Shibata Yukinori (Jesuit Social Center, Tokyo)

 
The group "Japanese Private Assistance to Vietnam" (JAPA VIETNAM) that has its office at Tokyo's Jesuit social center, celebrated its 10th anniversary last year. On that occasion I also joined for the first time the second half of the tour of Japa Vietnam. This year, however, I participated fully for a period of 20 days from August 3rd to the 22nd. We visited all 18 different sites where Japa Vietnam assists programs, from Cao Bang in the North to the Mekong delta in the South. I want to enumerate here my reflections of this busy journey.

Last year I visited Vietnam for the first time and could take it easy as if I was just a tourist. But this year Fr. Ando could only go the first two weeks and, in my role as staff person, I participated with a sense of tension.
I experienced again how strong was the network built during the last 10 years by Japa Vietnam. Vietnam is one of the few communist countries in the world and foreigners find it difficult to move freely around the country. This is truer of ourselves who do not go for tourism there. Since we go to distant rural areas and to the slums, places foreigners usually never visit, we meet difficulties usually unheard of. Many persons helped us to proceed ahead safely.
We used mini hotels with a family atmosphere where we spent 1500 or 2000 yen per night. At times we hired vans with the driver and drove hundred of kilometers across the country for a few days. Our Vietnamese coordinators fixed for us hard schedules to pay visits to as many as 6 different sites of assistance in a matter of only three days. People received us always warmly, offering us food and lodging during our stay there.

Naturally, we needed the support of many people. The representative of Japa Vietnam, Fr. Ando, has got the trust of our Vietnamese counterparts. Equal to him is Ms. Ono Hiromi who is much loved by the Vietnamese people and as a staffer of Japa Vietnam has continued for the last 10 years accompanying the groups to Vietnam and taken care single-handed of many details. Also, since 1996, the brothers, Takayama Shin and Takeuchi Rintaroo, have helped our groups with their translation skills.
This way, thanks to the voluntary efforts of so many persons, in spite of having no Japa Vietnam full time staff and nobody stationed in Vietnam, it has been able to continue operating for more than 10 years.

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During our 20 day-journey we had a very hard schedule. We visited 18 different sites of assistance in 8 provinces. Our contact place during the first part of the trip was a hotel in Hanoi. From there we always moved into the country, staying in villages for two or three days. We spent the second half of the journey in the southern regions, doing similar activities from a hotel in Ho Chi Minh City. The distances varied from 150 or 200km to sometimes 300km. Going to one of the furthest northern provinces Cao Bang that borders China, the one-way road of 275km takes about 7 full hours by car. In 20 days we certainly covered over 2000km. I got the feeling that often I spent half a day riding in a car. Unable to do much exercise I always felt my stomach full. The reason for a hard schedule is that we want as much as possible to meet with our Vietnamese partners no matter where they are. Whenever we receive a request, even if we have to refuse it, we try to see for ourselves the situation of the place, and if we are cooperating in the development of a program we visit the people there.
People would think that it is natural to behave like this, but since the number of yearly requests is about 20, and each year we receive new ones from one or two new places, it is becoming difficult for Japa Vietnam to meet all those natural demands.


I think that we have reached our limitation by visiting 18 places in 20 days with just 2 free days. Nevertheless, we continue our journeys to the programs we support looking for the smiling faces of our counterparts.


Vietnam is one of the most popular countries in Japan now. Countless TV programs, intended mainly for young women, that present Vietnamese cuisine and souvenirs, are often shown these days in Japan. The planes going to Vietnam are always full of Japanese passengers, so much that they have to increase the number of flights. In Ho Chi Minh City some grocery shops targeting Japanese customers have been newly opened and the number of shops speaking Japanese have increased.
Certainly, Vietnam looks somehow familiar to the Japanese. Eating customs are similar. For instance, both use chopsticks and rice is served right at the end of the meals. If you take out the coconut trees, the scenery of the rural areas is the same. The first time I saw the forests of Cao Bang, like mantelpieces, I felt homesick. The more one visits the rural areas, the more one becomes excited with a familiar feeling remembering old Japan.
On the other hand, of course there are also differences. I am always puzzled with the traffic customs. Although the main roads of the big cities have traffic lights, most roads lack them. Pedestrians that try to cross the roads packed with bicycles and bikes that run freely back and forth regardless of car lanes, must take a risk. Buses and trucks, pickups and mini buses run across national roads, gaily overtaking each other, often disregarding all traffic regulations. Of course, they sound their horns endlessly. The Vietnamese are accustomed to it and take it easily, but, riding in a car, we were many times scared. Although I do not want to get involved with Vietnamese identity characteristics, if some one asks about what s/he should be more careful in going to Vietnam, my first advice is, "be careful when you cross a road". Maybe it has to do with the Vietnamese attitude of "do it yourself".
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Observing the requests for assistance that reach us, I feel that the Vietnamese have very strong characters. If they need to build a bridge or simple schools with two or three classrooms, they provide us with the blueprints and budget for the materials. They are always ready to do the construction by themselves, but almost every time the request is for the cost of the materials. Most probably they cannot trust their government, but I hear that even in Japan, not so long ago, people did not turn to the government for everything, but communities took upon themselves the tasks of town building.
Life in Japanese cities is comfortable and, although I cannot drive a nail very well, the Vietnamese vigorous temperament strongly impels me to action

As I have explained above about 20 requests for assistance, involving quantities from 50 to 100 thousand US dollars, reach us. This year alone our team conducted direct surveys for 25 programs requiring over 50 thousand US dollars. The membership of Japa Vietnam is about 300 and our annual budget is 3million yen. As a result, we have to refuse half of the requests. This is our biggest headache.
Compared to years ago each request has become smaller, although it implies quantities up to US $5,000. Since requests have multiplied, we find the selection difficult. Our policy is to continue assisting the same places we are acquainted with, but each year we meet with one or two new places whose assistance we find attractive. In the past, I have taken part in discussions to decide on financial assistance by studying the data of the written reports.

Nevertheless, after my two visits to Vietnam, as a member of the team, I feel how much more difficult it is to make a selection once I have seen with my own eyes the realities there.
One desires to assist all the programs, knowing that there is never enough. Endeavors like bridges and wells, roads and clinics, scholarships and financial help for slum dwellers to start small businesses, etc., all these are never too many to make one worry. At the same time, no matter the program, the money used there is never wasted. The more often a person visits the programs a selection of the poorest site or of the persons worthier of trust becomes also more difficult. I know that it should not be done, but I would like to make all reports fly in the air and then start to select from those that made it far away.
On the other hand, we have started to have hope that some projects we assist are becoming self-sufficient. Such is the case of a program to raise pigs in Nghe Anh province and the cow bank in Binh Thuan province. In both programs our assistance consisted of providing the capital to buy the seed animals that will be raised by each farmer. The new young animals are again distributed among the families or sold in the market. This way, thanks to the assistance given once, the farmers produce continuous income and become self-sufficient. A leader of a program for street children in Ho Chi Minh City confessed to us: "Street children continue to increase in the cities, because there is not enough food in rural areas. The programs supported by Japa Vietnam in the villages are very important". Over 70% of the Vietnamese live in rural areas, and I felt, again strongly, the need to assist rural programs.
Although I went to Vietnam twice, I recognize my ignorance about the country. If someone asks me whether I like Vietnam very much, honestly I could not answer back. But, I would like to meet again next year our Vietnamese partners, and see with my eyes the results of this year's assistance. It is maybe sentimental, but, right after our last journey, I feel from the bottom of my heart that I would like to share the same dreams that the Vietnamese with whom we cooperate have.
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