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Tieng Viet
tonle sap lake green 3

The cool air from the air-conditioner woke me up after a long, sound sleep. After an 8-day-long trip to Cambodia, I felt tired due to intensive traveling and the influence of the storms on Tonle Sap when I visited our Vietnamese compatriots there. I have spent the night sleeping on the benches in Thailand’s airport while waiting for the connecting flight to India. It is now 4 a.m., I am happily wrapping myself in the scarf and writing a report about our beloved Vietnamese community living on Tonle Sap.

What I thought before visiting Tonle Sap was totally different from reality. I was told that in tourism areas, most Vietnamese women worked as prostitutes, and kids earned a living as beggars. These made me think that life of our compatriots here was an impasse. However, my trip to Tonle Sap gave me a positive view, shedding light on main activities of our compatriots here. I think that if our Vietnamese community in Vietnam and overseas care enough, we still have opportunities to help them escape misery, so that they no longer live a life as unstable as it is now. I also know for sure that my understanding collected during my 10-day stay here is not enough, and that there are still many things I have to learn.

Representatives of Eyes of Compassions and Brighter Days (BD) joined the charity group of 150 people from Giac Nguyen Pagoda, organized by Venerable Minh Phu.

Our first stop was Chong Khnia commune, Siem Reap province. There were about 360 families here, totaling about 3.000 people. Here the charity group of Giac Nguyen Pagoda gave 350 gifts for Vietnamese people and 150 gifts for poor Khmer people.

The kids here like going to school and singing, and they are polite. While gifts were prepared, Venerable Minh Phu asked me to play with the kids. I instructed them to sing a song, which they liked a lot. How lovely to see them curving their lips, trying to sing the right musical notes. Some kids sang out loud with bright, smiling faces like little angels. Some were so nervous because they could not catch up with their friends, therefore they did not sing, but shouted instead to feel self-confident. Our little kids performed many songs with different pitches to our compatriots waiting to be given gifts. Some sang first and some followed, which sound like a professional singing band.

I talked to them to see how much they know about their Vietnam fatherland.
I asked a boy: “what’s the name of your bố (father)?”
The boy did not understand, looking at me at a loss.
A girl standing beside explained to him “Bố means ba (father). What’s your father’s name?”
“His name is Thien”
I asked another question: “What’s your father’s family name?”
Again, the little boy could not understand. I was then told that few kids here knew “family names”, only “given names”.
I asked the kids: “What’s your nationality, Khmer or Vietnamese?”
They answered together: “Ms, Vietnamese”.
“So tell me what you know about Vietnam”
It’s lovely to hear them reply “Ms, don’t know”.

It’s lovely, but it’s too pitiful, to hear them say Yes, I am a Vietnamese, and I don’t know anything about Vietnam. Why so? We should stop here and take a closer look into the matter. From this instance, we can see that besides building schools for them, there’s a need to teach the kids about the history, geography and culture of Vietnam.

When I was about to leave them, I asked a boy “If you are given a gift, what do you like most?” The boy said “Ms, rice”. Another kid added “Ms, kids’ picture books”.


Our next stop was Ponhea Krek Referral Hospital, where we were to implement eye surgery for 300 blind Vietnamese and Khmer. We asked to use the hospital of Ponhea Krek. A group of eye specialists came from Ho Chi Minh City, comprising three doctors and one nurse, led by doctor Nguyen Xuan Vu. The group brought with them 3 Phako-emulsification machines. They were joined by some local doctors and 3 interpreters, who worked continuously in three days to finish 300 eye surgery cases. All cases were done for free. The organizers only had to pay for the lenses for the eye patients, which was 600,000 VND (1USD = 17.000 VND) each. We asked an old woman who had been cured after 10 years in blindness: “Mrs, after the doctor took the bandage off your eyes, whom did you see?” She said “I saw the doctor, then I saw my husband. But he was too old, because it has been 10 years (since I last saw him). It took me a while to recognize him”.

After finishing some charity work and visiting tourist sites, Mr Pham Dang Hoe, Nguyen Kim Hoang and I left the group of Venerable Minh Phu to visit the Vietnamese communities on Tonle Sap. In this trip, we were guided by Ms Meach Sotheary, a Cambodian government officer working for the Orgranisation of HIV/AIDS Prevention Among Women Work Entertainment. Her organization is affiliated with the Cambodian Women Union for Peace and Development.

