Expats come together to build a community project in Ha Giang

They come from different backgrounds but have joined together for a community project in Vietnam’s northernmost province of Ha Giang.

They come from different backgrounds but have joined together for a community project in Vietnam’s northernmost province of Ha Giang.

Four young men arrived from different countries – architects Alexander Eriksson Furunes from Norway and Sudarshan Khadka from the Philippines, Frenchman Rémi Gontier, a social enterprise consultant, and independent filmmaker Eric Roache from the US. All volunteered to take part in “Action for Lung Tam”, an independent community project which aims to empower women and provide sustainable development for the traditional craft village of Lung Tam, which sits on the Nho Que River.

Expats come together to build a community project in Ha Giang

Four expats team up with another seven Vietnamese to take part in the Action for Lung Tam project. (Photo from the Facebook page Action for Lùng Tám)

With seven other young Vietnamese, they banded together to form a solid team. Funny, friendly, and dedicated, they are well known in the community, often called by the team members and villagers in a familiar way: Alex, Sudar, Rémi and Eric.

Early yesterday morning, they boarded a bus and began their third trip to Lung Tam Village.

The project Action for Lung Tam began in May this year to guide and encourage the local community to develop the region with their own capacity in a sustainable way and inspire neighbouring communities to do the same.

This project was initiated by Alex and a young dynamic Vietnamese woman Nguyen Huyen Chau. He and his Filipino colleague and friend Sudar came to Vietnam and offered free training to young Vietnamese architects on how to apply the “build with community” method.

This model had been applied successfully by Alex in India, China, and the Philippines. Sudar, who also specialises in building for the community, partnered with Alex on a Study Centre project in Tacloban, Philippines after super typhoon Haiyan hit the city in 2013. The community, after taking part in the project, learned skills necessary to building and re-constructing houses after natural disasters.

Why Lung Tam?

Alex and Sudar said that they were impressed by Vang Thi Mai, a Mong woman who set up a Linen Fabric Co-operative in 1998 to improve the lives of local women and has spent 16 years to help develop it. Many Mông women hold a minor role in their family, and are often exposed to domestic violence, child marriage and even human trafficking. But Mai’s initiative helped bring women together to make linen fabric. The cooperative started with 5 women in 1998.

Today they are 130 people – all women plus just 1 male member. Their lives changed dramatically after they began making products from linen textiles and batik – a technique using beeswax. The project also helped to strengthen the women’s position within their families as well as their role in the community.

However, until now they have not had a proper facility. And another 400 women in the area are expected to join by 2020.

The team traveled to Ha Giang to work with the women from the cooperative to design and build a new centre which is larger, better equipped and can house up to 400 women.

Before beginning to build, they started by learning from the community’s rich culture in linen and batik textiles. They learned about the architecture, the lifestyle, daily schedule and especially their methods of building homes. They also learned how to use natural materials, local skills and resources to make something that carries value and meaning.

“It’s fantastic to work with them. There is a lot of energy inside this community. They are able to do things by themselves first. And after we help finish the process,” said Alex.

Expats come together to build a community project in Ha Giang

Norwegian architect Alexander Furunes (centre) and Filipino architect Sudarshan Khadka talk about their project at Hanoi’s Nanoco Gallery two weeks ago. (Photo from the Facebook page Action for Lùng Tám)

Learn from the community

Filipino architect Sudar said that he believed that a true “community construction” has to start with the process of learning about them. And to do this, nothing is better than accompanying the group and joining in with local life.

“Architecture is a part of culture, and architecture cannot be detached from people and life,” he said.

In order to really “learn” from the community, with an unavoidable language barrier, the team communicated though drawing and mapping out their ideas.

“When we express the ideas within a small group, some people may be willing to participate, while others may be hesitant because they’re shy. Moreover, when you ask them questions, it’s very difficult to obtain more information without having a subjective influence on their thought. It’s completely different for drawing. Everyone has the equal chance to express their ideas, their opinions on papers, and explain to others about their illustrations,” Alex explained.

Despite the language barrier, they have been able to build a strong bond with local members.

Vang Thi Mai, President of the linen cooperative said she was happy with the project and was touched to see the efforts of the team in learning about local culture, architecture and to help design and build the new cooperative centre.

“We work together to make this project a reality,” she said

Independent filmmaker Eric is in charge of filming the life and the changing process of the community as they work with the team. He also teaches filmmaking to some community members for free, so that they can one day make films themselves.

Expats come together to build a community project in Ha Giang

Project members assist local people to draw their ideas about a new community house in the AFLT's a trip to Lung Tam. (Photo from the Facebook page Action for Lùng Tám)

Through close collaboration with the Lung Tam community, Rémi looks forward to providing his entrepreneurial vision for the economic empowerment of the Lung Tam cooperative.

“According to their needs, I try to consult for further improvement of the members’ working environment and also seek opportunities to expand their market and promote their products. Through keeping people happy in their working environment and bringing more economic empowerment, this will help the cooperative maintain their traditional values in a more sustainable way,” he said.

“We thought that providing a community house where people can share their values and enhance economic empowerment of the cooperative could be a good synergy for the Lung Tam people to pass down their beautiful traditions and values to future generations,” he added.

Do it with “passion”

The expenses for the trip, their stay in Ha Giang and their workshop has mostly been paid for by the team.

They are looking for more sponsors to help make this project happen.

“We did it out of passion. The benefit that we get is that we learn from the community, the friendships that we create, it’s enough for us. We don’t do it for the money,” said Alex.

“It’s important for us to make people understand how much architecture means to people. And hopefully by doing more this kind of project, we understand more about what architecture means to humanity,” said Sudar./.



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