Thursday, May 17, 2012

I had promised to post my last blog sooner, but there has been so much to process and much to share, and I didn’t know where to begin. 

Let’s begin from the beginning. 

Last August, 2011, I read an article in the NYTimes about a group of young Vietnamese tribal women who were kidnapped by human traffickers and taken to China for forced marriages and sex labor. Many of them were returned home, but some were not accepted by their community and family because they were “no longer pure”. 

With the vision of the blue tarps on the mountain sides where the outcast women called homes, and inspired by a mysterious love that also touched my family and friends who encouraged me to “go” and find the women, I set out in early April 2012 on a journey without a map to look for a group of people I had never met. 

After three weeks of searching and inquiring, I traveled hundreds of kilometers from Hanoi to the northern tip of Vietnam, even crossed the border into China. Finally, in late April, I found Mrs. Mai, the woman who was mentioned in the article, and who trained some of these women as well as other women in her village, to pound flax and weave it into linen fabric. 

Here we are, Mrs. Mai and me in a juice bar across from Van Mieu, the beautiful Temple of Literature. 

She was tickled to know I have been looking for her since August 2011. “Like you, many people have been looking for me, too. They came to my village and showed me the article.”

We shared our stories. She told me about how the husbands would come to her factory and beat up the wives, so she had to get the authority to send police to protect her women. But to save the husbands' face, she invited them to come to the factory on pay days. As she handed them part of the money their wife earned, they had to sign a paper that they allowed the women to come and work everyday. Great lesson about grace! 

Quite the story teller, Mrs. Mai's description of her women reminded me of the women I met on the mountains, with a roll of flax tied to their waist, using their fingers to shred the fibers into thread or wove them into decorative strips while herding their cows or carrying great bundles of vegetation on their back. 

With so many tourists, Mrs. Mai and her two factories have become very busy making souvenirs. But there are so many more women who still need help. 

Did I find the ladies who live under the blue tarps and were mentioned in the NYTimes paper? Yes. 

Did I meet them? No, not yet! 

Mrs. Mai invited me to visit her factories where the ladies work, and where many tourists also came to visit. 

"Come with me tonight," she said. "We will take the bus and will be in Ha Giang tomorrow...." 

This was the second time I had been invited to visit the two factories where I would have met some of the women who lived under the blue tarps, and who I had been spending weeks trying to locate, BUT, both times, something in my heart nudged me to “wait”. 

"We need your help with the women," Mrs. Mai had said in our meeting. 

"I'd love to help," I told her, and promised to see her again. 

Later that night, there was a voice in my heart asking me: "What would you do when you see the women, if you were to leave tonight to visit them?" 

I replied, reasoning with that quiet voice, "I would like very much to see where the ladies work, how they live, what they look like, talk to them... And take photos of them for my blog and share the stories with my friends in the US." 

"Then you are not any different than the many tourists who flocked to Mrs. Mai's village to take a peek at the women.... Be patient. Why not come back with a tangible offering to help them and their families, and be there for them?" 

* * * * * * *

For months, since August 2011, and especially the first three weeks of April 2012, not knowing where to go or who to ask about the women, I am grateful beyond words to have been led to many kind strangers who took me to their homes, fed me, helped me find them, and, most importantly, helped me to realize the purpose of this journey. 

Thu Ba and me in Hanoi, in front of the restaurant
where we had roasted pigeon!
Among these people were Mr. Thang and Thu Ba at PLAN International, and the leaders of Ha Giang province, Quang Binh, Meo Vat and Hop Tien villages, who proposed to me a possible project for helping the women who have not yet been helped by Mrs. Mai. These women are desperate to find a way to make a living, and the government is doing their best to help with the economic development for the province, especially these villages who are the poorest in all of Vietnam.  

Another group, a French humanitarian organization, who share the same concern and who have been funding Mrs. Mai’s factories, also met with me the day before I left Hanoi for the U.S. to discuss about having Philip and me to conduct workshops on creativity and striving for excellence in making their tribal handicrafts marketable in a very competitive global market, while maintaining their traditional values, designs and techniques. 

