Bicycle trip gives visitors a sense of the real Vietnam, and a chance to do some good
Belgian visitors on their 22-kilometer long bike ride in Hau Giang Province
Twenty-three-year old Camille Steyaert from Belgium was on her second day in Vietnam and she wore a puzzled frown on her face.
"Why are they so many dilapidated, bare houses standing between such luxurious buildings like palaces here?" Steyaert, a third-year student of architecture in London, UK, asked me this question as we traveled by bus from Ho Chi Minh City to the Hau Giang Province in the Mekong Delta.
I was a bit taken aback, because I was expecting questions about the diverse designs of houses we were seeing on the way.
"Your country is poor and developing, right? Then where do the people get money to build such beautiful houses, especially in such countryside areas?" Steyaert continued, pointing at a beautiful two-storey house with modern architecture and a big swimming pool inside its garden, standing amidst rice fields, coconut palms and thatched cottages.
As a native Vietnamese, I could not give her a clear answer, except to say that the nation's modernization process had benefited a few people whilst left others behind.
Sitting behind Steyaert, 19-year-old Camille Vanhamme, a law school student in Brussels, had another question that was difficult for me to answer. "Why do people here love white skin?" Vanhamme asked as she applied cream on her skin, preparing for a day out in the sun.
Thankfully though, during the four hour bus journey, Belgian expatriate Bernard Kervyn was giving a more extensive report on Vietnam's socioeconomic situation in recent years and the work done by the three charities that he had initiated in 1997. Apart from Steyaert, the bus had 25 other Belgians including her mother.
The Belgian visitors were on their way to Hau Giang Province's Long My District, where they embark on a 22-kilometer long bike ride under the scorching February sun of southern Vietnam.
It was going to be a ride that not only combined the pleasures and benefits of normal tourism sightseeing, tasting local specialties and so on, but also aimed to "get a sense of the real Vietnam," said Claire Thibaut, Kervyn's younger sister, who had organized the biking challenge.
In fact, the bike ride had yet another aspect to it participants were raising money for several projects that were helping disadvantaged people improve their living conditions.
The three organizations that Kervyn began, Mekong Plus, Vietnamplus and Thien Chi (Goodwill), now have an annual budget of around million dollars that are used to provide technical training in agriculture and interest-free loans to struggling Vietnamese farmers in Hau Giang and Ben Tre provinces in the south and the central coastal province of Binh Thuan, and some areas in Cambodia.
In addition, the NGOs also teach local women to make handicraft products, including doormats, jewelry, and gadget covers from recycled cloth, paper and bamboo for sale at six Mekong Creations (a Mekong Plus program) shops in Vietnam and Cambodia, profits from which are used to pay back the workers.
Cycling for charity
Participants in the bike ride had practiced together every weekend for three months in their home country before the one-week trip to Vietnam and Cambodia that happened late last month.
Each participant, aged between 19 and 65, was also required to donate 3,200 euros (US$4,184) to the NGOs, excluding their accommodation fees, air tickets and other expenses.
"The people [the group] have money and are willing to share what they have with the needy people here," said Kervyn, 60, an economic graduate from Paris who chose to live in Vietnam since 1993 after marrying an overseas Vietnamese dentist.
"Of course it is difficult to convince people to donate for a project and 3,200 euros is a big amount. But Mekong Plus is not a tourist agency and so the people must be generous as our focus is for the poor while organizing these biking challenges.
Kervyn said that the bikers had contacted their friends and cousins and were supported by a total of 270 people.
"The funds raised have exceeded our wildest expectations, thanks to the 270 supporters: almost 100,000 euros has been donated! Fantastic indeed!" he said, adding "this is just the first challenge; we will organize more biking trips in future."
For Etienne Haenecour, 58, a manager with Belgian insurance company Mercator, said, "Despite the economic crisis in Europe, there's still a need to help other developing countries like Vietnam, for we all see that not only Vietnam, but we ourselves also get benefit from such community projects.
"I think when we give something to someone, it does not mean that we will get back exactly from the receiver, but mostly from different people."
Blonde Vanhamme looked very sporty on her all-terrain bike as she and her group headed to the Long Phu 2 Primary School, where they were to spend time with student beneficiaries of Mekong Plus's dental care project which provides toothpaste, toothbrushes and water containers as well as guidelines on proper care of teeth.
On the way, Vanhamme noticed a little girl, about six years old, riding an old rickety bike much too big for her.
My, like any countryside child with skin and untidy hair the same tan color from constant exposure to the sunlight, was fascinated by the presence of the foreign visitors and decided to follow them. To make the bike move with her short legs, she could not sit on the bike saddle, but pedaled it with all her might in a "standing" position, looking behind occasionally to see if her dog was still following her.
She stopped a T-junction and approached a group of local children playing nearby. The kids and a group of three adults playing cards inside a grocery store standing in the middle of several coconut trees were also curious.
"Do you know who they are? Are they Americans?" My asked the children.
The oldest boy in the group, whose house stood right at the junction, replied, "No, they are Australians, I think." Turning around, he shouted confidently to his grandmother standing inside the house, "They are from Australia, grandma."
On the way to the school, the group had a nervous and exciting time crossing a monkey bridge that looked too small and fragile to bear the weight of huge foreigners.
After spending time in the primary school, the group stopped at a thatched cottage built on chapped ground, belonging to Nguyen Thi Ba, 49, who has just borrowed VND1 million ($46) from Mekong Plus for pig husbandry.
Ba and her husband separated and she is left alone in the house. Her son works in Ho Chi Minh City as a manual laborer and daughter married into a local poor family.
The house has no electric supply because she is too poor to afford it. All she has is a 1,000-square-meter plot of land that is insufficient to plant rice. To survive, she works in the rice fields of other farmers in the area.
She also cannot afford to build a pigpen, so acting on a suggestion from Mekong Plus staff, Ba has asked her older brother, who has a big house opposite hers, to allow her to keep and feed her pigs in one of his pigpens. Getting out of poverty is a long way ahead for Ba, but now she has hope and support.
According to Kervyn, there are about 15,000 in the district in need of assistance and the NGO, which has several programs and aims to work with everyone, not only the poorest, though they are top priority, has reached out about two third of them but it is not enough.
Huynh Hoang To Trinh, a Mekong Plus fundraiser in the district, said that her organization works with different people, including teachers, farmers and local authorities on many initiatives including building roads and bridges. However, the program only works when the people themselves are determined to change their lives, he said.
"We can do nothing if they don't want to pay the price, which is diligence, responsibility and collaboration, said Trinh, who has worked for the organization since 2008.
Was it working and did the donor/tourist/adventurers learn something?
They did, according to Nguyen Truong Quan, Managing Director of Orient Horizon, a tour organizer specializing in adventure tours, who accompanied the group on their one-week trip.
He said: "We neither sell the country's poverty nor promote it as a tourism product to the world.
"Instead, such incentive programs are great opportunities for foreigners to find out how the locals overcome their difficult situations and strive for a bright, better future of themselves and the country."