Friday, October 4, 2013

Just an FYI, people in Cambodia felt that Vietnam would take over Laos very soon and Cambodia not much after that.  Apparently, the Vietnamese have a stronger economy, the people are more aggressive (I didn't notice that), and they have a much bigger army.  And Laos and Cambodia have significantly fewer people.

Vietnam, officially the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, is a communist country of nearly 90 million  people (13th most populous) and is 5000 years old. Government provided health care is not adequate, nor is there much in the way of social security, thus the need for a lot of small shops which people operate until they are too old to do so.  But senior citizens are highly respected and its felt that the older you are the more knowledge you have, so therefore you are more important.

Our hotel while in Vietnam was very close to St. Joseph's Cathedral, so we passed it every time we left or returned to our hotel.  It always had a six foot hi metal French surrounding the front of building, just below the stairs.  So we were very surprised on Sunday at about 4:00 PM to see a section of the fence open and the doors to the church open.  So we decided to go inside and take some pictures.  The place is beautiful, and there were people scattered about in pews and by the candles, all praying!  There are about 6 million Catholics and 1 million Protestants.  About 85% of Vietnamese identify with Buddhism, but only about 7 million are practicing Buddhists.  The government says it recognizes religious freedoms of all kinds, but doesn't always practice what it preaches.  The government controls the media.

The second picture is from when we walked by the church at 6:30PM on our way to dinner.  The church was full! The large area on top of the stairs was full of people in plastic chairs, and the people closest to me and all around me were sitting on their motor bikes listening to the service which was being broadcast outside, also.  After dinner, the scene was exactly the same for the next service!

There were no fitness centers in either country, but I also didn't notice anyone, I mean no one other than other Americans, that was even 10 pounds overweight.  But there were numerous times when I saw older people doing tai chi or in couples dance classes, all held on sidewalks or in small parks.

As a parting note, my experiences visiting the Hagar clients will always have an affect on me.  Their stories were painful to listen to... it's amazing how bad people can treat each other. We all need to do whatever we can to uplift the lives of people we meet who have been abused, disrespected, and especially trafficked.  Hagar is changing lives one at a time, and has been for twenty years.  Their approach to their clients, and their business approach, are the best I've ever seen.  Other NGO's could learn a lot from Hagar's approach and their management team.  If you would like to help Hagar carry out their work, visit their web site at

Thank you for sharing this journey with me.  I hope I've been able to pass along some of the emotion I've felt and knowledge I've gained.


Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Saturday - Last Full Day

Bang! Clang! Clang! Clang!  BANG! Clang! Clang! Clang!  My sleep is broken by the ringing of the Cathedral bells at 5:30 AM (They've messed up daylight savings time here as it also gets dark at 5:30 PM)!  The sun is shining between the high rise buildings directly through my sheer shades.  Feels like I'll have to be satisfied with another night of five hours of sleep.  At least today we won't have a full day of meetings, so I won't have to be totally alert.  In fact, we've planned a day of cultural exposure... site seeing.
We traveled to Bat Trang, a village on the edge of Hanoi that is known for producing ceramics.  Bat Trang is  about fifteen blocks long and wide.  Seemed like every shop in town either made or sold ceramics.  The variety was amazing.

Excuse me for being a novice at adding pictures via my iPad.
Besides the ceramic village we saw the Museum of Cultural Diversity - there are 54 different ethnic groups in Vietnam, but the Viet make up 85% of the total population.
Also did a paid tour of the city and then walked around the old part of town. Every 15 feet there's another store front. Many of the store owners live in the back of the store and merely draw a curtain to close off their bed during the day.  Other store owners live in relative luxury by having a room in the back or upstairs.  Though none of the stores are air-conditioned, so living conditions are difficult in more ways than just lack of space.  I don't have any pictures of the smaller stores.  The ceramic stores pictured here are not normal as they are located in a village dedicated to tourists.

