Seduced by Good Intentions

Note: a version of this article appeared in Verge Magazine’s Spring 2015 issue.  


At 23, I moved to Mumbai. Though I knew nothing about India, I was as excited as I was self-assured.

I had spent the prior year in Washington, D.C., working with an organization that supports social entrepreneurs globally. When our India team needed staff, I pounced on the opportunity—I’d long wanted to spread the gospel of social entrepreneurship in the developing world. To do that in poverty-stricken India would be an adventure steeped in meaning. Armed with the conviction to change a place in desperate need, I dove in headlong.

As a white American man, I immediately found myself on a pedestal. I met CEOs, politicians and celebrities, and with the special treatment came a sense of entitlement. (I cringe to remember my outrage at being rejected admission to a nightclub for wearing sandals.) All the while, I was praised for the work I was doing. People back home would ask me to describe India; I’d tell them it was humbling.

After four years in Mumbai, I considered myself an old India hand. I’d hold court about everything from poverty to politics. Despite the fact that I spoke none of the local languages and that I’d return to the States every monsoon season to wait out the rains, I felt like a local.

Despite the fact that I spoke none of the local languages and that I’d return to the States every monsoon season to wait out the rains, I felt like a local.

But halfway through my overseas experience, I got into an argument with a local friend. He charged that Western aid did more harm than good; that by working for a U.S.-based organization, I was part of the problem.

His words stung. I loved Mumbai and I was part of the solution. Wasn’t I?

I began exploring criticism of international development and what I read shook me to the core. In the West, we’re taught that good intentions justify social action. But without humility, empathy and the prioritization of local needs over our own, our efforts abroad can do more harm than good.

If you’re working or volunteering overseas, you probably have no intention of exploiting your adopted home. It’s critical, therefore, that you keep your footprint in perspective. Here’s how:

Understand your values

Had you asked 23-year-old me if I was in India to promote a Western agenda, I would have scoffed. After all, I was working to empower local social entrepreneurs. But the truth is that I was imparting a Western agenda. I had convinced myself that I was neutral, which is simply impossible for an outsider.

We all adhere to a set of values and morals. None are absolute or universal; they’re shaped by your beliefs and experience. It’s critical to understand the fundamental differences between your worldview and that of your hosts.

Take time to analyze your beliefs and values in depth. Where do they come from? Why do they mean so much to you? When you’re aware of the various agendas you promote (your own, your organization’s, your culture’s), your efforts abroad will be more honest and transparent.

Seek out local voices

Nobody understands a culture better than the people who live it. Unfortunately, in the world of international development, local voices are often not loud enough to be heard. They’re drowned out by outsiders speaking for them.

Where, then, can you find unfiltered access to local voices? Books, blogs, and social media. Local and diaspora newspapers and magazines. Films made by (not just about) people in the region. That said, don’t automatically dismiss anything written by an outsider. Just be sure to prioritize local voices over all others.

Withhold judgment

When you’re walking Mumbai’s streets for the first time, the experience can be shocking. People begging, many in need of medical attention, flock to you. Hot air from the sewers and garbage fires fills your nostrils, while the din of traffic pounds your eardrums.

The sensory overload instantly transforms many first-time visitors into public policy experts.

Street kids should be in school so they don’t have to beg. The government should build more toilets so people aren’t squatting in the streets. Nobody should burn garbage. Why hasn’t anyone fixed this mess already?

What you’re seeing, however, is only the surface. The roots of these issues are deeper and more complex than you can imagine. And if it only takes you a minute to think of a “solution,” you can bet that it’s already been attempted, especially in India, where there are an estimated 3.3 million NGOs.

Beware the saviour complex

Tell people who’ve never been to India that you do charity work in the slums of Mumbai. They’ll call you a saint. You could be teaching kids to manufacture cigarettes; still, you’re doing noble work in the eyes of the public.

Honesty is vital. Why are you going to live in a poor country? If your answer is, “because they need me to help build a well/school/clinic,” then stay home. There are plenty of qualified locals who need the job more than you do.

Your answer may be that you’re going for your own personal development; to tackle new challenges and step outside your comfort zone. While these reasons are selfish, they’re valid. The key is, then, to go where you’re actually needed. Find an overseas posting that demands your particular set of skills.

RECOGNIZE your privilege

While I lived in India, I was aware that being a white American guaranteed me special treatment. My skin colour allowed me to stroll into posh clubs and through crowded slums without a second thought.

When you float above the rules, it’s hard not to feel entitled. Step down from the pedestal and remind yourself that you did nothing to deserve special treatment. It stems from the novelty of your otherness, which you inherited through the accident of birth.

Otherness also distorts relationships. When you view locals as the Other, you reduce them to stereotypes, strip them of their individuality, and create an unequal dynamic. While there’s nothing you can do to escape your power and privilege, ignoring it would be disingenuous. Be aware of how it shapes the way you see others and how others see you.

I went to India to change the world and to change myself. To a small degree, I accomplished the latter. Though I did do some good work there, it was naïve and arrogant to presume that I would create change in such a complex society.

We throw around the phrase “changing the world” as if it’s as simple as flipping a switch. But social change is a slow, grinding process. It must happen on the terms of the people who are directly affected—not those of us who’ll pick up and leave after a year or two.

Approach your experience abroad with honesty and humility. Living overseas can open your eyes, so take off your blinders and make it worthwhile.

Now You’re Cooking With Pig Feces: Notes from the Field


The pig was the size of a small hippopotamus. She shared the shed with about 15 others, though they all seemed miniature in comparison. The big sow had an enclosure all to herself; her squealing piglets occupied an adjacent pen.

I lingered in the shed, both to marvel at the giant pig and to take refuge from the blazing sun, but only for a minute. My host, a local farmer, was explaining how to run a home fueled by pig dung, and she was on the move.

Several years ago, the farmer received a $10 (VND 200,000) subsidy for installing a household biogas system from Thiện Chí, a Vietnamese NGO that helps people lift themselves out of extreme rural poverty. Today, the Thiện Chí team was chaperoning me around the remote district of Đức Linh, introducing me to beneficiaries of various agricultural development programs.

Nguyen, my guide for the day, translated as the farmer walked me through the biogas generation process. The pig dung is pushed into a trench just outside the shed and into an underground “digester tank,” where fermentation yields two byproducts. The first is bio-slurry, a natural fertilizer. The second is biogas.

