Site Visits to Vietnam and Korea, April 10 – April 29, 2006
By Sister Joyce Meyer, PBVM, Executive Director
I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City on Monday, April 10 and was greeted at the airport by a sister who was my host during my first visit to Vietnam six years ago and the Secretary of the Union of Superiors of Vietnam. The sisters and I traveled to Bien Hoa, about an hour from Ho Chi Minh City, where we stayed the night at one of the sisters’ motherhouses before we began our site visits the following morning.
The weather was very hot and humid throughout my trip. Since I last visited Vietnam, the South has developed greatly. The sisters’ convents have more conveniences such as air-conditioning for their guests and better equipment in their schools. Yet, the sisters continue to live very simply and still sleep on straw mats on low wooden beds and eat mostly rice with vegetables for their meals.
The streets also seem more crowded with motorbikes since my last visit. I learned that the safest way to cross the street as a pedestrian was by walking across the middle of the street with a group of people, instead of waiting at the intersection for the continuous stream of motorbikes to stop.
On Tuesday, April 11, we journeyed towards Da Lat to visit projects that had received grants from the Sisters’ Fund. Our first visit was to a home for 30 elderly and/or disabled women that is managed by one of the sisters I was with. The women either have no families to care for them or their families are too poor to do so.
Afterwards, we visited a project for ethnic minorities living in the mountains. There is one dominant tribe in Vietnam called the King’s Tribe and the smaller tribes are referred to as ethnic minorities. Most ethnic minorities live in remote areas and are very poor. The Sisters’ Fund awarded a grant to build three small kindergarten classrooms for the children of these families. The children remain with the sisters all day while their parents work in the rice fields.
The following day, Wednesday, I met with the Union of Superiors of Vietnam in Ho Chi Minh City. After the meeting, I visited the Union’s educational center and saw a computer project that was made possible with a grant from the Sisters’ Fund. The center has just 10 computers for 350 sister-students. The sisters are hoping to apply for 10 more.
Later that afternoon, I visited a Social Service Center that that is also a home for orphans. The Sisters’ Fund helped to furnish the center. About 45 children reside at the center and 300 street children attend remedial classes during the day. After completing the classes, the children will be able to attend regular schools.
In the evening, the sisters and I visited the only free HIV/AIDS clinic in Ho Chi Minh City, where people travel from various parts of the country to receive treatment and counseling. The center is very small—with just three narrow rooms, open only in the afternoons for treatment and in the mornings for counseling. The staff includes two doctors who volunteer their services. One of the doctors practices natural medicine and applies acupressure treatments for HIV/AIDS symptoms.
On Thursday, April 13, I visited a training center for vulnerable young women that received a multi-year grant from the Sisters’ Fund. The women were engaged in prostitution and the center teaches them sewing skills so they can secure jobs in local factories. The project recently expanded to accommodate young women and their babies. Abortion rates are very high in Vietnam and the sisters are trying to offer the young women alternative choices. The sisters used their grant to expand the center.
The next project we visited was also a home for vulnerable women and children in an outlying suburb of the city. The sister in-charge of the project has a small house that she shares with six mothers and their children. The sister has successful income-generating projects to support the home—the women make rosaries that are sold to European markets and sister manages a cashew farm where the nuts are grown, harvested, roasted and sold to a company in France.
The following morning, we visited a project that cares for about 100 children—mostly orphans and children with mental and physical handicaps. Recently, the project relocated to a new residence where half of the children live. The older children weave grasses into simple furniture and storage boxes that are sold to help with operating expenses. As we were going to the new facility, we passed about 15 boys and girls on bicycles, returning to the center from their school, 14 miles away. The sisters are hoping to receive funding for a “bus” to transport the children because the bike ride to school is very tiring. The school “bus” is merely a motorcycle with a box on the back with benches for the children to sit.
On Saturday, April 15, I visited sisters that built a new clinic with assistance from the Sisters’ Fund. The clinic is in a very poor area of the city. The former one had become too small for their large number of patients. The sisters also have a kindergarten that they have been able to beautifully renovate and upgrade with an elevator, thanks to donors from overseas. On the second floor, there is an auditorium that local communist officials use for meetings.
On Easter Sunday, April 16, I flew north, with the Secretary of the Union of Superiors, to Hanoi. After we landed, we drove about two hours northeast, to Hatay, to visit a new local congregation. The sisters have an interesting history—each woman somehow took charge of a church in her community and kept the faith alive among the Catholic people. The Bishop of the diocese invited the women to form a religious community and go through novitiate formation. The women had to learn everything about religious life and discipline, theology and spirituality, and also obtain a secondary and/or vocational education. The Bishop gave them a house that they renovated and upgraded with toilets, a simple kitchen and furnishings. The sisters have an innovative pig project where they use the manure to produce gas for cooking. They also have a small kindergarten with three classrooms attached to their house. To earn income for themselves, they embroider decorations on sweaters for a local company. As I listened to how much the sisters achieved, I was filled with amazement at their courage and willingness to begin this new venture.