This is a typical side street in Hanoi with stores, but no outside restaurants.  The patrons of outside restaurants generally are sitting on stools about twelve inches high and take up all the space between the building and the curb, so people walking have to use the street.  Locals probably navigate that scenario better than we did as we were always being honked at.
 Notice all the electric wiring.  None of it is underground.

There will be one blog after this one.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Friday Evening 9-27-2013

Hanoi is a much different city than Phnom Penh.  Traffic moves faster, though the side streets are still slow.  There were more motor bikes than cars in PP, but even more so here, and fewer rules.  Stop signs are completely ignored and traffic lights are only slightly obeyed.  Each traffic light has a visible digital timer showing how much time is left on either the green or red light, so once the red light gets to about 10 seconds left, everyone starts crossing even though vehicles are still crossing on the green. The direction of driving lanes is only a suggestion at both intersections and on straightaways as vehicles go against traffic until they find a place to cross over.  I would guess that less than 5% of our driving time are we ever more than two feet from a car or motor bike, and usually within inches.  Whole families ride on the same bike, driving just like everyone else.  Lots of cell phone use on the motor bikes, but apparently there's a helmet law because everyone wears one, though they look more decorative than functional.  Driving is mostly done on the right side of the road, but people mostly drive wherever they want to as it's not courteous to interfere with traffic going the wrong way. It's true!  And the far right side of the road seems to be reserved for traffic going the wrong way. This means that the middle of the road is available for traffic to go both directions, which they do, with the bigger vehicle seeming to have the right of way. Now, it's actually against the law to make a right turn at a red light, but apparently not against the law to go straight through the light or turn left, which we even do in a taxi.  Sidewalks are considered part of the road, but pedestrians can give a low downward wave and walk right across the street.  Life is great!!!

Spent the day with Hagar staff going over client programs and donor initiatives.  Also visited their support house where the girls stay while going through the various stages of counseling and working before going back into family situations.  This can take a couple of years, thus the reason for reviewing donor initiatives.  We met with some of the girls and heard their stories, which I'm not allowed to talk about.  So if you've been looking for me to share some details, I haven't and can't.  I can say that Hagar works in countries rated close to the worst when it comes to human trafficking and abuse.

Had dinner at an authentic Vietnamese restaurant, and drank a Hanoi beer while looking at a picture of Ho Chi Minh, Chairman of the communist party of Vietnam from 1951 - 1969.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Friday 9-27-2013 Cathedral

Here's a picture of St. Joseph's Catholic cathedral from my 7th floor hotel room in Hanoi.  Great start to the day as I had my first hot shower in a week!  On Sunday we get some free time which will be a great break from these 15 hour days.  Today will be spent with Hagar staff in Hanoi and the CFO of one of our partner companies.

Musings about Cambodia

We got our visas to Vietnam figured out yesterday, so we're off to Vietnam today.  Before my memories of Cambodia and Vietnam start to get commingled, I thought I should write down a few thoughts about Cambodia.
It's obviously a poor country, but nothing like East Africa.  Primary means of transportation is motor bikes.  Traffic moves very slowly and there appear to be no rules of the road.  But it's just that the rules are so different from anything we know that everything looks haphazard.  Again unlike Africa, there are very few buses and none of the 16 people (it would be 6-7 in the US) passenger buses that are everywhere there. So there is more wealth here than some other third world countries.  Instead of buses they have a lot of tuk-tuks, which are the customized motor bikes turned into open air taxis.  They are everywhere.

The people are very happy, friendly, and helpful.  Never a concern for ones safety.  Lots of good restaurants and coffee shops.  Some US fast food places like Burger King and KFC are here, but I didn't see a McDonalds.  Ruled by a King and by a Prime Minister (think I said President in an earlier blog).  Distant history seems to be embraced, but the genocide by the Kymer Rouge in the 70's is officially ignored... The leader Pot Pol was never arrested and died of a heart attack, and trials of two others have just recently been started.

