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, nature and travel writer is the author of Myanmar: a Memoir of Loss and Recovery, Sulawesi: Ujung Pandang to Kendari and Southeast Sulawesi – Islands of Surprises. When not travelling, she lives in Kuala Lumpur and can be contacted at email@example.com