The mountainous province of Son La is among Vietnam’s most beautiful. South of Sapa and next to the Laotian border, Son La’s peaks are the easternmost extension of the Himalayas.
Largely untouched by the bustling development only a few hundred kilometres away in Hanoi, the clocks move slowly in Son La. Unlike neighbouring Sapa, tourism is non-existent.
Son La’s isolation has made it among the poorest regions of Vietnam. With a 2015 poverty rate of 29.4 percent according to government statistics (the national average is 9.8 percent), the ethnic minorities who inhabit the mountains grow corn for pig feed in rocky soil up the slopes for as little as US$15 a month.
Basic services are lacking, with many local Muong and Black Tai locals unable to speak Vietnamese. Apart from agriculture, the local economy is mostly non-existent.
While the area has had some basic support — such as doctor visits — from a nearby Australian-owned aluminium mine, the mineral resources have been depleted and the company is closing shop.
“What was once bad will become much worse,” says Anita Hummel, founder of the charity Project Sprouts, which distributes school supplies in the area.
Since 2014, Hummel and her team have made regular visits to the remote communities of Vietnam’s far northwest in Son La with supplies for a community left behind by the nation’s fast growth.
Their main donations are supplies for the state schools. While the schools theoretically take students through the national curriculum, resources are slim for teachers and students alike.
“A teacher will get something like one pack of pens, one ream of paper, one box of chalk for the whole year,” says Hummel.
Nada Louw, president of Sprouts, said the schools were little more than a hollow building. She recalled one school that had 175 students but no toilet.
These students, however, are the lucky ones as many don’t have the chance to study. Separated from the state safety net provided at the schools, the ones not at school are the hardest to reach. Hummel said Sprouts does their best to give these children warm clothing for the harsh winters in the mountains.
She recalled one time she was temporarily forced to turn away a group of siblings who tried to get blankets with the students.
“The kids were lining up there in the cold shivering with just flip-flops on… but we only had enough blankets for the kids in school,” says Hummel.
After finding the children some blankets, Hummel asked the girl leading the children where they had come from.
“One little girl walked 25km from her home town, with her little brother on her back. She had to leave school at age nine years old to help her parents out in the fields, and she said every day she dreams of going to school,” says Hummel.
Working with limited resources, Offner says they did their best to at least supply the schools while helping other children as far as they were able.
“We’re going to help the kids, we know we can at least help the ones in school, and if we can help some of the others, we will,” she says.
Sprouts relies on donations from Hanoi — they are currently trying to collect 750 jackets in a drive. All clothing items are accepted, with what they can’t donate being sold on the streets to raise funds.
Time and energy is also accepted, with volunteers with knitting skills encouraged to make winter hats.
“It’s not just money we’re looking for. If they don’t have the money they can use their skills,” explains Offner.
“Some people have time, some people have skills, and some people have money,” she says.
Trips, however, will become increasingly difficult. With the mine closed, the volunteers won’t be able to sleep in the mine facilities, and roads will fall into disrepair, leaving the communities more isolated than ever.
More crucially, the villages have now lost all their non-farming jobs.
“Life was getting better, now it’s all being taken away,” says Offner.
For more info on how you can get involved, click on project-sprouts.com