Phnom Penh was a city of close to 2 million people in 1975 when the Kymer Rouge told everyone to evacuate to the countryside and leave everything behind because the Americans we going to bomb the city. They lied.  Those few people who stayed were killed in their homes and their homes destroyed.  Nearly everyone that left the city was killed as the edict was that anyone that was educated, was a teacher, a professional, a business person, wore glasses, was an urban dweller, or questioned the KR was to be executed.  Wthin three weeks, a city of nearly 2 million people was a complete ghost town.

A few years ago, NestlĂ© gave Hagar a large facility which Hagar has leased to a local micro brewery called Kingdom Beer.  Of course, we had to stop by before leaving for the airport to make sure the beer actually tasted okay.  It was great! Hagar is not only unique in the work they do, but also unique in using partnerships in businesses to provide income to supplement donations.

On to Vietnam!

Frank Thomas

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Restoring lives of Women

Last night we took a boat ride down the Mekong River.... didn't see Charlie Sheen, but you could buy Platoon t-shirts everywhere.

If you've read some of my blogs, you know that the main work of Hagar is to restore the lives of women who have been rescued from human trafficking and other severe abuse situations.  Two of the necessary steps are to train them in some employable type of work, and to place them in a paying job.      Hagar fills both of those steps extremely well.  The toughest one, especially in third-world countries where there are few opportunities and lots of available people, is to provide employment  opoportunities.  Hagar is able to do that because they are part owners in two food related businesses.  We met with both of them this week.

One of the businesses is a restaurant and food catering business. Hagar owns 30% of the business.  We had lunch there twice and the place was packed both days.  But the primary part of their business is catering for companies during lunch.  They employ just over 300 catering employees who cook 10,000 meals each work day for 21 companies, obviously some of the companies have a lot of employees.  Hagar currently has sixty-one of its clients working there.

The other company owns two coffee shops in Vietnam, and is about to open one in Cambodia.  Hagar owns about 9% of that company and has twelve employees working there.  Hagar is unique in how they work with rescued women, and stand alone in how they partner with companies to provide employment opportunities.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Hagar Operations

The last item on our agenda today, before dinner, was a visit to the genocide prison, previously a high school, where over 20,000 people were tortured for months before being killed.  I stood where their blood flowed on the floor. Where their legs were shackled in iron.  Where their bodies were mutilated, both men and women.  Aftewards, I spent an hour and a half before dinner trying to decide how to write what I saw.  I couldn't.  I took pictures which I will never share.  The atrocities carried out by the Kymer Rouge are beyond comprehension.  Maybe in a day or two I will write a little about what I saw.

Otherwise, we had a great day visiting two of the Hagar operations.  The first was a school where they teach about 135 students.  There are two main types of students at this school.  One group is made up of very young children whose mothers are in prison.  In Cambodia, when the father is gone and the mother is imprisoned, so are all of her children under the age of 16 who can't be placed with other family.  The government doesn't provide foster homes or any care facilities for children.  Hagar takes the children and places them in homes and takes on the responsibility for educating them.
The second type of class is made up of students that mostly have never had any education, or very limited, for whatever reason.  These students are put into a three year "catch-up" program.  After three years they are ready for public schools at their appropriate class level.  Without these two programs, none of these kids would ever have an education.  Their lives will still be difficult, but now they at least have a chance.
The second school is called the School of Smiles.  The students in this school have either cerebral palsy, Down's Syndrome, autism, or other physical and mental issues.   Cambodia is a mostly Buddhist country. The Buddhist believe that if you did something bad in a previous life, you are paying for it in this life, and having a physical or mental limitation is one way in which it can show up.  So they believe these children had been bad in a previous life and deserve their current handicap.  These children are ignored by their families who feel they dishonor their families.  Hagar provides an education to these children and attempt to find employment opportunities.  Hagar also brings in the parents and teaches them how to care for their children.  There are currently 118 children in this program.  These kids will break your heart by just looking at you.  They deserve to live with dignity. Hagar provides them that opportunity.