The children of Vietnam

Vietnam is a country with a young population. More than 25 million children live there, and while for some life is good, for many more in rural areas, life is a daily struggle. Poverty affects more than half the children of the Mekong River Delta, and in the mountainous northern regions, that figure is as high as 78 per cent.

I visited the South East Asian nation in 2007, just before it was about to change dramatically as a result of a string of new resorts along its coastline. In Nha Trang, which is referred as Vietnam’s own “Mediterranean”, huge hotels have since been built along what were once beautiful beaches with a rough natural edge. It’s not ideal in terms of the aesthetics of the region, but from an economic point of view, it has no doubt helped a lot of locals find work and better conditions in which to live.

While things were very different when I was there, it was heartening to see many happy kids on the streets in all the regions I visited from Hanoi in the north down to Ho Chi Minh City in the south. But I was also conscious, and remain so, that their happiness is often fleeting at best. In the city of Hue, about halfway down Vietnam’s coastline and the scene of one of the most violent battles of the Vietnam War, I found many children living with their families in makeshift homes on the river, crafted from scrap materials which are fashioned into walls and a roof on narrow, unstable finger boats.

The children in these communities were naturally excited to see my foreign face. But today, almost 10 years on, life will likely have become more challenging, and many may now be approaching adulthood with little or no education to help them pursue careers and build a meaningful life. The average Vietnamese girl stays in school only until she is 11 and life expectancy for the poorest communities is not good. Of every 1000 children born in Vietnam, 23 will die before their 5th birthday. Diseases like HIV affect many thousands of children. Malnutrition, poor sanitation and other issues mean poor children are twice as likely to die than those from more privileged backgrounds. In 2006, just a year before I visited, UNICEF estimated one third of all Vietnamese under the age of 16 – or 7 million children – could be classed as living in poverty.

There are many ways to offer assistance to these poor communities. Most high profile charities have programmes in Vietnam, such as Save The Children, World Vision and UNICEF, helping to educate kids, keep them healthy and provide them a brighter future.

Another smaller project that caught my attention recently is hoping to help the river kids living around Ho Chi Minh City. For more information, you can email and enquire about assisting their upcoming social project. And check out this great video of their experiences so far with the children, who are adorable, but live in need constantly.