Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Day 14 Monday November 10, 2008





Wrapping up today and packing for my trip home. I made another visit to Go Vap Orphanage to meet with the Director and staff. My cell phone rang all evening. The kids called to bid farewell. I have with me a large envelope filled with letters from the kids, written to their sponsors and friends whom they met on past HumaniTours. I told you so, the kids will never forget you!

Day 13 Sunday November 9, 2008

Tales of the two cities: typical early morning in Hanoi one would find the streets packed with people exercising, slowly getting ready for their day. Sunday morning in Saigon before 8 o’clock, a live concert happened on the steps in front of the Opera House watched by a large group of viewers sitting on their bicycles or motorbikes. Not too far away, an engagement party began with the large entourage representing both sides of the families marching through the gate of a restaurant. The streets from the city center to the Notre Dame Cathedral were packed with thousands of marchers in uniforms participating on the ‘March To Fight Poverty’ and raised money for the poor. The early mass at the Cathedral was packed with churchgoers. Yes, the day just barely began.
First item on my agenda for this Sunday: the Picasso Orphanage. Kim and Mum, an Australian family living and working in Saigon, and I came to the orphanage with a large duffel bag filled with gifts for the +240 kids. After a meeting with the Vice Director and discussing some of the latest needs, progress of the kids and challenges --we did the usual. We lined up the kids, handed out gifts, played and talked. In the baby ward, we learned that one of the hydrocephalus babies will have his surgery tomorrow using one of the shunts we brought last November. Unfortunately, two other hydrocephalus babies were still there in deteriorating condition. It was already too late for them to get their surgeries when we arrived with the shunts last year. Another baby with clef lip will have his surgery on Wednesday. Want to know how you can help the hydrocephalus babies?--- please contact us!
Next stop in the early afternoon, the English class in Go Vap Orphanage. Not a lot of teaching and studying was scheduled for today, instead we gave the kids a party. The teacher, Mrs. Truc, comes every Sunday and works on English for this selected group of orphans in Go Vap. Today, we had a new KWB volunteer joining the class. Leanne is from Australia and currently lives and works in Saigon. She wrote me last week and it did not take long for her to fall in love with the kids. After we ate lunch and treats, we played English word games. I was glad the kids were not disappointed that we did not take them out on the field trip to the city center as I usually do on my visits.

Day 12 Saturday November 8, 2008

Go Vap Orphanage welcomed back Kim Browne, born as Son Thuy (Son= mountain, Thuy= water). Growing up in London and is a successful business woman currently working for a major international company, Kim and her Mum returned to Go Vap almost exactly a year after their very first visit. Kim apparently left a positive impression from her three week volunteer stint a year ago--many of the staff and the children were very happy to see her again, especially when both of them walked through the main gate with huge bags of gifts!
Kim visited room by room and looked for some of her favorite kids. Some of sick babies were gone including most of the hydrocephalus babies. However, there was some good news: the ‘purple face baby’ (he turned purple when he had seizures and once, Kim was helping to resuscitate him) is now quite healthy and active. He had his surgery in July to install a shunt (for hydrocephalus) and the scar on top of his head is almost covered with his hair. Another of Kim’s favorite kids was adopted and is now living in the U.S.
Later on in the evening was the usual reunion dinner for the Teach Me To Fish orphans, organized each time I come to Viet Nam. The twenty kids took buses from where they lived or worked (and some came from Thu Duc and the Go Vap Orphanages) and gathered at the regular ‘all-you-can-eat buffet restaurant’ in the city center. They were very happy to see Kim and her Mum again (both were at the reunion dinner a year ago). The evening was filled with laughter, story-telling, practicing English with Kim (and Vietnamese for Kim, who does not speak the language). It was a great opportunity for me to have one-on-one time with the kids, help them with life challenges, give them encouraging words, and to set some future goals. The oldest in this group is 26, and the youngest is 16. Some have children of their own now. But they have all landed on their feet, and were able to escape the typical path of most orphans when they leave—they are often destined to live in poverty or in many cases become victims of the streets.

