Microloans in Vietnam

Larry and I have been involved in the Vĩnh Phúc (“ving foop”) Women’s Micro-finance program since 2007, when he first visited it and began photographing the program. Our Rotary Club in Wisconsin, where we were members for twenty years, subsequently supported the program with donations over a five year period.

Vĩnh Phúc is a province about two hour’s drive from Hà Nội. On this trip in 2011, we are headed to the township of Lập Thạch, which is also the name of the District in Vĩnh Phúc Province. The District houses one other township and eighteen communes, which are smaller towns.

Our friend Phuong, who runs a Vietnamese non-profit called Volunteers for Peace that attracts young people from all over the world to Vietnam, introduced us to the program. When Larry told him that he needs more video footage of the program for documentary purposes, he suggested that we go and videotape the recent winner of the Citi Bank Micro Finance Entrepreneur of the Year award; she has proved herself to be an outstanding businesswoman, and is being rewarded by this recognition.

So we meet one morning at Phuong’s home in Cau Giay (“Cow Zeye”), a southern district of Hà Nội, and he has arranged for one of his top assistants, Nguyen Thanh Mai, to be our guide and translator. Mai’s English is very good, and she is a clever and charming young woman. We are to go to the winner’s home today, a farm, stay overnight in the village, then see a second woman in the program, a chef who makes a dish called banh cuon (“bang kwahn”), tomorrow.

We get to know Mai a little in the car. She and her husband have two young children and live in Long Biên, an urban district across the Red River where Larry and I lived for a time as well. She has many skills, and speaking English is certainly one of them; she is quite fluent. Phuong has noticed her competence and lends her out for projects such as this one.

We arrive at the farm, and encounter a water buffalo at the entrance. The woman who is the winner of the bank award, a slender fifty-ish lady, Le Thi Sinh, greets us with her entire extended family, who are all smiles and excited for her. Husband, sons, daughters, spouses and grandchildren are all there in celebration of her success. Since it’s around lunchtime by now, they have put out the typically amazing Vietnamese meal for guests, spread on the floor, and complete with sake. After some informal introductions and shoe removal, we all sit cross-legged around the mat on which the meal has been placed in the main room of the home, and with arm gestures and encouragement from our hosts in Vietnamese, start eating.

The food, as has invariably been our experience, is incredibly good. They fill our sake glasses as soon as they are empty, even though it’s midday; we learn to empty them at a slower rate, if we want to get any work done. There is a lot of joking around, and we ask questions through Mai to get to know them a little better. And, of course, we must reveal our ages at some point, and this is the basis of much discussion in Vietnamese.

“They say you look very young,” says Mai, interpreting with her sparkling smile. We look around at them and grin and nod, to show our pleasure at this compliment.

As it turns out, they used to lived on much lower ground, and they point to where their animals are now housed. Floods came, and they had nowhere to go. Then they heard about the microfinance program, and Sinh signed up to start her business. She wanted to get some geese for eggs, grow some crops in the field, have chickens and pigs and goats. With the money she borrowed (about $50 USD), she started building her business, and from that the family was able to construct a new home on higher ground, impervious to flooding. They are ecstatic telling this story to us through Mai.

It is clear that this is a very healthy human situation; everyone is proud of what Sinh has accomplished, including her husband, who is respectful and loving. We get up from lunch to start filming, and I walk over to put my sneakers back on. One of the tiny grandchildren has inserted her toes into my size 10 shoe, and is squealing with glee over the immensity of it around her little foot. I break into laughter, and look around at the family, who also think this is amazingly funny, and a great way to bond without the help of language.

Larry gives me a tutorial in my job, which is recording sound for the video; the quality of the microphone in the camera isn’t high enough for our purposes, so we use another system for that. While he’s filming, I follow him around with the sound equipment, turning it on when he rolls the camera.

We film Sinh feeding the geese first. The birds are well aware of what is about to happen, and as she calls them in her clear, high voice, they come running with a lot of their own vocalizations; it’s hilarious, but also in its own way, beautiful, to see this diminutive woman surrounded by hungry and demonstrative geese. They do a dance they have rehearsed many times with their owner.

Next is the farm field, where she starts whacking at a seemingly unassailable tall and tough plant. I am fascinated, as over and over, she hits it with her scythe, and it succumbs after a few such motions. “How many hours per day does she engage in this activity?” I wonder. No surprise that she is like one long muscle, if this is how she spends her days.

Sinh and her husband take a moment to relax.

We move on to the other farm animals, all of whom seem to be happy and healthy, and Sinh expresses some affection for the previously-encountered water buffalo by reaching out and petting it, and it nuzzles back. Larry then wants to get the couple interacting with each other, so they start a conversation about their lives together, and how far they’ve come. It’s charming out here in the countryside, to see these two middle-aged people look into each other’s eyes and recount their story. Even though we don’t speak the language, we are spellbound by their devotion.

We have gotten the footage we need, so it’s time to go find our hotel. The whole family comes to say good-bye, and there is a lot of waving, and a mixture of language, although we’ve gotten good enough to speak a little Vietnamese, at least to say thank you and goodbye.