On the plane to Hong Kong, en route to the US, my heart burst with this big fat joy knowing that my clueless journey to Hop Tien was not a silly act, but purposeful beyond my imagination, and that I will meet the women. 

That little voice in my heart was right. “Be patient,” because this is a lot more than just an experience. 

Oswald Chambers wrote, “If we have only what we have experienced, we have nothing. But if we have the inspiration of the vision of God, we have more than we can experience.” 

The runner in Chariots of Fire said he felt God’s pleasure when he ran. That’s exactly what I felt every moment I was in Vietnam during this trip. I think God doesn’t need me to make the world a better place, or to “save” people. Actually, most likely I would screw things up if He gave me the job. But, God has led me by the hand to places and people where I can feel His heartbeat and love for them. And for me! 

It’s true that God knows our hearts, but it’s truly mysteriously exhilarating and utterly satisfying to know God’s heart! It’s a blessed peace to sojourn with God through this chaotic world. Thank you for walking this journey with me, too, via this blog. Maybe, next time, you can come along with us! 

Much love to you 
Anh  xoxoxo 


On the plane back home to the US, and almost every day since then, I have thought of the people I met in the mountains -- their peaceful way of life, their unhurried walk to the markets and back home on those winding mountain trails. They seemed content and at peace in spite of their poverty, of inheriting a hard land to cultivate, of the lack of shoes and clothes for the children.  

I miss this place with her people and
children and mountains and skies....
Do I have the right and wisdom to tell them to "improve" their life? I would not dare. I cannot help but remember their dignity! 

Now, back home in the US, with a fridge full of food, and closet full of clothes, how I miss being with them and slowly savoring the un-hasty life among the breathtaking beauty of their mountains and skies! 

But then, I also remember Thuy, the "gentle fox among the sheep" at PLAN, also a Hmong, and a college graduate, who told me the tribal children need the opportunity to go to school, to learn to read and write, to have food in their tummies, warm clothes in the winter and shoes to walk on the rocky mountain paths... 

You bet, I will take her advice! She knows her people best, what they need, and what they don't need. 

According to Thuy, Thu Ba and Mr. Thang, at this moment, this is what the children in the mountains need: shoes, warm clothes, blankets, papers, pens, medicine, uniforms (the parents could not send the kids to school because they can’t afford the uniforms...). 

You and I don’t have to give up our Starbucks coffee today to help these children to go to school, to carry fire wood, and herd their cows and pigs without having their feet cut by the rocks. 

A dollar will get them a pair of bee hive shoes (the Vietnamese version of Crocs), $5 dollars can buy a kid uniform, or school supplies, blankets, coats and sweaters. 

It costs so little to make life easier for these children, and help provide for them their basic needs and opportunity to read and write, and who knows, to go to college, like Thuy did! 

If you can give a few dollars, or lots of dollars, please send your donations to: 

Artists for Community Transformation/ArtsBridge International
60 Valley Street, Suite 29 
Providence, RI 02909. 

Please put PLAN’s Ha Giang Children's Project on the Memo. Your donations are tax deductible. 

Philip and I will deliver the money to PLAN staff in Meo Vac on our trip this Fall, who will purchase the basic needs for the children before the winter hit them. You can find out more about PLAN International on their website,

Thank you, cherished friends. It really is a wonderful world out there, where hearts can be connected and feel for each other. In this manic world filled with all kinds of wars, poverty and wickedness, we still can find peace.  

Children in daycare on an outing on Church Street
in front of Hanoi's Cathedral

I didn't eat the boxed meal on the plane...but ate my favorite
childhood snack that I bought in Hanoi and brought with
me to the plane: Com (roasted young rice), which still has the
aroma of new rice when I opened the lotus leaf package.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

April 24:

I am skipping my blog for April 23 about my meeting yesterday with Mrs. Mai. It was very good. I have been trying to figure out why I am compelled to go this far, across the world, and weeks from my family, to find her. I am beginning to feel why. Tomorrow, I hope to articulate to you better in my next, and final blog for Anh's Journey to Hop Tien.

Today, for lunch, I was invited to a great snail soup restaurant! It was good!!! I am going back for sure!

r in the evening, I was invited to the opening of Scent of Burnt Grass, a movie that got the 2011 Golden Kite Award, a prestigious award similar to the Academy Award in the US. The opening was quite grand with lots of speeches from important people, award giving, and a military band!!!