Day 11 Friday November 7, 2008

This morning, I met three doctors from Project Viet Nam here on a medical mission. They signed up for a tour of the Go Vap Orphanage. One of the doctors is from Southern California, one is from Virginia, and one is from Melbourne (Australia). We arrived at the orphanage as some of the kids came back from school for lunch and their usual afternoon nap. After the meet-and-greet with the orphanage staff, the orphanage doctor accompanied us on the tour. We started first in the ward for newborn babies, then to the ward for sick-babies. As usual, visitors could not help but pick up the babies and then when the babies were returned to their cribs-- the crying would break your heart. The doctors were quite taken with the little baby with the large tumor, the hydrocephalus babies and the number of sick babies cared for by this orphanage. They were very impressed with the staff and the cleanliness of the facilities. It is my hope that they will share, with others in their profession, how great the needs are here. For almost ten years, KWB has coordinated volunteers working at the orphanage. Our volunteers came from many different countries and all ages, with different backgrounds such as medical doctors, college students, retirees, and teachers.
Later on in the afternoon, I was reunited with Kim Browne arriving with her Mum from London. Kim is one of KWB Global Ambassadors. Kim’ personal story is quite remarkable. In 1975, just before the fall of Saigon and the end of the Viet Nam war, Kim was one of the newborn babies that arrived at the Go Vap Orphanage. Just days before during the massive evacuation marking the end of the war, Kim was brought to airport and handed to a pilot who flew one of the few final planes out of Viet Nam. At two months old, Kim ended up in Hong Kong with only a bracelet on her wrist which had the name of a person in the UK who was in the process of adopting her. Through extreme determination and perseverance, the adoptive mother in London was able to locate Kim and brought her to the UK. Last year, Kim returned to Viet Nam. The trip was made possible by Kim’s company in London. She was the winner of a company essay contest, writing about her dream of going back to where life began for her. Kim contacted me and, last November, I was able to help Kim return to Go Vap Orphanage. Kim and her Mum spent three weeks working with the staff taking care of the children there. She used the funds she raised prior to the trip to provide the orphanage with many of the daily necessities such as air conditioning units, fans, learning supplies, and much more. On her way home from the last trip, Kim began to make plan for this year’s trip. I met Kim and her Mum for dinner and gave them the latest update on Go Vap Orphanage. They could hardly wait for their visit the following day.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Day 10 Thursday November 6, 2008


Travel day today, I am heading back to Saigon.

Day 9 Wednesday November 5, 2008

Yesterday at the Asia Pacific Injury Prevention Conference, many of the delegates wanted to purchase the Protec (www.wear-a-helmet.com ) helmets on display. So many, in fact, that this morning the staff from the nearby Protec store brought over hundreds more helmets. One of the Protec staff was our Thao.
Thao grew up in the Hoa Phuong Orphanage in Hai Phong. She is part of the first group of KWB Teach Me To Fish scholarship recipients. She and four other orphans moved out of the orphanage (when they all turned 18) back in the summer of 2005. She immediately enrolled in a culinary training program in Hanoi, at a nonprofit vocational training (in hospitality and culinary arts) for underserved children (orphans and street children). At the end of her first year, she did an internship as a cook (Asian food) in the Hoa Sua Restaurant, owned and managed by the same nonprofit organization (Hoa Sua School for Disadvantaged Children www.hoasuaschool.com/index.php?). In November 2007, through the arrangements of KWB Thao got a job working as a salesperson in the Protec Show Room in Hanoi. Four months after she started, she was promoted to the position of Team Leader (shift supervisor). Now, in addition to her full-time job at Protec, which pays her a salary above the standard of most workers in the city, Thao is serving as KWB in-country representative for the North. She spends her extra time studying English and computers, and looks out for the younger TM2F kids studying in Hanoi as well as the orphans still at the orphanage in Hai Phong.
Watching Thao in action--working behind the display table at the conference-- I was overwhelmed with pride and satisfaction. Thao has set an inspiring example for the rest of the orphans of the Hoa Phuong Orphanage. Now many of them cannot wait until their turn comes at eighteen to go and face the outside world!
Tonight was the farewell dinner with the kids. After they finished with school and some with work, we gathered at Quan An Ngon, a popular local and tourist restaurant. I asked each of the kids to invite along a friend, and I had a chance to meet them. The three friends that came to dinner, all were from faraway rural villages and lost either one or both of their parents. When they complete their training, the school will help them secure jobs in the nearest city to where they are from. During dinner (yes, they ate a lot of food) all the kids viewed the activities around them with serious expressions. The servers were taking orders and serving food and drinks in a very crowded restaurant filled with many foreigners. What they saw was what they are now learning about in school. I could tell what was going through their minds: ‘Yes, I can do that’. It was the same thought going through my mind: ‘Yes, you can’.
Time to bid good-bye, I placed all 7 of the kids in a taxi for the ride back to their school. Tonight was the best meal they have had (until Chu Son is back again in another 4 months)!

