A few years ago someone from Plan International knocked on our door, in the dead of winter, looking for sponsors. We invited her in and ended up sponsoring 2 children, one from the Philippines and one from Vietnam. This isn’t something I’d normally do, as I like to research the heck out of any NGO to ensure the money is used ethically and responsibly. But, after zero research, we committed. I chose two children similar ages to our girls, and from 2 countries we thought we’d visit. At that point, visiting our sponsor child in Vietnam or the Philippines, and seeing their community in person, was little more than a pipe-dream.

Visiting our Sponsor Child in Vietnam

Fast forward to our Great Big Trip Around The World, and we’ve had the opportunity to meet one of these lovely girls in Vietnam. After filling out a mountain of paperwork months in advance, we kind of just forgot about it. As our time in Vietnam approached, I got an email stating that our trip was being set up. They sent a date, but we were still traveling with our friends so had to reschedule. I had no idea what a big deal our visit was at the time, and I wish I would’ve set better dates initially.

We arrived in Ha Giang province by bus from Hanoi. Plan had offered to send a car to Hanoi to pick us up, but that seemed unnecessary! We did, however, let them send a car to pick us up in Ha Giang to take us to the village. Thank goodness we did! The road was quite winding, and Calais got car sick and threw up everywhere (only once). She managed to let us know right before it happened, so only a little got in the car and was easily cleaned up. The local bus would’ve been unpleasant for her, and the rest of us after she got sick! I don’t think the bus would’ve pulled over for her!

Meeting our Plan Liaison

(For the protection of our sponsor child, I haven’t provided specific details about the community name, school location or the names of the people we interacted with in this post.)

Our Plan liason (we’ll call him Mr Plan) met us in town, and was our official translator and guide for the day. Our first stop was the office of the Community Leader. Randy called him the Mayor.  He’s an elected official, and oversees a number of different villages in the area. We enjoyed a cup of tea with him, and he talked about life in the rural villages of northern Vietnam.

Life is hard, but slowly improving. There’s a large initiative by the Vietnamese government to educate the people on the benefits of having only 1 or 2 children. It’s much cheaper to feed, clothe and educate fewer children. We even saw billboards on the side of the road outlining the benefits of birth control and having fewer children. Many of the middle class and city-dwellers have adopted this way of thinking already, but it’s slower to spread to the rural community and minority villages. Birth control and family planning is often frowned upon, simply because it’s not understood or available. Our sponsor child’s mother had just given birth to their sixth child. Their eldest son was 19, and had a one-year-old daughter. His wife was only 16. The girls were quite confused by this. “She’s the mom?” Kacela asked. “She’s just a kid herself, how can she already have a kid?” It was a good question, and opened up the opportunity for some good discussion.

(Pics: Mom in the kitchen with the new baby. The 16-year-old daughter-in-law cutting grass in the field below the house)

A trend towards promoting the benefits of fewer children is something we’ve seen consistently throughout our travels in Asia. Some communities are quick to adopt it, while others simply haven’t yet. This simple idea has the ability to change entire communities, and increase the quality of life of many children around the world.

The School Visit

Once we’d finished our tea, we went up the road a short distance to the local school. This is a massive school. There are 491 students at the main school with a further 500 at satellite schools spread throughout the region. 197 of these students board at the school, while the rest walk from nearby communities. There are a handful of different ethnic minority groups attending the school, many of which speak different languages and learn Vietnamese once they come to school. It was interesting that many of these children, living within walking distance to the school and from each other, speak different languages.

Mr Plan, “the Mayor”, another Plan employee, and our family, all descended upon the school. I’m sure we were a massive disruption! Kids were playing jump-rope in the school yard and encouraged our kids to come play. Calais was worried she wouldn’t be good at it though, and shyly refused. She was happy enough to watch.

Visiting the School Library

The library, which was built by Plan, was the girl’s favourite part of our school visit. We had to pry them away! There were hundreds of English and Vietnamese children’s books, and they both sat down and immediately started reading. Of course, this brought in the teachers who all wanted to have pictures with the girls!

We eventually dragged the girls away from the books and went to see the classrooms. When we got to the class of our sponsor child, she and a few of her friends sang us a song they’d prepared. This was a great opportunity for an exchange, and Calais & Kacela (with my help) sang Twinkle Twinkle Little Star in return! We had a photo with the whole class, then our sponsor child was excused from class to go home to meet us for lunch.

One of the teachers, who volunteers a lot of her time to help Plan and the kids, took our sponsor child home while we finished our school tour at the cafeteria. The government provides the school with an allotment of rice and money (520,000 dong), per child, for lunch at the school. Each meal is portioned out into metal containers, with every child getting rice, and vegetable soup. Sometimes there’s meat, but often it’s just rice and veggies. The school has a small garden where they grow many of the veggies used for lunch.

(Pics: Tofu with rice and veggies for the older kids. The “list” of the various items allocated and the number of children being fed. Rice & Veggies for the younger kids. The Cafeteria.)

