Huong Phuong is an unspoilt, pretty, quite isolated village in the centre of Vietnam – not far north of the old DMZ which divided this country into North and South during the “American War” era. I was lucky to spend a week working there and meeting the most delightful people. It crosses one’s mind that some of the poor unfortunates at the Orphanage may be an outcome from those painful war years.

The Orphanage itself is a kilometre from the village. It is a modern two-storey structure surrounded by rice fields, duck farm, fruit and vegetable garden tended by local villagers. There is a wonderful, friendly atmosphere everywhere. A thoughtful foreign visitor with a camera is happily accommodated – especially if you can replay the subject matter for the locals to see. Their laughter is infectious.

The Huong Phuong Orphanage is supported by the nuns and novices of the nearby Roman Catholic Convent. There is a warm collaborative atmosphere between them all. Three overlapping types of “orphans” are cared for, nearly 100 in total: children of all ages who have no parents; children who are severely handicapped (physically/mentally) and unable to be supported by a parent; and older simple women, homeless and unwanted, who help with the care of the younger ones.

It is a beautiful institution full of love and care. Naturally there are many areas of need – for finance, of course, to buy other than the most basic of equipment – but also for better education and training both for Sister carers and for children with future prospects.

The plight of some of the children is truly heart-breaking. Some are badly malformed; some are mentally empty; some are both. Their carers need as much outside moral and physical support as possible. “Challenging” is hardly a sufficiently appropriate term.

If you are able to visit Huong Phuong (and you would be made very welcome), please consider the skills or experiences you can bring. If you can offer brute force, please remember that staff will need to supervise your efforts. If you share professional skills in art or music, in language teaching, in health or education – great! If you offer love, think also of the gap you leave when departing.

As an architect and relatively well-off, I was able to help the Sisters develop ideas for a much needed special care unit – in between raiding the Ba Don supermarket for self-feeding bottles, towels, toys, books, blackboard, pencils…. I came away poorer in one way but richer in other ways.

Perhaps your best support from here is to make well targeted donations towards education in general and especially for the younger Sisters. At Huong Phuong the children are certainly safe, loved and well-fed – unlike far too many unfortunates in very poor Vietnam. This Orphanage is now becoming a model institution, with links to the new local medical clinic, for the nurture of the young and needy throughout the regional areas.

In the short term, the cash need is for equipment. In the longer term, the need is for better education and medical training. That can mean travel and semester accommodation far away. I hope to provide one wheel-chair confined young man with the chance to go to a special school for computer training and a career opportunity. There are many other youngsters still there with no future prospects unless we can reach out and help them. Our national reputation in Vietnam is very high. Every person I met, having asked where I came from? said “Australia number 1!” – and it’s meant.

Travelling through Vietnam offers an opportunity to reflect on our own lives and opportunities in Australia. The closer it’s possible to get to the people and their daily activities, the more enriching the travel experience becomes. To do this, please try travelling by yourself as much as possible. Within a group, each of us tends to talk English and interact only with our own companions; the Vietnamese people always remain “them”.

By yourself, you smile and “talk” with the people you meet – and the Vietnamese are wonderfully warm and friendly. They respond openly to your gestures of interest in their activities. If travelling on a bus, sit by yourself and someone will probably say hello – learn to say “shin wah”.

Avoid shops, taxis or cafes offering prices in US$ – these are catering for the tourist trade only keen to collect photo opportunities of themselves in front of the local scene rather than to be part of it.

Learn the local VND currency notes and their values with multiple zeroes; offer approximately the correct money when negotiating and perhaps add a little when finished – the people will be delighted and you’ll have made a new friend. You and your view of Australia will never be quite the same.

Our own challenge still remains – to recognise and share our good fortune with the poorer folk in Vietnam. Helping the Huong Phuong Orphanage fund is a good start.

David Penalver Sepember 2011.