turned the community around economically. After studying in Hanoi, he came back to his village and realized that government money granted to the poorest households could be much better utilized by younger people than the elderly who usually received it. So, he designated people like the poorest elderly’s children to receive the money instead (unless they had no children, in which case they keep it), who then invested in farms and other profitable ventures, bringing up the standard of living for the entire village in return. Simple, works.
As planned, we boarded the van around noon and rode back in near silence as the two-days’ exhaustion knocked each of us out. I had trouble falling asleep so I kept my eyes peeled on the rolling landscape outside the windows, trying to stare it into my memory. Besides witnessing the natural beauty and tangible impact the project had on villagers, I would hold on to the genuine camaraderie we four shared and was already starting to miss it as we reached closer to the city. Warm fuzzies remain.
**Apparently in Vietnamese, when you ask about a break up, you ask if he/she kicked your ass or you kicked theirs. Love it.