I sat atop a rooftop restaurant in Hanoi’s Old Quarter joined by new friends I had met from all over the world; Latvia, Thailand, Australia. Feeling the warm breeze and thinking to myself that one of the best parts about leaving your humble abode is getting to meet interesting people from different parts of the world. It gives you perspective. I get a glimpse of the stories and reasons of why people are traveling.
Outside, in the gathering dusk, neon-lit shop signs and headlights from a steady stream of cars and buses cast a hazy glow on the still waters of the Hoan Kiem Lake. Noisy motorbikes duel with “cyclos” (similar to cycle rickshaws) and bicycles. Pedestrians plunge in, weaving in and out of the traffic to navigate the large intersection in the center. Women with straw hats strapped to their chins sell steaming hot pho (a soup) in one corner, and flowers and fruits out of baskets on bicycles or strung to the ends of long poles balanced on their shoulders. Vietnam is a destination for those who appreciate life’s simple pleasures: coffee, food, and music.
Hanoi is an alluring combination of the tranquility of a city with an ancient soul and the vibrancy of an up-and-coming economy. Tree-lined boulevards, serene lakes with arching willow trees, verdant parks, stately monuments and old temples more than compensate for shiny malls, cars and motorbikes noodling in and out from every direction, and dull government office buildings. Even the crumbling edifices of the Old Quarter, the 2,000-year-old bargain-hunting paradise, exhibit grace and resilience as they cling to the charm of a bygone era.
This is my second time in Vietnam, and a sense of déjà vu accompanies every turn of the head. I stand there on the pavement in the bustling street; I couldn’t believe I was back after 10 years. But this time alone, without any family or friends, to intern for the Institute of Social and Medical Studies (ISMS), a non-profit organization. ISMS aims to be a leading organization in designing and conducting research in order to provide evidence for developing, planning, and implementing strategies, policies, and programs in the social and medical field. This non-profit organization covers a myriad of projects that affect the lives and well being of communities throughout Vietnam, particularly marginalized and vulnerable populations such as ethnic minorities, the poor, women, children, and those living with HIV. ISMS is committed to contributing towards the improvement of Vietnamese communities and aiding their health and well-being.
It has been almost one month since I have been living and breathing the Vietnamese culture. Unlike other cohorts of the IDIP program that go for a 12-week internship abroad, I had the option to start one month later due to Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. Despite the thrilling idea of exploring Vietnam for a month, I was eager and excited to start my internship. I took the jumpstart and began interning at the beginning of January. Since my time here, the work has been somewhat minimal and the office was definitely wrapping things up for the holiday, but I was still able to meet the directors and researchers, learn the company culture, and gain a wider understanding of how the non-profit organization runs.
Everyone at ISMS was pleasantly surprised about the fact that I spoke Vietnamese. Alex Leonard, the grants manager, and I, were the only foreigners working for the organization. I worked closely with Alex to submit a grant proposal to the Nestle Foundation in request for $300,000 to support the next research topic concerning sexual and reproductive health. I learned that writing these proposals is extremely time consuming and challenging. Foundations have different processes for applying for grants. Developing a grant proposal through careful attention to the required elements ensures answers to the questions that these potential funders will ask. Some proposals are extremely lengthy, like the 100 page proposal that ISMS recently submitted to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation requesting over $1 million dollars. Grant proposals play a key role for non-profit organizations because it’s what fuels their research projects.
If you asked anyone who works for a non-profit if there work is easy, they will likely laugh at you. Not only is the work challenging, many would argue that it is more difficult than working in the for profit sector. I have been observing the work that ISMS researchers do on a daily basis, and often they are asked to do more with less, and in shorter periods of time. The results of this hard work are often intangible. It is difficult to get up everyday and end poverty or diseases. It takes time, effort, and patience. These senior researchers, graduates from Columbia University and Harvard, hold high standards for themselves and will work day and night, if that means submitting a successful grant proposal to aid the lives and well-being of the Vietnamese community. I am currently still on break for the Tet holiday, but I am excited to get back to work next week. After the New Year, my scope of work will be to help ISMS launch a new research project regarding gender-based violence in schools across seven different provinces throughout Hanoi. Wish me luck!
