Trials and tribulations

A vocational training programme in Hai Phong’s Tien Lang district funded by Deutsche Bank in cooperation with Save the Children offers hope to an impoverished community and one small family in particular, writes Nguyen Hanh

Van pours tea for representatives from Deutsche Bank and the bank’s partners
helping to set up the vocational training programme

Le Cong Van is at what we call in Vietnam the “breaking buffalo horns”-age. As this folkloric line reflects, 17 is the age of strength, ambition, and desire for self-expression and being recognised.

For Van the abundance of vitality that this milestone age promises appears to be lost on him.

In an academically-focused society, Van has been left in the lurch somewhat. Lagging far behind his classmates academically for years, and due to his own family’s economic woes, he was pulled out of school at the age of 11. Van has never shown enthusiasm for farming work.

Van’s mother describes him as “slow” but talking with this boy, looking into his eyes, I still sensed a desire that he wants to learn something and yearns to be useful.

“I want to have a job, any kind of job,” said Van when asked what he wanted to be. As we conversed further he gained in confidence, revealing his more specific desire to become a tailor and make jeans.

“Why jeans?” I asked.

“Because… they are beautiful,” he replied innocently.

Van was born into one of the poorest families in Hai Phong city in the northeast of Vietnam. His mother, a farmer, is the sole bread winner for this two-child family. His father does very little farming work due to undiagnosed mental health issues.

The family is so poor that a few years ago local authorities mobilised money from some donors to build a small brick house for them and replace their cottage made of earth and straw.

We visited their house three days before Tet. Though the Lunar New Year was approaching, unlike families all across the country, nobody was busy preparing for any kind of festive celebrations.

Van’s mother said they were waiting for a Tet gift of VND150,000 from local authorities, which all poor households in the locality receive. She said without gifts from relatives and this paltry sum this would just be another typically hard day.

But this 38-year-old woman is now nursing hope that better days will come to her family as her son has just been selected to join a vocational training programme. “My life has lots of hardships and sadness. If our son is helped, then our life will be less miserable,” she said with her eyes welling up.

An 18-month vocational training programme, sponsored by Deutsche Bank in partnership with NGO Save the Children, will bring qualified vocational training to Van and 49 other youths, aged 15-24, in Hai Phong’s Tien Lang district.

These teenagers and young adults all belong to families which are too cash-trapped to pay for any vocational training course.

Under this $28,000 initiative, beneficiaries will be equipped with skills in areas like tailoring, mechanics and repairing electric home appliances. They will also be empowered with life skills and helped with job opportunities later on.

Tien Lang is the poorest district of Haiphong largely due to its big distance and separation from the inner-city areas and neighbouring districts. About 30 kilometres from the city centre, Tien Lang looks like an oasis with three sides facing rivers and one side facing the sea.

The district’s economy is agriculture-based with 60 per cent of the labour-age population involved in farming work. It is home to only a handful of factories and workshops.

In Tien Lang, more than 1,000 children at the school age are living below the poverty line, of which only 125 children receive social support from the government, according to the city’s Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs Department.

Local authorities said the Deutsche Bank-sponsored vocational training programme was the first of its kind in Haiphong.

They said this initiative was of great significance to a poor agriculture-reliant district like Tien Lang where there is enormous demand for vocational training, particularly from youths of poor farming households.

With three newly-built bridges linking Tien Lang with Haiphong’s inner-city areas and with Highway No.10 which leads to Quang Ninh, Nam Dinh and Thai Binh provinces, Tien Lang is today no longer an oasis. There is hope that more manufacturing bases will appear thanks to those bridges, promising more jobs to its residents.

Back in Hanoi, the image of paddy fields spreading across Tien Lang endures. I can’t shake the quiet atmosphere and the weight of poverty which seems to have besieged this sleepy land.

I imagine in the field, Van’s mother toiling to feed her family singlehandedly. I remember her weather-worn face and how she looks much older than her age. Hard work and sadness has worn her down.

But her love of Van was apparent. The vocational programme offers some hope that Van can learn a useful trade and later find a job. In that way he will help his family lead a better life.