The biogas is captured and piped into the household via a system of tubes and plastic bags. In the kitchen, a metal pipe connects the supply line to the stovetop. Cooking with biogas is no different than cooking with a fuel tank, except that biogas is free and renewable.

Biogas collection line

Biogas collection line

Biogas not only reduces the need to chop down trees for fuel, it also burns cleaner than wood and coal. The average household needs only two sows to fulfill its daily fuel requirement. With all of her pigs, my host always has a surplus of gas, so she fuels her neighbors’ homes for free.

Household biogas system

Biogas is pumped into the kitchen via the bags overhead

I was impressed. A few years ago, this family chose to invest in the biogas tank, which cost more than a hundred dollars. This was a substantial outlay for a household with almost no disposable income.

After five months in Ho Chi Minh City, I had bought into the popular belief that the Vietnamese think only of the immediate future. And yet here was an uneducated farmer making a long-term investment in her family’s financial stability.

I had just learned that pig feces are fueling the energy revolution, and now my cultural biases were being upended. It wasn’t even 9 AM.

The rest of the day was equally enlightening. Here are some of the lessons around aid, poverty, and empowerment that emerged as we traveled the district, visiting beneficiaries:

Patience, Not Punishment

There’s a lot of pressure on NGOs to act more like businesses. And while nobody can argue the benefits of increased accountability and efficiency, a hardcore private sector mentality doesn’t always translate to good aid.

A borrower and her father-in-law

A borrower and her father-in-law

Many of the farmers I met receive microloans from Thiện Chí. The program is designed to help families steadily increase their income over time. Microloans are interest-free for the first three years, after which Thiện Chí charges 0.5 percent. Once they’ve boosted their annual earnings by $30 (VND 600,000), a recipient family graduates from the program and stops receiving loans.

I asked my guide what happens when a recipient defaults on a payment. “Nothing. Everybody always pays back.” Everyone? Always? How is that possible?

It turns out that Thiện Chí is a very lenient lender. In an ideal world, a borrower would pay back his loan in full on the day it was due. However, that doesn’t always happen – which isn’t surprising, considering most beneficiaries earn less than $.60 a day. But if Thiện Chí were to kick people out of the program for late payments, would-be recipients would go to the loan sharks.

Thiện Chí is an NGO, not a private bank. Getting paid on time is less important than breaking the cycle of generational debt. When someone can’t pay back a loan, Thiện Chí works with the beneficiary to create a customized repayment schedule.

If you’re concerned that lenient credit fosters dependency instead of self-reliance, consider that, every month, around 30 Thiện Chí beneficiaries “graduate” out of extreme poverty.

I met one farmer who was on the verge of graduating from the microcredit program. I asked how it felt to know that she wouldn’t be receiving loans anymore. “Good,” she said. “It gets me closer to my dream of being debt-free.”

Treat beneficiaries as force multipliers

One of the farms I visited was swarming with baby chicks. The farmer had split the cost of an egg incubator with Thiện Chí, and his livestock supply had skyrocketed.

The subsidy was contingent upon an agreement. Thiện Chí would put up half of the money for the incubator only if the farmer agreed to sell his chicks to other poor families at a discount.

Much like the farmer who supplies her neighbors with free biogas, Thiện Chí considers the owner of the incubator to be both a beneficiary and an ally.

The term “pay it forward” doesn’t quite convey the strategic benefit of this decentralized approach. When more people in poverty have better access to basic resources, there are fewer barriers to financial stability in the region. This boosts the likelihood of success of Thiện Chí’s other interventions.

Calling on beneficiaries to play an active role in the solution doesn’t just expand programmatic impact; it blurs the line between providers and recipients of aid. By leveraging beneficiaries as agents of change,  Thiện Chí makes good on its promise to “support, rather than merely provide.”

Leverage existing institutional networks

The Vietnam Women’s Union has 13 million members. As a mass organization underneath the umbrella of the Communist Party, the Union has advocated for women’s rights on both the community and national levels since 1930.

You can find a chapter of the Women’s Union in just about any village of Viet Nam, no matter how remote. Same for the Farmer’s, Student’s, and Veteran’s Unions – together, these quasi-governmental organizations connect the entire country.

For many social entrepreneurs, there’s a temptation to do everything from scratch. If the system is broken, we must circumvent it to move forward. We need new solutions, new approaches, and new ways of thinking to achieve systemic change.

Thiện Chí harbors no such fetishes about novelty — a network of 13 million is too powerful a resource to neglect. By establishing a partnership with the Women’s Union, Thiện Chí has achieved scale that would otherwise be impossible. Social workers from the Union are a constant presence in beneficiary villages, guiding families through Thiện Chí’s various assistance programs. The partnership enables both organizations to better fulfill their missions.

It’s evidence of advice I’ve heard before, usually from seasoned social entrepreneurs operating at massive scale (such as Ratnaboli Ray of Anjali). Sometimes, the best way to change the system is to partner with it.

The need for diverse models and integrated programs

I arrived at Thiện Chí through Bernard Kervyn, founder of Mekong Plus, a development organization that runs two social enterprises: Mekong Quilts and Mekong Creations.

Mekong Quilts enables local women to set up quilting groups across Viet Nam and Cambodia. Each group produces handmade crafts, which Mekong Quilts buys and then resells in its upscale retail outlets.

Thanks to a partnership with Mekong Quilts, Thiện Chí beneficiaries are able to start quilting groups of their own. According to the organization, these groups have created employment for 170 women in the province.

Quilters in Duc Linh

Quilters in Duc Linh

This social enterprise model seems to be working well; as long as there’s sufficient customer demand, the group I met pulls in an extra $150 (VND 3 million) a month. So why don’t Mekong Plus and Thiện Chí drop all other programs and focus exclusively on job creation?

Unfortunately, basic employment alone is not enough to end extreme poverty. The issue is too complex to tackle from just one angle.

An example: I met one family who, for the past eight years, has lived without a door on their home. The parents work in farming and construction; they receive microloans for purchasing fertilizer. But much of what they earn goes toward care for their child with mental illness. So in spite of all their hard work, the family hasn’t been able to save enough to purchase a door.

