Hope Floats

Hope Floats

as printed in: Reader’s Digest, July 2004

When a vet finds three Vietnamese orphans living on a raft, it changes his life — and theirs.

By Doug Colligan
Kim McCluskey guided his kayak through the floating shanties bobbing in the blue waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. The fishing village of Vung Vieng, some 20 tiny houseboats, lay in the shadows of soaring limestone pinnacles rising out of the water like green pagodas.

McCluskey’s partner, Vu Huy, paddled with him toward the most dilapidated house in the village — it was nothing more than wood planks lashed to slabs of plastic foam. The roof was a sheet of blue plastic over a bamboo frame.

It was April 2003, and the two men were guiding a group of Americans on a trip around Halong Bay off the coast of northern Vietnam. Earlier that day Vu had discovered three sisters living on this pitiful raft. Their mother had died and their father had abandoned them. The two older girls, Lan, 15, and Xuan, 13, were struggling to survive by harvesting shellfish, and trying to put their little sister, Mai, 10, through school. But right now they could not afford the $1 a month it cost to send her to the one-room schoolhouse. So Mai stayed alone, keeping their small home in order.

When Vu told people on the tour boat about the sisters, they passed the hat. Now he and McCluskey were taking the money to the girls. As they drew closer, McCluskey was shocked. Their raft was so fragile. You could see water between the gaps of the raw timber floor. He wondered how they could possibly survive a monsoon or the cold winter months under that thin tarp. On the edge of the raft were plastic barrels holding drinking water. The girls’ meager clothing, freshly laundered and hung on a strand of twine, was drying in the sun.

As they drew alongside, a child appeared, peering out at them from under the blue plastic canopy. Her delicate, heart-shaped face showed both curiosity and alarm at the approach of two strange men.

Vu spoke to her softly, explaining the two of them had come to give her money for food. While they talked, McCluskey looked inside. “Everything was as neat as a pin,” he recalls. Carefully folded in one corner were three tattered bamboo sleeping mats and some quilts. Tucked in the back were three wicker baskets holding all the girls’ belongings: a few clothes, cooking utensils and Mai’s school materials, now unused. The 10-by-10-foot float was their entire living space. At night there was just enough room for them to put down mats to sleep.

Mai explained that her sisters were off collecting razor oysters. Vu had seen how brutal that job was. You scrambled over jagged limestone at low tide searching for shellfish, holding on to slippery rocks with one hand and using a small hammer to pry off the oysters with the other.

Kayaking through “Floating Village” in Vietnam

“The rocks cut up your feet,” Vu says. “Even if you’re wearing gloves, by the end of the day your hands are bleeding from breaking open shells.”

On a good day, a girl might gather 50 pounds of oysters, yielding four pounds of meat — and earn 30 cents.

Vu folded the money they’d brought, about $80, and pressed it into Mai’s hand. “Make sure you give this to your sisters.” That modest amount would feed them for three months.

“Thank you, I will,” she whispered, mystified by the encounter.

The cruise boat of tourists left later that day. As the raft receded from view, McCluskey, who has five daughters of his own, felt desolate. What good would the few dollars they’d given do to help the girls through the monsoon season when the waters in the bay turned mean, sometimes overturning big boats? How would the girls survive in an egg carton like that raft?

McCluskey first came to Vietnam in 1965 as a teenage Marine rifleman and did his hitch in the Demilitarized Zone, the war-torn region that separated North and South Vietnam. His tour was nasty, brutish and long — 13 months of ambush patrols and high-casualty rescue missions. “We lost a lot of guys on those,” says McCluskey, 56, looking back at that time.

Now the burly, laid-back outdoorsman from Minnesota had become partner and friend of the diminutive Vu, a 33-year-old ambitious entrepreneur from Hanoi. And Vietnam had become McCluskey’s favorite tour destination.

Five months after that first visit to Vung Vieng, he and Vu returned with another tour group. As the village came into view, McCluskey’s heart sank — the plastic and plank shelter was still there. “I couldn’t believe it,” he says. He’d hoped the girls had escaped their precarious existence.

When he and Vu paddled over to the raft, again to give them a small donation, the older sisters, Lan, now 17, and Xuan, 15, were there. Vu, who had seen desperate young women all over Vietnam, expected them to be hardened and cynical. They were indeed work-hardened, but polite, self-effacing, poised and protective of their little sister. Their main concern was not money for themselves, but for her — to pay for the village school where students have to buy their own supplies. It was as though, having lost their childhood, they wanted to do everything in their power to save Mai.

“It’s My House!”

“When I saw them still on that little platform,” McCluskey says, “something happened inside of me. I turned to Vu and asked, ‘What would it take to build these girls a house?’ ”

After considering such a grand scheme, Vu consulted the village chief. They estimated a simple house for the girls could be built for the equivalent of about $3,000. “I said, ‘Jeez, I can raise that,’ ” McCluskey remembers. Then and there the two men made a pact. McCluskey would provide the money; Vu would manage logistics of building the houseboat. They both had to work fast if they were to get it built before winter set in. It was already the end of September. “I believed we could make it,” Vu recalls. “We decided whatever it costs, however long it takes, we were going to do it.”

Vu borrowed money from his travel company to get things started. The day after he got home to Minnesota, McCluskey started fund-raising. He got the local paper, The Ely Echo, to run an article about the girls and then told their story on local radio.

Ely is a town of 3,960, so it didn’t take long for word to get around. The Girl Scouts had a bake sale and a couple of days later surprised him with a plastic bag stuffed with quarters and dimes and nickels and $1 bills. “There was nearly $150 in there,” McCluskey said.

A few days later, an elderly woman, someone he didn’t even know, stopped him in the aisle of the supermarket and pressed $10 into his hand.

Back in Vietnam, things were not going as well. Vu had lined up workers and the building materials for the little house, but ran into a problem. The legal age for owning property in Vietnam was 18. The plan was to give ownership to all three sisters — but they were not yet of age.

The fear was that the girls’ father would show up and lay claim to the building. Vu couldn’t put himself down as a caretaker owner because he was not a resident of the village.

For weeks he could find no legal solution. Then some friends referred him to the Vietnamese offices of the Red Cross, which agreed to be the legal caretaker of the house until Mai was 18. Then the joint property would be turned over to all three of them.

In late October, Kim wired the first payment, $2,700, to Vu. And by the end of the month, the house was done.

On a sunny fall afternoon on November 3, 2003, Lan, Xuan and Mai were summoned to the front porch of a 12-by-12-foot floating cottage, where a local official formally presented the new home to them.

Girls standing outside their newly constructed Houseboat

Sobbing with happiness and disbelief, they ran inside the sturdy little houseboat to find a bedroom with a real bed to sleep on and a small room with a desk where Mai could study. With tears coursing down her cheeks, Mai ran out onto the porch and called out to her friends in disbelief, “It’s my house! It’s my house!”

The next day McCluskey opened his e-mail to find photos of the house ceremony and a note from his friend Vu: “First of all, from my heart, I would like to say thank you very, very much for all you have done for these poor little girls. Tears of thanks I would like to send to your golden heart. I am proud of having a friend like you.”

McCluskey felt the same way about his Vietnamese friend and partner. He felt that at last he’d given something back to the land that had claimed much of his youth and the youth of so many others.

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  1. Project Managagement Salary Info - Nice Work... Good Stuff Please publish more..thanks again be back soon...
  2. Helping children around the world since 2003 | Sun in My Heart - [...] girls whose father had abandoned them, forcing them to live on a floating piece of plastic (See “Hope Floats”). …

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