Vietnam is a country of great natural and cultural beauty and also great poverty – a country where people struggle to make ends meet but also work hard, exhibit kindness, and value family.
Each year, Bucks County nonprofit Pearl S. Buck International, which carries on Pearl S. Buck’s legacy of bridging cultures and changing lives, offers cultural tours to one of the countries in which it serves – the 2020 trip will be to Vietnam.
Members of the community have the opportunity to experience the natural and cultural beauty of these places. The trips are also a chance to see firsthand the poverty in which children live and how the help provided by sponsors and donors alleviates challenging conditions.
David Ballai, chief information officer and vice president of content operations for Reed Technology and Information Services Inc. and former board chair for Pearl S. Buck International, has gone on several of the voluntourism trips, and a few years ago, traveled to Vietnam. Ballai and his wife sponsor three children through Pearl S. Buck International – a young girl in the Philippines and two young boys in Vietnam.
“I was determined to learn, through direct experience, more about the lives and cultures that Pearl Buck herself experienced and had written about so extensively,” Mr. Ballai explained. “I was also interested to see firsthand the living conditions of the families and children in the Pearl S. Buck programs there, and in particular, to understand how I might make a small difference.”
During his trip, he learned that “in some ways, Vietnam is a rapidly modernizing country, with large cities like Hanoi demonstrating high growth and leveraging the strengths of new technologies and services. There are many areas of the country with large, well-educated populations, living in environments that rival some of the world’s leading cities.
“But traveling outside of large central cities exposed us to very low standards of living—streams covered by waste, families huddling in small shanty structures with no running water and/or limited electricity, and children running the streets barefoot and dirty. I was surprised, however, to see that conditions were actually overall much better than anticipated. Even in the poorer areas, children were attending schools and had regular meals.”
In an orphanage they were doing a very respectable job caring for more than 100 children ranging in ages from infant to early teens, all with material learning or physical issues. “Working amongst the smallest children was a young nurse from the Red Cross, and I stopped to watch her bandaging the toes of one of the babies. When asked why she was doing that, she calmly replied that rats crept in at night and chewed on the young flesh. That awful scenario prompted the Pearl S. Buck International team to react by funding a program to purchase screening for windows and doors for the facility.”
“On a more positive note,” Ballai continued, “when we visited a children’s schools where students were being largely supported by the Pearl S. Buck International programs, we saw healthy, happy and active children, all dressed alike and all smiling. At one point, we were ushered into a large learning classroom with computers that were purchased by a Reed Tech grant. ... It was very obvious that they were grateful to have them and clearly were enjoying their use.”
Ballai called the Pearl S. Buck International cultural tour “a must-do experience. “Take in the many unique facets of culture and the diversity in the Vietnamese lifestyle. Enjoy the museums, resorts, and wealth of culinary treats,” he said. Expect to be surprised by the mix of ultra-modern hotels and resorts in some areas, and lower tier services in poorer areas of the country. A trip to the Vietnam War memorials and museum is sure to challenge your notions about the 1960s war there.”
Ballai said that on every trip he has traveled with smart, warm and caring individuals, creating lasting bonds with many.
Pearl S. Buck International is sponsoring a 13-day cultural tour to Vietnam, Feb. 18–March 2, 2020. Reservations are being accepted now. For more information, go to pearlsbuck.org/cultural-trips/.