A lack of income is both a symptom and root cause of extreme poverty. Even if the doorless family’s income shot up, it wouldn’t necessarily guarantee financial stability. Too many other factors threaten their ability to save money — the cost of supporting a mentally ill child, a lack of access to banking services, and a lack of educational opportunity, for starters.

So together, Mekong Plus and Thiện Chí take a holistic, integrated approach to addressing the many challenges that poverty presents. In addition to creating jobs, the organizations provide financial services, agricultural assistance, healthcare programs, and education. They also split the cost of developing basic infrastructure with local communities.

The diversity of these programs reflects the complex nature of poverty. Progress demands solutions that are fluid, responsive, and driven by the needs of the beneficiaries.

I’m grateful to the Thiện Chí team – especially to my translator, Nguyen – for the opportunity to see the impact of their programs firsthand. Thank you to all the beneficiary families who brought me into their homes. And thank you Bernard Kervyn and Mekong Plus for the connection.


Bombs and Gongs Illustrated

I’m honored to be published in Issue 7 of Artisan Magazine. The article, Refashioning the Instruments of War, is based on “Bombs and Gongs,” a post I wrote after visiting a traditional metalsmith outside of Hoi An. Tuan crafts gongs using the same methods his family has employed for the past 400 years, except his source metal is exploded American munitions.

I’m particularly thrilled because the good people of Artisan decided to illustrate the article, and the results are fantastic. I had no idea they were going to do this; when I opened the piece for the first time and saw how Ken Chung had turned my photography into a colorful animation, I was blown away.

Be sure to download the issue on the iPad to see the full animation. In the meantime, here are the illustrations:

Courtesy of Artisan Magazine, Issue 7

Courtesy of Artisan Magazine, Issue 7

And here are the original photos:


Thank you Artisan and Ken Chung!

What gives you the right?

We’re back in Ho Chi Minh City after a month on the road. Wherever we stopped, I interviewed at least one social entrepreneur, each of whom operates a restaurant or retail store that trains, employs, and supports a marginalized group of people.

The parallels between the various initiatives gave me the sense of a nascent movement. Though the network seems loose and informal, I’m interested in learning more about its current and potential impact throughout Vietnam.

In the meantime, though, the interviews illuminated a fundamental question that is rarely discussed in the social sector, one that Michele challenged me to consider when we first met:

What gives a social entrepreneur the right to change other people’s lives?

To many, the answer is obvious. Marginalized people need and deserve equal opportunities. Anyone who can responsibly level the playing field is justified in doing so.

This line of thought is the beating heart of the social sector. The presence of inequality is ample grounds for action.

Stress test this philosophy, however, and you’ll run into trouble. Marginalization, responsibility, a level playing field – these are ideas that change with perspective. Throw good intentions into the mix and the waters become even murkier.

To change someone’s life is a political act. When you shift the balance of power, the ripple effect will always yield unintended consequences. Knowing this, when is a social entrepreneur justified in taking action?

Who’s to say, really? The question is philosophical; the answer is a judgment call. You can’t quantify justification.

Still, it’s a judgment call worth considering. We shun social entrepreneurs who are motivated by money, fame, and glory. Though we can’t mathematically prove the inverse relationship between ego and impact, we’re all fairly confident that one exists.

So what constitutes a “pure” motivation? With no absolutes, we have only indicators. And one of the strongest indicators is a social entrepreneur’s personal connection to her cause. It’s hard to justify launching a social enterprise – even if the model is impeccable – in a community you’ve only visited once or twice.

Again, though, how do you judge depth of connection? It can’t be quantified either, so where’s the threshold? When are you “connected enough” to launch a social enterprise?

I don’t have concrete answers, but three interviews in particular stick out in my mind as relevant:

Le Nguyen Binh | Reaching Out | Hoi An

Mr Binh with staff. Image via Journey for Fair Trade.

Mr Binh runs Reaching Out (Hòa Nhập, or “integration,” in Vietnamese), a social business that trains and employs disabled people as artisans, retail workers, and restaurant servers. Most of the workers are physically disabled, though some are deaf and others have Down Syndrome or learning disabilities.

Reaching Out’s handicrafts are made with locally recycled source materials; all of the tea and coffee they serve is organic. Revenue goes towards funding living wage salaries, classes, social support, and health insurance for the workforce; it also pays for community programs that foster integration with mainstream society. Reaching Out vertically integrated its impact, as well; they work only with suppliers that employ people with disabilities.

I met Mr Binh at the Reaching Out Tea House. He graciously invited me to his home on Ang Bang Beach for the interview.

There is no questioning the depth of Mr Binh’s personal connection to the cause. A medical accident at the age of 15 left him with paraplegia. He knows the challenges that the Vietnamese disabled community faces – severe stigma, minimal opportunity, and emotional isolation – because he has lived through them. He is an insider in every sense of the word.

Mr Binh describes the period after his accident as a “horrible time. I could not find a way to live.” He persevered, though, and in 1997, Mr Binh founded Tien Bo, a self-help group and computer training center for people in wheelchairs.

For Tien Bo’s members, computer literacy opened a world of opportunity and independence. Motivated by this impact, Mr Binh and his wife, Quyen, launched Reaching Out in 2000. Throughout its evolution over the past fourteen years, the organization has trained and employed nearly 200 people with disabilities. Reaching Out is now one of Vietnam’s premier social businesses.

Mr Binh’s story not only gives him credibility in the eyes of customers, it changes the way his staff perceive themselves and the world. His achievements are remarkable: he runs two successful businesses (a retail shop and a café), both of which are celebrated by local and foreign media. As an advocate and activist, he has helped shape policy that will advance disabled rights throughout the country. He’s recognized as a pioneer of fair trade principles and social business in Vietnam, and he has traveled the world with his family.

This is an impressive list for any human being. The fact that Mr Binh has done it all in a wheelchair could shift society’s perception of the disabled.

Michio Koyama | Jass | Hue

Michio Koyama, third from left. Photo via his Picasa page.

Jass is a non-profit support system for Hue’s street kids. The organization offers housing, classes, vocational and life skills training, and medical care to children living in poverty. Through its Japanese Restaurant, Jass generates revenue while creating employment opportunities for a handful of beneficiaries.

We sat with the founder, Michio Koyama, at the restaurant, where he told us the story of his life and enterprise over noodles and draught beer.

