Every year, Father Martino gives the girls a chance to go shopping for Tet (Lunar New Year) to spoil themselves or their families. This is called "Li Si" or "lucky money". Part of the volunteer fee for every mission trip is allocated to the girls for this shopping trip. Younger children are given $400,000 VND (approx. $20 USD) while the older girls who work are given a "bonus" and spend their own money to buy gifts. This way, it fosters their independence.
I walked with M.A., merely 13 years old, as she carefully calculated how much she can spend on herself. Selflessly and without hesitation, she set aside half of her money to her younger 4 year old sister, who lives with her parents. M.A. bought herself a pair of shoes, a knee-length skirt, a backpack, and some hair ties. She meticulously browsed through mountains of mismatched shoes in an elbow-to-elbow crowded market to find her younger sister the perfect pair of red shoes. She was surprised and proud to announce that she still had $60,000 VND to spare! C.L., M.A.'s other younger sister who also lives with OBV, generously portioned her lucky money to their youngest sister too. These children never cease to blow me away with their love and regard for one another. Trafficked and sexually abused children are taught to manipulate, lie, and step on others to survive. To teach our girls honesty, love, and respect is a tremendous feat. In a relaxed environment where the girls are free to be themselves like in the market, they continue to show their progress and success towards "normalcy". I am incredibly proud of them and their maturity, which is far beyond what I would expect from any other girls their age.
We parted with the girls in the afternoon to prepare ourselves for "Bay Dem" or "Night Flight". From midnight to 4 am, we cruised the streets of Saigon to find people who are homeless to gift them with (mock) Adidas jackets and money for Tet. During the day, Saigon is a bustling place. The streets are flooded with people and motorbikes. The incessant loudness of horns honking and market chatter are most of the time too overwhelming.Paradoxical like black and white, Saigon at night is dramatically different from the day. It is quiet.Eerily quiet. The streets are abandoned. I felt like I was in a completely different world that was surprisingly cold in the darkness.
Sadly, during the night is when homeless Vietnamese people are most visible. With only a straw mat to call their own, these people sleep wherever they can. Men, women, children, and babies alike find rest and solitude on thecold, hard concrete of the deserted sidewalks. I saw a couple, who must have been in their 60s, lovingly share a bamboo mat in front of a high end clothing store. The disparity between rich and poor in Vietnam isincomprehensible. There are people who roll around in Mercedes-Benz with Louis Vuitton bags in hand while others hold their frazzled sweater and torn shoes as their most prized possession. With minimal to no social services in Vietnam, the poor and desolate are left to fend for themselves. I can begin to understand why there is adevil-may-care, dog-eat-dog culture here where one can sell one's children if that's what it takes to live another day.
Offering a kind gesture such as we did won't solve the problem, but at least for one day, these people can believe that somewhere out there, someone cares. Someone is thinking of them. It was more than heartwarming to see a smile on their sullen faces when they received the gifts. Some were so touched that they broke down in tears. I almost shed a tear when I saw a man on a bicycle a couple days later sporting the same jacket that we had been giving out! When there's nothing else to give, give hope!