Thanks to Ms Sotheary, I have come to know more about lives of the Vietnamese nationals, especially those of the Vietnamese prostitutes in Cambodia. Vietnamese women, like Khmer women, used to work publicly as prostitutes in areas frequently visited by tourists and travelers. However, in the recent 2-3 years, the local authority has strongly arrested and dissolved many brothels. At present, a few are still working secretly in houses without public advertisement signs as before.

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Chup chung lam ky niem voi cac em
Canh ngheo ben duong
Trong phong mo web
Co Meach Sotheary web

Ms. Meach Sotheary and Dieu Lien

Ms Sotheary said that those Vietnamese women were considered by the Cambodian Women Union to be at higher intellectual level and better awareness than those of Cambodian women. When arrested by the police, Vietnamese prostitutes would be charged with two serious crimes: illegal immigration, and illegal work. Cambodian prostitutes must give the police 10 USD as bribe, but Vietnamese ones must bribe the police from 20 to 30 USD. Many women, upon being arrested, told that because their families were too poor, and that they needed money before changing their job, therefore they must earn a living through this work. Many wished to earn enough money to return to Vietnam after they had been deceived to work in brothels. After being arrested, they are brought to the Organisation of HIV/AIDS Prevention Among Women Work Entertainment Service for help. Most of them would join the vocational training program here, and were willing to undergo the HIV/AIDS testing or treatment programs, because they are well aware that they are living against the law in a foreign country.

Ms Sotheary is deeply fond of the Vietnamese people. When she learnt that we wished to visit and find ways to help Vietnamese communities in Tonle Sap, she volunteered to join us and shared her understanding and efforts in preventing AIDS/HIV in the “service” women. Her strong love for Vietnam came from her gratitude to a Vietnamese person, with whom she has lost contact over the past 30 years. She said that during the war, her parents and older brothers and sisters were arrested and kept separately, and afterwards they were all killed. She and her five younger brothers and sisters were kept in another camp. About 40-50 people here were given 2 cups of rice every day. They were extremely hungry. Only in three days of calendar traditional festival could they have some pieces of meat. After the war, the then 21-year-old Sotheary and her five brothers and sisters returned to their native village of Bung Ro. She worked on the cooperative land, assisting others, because she herself had never done any farming. When rice was distributed to workers, she was also given some for her brothers and sisters. Later, land was given to each family. But she could not work on her own to make rice, therefore, she returned the land and came to ask for a job near the occupation area of Vietnamese soldiers. Since she had had some schooling, she was given a job, and was able to bring rice home every day. Seeing that she was competent, her office recommended her to attend a special training course in the capital. But she intended not to go for the course because her small brothers and sisters would be left uncared. Then, a Vietnamese soldier named Ho Chu, from Ha Noi, aged about 40, encouraged her to attend the course, and he promised to take care of the kids. She therefore left her brothers and sisters home for the capital. Thanks to her competence, after the training course, she was selected to work there. When given the new job, she contacted home, asked Mr. Ho Chu to bring her brothers and sisters to the capital and send them to an orphanage. After some time, when she had settled down, she came to her village to meet and thank Mr. Ho Chu, but his troop had left. In her heart, the image of Mr. Ho Chu and his compassion for her family in hard time has developed into her own compassion for Vietnamese people. Her unpaid gratitude to Mr Ho Chu has led her to give utmost care and support to the Vietnamese people living illegally in Cambodia. That’s why she volunteered to guide me in the trip to Tonle Sap to learn more about the life of our compatriots here.

Ms Sotheary and the district chairman took us to the first destination in Kompong Luong, Pursta Province. This place is home to 2.355 Vietnamese people, in 489 families. The head of the commune invited Mr. Kieu Van Danh, former chair of the Vietnamese Association, Mr. Nguyen Viet Dat, a teacher, and Mr. Hon, village head. We were told that some journalists in Vietnam had traveled here to collect information, and Eyes of Compassion was the first overseas charity organization coming here.

The local authority and the representatives of the Vietnamese community have very good relationship. The Vietnamese people here, leaving their motherland to earn a livelihood, maintain very good neighborliness and bear deep gratitude to the Cambodian. This was shown in their views to share their benefits with the Cambodian people when we discussed with the representatives of both sides on some small programs. At the end of the meeting, we decided to give 230 packets of rice to poor Vietnamese people, and 120 packets for poor Cambodian people.