Day 8 Tuesday November 4, 2008

Today I attended part of the Second Asia Pacific Injury Prevention Conference. Some of the conference sponsors were UNICEF, World Health Organization, major international foundations and international governments. I watched the presentation by Greig Craft of Asia Injury Prevention Foundation (www.wear-a-helmet.com), titled ‘Lessons from a Helmet Wearing Campaign in Viet Nam’. Road traffic accidents (RTAs) in Viet Nam are still one of the top killers of children. The video of the new ad campaign was disturbing and moving, but a necessary message to get the attention of everyone. Kids Without Borders will continue our commitment to support the Helmets For Kids (H4K) program by AIPF. AIPF has provided hundreds of thousands of high quality PROTEC helmets to school students in Viet Nam and has produced ongoing education programs and advertising campaigns promoting road safety.
The rain did stop in the afternoon and normalcy returned to the streets of Hanoi.
Today marked the half-way point of my trip.

Day 7 Monday November 3, 2008

After an early business meeting, I went by the orphanage to collect five of the kids for the trip back to Hanoi. We all wondered what we would encounter in Hanoi. The major flood made news not only locally but also on CNN and BBC. The rain had not stopped, streets were still flooded, food delivery to the city was interrupted, food prices were doubled, there was a loss of electricity, and worst of all the government warned of possible disease outbreak. On the way to Hanoi, we went through flooded rice paddies, crested rivers, and people fishing in unusual places. When we got to Hanoi, the rain stopped and life appeared to be back to the normal pace-- at least in the city center and near my hotel.
After we arrived in Hanoi, one of the kids had to leave to go to work. The other kids and I went to visit Thien Nhan. Flood waters were gone, the house appeared normal. I could tell it was the right place from the sound of Thien Nhan’s loud voice coming from the house! The kids had read the story of Thien Nhan and they enjoyed meeting the young celebrity. Thien Nhan’s fan club continues to grow.
In the news: for many months, people in Hanoi City have had problems with the public buses. The problems: bus stops in many locations have been placed up to 10 meters away from the bus shelters. Quoted in one of the local paper: “So when it’s raining and the bus appears like a bat out of hell before screeching to a halt at the stop, would-be passengers have to dash from the shelter to the door. Often elderly or sluggish passengers, or those lost in a pleasant daydream, get left behind.”
Photo: orphans from Hoa Phuong Orphanage and currently are in the TM2F program, Thien Nhan and his adoptive Grandmother (far right).

