Daring to dream in a floating Vietnamese village

By Aleksandr Smechov   July 11, 2017 | 12:36 am PT
Daring to dream in a floating Vietnamese village
Pham, ever-smiling, has been supporting the homeless, discouraged and lost youth of Vietnam’s poorest areas for over 15 years.
In a country where ​young dreams are viewed as grandiose and unrealistic, one woman continues to inspire thousands of underprivileged children.

“Can I show you some of my old pictures?” asks Pham Lan Hoa. She reaches for a photograph and hands it over. There is a group of children in the grainy photo, tattered clothes and wide smiles.

“I was the leader of the homeless children,” she says, laughing humbly. The photo was taken 14 years ago. At that time, Hoa was a student at the Foreign Trade University, but she also worked as a teacher in her spare time with the Young Volunteer Club, one of the oldest volunteer organizations in Hanoi.


Hung (left) and the rest of the class.

“My major was import-export, nothing related to social studies,” Hoa says.

She points out a grinning teen in the picture. “This one is Hung,” she says. After the class finished, Hung went on to become a welder’s apprentice, climbing in the ranks and eventually getting married. “He has a much happier life than before. He has also become a volunteer to help the other children,” Hoa says.

This was before she co-founded the Blue Dream Volunteering Club to help disadvantaged kids, and years before she set out to create her own online and offline support network, Living Dream.

When I first glanced at Hoa’s website (livingdream.me), it looked like a tawdry attempt to blend Facebook with a new-age self-help site (admittedly, it has improved much since then). But initial presentation issues aside, a quick login revealed a glimpse of something much more than the landing page suggested. Dozens of Vietnamese children and young adults sharing dreams that most families, educators, peers and the older generation in Vietnam would deem silly, arrogant or downright unacceptable.

Hoa, now 36, was raised in a small farming town in what she describes as a normal family. “In my hometown, most of the people were farmers who worked hard but earned very little,” she says. Her father, wounded in the Vietnam War, was unable to work. That left her mother as the sole breadwinner, supporting a husband and two daughters by selling groceries at a market.

Children in Vietnam are expected to follow in their forebearers’ footsteps, or go into a “safe” profession, likely involving mathematics or finance.

And like most Asian cultures, what others think of you, and more vitally, shame, has a deathly grip on Vietnamese youth. To boldly state you want to be an astronaut or artist is not only defiant, but brave. Hoa wanted to create an offline and online community that exemplified this bravery, reward it with support, and encourage members to follow their dreams.

And while there is a layer of tackiness inevitably attached to a website touting that it can help you accomplish your dreams, all misconceptions are quickly discarded when you see the face behind the company.

Hoa, ever-smiling, has been supporting the homeless, discouraged and lost youth of Vietnam’s poorest areas for over 15 years. With Nhung Nguyen and her small team, she continues to hold classes for street kids, university students, disabled children and pretty much anyone who needs them.

The class in the photo Hoa shows me lasted a year; 12 months, 12 students. She collected the kids from families living in a floating village under Long Bien Bridge and homeless children from the nearby Nga Tu So and Dong Xuan markets.

 “Sometimes the students in that class wanted to give up, but eventually all of them stayed and finished the class. They all became very good friends, encouraging each other as a team.” Hoa’s eyes are bright, almost misty from emotion. The pride she exudes is palatable from where I’m sitting in the room.The families, mostly migrants from the center of the country, had flocked to Vietnam's capital, where the kids could shine shoes or sell newspapers and bread to a larger, more wealthy population.

The village itself is made up of old wooden boats covered with makeshift houses shoddily constructed from various refuse and scrap metal.

Hoa wanted to give the students memories they would never forget. “They'd never been to the beach before, so we took them there. There was very little money at the time, but we still had wonderful moments together. When we came back, we cried. We needed nice memories like that. They'd never experienced anything like it.”

During the rainy season the Red River rises. “At that time there was nothing to eat because the boats were in the middle of the river and it was difficult to get to the river bank. There was no clean water, no electricity and no food. We connected the families with local authorities and organized charity campaigns to supply them with food and other basic materials. And especially a basic education.”

Hoa laughs suddenly, a tinge of sadness in her voice. “I had a very good relationship with an elderly couple from the village. I called them grandma and grandpa. Usually, on Saturdays, I would go over to their floating boat and cook for them, trying to offer a little support. They had no children and the old man was over seventy years old, but we shared a lot smiles. They weren’t married, but they loved each other, and that’s more important than marriage,” Hoa says, a hint of tears in her eyes. She quickly regains her composure.

The environment wasn’t exactly conducive to the villagers’ health. Most residents collected trash and would often get sick, while some were addicts. Students from a medical university visited the village and performed health checks. “They taught them how to avoid the harmful effects of their environment,” Hoa says.

The Young Volunteer Club also reached out to students from a nearby agriculture university to develop clean water filters. Before, the villagers just boiled river water.

“It was a sad time,” Hoa recalls. “There were so many people in dire situations. There was a couple without children. They found a doll in the garbage, and adopted it as their child. When they had dinner, they placed rice and bread near the doll and called it their daughter. They were still happy. When I saw this I cried. Despite the conditions, they still had love and hope.”

Around 15 years ago, she met Le Trung Hai, and, with a little help from their friends, they founded the Blue Dream Volunteering Club and started the annual Light and Belief Festival for disabled children, most of whom are blind or deaf.

“We rent a function room and give the kids a chance to perform, like singing. The best students win small prizes, maybe around $25. However, it’s important for them. We've held 14 festivals and handed out more than 1,000 prizes so far.”

Success story

“He is a very successful student,” says Hoa, pointing out a blind student in a new picture she has taken out. “His name is Tinh and he’s 25 years old now. He told us that the first prize he won  at one of the festivals gave him the motivation to pursue a higher education. He received a university scholarship and became a top student with many career choices, but he decided to return to the school where he studied to become a teacher. He came from a rural town, where his parents couldn’t afford to give him a formal education.”

“Another blind student named Tam was 10 at the time he won one of our prizes. When he was younger, he was playing with some kids in a rural part of Vietnam, and a mine left over from the war exploded, taking five fingers and his sight. Now he’s studying at a law school in Malaysia.”

Stories like these paint a much stronger figure than Hoa’s gentle frame suggests. Behind smiling eyes and a soft laugh is someone who has found inner peace helping others. This isn’t altruism. It’s a symbiotic relationship where both Hoa and her students support each other. She leaves me with a final story. “My kids make me stronger,” Hoa says.

“There have been moments in my life that I've felt broken. I had no money, it was pretty terrible, but then a former student who is now in the military got in touch to say thank you for coming into his life. I felt stronger after that. He had no home, no parents, no education, but he tried. It gave me the encouragement to try too; to overcome whatever faced me. I must say thank you to them, to my homeless children.”


Hoa dancing with her students in the highlands.

“I visited the jungle in Dak Nong, where it rained almost every day. No electricity, and no water for a girl like me to take a bath,” Hoa laughs.

“The rain soaked me, but a few hours later I was dry because of the heat. There was nowhere to clean my clothes, but I was very happy because I was with my students. We sang, danced and shared our dreams with each other all night. At that time, I decided there must be something more I could do for them. That was the birth of Living Dream. I think the best way to help them is education and to give them the willpower to follow their dreams."

“When I first started Living Dream four years ago, many people said it would be impossible. I had no technical guy, no coding skills. However, I'd made a promise to help my students. We’re happy together. Very happy,” says Hoa, pride and tears welling up. Once again, she regains composure, and the beam returns.

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