Loneliness, Old Age and Sickness in the Villages of Vietnam

Huyen's small house

We went to a village in Vietnam to give away some school supplies from the money we raised for the charity work we do with Project Sprouts. Project Sprouts helps impoverished school children in Vietnam with school supplies, winter coats, and boots. As part of our recent delivery of school supplies, we also visited five women who were living alone in a small village outside Hanoi, Vietnam.

Walking The Alleys - Hanoi, Vietnam...
Walking The Alleys - Hanoi, Vietnam #shorts

As we visited with these Vietnamese women, I began to realize that no matter how many times in my life I have felt loneliness, sickness, or even the creeping up of old age, I have never felt as lonely, sad, or alone as many of these women in that village felt. These women are truly alone, since like in many countries, Vietnam does not have a real safety net for older people.

Each of these women we met all had their own sad stories and with these sad stories, there are some life lessons we can learn from them. For these life lessons, I thank them for allowing us into their homes and their lives.

Lan – Alone Without Any Family or Anyway to Earn an Income

Lan did not have any family and she lived completed alone in a small house. Her parents had died, she had never married and had no family to take care of her. We also understood that she was a bit mentally challenged and so that working a job that required a lot of skill was very difficult for her, so she was only able to do very simple work.

Her home was almost completely bare. She did not even have a fan to keep her cool during the hot summer months. In fact, the nicest thing she had was an old carved altar that has some photos of both her parents above the altar. I asked her if they were her parents and she proudly answered that they were.

Life Lesson Learned from Lan:

When I looked at Lan I realized that something that is universal in almost every country around the world is a parent’s love for their child and that child’s love for their parents. In the case of Lan, this love continued on with her, even after their death, as she proudly and prominently displayed both her parent’s photos on the altar in her tiny home.

Hoa – Unable to see properly, she collects rubbish to sell, her husband and children both left her.

One thing that seems to be a universal truth in all the women we visited, many were left destitute as their husbands left them and their children had forgotten them. This was the case with Hoa. She had very poor vision and so she could not see very well or well enough to be able to hold down any work.

She told us that her husband had left her and her children never came to see her to help her. She was pretty much left all alone in the world. In order to earn some extra income, she would go out and collect scrap paper to sell.

When you travel around Vietnam or other parts of Asia, and you see the men and women who are out collecting scrap paper, you know they are generally extremely poor. Collecting garage to sell is one of the lowliest of work as they earn so little from the paper, cans or other bits of garbage that they collect. Despite earning such a small amount, Hoa was happy for every single cent she could earn.

Life Lessons Learned from Hoa:

I look at Hoa and I think about the gratitude that we should all have for our work. Even if our work is picking up scrap paper to sell for a small amount of income, we at least have work. There is something very powerful in hard work and being able to work should be a blessing in our lives.

Chi – Sick with Parkinson disease, and also homeless so must depend on strangers to help

Chi has absolutely no home so she must depend on the kindness of strangers to help her. She is working and living at a lacquer factory as the family who has hired her for lacquer production, is kind enough to allow her to stay with them.

If being homeless and without any family is not bad enough. Chi is also ill with Parkinson’s disease. The disease causes her hands to shake as she is trying to sand the lacquer production.

As Chi sat there in front of us, she just cried and cried. You could see the loneliness and pain coming out for her and you could feel and see her suffering and despair in her face with the reality that she will more than likely spend the rest of her life, in the home of some stranger who will bring her into their home so she is not out on the street. Thank goodness for those unspoken men and women, who are the angels among us and who love and care so much for the suffering of another human being.

Chi getting a much need hug from Carrie. A hug can do wonders to show people you care.

Life Lessons Learned from Chi:

Sometimes in life, our blessings can come from others. Though Chi is alone and has no home or family, the kindness of strangers did not leave her completely out on the streets to beg or fend for herself.

Feeling lonely? Look at your life and look around you at those who have helped you. Write down in a gratitude journal all about those people who have helped you, reached out to you, or said a kind or loving word. Be grateful for them and their kindness.

Huyen – has breast cancer and her husband left her.

I had actually met Huyen quite a few times as she works in a lacquer factory that we work with. This factory had taken in her and are trying to help her by giving her paid work throughout her breast cancer ordeal.

When her husband found out she was sick, he just packed his bags and left her. She has a son, but as he is in University and she does not want to ask him for money or have him leave his studies. So, every day whether she is sick or well, she will walk the distance from her home to the factory so that she can work.

This story of women getting sick, husband’s leaving and children not helping out as much as they can or should, is a story or pattern I have found to be all too common among these destitute women. The Vietnamese parents may still hold the old values from the old traditional Vietnamese society, where one should always look out for their families. But with modernization also comes to the breakdown of these values and so many women as Huyen are left alone or their spouses leave them when they get sick.

