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Many Homes in Vietnam Lack Toilets. But Thanks to Women, That's Changing.

At daybreak, when crickets croon and Tan Xuan Commune is still awash in darkness, Chung is already awake. “We will support you in getting access to funding,” she chants several times in front of a mirror while holding a brochure. Once the sun is up, she heads out to start a typical workday of trying to convince her neighbors to construct proper toilets in their homes.

By now, Chung probably knows her talking points by heart, but she’s aware that the art of the sale is more than just parroting from a script: it’s also about forming an emotional rapport with her subjects, with a bit of strategic thinking sprinkled on top. Thanks to a new film, we get a look at Chung’s adept persuasion skills and affable disposition while she undertakes one of the most important tasks in improving rural livelihoods in Vietnam.

A Very Hard Sale is a short documentary written and directed by Vietnam-based filmmaker Morgan Ommer. Through Ommer's lens, viewers step inside the shoes of 49-year-old Chung, who is one of 2,600 women across Vietnam working as village promoters in collaboration with the East Meets West (EMW) Foundation, a non-profit organization working to elevate poor communities in Vietnam and other Asian nations out of poverty. According to EMW, the work that local women like Chung are doing is part of the second phase of a project called “Community Hygiene Output-Based Aid” (CHOBA), an effort to improve sanitation in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam through the establishment of hygienic latrines.

Writer and director: Morgan Ommer

Camera and editor: Christopher Dinh

Camera assistant: Vu Nguyen

Sound: Arnard Soulier

It’s estimated that around 50% of Vietnamese households, most of which are poor families in rural provinces, do not have proper toilets at home. When one is living below the poverty line, food, education and daily survival take precedence over toilet facilities. A hygienic bathroom is defined as one with four walls, waste pits and a flushing mechanism. Many Saigoneers whose hometown is in the Mekong Delta might retain vivid childhood memories of defecating in wooden outhouses perched atop a river or fish pond. Once the excitement of doing one’s business among nature and the novelty of the act wear off, one is faced with the sobering realization that someone might consume those voracious fish later. The mosquito bites on one's exposed derrière are also a particularly tingling reminder of the experience.

It’s also important to recognize that having a clean toilet is a privilege that’s usually taken for granted by urbanites. While city dwellers often voice complaints over the lack of bum guns and other amenities, some communities in the Mekong Delta take care of their business on a daily basis through open defecation, such as via fish pond toilets. This practice, however, has “many adverse impacts on health and environment as it is the main carrier of microbes that cause serious water-borne diseases and water contamination as well as visual and olfactory pollution,” according to EMW Knowledge and Learning Officer Hang Dam.

Chung (right), a member of the Women's Union of Tan Xuan Commune, showing a market vendor subsidy schemes.

That makes the work conducted by female promoters and EMW all the more crucial to enhance sanitation and curtail water-borne illnesses in these communities. From the starting point of financial sponsors and suppliers from the private sector to the end result of hygienic latrines, there needs to be a bridge, which takes the form of volunteers from the Vietnam Women’s Union, like Chung. The organization is one of the country’s oldest entities, comprising only women and run by local representatives at every level of Vietnamese society.

In many rural households within the scope of CHOBA, men still call the shots, but more often than not the onus is on women to maintain family welfare, take care of sick family members and raise children — all of which can be improved by the presence of a comfortable and clean toilet. Local members of the Women’s Union connect the dots between families in need, funding sources and technical support. Chung is one of her commune’s most successful facilitators; out of 340 new toilets the project has actualized in her neighborhood, 49 were the result of Chung’s persuasion skills, according to Dam. It’s easy to understand why the residents of Tan Xuan Commune are fond of Chung: she greets everyone with an effusive smile and never forgets to show an interest in their life, even when she’s chased by angry dogs.

Chung’s home commune in Ben Tre Province has been participating in CHOBA since 2016, and over the course of the project 775 sanitary toilets have been installed in the Ben Tre commune, 340 of which were thanks to financial and technical support from the project. On her part, Chung is happy for a chance to try her hand at being a documentary actress. “In person she is very funny,” Ommer, the film's director, tells Saigoneer via email. “She loves to act. We didn’t have to direct her much.”

Chung is sweet and persuasive, both ideal traits of a successful village promoter for the project.

According to Ommer, at its core, A Very Hard Sale aims to showcase how female empowerment can contribute to changing the attitude in rural areas of Vietnam. “Vietnam is still a patriarchal society; the scene with the couple shows that,” he explains. “The man is deciding, but his wife’s influence is important in the end.” The filmmaker is referring to a scene at the end of the documentary in which Chung tries to convince a couple to apply for financial aid to construct a new toilet. They recently completed their new homestead, and Chung knows that if there’s any time to encourage them to outfit the house with a proper toilet, it’s now.

Despite Chung’s successes, as shown in the film, and optimistic results elsewhere, the project is not without challenges, especially in terms of future funding and sustainability. Over the past two years, the proper toilets were financed by a US$2 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (for both Vietnam and Cambodia); loans from the Vietnam Bank for Social Policies, the Vietnam Women’s Union, and other private enterprises. Government subsidies are still limited, and now that project grants are phasing out, the Women’s Union might struggle to continue their efforts to raise awareness and mobilize resources on their own in a sustainable fashion, as the second phase has set out to achieve.

In the end, A Very Hard Sale concludes with yet another victory for Chung. The couple agrees to build a subsidized new toilet, to be repaid in installments, and the quality of life in Tan Xuan increases one toilet at a time. The commune, however, is still not a hundred percent free of open defecation, but don’t worry, Chung and a cohort of other resolute women are working hard to remedy that.


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