Pitch in and help out in Hanoi

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - JUDYTH GRE­GORY- SMITH

I ASK if girls live at the or­phan­age and I am as­sured they do. ‘‘Well,’’ I say, ‘‘a foot­ball pitch do­nated by the Vic­to­ria Po­lice Soc­cer Club is a splen­did gift. But what about the girls?’’ The re­ply is de­fin­i­tive. ‘‘Girls also play foot­ball th­ese days.’’

I am at the open­ing cer­e­mony of a soc­cer pitch at Birla Chil­dren’s Vil­lage in Hanoi, Viet­nam, home to 78 boys and 62 girls. Not all the chil­dren have lost both par­ents, but if one par­ent dies, the other may not be able to take care of the child. Some young­sters have dis­abil­i­ties, which makes it more dif­fi­cult.

The vil­lage com­prises four houses, each ac­com­mo­dat­ing about 40 chil­dren. The res­i­dences func­tion like any home, al­beit with large fam­i­lies and mul­ti­ple moth­ers.

The chil­dren range in age from three to 18 years and they are not schooled in the vil­lage, as the or­phan­age di­rec­tor points out to me, be­cause they need to be­come in­volved in the wider com­mu­nity. One of the se­nior girls, 18-year-old Dam Thi Ngoc, has come back to­day for the in­au­gu­ra­tion of the pitch. Her ex­cit­ing news is that hav­ing fin­ished her pri­mary and sec­ondary school­ing in Hanoi, she will soon en­ter col­lege to train as a doc­tor.

Most of the vil­lage’s grounds are made of con­crete. A con­crete foot­ball pitch? Imag­ine the in­juries. But within 15 min­utes of play­ing foot­ball on grass dur­ing the mon­soon in Viet­nam, the play­ers end up floun­der­ing in mud. That’s where the Astro­turf alternative comes in, but of course it is ex­pen­sive.

The Viet­namese government pro­vides salaries of about $120 a month for mem­bers of staff at the vil­lage and an al­lowance of $40 for each child, $35 of which cov­ers food. That leaves lit­tle for clothes, med­i­cal ex­penses and such­like. It cer­tainly doesn’t cover Astro­turf.

Ex­cite­ment rises as we walk to­wards the foot­ball pitch where the Aus­tralian am­bas­sador to Viet­nam cuts one rib­bon and the gen­eral man­ager of the Hil­ton Hanoi Opera Ho­tel, which has contributed much of the Astro­turf, cuts an­other. The am­bas­sador re­minds the chil­dren that be­ing an or­phan doesn’t mean you can’t rise to the top in life.

It’s true the girls do use (and love) the Astro­turf, though not nec­es­sar­ily for foot­ball. As soon as the cel­e­bra­tory rib­bons are cut, they run on to the field for a spec­tac­u­lar dis­play of dance gymnastics.

Aus­tralian po­lice sports teams pass­ing through Hanoi have given a lot of equip­ment and clothes to the or­phans.

If you should be vis­it­ing the Viet­namese cap­i­tal and are will­ing to carry sur­plus books and toys with you, leave them at the Aus­tralian em­bassy, whose staff would be very happy to pass on your gifts. Judyth Gre­gory-Smith’s new book is Myan­mar: A Mem­oir of Loss and Re­cov­ery; fish­pond.com.au.

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