Day 6 Sunday November 2, 2008

Sunday was a typical quiet day at the Hoa Phuong Orphanage. The children are assigned to specific household chores. The kids swept the surrounding grounds; walkways were cleared of leaves, all done just before a light rain started. Afterwards, all of the orphans gathered in one of the seven homes, sharing candy sent from Rotarians (my Rotary club in Seattle), singing songs, telling stories, and just being kids. This was the first fall trip in eight years that I haven’t brought along a group of American friends. Lots of the conversations were about many of you whom they met in the past. I passed out some of the gifts you sent to the kids you sponsor in the Teach Me To Fish (TM2F) program. The rest of the kids wondered when they would have a sponsor and would get a letter or gift from someone in America. Interested in sponsoring one of the orphans? Learn more about our TM2F program.
When it was time for the kids to prepare dinner with the house mothers, I left with the 13 kids from the TM2F program. Our group dinner was at a posh shopping and entertainment plaza where one of the kids works. The hot-pot dinner was a special treat that only happens when Uncle Son visits. I sat back at the dinner table, watched and listened to the kids-- feeling proud of what they had accomplished on their own-- with just a little help from us. We all stopped at the bookstore on our way out, and a book was purchased for each of them. Most selected English books, some selected computer learning books, and one bought a ‘How To Care for Your Newborn’ book. ‘Roi’ is expecting to have her first baby in a month. Working full-time at the shopping center, married and expecting, Roi is another TM2F kid who successfully broke the cycle of ‘orphan’ and ‘poverty’.
Time to bid goodbye to the kids….until March we’ll just visit through the internet. On my way back to the hotel, I thought of how much has changed since I first met these kids. Back then, they were young and innocent, lacked self-confidence and goals for the future. At some point, even I underestimated them. Now, they go to the internet cafĂ© and reach me via email instead of waiting until the next visit. At the age of eighteen (when they had to leave the orphanage) they marched out of the orphanage gate into the outside the world and they all ended up better than the majority of the population of this developing country. Through the ripple effect, they have made believers out of the younger kids still in the orphanage. One thing I do know, I have not once stop believing in these kids.

Day 5 Saturday November 1, 2008

Heading to Hanoi early this morning, I arrived at the airport in Saigon to a scene of confusion. Most of the domestic terminal was still closed due to a fire earlier this week, and domestic flights were moved to depart from the international terminals.
As the plane was landing, I could see Hanoi was in severe flooding condition. The worst flooding in 35 years turned many city streets into rivers, destroyed crops and many infrastructures in and around Hanoi. The same flooding condition extended from the north to the central regions. A car and driver met me at the airport and we headed to the Hoa Sua School for Disadvantaged Children (www.hoasuaschool.com/index.php?) to pick up a group of the ‘Teach Me To Fish’ kids. Four of the KWB-sponsored kids are currently in training (some in hospitality, some in culinary) at this non-profit hospitality and culinary vocational training school. Six kids, myself, the driver, and my luggage, fit barely inside of the SUV for the 3-hour drive to Hai Phong. At some point, we thought we would not make through some of the flooded streets and the rain kept falling harder and harder.
On our way out of Hanoi city, you could see that in spite of the continuous heavy rain and the water-filled streets, life went on as usual. People were smiling, walking in normal pace or threading through water pushing their motorbike or bicycle. Occasionally you could see children with bamboo baskets trying to trap fish in the middle of the streets. Rice paddies along the road all but disappeared, all covered by flooding water.
We made a stop at a supermarket to pick up some gifts for the orphanage staff, tin cookies and snack packages. We arrived at the Hoa Phuong Orphanage by dinner time. It took only a few minutes for the news to get around the seven buildings in the orphanage, Chu (Son) came with a car load of special gifts – their older sisters. The reunion began, the kids from Hanoi had not been back to the orphanage for a while and. Growing up together in the orphanage, the kids all bonded to each other and all became part of a huge family. As I was leaving the orphanage, I could see inside of some of the buildings the younger kids were gathering around their returning sisters – time for story-telling and catching up.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Day 4 Friday, October 31, 2008

Today, a meeting was scheduled to discuss fundraising for Thien Nhan’s medical expenses. Team Thien Nhan consists of Thien Nhan, Mom Mai Anh, Dad Nghinh, Greig Craft (AIPF), Na Huong (Protec), Elke Ray (Bubbafish), and Son Michael Pham (KWB). We are working on the launch of Bubbafish toys, with part of the proceeds going to Thien Nhan’s fund. If you want to learn more about Bubbafish go to: http://www.bubbafish.com/.
Newspapers today carried news and photos from the ‘Helmets for Kids’ events, including photos of Thien Nhan and Michelle Yeoh. Looks like the Thien Nhan’s fan club continues to grow.
Thien Nhan’s family decided to take the last flight of the day from Saigon. I later learned that hundreds of people were stranded at Hanoi’s Noi Bai Airport late Friday night because taxis and buses could not get out of the city due to the severe flood. Luckily, two kind-hearted foreigners offered the family seats in their private car and the family made it to their home in the middle of the night.
Happy Halloween from Viet Nam!
Photo of Team Thien Nhan (left to right): Greig, Na Huong, Elke, Mai Anh, Nghinh, Little Minh (on lap), Thien (Elke's husband), and Son Michael. Can you find Thien Nhan in the photo?

