Rach Gia, Vietnam: The Face of Poverty among the Rice Patties

For me Vietnam was more about the people than the place–more about the faces than the spaces.  It was both about the folks helped by the NGOs that work there and about the friendships we formed along the way.

It’s because of these friends that this week is special, as Minh, one of Sara’s colleagues, is coming to visit us in Kentucky for a number of days.

The deputy national director of Habitat for Humanity in Vietnam, Minh lives with his wife and toddler son in Da Nang–the third largest city in the country, located along the coast half way between Ho Chi Minh City to the south and Hanoi in the far north.Minh’s arrival in Lexington is an opportunity for us to renew our friendship, a chance for Minh to see the work Habitat for Humanity is doing here in Kentucky, and a reason for me to revisit Vietnam in my blog–sharing today about Habitat for Humanity’s work in Rach Gia, and in the days to come to write about other projects the NGO has undertaken in a country we dearly love.

So in honor of Minh’s arrival, let me share today about a Habitat for Humanity building project I volunteered with in the far southwestern tip of Vietnam.

When Sara and I were living in what was once Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, we flew in a propeller plane even further south, where we visited a poverty housing project about an hour and a half drive into the rice patties outside of Rach Gia.

The city of Rach Gia itself is the capital of Kien Giang Province on the far southwest coast of Vietnam along the Gulf of Thailand.  Once part of Cambodia, Rach Gia has a large Khmer population which fled their homeland during the brutal Khmer Rouge Regime.  The Khmer exiled in Rach Gia live largely without political rights in Vietnam,  an especially impoverished population in this part of the country.

It was Habitat for Humanity’s work with this exiled group that took us to Rach Gia in the first place and the context in which the photos that follow were taken.

After a light breakfast of fried egg, baguette, and Vietnamese iced coffee sweetened with condensed milk,, we drove in an air-conditioned and over-sized SUV about 45 kilometers out into the rice patties so common in this part of Vietnam.

I had never before seen this kind of landscape up close and in person–the brilliant, blue sky against the living, breathing green of the rice patties themselves.  But what struck me more than this overwhelming of emerald, this bigness of blue, were the conical hats of local mothers bent under a glaring sun, tending the crop that feeds this nation of now 88 million–and the smiling faces of their children, too young to understand the implications of poverty or appreciate the inadequate shelter provided by their grass-woven homes–houses unable to stand up against the wind and water of typhoons, the breaking shaking of earthquakes common in the south Pacific ring of fire.  (Click on images to enlarge.)

Tending the rice--

Smiling toward tomorrow--

Animal augments manual labor--

A "shelter" that is grass--

Building a more substantial future--

Volunteers from Holcim Cement Company in Vietnam, Sara and I carried bricks from where we parked, to the build site—balancing on narrow paths through the rice patties—shouldering heavy sacks—so god-awful hot we sauna-ed even in the shade.

The local children carried blocks of ice along the same paths, so we foreigners could be welcomed with something cold to drink.

When we broke for lunch, we enjoyed the most amazing meal–steamed greens and spring rolls made from freshly caught shrimp.

After lunch I “encountered” my first squat toilet since Thailand–a form of sanitation the poorest local families lack.

During the hottest part of the afternoon, the cows tried to cool themselves in what minimal shade was available–which is to say, nearly none.

And, as we were leaving the build site even later that day, making our way back across the gleaming green of the rice patties, we stopped to talk to a family boiling sugar cane into syrup–a taste of sweetness amidst an otherwise bitter existence.

Before Sara and I left Rach Gia the following morning to fly back to Saigon, we walked the streets of this provincial capital, meeting old women wearing more cooling, conical hats and visiting fishing boats in the harbor–ones that had likely caught our shrimp the day before.

Sara and I may not make it back to the sweltering heat that is Vietnam any time soon, but we look forward this week to our refreshing visit with Minh, whom I hope to interview, so I can bring you updated information on the work Habitat for Humanity is doing now in his  country.  I hope to show you the faces of children whose lives are being improved by better shelter–who are given a brighter tomorrow–one based on the hope of homes we provide for them today.

And if I’m away from your blog this week, if I don’t read your newest posts, please forgive my absence.

I’ll be busy catching up on Vietnam–enjoying the face of a friend from a far away place–not only a land and a love  my blog will embrace–but the face of a nation no longer at war.

