This past weekend David and I were invited to join a friend and her nonprofit organization for a few events in the province of Bắc Giang. We have traveled to more rural areas of the country as a tourist, but for this experience we were able to understand rural life here in a more authentic way, and see the amazing work being done by YWAM Mercy Vietnam. On Saturday we both went to the region to see the opening of a library in a lower secondary (middle) school, and on Sunday I traveled without David to see a Communication Night event.
How We Got Here
We first met Roslyn five days after we landed in Việt Nam. She has been working in Southeast Asia on community development and poverty alleviation for longer than David and I have been alive. She has spent more than 20 years living in Hanoi and launched YWAM Mercy in 1997.
YWAM Mercy works in three northern Việt Nam provinces. They seek to ensure that everyone in Vietnam has the opportunities they deserve through projects focused on:
- Families and children,
- Economic empowerment,
- Business development, and
- Environment and sanitation.
I have done some fundraising research for YWAM Mercy and worked with her staff on a few occasions. Her staff doing an amazing amount of work with limited funds and are clearly passionate about all their projects. Roslyn’s leadership complements their skills and enthusiasm. I am so thankful they allowed us to join them for a few days.
Việt Nam has 58 provinces and 5 municipalities (including Hà Nội). The province of Bắc Giang borders our home city, but spreads east much of the way to the coast. In eastern Bắc Giang is Bắc Giang City, but our journey continued far past the urban center of the province to small communities on the western edge. A driver picked us up at the YWAM Mercy Vietnam head office and took a small group of us on the two hour journey.
Opening a Library
YWAM Mercy believes in the power of reading and works with local leaders to identify and support schools that do not have libraries. The school we visited has 700 students in grades 6 through 9. The school had no existing library. YWAM’s community-driven model approach requires local leaders to also raise funds to support the library. These funds also help maintain and expand the number of books available to students over years.
The ceremony began with beautiful dance performances from students and a guest singer who sang several patriotic tunes. The principal, a parent representative, and a student gave speeches. After that representatives from the Army, local police and other organizations provided additional gifts to the school to sustain the library.
Next a YWAM consultant had an engaging conversation with the students about the importance of reading. She talked to them about the importance of reading for fun and sought to expand their sense of possibility with reading. Although David and I couldn’t understand many of the words she said, she clearly had their attention and interest. She spoke with them not only about the books in the central library, but also the books they will find in their classrooms for them to read. After she spoke Roslyn underscored her message with the children and the party ended with a ribbon cutting and small fireworks.
We viewed the library after the ceremony. A student did a brief overview of the areas in the room. We were also presented with handmade paper flowers and cards from the students. Throughout the whole event David and I felt awkward to be receiving praise from the community. All we did was accept Roslyn’s invitation to come. Still, we were so thankful to be learning about this work.
Chúc Sức Khoẻ and Rice Wine
Both Saturday and Sunday’s events included a large meal with the traditional sharing of rice wine. Who needs water or tea at a meal when instead you can enjoy rice wine? We all sat and enjoyed rice, veggies, pork, fish and other meals with members of the community. The food was delicious, but the best part was the rice wine. I say this not because of its taste…I cannot speak intelligently about alcohol – but I would compare it to vodka. Instead, it was wonderful to toast with members of the community.
As we ate individuals would come to the table and share a toast, often including Chúc Sức Khoẻ – which means good health but is also interchangeable with Cheers. After the toast, the small ceramic cups are toasted, and the wine is downed. Roslyn warned us early to no down every glass or we would be drunk on the floor by the end of the meal. We tried to gracefully sip from the glass. After the toast the toaster goes around the table and shakes the hand of everyone.
David wasn’t able to join on Sunday, so I joined Roslyn and some additional guests to return to Bắc Giang for a Communication Night without him. We didn’t arrive until dusk, and were immediately ushered into the community hall for dinner and rice wine. Having honed my sipping technique the day before, I partook in less wine this time around. While we ate members of the community prepared for the event, getting their makeup done and dressing in their costumes.
There was a large stage set up in the soccer field next to the community hall. The space was surrounded by orchards and rice fields. It felt like we were alone in the world, far from the hustle and bustle of the city. By the time the event started we couldn’t see the edge of the crowd from our seats. Undoubtedly hundreds of people had come to the celebration. Through the evening dance and singing performances were interspersed with skits that spoke to the themes that YWAM tries to underscore with the community. There were a few clear highlights:
- A skit about safe pesticide use. A prideful man excited by his high yield crop is devastated to learn that two cows given to him by his grandmother have died from exposure to the chemicals.
- Young children put on a “library fashion show”. This one was adorable and the song was at my vocabulary level!
- Members of the senior association put on a physically demanding dance about the origin of humans.
Throughout the two hour performance we were all impressed by the passion and skill the performers put into their work. They had clearly spent a great deal of time preparing, and the themes of safe farming, reading, and educating the public about YWAM’s work came through clearly while everyone had a good time. I also enjoyed time away from the international community in Hanoi (not that our friends here aren’t lovely). Roslyn and I were the only two foreigners there.
Life in Hà Nội feels very far away from the experience of farmers in places like Bắc Giang. Việt Nam has developed quickly over the last thirty years. Hà Nội often feels very cosmopolitan, and yet just miles outside of the city the pace of life slows and people struggle to meet their basic needs. YWAM Mercy Vietnam is doing incredible work in some of these areas, and I am so grateful to have been able to witness it. I am excited to continue to support their work and get to know Roslyn and the staff better.