During World War II, Japan occupied North Vietnam as part of an uneasy alliance with the Vichy French. The region was wracked by drought and Allied airstrikes throughout the early 1940’s. The Japanese occupation fed itself by seizing and hoarding Vietnamese rice. This devastated North Vietnam’s food supply, and it pushed the country into crisis. During the Great Famine of 1945, anywhere between 400,000 and 2 million Vietnamese starved to death.

Mr Koyama grew up in the aftermath of the war; he and his family lived in abject poverty. His father died, then his brothers, and Mr Koyama was forced to drop out of high school to provide for his family. With time, though, he was able to return to his education. He went on to become a teacher.

In the early 90’s, Mr Koyama came to Hue as a visiting professor. Vietnam’s boom years had not yet begun; Mr Koyama was shocked by the number of children living on the streets. They had nothing to eat, nowhere to stay, and no protection. With their basic human needs going unmet, their future was bleak.

Coming face-to-face with this stark reality intensified Mr Koyama’s existing feeling of national debt. His father’s generation had committed atrocities not just in Vietnam, but throughout Asia. The official Japanese denial of the past made it all harder to bear.

“We need to apologize, not just with our words, but with our actions, too,” Mr Koyama told us. In the late 90’s, he set out to secure housing for as many of Hue’s street kids as possible, and Jass was born.

Since then, Mr Koyama has developed a strong base of citizen support in Japan. Japanese people regularly donate money and supplies; some even come to Vietnam and teach Jass participants Japanese cooking skills. Honda provided tools and training so that Jass could start a motorcycle workshop, another source of revenue and livelihood.

In addition to its housing, education, and employment programs, Jass also pays medical costs for villagers who need life-saving surgery.

Kathleen Huff | Bread of Life | Da Nang

Kathleen Huff with Bread of Life staff. Image via Da Nang Today.

Bread of Life employs members of Da Nang’s deaf community as cooks and servers. The restaurant is a favorite among foreigners who miss good pizza and locals, for whom pizza is still exotic. I interviewed Kathleen while drinking an expertly made cappuccino.

Kathleen started Bread of Life with her husband Bob in 2005. The American couple originally came to Vietnam in 1998 with Christian relief organization World Concern; their mission was to provide vocational training for teenagers with disabilities. Through their work, the Huffs witnessed the crippling isolation that the deaf population faces here. Because nobody was teaching Vietnamese sign language, deaf children usually received no education and were completely unable to communicate.

Eventually, the Huffs began teaching sign language to deaf people and their families. Seven years ago, Kathleen had organized a class at a village school in the mountains. She had trained the teachers, all of whom were deaf, herself. Before they began, Kathleen asked the students – a group of deaf teenagers and their parents – what they’d like to learn.

The parents conferred amongst themselves before electing a spokesperson. His answer was simple. “After they come home from school, we want to be able to ask our children, ‘how was your day today?’”

Kathleen cried as she recounted this memory. Clearly, moments such as this one have strengthened her bond to the deaf community and her conviction to serve it. Part of that conviction also seems to stem from the Huffs’ religious beliefs (Bob is the pastor of the International Church of Da Nang). Though Bread of Life has no formal religious affiliation and the Huffs don’t proselytize, Kathleen explained that, for her, faith is something that “impacts every cell of your body.” It also influences the way they do business – not only do the Huffs refuse to pay bribes, they take no personal salary from the restaurant.

Bread of Life is now one of Da Nang’s most popular restaurants. Kathleen is still actively involved in day-to-day operations, but a second line of leadership has emerged organically from within the workforce. The employees “are the bosses now,” and they take it upon themselves to train new hires, control quality, and ensure that all aspects of the business run smoothly. Says Kathleen, “I don’t have to worry” about the food and service anymore, because “I know that everything is gonna come out perfect every time.”

What does it all mean?

The paths that led Mr Binh, Mr Koyama, and Kathleen to launch their respective social businesses are very different. Each, however, has created real impact. Does this mean that their actions were justified from the start?

No. The end does not justify the beginning. Anyone can say, “I plan on creating significant social impact in the future through this venture.” Where is the accountability?

I do believe, however, that all three of these people had the right to take action. Though Mr Binh’s personal connection to his beneficiaries may be exponentially deeper than Mr Koyama’s or Kathleen’s, all three are lifers, so to speak. They were just as unwavering in their dedication during their launch phases as they are today.

And this, as a social entrepreneur, may be the most important factor in determining whether your actions are justified. Are you ready to link your own life to the lives of your beneficiaries — not just for a year or two, but forever?

If this sounds dramatic, good. We may not know exactly where to set the bar, which means we need to set it high.

Bombs and Gongs

Tuan is a 42 year old Christian who operates a small metalworking factory in his front yard. He and his family craft gongs using the same methods that his ancestors have employed for the past 400 years. The only modern concessions are the electric fans that replace hand-pumped billows. That, and the fact that all of their gongs are made from liquified American bombs.

I had the pleasure of visiting Tuan’s workshop outside of Hoi An with my friend Khoa, a former software engineer turned free-wheeling artistic inventor. For the past few years, Tuan and Khoa have been collaborating to design and produce a series of multi-toned drums. Together, the metalsmith and mad scientist have created some beautiful, unique instruments.

A few years back, Khoa had tried to buy a hang drum in France; after being placed on a five-year waiting list, he resolved to simply make one himself. Searching for an expert, he rode his motorbike through Tuan’s village, which is renowned as a center of traditional metalworking. There, he followed the clanging and the smoke into Tuan’s workshop. A creative partnership was born. They built their first hang drum, and then started making “sky drums,” an invention of Khoa’s that plays like a convex steel drum.

When we walked in to the open-air workshop, my lungs immediately filled with smoke. Khoa introduced me to Tuan and his family; the first thing I noticed that, despite the smog of the place, everyone was smoking cigarettes. Tuan speaks no English but was genial and welcoming. He walked me through the various workshop stations, all of which were being utilized, as Khoa translated.

Today, there are only three families in the area that follow the traditional method of gong making. It’s a labor-intensive process; it requires a team of people with complementary skills to work together in complete harmony. In Tuan’s workshop, his wife is in charge of everything to do with fire (“she’s the shaman,” Khoa joked), Tuan’s son does the heavy lifting, and Tuan does the intricate tuning once the gong is cast. As I stepped around hot coals, huge molds, and a small dog chasing a kitten, I was amazed at how effortless the family made everything seem.