Even if you’ve never walked among the rice patties or looked a water buffalo in the eye, have you ever encountered crippling poverty?  How did it make you feel?  Did it change you in any way?

Note:  If you are new to my blog, you might like to know that I am writing a memoir and blogging about growing up in an organized crime family.  (This post is not part of that series.)  To read one of my mafia-related memoir posts,”Kids Make the Best Bookies,” click here.  If you are interested in reading any of my protected posts, please email me at kownroom@yahoo.com  or let me know in the comments below, and I will gladly share the password with you.

45 thoughts on “Rach Gia, Vietnam: The Face of Poverty among the Rice Patties

  1. Hey Kathy, it’s like revolving doors here. You’re going to tend your visitors and I’m just finding my way back to the blogs! I saw some life changing things in Nepal. We trekked in Annapurna, and our guide, Raj, took us to meet his family when it was over. He and his wife and three boys lived on a ‘farm’ which was about the size of our living room with his parents. The kitchen was up a bamboo ladder over the cow shed and there was no chimney for the open fire. Still they produced a meal made with chicken (which must have been exceptional) in our honour, which we ate sitting at the edge of their bed. And these people were doing well by local standards – making a living, educating their children. We take a lot for granted. We have too much.


    • Great story, my friend. So great to hear from you. This sounds like an incredible trip. I have had similar experiences in India–eating on the edge of a bed! Hospitality and generosity–amazing in these instances. Hugs————


  2. Tears pouring down face. Lovely photos. What an incredible life you have led. How lucky we are that you have this amazing power of words to share it with us.

    My brief day with the Roma, in the coldness of Slovakia left a lasting impression on me. I also remember my train ride through Thailan, watching shanty housing on the side of the tracks and feeling shocked by the reality of poverty in a country with gilded roofs.


    • You are such a sweetie, dear Lisa! I would love to travel to Eastern Europe and experience the Roma. There’s a significant Roma population in Macedonai where my cousin Susannah lives. I bet the train in Thailand wwas amazing!


  3. Thank you for the virtual guided tour — INCREDIBLE!

    My closest encounter with poverty was in Tijuana, Mexico where we saw people living in cardboard refrigerator boxes.

    How does it make me feel? Ashamed that generally speaking many families in the U.S. throw away more food daily than these families get in a week.


    • Gosh, Laurie, isn’t that the truth. I have never seen people living in actual cardboard boxes–that must have felt awful. Poor people. We, as Americans, need to have bigger hearts. Thanks for sharing yours, my friend!


  4. Lovely photos and that meal looks delicious. What a wonderful experience.

    Seeing poverty like that (which I have on many occasions) makes me 1) Feel grateful for what I have; and 2) Realize how little we actually need to be happy.


  5. I am struck by the happiness amidst the devastation. Truly a lesson to be learned there in the smiles of the beautiful children that you have shared with us. Bless you and Sara for all the good you have spread far and wide in a world thirsting for more.


    • Thanks, Miranda. Actually, there are so many people doing such amazing work in the developing world. It always inspires us. Somehow, I think we need to change the way we as Americans think about poverty in the rest of the world. We need to be willing to do with less and share more. I don’t know how to make that happen. It’s so hard when living here. Having been home all of these months now, I can feel it happening in myself–and I don’t like it.


  6. Wonderful photos and tour of Vietnam, so interesting to read about this experience in your life.
    I’m embarrassed to report I’ve never seen poverty up close and personal – by all accounts it is life-changing.


    • Yes, I remember your mentioing that trip. I would love to do that trip! Have you ever read the memoir called “Catfish and Mandala”–about one Vietnamese refugee’s returning to the country of his birth and biking the country in the opposite direction–from Ho Chi Minh City of Hanoi? If you haven’t I can’t recommend it more!


  7. Absolutely gorgeous, Kathy! I hope that your visit with Minh goes well this week. Thank you so much for sharing these wonderful photos and your powerful story today. 🙂


  8. Well first I have to thank you for bringing me along with you on this tour – as I was a little reluctant. But, thanks to your words and emotions and photos, I can completely understand why you fell in love with the people and the country, too. I hope you can savor each and every moment with your dear friend; it’s really quite amazing that it’s possible isn’t it? I mean, as a little kid, who would have thought? I wouldn’t have!

