The Legacy of Green Spirit – Ban Sen Disaster Relief

Quang Ninh Province, the northeastern region that contains Halong Bay, experienced an incredible amount of rainfall in July 2015, brought about by a storm that caused mass flooding and dangerous landslides throughout the many hillside communities that live here. Unfortunately, 17 people lost their lives in the tragedy, along with many more who were injured. 2.7 trillion VND ($115 million USD) worth of damage was inflicted across many homes and rice fields, affecting many locals who didn’t have any other means to support themselves.

Still, years after the disaster, Quang Ninh Province is struggling to move on. This is especially the case in its remote areas such as Ban Sen, where aid has been slow in arriving because of its separation from the Vietnamese mainland. Transportation is poor here and the separation of the community from the rest of Vietnam has meant that its residents have had to make their own way in the world with a self-sufficient lifestyle.

July was an incredibly trying time for the residents of Ban Sen village, situated in a large alcove in the foothills of a mountain. When the rains hit, the 85 people living here had enough time to escape to the highlands, from where they could watch the horrifying destruction as chunks of houses and their contents were swept away in the flood. Everyone who returned to their houses after the flood had subsided were horrified to find that almost nothing remained of their village.

Once news of the flood and the desperate situation in which it had left the villagers reached Hanoi, V’Spirit Cruises, a part of Incredible Asia Journeys, was quick to act. As part of our Green Spirit program that promotes responsible tourism and charity across northern Vietnam, we quickly organised a trip in August 2015 to help with the disaster relief. This was not an easy task to undertake, given that the very few roads that connected Ban Sen to the Vietnamese mainland had been badly damaged, but it was one that was absolutely essential to help out our brothers and sisters in dire need.

We took the 5-hour bus ride and a motorboat to Ban Sen, where we met one of its residents, Mr. Chung. Just weeks prior to our arrival, Mr. Chung and his family had lost everything they had worked for in one fell swoop, but such is the Vietnamese fighting spirit, he greeted us with a beaming smile and welcomed us to his village.

Our 15 members of the Green Spirit team trekked for 2 hours, listening to Mr. Chung and his stories of the fateful storm. We arrived at the village to find a picture of total destruction, with cracked earth, fallen trees and the remains of people’s humble houses at every turn. Upon seeing our fallen faces, Mr. Chung lamented, “our village has always been poor, but it was also beautiful before the flood. The one thing we had has now been ripped away from us.”

With no time to waste, we visited the home of Mrs. Nguyễn Thị Bích Thùy, who we found still sweeping away the debris that the flood had left behind. Mrs. Thùy had sadly lost her husband two years beforehand and had been struggling to take care of her two small children ever since. The flood that destroyed her house also ripped away her remaining chance of caring for her children, who spent much of their time during the flood crying for their father. They returned to find that his picture was still there and that the incense at their shrine was miraculously still burning, believing that only divine intervention had spared their own lives. The gift that we left Mrs. Thùy could never make up for the catastrophe that unfolded, but she accepted it with a typically warm smile.

The Green Spirit team continued around Ban Sen, handing out our gifts and hearing stories with a similar theme of tragedy and loss. It is a testament to the determination of this tiny village, that we were always welcomed exceptionally warmly and sent away with a smile and a wave.

For the kids of Ban Sen, the enthusiasm for helping to repair their hometown is very strong. While young kids looked forward to going back to school in September with new supplies from the Green Spirit team, several of the teenagers and young adults we spoke to had a fresh resolve to head to the mainland for college and return to help their community. There is a long way to go and a lot of hard work ahead for this generation, but their incredible devotion to Ban Sen is truly touching and it gave the Green Sprit team a lot to feel positive about as we continued to hand out gifts.

Our final stop was to the house of Mr. Nguyễn Văn Hòa and his family’s orange tree garden at the back. All that was left of the garden was barren ground and the husks of dead trees laying across it. Mr. Hòa shouted his welcome down from the roof, where he was fixing a large hole left from the disaster. Inside, we found Mr Hòa’s youngest son and wife, Mrs. Uyên, who told us that their son suffered from cerebral palsy and that their two eldest daughters were studying in Hanoi.

“When they heard about the flood,” Mrs. Uyên explained, “they wanted to quit school and get a job, in order to earn money to send back here. We had worked so hard to send them to school and give them a chance at a decent life outside of the village, so we refused to let them quit. They were very emotional about it, but they understood in the end.” Again, we listened to Mrs Uyên’s story with very heavy hearts and left her with a gift that would go a small way to her family’s recovery.

Despite their recent hardship, the villagers had arranged for a tuk-tuk to take us back much of the way to the port. We thanked each of them with sincere gratitude and headed back to the mainland. On our return bus to Hanoi, we could only wonder what would be next for the people of Ban Sen village, but felt encouraged by the fact that their incredible hospitality in the wake of such tragedy could only help their cause.

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