A Song of Fire and Lanterns (and Monsoons)

It’s been a busy time for us the past couple of weeks what with our Mid-Autumn festival event, meeting with other youth organisations in HCMC and travelling to Vinh Long to meet again with the local authorities and visit potential project sites and beneficiaries. Here’s a little update for everyone to know what we’ve been up to in a bit more detail.

We held our first Step Club event for the Mid-Autumn festival on the 8th September. Of course, as the first event, everyone was a little bit nervous to make sure it went well even though everything was well planned in advance. We’re happy to say it was a great success and should act as a great platform for our members to build from. Everyone gathered at Thai An church in Dong Nai around midday, with some travelling ahead by motorbike and the rest of the group by bus. Preparation began almost straight away and with the help of the local children we began packing the gift-bags, getting all the equipment ready for the lantern making and practicing performances. Before we knew it 4 hours had passed and the event was about to start!

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First up was the lantern making, it was a pretty intense couple of hours but well worth it. After splitting into groups, the children gave their all designing and colouring their lanterns. Some fantastic ideas and really great drawings, of course we were big fans of the "StepForward" lanterns some of the kids made up! :) We felt the pressure when all the children suddenly finished simultaneously and we had to put the lanterns together, 50 of them versus 6 of us, well you can imagine... But, we got there in the end and took a little break while the children had dinner. 

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After dinner, it was time for the street parade with the lanterns. Good news that the rain had cleared up as we got all the lanterns lit and the kids following the traditional lion dance. Lots of fun as we marched around the church grounds and out to the street to the sound of the martial drums. Moving back inside, we began various performances organised by our club members including the story of Mid-Autumn and a few different games. One highlight of the performances was an embarrassing moment for Max as a 'technical failure' left him dancing alone on the stage to no music but, all's well that ends well, right?! Children then received gifts which included school equipment and traditional "Mooncakes" amongst other things. We finished the evening gathering around the fire singing and playing traditional songs and games. We are sure Tony will be disappointed to have missed out on the classic Vietnamese children's chant he loves to get involved in!

Quynh Lan playing with some of the kids

Quynh Lan playing with some of the kids

All in all, a great event with plenty of positives! Firstly, a great night for the children who had a lot of fun joining in the different activities and were able to enjoy a happy Mid-Autumn. As well as that, it was great to see our first event run relatively smoothly (considering it was our group's first time) and have our club really take the initiative to build the event together and work constructively as a team.

Reflection activity after the event

Reflection activity after the event

It was great for Thu and Max to join with them and bond closely with everyone as well as get our members feedback on how they would like to move forward from this event too. Again, a massive thanks to Quynh Lan, one of our key StepForward members who took on a lot of responsibility in organising everything and doing a fantastic job!

So, back to Saigon and the focus shifted towards our housing projects in Vinh Long. We had a team meeting the following evening and it was decided we would travel to Vinh Long the following Monday to visit potential project sites and meet again with the local authorities. Our close friends and former colleagues, Thuy and Minh would also join Max and Thu as they are supporting our project and helping us to manage operations when we are not in country. 

In the meantime, Max and Thu connected with a Japanese social enterprise, Habataku Inc. They are focused on building interactive and open learning environments for young people and the promotion of multicultural understanding. Thu worked with Habataku previously and coincidentally, Max and Yoshi (the Habataku founder) met on a 'scavenger hunt' event in HCMC three years ago when they had both just arrived in Vietnam! After a good meeting, it was agreed we could start a small, basic partnership and see how things progress from there. Max had a lot of fun joining a Habataku workshop with Japanese students the following Friday, acting as a 'Vietnamese' team member, he showed them around the city, looking for different signs of Japanese culture while also failing in his attempts to learn Japanese! As well as this, Habataku will collaborate with us on our next workshop event "Step Out Of Your Boundaries". It will focus on the key issue of "intercultural communication" particularly for youth in developing countries. We are really looking forward to hosting the event and places are nearly full already! If you're interested in joining you can learn more about it here

Next up, Vinh Long. Arriving early Monday morning, we headed straight to Tam Binh to visit the project sites. It really is one of the most beautiful places in Vietnam, untouched, split with rivers and streams and covered in lush greenery and rice paddies.

We arrived to a pot of tea (which was much needed after a tough drive) and began to talk with the local community leaders. They shared their enthusiasm for our project and commitment to ensuring we have a long and successful partnership with the local community. Throughout the day we visited four potential project sites, all with different needs and reasons for support and development. For us at StepForward, this is where it becomes difficult; to select just one family to support at a time is an unwanted challenge but we plan to be in a position in the future where we are working consistently in the local area and can run multiple projects at any given time. Despite this, we are pleased to say we have selected our first project site!

StepForward met with Anh Trung, a labourer, living with his 9 year old son. He is married, but his wife travels away to work in a factory for weeks at a time. She has a fixed income but it is low and after the costs of living while she is away are discounted it is nowhere near enough to support the family. In contrast, Trung remains home to work and take care of their son but his work is inconsistent and he struggles for regular income to support himself and their child at home. As well as this, their son was recently in motorbike accident and required four operations and a one month stay in hospital. What little funds they did have were sapped by this unexpected but necessary expense and the family now finds themselves in a very difficult position. StepForward will support the family with a new house as well as a micro-finance loan to set up a small but sustainable business that is low maintenance but will provide a steady income to supplement their current earnings. We will have more specific details to share in our soon-to-be released project proposal but were super excited to give everyone an update about our first project!

It was great to have our team on the ground again in Vinh Long and meet with more local people and build further awareness of what we are doing there. The local authorities are very receptive to our plans and are keen to support us in our interaction with the local community as well which is fantastic. It was important for us to visit the local area to understand better the infrastructure there and see how life might be for a potential volunteer joining our projects in the future. It is very rural and undeveloped but definitely an experience and way of life we want to share with those keen to become involved in social and community development work. Life in this part of the world is extremely different to what most people know, with most of the world's population moving into urban areas, communities like Tam Binh are requiring increased support and understanding towards the issues affecting development there. Currently we have local builders working on a budget for the first project and we will travel back to Vinh Long in the coming weeks to work with them more closely as we look to build a strong working relationship with them and ensure everything is in place for our first project to begin next spring.

Everything is coming together at StepForward and we are looking forward to what the future holds for us. That's it from us now but keep watching for more updates and news as our work continues to grow here in Vietnam!

Respect if you've made it this far! More to come soon.

StepForward Team