The process begins when Tuan’s wife fills a cylinder with charcoal and bits and pieces of exploded munitions. She then places hot coals on top. After a few minutes, she starts up a fan that feeds air into the cylinder through a long tube. Sparks fly as the fire grows. It takes about twenty minutes for the metal to liquify.

Scrap metal with coals

Melting the scrap

In the meantime, Tuan’s son arranges the mold, which looks like a solid captain’s wheel halved lengthwise. He binds it with bamboo, stacking stones between the rope and the wood to prevent them from slipping. There’s a small hole in the middle of the mold, which faces upward.

Setting the mold

Once the metal has melted, the team works together to pour it into the hole in the mold. Standing just a few feet away, it was like watching a stream of lava flow from a bucket. Some of the liquid spilled and instantly hardened on the side of the mold; one of the helpers chipped at it and it came off in one piece.

Collecting the liquid metal

Pouring into the mold

The liquid metal takes the form of the mold. Once they have the cast, they place it into an open oven and line it with hot bricks. This makes it pliable enough to tune, which Tuan does by hammering and straightening the metal. According to Khoa, tuning is maddeningly difficult and requires great skill.

After the work was over, I sat with Tuan. He demonstrated the resonance of a finished gong by striking it and counting to five. At exactly the fifth second, the pitch jumped a fifth. It was as if I could see the sound wave emerge from the vibrating metal.

Tuan with gong

We sat down and sipped tea. Tuan held a piece of metal that had once bolted a bomb together. I asked him what it was like to work with a material that may well have killed people.

Smiling, he told me that he felt good about transforming something destructive into a something that brings people together. His gongs are used by Buddhists and ethnic minorities for prayers, rituals, and celebrations. The metal that once brought pain now brings peace.

Was he angry at the Americans for what they did to his country?

Tuan grinned. His family has been working with metal for hundreds of years. Sourcing it had always been a challenge. By dropping more bombs on Vietnam than all the bombs used during World War II, the Americans had blanketed the country with cheap scrap metal. It’s a resource that won’t be exhausted any time soon.

With his hands held toward heaven, Tuan told me that the metal was “a gift from the sky.”

I realized then that this was no gimmick. Tuan is an artisan, not a peace activist. His only agenda is to craft the best instruments possible. If the source material comes from a bomb, so be it. The profound symbolism is a sweet bonus.

Khoa and Tuan sat and played one of their sky drums. I watched as they spoke excitedly about modifications to the design. “My next dream is to create a drum with a 23-note scale,” Khoa told me. It would require panels on the side and a mechanism for modulating the frequency. “I don’t know how we’ll do it.”

Tuan and Khoa

A few locals had wandered in. It seemed like the first time they had seen a sky drum. Khoa sat with one young man and taught him how to play it, first with mallets, then with his hands. “I don’t make any money selling my drums,” Khoa told me. “Sharing the music with others is my real salary.”

I learned later that Khoa had been exposed to Agent Orange as a child growing up in Saigon during the war. His mother had shipped him off to boarding school in Paris at age 10; eventually, he entered the world of computer science and worked all over the world creating security systems. “When I got to the top of the ladder, I thought of myself as a king. Now I’m just a has been,” he laughs.

When he turned 40, Microsoft bought Khoa’s company. His stock options skyrocketed and he cashed out. That same day, he discovered that he had developed Parkinson’s. “God was giving with one hand and taking with the other. It was a good lesson for me.” Khoa’s attitude towards money changed. His priorities shifted from the material to the spiritual.

“That’s when I became a real person. Before that, I was just an asshole,” he told me, his French accent making “asshole” sound like “hassle.” He moved back to Vietnam, where creativity and innovation became his life’s purpose.

Twelve years later, Khoa has given the world the sky drum and his version of the hang drum, a series of “abstract strategy games” (geometrical variations on chess and checkers), and a ton of gigantic kites. He also teaches math and science at a local school, challenging his students to choose creativity over the path of least resistance. For him, these creative pursuits aren’t just a pastime; they are what keep him going.

Khoa playing a sky drum

The day after we visited the workshop, Khoa picked Michele and me up from the hotel. He didn’t really tell us where we were going, just to bring a guitar. Soon we were riding through village roads that I recognized from the day before. Within 15 minutes, we had arrived back at Tuan’s factory.

There wasn’t as much smoke this time. We sat down for tea with Tuan and his family. Tuan’s granddaughter poked her head from around a corner; we waved and she vanished.

“Please share some of your music,” Khoa said to us. “It will be a good way to thank Tuan.”

A group of locals had gathered in the workshop. We played three songs, the last of which earned us a standing ovation from Khoa. Tuan told us that he sings at his church and that we’d have to come back and do a concert with him. We were happy to accept his invitation.

Then it was time to go. We shook everyone’s hands and thanked them. As we rode away, Tuan and his family all waved to us, then went back to work.

More information about Khoa’s creations at his website:

Da Nang Bohemian

We arrived in Da Nang almost a week ago. We hadn’t planned on spending more than two or three days here, but then we met Tien.

By the time we reached Da Nang, our fascination with Vietnamese folk music had become all-consuming. We’d seen black-and-white photos from the 60’s of soldiers playing nylon string guitars. We’d scribbled down the name Trinh Cong Son after hearing it linked to Bob Dylan’s. And we’d heard Dona, Dona — a Yiddish song written for vaudeville — performed in Vietnamese by a blind musician.

Who were these old folk musicians? What influence did the North American folk revival have on them — and vice versa?

We needed answers. So, like two detectives in a Raymond Chandler novel — only infinitely nerdier — we hit the rainy streets of Da Nang.

Actually, before we did that, we stayed up all night feeding Vietnamese Wikipedia articles through Google Translate. We were particularly interested in the song Dona, Dona. We knew that Joan Baez had made it famous in the 60’s with her English version. She was also one of her generation’s most vocal critics of the war. Could she be the link?

Delving deeper, we discovered that Joan Baez had come to Vietnam in 1971 as part of a peace delegation. She was in Hanoi when the Americans bombed the city that Christmas. During the bombing, she recorded part of her album, Where Are You Now, My Son?,  from the bunker. The b-side audio features explosions, sirens wailing, and a mother crying out in Vietnamese, “Where are you now, my son?”