Scent of Burnt Grass was chosen to be shown for the 40th anniversary of the libearation of Quang Tri, a blood bath that killed many young men from both sides of the North and the South. The movie was made from a true story (Mai Mai Tuoi Hai Muoi, Forever 20) taken from a diary of a 20 year old college student, Nguyen van Thac, who recorded his journey as a volunteer soldier with his three classmates. Only one made it back. 

The movie was not propaganda-ish, but quite thoughtful, similar to Saving Private Ryan, or Arc de Triomphe by Erich Maria Remarque, even sweet and funny, though it made me weep. War is such a terrible thing. 

My new friend, a famous actor, told me that some of his siblings made it to the South after the Geneva treaty, while some stayed in the North. One brother in the North had to go to war, another in the South was drafted to do the same thing. The one in the South eventually killed himself to avoid killing his own brother in battle. 

I met Director Nguyen Muoi (with flower), photographer Nguyen Huu Bao (round glasses), his beautiful actress wife Nguyen Nhu Quynh (in brown dress), and Chi Binh (black dress, great legs), wife of another famous actor, Dung Nhi. All are much loved by the Vietnamese and are called national treasures! 

What a contrast of my time in Vietnam in the past few weeks between the peaceful and simple life of Meo Vac and the fast, furious and fascinating Hanoi! I am honored to know both!

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

April 22:

Went to Nha Tho Lon Church (the main Catholic cathedral) on Church Street. Men sat on one side, women on the other.

Only the foreigners didn't get that and, quite interestingly, the women picked the men's side and the men the women's side!!!

* * * * * 

I am back in the Old Quarter, my favorite section of Hanoi. It's packed with people, cars, motorbikes. Like old friends, I am glad to be back.

It's a rule in Vietnam that everyone has to wear a helmet while riding a motorbike. A shopkeeper loaned me her cute one (has a slit on the back for woman's pony tail, and not approved by US standard) and gave me a ride to the Button Market to buy shell buttons for Philip. 

The lanterns brightened up a section at the Ma Market where people sell paper money, clothes and furniture, all kind of things as burnt offering to their dead ancestors.

The Ma Market

Got a call from Mrs. Mai: "Can we meet tomorrow?" 


Me, in my bed, after a long day, with mosquito
netting all around. Very typical in VN.
April 20:

Left Meo Vac for Hanoi. It was a 11hr. ride up and down many mountains over many narrow and sharp curves..I chew some gums to stave off nausea!

For lunch, we all had plain rice, boiled tofu and vegetables to keep the food in our stomach! The sign on the road said: Good Luck! See you again!!... We certainly needed that! 

In mid afternoon, we took a break in another town. The pace of life was faster, the air hotter and dustier and there were a lot more traffic. In the midst of all that, I spotted a Nung (I hope I got this right) girl herding her two ponies among the rocks on the street. One pony seemed to preferred the rocks and not the easy road. The other could not make up his mind. Her gentleness and patience with the ponies immediately made me miss the dignity and peaceful way of life in Meo Vac! 

 April 19:

We were invited to visit an elementary school where there are three classrooms. Several grades share on room. The teachers are patient and very nice. They told me they respect the tribal people's unhurried way and it worked better that way. 

We were invited to visit the teachers' windowless "lounge" that has two beds for the teachers to rest. They are so sweet and happy to see visitors and insisted that i must eat some yam cake, their homemade lunch. It was very good!  

I wonder why Hung, from PLAN, didn't eat any. It turned out PLAN's staff was advised not to eat the villagers' food as they have so little food, not even enough for their own family. So if you take some food, someone in the family will not have any.. I didn't know, so I ate some... My bad!!! 

The teachers insisted that I must come back: "Bring Uncle Philip. We will will make for yam cakes and cook more food  for you!" They kept telling me as the held my hands. 

In the photo, we all linked arms with each other.Too cute!

 All these teachers are Kinh people and have worked here more than 15 years (they look much younger than their age). They teach the children in Kinh language (Vietnamese). Almost everyone in these villages can't read or write their own languages. The teachers confirmed with my Hmong escort that there are no books or any kind of written records of anything. The tribes' history and stories are all passed down orally.

