Last week Tom and I ate at a restaurant in Nha Trang called Lanterns, which we later learned sponsors children living at a local orphanage as well as several other families in the community. When I asked our server more about this connection, she said that she could arrange a trip for me to see the orphanage this week. I gladly accepted her offer and was introduced to Dung (“a very ugly word in your language, but means ‘very pretty’ in mine!”) She offered to take me there on her motorbike on Monday.

I was very excited about being able to learn more about the “real” community in Nha Trang, and to experience something few tourists get to see – and to meet some kids! I went to the restaurant as scheduled. Dung showed up on her motorbike and even had a helmet for me:) I asked her if she was a safe driver and she said, “No! Very unsafe driver!” which made me laugh. I had a feeling that she had a good sense of humor; her English was excellent; and she actually was quite a good driver.

About half way to the orphanage, she pointed to a pagoda and Buddha on our right. This was the very famous Long Son Pagoda. She offered to stop there on our way back to show me the sight, and I gladly accepted her offer. She stopped to fill up her gas tank – which took all of about ten seconds – refusing to let me pay for the gas which I know is not cheap.

We arrived at the orphanage which is actually housed in a pagoda off a dirt road on the outskirts of Nha Trang. The setting was very peaceful and tranquil.

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When we arrived many of the children were eating their lunch. The head nun of the pagoda also runs the school; she was receiving a donation of milk for the children of the orphanage.

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Dung introduced me to the teachers and caretakers of the children and explained that while many of the children were surrendered completely to the orphanage by parents who simply could not afford to care for them, many are local children, also of very poor parents, who come to the pagoda for the day for meals and school, and then return home to live with their families. She also told me that there are many VERY poor families in the area, and that Lanterns sponsors several families with shelter, medical care, and other very basic necessities. She emphasized that these families were the poorest of the poor – not having anything at all – and shared that one of the women they were helping had a broken hand and had to go to Saigon for surgery, which Lanterns would pay for. I imagined how such a poor family would be able to make it with a mother whose hand was maimed, and how very necessary this surgery would be for their survival. It made me a little sick inside to think of that family, but also very thankful that Lanterns would support them in this truly critical time.

I walked around the area where the children were eating, noticing that their food looked very nutritious, and the children appeared quite healthy and happy. While I was making this observation this little cutie spotted me and started smiling and furiously waving at me:

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I took a few pictures of her, then we moved on to the room with the “babies”:

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They swarmed us, hands up stretched to be picked up. Dung picked up one girl – obviously her favorite, who was so happy to see her. I picked up several children, one of whom wouldn’t let me put her down. The babies, too, seemed as happy as they could be, considering their situations. Their caretakers were attentive and loving, but definitely had their hands full with about 30 toddlers in a room that was about 400 square feet. I learned that all the children who live at the orphanage sleep on mats on the floor of this room at night. That made me a little sad, too – probably perfectly acceptable, making me feel guilty for complaining about the ironing boards we call beds in our hotel rooms here.

We pried the babies off of us and headed out towards the school rooms.

The older children were out in the yard in front of the school playing and hanging out. They, too, swarmed us. One boy in particular wanted to practice his English with me, barraging me with questions. He was certainly very personable, and someone I could imagine making a decent living for himself in some sort of tourism job.

Dung also told me that Lanterns was sponsoring a girl from the orphanage to go to college.

While we talked the older kids milled around, practicing their English, and touching me a little more than I was comfortable with. Dung put a stop to this. I didn’t want to appear standoffish with the kids, but as someone who has been in a professional role with them for as long as I have, the touching made me uneasy.

After about 45 minutes at the orphanage, we left, watching the children do their prayer/ chant.

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I asked Dung questions about Vietnamese Buddhism and she was gracious and knowledgeable in her answers.

As promised, we stopped at the Long Son Pagoda and had a look around. Dung’s tourism training kicked into high gear and she expertly led me around the pagoda, around a very large reclining Buddha

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into a bell

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within which people post messages of hope and prayer for loved ones. We literally climbed into the bottom of this bell together for her to show these to me.

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The tour’s highlight was the giant white Buddha at the top of a hill:

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Inside I was offered some incense, which I used to thank the Buddha for introducing me to Dung and the children.

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