We travel to the main part of the village, and pull up in front of a several-stories-high structure. After Mai checks in with the owner and signs some papers (probably for the police; foreigners’ visits to countryside villages are pretty well regulated), we are directed to the third floor, where our rooms await us.

We drag our one suitcase and photography equipment up the stairs and push the door open – no locks here! A single bulb dangles in the middle of the room, where there is a basic bed and a mattress with a coverlet that looks none too fresh, and a table. I look at Larry, a bit horrified. He looks back. “Spoiled American,” he finally mutters, and that should be the end of it.

He’s right, of course. My visions of the hotel were quite different than what lay before us, but all in all, it was shelter, and it had a bathroom. I had stupidly conjured up something more romantic and, well, Western.

Mai’s room is right next to us, and our driver is down the hall. We all decide we need a good night’s sleep, because the banh cuon woman starts work at around 4:30 a.m., and is expecting us at 5 a.m. That means, to get there, a short distance away, we need to get up early and ready our equipment. So, we prepare for bed.

As is true for many Vietnamese homes and hostels, the mattress is rock hard. It has turned chilly, and the windows have only shutters, so using the coverlet is necessary. We make do with some clothing under our heads, as there is only one inadequate pillow.

“It’s only one night,” I keep reassuring myself, while watching my own intolerance in amazement, and thinking about my friend in the Midwest who is a self-proclaimed neat freak. I can’t wait to tell her about this, I muse, and that thought is what gets me through the night, although sleep eludes both of us for much of it.

As it turns out, it eluded Mai as well. She knocks on our door at 4:45, and looks tired. “I did not sleep,” she confides, in her case, probably because of worry that we would miss the wake up call. She goes quietly down the hall to wake our driver, and we all tiptoe out to begin our next adventure.

The next entrepreneur’s home is minutes away, thankfully, and we arrive in total darkness. Van (pronounced “Vun”), a broad woman in her forties, is already at work at her cooktop; she is seated in a tiny room off her home on a low chair, stirring a bowl of a thin, milky liquid that turns out to be a rice paste. Using a ladel, she pours it on top of a large, round stone-like surface above a blazing fire, and as it firms up forming an immense pancake, she uses three-foot long chopsticks to pick it up and transfer it to another surface. Before she prepares it, she pours another pancake, then turns her attention to the one that sits before her.

Van arises at 4 a.m. each morning to make Banh Cuon.

She takes a small handful of chopped wood ear mushrooms, green onion and oil mixture, and sprinkles this along the diameter of the rice cake. Then she rolls it up to form a glistening tube, uses a scissors to cut it into bite size pieces and puts it aside. By that time, the next one is done, and she repeats the same process with a precise and mesmerizing rhythm.

Larry has been busy setting up equipment, and by now he is filming and I am recording. And our mouths are beginning to water; it smells amazing in there!  The dark and coziness, and lack of sleep from the night before, and the rhythm of the banh cuon production, all combine to make us drowsy.

Customers begin to arrive, and Van produces plastic bags from a rickety cabinet to house the orders, which her consumers take home to their families. Mai has been chatting with her all the while, and I know just enough Vietnamese to realize she has asked about Van’s family. A cloud came over Van’s face, along with the impression that at some point we were in for a tragic story. Mai confirmed this a few minutes later, saying the woman was divorced, a rarity in the countryside.

After the morning rush, we are escorted to what amounts to Van’s living room. She sets up a small table, brings a plate of banh cuon, and gestures for us to come sit down. The aroma is tantalizing, and as we begin to eat, so is the taste. We dip the banh cuon into a wonderful fish sauce, and are immediately in food heaven. Banh cuon is one of my favorite Vietnamese dishes, and this is the best I’ve had, light and flavorful.

Next on our agenda is to get Van on video working in her small farm plot down the road. She needs to plow it, so we grab our equipment and follow her on foot the quarter mile it takes to arrive. She plows for a while with a wooden implement that she is somehow, possibly by sheer will power, moving through solid earth by herself. We film until Larry is satisfied.

And now, we want to interview her. We move off the road to a more secluded place, and Larry has a conference with Mai.

“Tell her that we want to know her story, that she shouldn’t hold anything back. She can laugh, she can cry; that’s what people learning about her want to know and see.”

Mai is a little uncertain; she has not been trained in conducting live interviews, so is understandably worried about how it will go. But we all sense there’s an interesting story here, so we plunge in.

The interview begins, and gets pretty intense right away. We didn’t need to know the language to realize Van had had some pretty tough experiences. As we intuited, she had been in an awful marriage, and her husband beat her. As she described it to Mai, her face became contorted with anger and hurt, and her tears flowed. Mai was amazing; she simply looked into Van’s eyes, took her hand, and let her talk.

This beating of women in the countryside is not, we have heard many times, uncommon. In fact, it’s so common that people have learned to look the other way, even though it’s a crime punishable by prison. Depending on who is leading the village, the behavior is either overlooked, excused, or enforced; it’s the luck of the draw for the women involved.