They told me the villagers wanted their children to have an education, but lots of the time, they also need the children to help out at home. There were some extra bright students who really wanted to go to school that PLAN staff and the school teachers sometimes helped pay for the food to keep these kids in school. There are very few went on to High School. But those who did, especially those who went on to college became very smart leaders in their community. Thuy was one of them!

Do you notice a fat student among the skinny ones in the group photo, second row from the top, on the right?

April 19:

Stopped by PLAN office to say Hi to the good looking young PLAN staff... Everyone was already busy working. They all called me Auntie!! It's so wonderful to see more and more young Vietnamese involved in humanitarian work. Like everyone else in the world,  I am sure they could use the income , but from what I see with these young people, it's a lot more than that.

Here is Thuy, also the "wolf" among the sheep! When Thuy fist joined PLAN staff in Meo Vac, she was teasingly warned about living and working with a dozen male colleagues as a sheep living among many wolves.. She replied:" Don't you know I am the wolf, and you guys are the sheep?" Thus her nickname. A beautiful and delightful young lady!!!! 

Hung, one of young PLAN staff, was assigned to give me a ride to visit some villages further out of Meo Vac. We were given two escorts from the town hall.  

From the main road, Hung turned into a narrow path, narrow enough to fit a foot! From here we rode pass fields to a cluster of homes. One of our escorts, who was Hmong, told us extended families live in each cluster. 

The homes were fenced by rock walls. There are lots of rocks here. 

We followed the children's laughter and found a group of little kiddos having lots of fun swinging on the rope they hung over the roof rafter! 

We could see how hard life is for them. All the water containers were empty. It is very difficult to get water for farming and cooking. About half had some kind of eye infection and about everyone had a runny nose! At least three kids were without pants. Hung told me in the winter, even in 6 degrees C, some of the boys -- some were up to 6 y.o. --  didn't wear pants, and the children walk to school in the same clothes they wore in the summer, many without shoes....
We visited a few more homes. The children were watched by their grandmothers.

The homes were built with reeds and wood slats that will not be able to shield them properly in the winter. It seems the homes don't have real walls, just an open area with the kitchen immediately inside the front door. It also serves as a living room where everyone congregates with beds against the walls. 

It's disheartening to see the condition of life in this group of families where people live in the same room with their livestock. There were homes with cows outside, but the stalls lean onto the open-slatted walls of their home. In one particular home, next to a bed (with blue mosquito net), a section of the house was used for their animals with a large pile of dung and some vegetation nearby for the cow(s).

On the stove, the memen, a cornmeal dish was already cooked and would be served for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Hung said that's pretty much what they eat everyday, and very little protein. 


 I also noticed the children and adults were rather small and was told that, besides their poverty and lack of food, water, and proper sanitation, many of the tribal minorities here married within their family among first or second cousins and that has also caused lots of health issues. 

Monday, April 23, 2012

April 18: 
We left Meo Vac at 7am for Quang Ba, about 3 hour ride south for PLAN's meeting with the town leaders. I am grateful for the car ride. My Maximus Gluteus (quite max by now with great Vietnamese foods) still feel the hours of many motorbike rides the last few days on rocky roads. 

Up and down the beautiful mountains, I got to see the town Meo Vac rest peacefully in the valley surrounded by mountains. 

Our fearless chief excitedly told us about a Pho restaurant half way down where we would stop for breakfast. And he is right, the Pho was excellent. In the kitchen, several large pots were bubbling over wood stoves.

When the meeting was over, I asked if anyone would help me find Mrs. Mai who has started a flax weaving business to help the young ladies who were taken to China by human traffickers.

"Oh, we invited Mrs. Mai to come to this meeting, too, but she is in Hanoi for the Vietnamese Minority Festival. There are other women who were in the same situation also live in the three villages we mentioned in this meeting that we hope to help."

Wow!!!! I am speechless, and utterly grateful!!! They didn't know I was looking for her, and when they mentioned Mrs. Mai's name during the meeting, I thought they were talking about the other Mai who was PLAN's consultant and staying in the same hotel with me this week. 

