Standing on the path that surrounds Hoan Kiem Lake, 51-year old Ninh Thi Hong feels anxious, dressed in her clown costume, carrying a handful of colourful balloons. Trying to ignore the curious stares of those around her, Hong smiles at the children that start to gather around. Her warmth is soon repaid, as a few minutes later she finds herself surrounded by a crowd as she hastily inflates new balloons, having already sold her first bundle.
A rainbow of different colours and shapes, Hong’s balloons are different than those usually found in that area, as they had been brought over from the US. Along with those extraordinary balloons, Hong herself is not your average balloon seller. She is the vice president of a special club that caters to the elderly affected by HIV/AIDS in Vinh Tuy Ward.
Like a "kindergarten"
It’s a rainy night as Vinh Tuy’s People’s Committee opens its door as it usually does on the 14th day of every month. Outside, the street leading to the committee is crowded with the signs of construction, numerous sand dunes and pot- holes, making the way that much more treacherous in the rain. Despite these conditions, many elderly people can be seen making their way through the entrance. Today is the monthly meeting for all the elderly in Hong’s club.
It’s 7.30pm, and nearly 50 elderly women gather in the meeting room. While most of the seats have been taken, the ladies continue to crowd into the room.
The rain falls outside, but its sound is drowned by the chatter, laughter and the "pop" of exploding balloons inside the room. These signs of joys make it hard to imagine the tragedies this group of women share.
"Keep it like this, and twist it into a tree trunk," says Hong, as she stands in the centre of the room, raising a long green balloon above her head.
It has been five months since Hong sold balloons that first day at Hoan Kiem Lake. It was an experiment, and it was a success. More and more people are now following the path she started paving that day.
The members of the club are following her balloon lesson, diligently trying to twist the green balloons into tree trunks. The crowd bursts into laughter after a balloon accidentally pops.
"We spend around VND500 for five balloons to make a complete animal, but we can sell it for VND5,000, so we make money quickly," says Hong.
"The work is realistic. It takes only half a day for members to learn how to turn balloons into various animals," says Tran Bich Thuy, a project officer at Viet Nam Women’s Union, which provides direct support to the club. "For the elderly who don’t have much time left, half a day is ideal to learn a new skill, particularly when this work can help them earn money rather easily."
The secret, Thuy and Hong reveal, is where the balloons come from. They are purchased abroad and brought to Viet Nam by Quyen Tran, a regional programme manager at HelpAge International. When they first started the program, an expert from Thailand was brought in to teach the group how to make balloon animals.
"The balloons can be folded into many things, depending on the creativeness of the sellers," says Hong.
"You can even spell out ‘Viet Nam’ to put on the heads of Vietnamese football fans," Thuy adds.
Nguyen Thi Mua, a 64-year-old woman, is folding a balloon with her six-year-old granddaughter. one of Mua’s sons is in prison, while her other son is now at a rehabilitation centre.
"I haven’t missed a meeting since this club was established two years ago. We keep coming back not only because of the club’s vocational training lessons, but also its joyful atmosphere. Together, we escape from the sad stories of real life to engage in doing new things. It’s like a kindergarten for us," Mua smiles.
Loans for the elderly
The club at Vinh Tuy Ward is just one of 67 groups for elderly persons affected by HIV/AIDS in Ha Noi, Nam Dinh, Thai Nguyen and Quang Ninh provinces. Over the past two years, all these clubs have joined a new project named VIE011 (Community Mechanisms for Mitigating the Impact of HIV/AIDS in Vietnam), which aims to help improve the health and livelihoods of elderly living in challenging circumstances.
Implemented by HelpAge International and Viet Nam Women’s Union, the project covers many activities. What distinguishes it from similar projects are the loans available to older women, many of whom wouldn’t qualify for loans under the Viet Nam Bank for Social Policies, the bank dedicated to helping socially disadvantaged people.
"Frankly, a bank is still a business, and this means that finances are always the top priority. It is commonly frowned upon to provide loans to an old woman. If a woman is over the working age and has children addicted to drugs or infected with HIV/AIDS, how can she be trusted to repay her loan?" says Thuy.
