Saturday, 14 February 2015

Diary from the field - cycling from Vietnam to Cambodia

Head of Lendwithcare, Tracey Horner, has embarked on a challenge of a lifetime. For the past seven days Tracey, along with ten other CARE supporters, has cycled from Ho Chi Minh city in Vietnam to Battambang in Cambodia (a gruelling 460km) to raise vital funds for CARE's poverty-fighting programmes. 

Before peddling off into the Mekong Tracey met with one of Lendwithcare's newest microfinance partners, MACDI, who are based in northern Vietnam. 

What follows is her diary from the first six days.

Day 1:

I left a very cold London bound for Hanoi and the first leg of my trip.  Since my trip comprises a field visit to our partner MACDI; a presentation to one of our corporate supporters, Hogan Lovells; a 460k cycle ride; and some beach holiday time at the end, I had to pack a rather diverse range of clothing!

I always look forward to visiting our partners and meeting some of the entrepreneurs we are supporting and although I am looking forward to the challenge of the cycle adventure; having never done anything like this before, and being under prepared I have a bit of trepidation about what might lie ahead.

Day 2:

Arrived in Hanoi at 6am and checked into my hotel. I expected it to be cooler in Hanoi than in the south of the country but not 15 degrees as it has turned out to be. I decided to have a wander round Hanoi to get my bearings, followed by a couple of hours sleep.  Min Thai, the CEO of our partner MACDI, came and picked me up for lunch and took me to Hanoi's Ethnology Museum which provided a fascinating insight into the different groups of ethnic Vietnamese. It became clear why so many of the Lendwithcare Vietnamese entrepreneurs have very similar names.  There are only around 60 different surnames in Vietnam, and each area has around five different surnames.  I ended the day with a little stroll back to the hotel, giving myself time to take in this vibrant city.

Day 3: 

Today we went on a trip to the famous Ha Long Bay.  It was a 6 hour round trip to get there but it was well worth it - despite the weather being cold, cloudy and foggy.  Later that day I met with Regan Leahy, from Hogan Lovells citizenship team, who is accompanying me on the field trip since she is taking part in the sponsored cycle ride later in the week.

Day 4:

Regan and I left the hotel at 8am to travel three hours to Hoa Binh province where some of the entrepreneurs we have supported through Lendwithcare are located.  The car journey gave us the opportunity to learn more about MACDI's work from Min Thai and in particular learn about the broader work they do in addition to microloans.  It is clear that Min Thai is passionate about her mission to improve the lives of poor people, particularity those living in remote rural areas of Vietnam.  

Life is very hard indeed if you are far from a town or city with few assets and no access to formal financial services. The closer we got to our destination the more obvious the difference became between the big cities and the rural communities. 

We arrived at MACDI's tiny office which is home to five loan officers and one other member of staff.  The office is rented at a very low cost from the local authority.  We also met with two local officials who told me how much they value the work of MACDI - particularly the work they do to improve the environment by helping people install bio gas facilities to turn their animal waste into gas.  

They also mentioned that they appreciate the training that MACDI give to borrowers, training in things like animal care, protection of the environment and home sanitation.

To see some of MACDI's assistance in action, Regan and I visited a home that was in the process of having a bio gas plant installed.  It was a very interesting process to see. It starts by digging a massive hole in which they put the chamber that the waste will flow into and later be turned into bio gas. 

MACDI worked very hard to set up a relationship with a local bio gas installing company to negotiate a good price for their borrowers. A part of the agreement includes after care assistance, which ensures that if there is any future maintenance needed the borrower is able to access this help for free or at a greatly reduced price.

This is the theme that ran through my visit, MACDI linking people with the private sector - and also trying to link borrowers to appropriate markets for their products.

After watching the bio gas installation, we visited a couple more entrepreneurs. Part of a Lendwithcare evaluation is to check a random sample of entrepreneurs that appear on the website and ensure that all the details match up with the loan that the borrower has received.

Every house we visited began with a ritual of pouring us all some green tea - delicious but there is only so much green tea you can drink in one day!

That night we stayed in the only hotel in the area.  It was very cold in this mountainous region - so cold that both Regan and I slept in our clothes!

Day 5: 

Regan and I left the hotel at 8am and ate a bowl of Pho (noodle soup) for breakfast and visited a number of Lendwithcare entrepreneurs.

The first women we met was called Phoung Dinh Thi. 

One of the things I always ask Lendwithcare entrepreneurs about is their children and on this occasion, as soon as I did so, Phuong Dinh Thi started to cry.  She explained how, her disabled daughter had died only last May.  

She had spent months prior to her daughter's death at home caring for her daughter and had to spend all their meagre savings on medical treatment.  As a mother who has also lost a child it was very hard to listen to Phuong Dinh's story and not be visibly moved. 

Phuong Dinh has one other child and she said that the loan from Lendwithcare has helped her a lot since she was able to buy some pigs and chickens as well as 10 geese which will provide an income for her and her family.  In the future she would like to buy a motorbike as this would make her life a lot easier - it is very remote and she has to walk a long way with a very heavy load to take her rice to the mill and then the local market.  She would also be able to take her son to school which is a 6km walk away.

Between visits we stopped along the roadside many times to buy produce from local people; Min Thai said she always likes to buy from the local people. She is actually in the process of setting up a website to showcase products to others in Vietnam and help her clients find a market for their products.

At the end of a long day of meeting Lendwithcare entrepreneurs we returned on the three hour journey to Hanoi and spent the night in Hanoi.

Day 6:

The next day we visited Hogan Lovells in their Hanoi office to give a presentation about Lendwithcare and have a meeting with Hogan Lovells and the MACDI staff. 

Min Thai took the opportunity to set up the sale of a pig from one of her borrowers to a Hogan Lovells staff member. As the new year (Tet) holiday is approaching it is common for people to buy lots of food for the celebration.

Later that day I flew from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh city to stay the night at a colleague's house. Tim Bishop works for CARE International UK but is based in Vietnam as a Regional Private Sector Engagement Specialist, he has been working for many years on promoting the role of business and markets in development and has a fantastic blog, which I highly recommend.   

Tomorrow the cycling starts ... and I have to say, I'm not quite sure I'm ready for this ... I'll keep you posted!

By Tracey Horner

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