From my father’s perspective: Vietnam today

  

I just got an email from my father yesterday and thought this might be a good time to write my second post about him and his adventures. So, if this topic interests you, read along and learn a little bit about Vietnam today.

Since April, my father has been the acting director of USAID in the Vietnam Program Office in Hanoi, Vietnam. Vietnam remains a communist country (we lost, remember?) and Hanoi is in the northern regions of this country. So far, my father has found it fascinating there, living in a town he never would have dared visit 35 years ago during the war. His apartment is just down the road from a very interesting memorial. On the shores of Truc Bach lake, there is a little statue commemorating the capture of a certain solider during the Vietnam war – a man we know now as Senator John McCain. My dad said it is not paid much attention, it’s a bit overgrown and covered with bird droppings. The fact that my father can take a walk on a day off to see this memorial absolutely fascinates me. This city was extremely dangerous at one time, and a man currently running to be the president of our own country was captured and almost killed there. Wow. And now, Hanoi is like any other developing Asian city, and this memorial stands there, and its really no big deal. (We are no different; we have our own war memorials, commemorating something big and now standing ignored, collecting bird droppings – the dates, battles and people inscribed rarely even acknowledged anymore.)

There is no doubt that Vietnam has been through a great deal over the past 35 years. However, one fact remains: this country suffered enormous losses, just as we did, during the Vietnam war. When my father arrived in April, his first time back to Vietnam since the war, he could not help but feel conspicuous. He was in Hanoi. And his country was responsible for the deaths of thousands of people with relatives in that very city. He expected a cool reception at the very least. This was not the case. In fact, he found that as he spoke with Vietnamese citizens and co-workers, and they would compare war stories, a knowing look would pass between them as if to say: “you were there, you knew it was bad, we both suffered, it was a horrible time, and we are forever bonded”. It was as if they had an immediate connection and understanding of one another. The Vietnam people are wonderful and strong, they have made peace, forgiven and moved on. I know I have mentioned this story before, but it is a lesson I can’t help but be overwhelmed by.

So my father sent me a batch of pictures along with his email and I am posting two here. A little while back, his crew visited the Cu Chi Orphanage in Ho Chi Minh (formerly Saigon). Interested in what USAID is doing there? Well you can read lots of details here about the program but, in a nutshell, USAID is working in areas with a high prevalence of AIDS to educate men and women about AIDS prevention, deliver safe and effective anti-retroviral treatments, and provide testing services. As the website notes: “By March 2008, the USG Emergency Plan Vietnam team will collaborate with partners to prevent 660,000 new HIV infections; provide treatment to 22,000 HIV-infected people; and provide care to 110,000 people infected and affected by HIV/AIDS, including orphans and vulnerable children.” So yeah, that’s what he was doing at this orphanage.

When I talked to my dad about his experience at the orphanage, he could not help but be extraordinarily moved by the children he met. It is run by a sister (seen on the left of second picture) and all but one of the girls in this picture are HIV+ or have AIDS. Most of these children have already lost their parents to AIDS or they are in the process of dying and can’t care for their children any longer. If the children live long enough, the sister tries to enroll them at a local high school. However, these children are usually shunned and pushed out of their communities; their futures are short lived and extremely bleak. Nevertheless, the kids my father met were full of life and hope and fun. They took turns trying on my father’s shoes and clomping around. They also gathered at his feet, poking at him and petting his arm – very hairy arms are not all that common amongst grown Vietnamese men. My father must have seemed like this enormous, pink, smiley, sweaty, laughing giant. I can only imagine him playing and swinging those kids around like he does with his grandsons. He said his work in Hanoi has not been easy but this moment gave him perspective and renewed energy. The little girl he is holding in the first picture was wonderful he said, but also suffering from full blown AIDS (as you can see by the legions on her hands – nope, that’s not magic marker folks). She does not have a chance to live very much longer. But let’s hope, with increased education, medications and care, orphaned children like her will have a chance to live longer in the future. It could happen. My dad sure does seem to think so. 

So what can I carry away from this story? Things are tough right now in the U.S. But we have some sort of health care, we have education and we have support for our HIV+ citizens. Most of our children have parents and hope. Let’s remember what we’ve got and keep our perspectives in check. And then, let’s educate one another about what our global citizens don’t have. Remember our privileges folks – don’t feel guilty about it, just keep yourself informed and count those blessings with an open heart. Now excuse me as I shut this silly, over heating, time consuming computer down and go play with my kids.

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5 Comments

Filed under AIDS, Children, Inspiring people, McCain, My father, Vietnam

5 responses to “From my father’s perspective: Vietnam today

  1. This was beautifully written. Thank you for bringing this to my attention….I also identify with that last line. All too well.

  2. Great, great post. My husband went to Vietnam about nine years ago and was so moved by the children he met. He’s a sucker anyway and was doling out money left and right. A couple bucks to those kids meant the world, while it was no sweat to him. He was amazed at the astounding beauty of the country as well as the “regularness” of the people. We learn about countries in terms of policies and politics, not about the people. Thanks for adding some humanity to the Vietnam story.

    Your dad sounds like an amazing man.

  3. Oh, what a touching post. I really don’t know what to say, but I enjoyed reading about your dad, Hanoi and the orphans. I had a friend who volunteered with a family that took in children with special needs, including AIDS, and she had seen some of the children die. It’s very sad, and I hope education and medical breakthroughs can help stop the disease.

    BTW, I linked to you in a post today.

  4. Thanks ladies! My father got a chance to read this too and told me about one part of the story he left out. Behind the orphanage is a wall where the ashes of family members who have passed are kept. They put pictures of the family member on the wall where their ashes are. The children in the orphange then can wander back and “visit” their family – he said they are comforted in some way having the family there. Death is such a very real and natural part of their lives. A true reality check for me – while I tip toe around the subject with my own children. I see a post on this topic in the future if he sends me the picture he took.

  5. sku

    A great read indeed! It’s wonderful learning what USAID is doing around the world, helping the helpless and sowing seeds of hope. It is particularly remarkable that the US has a strong presence in Vietnam (a former U.S. foe).

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