Life in the countryside has its own sets of sometimes seemingly insurmountable challenges, at least to Westerners, and going there is discouraged by the government. Even while we were in this tiny village and wanted to film a market, we were accosted by first the citizens and then the police, so had to leave quickly. We have heard of children raising children because something has happened to the parents, and other horror stories that just can’t be addressed because of difficult locations and scanty information. Of course, this is nothing unusual in developing countries, but it’s still hard to digest.

Van has two teenage children, a girl and a boy, and she is determined their lives will be better than hers, that they will go to college. She heard about the micro-finance program and decided to sign up. She loved cooking, and is obviously great at it, so that’s what she based her business plan on. With the help of the program, she was trained in bookkeeping and how to run a rudimentary business. Her mother took her and her children in after the divorce, and her life immediately improved.

Van and Mai take a moment to connect.

The interview came to an end, and we all hugged. Through Mai, we told Van how remarkable and strong she was, and how much we were saddened by her story, but also in complete admiration at how she had made a truly challenging situation into such a positive one. Van was glowing; telling us what she had been through had seemed to lift a weight, and we all felt closer from the experience.

We walk the short distance back to her mother’s home, and in the meantime several of her mother’s women friends have descended on the house. They look like a flock of happy birds, and were drinking tea and joking around for several minutes before moving as a group down the road to the next stop, wherever that was. All elderly, they were clearly enjoying their lives and each other, and made for quite a spectacle in this tiny village.

The woman who runs the micro-finance program, also Van, arrives from Hà Nội to check in on how things are going and give Van the chef some moral support. She is served some banh cuon, and we are asked to eat more, which of course, we do. Then there is a session with the two Vans on how the business is going. They go over the numbers, which are meticulously copied down in a notebook (we have never seen a computer used in the program for this purpose), every penny accounted for. Cook Van gets some helpful advice from the other Van, and she listens to it carefully. Then she is handed some Dong for the meal she has just provided us, which she tries to deflect, but in the end has no choice but to take it.

Our work is done, and we and Van get back into the car to return to Hà Nội. On the way, we stop at the micro-finance office, and ascend to the second floor. There, we encounter several young women counting money, and again recording the amounts in meticulous ledgers. Still no computers in sight. Vietnam is still largely a cash-based economy, although it is slowly converting to the use of credit and debit cards, but only in the bigger cities. We are offered tea and fruit, and some chairs to sit on, as Mrs. Van checks in on the progress.

We return to the car and continue on to Hà Nội. Van talks about her upcoming retirement and spending time with her grandchildren, while Mai listens and translates for us. She and Van have a lively discussion in Vietnamese about this, and Mai tells us that Van feels grandchildren validate her life in many ways. Van is usually all business and very stern; this is a side of her we haven’t seen before, and it’s eye opening.

Photos by Lawrence D’Attilio


Author: Pamela Foard

Teaching and playing professionally since the age of 19, Pamela Foard was appointed a teaching assistant position at her alma mater, Indiana University, while earning a Master’s Degree in Violin Performance. Once graduated, she further honed her teaching skills at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music in Milwaukee, and opened her private violin and viola studio in 1978 in Brookfield, Wisconsin, which was active until her move to Los Angeles in 2014. While at IU, Pamela studied with Italian violinist Franco Gulli and Polish violinist Tadeusz Wronski. She has also studied with Gerald Horner of The Fine Arts Quartet, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee; Dr. Gerald Fischbach, Edward Mumm, former Concertmaster of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, Piotr Janowski of the New Arts Trio in Milwaukee, and Vartan Menoogian of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A transplant from the East coast to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Pamela was barely out of her teens, when her talents as a freelance musician led rapidly to positions as assistant-concertmaster of the Milwaukee Ballet Orchestra, the Wisconsin Philharmonic, and concertmaster of the Green Lake Festival Orchestra (Sir David Willcocks conducting), violinist with Skylight Opera Theater, and under Music Directors Kenneth Schermerhorn and Lukas Foss, the number one substitute violinist and violist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra from 1970 to 1986. Pamela founded an all string, unconducted orchestra, Sinfonia Concertante, in Milwaukee in 1979, and was the Artistic Director and Administrative Director for four years, where she also served on the board of directors. She was also the Managing Director for Milwaukee’s contemporary music ensemble, Present Music, from 1996-99. In 2006, she and her husband were invited to be artists-in-residence in Hanoi, Vietnam for a three month program, where they collaborated with Vietnamese artists. She commissioned a tuba concerto for her son Aubrey (currently a professional musician in the Charlotte Symphony and head of the low brass department at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music) in 2008 from Wisconsin composer Mark Petering. In a series of fundraisers for various levels of sponsorship of the concerto, she solicited from donors over $20,000. Pamela has published two books: "Wedding Music Essentials" and " In Concert: The Freelance Musician's Keys to Financial Success”. Presently, Pamela continues to freelance and resides in Marina del Rey, California with her husband, the fine art photographer Lawrence D’Attilio, and their cat Dasher.

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