Reflections on a trip to Vietnam

Paul Chan | January 15, 2019

Paul Chan is a member of the CWS board of Directors. He led a trip for high school students to visit CWS programs in Vietnam this month. Below are some excerpts from the trip updates that he sent to the students’ parents.  

Tuesday, January 8

Today was a whirlwind tour. We started with a traditional pho breakfast.  Soon thereafter, we visited a school with which CWS has partnered to focus on the WaSH initiative in hygiene, water, and sanitation.  This morning, CWS was building an efficient stove for the school’s communal kitchen, and our students assisted the 2 masons.  They were asked to break up brick and stone with hammers and an axe, mix lime and sand with water to make concrete mortar, and lay the brick foundation for the efficient stove.  Efficient stoves reduce wood use by 60% and dramatically lowers indoor smoke and carbon monoxide levels, thereby improving the respiratory health of women and their children.

After working there, we then visited Nam Sang, a village of ethnic Dao people that has implemented CWS’ WASH program.  A major focus of the effort has been to have each of the 71 families in the village install latrines at the home to reduce open defecation.  Bringing clean potable water into homes and installing latrines have together dramatically reduced diarrheal deaths worldwide, such that diarrhea is no longer the number one preventable killer of children under 5 (it is now number two behind pneumonia). It is not sufficient to just bring clean water to each family in a village if people are still defecating outside their homes, as flies do not discriminate and will infect the food of those who have latrines if their neighbors continue to defecate outside their homes. As a result, CWS works with villages to have each family implement a latrine and have the entire village become Open Defecation Free.  Those villages that achieve this get recognition by the local government and receive a monetary award from CWS, which is spent by the community for other needs.  In Nam Sang, they built a community kitchen for meals, further bringing villagers together.

At Nam Sang, we visited several families to witness the varied types of latrines.  There are 5 tiers of latrines (which vary in cost), and within each tier, one can have a dry or a wet (water flush) latrine.  Each family is responsible in committing resources to acquiring and installing their latrine, so it is not a hand out and they own the process.  Even the more rudimentary latrines are very effective in reducing communicable diarrheal disease. We visited a family with a basic double chamber latrine and were impressed that 1) there was no smell, 2) the wood charcoal from cooking is re-used to neutralize the smell of stool, 3) urine is collected separately and re-used for watering plants given its high nitrogen content, and 4) the stool is re-used for compost after bio-composting over a period of 6 months.  Everything was re-used in a safe and effective manner.

We then proceeded to lunch and visited Lun #2, a village that had not yet implemented the WASH initiative.  This was an ethnic Thai community, where the malnutrition rate exceeded 20 percent.  In Lun, 58 percent of the community was below the national poverty level, which is the equivalent of $56 per month, or less than $2 a day or $672 annually.  The family with whom we spent time described that they defecated close to their home near the river basin and wished they had a latrine.  Poverty was the main challenge, as they had limited land to grow crops given their inaccessibility higher up in the mountains.  The family’s diet was comprised of noodles for breakfast, and white rice for lunch and dinner, sprinkled with infrequent small portions of protein.  Young children in the community were stunted from both under-nutrition and repeated bouts of diarrheal disease.

We returned from that village back to the school where we began the day with the efficient stove effort, seeing the final product of our work (see the pic with the stove with a fire).  It was the end of the school day at 4:30 PM, so the young primary students proceeded to play with all of us.  There was a natural-ness to the interactions with the universal language of play.  Although not meant to be part of the trip, it cemented the centrality of why we are here—for the health of children.

Friday, January 11

Some of you know that I like to walk, a lot. Every fall for the past 9 years, I have completed a 50-mile trek (22,000 feet in elevation change) in the Grand Canyon within a 24-hour period to raise awareness about hunger and funds for CWS to fund toward sustainable solutions against hunger. I have been blessed to have others join me in this walk over this time, and we have raised $726,000+ during these nine treks, including $128,000+ this year alone! And almost all the funds have gone to the very projects in which we have been immersed over the past week in the villages in places such as northern Vietnam.

As I walked around the schools and villages this past week, the act of walking reminded me of my treks in the Grand Canyon. Walking is as essential to life as breathing to me, and in many ways, we were walking, for however a brief time, in the shoes of the men, women, and children in these villages. As each of us walked the terrain of northern Vietnam this week, we learned about the obstacles to improving the lives of populations in a world so remote from our own. At the same time, we bathed in the beauty all around us– the colorful hills, the familiar smell of food cooked over open fires, the smiles of beautiful children who would greet and hug us, and the generous hospitality of a culture that humbles me.

The last week has been transformative for our group.  Our students participated in all aspects of construction of biosand water filters, from cleaning large and small pebbles and fine sediment, to making the concrete molds for the biosand filter structure, to putting the parts together.  Each and every person was immersed in the process, and we celebrated being covered in dirt, water, dust, and sand.  And we also helped build an efficient stove, learning how such a basic tool can reduce respiratory disease (esp. as pneumonia is the number one preventable killer of children under 5 in the world), firewood usage, and harm to the environment by reducing deforestation. And the community showed their appreciation over and over again, but deep inside, it was us who felt appreciation for the joy and dignity with which all lived their lives despite great obstacles.

It is true that our trip will fund biosand water filters for numerous families. These water filters will have a lasting impact on a number of schools and homes. But I also know that the experience of the past week will have an even greater impact on each one of us. Over this time, all of us have implicitly acknowledged that we are really one human community, and that we were walking together in solidarity. We have realized we want the same goals for the community as for ourselves.

Sunday, January 13

The work we did during this January term trip is only a first step to teach ourselves and our loved ones that we all need to become involved in the lives of others—especially those much less fortunate than ourselves.  Most of us live a very blessed (and comfortable) life, me included.  But, all around us, there remain so many with great need.  They are often invisible because many of the faces of the poor are hidden, without voice.   It is easy to feel paralyzed and powerless. Once in a while, someone like Mahatma Ghandi, Mother Teresa, MLK or Paul Farmer comes around and inspire us to develop a bold vision of a better society.  They demand that we look within ourselves to see how we can make the world a better place, to love with such abandon that it is liberating.  It is easy to write these people off as “heroes,” or “extraordinary,” or as “saints,” relegating their intense compassion and commitment to the poor as aberrations in our universe of human behavior.  But to do so would essentially write these individuals off, absolve ourselves from being involved, and be a tremendous disservice to our calling to be present to the humanity around us.  And so, it starts with each and every one of us, often with simple acts to walk the talk, to live a life where, as my younger son Jesse and I once discussed 8 years ago, one is “kinder than is expected.”