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Wheelbarrows, lanterns and generational change in Vietnam -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Wheelbarrows, lanterns and generational change in Vietnam

By Shala Carlson

Banners in Habitat blue and green line the small gravel street that leads into the Dong Xa fishing village, Ke Sat town. The narrow flags flap briskly in a breeze of activity as future homeowners, Habitat staff and volunteers prepare the site for the 2009 Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project.

Wheelbarrows are lined up and ready for work to begin Monday on the 2009 Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project in the Dong Xa fishing village, Ke Sat town, Vietnam, one of five Asian sites for the project. Photo by Habitat for Humanity/Ezra Millstein


Dao Van Tuoc represents one of 40 families in the Dong Xa fishing village, Ke Sat town, who will build new Habitat homes during the 2009 Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project. A fisherman by trade, he lives with 12 extended family members whenever he and his wife are not on their boat. Photo by Habitat for Humanity/Ezra Millstein


A small group of women wearing the non la, Vietnam’s traditional conical hat, carry rakes and brooms across the street, flattening the dirt along the road after two of their future neighbors have cleared weeds and roots. Bags of cement and piles of bricks dot the roadside. A small truck kicks up a cloud of dust as it passes, its cargo a happy jumble of yellow and orange flowers. Off to one side, forest green wheelbarrows form a line, ready for the eager hands that will begin building houses here early Monday morning.

Many of the families who live in this enclave on the banks of the Thai Binh River earn their living as fishermen. They often cook and sleep and raise their children on the same small sliver of boat from which they ply their nets. Four generations of Dao Van Tuoc’s family were born on one of those boats. At 51, he is about to become a homeowner for the first time.

The Carter project houses in Dong Xa will be built among those already in the village. Tuoc’s will be next to the house of his older brother Sang. Sitting on Sang’s sofa, Tuoc smiles at the thought that he soon will have nightly conversations with his big brother, sharing news and the occasional meal.

“When you live on a boat,” Tuoc says, “you are separate. Everyone has their own boat. Everyone goes their own way. We want to live in the community.”

But closer ties to family and new friends are not the only thing Tuoc looks forward to. Having the house in Dong Xa will mean his grandchildren are able to attend school and might be able to leave boat life behind.

“I couldn’t build a house on my own,” he says. “Thanks to Habitat, we won’t have to live out on the water anymore.” It is a chance for change that Dong Xa residents have not seen, he says, in previous generations.

A house for his son

A short distance away, a path fashioned out of broken bricks opens onto a small courtyard where kittens play and chickens roost. Here, Dao Van Chuc echoes Tuoc’s observations about generational change. A Dong Xa resident for 46 years, he remembers when bicycles glided along the city streets now dominated by motorbikes.

When he first moved here, only 10 families lived in the neighborhood. The rice farmer built his house in 1993 and now is helping his 26-year-old son Dao Van Nghia make the hollow concrete blocks that will make up his Habitat house. Nghia works nearby as a machinist at a business that produces iron doors, so Chuc has been helping complete his required sweat equity.

“In two rooms, three generations of us have lived together,” Chuc says, sitting next to his octogenarian mother, who spryly negotiated the front steps to greet her visitors. “Another house for my son will be much better.”

Change already has begun. Concrete covers, made by the future homeowners, overlay the sewer trenches that used to sit open. Up and down the streets, the outline of Habitat houses has begun to take shape; at this very moment, volunteers from around the world are arriving to join the future homeowners in finishing them.

Under a tent, green lanterns hang, a symbol of the light that comes to Dong Xa this week.

Shala Carlson is the managing editor of Habitat World magazine.