I am not sure why they would leave them, truth be told the spouse that left was probably planning to leave before their spouse ever got sick. Maybe it is just that they could not be bothered with having to nurse or take care of their wife throughout her breast cancer ordeal, or it could simply be that they did not want the financial responsibility that would come with the increased costs of the medical bills. Whatever the reason, leaving a loved one because they are sick is a terrible and inhumane thing to do.

Life Lessons Learned from Huyen

Being sick is hard enough, but being sick and alone is really a terrible thing for anyone to have to go through. But even Huyen is not totally alone. She has people who care for her. People who are there for her and people who make sure she can get to the hospital to get her medication.

A lesson we can all learn from this to look around our neighborhoods, our communities, our schools and our places of work – do you see someone who is lonely or alone? Go over and be their friend. Reach out to them, love them and let them know you care.

Typical small alleyway in a small village in Vietnam.

Thanh – Widow, completely blind with a small house with a leaky roof.

Imagine that you are over 80 years old, you are completely blind and you live in this small house that has a leaky roof – a roof that is so leaky – that each time it rains the rains comes pouring into your home and makes your bed, the few clothes you have and everything else very wet. That is what Thanh must deal with every single time it rains.

Yet despite these really difficult hardships, Thanh had just the sweetest smile ever. She told us her husband had died about 40 years ago when he was in the army. She had one child but they never came to see her, so she was very much alone.

Sometimes her neighbors would take her into their house when it rained and sometimes they would give her something to eat. But most of the time, she was left alone – in her blindness and loneliness.

Life Lessons Learned from Thanh

When I think of Thanh sitting on the small stoop of her house, I think of her smile. It taught me that no matter how difficult life can be, no matter how harsh life is, we can always smile. That day when I look at Thanh’s beautiful smile I realized that we can all smile – even if our heart is breaking.

Life Lessons on Loneliness from the women in the village.

When I look at these five women that we met, I realize that the times in my life when I have felt lonely, at least I could pick up the phone and call a friend. These women did not even have telephones so they could not even call that friend.

The life lesson I realize from this is that no matter how completely and totally lonely I may think I am, there are always others out there who are more lonely than I am. No matter how little I may think I have in life, there are always those who have so much less than I will ever have.

Instead of looking at what I do not have or how lonely I may feel I am, the greatest lessons I learned from these women in the villages is that I have so much to be thankful for. In fact, we all have so much to be thankful for. So make a mental note of your blessings or better yer, write them down in a gratitude journal. When you do that you will realize that we all have so many many blessings.

What is a Gratitude Journal?

A gratitude journal helps us all to focus on the positive things in our lives. By focusing on what we are thankful for, it should help us to have a move positive outlook on life. Some people use it as part of a regular journal and each day write down all they are thankful for. Others may just write down what they are thankful for when they have a reason to think of those things they are grateful for. But however, you decide to use your journal, it can be a powerful tool for you to reflect upon and think about your blessings in life.

Why start a Gratitude Journal?

One Christmas I was really feeling sorry for myself. I was miserable. I thought to myself that life was not fair that was single and all alone in life. Sometimes when you feel lonely you can feel it even more during the holidays.

I wrote an email to a dear friend and told her how I was feeling and how miserable I felt. I thought that maybe she would commiserate with me and agree with me. But instead, to my surprise, she wrote back and said: “Why don’t you start a gratitude journal?”

At first, I thought, why should I start one? I mean after all I am miserable and I want someone to agree with me, I don’t want to write all about what I am thankful for.

Eventually, I decided I would try her suggestion and I got out a notebook and started to write down all the things I was thankful for. The more I started to write, the more I began to remember things I was thankful for – and the more I wrote down my blessings and things I was thankful for, the more positive I became.

So why write a Gratitude Journal? By writing a Gratitude journal, it will help you to feel more positive about your life. It will also help to wipe away a lot of hurt, anger, loneliness, disappointment or grief – because as you start to focus on your many blessings, your life will become more positive.

What do you need to start a gratitude journal?

Though there are journals that you can buy, you can also just start with a notebook, and a pen to start writing in your journal. If you prefer to write everything online, you can also start an online version. What is more important is not WHAT notebook you use or HOW you decide to write in a gratitude journal, but that you START to write one. A gratitude journal will help you to focus on the positive things you have in your life and not the negative things. That in itself is a very powerful tool.

Note: names used for the women in this blog are not their actual names and the location of the village in Vietnam is not mentioned to respect their privacy.

Anita L Hummel

Hi, I live in Hanoi, Vietnam but spend time traveling the region. I love to share with you things I see and learn through my travels.

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