After the visit, we traveled several hours south to Nam Dinh for the night; on Monday morning, we drove another 45 minutes to Y Yen. Over the past six years, the Sisters’ Fund helped to develop a clinic and four kindergartens in the area. Only one of the kindergartens is specifically for Catholic children. It is the poorest school because Catholic, ethnic minorities are usually the poorest of the population. When the first children began attending school, they were very malnourished, so the sisters requested funds to purchase soybean machines for each school to make milk. With just two cups of soymilk each day, the children’s health greatly improved. The sisters use the leftover bean product to feed their pigs. The sisters have also combined their efforts with a nearby vocational school to upgrade the teaching standards of local teachers to the national level.
On Tuesday, April 18, our second day in Y Yen, we visited the sisters’ four-room clinic. The clinic received a grant to purchase a laboratory microscope. After the sisters gained the confidence of the public through their hard work, they were able to convince the government to provide a doctor and dentist once a week—at the government’s expense. The sisters have a good relationship with the communist officials in the area and they have influenced the government to pave the streets leading to the sisters’ clinic, kindergartens and vocational school. This has made it easier for the locals to travel, especially during the rainy season.
In the afternoon, the sisters took me to the factory next to their convent that serves as a training center for young women. They produce evening bags that are sold in European shops, embroidered linens that are exported to Italy, uniforms for the Hanoi government and sportswear for a Korean company. Once the women are trained, some remain at the sisters’ factory, but most move to Hanoi for jobs in larger factories. The Sisters’ Fund awarded a grant to help purchase equipment for the factory. Unfortunately, the government has proposed that a major, national highway be built through the area to connect Vietnam and China, so the sisters are negotiating with the government to find a suitable parcel of land to rebuild their convent and factory.
On Thursday, I began my trip back to Hanoi without the Secretary of the Union of Superiors. From there, I traveled through Lang Son to Dong Dang with another sister-host. That evening, we visited families with members who are physically or mentally handicapped. Walking was little difficult because there were no street lights and we had to climb narrow, rock-stairways wedged between buildings to reach some of the houses.
One family had two brothers—the older brother was physically paralyzed and the younger one was mentally and physically impaired. The younger brother looks after his older brother and their dog. They live in a shack that consists of a small room with a cement floor. The room was divided into a sleeping area with two beds, a small cooking area in the corner and space for their baby-chick cage. A single, low-watt light bulb hung from the ceiling. The brothers contracted an unknown disease that left them disabled.
Next, we visited a family with a small boy and girl with atrophied limbs. The sisters think their deformities were passed on from their father, a former soldier, who suffered from Agent Orange disease. Their house was a one-room shack with an outdoor kitchen. The whole family shared one bed. There is no help available in Vietnam for people with handicaps. Without the sisters, the families would receive no attention at all; their neighbors are ignorant and fearful of people with disabilities.
On Friday, April 21, we left for That Khe to visit the convent of my sister-host. We drove through the most beautiful mountain ranges I have ever seen. China is just on the other side of the mountains. The sisters live in a simple house that was built in 1883. Unfortunately, this convent must also be demolished to make room for the Vietnam-China highway. The sisters want to use the rest of their property to build a home for handicapped children and to expand their existing fish pond.
After touring the convent, we visited more families with handicapped members. I met a woman that became paralyzed after she was hit by a motorbike. Her husband helps to prop her up so she can sew traditional Vietnamese hats; he sells them in the market for $0.50/each. We also visited a girl who was born with a nerve protruding out of her lower back. Unfortunately, the doctor cut the nerve leaving the right side of her body paralyzed. The girl is of elementary-school age and is bright, but she has no hope of attending school because she cannot walk and her family has no means of transportation. Later that day, we rode motorbikes into the forest to visit more families with handicapped children. We visited a small boy with a hydrophilic head, which left him severely deformed; yet, he has defied many odds and is living longer than anyone expected.
All of the families we visited live very far away from any health care services, so they have survived on their own. Sister brings them food and simple medicines. Most live in homes constructed of wood and thatch. During the winter months, their homes provide little protection against the cold mountain climate. Some of the families had small wells; others had to walk long distances to the river for water.
After our visits, we drove two hours to Cao Bang and stayed the night. The next morning, Saturday, April 22, we traveled to the village of BoTo. Along the way, we saw more spectacular mountain ranges as we drove higher and higher up the rugged mountains. French missionaries built the first road in the area, which is now being widened. All of the roads we traveled were uneven and rocky. The area is well-traversed by trucks transporting goods between China and Vietnam. The open border has created a steady drug-trade and heroine usage is prevalent in the mountain villages.