We headed to the home of our sponsor child for lunch. It was quite an event! There was a table set up in the shade beside one of the buildings, and our entourage was joined by the school teacher, the local village leader, our host (the father of our sponsor child) and a few of his friends. The local village leader is only 25 years old. He’s also an elected official and makes a small income from the government (1-2million dong/year depending on the size of his constituent). He is responsible for informing the community about agriculture initiatives, and other government programs. He also reports monthly to the “Mayor”. There’s been a shift in recent years, to younger leaders. The people are choosing to elect someone literate in Vietnamese, and with at least a bit of education. This completely changes the dynamic of the community, but I think is a good example of forward thinking and a desire for change.

The Village Leader cutting up the chicken for our lunch. He started to laugh when I pulled out my camera, he’s not used to people taking his picture!

While lunch was being prepared, we wandered around the family compound and enjoyed the spectacular mountain views.

The animal sheds in front, and main house behind.

(Pics: Our SC carrying a younger sibling and her niece, leading the way up the path to her house. And the spectacular mountain views!)

Lunch with our Host Family, and a few Important Community members

Lunch was rice, chicken, pork and green vegetables, all washed down with a home-made alcohol. I carefully spooned some rice, veggies and a few choice pieces of mostly-meat out of the pork-dish onto each of the girl’s plates. The village leader then reached across and handed them each a chicken drumstick. I’m pretty sure the chicken was boiled, and it was about the size of a Cornish hen! The meat was rubbery, and after one bite the girl’s had no desire to eat it. I couldn’t blame them! My plan to allow them to graciously eat the food on their plate was foiled by someone with the greatest intentions. They did, however, eat all the pork. Even the fatty bits!

Our host was visibly very honoured to have this large gathering at his house, and toasted frequently. By the end of the meal he was almost in tears expressing his gratitude and honour at having everyone to his house. I kept turning my glass over so it wouldn’t get refilled, but someone kept righting it and refreshing. I was certainly glad I wasn’t driving back! Conversation occurred via a 3-way translation; English to Vietnamese to Hmong language, and back again. Sitting at that low table, in the shade of a mud house, with so many different languages, backgrounds and cultures, was something I’ll keep etched in my memory. (I’ll have to, because for some reason I didn’t take a picture of us all sitting at the table!!)

After lunch, we bid farewell to our sponsor child and her family. Our sponsor child went back to school, and we drove back to the city. By the time we arrived in Ha Giang it was dark. After tucking the girls into bed, we marveled at the incredible opportunity we’d just had, to be guests in such a welcoming community for the day.

(Pics of the beautiful views during our drive)

My Thoughts & Insights

It was nice to see the Plan employees viewed so favourably by the community, and see that the money is being used responsibly. Our sponsor child’s family receives a very small amount each year, with the rest going into community programs such as the library and water system. They also buy coats for the kids in the school (not just the ones with a sponsor family, but all the kids). To me, the benefit to the community is far more impactful than just helping one family.

We’ve spent enough time in rural villages, that I’m not sure if the girls really differentiated it from any of the other villages we’ve visited. When I was showing Calais the pictures, I had to almost pry out of her why this village was special! She remembered playing with the puppies, she even remembers what she named her puppy! But it took a bit of coaching to make the connection between the puppies and the fact that it was our sponsor visit. The local kids don’t speak English, and were very shy around the girls. They played with the toddler, and the puppies, but didn’t interact much with the local kids. This was too bad as it would’ve been great for the kids to all play together. However, nothing ever goes perfectly! The girls still got something out of the experience, but really, it wasn’t for them anyways!!

I thought, naively, that this experience was for the girls. But, it wasn’t. It was for me, and to my surprise, for the family. Seeing the pride on the face of our sponsor child’s father, brought tears to my eyes. It wasn’t because of the small contribution his family gets each year from Plan. The pride was because he had the opportunity to host a lunch that the village is probably still talking about! He was important enough that people had traveled half way around the world to visit HIS house. And we brought an entourage of important people with us!

The Details:

We sponsor our child through Plan Canada, at the cost of about a dollar a day. It was such an honour to be able to visit the community and see their work first hand.

Things to consider if you’re going to visit your Sponsor Child:

Dates: Come up with firm dates beforehand. I had no idea the amount of coordination that went into this trip! There were 2 field staff, a driver, the community leader, village leader and teacher all involved in our day. It was quite incredible actually. Had I realized this I would’ve had a more specific date initially so as to not cause the reschedule.

Go Prepared with Questions: I asked a fair number of questions as they came up throughout the day, but I could’ve taken advantage and asked more questions! I also wish I would’ve had the girls come up with a few questions on their own as well. This may have helped them create a meaningful memory linking the day to their sponsor child (and not the puppies!).

Be Ready to Grin & Just Eat It (or Drink It!): The rice and veggies were easy enough to eat, but the meat is prepared in a much different manner to that of Western standards. Mr Plan (our guide/liaison) prepped us for this, although by this point we had a pretty good idea what to expect. Our lunch was quite similar to the Pa’O wedding feast we had in Myanmar! The lunch was an extremely big deal for our host, so prep yourself to be gracious and eat what you can. You can always wash it down with copious amounts of local rice wine while toasting!

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