Toni had come to Vietnam as a volunteer. Young, in her early 20s, with blue eyes and blonde hair, she would be spending two months away from England, away from her home and her boyfriend, and instead living in a backpackers’ hostel in Hanoi. On weekdays she would take a bus from the hostel to the Bo De Pagoda, where she volunteered. There was a small orphanage run by the Pagoda, and Toni had committed her next two months working there, helping out with the children. The bus she took in the morning had no number; sometimes it wouldn’t even come to a full stop, forcing her to jog next to it for a moment before leaping on.
I met Toni during a canoeing trip through the rice paddies and caves in Tam Coc. I asked her how her experience at the orphanage had been so far.
“It’s hard,” she said, quickly. “Very hard. I knew it would be bad…but it’s been more difficult than I thought. These kids…it’s really pretty heartbreaking.”
After returning from Tam Coc to Hanoi, my friend Perkins and I had a short discussion. I told him that I’d like to take a day and visit the orphanage; I was curious to see it. Perkins, to my surprise, was also interested, and so we found Toni at her hostel and made plans to go. Two days later we took a cab up to the Bo De Pagoda. We walked down a path and immediately could hear the monks chanting. It was a gloomy, rainy day. Down the path we found a large open room, used for worship, where about forty monks bowed and chanted while incense burned. Food was set about on large red glass plates.
As the monks went through their ceremony, the rain got heavier. “Come on, man,” Perkins said, “let’s find the orphanage.” Every now and then we would pass a small room with an older Vietnamese person sitting in it. These people were clearly not monks – perhaps they had no homes and lived at the Pagoda. We tried our best to ask for directions. “Orphanage? Children?” They shook their heads. In the background, I could still hear the monks chanting.
Perkins and I started heading back up the path when we heard Toni. “Leaving so soon, are you?” she shouted to us. It was a relief to see her. She held a child in her arms and brought us back into the orphanage. “You can go into the rooms,” she told us. “Go wherever you like. The children love visitors. Across the way there’s the home for the teenage boys…I’m sure they’d like to meet you. Upstairs there’s a room for all pregnant girls…it might be better to stay away from that one.”
In the center of the orphanage were a series of large wooden tables. Elderly people laid on them, their eyes closed. Flies swarmed about and the children ran freely around. I apologized to Toni for not bringing anything – we had told her we were going to bring toys for the children but then never got around to actually buying any. She was in good spirits and didn’t think it mattered. Toni introduced us to an older British woman who was more or less in charge and then to the other volunteers. There were no actual workers at the orphanage. Only volunteers who had found it on the Internet.
The older British woman sat on one of the tables with a very young child. The child was on his back and she took his arms and legs between her fingers and moved them around. “This is his exercise,” she said. “He has no muscle strength. Can’t lift his arms or his head, even. We aren’t sure why.” The boy was brought to the orphanage like that. There was no hospital to take him to apparently, no doctor to check him out.
The rooms at the orphanage were small and pretty much packed with kids. The little boys and girls crawled around on beds with no mattresses, just wooden frames. They waved and giggled when we came in. Perkins and I would spend a few minutes in each room, saying hello and playing with the kids. Upstairs, there was one boy who seemed especially excited to see us. A young woman sat in a chair across from him. While I waved at him, she pointed to him and then to her head, trying to tell us that there was something a little off with him. I noticed that there was a torn bed sheet around his ankle, tying him to the bedpost. I looked at the knot and wondered if he ever tried untying it with his little hands.
Later we went across to see the adolescent boys. They lived in one room and spoke English well. Toni had told us that the children all got English lessons since the majority of the volunteers spoke it. We kicked around a soccer ball with the boys and they smoked cigarettes and asked us questions. The day went on and we were back into the main part of the orphanage, where we were each given a child to hold. Mine was hyperactive and I couldn’t get him to stay still or to stop crying. He seemed to frantically want to get away from me. Yielding to his desires, I placed him on the ground, where he grew immediately happier.
Five minutes later, he was gone.
I found Toni in an effort to report to her that I had lost my child. “Don’t worry,” she said. “His grandmother lives here. He probably went to her. His mother is mentally ill and couldn’t take care of him or his brothers. The grandmother took the children and now they all live here.”
That made me feel slightly better, although I was still paranoid that I had aided in the child’s escape. Toni continued. Her voice got a slightly lower and more serious.
“You know,” she said, “when I first started here, eleven kids disappeared one day.”
“What do you mean?” I asked. “Did you find them?”
“No,” she said, speaking plainly. “Think about it. There’s no security. Anyone can just walk right in. Eleven kids. Gone. There’s no way to know what happened to them.”
She looked across to the Pagoda itself. “They’re supposed to be funding us,” she said, speaking of the monks. “They don’t. All the money goes into the Temple. The orphanage gets nothing.”
It would be easy to say that the Bo De Pagoda was a miserable and depressing place, but that wouldn’t be entirely accurate. From my vantage point, or Toni’s, or Perkins’, it was a desperate and impoverished place where the children lived in heartbreakingly poor conditions. That’s not what I saw in the children themselves, though. To be cared for is maybe the most important thing in the world, and though it wasn’t ideal, the orphanage did its best to care for those children. The volunteers and the visitors who spend time with the kids, and the homeless and sickly adults who live there and do what they can to help are what these kids have. It might not seem like much, but it is.
Right before we left, I noticed a little girl with a yellow balloon. She was happy, blowing the balloon up and then letting the air back out again. The rain had picked up, and I watched the little girl inflate the balloon just a bit and then walk straight out from under the roof that was keeping us dry. She stood out in the rain and opened the mouth of the balloon, releasing the air and trading it for raindrops. The yellow balloon filled nicely, and she came back skipping. She tied the end of it and looked at the rain that she’d collected, how it appeared dark inside, like a shadow made of water. She took the balloon and titled it back and forth, forth and back, smiling over the sound it made. Her hair and her clothes were all wet, and she ran off with that yellow balloon in her hands, excited to show the other children what she had made.