The sisters working in this Vietnam-China border area conduct home visits to provide counseling, comfort and some health care. We visited one family with a 30 year old woman who was injured by a falling boulder while gathering firewood. She was confined to the same bed for 14 years and had painful bedsores. Sister tries to regularly check-up on the family and cleans and dresses the woman’s wounds.
Following the visit, we passed through BoTo and returned to Cao Bang. The sisters and I rode a motorbike into the mountain forest so they could show me their large farm which has a pond for 700 ducks, another for fish and a banana, cassava and corn plantation. They have also started to construct a vocational school with cow, pig and chicken sheds. Any construction in Vietnam requires a permit from the local government. The application process can take a long time, sometimes years, so people will often start building without permission and when stopped, they apply for the necessary permits. The sisters plan to use the farm as an income-generating venture and to provide food for the disabled children living at their home in That Khe. Back in town, the sisters showed me another property they turned into a pig farm to earn income. Next year, they plan to sell all of the pigs, fill in the land and build a kindergarten. I was amazed by how enterprising the Vietnamese sisters are.
On Sunday, April 23, I journeyed back to Hanoi so I could catch my flight to Seoul, Korea for the Asia Meeting for Religious (AMOR). Once I landed, I was greeted by a sister I met during my last trip in 2000.
She took me to visit a project for pregnant, migrant women from the Philippines married to Korean men. The women were between the ages of 20 – 40. The group’s sister-facilitator is also a Philippina. Meeting the women was disheartening because they were very homesick. Their marriages were arranged by brokers and they did not know their husbands prior to marrying them. The women do not speak Korean or know the culture, so they cannot get work and their activities are restricted by their husbands. In order for the women to be able to come to this meeting, sister delivered personal invitations to each of their husbands.
Each woman agreed to her arranged marriage because she wanted to find work in Korea and send money back home. Unfortunately, that has not happened. Only one woman was working; and to do so, she had to send her three children back to the Philippines in her mother’s care because she could not afford to hire a baby-sitter in Korea. All of the women regret their choice but they cannot move back home because they have no money. Sister offers the women this space so they can talk to counselors, receive assistance, share their experiences and help each other.
Later that afternoon, I met another grantee of the Sisters’ Fund. The sisters work with young women from many Southeast Asian countries, China and Russia, who enter Korea on entertainment visas. The visas were started when American bases were opened during the Korean War. The visas are usually for a two-year period and they are managed by the owners of nightclubs. The women live under strict rules and most are locked up together during the day in crowded dorms and their passports are held by the club managers. The sisters have worked diligently to change laws to give these women some rights while they live in the country. They have made some headway to prevent prostitution in the clubs, but enforcement is usually lax. Each woman’s story of abuse and poverty was difficult to hear.
From Monday through Wednesday, I attended the Asia Meeting for Religious (AMOR). At the meetings, I listened to fascinating reports from sisters working in Asia, New Zealand and other countries in the South Pacific. We heard the struggles sisters experience from oppressive governments in Myanmar, Vietnam, Nepal, Pakistan, Indonesia, Bangladesh and China; their struggles recovering from the December 2004 tsunami and other natural disasters in India, Sri Lanka and Indonesia; challenges from immigration in Korea, Australia, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and Brunei; the trafficking of women and children from Vietnam, Philippines, China, Cambodia, Macau, Thailand and Myanmar; and, the threat of North Korea towards South Korea.
During the rest of the week, the AMOR participants were encouraged to partake in “exposure experiences” and visit cultural or social-issue-related sites in Korea. I found a Rehabilitation Center for North Korean immigrants especially interesting. It always has about 300 people in residence, mostly women and children who stay for two years before they are ready to live on their own. During this time, immigrants study South Korean culture, learn skills and receive medical care and counseling. When they depart, they are given money, a place to live and other support. Most escapees enter China from North Korea by bribing guards, so they are not the poorest of the population. Once in China, escapees live for several years to earn enough money to pay brokers for false passports and visas to South Korea. If the Chinese police find them, they are sent back to the North, where they usually remain in prison for life. It takes years to pay-off the debts they incur in this process. Escapees have relayed that life in the North is unbearable and their future is bleak.
My visit to southern and northern Vietnam helped me to better understand the system of Communism and the effects it has on the sisters’ daily lives and how they can conduct their missionary work. The sisters are deeply committed to their projects because they know they are benefiting the people of Vietnam. They are also eager to learn English, so the Sisters’ Fund should expect to receive more requests from Vietnam. I was inspired by the Vietnamese sisters’ perseverance and courage.