Over the past three months, I’ve been able to control any underlying feelings of frustration felt towards the locals, the smelly streets, and the particularly irritating motorbikes and vehicles that don’t know when to stop honking. I quickly adapted to bargaining at my local market without offending anyone, and the $1 pho noodle soup a few steps outside of my home-stay has definitely been a win for me. I have also been numerous eye-opening moments while walking around Vietnam’s capitol. I have seen so many motorbike accidents than ever before. I saw 4 motorbike accidents right before my eyes within 3 days of one another. Men driving straight into each other, a women zooming past me out of the blue and falling straight into the pavement, or a late night accident down the street because some guy had a few too many beers. Motorbikes mixed with traffic, lack of safety standards, and ineffective police is Vietnam’s silent killer. Whether a fleeting thought or a serious consideration, it has probably crossed my mind at some point or other when having a particularly difficult day in Vietnam.
During the first month of interning and working in the world of development, I would often ask myself how I would truly make my time here effective and meaningful for both the organization and myself. What could I do in these last 4 weeks to make an impact? I’m the type of person who likes to get work done and see positive results, but ultimately I’ve come to accept the fact that my time here will serve as more of an observer with helping hands, and less of a catalyst. Now that my time is coming to an end, I have reflected on the wide range of projects I have worked on as an intern at the Institute of Social and Medical Studies.
The first project I was assigned was to translate a report from Vietnamese to English regarding “Unmet Needs for Motherhood and Contraception for a Cost-Effectiveness Intervention Model.” I converted the document into a power point that was then used for a presentation to the United Nations Population Fund (UNPFA) on the key findings. The chunk my time has been focusing on an extensive literature review regarding child rights governance to promote non-discrimination of LGBT street children and youth in Vietnam. This opportunity to do research on such a real issue Vietnam faces today has made me become aware more than ever before, about a topic that most of the time is ignored or goes unnoticed. Tens of thousands of vulnerable children are living and working on the streets in Vietnam. The majority of the children have migrated from other places, which adds to their vulnerability since migrants lack legal registration. As second-class citizens they lack access to services, like social and health care, shelter, education or employment. This marginalized group of youth suffers severe child rights violations. A recent study implemented by Save the Children in Vietnam (May 2012) found that many of these children is in even more risky situations due to stigma of their gender identity. They are often faced with discrimination and harsh treatment by family members, police officers, medical staff, and civil defense force.
These vulnerable street children including the LGBT children urgently require tailored interventions to protect and promote their rights. Currently, there are very limited policies and laws to protect and promote their rights. They are subjected to additional risk situations through detention, institutionalization, and abuse. Many street children have no forms of identification or registration papers in order to have access to formal education, health, and protection services. As a result they experience violence, hunger, health risks including HIV, social isolation, and many turn to dangerous jobs in order to make a living, such as selling sex and drugs. My research for this literature review focuses specifically on LGBT street children under 18 years and youth between the ages of 18-24 years old. The study explores different situations of LGBT street children and youth in terms of specific categories such as, runaway children, working at risk children, and children from other provinces that have migrated to Ho Chi Minh City for economic reasons. My literature review will serve to inform the current mapping of laws, policies, and programs focusing on these vulnerable children.
Unfortunately, I will be back in the United States by the time the researchers at ISMS go into the field to collect data among LGBT street children which will consist of in-depth interviews, group discussions among youth transgender, children/youth lesbians, and children/youth males. For the remaining few weeks I have left in Vietnam, I will be going “into the field” to multiple schools in Hanoi to help with a new project regarding gender-based violence in youth. Working in the world of development has given me a plate full of mixed emotions, but I am so thankful to experience it first hand. It has been a remarkable opportunity to work with a group of people who are so passionate about helping a marginalized society and truly love the work they do. But at the end of the day, working in non-profit organization takes lots and lots of time, patience, and hard work to truly see positive change and results