Sunday, January 08, 2006

Walls come tumbling down

As crazy as it now seems, I moved from Australia to Vietnam back in 2002 to live a quiet life. It worked for about 6 months, and then I started to get to know some street kids... The life of quiet went right out the window.

Hanoi is a bustling, noisy city, polluted by the hundreds of thousands of honking motorbikes and trucks that race in utter anarchy through the narrow streets, pushing pedestrians and bicycles out of their way in obedience to the only apparent road rule - "Right of Weight".

To top it off, since I arrived (and undoubtedly for several years before that), Hanoi has been one giant construction zone. Everybody is knocking down a house to build a new one, and no matter what kind of construction work they are doing, it involves belting things with hammers from 6.00am until 10.00pm.

Once you escape the city, however, the contrast is stark. OK, I admit that the traffic is still anarchic, but rural areas are quiet and move along at a much more sane pace.

On Saturday I headed off to Bac Ninh province, where Blue Dragon sponsors over 200 children. I went with Tung, a social worker, and we met up with two other staff - Huong and Tarah - who are spending 8 days in the province.

Through an Australian company called Antipodeans, there are 2 teams of Aussie school kids doing service projects in the communities that Blue Dragon works with. For the last few days they have been working in a secondary school - painting fences and gates and working on the school's coutryard. But yesterday the team we met up with had switched to shoveling dirt and knocking down walls.

I wrote on December 27 about Mrs Tat's death; she's been ill for years so Blue Dragon raised the money to build a new home for Tat and her sons, Thao (17) and Hieu (14). The house is well on its way to being finished now, but of course the death of the owner does complicate matters. There are now many different agendas coming in to play, as various family members - mostly distant family - are eyeing the almost-finished house and hinting in pretty excplicit terms that they think they have some right to the property.

They don't, and they're not going to get it. The property must now go to the two children. But it's creating a lot of stress for the boys.

The local Red Cross official, Mr Phong, is looking over the building project and advocating for the kids - he's great, and we have really come to rely on his support. The police and local government are helping out, too, so Thao and Hieu are definitely not alone.

But back to the Aussie kids. Tung and I arrived in the early afternoon, and watched as the team of volunteers transformed the property. (Hey, we helped too, of course... a little...)

The back yard was a mud pit. Every time it rains, the yard fills up with water - this was one reason that Mrs Tat was so ill. She lived in permanent dampness.

No more. The 10 Australian girls and 2 guys shoveled dirt for hours, raising the property and filling in the pits. There's more work to be done yet, but I estimate that they saved Hieu and Thao at least one full week of work.

Then came a more sensitive issue - the old house. We have built the new house on a spot beside the old house, so the home that Thao and Hieu grew up in was still standing. It had to go - it was decrepit, and the boys need the land to build some pig pens. But some family members wanted to keep the old building, and of course the sons had some mixed feelings about knocking it down.

But down it came - and what an event it turned out to be. Instead of being a sensitive and solemn occasion, there was laughter and happiness; friends and neighbours of the two boys also pitched in, climbing up on the roof to dissemble it piece by piece, and then joining in with the Australians to knock the walls over until almost nothing was left.

Thao and Hieu were visibly relieved that the old place was gone. Hieu, normally so quiet and reserved, became animated and started playing about. Even one of the group leaders - Jo, a teacher from Brigidine in St Ives - remarked at the change in Hieu.

Tung and I got back to Hanoi after 9pm, exhausted but elated. To see how a team of Aussie school kids could build bridges between two cultures, and make such a tangible impact on Mrs Tat's house in just one day, was quite moving. And such a great outcome for the kids and families of Bac Ninh.


Caitlin said...

Good one Michael. Inspiring stuff. Congratulations to the girls, and good luck for Hieu and Thao.

Anonymous said...

Our Man in Hanoi brought me here with the post in this blog. I have to thank him about that.
I used to live in HN and I am planning to return as soon as possible, which is probably 3-4 years later. I regreted that during my time there I wasnt awared of how much I could have helped others. I hope that I will be able to do better the next time.

Anyway you are doing a wonderful job !