Day 3 Thursday, October 30, 2008

Five o’clock wakeup call this morning and I was off to the Reunification Exhibit Center (the old Presidential Palace before the end of the war) for the BIG EVENT. A line of buses pulled through the big gate, all filled with school children. A total of 1,300 3rd and 4th graders from an elementary school in Saigon came to take part in the ‘Helmets for Kids’ new awareness education campaign. The kids got off the buses in orderly fashion, lined up and marched with teachers to the staging area. The theme of the event is “March with Michelle Yeoh for Children’s Road Safety”.
One of the first celebrities to arrive was Thien Nhan, our Miracle Baby (http://help-thien-nhan.blogspot.com/). Thien Nhan and his adoptive parents, Mom Mai Anh and Dad Nghinh, and Brother Little Minh, all arrived late last night from Hanoi. We have not seen each other since the family left the U.S in early September after the initial visit for medical evaluation.
Back to the main celebrity of the event-Michelle Yeoh. She is a very famous international film star -especially in Asia. Some of her most recognizable roles were in James Bond ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’, ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’, and ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ (http://michelleyeoh.info/Bio/bio.html).
A very large number of media was at the event, following every move by Michelle Yeoh. She is so well-known in Asia and she even has a Vietnamese name, known as ‘Duong Tu Huynh’. Things did not start out too smoothly. I introduced Thien Nhan to Michelle. He was not ready, unimpressed, yelled “No!” while holding his hand out when Michelle asked if she could hold him! Meanwhile hundreds of media cameras were clicking and rolling. Michelle’s charm won in the end and she was able to hold Thien Nhan even though he still looked cranky and tired. It was just too early in the morning for him to put up with all of the commotion.
The ‘Helmets for Kids Ceremony and Walking Event’ was such a fun event! Thousands of elementary students participated and received new safety helmets made by Protec, which is supported by the Asia Injury Prevention Foundation (AIPF). I was there as a board member of AIPF (http://www.asiainjury.org/), as well as representing Kids Without Borders. KWB has participated in the Helmets for Kids (H4K) program since 2001. Partnering with many Rotary clubs in the U.S, we were able to provide thousands of safety helmets to elementary school students throughout Viet Nam. I was very important to me to be at this event to support Greig Craft, my dear friend and colleague who founded and manages Protec (http://www.wear-a-helmet.com/) and AIPF. Greig has spent years tirelessly promoting road safety and head injury prevention-especially for children. He does this not only in Viet Nam but in several other developing countries. Earlier this year, Greig asked Michelle Yeoh to serve as Global Ambassador for the ‘Make Roads Safe Campaign’. This is her second visit to Viet Nam to advocate for children and everyone to wear safety helmets when they are on bicycles or motorbikes. Throughout Viet Nam, billboards by AIPF are educating the public of the dangers of traffic accidents and how wearing helmets prevent serious injury or death. Michelle Yeoh’s image can be found on billboards, newspapers and television ads since March 2008. Through the hard persistent work of Greig Craft, a helmet law went into effect in December 2007. Unfortunately, the wearing-helmets-on-a-motorbike laws do not cover children, the population most vulnerable out on the crowded streets. After the speeches, the fun traffic safety games, the hand-out of thousands of new helmets to the students, Michelle Yeoh led a march for several blocks followed by school bands, and thousands of helmet-wearing children and adults. Thien Nhan tried to participate but he is still having a hard time with the prosthetic leg and the walker, so the family brought him back to the hotel to rest. The campaign ended with a news conference attended by hundreds of members of the media. I was able to speak briefly on behalf of KWB, pledging our continuous support for the ‘Helmets for Kids’ program.
So many people in Viet Nam have been following Thien Nhan’s remarkable survival story, they eventually started a fan club via Thien Nhan’s web blog. Tonight, a group known as ‘Thien Nhan’s Mother from Ho Chi Minh City’ organized a dinner reception to welcome him and his family. This is Thien Nhan’s first visit to Saigon. The dinner was the opportunity for these supportive women to meet the family for the very first time, and for each of the members of this group to meet each other in person. I just sat back and witnessed a wonderful story playing out. The Miracle Baby continues to make miracles, bringing people together. Thien Nhan was in much better spirits than earlier this morning, playing with other children, and being passed around from one person to another.
It was such a long but wonderful day. When I dropped the family off, they went in to the wrong hotel until Little Minh pointed out they were in a wrong place. Good thing someone was still alert!
Note: 14,000 people die on Viet Nam’s road each year. World’s annual road death toll is more than 1.3 million people. Unfortunately, another 30,000 people in Viet Nam per year survive from traffic accidents and face life altering consequences of severe head trauma or disability. Children are always the most vulnerable. If you wish to learn more about the 'Helmets For Kids' program and how you can support it through KWB, please contact us at info@kidswithnoborders.org.