We learned that Joan Baez is credited for christening Trinh Cong Son as “the Bob Dylan of Vietnam.” Trinh Cong Son, who is now a national hero, composed over 500 songs before, during, and after the war. A guitarist and a folk musician, he sang about love and country, often hiding a protestor’s sentiments in romantic metaphors.

Joan Baez has a Vietnamese counterpart, as well — as much in voice as in relationship to Bob Dylan. Khanh Ly helped make Trinh Cong Son’s music famous throughout the 70’s. Michele and I listened to as much Khanh Ly as our slow connection to Youtube would allow. We were moved by her soaring voice; we only wished that we could understand the meaning and context of the music.

Beautiful people in black-and-white armed with guitars, cigarettes, and conviction — in my romantic mind’s eye, 1960’s Vietnam and the U.S. were becoming mirror images of each other.

Michele and I wanted to know more. What was the legacy of this music today? Who still sung it? Who still cared?

The night after our Wikipedia binge, we decided to find some live music. We looked online, but there didn’t seem to be much — just a few places to see party bands and DJ’s (which would have been fine). Then one listing caught my eye: Nep Cafe, where “an old trombone, a Che poster, and a bicycle poking out of an exposed brick wall are just some of the oddments decorating this indie hangout. Live bands play upstairs three times a week.” So we walked over.

When we got there, I saw no old trombone, no Che poster, and no bicycle. The sign read “Cu Cafeteria,” so I assumed ownership had changed hands. We walked up to the waitress — the first Vietnamese woman I’d seen with short, curly hair — and asked if there was live music.

She looked surprised. “Yes, I play music and tell stories here every night. How did you hear about that?”

Online, we told her. She told us to come back by 7:30; she would save us two seats because it would be crowded.

That evening, we arrived around 7. The waitress met us at the door and asked if we’d had dinner. “I sing from 8 until 10, so you should eat first.” We agreed and walked off, a bit taken aback. We joked about how many bathroom breaks we’d be allowed during the performance.

Dinner went late and it was 9 by the time we were back at the cafe. Neither of us like being late, but we didn’t figured it would matter much. We were dealing with musicians, after all.

I pushed the door open and was mortified to realize that we were interrupting a very intimate concert. It was dimly lit and the waitress was sharing a small stage by the door with a guitarist. No wonder she had told us to arrive early.

Everyone looked at us as we walked in; the waitress gestured mid-song to two chairs she had shared right by the stage. We sat down and tried to make ourselves small.

The singer seemed undisturbed. Once the embarrassment had melted away, I realized how beautiful her voice was. As she sang, her face was intensely expressive.

She finished her song and spoke to the audience in Vietnamese. Then she looked at us and apologized. We wouldn’t be able to understand her stories, she explained. She had started the evening off with Christmas music, but “it wasn’t working, so I started singing and telling stories about love.”

The singer and guitarist had great rapport and the audience’s rapt attention. There was no amplification, but the acoustics carried throughout the cafe. Nobody spoke during the music. Most of the songs were in Vietnamese, with haunting, soaring melodies.


After the show, we introduced ourselves again to the singer. Her name was Tien, she told us, and she owned the cafe. Her father was a professional musician, and had forbid his children from following his path — but they all loved music too much to listen to him. Tien’s sister is a famous pop star, but Tien is content to run the cafe, where she has a space to sing and tell stories every night.

We told Tien that we were interested to learn more about Vietnamese folk music. She was happy to hear that we knew of Trinh Cong Son and Khanh Ly and promised that, if we came back the next night, she would sing their songs for us.

So come back we did, and punctually this time. It was Christmas evening and Tien was wearing a red dress. Before the show, we asked her if we could play a few songs. She was thrilled, especially when she learned that Michele is a professional singer.

As Tien sang, time flew by. She did songs both by Khanh Ly and Trinh Cong Son. Her guitarist played and sang an incredible five-minute solo piece; we asked the people sitting next to us to write down the title so we could look it up. Tien then asked us to come up.

We introduced ourselves to the audience and asked if anyone had heard of Neil Young. Tien translated and a few hands went up. We played After the Goldrush, then Pancho and Lefty (“a song about cowboys and hard decisions”).

Michele then told everyone how shocked she was as a student of Yiddish music to hear Dona, Dona in Vietnamese. Everyone in the audience knew the song, but only Tien said she had heard of the Yiddish language. Michele sang Dona, Dona in the original, as beautifully as ever. Tien seemed elated.

When we had finished, we stepped off stage. Tien closed the show with Puff, the Magic Dragon; it was surreal to see the young Vietnamese audience singing along.

After the show, we sat and talked with Tien. She was excited. “So tomorrow, you come during the day and we talk about folk music. But so many of my friends are interested in learning about Western music. So in the evening tomorrow, I could invite all of them to come and you can do a concert of Canadian and American songs!”

Play for two hours? Michele is a professional, so she could do it in her sleep. But could I? The self-doubt gave way to excitement. We agreed; Tien was giddy. We rushed home to set up a playlist.

We decided to focus mostly on American and Canadian folk and pop musicians with anti-war reputations from the 60’s and 70’s. Joan Baez was in and so was Bob Dylan. Neil Young, too. Oh, and Cat Stevens. Gordon Lightfoot? Sure. Buffy Sainte-Marie. Keep Townes Van Zandt. And, of course, Leonard Cohen.

The next morning we printed our song sheets and headed over to Tien’s cafe. She invited us to talk and practice in the room upstairs, which is where she lives. We walked up and were blown away by what we saw: a huge, cavernous room filled with instruments, books, and art. It was a bohemian dream.

Michele and I spent a few hours running over the songs. There were a few that I was hung up on, but Michele was supportive and encouraging. “Don’t worry about making mistakes. Tonight is about sharing the music we love, not about playing perfectly,” she told me. It helped.


Downstairs, we talked with Tien and learned more about her family. Life was difficult for them growing up. Her father had failed his cumulative high school exam and was forced into the army during the American war. Because Da Nang is in the south, he fought for the losing army. After the war, he was sent to a reeducation camp. Her grandfather, a politician in the north, was able to pull him from the camp after serving “a very short time there.” How long? “Only one, two year.”

Post-camp, her father started playing music. It was his only career option, and it was not looked upon favorably in Vietnam of the late 70’s. He hustled for a long time. For the first decade of her life, Tien was quite poor.

