Helping children and families thrive in northern Vietnam

On the final leg of our trip to plan a philanthropy travel program in Vietnam, Sandy, Duy and I boarded a night train from Hanoi and began our journey towards the mountainous north to Lao Cai on the Chinese border. After grabbing a bowl of Pho for breakfast, we visited a shelter for human trafficking survivors run by the Pacific Links Foundation, a great organization that will likely serve as our intermediary partner to identify prospective grantee site visits, distribute awarded funds and ensure accountability. 

We were accompanied by the dedicated and heartfelt, Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao, who is Pacific Links' Program Manager in Vietnam. Phuong Thao is one of those people who puts heart and soul into her work – you can tell she loves what she does, but also feels the sorrow and anger over what these girls have been through. 

Much like our experience at the Little Rose Shelter, we sat down with the girls and asked about their aspirations. (To protect their identities I'm not able to post photos.) We talked about the power of persistence, coping with failure, and the fear of starting out on a new life path. 

Afterwards, we traveled to the main center in Lao Cai that cares for orphans and the frail elderly. There I met this wonderous five-year-old girl who had lost both of her parents. She made a special impression on me – maybe it's because she's the same age as my daughter, Sophie, and shares her precocious nature! I couldn't help but wonder what life would be like for Sophie if her parents were no longer around. As we left the center, I texted my wife, Kelly, with a photo attached and asked (only half-jokingly) whether we could please adopt her!

As our morning of site visits came to an end, we proceeded to Sapa to take in the local sights. The scenery in this area is unbelievably beautiful and inadequately captured by any photograph – grand mountains and steep valleys scattered with villages of the Hmong and Yao ethnic groups. But what I thought was going to be a leisurely afternoon turned out to be one of the more emotionally difficult experiences of the trip. 

The recent explosion of tourism in the Sapa area has literally brought the world into this community at a pace never encountered before. In the town market and the villages, we were approached by women and children to buy various chotchkies we neither wanted or needed. There was a desperation that itself played out as relentless persistence and even aggression at times.  I was conflicted – by buying was I contributing to the problem? Were kids not attending school because their parents wanted them to earn money instead? On the other hand, these were real kids with real needs, right now. 

The trafficking problem is another way in which the world is encroaching on this community. Some parents sell off their daughters after receiving a false promise from the traffickers of a better future and a small payment. (Phuong Thao told us one story in which the parents received about $50 USD.) Our unofficial tour guide in a local village confided that she had sold her own daughter and cries about the thought of where she is every day.

The situation in Sapa calls out for a host of responses. How can outreach campaigns better reach parents so they understand the dangers of human trafficking and protect their kids against it? How can enterprise solutions be developed that honor local traditions while providing a sustainable source of income in a fast-changing world? One thing that struck Sandy and I was the intricate craftsmanship that local women bring to their embroidery work. How could such skills be channeled in ways that meet demand in both Vietnam and internationally? The adaptive challenges for the indigenous communities of northern Vietnam and others around the world are immense and ones we'll be exploring over the course of our trip.

We'll also be considering concrete solutions and how we can contribute to them. Our travel philanthropy program will include direct interactions and dialogue with community actors who are actively grappling with these challenges. It will be a great opportunity to harness the minds of our trip participants, ask the right questions and find ways to support great ideas that have the potential for significant impact.