Cambodia-Vietnam: A special journey

By Marilyn Murphy

For the second consecutive year, I was privileged to organize and lead a magnificent group of DFW members to Vietnam and Cambodia. After innumerable Facebook postings, we finally met in the flesh in Siem Reap, where we enjoyed three nights and two full days of amazing sights and activities. Highlights included:

  • Temples, of course: one of the Seven Wonders of the World, Angkor Wat – including an optional sunrise visit; Ta Prohm, where giant strangler fig tree roots embrace the crumbling temple structures; and Bantay Srei, the Citadel of Beauty, which some think must have been built by women because men could never have created such intricate carvings.
  • Dinner at the Training Restaurant at New Hope Cambodia, an impressive local NGO which provides free English education for the people of Mondul 3, one of the poorest slums of Siem Reap. Each of us sat in with a class of delightful students – all of whom are learning English to get jobs in the hospitality industry.

Next we flew to Hanoi, the 1,000-year-old capital of Vietnam. Our hotel was in the heart of the Ancient City, so we only needed to step out the front door to be literally swept away with the unbelievable flow of motorbikes, vendors (nearly always women) with their wares balanced on bamboo poles and pedestrians bundled up against the chill. As we did last year, we visited a Foster Girl’s Home run by a wonderful NGO, Humanitarian Services of Children of Vietnam. We were enthusiastically welcomed by 14 lovely young girls (age 4-16) who have been rescued from abusive or unstable family situations. We spent three hours on a Saturday afternoon helping them with a crafts project, which was a great ice-breaker. There were plenty of grins, giggles and glue! The girls all have a hand-made purse to recall fond memories of their new friends from America. Bottom row, from left: Rhonda Grissom (Paris, KY), Thora Pabst (Greeley, CO), Ashley Gibb (Thousand Oaks, CA), Virginia Martin (Thousand Oaks, CA). Standing, from left: Debbie Baker (Los Altos, CA), Margaret Theobald (Exter, NH), Deirdre Christman (Venice, FL), Karen Hasara (Springfield, IL), Cynthia Sawtelle (San Anselmo CA), in far back: Elaine Gustafson (Venice, FL) and Pilar Marien (Aptos, CA).   We flew next to Danang, where the staff from Children of Vietnam, along with a dozen young children, greeted us with flowers and hugs. The next two days were devoted to meetings with single mothers who have benefitted from the DFW grants awarded to COV for their specific initiative, Empowering Foundations for Women and their Children (EFWC). The program assists impoverished single mothers with training, microloans, healthcare and housing – creating a customized empowerment plan for each woman to ensure that she can earn and sustain an income that will lift her family out of poverty. We were delighted that the timing of our visit overlapped that of Nancy Letteri, Executive Director of COV (from Winston-Salem, NC), who accompanied us on the visits to the beneficiaries. We divided into three small groups to visit women at their homes or businesses. My group first visited a young widow with two teenage children. Her husband, upon learning that he had a bone disease, committed suicide when her children were 10 and 7. During her interview with COV staff, she said, “Without my kids, tomorrow wouldn’t be worth the wait and yesterday wouldn’t be worth remembering.” She had been a bricklayer, and now operates a babysitting service in her home. We met another widow who learned after her husband’s death that he had died of AIDS, and that she was carrying the HIV virus. Fortunately, none of her children were affected. She operates a successful tailoring business and makes many clothes for COV staffers. Another widow with three children, Miss Huynh, has established herself as a fruit vendor in the market. She described her typical day:

  • 3:45 AM – She wakes up and spends 15 minutes preparing food for breakfast for herself and her children, packing it in stackable containers.
  • 4-6:00 AM – She purchases up to 100 kilos (220 pounds) of fruit at the wholesale market and (somehow) manages to heft the giant bags of fruit on the back of her motor scooter! (She gave us a demonstration!)
  • 6:30 AM – She arranges the fruit in her stall
  • 7-11:30 AM – Market opens for business. She explained that on full moon days, she reaps extra sales because people buy fruit for their altars.
  • 12 Noon – She goes home to visit her elderly mother who lives with her brother. She prepares food for lunch and dinner.
  • 3-10:00 PM – She packs up her unsold fruit and takes it to another location to sell during the evening market.
  • 11:00 PM – She returns home and gets to bed by midnight.

The EFWC plan – with a microloan totaling $926 ­– provided the following support:

  1. $384 to expand her inventory of fruit
  2. $41 for general health check-up
  3. $101 scholarship to support her 19-year-old daughter to attend college
  4. $192 for upgrade of toilet
  5. $144 for upgrade of kitchen
  6. $26 for nutritional supplements
  7. $38 for training courses and other activities

Miss Huynh has doubled her income – to approximately $200 per month – and is hopeful for her children’s future and grateful to DFW donors. On the second day, we enjoyed a bountiful feast of home-cooking – lovingly prepared by the EFWC recipients. It was a joyous afternoon, during which we lived the DFW affirmation, “May we all dine together some day at the same table.”

Our final day in Hoi An was pure, unadulterated fun. We enjoyed a beautiful cruise on the river and a hilarious cooking demonstration. We modeled beautiful, custom-tailored clothes which we’d ordered the evening of our arrival. And we shared a poignant completion dinner in a private upstairs dining room of an ancient home-turned-restaurant. Between courses, we shared our most vivid memories of this journey.

“I loved the insights into the culture, politics and realities of the women we met . . .” 
“To be at the grassroots level of poverty was an experience that continues to resonate with me . . .” 
“To comprehend how much time and energy the women spent to make us lunch will stay with me forever . . .” 
“Our kids are well educated, but the Vietnamese children strive so hard and so appreciate the opportunity to go to school . . .” 
“DFW is doing a great job spending our money . . .” “I’m going home with greater enthusiasm and passion for the mission of DFW . . .”

I know I speak for all the women in our group when I acknowledge the friendliness and graciousness of the Vietnamese people. We will never forget their smiles and warmth. We are grateful for the wonderful knowledge (and patience) of our three female tour guides. We honor the dedication and compassion of Annetta DeVet toward her foster girls, all of whom stole our hearts. We are grateful to Nancy Letteri and the staff of COV for their assistance in coordinating our visits and for helping to make our journey so impactful and meaningful. And, finally, to the women and girls we met at every stop on our journey, we bless you, love you and thank you for your sisterhood. There is much need, there is much hope and there is SUCH good work being done. It was a privilege to see first-hand how DFW really is changing the world!

Travelers pictured above: Bottom row, from left: Rhonda Grissom (Paris, KY), Thora Pabst (Greeley, CO), Ashley Gibb (Thousand Oaks, CA), Virginia Martin (Thousand Oaks, CA). Standing, from left: Debbie Baker (Los Altos, CA), Margaret Theobald (Exter, NH), Deirdre Christman (Venice, FL), Karen Hasara (Springfield, IL), Cynthia Sawtelle (San Anselmo CA), in far back: Elaine Gustafson (Venice, FL) and Pilar Marien (Aptos, CA).

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