But things changed around 1994. Socially and economically, Vietnam was opening up; suddenly, musicians were in demand. Tien’s father played at official functions and weddings, as well as bars and nightclubs. He was able to provide for his family better than ever before, and eventually opened a cafe.

Tien did her best in school and went on to university. After that, she taught and worked in private companies. Eventually, though, her love of music and the artist lifestyle won out. She opened Cu Cafeteria three years ago.

If the business fails, she told us, she won’t mind. She’s also a carpenter, an artist, and a language expert; if the cafe tanks, she’ll have options.

Later that night, we stepped onto the stage. Tien introduced us to the crowd, which was older than the night before. The audience had been hand-picked by Tien herself, who encouraged us to tell the stories of the songs we had chosen to perform. She asked if anyone needed translation; nobody raised their hands. It was dark and smoky.

Michele told everyone about how our fascination with Vietnamese folk music had led us to the cafe. We were only supposed to be in Da Nang for two days but had stayed longer because we fell in love with the place. Now we wanted to share some music that was special to us, just as Tien had done these last few nights.

The performance was a joy. I messed up a few times, but was too overwhelmed by happiness to stay embarrassed. Michele’s voice was radiant and free. I was so proud to share the stage with her.


We played twelve songs. In the middle of our set, Tien asked us to play Dona, Dona “in that funny language from last night.” We did and the audience accompanied us.

When we were finished, an older man from the crowd spoke from his seat. Tien translated. He said that he hadn’t understood the lyrics or our stories, but our music and energy had moved him. He wasn’t the best singer, he said, but because it was too early to go home, he’d play a song for all of us.

It was moving to watch him perform. He finished and brought up his wife to accompany him on the next song. It was lovely. We learned later that this man, still strikingly handsome, had lost his good looks during a decade spent in a reeducation camp. He had also serenaded Tien’s mother at her wedding, much to the ire of Tien’s father.


After that, a friend of Tien’s performed. She’s a professional singer who has recently transitioned genres — from folk to dance music. The career shift is reflected in her pink and blue hair. She sang two songs, one by Trinh Cong Son. Tien accompanied, their voices weaving intricate harmonies with each other and the guitar. The music was delicate and powerful.

Next was a man named Hoa who makes instruments from scrap metal. He recycles defunct American bombs to produce hang drums. Hoa played a “sky drum,” one of his multi-pitch percussive creations made from a gas can. He passed it around; the older man who had performed with his wife took it and hammered out a quiet melody with the mallets.

A friend of Tien’s who works at the coffee shop closed out the evening with a slow, minimalist version of Leaving On a Jet Plane. She was serious and heartfelt. It was nice to hear a song so overplayed approached with such earnestness.

And that was that. We took a group photo and went out for fried chicken on the street afterwards, where we talked about war, guilt, and family. Michele and I returned to our hotel in a state of bliss.

It has been such an incredible surprise to find this group of creative, free-thinking of people and to be welcomed with open arms. This sense of connection is one of the true pleasures of traveling.

We’re still fascinated by Vietnamese folk music. Da Nang gave us a glimpse into its modern legacy, and we’re eager to explore more.

We leave for Hoi An tomorrow, but we’ll be coming back to Da Nang soon.


Leprosy Beach


We set out to find the oceanfront leprosy hospital late one morning. Walking as far as the Quy Nhon beach would take us, we then turned up a narrow road into the hills.

The walk was steep and hot. We were flanked by palm trees and roadside cafes. Every so often, we’d find a pile of clamshells in the bushes.

At the top of the hill, laborers with heavy metal haircuts were using rods to break up the road. They stared at Michele, giving her shy smiles when she waved.

From the top, we could see the tips of pagodas tucked into the deep green forests blanketing the hills. A sign for the Quy Hoa National Dermatological Leprosy Hospital pointed downwards. We followed, relieved that the uphill walk was over.

There were a few empty cafes on the way down. Most kept roosters under wicker or metal baskets; I wondered if there was a cockfighting circuit. It was mid-day by now and nobody seemed to be around.

We reached the entrance to the hospital grounds. Next to the guard booth was a giant bust of G.A. Hansen, the Norwegian doctor who discovered the bacterium that causes leprosy. His giant bald dome shone against the light blue sky. We paid the small fee and entered the grounds.


I had read about the hospital in Lonely Planet. “Leprosy may not conjure up images of fun in the sun, but this really is a lovely spot…Treated patients live together with their families in small, well-kept houses. Depending on their abilities, the patients work in the rice fields, in fishing, and in repair oriented businesses or small craft shops – one supported by Handicap International produces prosthetic limbs.”

We were visiting because I was curious about the hospital as a social enterprise. On paper, it reminded me of Jaipur Foot, an Indian charity that produces custom-made prosthetics at no cost to the recipient.

I visited Jaipur Foot with Journeys for Change; most of the workshop staff there wore prosthetics themselves. One of the employees had even run a sprint alongside a Journey participant, beating her soundly.

Though Jaipur Foot generates a bit of revenue through selling its technical expertise, the charity is almost exclusively funded by donations. I wondered how Quy Hoa Hospital funded itself — the description in the book made it sound almost like a self-contained economy. The fact that it was on a beautiful beach made it all the more intriguing.


As we walked up the stairs to the clean, white hospital building, a doctor came out to the veranda and looked us over. “Information center?” I asked. He nodded and deposited us in a small office. There was a woman behind the desk. She spoke no English but motioned for us to wait.

After a few minutes, a young woman entered, greeted us, and asked why we had come to the hospital. I explained that we were interested in seeing the businesses run by the patients. She seemed confused. “You want souvenirs? There’s a shop on the beach,” she told us. “Why don’t you go there?”

I mentioned what the guidebook had said about the on-site prosthetic workshop. Could we visit that?

She asked to see the book. When I pointed out the passage, she said, “Oh, I understand. But you can’t see the workshop. It’s private. You’re just tourists.” I felt a surge of embarrassment at the fact that I was wearing a swimsuit (coupled with relief that I was wearing a shirt).

I countered by explaining that I’m a journalist who writes about social enterprise. It was the first time I’d ever described myself this way, but it felt natural. I wanted to see how the hospital used business to make the lives of the patients better.

“Ah! Ok, I understand. You’re a journalist,” she replied. She might be able to show us the workshop, but first she’d have to check with the director, who was on break. Could we come back in two hours?


