I am not a morning person. I know this about myself, but am starkly reminded of this fact when my alarm goes off at 6am. In a zombie trance I get out of bed, put the kettle on and have a shower. I put on the clothes I chose the night before, as I know that at 6am in the morning my brain does not work at its best and there is a high risk I may choose clothes and footwear completely impractical for riding on the back of motorbikes and sitting cross-legged on the floor. Today I head out to Bac Ninh, where SEDA has one of their regional offices and where the actual work of meeting clients, disbursing loans and collecting repayments occurs. All of the Kiva clients are serviced out of Bac Ninh and I travel there twice a week, travelling 2 ½ hours each way on 3 local buses to get there.
Back to my cup of tea. I gulp it down and head to the bus stop down the road to catch my first bus of the day. It’s 6.40am and the routine is to meet Huyen – my university student translator – at Long Bien bus depot at 7am. From there we catch the next bus to Bac Ninh. Long Bien is the largest bus depot in Hanoi and a nightmare to navigate. There is no order to the buses, no signage or timetable to indicate where you can find your particular bus. You basically wait and pray. The one positive is that it’s still early and there are less hawkers about to bother us. The Bac Ninh bus arrives and we get on quickly to ensure we get a seat. Getting a seat on a Vietnamese bus resembles a competitive sport and women get no special treatment. I try and avoid any diplomatic incidents despite what I observe, but once I saw a young man nearly trample a pregnant woman to get to a seat. I could not help myself and stood directly in front of him, loudly announcing that he should be ashamed of himself. Despite the language barrier I think everybody in the bus could understand what I was saying. At the next stop he sheepishly got up and offered the pregnant woman his seat. One thing I do admire however is the fact that older people are treated very respectfully and as soon as they board a bus, somebody will instantly get up and guide them to a seat.
It’s a 1 hour journey to Bac Ninh. Huyen and I usually chat away for the first half an hour, but then after a while we put on our respective MP3 players and listen to music to pass the time. The journey is primarily highway and the scenery would not make it onto a postcard. An hour later we reach Bac Ninh town. We disembark and walk to the bus depot to catch our next bus to Yen Phu, a small town in Bac Ninh province where the SEDA office is based. The Bac Ninh bus depot is one of the few places I get approached by beggars. There is one particular young man – I’d guess early 20s – with a severe limp and facial disfigurement who is there every week. The first time we saw him Huyen told me not to give him money as he would most certainly be hired by somebody to beg and would have to pay his ‘pimp’ the bulk of his takings. This knowledge coupled with telling myself that I am already doing some good by volunteering in Vietnam for 4 months makes me feel more comfortable about ignoring the beggars.
Our last bus arrives and we board for the final 45 minutes journey to Yeh Phu. In contrast this is a stunning journey and I still enjoy looking out over the rice fields and slices of life in the small villages we pass. Then we arrive at Yen Phu. It’s 9.30am and it feels like we have done a full day’s work already, but we have just begun.
We are warmly welcomed by the SEDA credit officers. Then onto the back of a motorbike and off we go to visit clients. The credit officers have 3 days of client interaction – Tuesday through to Thursday. In the morning they have their weekly repayment collection meetings and in the afternoon they disburse new loans. On Monday and Friday they are in the office catching up on paperwork. I enjoy the motorbike rides out to visit clients. The preparation beforehand is hilarious. I basically lather my face, arms and neck in sun-cream, put on sunglasses and sometimes a hat. And that’s it. The locals however have a much more fastidious routine. They wear long shirts, gloves, hats and face masks to ensure that no skin whatsoever is exposed to the sun and that they stay white. It makes me laughingly think of the women back home who pay a lot of money for regular fake sun-tans.
We drive through all manner of surrounds – narrow village laneways, along canals, pass cemeteries, through rice fields- arriving at the location for our first collection meeting. The meetings are usually held in a central location such as a school, pagoda or a home and we will meet with 4-5 groups at once. I always get a little nervous at schools as invariably one of the students sees me and then bedlam ensues. They leave their classrooms and jump and dance around singing “hello, hello, hello”. After a few minutes a teacher will appear and yell or dramatically bang a drum and they scurry back to class. Occasionally some persistent little rascals will remain throughout the meetings, intriguingly observing us.
The credit officer meets with each group leader one by one and collects the weekly repayments. I then enquire if I can ask them a few questions. It never ceases to amaze me how open the clients are with a complete stranger and they patiently answer my questions about their family finances, families and hopes for the future. Interview over, I ask if I may take a photo. This usually draws a response of nervous laughter and protestations that they are not suitably dressed for a photo. The credit officers interject telling them that’s nonsense and that they look fine, so they acquiesce whilst patting down their hair or straightening a shirt – the response to having a photo taken really is universal! One time while I was taking photos of clients, one of them was taking a photo of me with their phone – the shoe very firmly on the other foot!
The meeting is repeated 3 times at separate locations and we usually meet with 10 -15 groups per session. Lunchtime. The Vietnamese take their lunchbreaks very seriously. Usually we drive back to the office and will have lunch at one of the food stalls in Yen Phu. Occasionally we are too far from the office and may have lunch at a client’s home. I am always humbled by our client’s hospitality when we visit their homes. They are always delighted to see me and dust off their best chair for me to sit down on. Cups of tea will be thrust into my hand and instantly refilled the moment they are empty. It’s an honour when we eat with them but I also feel a little guilty that we are taking food from their families’ mouths. I quash the strong desire to ask the credit officers to give them some money for the meal as I know that would be incredibly insulting. Thankfully for my western conscience we don’t have meals with clients very often.
After lunch we have disbursement meetings where new loans are distributed. These are large meetings as every member of the group must attend, so 20 – 30 women may be in attendance. These meetings are held in a public area as a home could not comfortably contain this many people. The credit officers commence by talking about loan discipline, the importance of meeting their repayment obligations and also of making savings. Typically a SEDA client will also have a savings account where they will contribute 5,000 Vietnamese Dong ( $US 0.30 ) a week in savings. That does not seem like a lot – and it isn’t – but instilling a behaviour of savings is important and even a small amount will ultimately pay dividends. Once the ‘pep talk’ is over, the groups approach one by one and each member of the group needs to sign a basic contract acknowledging that they have received the funds and will repay accordingly. It’s very businesslike and the women usually count their loans to ensure they have received all their funds. One woman once made me laugh as she did not like the fact that some of her notes were old, so she emphatically asked the credit officer for newer notes!
About 2 – 3 disbursement meetings are held in an afternoon and then it’s back to the office. It’s typically 4 – 4.30pm and Huyen and I bid the Yen Phu team good-bye. We trudge back to the bus stop, fervently praying that we don’t have to wait too long for the bus. The longest we have had to wait is 50 minutes! There is absolutely nothing at the Yen Phu bus station so that was 50 of the longest minutes of my life. Eventually the bus arrives and we commence our 3 return bus journeys. The music I choose on the way back to Hanoi tends to be mellow as I am often reflecting on the clients I have met and the sneak peek I have had into their lives. I am always in admiration of the resilience, hospitality and sheer hard work demonstrated by the Kiva clients – there is no ‘woe is me’ self pitying attitude.
Eventually, mercifully, I turn the key and enter my apartment. In reality it’s modest but in contrast to where I have been today it’s palatial. It’s already dark and usually between 7 and 7.30pm. I immediately head to my shower as I am always sweaty and grimy. I cook a modest meal and usually treat myself to ice-cream. Exhausted it’s early to bed, but satisfied that in a small way I am doing my bit to help.
This is what I do two days a week. They are long, hot and tiring days, but they are also my favourite days of the week.