Two Vietnams

This is one view of Vietnam, but Vietnam is a country of contrasts, and last week Marilynn and I saw some of the extremes that exist in this amazing country.

On Friday we flew to Danang where we spent 11 hours visiting East Meets West projects with Bob Greenwood, one of the organization’s strongest and most articulate advocates. Bob is helping us adjust to changing times and develop new funding strategies for the projects that are the lifeblood of the organization. That’s his business and he’s very good at it; but EMW is in a different category than his other clients. Bob loves Vietnam. He was here in the Navy during the war and he’s been back a number of times since the country opened up to tourism in 1995. It is no exaggeration to say that people who visit this incredible country come away transformed. Bob is a classic example. This time he came to see EMW projects up close in order to better understand them. I’m inspired every time I visit the programs and traveling with Bob gave us both another chance to see them and the people they serve.

We left our apartment in Saigon at 3:45AM, flew to Danang, and 13 hours later Marilynn and I were dropped off at the Furama Resort just outside the city. We started out at the Village of Hope orphanage, one of the signature EMW projects, where we support 150 orphans, 35 of whom are hearing or speech impaired, and help prepare them for life as adults. Then it was on to the EMW dental clinic where last year 3 staff dentists, supported by volunteer dentists from all over the world, performed more than 40,000 procedures on more than 10,000 children, most of whom had never seen a dentist. After a quick lunch we drove out to the countryside to visit a school and 30 of the more than 6000 students from the poorest families in Vietnam who receive EMW scholarships from the 3rd grade through high school. But the school itself is only part of the story. You have to visit the kids’ homes to really understand the program. We visited two homes; both families with a single mother and 3 siblings. The houses themselves, sturdier than most in this impoverished area, were “compassion homes” donated by another NGO. Each had 2 small rooms, cement floors, corrugated tin roofs, and small add-on outside kitchens made of materials left over from the homes they replaced. On Friday it was about 90 degrees. This is the coolest time of year. Imagine what that hut feels like in summer. Yet, the mothers were smiling, and the kids stood proudly in uniforms with white shirts, orange kerchiefs and baseball caps embroidered with the name SPELL, the scholarship program that supports them. SPELL is designed to show them the way to a better life through education. By providing scholarships to the poorest of the poor, parents are encouraged to keep their kids in school instead of sending them out to work and contribute to the household income. It will either break your heart or make a true believer out of you. These kids get tuition, fees, books, uniforms, and tutoring twice a week. In high school they get a bicycle if they live more than a mile from school.

At the end of this long day Marilynn and I were dropped off at the Furama Resort (picture above) on China Beach just outside the city of Danang. From a sweltering afternoon in huts with tin roofs to a 5 star luxury resort with Italian sheets and pool boys; this is the kind of contrast Vietnam offers – from abject poverty to absolute luxury. It’s jarring.

We loved our weekend at Furama. It was one of total indulgence – but in the end we’ve talked more about the kids we saw on Friday than the luxurious comfort of the hotel. Vietnam has a long way to go, but it is going to get there. It’s a privilege to be part of process.

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