Day 2 Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Off to visit Go Vap Orphanage after breakfast. When I arrived, many of the kids were in school. After visiting with the kids on the main floor and interrupting the normally quiet lunch time, I went to the sick ward. Several more babies with hydrocephalus arrived since my last visit in July. The shunts delivered in November 2007 are still available to take care of the new hydrocephalus babies. One of the new babies, who arrived three weeks ago, had a large tumor on her back. The tumor grew to the size of half of her body, approximately 24 inches in diameter. The best hospital in Viet Nam, Cho Ray Hospital, rejected her since they were not capable of treating her. I met quite a few new premature babies in the new-baby ward, two were small enough that each would almost fit on one of my hands, and of course, they have all sorts of medical problems. As always, the needs at Go Vap are unending and I cannot help but feeling overwhelmed and guilty that I could not help more.
I did manage to deliver gifts to some of the kids from their friends in the U.S. The kids in the ‘Teaching English Program’ wanted to know when I would take them on the usual field trip to the city, some counted out loud the number of days left until then (next Sunday). I finally said goodbye to the kids and promised to see them again next week when I am back from Hanoi.
Note: interested in volunteering on behalf of KWB at one of the orphanages in Viet Nam, please contact us at info@kidswithnoborders.org.

Day 1 Tuesday, October 28, 2008


I arrived at my hotel in Saigon exactly 24 hours after I left my home in Sammamish. First things first - a long shower and fresh clean clothes! Then I tried to adjust to the 14-hour time change by fighting back falling asleep until the evening.

Weather is quite nice in Saigon, low 80s during the day. Rain came in the early afternoon and cooled things down a little. I noticed tourism is down, as many of the hotels are not hustling and bustling with tourists from Europe and Asia as they usually are during this time of the year.

Some of the local news: a fire yesterday closed down the domestic terminal at the airport. Headline Breaking News: ‘Good news for little people as new driving rules suspended’. Apparently, a month ago the government set health criteria for drivers of cars and motorbikes, including height and weight limit: must be 1.5 meters or taller and 40 kilograms or more. In addition, people with a chest diameter of less than 78 centimeters are included in the new laws. Some people literately tried to gain weight to drive, and the joke on the street is that padded bras and breast-implant would become very popular. Enough people complained and the government is considering removing the new laws. Hooray for the ‘little people’ as well as the ‘small chest men and women’.

Viet Nam Fall 2008

For the last ten years, KWB Founder Son Michael Pham makes his fall trip (October-November) to Viet Nam. This year, it would be the first time in eight years that he is traveling solo in the fall. Without leading a group of colleagues, friends, supporters, and volunteers, Son Michael promises that he has enough free time to write regularly on the KWB blog, reporting back on KWB programs and projects in Viet Nam. Looking at his schedule, we wonder how much free time he will have.
Note: to learn more on how you can participate on future mission to Viet Nam, read about the HumaniTours via http://humanitours.blogspot.com . Read stories from the 10th HumaniTour, reported by KIRO (CBS) television news reporter Penny LeGate: http://www.kirotv.com/station/15751389/detail.html . Information on future HumaniTours to Viet Nam, contact KWB info@KidsWithNoBorders.org .