Project VIE011 not only provides loans to elderly persons affected by HIV/AIDS, but also provides them with training so that they can earn money and repay those loans.
Other than encouraging people to run small businesses, like raising chickens, fish or pigs, or opening small restaurants or tea stalls, the project also teaches people new ways to earn money, such as selling balloons or making fabric dolls.
On top of working as a regional programme manager at HelpAge International, Quyen Tran, a Vietnamese American, is also a teacher, helping these old women start fresh with new skills. Initiated by Quyen, the idea came to him when he realised that many old people were afraid to take out loans because they didn’t know how to pay them back. Working in Thailand for the past five years, Quyen saw that the Thai government had a policy of "100 jobs for people", finding employment for anyone willing to work. He wanted to copy that model in Viet Nam.
To bring that model over, Quyen filled his suitcase with American-made balloons, catalogues of dolls from Thailand and other hand-made toys, as well as the necessary materials to make them. As he landed in Viet Nam, project VIE011 took flight.
Following the success of the balloon animal business, the next doll-making scheme was implemented seven months ago, and has so far proven just as successful. Under Quyen’s guidance, seven members from another club for the elderly have completed hundreds of dolls. While their needle work may require a little more practice, the dolls are attractive enough to generate orders from some Vietnamese businesses, expatriates in Viet Nam and even officers from the Italian Embassy.
Realising the potential of hand-made products, and Thuy’s continued support, Quyen has now spent some of his own money on yet another do-it-yourself business scheme: teaching the elderly to make embroidered hats.
Opening a catalogue displaying an endless selection of hand-made items, Quyen confides, "I believe that there are a hundred simple things that we can make by hand, and children’s toys is still an untapped market. If we can learn these jobs successfully, we have a chance to provide jobs for hundreds of labourers, including the elderly and their HIV/AIDS infected children."
Where is our future?
It is a shared belief that the best place to care for HIV/AIDS victims is at home with their family. Any programme aiming to help these groups, then, must keep this basic principal in mind.
For the elderly who live with, or are HIV/AIDS victims, the burden on their shoulders is often tripled. Apart from taking care of their infected children, they often become the primary caregiver to their sometimes infected grandchildren. At a time in their lives when they should be looked after by society or by their own children, they are still looking after themselves, finding no time to rest in their old age.
Thuy, the project officer, says that the situation in Viet Nam is becoming worse as HIV/AIDS is now so often linked to drug addiction. Many families of HIV/AIDS victims lose everything they have to drugs.
The elderly can often be the most affected, scraping by as they try to feed their HIV/AIDS infected children. Even when their children pass away, they are still left to the mercy of society, as their children leave nothing behind but their bodies.
"Although 100 per cent of the elderly questioned ask nothing for themselves, only their children, it doesn’t mean they aren’t in need. So far, there is no project except VIE011 providing loans or work opportunities for these people. In most cases, only the HIV/AIDS victims or their children receive financial support," Thuy says. The VE011 project has often been the only avenue these women have to turn to, and has so far provided 2,110 loans to elderly women over the past two years.
"Giving loans to the elderly is not as risky as is commonly thought. on the contrary, elderly women have proven to be safe borrowers. Under our project, 100 per cent of people have given their loans back before the deadline," Thuy reveals.
According to Quyen, older people are usually responsible in the way they invest their loans. If they don’t know how to invest it, then they won’t take the loan.
"It’s important that we help them find ways to earn money, whether they have the loans or not," Quyen says. As he continues to teach people to make and sell crafts, he has many more tricks up his sleeve to help these disadvantaged families.
"After the initial project, it will be difficult to get the members steady work at doll or embroidery clubs. We’ll need the help of businesses to ensure output," says Thuy. "We don’t need another volunteer, but a real enterprise interested in our product so that we can expand."
As the group looks for an enterprise to bring their small project to the larger scale, the women will continue to gather at their scattered club locations. Sharing a laugh while learning a new skill, the women escape their hardships just for a day, on a path that will hopefully lead them to a brighter place in life.