In December 2016 I heard about the cycle challenge in Vietnam and I was intrigued and inspired. I’d been sponsoring a child for 8 years with Plan International Ireland, and was eager to do more. I thought this would be a great opportunity to challenge myself and support a great cause. I didn’t realise what an impact it would have on me!
I persuaded my husband, Stéphane, to sign up with me and we joined the team that travelled to northern Vietnam in April 2017. The whole experience was so exciting, fascinating, education and definitely an assault on all the senses! The sights, sounds, smells; it was wonderful! The cycling was tough, well for me anyway, but the stunning scenery as well as the smiles and waves along the way made it all worthwhile…and of course going downhill was a definite bonus!
But the overall highlight of the trip for me was visiting the Plan projects. We were so fortunate to be able to visit villages, high up in beautiful mountainous regions, where the local indigenous people literally farm every spare inch of land amongst the rocky unforgiving landscape.
Our first visit, was to a satellite school, so remotely located, that the only way for us to get up there was as pillion passengers on the back of the teacher’s scooters, due to the “roads” being too small for larger vehicles.
Here we met the kindergarten age children where they begin their education. Each day they come for lessons, receive a hearty meal, cooked by the teachers, and have fun too! We arrived just as they had finished their morning lesson and were getting ready for a game in the yard, involving throwing balls, calling out numbers and colours in Vietnamese, chasing with lots of giggles and smiles.
The indigenous people of this region in Northern Vietnam have their own language, so don’t necessarily speak Vietnamese. So, an important element of their education is learning the Vietnamese language which ensures the basis of their education and ability to be able to continue, through to secondary school and ultimately improving their future prospects.
Some of the children were interested in us when we arrived, but most were indifferent and engrossed in the game and each other. One little girl in a yellow jumper seemed to be particularly absorbed with Stéphane and I and stared at us very intently for quite some time. But soon enough, she too lost interest and returned her focus back to her pals and the game. However, her little face will stay in our memories forever.
The visit really helped us understand the importance of satellite schools like this for families in the community. It provides children access to begin their education, without which might just not be feasible! It is also a comfort to the parents, who otherwise may have no choice but to bring them to the fields with them. They now know they are safe, warm and cared for during the day.
Another Plan project we visited was a girls club in a secondary school, where teenage girls learn important information in such topics as marriage and their rights, as women. We joined them as their teacher quizzed them on facts they had learnt over the last year, such as, what is the legal age to marry? Then it was fun time and they did some singing and dancing for us and after that we were invited to join them where they enthusiastically involved us in a game. Their smiles and laughter are another memory I shall never forget.
We also saw another type of Plan International supported initiative; a water sanitation project where we learnt that despite being up high in the mountains, the local water is not safe for drinking. The principal of the school explained that this facility filters the water and produces safe clean drinking water which is then provided directly to the school and local medical building.
Our visits and experience really put into perspective what Plan International actually do, at ground level. Before this trip I was interested in reading about their projects around the world, but I admit it was a bit abstract. Now, having seen with my own eyes, an example of their work and the impact it has on the actual children themselves makes it all more real, and impressive!
I am now sponsoring another little girl, from the same region in northern Vietnam. It means even more to me now because l understand exactly what the challenges are for her, but also the opportunities available to her as a result of Plan Internationals work.
Emma Fry, January 2017