Viet Nam

Hope to Vietnam's patient sufferers

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After a fitful night's sleep in a still, damp hotel room, our small problems pale after we drive upriver from Hue to assess the flood damage. Just above a junction where two branches of the Perfume River feed together, the village of Thuy Lang bore the full vengeance of the swollen river for five days in early November.
We have to park our car and climb past a rumbling Soviet-era tractor clearing a path through hip-high sand that used to be the main road. Banana trees are snapped in half, and matted grass hangs on the electric wires. At best the skeletal framework of some houses remain, stained plaster walls whose tile roofs, wooden doors and windows have been swept away. For the villagers who had humbler homes of woven bamboo walls and grass thatch, now there are only mud lots with makeshift shelters of bamboo poles draped with red, white and blue striped plastic tarps.

Under one tent a man sits on a wooden chair next to an empty bed frame, his only possessions not swept to sea. His mother-in-law, a tiny woman in an oversized worn jacket says in her 83 years she has no memory of a flood like this. Her face is lined with wrinkles and as she talks she stares at the brown river flowing past.

The disaster struck with the cruelest timing. In a country accustomed to monsoon floods, no one anticipated that the calf-deep water would rise so quickly. Just before midnight, waters swelled from knee height to over the head in the pitch dark in a matter of hours. Judging from the height of the river below the bank-to a spot where one man points above his now nonexistent house-the river at its zenith was 10 to 14 feet above normal levels. In this village, two people owned ferryboats. They ferried the children first to the local sugarcane factory and then, as the waters rose still higher, ferried everyone to higher ground. Two people were lost.

A small crowd of 11-year-old children gathers around us in the schoolyard. They say they were very afraid as they waited for the waters to recede. They had no food for two days. One bright-eyed student named Hung said he was too weak to walk afterward. Now, two weeks later, they follow us past the broken remains of their village, giggling, trying out their few phrases of English. When we leave, one girl peers from behind her mother's legs and says, "Thank you, sister."

Those who already had so little in the past now are left with next to nothing, an aluminum washbowl of possessions here, a battered table or chair there. The waters took the villager's past as well as their future, including their recent harvest of rice stores, their chickens and pigs, their savings for their children's education. It will be April of next year before another rice crop can be harvested. That means six months without food supplies. Many of the villagers will be unemployed until the sugar cane equipment can be repaired. There will be no possibility of preparing for the Tet holidays, the one time of the year in Vietnam that even the poorest of the poor scrimp and save to share simple gifts.

And still with the devastation and loss everywhere, we sense such a resilient spirit in the people. They greet us and share their stories. In a spirit of hospitality, a woman whose house had been next to the temple, offers us the few mangosteens (a small, purple tropical fruit) that still hang on the tree's branches though we cannot take what little she has left. One boy in torn shorts squats down in a sand heap aiming his play bamboo bow and arrow at a tree hung over head-high with plastic bags and matted grass. The other children, in spite of their shaken lives, wear the best clothes they have to honor their teachers on Teachers Day.

On the street an old man patiently weaves bamboo strips together to rebuild the walls of his house. In one muddied yard, a family places two newly purchased blue porcelain bowls on their altar. It is moving to see their first priority, burning incense in thanks that they are still alive and to pray for help.

It is difficult to get a perspective of the scope of this disaster. We have seen demolished houses, talked to families who lost mothers and children and brothers, and we have only been in two provinces out of nine that were flooded. I'm proud that the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) is helping to provide a ray of hope to these patient sufferers.

Since writing this article, Vietnam has suffered another series of floods. To date, approximately 4,500 families received ADRA assistance, including more than 50 tons (45 metric tons) of rice, 3,500 mosquito nets, and 3,500 blankets. In January, ADRA will distribute another 115 tons (103.5 metric tons) of rice or rice seedlings to those affected, to forestall the mountain of hunger and need that will build as winter's cold, wet weather sets in.