Michele and I took the path behind the hospital and arrived in the Garden of Celebrities, which is filled with unsmiling busts of famous doctors and scientists. The statues of Europeans (I knew only Pavlov, Marie Curie, and the hero of Nha Trang, Alexander Yersin) were written in Vietnamese and French.

The path led us down to an empty boardwalk, where fallen pine needles had been swept into tidy patterns. Beyond the boardwalk was a deserted white-sand beach. We walked down to the water. It was stunning.

At either end of the beach, the waves crashed into rocky cliffs. We walked the length of it, past palm and pine trees and clutches of cactus. When we had reached the rocks, we turned inland, following a path leading to a large building that looked like a college library. It was empty; the only noise came from a group of laborers having lunch outside. We said hello and walked by.

Eventually, we wandered into a village. It was quiet and peaceful. We surveyed the houses – big, well maintained, many with gazebos that jutted out over small ponds – looking for a place to have lunch.

We walked a while before finding a patio stacked with boxes of snack food. There was no sign, so we hesitated before entering. A man was sitting at a small table; when he saw us, he ushered us through the gate. After seating us, he called to someone inside the house.

In the room attached to the patio, I could see a few prostrate bodies in front a TV showing an old Tom and Jerry cartoon. A friendly teenaged girl came out to meet us. In halting English, she asked if we’d like some instant noodles with egg. We nodded with enthusiasm and she went in to cook for us.

I grabbed a bag of Pockets, a snack food we hadn’t encountered before. They were good – Cap’n Crunch filled with coconut. As we ate them, a middle aged woman cycled up to the house. She seemed surprised and amused to find us on the patio. Grinning and speaking loudly in Vietnamese, she pulled down another bag of coconut snacks and handed it to us. Then she pressed a beer into my hands, which I declined.

The soup came out and the woman continued to talk to us. The girl who had greeted us laughed as she tried to translate. There was a family vibe between them and it made for a pleasant lunch. When we asked for the bill, the woman told us that it had come to 60,000 VND. The girl laughed and gave us the real price, which was closer to 40,000 VND.

Wandering around the village after lunch, we came across teenage boys shooting pool in an open-air billiards hall, people catching fish in a murky stream with their bare hands, rice paddies, and an industrial chicken coop.


Back at the hospital, we sat in the same office as before. Within minutes, the young woman had returned. The director had agreed to let us see the on-site workshop. We were thrilled.

The woman, Ho Thu Linh, led us across the grounds and explained that she worked for the hospital’s International Cooperation Department. I asked if she gave tours to many international charities; she said yes.

Linh’s English was good. She told us that there are 4,000 people with leprosy living in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, the majority of whom come from ethnic minority populations. The Quy Hoa hospital is the biggest of several in the region, each of which provides free treatment, room, and board to anyone with leprosy.

As we walked across the grounds, we learned that, though the stigma persists, leprosy is easily treated and cured. Ninety-five percent of the world’s population is naturally immune to it. After just two weeks of treatment, those who contract it are no longer contagious. The course of medication lasts between six and twelve months.


We arrived at the prosthetics workshop and entered into a sunny room filled with shoes and plaster casts of feet. Several men looked up from their workbenches and smiled. Some of the shoes were clearly meant for feet without toes.

In the next room was a batch of prosthetic legs. Through Linh, one of the workers told us that the workshop produced 2,000 shoes and 132 prosthetic limbs this year. It costs them 100,000 VND (US$5) to make a standard shoe, 200,000 VND (US$10) to make a custom shoe, and 940,000 VND (US$48) to make a custom prosthetic.


Because so many people with leprosy live in remote areas without access to medical care, the staff at Quy Hoa regularly travel to villages throughout the region. On these visits, hospital staff will conduct medical examinations and fit people for shoes and limbs.

The custom molds are then brought back to the workshop. When a shoe or prosthetic is ready, it is delivered to the recipient, who pays nothing.


I asked Linh how the hospital finances all of this work. The blurb in Lonely Planet had led me to believe that Quy Hoa at least partially funded itself through revenue generation.

Linh explained that the entire budget comes from donations. The government provides a subsidy, but the biggest donor is the Netherlands Leprosy Relief Foundation. The scope of Quy Hoa’s work is contingent upon donor funding – when the pot is big, they treat more patients. This year, though, they had to scale down outreach due to budget constraints.

Linh also told us that a Japanese foundation, Sasakawa Memorial Health Foundation, builds two houses every year in the nearby village. Apparently, the stigma associated with the disease is so strong that many patients choose to relocate their entire families to the area around the hospital – not just during treatment, but for the rest of their lives. In fact, this is how the village came into existence. Ever since the hospital was founded by a French priest in 1929, families effected by leprosy have been settling down here.

“Where is this village?” I asked Linh. When she gestured toward the area just beyond the workshop, it dawned on me that Michele and I had spent the afternoon wandering through “leprosy village” without even realizing it. The people who served us lunch, the fishermen, and the boys playing pool – they all lived there because of a direct connection to leprosy.

“The men who make artificial limbs in the workshop are  children of leprosy people,” said Linh. “They come from the village, too.”

In that moment, I realized I had approached this site visit with misguided expectations. This wasn’t a social enterprise; it was a mini-society.

The people in the village live and work without fear of stigma – something they can’t do anywhere else in the country. After treatment, ex-patients and their families provide for themselves; they fish, farm, and run their own businesses. Even if the hospital isn’t generating its own income, the beneficiaries are.

Most social enterprises aim to empower a group of marginalized people. And this is what’s intriguing – here, the residents empower themselves. There’s no social enterprise strategy in place; the village is simply a space to live and raise a family. The residents can create their own livelihood opportunities if they want to. Nobody tells them what to do.

Could the village model be scaled or replicated? It’s hard to say. There are certainly conditions unique to Quy Hoa – access to farmland and fishing, undeveloped real estate, proximity to an up-and-coming tourism destination – that enable it to thrive. If you were to build another village, you’d need to find a site with similar assets.

But the point is not to squeeze Quy Hoa into the constricting language of social enterprise. The village is an externality. The hospital did not create it; the leprosy patients did. They are the ones who made it flourish.

For social entrepreneurs, here’s the lesson: your beneficiaries know what they need better than you do. Give them space and support and they’ll provide for themselves.


Qui Hoa National Leprosy Hospital |