Here, we also donated the communal authority one engine boat as a means of transport for teachers from the district center to the village, and for some pupils who do not have any means to go to school. Here teachers have to pay 20 riel every day out of their low salary for the boat trip to the village, therefore many teachers stopped teaching here. Besides the difficulties of the teachers, pupils themselves have difficulties too – some families are busy with fishing, so nobody takes them to school. They usually have to wait for a passing boat to ask for a hitch-hike. Their schooling therefore has been much hindered.

While the local people were preparing to distribute the gifts, we said goodbye to Ms Sotheary. We then decided to hire a big boat with strong engine to navigate through strong winds and rain in the storm season around the lake, to visit different Vietnamese communities here. The boat carried 7 people, namely Mr. Kieu Van Danh, Mr. Nguyen Viet Dat; the two boatmen Hai and Day; Mr Hoang, Mr Hoe and me. We chose to visit big communities, but then we were told that between big communities, there were small ones, of around 10 to 30 families. They were located farther in the flooded young forest to shelter from storms. There were communities where, when we stopped by, the people eyed us with curiosity, because they had not been visited by anyone during the past 2-3 years.

Anybody who wants to live forever, please migrate here to live with our compatriots in Tonle Sap, because there’s a saying here as “the poor does not have the right to die”. One must laugh when he/she first hears the sentence, but when the whole story reveals, one’s heart feels so bad.

When a person passes away, it costs 50 USD for the coffin, 75 USD for hiring the funeral boat, to which relatives of the passed-away will ride their boats and organize the funeral, and 100 USD for a burying land lot. Poor families can afford burying land lot only for their grand parents and parents, not for their offsprings, who are wrapped and left in bushes around the lake. Some families, being too poor to buy burying land lot, even had to tie the coffin with the corpse inside on a tree, until they had enough money to buy the land lot. Sometimes the coffin was tied up on the tree for several months in the rain and sun. There is a real story here about an old man, who always rushes to any family where one of its members has just died. While their relatives are mourning, he asks “Why die when not having money? Have you had any money yet?” If the family does not have money, he immediately calls for contributions from neighbors in the community, so as to help the family with the funeral. His frequently-asked question sounds ridiculous, but the villagers treasure very much his kind-heartedness that has helped many poor families over many years now.

Many families here are those who used to live in “new economic areas” in Vietnam, following others and coming over here to earn a livelihood. They thought that they would only go for a while to earn money, and later they would return to the homeland. But reality turned out not as expected; because years after years, what they earned was barely enough for their daily life; and thus their dream to return home has become almost hopeless. Some families who have buried their grand parents and parents here do not want to leave, in fear of leaving their ancestral graves uncared. What respectful behavior! Though they are poor, their filial piety can be a lesson for many others. In such situation, we have decided to buy an area to be a cemetery, and buy a floating house to be a funeral house for the poor who cannot afford funeral costs.


SASON village

Xin cam on nguoi web
Cac em ben nhung bao gao sap duoc phat
Con cam on cac Co, Chu web
Dem lai qua
Diem vui cua moi nguoi web
Em be nguoi Khmer nhan gao ve web

Leaving Kompong Luong, we stopped by Sa son village. The village has one class, taught by Ms Chau Thi Kim Loan. Ms Loan was born in 1954. She left My Tho city for Tonle Sap and has lived here for 20 years now. She lived on the same dilapidated “class room” that cannot shelter the teacher and pupils from rain in these stormy days. The planks around the studying area, on which pupils may stand and play after classes, are rotten; anyone may break it if standing there, and fall into the water. The tole boards right above the studying area have been blown away, and the wooden boards as wall have been rotten by the rain. In rainy season, pupils do not have any place to sit and study at daytime, and the teacher does not have any place to sleep at night time. We kept recalling with sadness the image of teacher Loan saying this in tears: “in stormy nights, the winds are terrible; the sounds of rattling tole boards are thrilling. If I sit in the front, the rain would blow in from outside, if I sit in the middle, I am still wet over because of the roof leakage. In such nights, I sit here, alone, and cry in fear. It is dark all around. Other boats are far away, if anything happens to me, nobody will ever know. My house does not have electricity; and the oil lamp cannot survive stormy winds; fortunately I still have two dogs that closely follow me. Without them, I must fear to death”. While talking to us, Ms Loan tore a loaf of bread that I had just given to the two lovely dogs as a reward. The two dogs are very nice, when they see food and want to ask for it, they put their two front legs together and kowtow.

