Building a new house, Vinh Long, Vietnam

Service Learning and a Life-changing Housing Project in the Mekong Delta, Vietnam

July 21, 2023

Houses provide shelter. Houses provide safety. And houses provide a space of comfort and familiarity. By virtue of these simple yet critical life needs, they become solid foundations for a brighter future for those to whom these necessities have previously been denied.

At the end of 2014, our Discova Educational Travel (DET) team recognised the dire lack of adequate housing for a community in Vinh Long Province in the Mekong Delta region of south Vietnam. Since then, with the help of student groups from various international schools and universities, over 30 houses have been built. We spoke to our DET Regional Project Team Leader, Chi Ngo, to find out how the families of these new homes and visiting student groups have and continue to be impacted by the project.


A life-changing housing project for Vinh Long

Having operated numerous day tours in the Vinh Long Province within the Mekong Delta, Discova had over the years established strong relationships with locals throughout the area. In 2014, local authorities provided us with insight behind the curtain of the Mekong’s popular tourism industry, allowing us to explore the community in greater depth and understand the poverty that exists amongst numerous villages.

Vinh Long is located in the centre of bustling agriculture and seafood trade. The rich soil and abundant waterways allow flourishing of tropical fruit, fisheries and rice yields. Though affluent, Vinh Long is still struggling to provide sufficient welfare and support for the disadvantaged.

Vinh Long City, Mekong Delta, Vietnam
Vinh Long City lies in the heart of the Mekong Delta and is home to over 100,000 people.

We recognised the potential for growth and specifically chose to develop a housing project after observing the inadequate living standards of existing homes. Due to various policy factors, many impoverished families here don’t meet government-assistance schemes. To address these issues, a partnership was formed between DET and the Vinh Long Community Development Association. Initiated by DET, the association’s trustees include the Vinh Long Red Cross, Vinh Long Welfare Association, Vinh Long District Authority, Vinh Long Education Authority and Cuu Long Tourist Corporation.

By way of a needs analysis, we determined that building new houses for the most desperate families would not only alleviate immediate safety concerns, but provide incredible long-term benefits.

Service learning and community impact work in Mekong Delta, Vietnam - international students lay the foundations of a new house
Since 2014, students from all over the world have come to Vinh Long to support the foundational build of over 30 houses.

Chi noted that many old houses could barely be described as such, made out of fragile material and extremely prone to flooding and damage during South Vietnam’s notoriously heavy rainy season. Poorly built homes, that more closely resemble basic huts, get completely destroyed by strong storms. Some families resort to living on a small boat until they can build up a new, yet equally fragile home.

New houses mean, first and foremost, essential safety. And this leads to a ripple effect. Families of new, safer homes can begin to focus on earning a greater, more consistent income, instead of facing the constant worries of fixing up and spending money on a damaged house.

Vinh Long’s close proximity to Ho Chi Minh City (about a 3-hour drive away) makes it a convenient location for visiting educational groups. The many schools and universities who have supported the full funding and foundational build of the 30+ houses since 2014 have been incredible, life-changing contributors to the project. We cannot emphasise enough how grateful we, and most importantly the impacted families, are for these consistent acts of compassion and service learning.  

How schools and universities are involved:

  • They fund the construction of the houses through donations (± 4,000 USD/house)
  • They then come to Vinh Long to support the actual build of the house, helping to lay the foundations of the building (we strictly limit the support to this, as the more complex construction of the rest of the house is left to professional builders)

A case study: the Văn Cưng family  

Since 2014, 35 houses (two of which are nearing completion as this article is being written) have been built. One of the more recent ones was completed this year in April for the Văn Cưng family, based in Vinh Long’s Tan Hoa Ward.

The family consists of four people (Mr Đinh Cưng, his wife and their two grandchildren). Together they lived in a small house (38m2) in a residential compound about 8 kilometres from Vinh Long’s centre.

Access to shelter and the power of educational travel
Before: the Văn Cưng family house. Ramshackle, fragile homes are an unfortunate reality for many living here in Vinh Long.
Before and after: a new house for those most in-need
After: the Văn Cưng family's new, safe home, built thanks to the generous donations and support of student groups.

In 2022, when our DET team met Đinh Cưng, he had already suffered from chronic pneumonia for more than 10 years (he was 72 years old at the time). As his sickness continued to worsen and hospital visits became more frequent, he lost his ability to take on daily work. The family’s main breadwinner is his wife. She sells lottery tickets and collects plastic bottles on the streets, earning about 3 USD per day. Their daughter, meanwhile, had to move to Ho Chi Minh City to earn a living, working in a factory. Due to financial struggles, the family agreed that her two children would stay behind with Đinh Cưng and his wife.

Educational trips change lives and build empathy
While students help with the building process, these service learning trips also offer groups the priceless opportunities to learn about local culture and the struggles of those less privileged than themselves.

The Văn Cưng family’s minimal income went towards food, clothing, and school fees, leaving little to nothing left to spend on their home. The house became increasingly unlivable and prone to flooding during the hot rainy season (waters can rise up to 30-40 centimetres). Having a new, safe home was a faraway dream for the family. 

Today, with a well-built house to feel comfortable and safe in, the family can concentrate on earning a living without having to worry about their basic human right to shelter. 

All stories of poverty here are different but have a similar tangent, and Vinh Long is a big province. There are many families that Discova and interested schools and universities can continue to help for years to come. This housing project has no end deadline, and we will continue to be involved here indefinitely.  

Impact on educational groups and the local community

Student groups more often than not become so bonded with the local community, that many also purchase extra gifts for the families once their trip has been completed. This includes anything from bicycles (some of the families don’t even have the financial means to buy a scooter, the favourite, inexpensive mode of transport in Vietnam), kitchenware and electric fans, to clothes. For many visiting students from international schools or universities, these service learning trips are the first time they become acquainted with the struggles of poverty. Seeing that some people wear the same shirt for three days in a row, for example, becomes an eye-opening reflection into their own privilege.

Building a new house: service learning and the impact for local communities
Students provide invaluable support as they carry out project work on the foundations of a new house.

The local families, too, are undeniably positively impacted. Chi: “One night in Vinh Long, I walked to the night market to get something to eat, and I heard someone call my name. This woman came up to me and hugged me and asked me if I remembered her, and the home we built for her. She was so excited to see me and grateful. This was years after we built the house, and I was amazed that she recognised me at nighttime. It really touched me.”

Chi says she has also observed many tears during the handover of houses, with owners having said that they felt as though they had “won the lottery”. For many, it means they can focus more energy on growing an income, or even reconnecting with their families and spouses. Chi has witnessed more than one divorced couple getting back together after the build of a house, with the burden of poverty and an unstable home often leading to the break-up of marriages. A new home means a new opportunity to rebuild relationships too.

It has been heart-warming to see how direct acts of kindness, generated through service learning and students and teachers from around the world, have led to priceless connections and secure futures for financially disadvantaged families in places like Vinh Long. Here too, we are looking to revive our educational travel healthcare program: university students from healthcare institutions get hands-on practical experience in their field, and simultaneously fund and support the area’s struggling healthcare system.

We’re grateful to all existing contributors and future educational groups who will continue to have an indelible impact on the Mekong Delta’s communities.

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