Thirty-five high school students from the United States are spending their summer in Quang Ngai Province, central Vietnam, where they have helped build new houses for low-income families.
The program is organized by U.S.-based Putney Students Travel, a family-run organization which hosts summer programs abroad for middle and high school students.
It has been sending students on trips to Quang Ngai to teach English and build houses for the past 16 years.
Much of the students’ success is owed to the bonds they have formed with the Vietnamese families they befriended during their time in Vietnam, many of whom are integral in teaching the group how to build houses capable of withstanding the harsh climate in central Vietnam.
Connecting to Vietnam
Scarola Caia, 15, had never visited Vietnam before signing up to help Putney Students Travel with its mission of building houses in the Southeast Asian country.
Though she had little prior knowledge of the country, her research prepared her for how friendly and peaceful its people are despite the countless wars they fought to defend their independence.
Upset at the damage caused by a two-decade war the U.S. waged in Vietnam, Caia shared her hope that the two countries can continue the mutual respect and cooperation they have developed since normalizing ties nearly 30 years ago.
“Vietnamese people are really friendly," she said.
“Their way to welcome guests is different from Americans'.
"They welcomed us like we have known each other for so long and treated us to many tasty dishes.
“The Vietnamese are much friendlier than what I’ve ever expected.”
This year, apart from sending the 35 students to Vietnam, Putney Students Travel also donated over VND370 million (US$15,800) to build six houses for six low-income households in Tinh Ky Commune, Quang Ngai City and Binh Chau Commune, Binh Son District.
In Tinh Ky Commune, 18 American students were divided into three groups to build three new homes.
Nell Rohde, 14, the youngest American student in the group, spent a good amount of time helping to lay the foundation and move bricks for the houses.
|Two U.S. students lay bricks in Quang Ngai Province, central Vietnam. Photo: Tran Mai / Tuoi Tre|
Rodhe had not done any prior research on Vietnam – she merely expected it to be an opportunity to help those in need.
Instead, she walked away feeling as if she had a true understanding of the people and culture.
“I’m really happy seeing the newly-built house," Rohde said.
"This is a wonderful trip of my life. I’m still young. I want to visit Vietnam again."
For Charles Caiafa, a 17-year-old who joined the trip, visiting Vietnam for the first time is an opportunity to gain a better understanding of his mother’s homeland.
Caiafa’s mother is a native of Hue in central Vietnam.
“Before the trip, my mom told me to be kind to people in Vietnam because there were many poor people," Caiafa said.
“I feel that the trip's lived up to her expectations.
“I will take many photos and when I go back to the U.S., I will tell her what I have done in Vietnam and the kindness that I received from the locals.”
New homes, new beginnings
According to Nguyen Thanh Trung, secretary of the Ho Chi Minh Communist Youth Union chapter in Tinh Ky Commune, selecting which Vietnamese families would have their homes rebuilt was a challenging task due to the extreme amount of need in Tinh Ky.
Lam Thi Tinh, 59, was one of those lucky enough to be selected for the program.
Though Tinh is disabled and has mental health issues, her younger sister is fully dependent on her.
She was elated when she found out that she would be receiving nearly VND60 million ($2,500) to put toward a new home, but that happiness faded when she realized she did not have the additional tens of millions of dongs (VND1 million = US$43) needed for the construction.
Fortunately, her neighbors stepped in to help her with the money she needed.
Before the arrival of the American students, Tinh had never met a foreigner.
It took her some time, but eventually she opened up to the guests who would be helping to build her new home and she wound up using an interpreter to help her communicate with the students.
“I’m looking forward to seeing my new house," she said.
"[The American students] are very friendly and nice.
“I’m no longer worried about whether or not my home will be able to weather storms.”
Bui Gia Bin, a 12th grader from Le Khiet High School for Gifted Students in Quang Ngai, volunteered to help the American students as a translator.
During her time with the group, Bin served as a bridge between the Americans and their Vietnamese hosts.
Pointing toward Jackson Wade, 17, Bin said, “He believes this is meaningful work and hopes the house will be completed soon. The Tinh sisters are also excited to see the finished house.”
Binh Chau and Tinh Ky Communes are coastal localities that often bear the brunt of monsoon-season storms.
Just two years ago, thousands of homes in the localities were destroyed.
Cao Thi Ha, a resident of Tinh Ky, is also receiving a new home thanks to the program.
The 47-year-old woman, who struggles to make end meets and lives alone in a small home that cannot handle heavy storms, is excited about her future in her new home.