REN TIN Village (Rach Dung)
Late in the afternoon, we left Sa Son village for Rach Dung, where we intended to sleep at night. A storm began, the rain wetted all over. All 7 people of us moved to one side of the boat to avoid the wind and the rain. Tonle Sap became more dangerous. In dry season, the water level is 2 meters, but in rainy season like this, it is 17 meters. The dark water reminded me of the thrilling days when we almost lost our lives on the sea fleeing from the country.
Because the boat ran against the wind, only until dark could we stop at the third place. Teach Dat guided the boat to come near that of teacher Tu Lun to ask for a dinner here. The look of Teacher Tư’s boat was frightening. It was rotten, and water has begun to leak in, therefore he wrapped it by nilon sheets, otherwise the boat would have sunken. Its roof was low and tattered. In the boat, people could only move by creeping and sliding, so their legs consequently weakened and shrunk, while their arms and shoulders became bigger instead.

Teacher Tu Lun is 60 years old. He teaches 40-50 pupils a day, from early morning till midnight. Each pupil gives him 300 riel. His class does not have any chair or desk or blackboard. Both teacher and pupils sit on their two feet, teacher writes on the floor boards. He has to instruct each of the pupils, moving with difficultly. Therefore, there are only 50-60 pupils starting to learn early in the morning, but he hardly finishes teaching by midnight.

Night fog thickened. Everybody sat together and told stories over many years being away from home. Laughters and voices gradually faded away in the darkness. I was the only female in the group, and I did not join the drinking. I lay silently at the front deck of the boat, looking up to the sky. Faint lights were shed from the small boats of other villagers. Everything sank into a sad and lonely scene. My heart also sank down, my eyes are looking around for Kuan Yin in the dark sky. I silently recited the Mahakaruna Mantra, praying for successes of the trip, so as to bring many benefits to our beloved compatriots living in exile in Tonle Sap. Early in the next morning, when everybody was still in sound sleep, I got up and prostrated, continued to recite the Mahakaruna Mantra. The sea of sufferings of human beings are so immense, I prayed that the ambrosia would be spread widely to ease the sufferings of the miserable.

Leaving Rach Dung, we headed for Rach Tro hamlet which had 62 families, and then to Prêt Karo hamlet, or Rach Nghèo (Poverty) in Vietnamese. The hamlet got such name because the villagers here were so poor for many generations now. However poor they were, their kindness was deep. We stopped to ask for lunch in a family of one of Hai’s acquaintances. The man here was very hospitable and kind-hearted. Our group asked for snake meat and steamed fish. The men were very nice. They served me steamed fish and cucumber separately, while they drank a little alcohol with the steamed snakes.


Leaving Ba To, we continued to visit Kha Len, MacLa, DamBan and finally returned to KomPong Luong before it became dark. Back to the point of departure, I dropped in and spent the night in Kim Long Pagoda, headed by Nun Thich Nu Thanh Nguyet. We spent many hours that night to discuss Buddhist work and charity work. I learnt that Kim Long Pagoda sometimes had a little money to give to the poor. The nun distributes the gifts to the villages along Tonle Sap, one by one.

Though our compatriots in Tonle Sap are really poor, facing numerous difficulties and shortages in their daily life, their biggest strength is that they are not lazy. They work day and night to support their family. Life is not comfortable here, but they are not hungry, because fish is always available for food and for exchanging rice. Most of the people we met have good sense of responsibility toward their family and community. Being well aware that they inhabit on the land of another nation, they behave well and have good sense of self-respect, respect the seniors and care for the juniors. Our compatriots live in a great family of Vietnamese to protect others and to be protected. Kids aged from 15 t0 25 look nice, good-mannered and polite; they also help with family chores and obey their parents. The culture they absorb is not only that of their own family, but also that of the Vietnamese culture nurtured in the community. I am happy to see the high dignity of most of our Vietnamese compatriots living in exile in Tonle Sap.

Bodhigaya – India, 2008
Ton Nu Dieu Lien

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