banner image
A current of change begins in Vietnam -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

A current of change begins in Vietnam

By Mikel Flamm

Dao Van Dong, 31, comes from a long line of fishermen in Vietnam. For generations, his family has eked out a living on the Thai Bin River at Dong Xa in the Ke Sat fishing community, 40 kilometers southeast of Hanoi.

Dao Thi Hai and her children on the fishing boat on which they currently live


Dong and his wife, Dao Thi Hai, live on a cramped fishing boat on the riverbank, without electricity or sanitation. Several years ago, they bought a plot of land nearby, with the unlikely dream of building a house there one day. They knew that raising children on a boat is dangerous, and life on the polluted, overfished river is getting harder. But with little money or education, their options seemed limited.

This year, though, Habitat for Humanity began searching for communities in Vietnam to participate in the 2009 Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project: The Mekong Build. Ke Sat was chosen based on the fishing village’s dire need for safe, decent housing. Many of the families, like Dong and Hai, had scraped together enough money to buy a small plot of land, but they didn’t have the funds or the expertise to build a house.

Now, 32 families—including Dong and Hai—will work with Habitat to build real homes for themselves.

Dong and Hai’s plan is for their two children—daughter Dao Thi Huong, 10, and son Dao Van Bien, 6—to live in the new house with their 27-year-old aunt, Dao Thi An. She has been living in her parents’ house, along with six of their grandchildren. Keeping the children safe has always been the family’s priority, even when it means that parents and their youngsters have to live apart most of the time.

One of the main concerns of children living on the boats with their parents is the chance of falling into the river. Six-year-old Bien has fallen into the water three times, his parents say.

“One day a year ago, Bien was near the side of the boat when a wave hit us,” recalls Dong. “He fell overboard and was swept away by the strong current. I jumped in and was able to reach him before he drowned.

“From that point,” he says, “I knew we had to get them on land.”

Even though Dong and Hai must return to the boat to make a living, they are confident that having a house on land will make their family stronger, healthier and more prosperous.

“Working on the river is not a good job,” says grandmother Nga, “especially when it is night and cold on the river. The house is the foundation for the kids to go to school and for their parents to have a place to stay.”

Since the children have been staying with their grandparents, waiting for their parents’ home to be built, the changes in their lives are already obvious. Huong has blossomed as an avid reader and a good student.

“One day I hope I can stay with my parents more and they can live in the house together with my brother and I,” says Huong. “I do not want to do as my parents do.

“My dream,” she says, “is to learn how to sew clothes and own my own tailor shop in Dong Xa when I grow up.”

Mikel Flamm is a photographer in Asia/Pacific.