Total chaos can be beautiful. Horns honk at me from left to right and the vibrations jump from one ear to the other. A river of motorbikes (xe oms) race past my taxi window. There appears to be no traffic lights, no speed limits and few rules. I stop to listen and start to see life—life as it is lived in Hanoi, Vietnam.
Having spent some time in Hanoi as an undergraduate, the bustling sounds of the Old Quarter are familiar and comforting. The streets lined with booming businesses of every sort are images that come to mind when I think about microfinance and entrepreneurship in Vietnam.'
As I left Hanoi for Thanh Hoa, where I will be based as a fellow during the next three months, I wondered what entrepreneurship would look like in Vietnam’s second poorest province. During the foggy morning as my train rushed by brilliant shades of green across Vietnam’s lush rice paddies, I could not help but be captivated by the tranquil countryside. It’s raining as I leave the train station and my first sight of Thanh Hoa is a gray, damp and serene scene.'
I did not know how quickly that initial portrait I painted of microfinance in Vietnam would change. The day before the start of my fellowship, I learned that some family members who I had never met before live in the Sao Vang district, a 1.5 hour bus ride from Thanh Hoa City where I am located. When I got to their house, I was greeted by a family of cows in the front yard. Later in the day, my aunt told me she took out a loan of 8 million VND ($450 USD) to help buy the mother cow. “A loan for the poor,” she said. I asked for details. She went on to describe how she sells vegetables at the market daily, making $1.90 USD on a good day. Due to her husband’s illness, he is unable to work regularly. She explained that the cows are easy for him to maintain, as all he has to do is cut grass for them to eat. Each year, the mother cow can give birth to one calf, resulting in a profit of approximately $150 USD per year.
When I began this fellowship, I was not aware of how close to home the impact of microfinance would be felt. My aunt is a borrower of a government microfinance loan. She does not consider herself an entrepreneur and has no intentions of opening a business. Simply put – she took the loan out of necessity. The additional income from the sale of cattle has allowed her to maintain a more stable family life and put food on the table during those times when her sales at the market are low. Thus, my image of microfinance and entrepreneurship in Vietnam as being merely busy city shops has been wiped away. I am so looking forward to filling in the colors of this new picture as I meet women borrowers from the Fund for Thanh Hoa Poor Women.
I consider it a matter of chance that I was born in the U.S. and given all the opportunity in the world. What an honor it is to have this opportunity to serve as a Kiva Fellow in Vietnam!