    I wish you good times and many laughs and delights together.

    Now I’m craving shrimp rolls -darnit!


  9. Very vivid piece both in writing and images, but your emphasis on the sweltering heat makes me so glad I’m here in NYC than over there where my Yankee butt would surely melt. Thanks for sharing and I look forward to reading your update after you get together with Minh.


    • Thanks, Nicole. Yes, I do plan to post more about Vietnam. I realized when I sat down to write this post, just how little I had actually written about that experience. Plus, I expect to be inspired by Minh. Stay tuned.


  10. Despite the terrible poverty and the oppressive heat, all of the people in your photos have lovely smiles on their faces.

    I hope you and Sara enjoy your visit with Minh. Another beautiful benefit of your time there is the lasting friendships that you made.

    Be well, my friend.


    • Boy, isn’t that the truth. The friendships we’ve formed have been amazing everywhere we’ve gone. In fact, that may be the greatest gift we bring home. And, yes, the children’s smiles are amazing, aren’t they? You don’t have to have much, as long as you have love.


  11. ‘A rich man took his son to a village to show him what poverty is. After the trip he asked his son about poverty. The son replied: “We have one dog, they have many. We have a small pool, they have a long river. We have light, they have the stars. We have a small piece of land, they have large fields. We buy food, they grow their own and for others too.” The man was speechless. Then the boy said: “Thanks Dad, for showing me how poor we are.”
    There is a lady who lives up north in a place called Murree, a horticulturist and writer who has a regular column in one of our leading newspapers, and this is something she wrote. Do read if you get the time Kathy. http://tribune.com.pk/story/241963/up-north-and-personal-blinded-by-power/
    It is interesting for me to read the ‘American’ perception of poverty…..I guess there is a lot of guilt at being better off than a lot of people around the world. This was a thoughtful, sensitive piece and I was riveted by the details, like the food they made for you, the ice the children brought for your drinks, the picture you took of the toilet. Thanks for sharing these images! And I hope you have a great time re-connecting with Minh 🙂


    • Powerful quote and great article. However, I’m not sure most American’s feel guilty about being better off than the rest of the world. Most American’s I know–my family, for example–think nothing of their privilege, as they are exposed to nothing else. American’s live larely insulated from the rest of the world–surrounded on either side by oceans that keep poverty at a distance. In my experience there is an American arrogance that assumes we deserve what we have–especially among those on the political right. When Americans travel to Mexico, for example, where they are most likely to experience poverty, they stay at huge resorts and see nothing of how most in that country live.

      I’m really glad you bring this us, as I think I need to think more about this–write more about it, etc. Is this really your perception of American’s–that most feel guilt? Do others see us that way? In actuality, I think that perspective gives most Americans way more credit than they deserve. Sorry to have such a negative perspective on my own country, but it’s how I feel. I’d love to know what other Americans think about this.


  12. OK, first of all, the steamed greens and spring rolls look amazing. Even at 9:30 in the morning and before I’ve even had breakfast. Secondly, 88 million people? I can hardly comprehend that…especially in a region that is so compact. You’re lucky you got to experience this type of culture first hand, Kathy!


    • I have to agree, Mark. I was fortunate. Yes, Vietnam is an incredibly crowded place. In fact, every time I have come home to visit, it felt strange even to walk through a grocery store with such wide isles–so much space.


  13. Ahhh, wondered if you were having a busy week, Kathy. Must have missed this blog. Very glad to have found it and the interesting pictures of Vietnam. As well as the intriguing stories you told. Enjoy your time with Minh!


  14. I volunteered in Kien Giang province in 2008 and 2010 with the Catalyst Foundation providing Medical Exams. In fact, the group is there right now having started this volunteer mission on 3/19/2012. Sadly, I had to miss this AE due to illness in my family. Volunteering in VN has changed my life for better, forever. It is truly amazing how these families survive on so little and who are so appreciative of aything that is done for them. And the smiles you receive in return…..


    • It’s totally cool to hear that you, too, have volunteered in Kien Giang. Sorry you aren’t able to do it right now, but, like you, Vietnam changed me–in some pretty profound ways, I think. I adopted/developed a degree of openness and willingness to acceopt and even embrace difference, that I never had before.

      Thanks so much for taking the time to read and comment. Hope to hear from you again soon!


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