Who would have thought I am this close to find the ladies....This is so beyond my imagination!

On the way home, I was promised to have Mrs. Mai's contact info in Hanoi.... So, I asked if I could go back to Hanoi on the next car coming down the mountains. "Two days from today...." I was told.

With a free couple of hours before dinner, I walked around Meo Vac and took some photos of the town.  

Later that night, we all had a fun dinner party, ended with karaoke where I sang a song by my favorite poet, Trinh Cong Son. This was the first time in more than 30 years I could sing by myself a whole Vietnamese song.

The PLAN staff is some of the most talented, dedicated and intelligent young Vietnamese I have ever met. They have graduated from colleges for a few years, and now work as humanitarian workers so far away from family and friends. Besides the breathtakingly beautiful landscape here, there is hardly much for young people to be entertained. They travel, sometimes on foot, for many hours, even to the furthest village unreachable by motorbikes or car, to deliver needed materials or seminars on public health, etc. They've helped made my time here so memorable.  I am humbled by the dedication, gentle spirit and the kindness of the whole staff, from Mr. Thang, the director, to everyone else.

Tomorrow I will take a ride with dear Mr. Tuan to visit the villages and homes further out among the mountains.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

April 17 -- I found Lung Tien, where Hop Tien is, on a tourist map! "I'd like to go there", but, again, I was told, as a foreigner, for my own safety because of the sensitivity of the village being so close to China border, it would take a few days for the local authority to organize someone to escort me. I decided to leave as soon as I could find someone who could drive me 2 days back to Hanoi, and I started to ask around.

Philip advised to wait around. Something may come up, he said, and at least to enjoy the beauty of this area.

So, being a dutiful wife, I did just that!  

The motorbike ride with Tuan back to the Loving Market turned out to be a profitable one. On the way there, we saw more of the tribal people's daily life. The most amazing thing is to see people, even little children, have no fear of falling off the mountain cliffs. It seemed everyone enjoyed sitting, standing, sleeping, playing right on the edge of the mountains.

The market was in full swing when we arrived. Unlike the night before which had many Kinh (Vietnamese) people, this morning there were mostly Hmong, Nung, Giay, and other tribal minorities. Dressed in beautiful traditional constumes, people thoroughly enjoyed the market. Laughter rang out everywhere. People walked arm-in-arm, eating, checking out vendors' stalls of clothes, jewelry and foods, children playing, chit chatting in all different languages.... The market was very crowded, but not hustle bustle. I am totally inspired by the clothes, the colors and their unhurried ways.


After several hours, around 1pm, we followed the throng of people returning to their homes. On the back of Tuan's motorbike, I could see the winding paths around the mountains farther and farther in front of me spotted with colorful scarves and clothing. Most everyone carried something from the market, unhurried. 

Along the way, there were groups of people and children sitting on the edge of the mountain to take 
a break, and quietly gazing into the mountain range in the distance. Again, I am humbled by their ability not to rush about, and without effort, live their life so regal and with dignity.

By Goc Ba Cay Thi, Three Thi Trees' corner, a drunk husband sprawled on the grass while his beautiful young wife waited patiently, seemingly enjoying the breathtaking view. Later on, I was told the drunkenness during market days, or special festivals, like this Loving Market, was no big deal. The wives took pride that their husband had many friends who invited their husband to drink with them. 

As the rain-carrying clouds were rolling in, the sights of women, girls and boys carrying great bundles of vegetation against the background of the magnificent mountains made me realize the incredible tenacity of the tribal people here. No wonder they were recognized by all of Vietnam for their courage to withstand the invasion of China not long ago. The women, even with great bundles on their back, can reach the same destination faster than cars and motorbikes by using the steep and narrow paths straight up and down the mountains.

Later, after a nap at the hotel in Meo Vac, I was invited to have dinner with the PLAN staff. When I got there, Mr. Thang, the Meo Vac PLAN's much loved leader, told me he just got a call from a province official leader about a project that involved some development of the handicraft industry to improve the economy of several villages, and would I care to come to the meeting.... Remembering Philip had told me to wait around and that something might come up, I said yes!