Marc Witlox is sat by the window on the train, the Dutchman’s long legs folded neatly under the table. It’s not even 7am and he’s already working away on his iPhone — writing notes, reading reports, responding to and writing emails.
We talk intermittently but I decide to give him space, both to work and to spread out. So I head down to the canteen for a coffee. When I come back over an hour later, he’s still hammering away at his phone.
“It never stops, does it?” I comment rather than ask.
“No, it doesn’t,” smiles the 50-something former manufacturing industry general manager.
We’re heading to Phan Thiet, where Marc will then take me to a village close to Mui Ne called Thien Nghiep, a place where together with his wife, Marie Witlox, he has set up Mai Nha, the first foreign-run, foreign-owned orphanage in Vietnam. While Marc is responsible for the finance, Marie takes charge of the operations.
“Searching for funding and donations has been a full-time job over the past five years,” Marc tells me later that day.
To achieve the feat of opening Mai Nha required a change in the law — the then secretary general of the communist party of Binh Thuan Province, Huynh Van Ti, helped push through the change. To get to that stage took five uncompromising years.
In the three years since, their orphanage, or nha mo coi, has taken in 16 children and earlier this year, the president of Vietnam, Truong Tan Sang, paid an unscheduled visit. Brought to the orphanage by Huynh Van Ti, it was a vindication of all those years struggling to create something that at the time just couldn’t be created.
“It was just something that blew people away,” says Marc. “It represents a wonderful encouragement for the local team and the village, in terms of, hey, even the highest-ranked individuals in the country are backing the Mai Nha Project.”
I first heard about Mai Nha through Air France’s charity galas. The sales and marketing manager of Air France Vietnam, Delphine Buglio, explained why Mai Nha had been chosen as one of the recipients of two years’ worth of proceeds from top-end dinners and entertainment in five-star hotels.
“We have to follow very strict standards when it comes to donating money to charity,” she explained. “At Mai Nha, all the books are transparent. They are one of the few organisations in Vietnam that is transparent from top to bottom.”
When I ask Marc about this, he explains.
“If a donor wants to see our books, they are open to them. Everything is accounted for, even product donations like milk powder.” I see this first hand when I visit the orphanage. The empty cans of milk powder are put aside to be documented.
He adds: “We don’t want donors’ money to go to expensive foreign management staff. We only have one foreigner on the books. He is responsible for ensuring good practice, for quality control, and has nothing to do with the kids. Everyone else is Vietnamese. Me and Marie don’t take a salary. We are self-supporting.”
Creating a successful charity or NGO requires having a story, something for people to believe in. This transparency is a key part of the story.
To run the orphanage and their various local programmes in Thien Nghiep, Marc needs to raise US$150,000 (VND3.23 billion) a year. It’s a challenge.
Arriving in Phan Thiet, I take my bike off the train and drive Marc to Thien Nghiep. It’s 30km or so, down the new highway that bypasses the resort strip between Mui Ne and Phan Thiet. Then we take a left turn and descend into a valley. Around, all is desert, but the valley is an oasis with palm trees, streams running into a river as it heads to the sea, agriculture and greenery.
We wind our way through the village and eventually pull up at the orphanage. As we walk in, the kids come up to greet us. Immediately they are hassling Marc for hugs and attention. But with me they are shy, which is what we expected. Kieu, the woman who is in charge of the nannies and the kids is also a bit shy, but she starts to relax as we talk. She moves effortlessly from speaking French to Marc and then back to Vietnamese to speak with me. According to Marc and Marie, Kieu is one of the vital cogs in making the orphanage work.
Colourful, bright and cheerful, the orphanage is built around a shaded courtyard, with one house for the girls and one for the boys. The maximum number of children they hope to take in is 20. The houses are constructed Vietnamese-style, but they are clean, a departure from the majority of the orphanages in Vietnam. Some people have even described Mai Nha as a five-star orphanage.
Says Marc: “If five-star by definition is clean and hygienic, allowing the child to gain self-confidence and self-esteem because of growing up in a nice environment that you can be proud of, then, yes, it’s five-star. But as you can see, nothing comes close to what you can call luxury, or things that are superfluous.”
He’s correct. The kitchen, apart from the fridge and gas burner, is like you would find in every family home in Vietnam. The washing machines are outside, round the back, with the laundry hung up to dry like it would be in a normal house. There is no air-conditioning — everything is fan-cooled.
“But yet,” he adds, “the kids get clean clothes every day and their sheets are changed daily. There’s also attention to detail. If this is five-star, then we are five-star.”
The next day when I return, the reaction is different. There’s a birthday party with face paint, balloons and cake. And this time the kids, all of them under six years old, are fascinated by my camera. The shyness has disappeared and I get my photos.
Originally a journalist and an entrepreneur, Marie was in her early 40s when she met Marc. By this stage, both of them already had children — one of Marie’s was adopted from Vietnam. Due to her link with this country, Marie decided to change careers and built a small company making jewellery, gold and silver in Vietnam, to help her maintain a connection with her daughter’s birthplace.
Yet by the time Marie and Marc met — it was one of those romances you hear about that started with a chance meeting on a plane — Marie had got to the stage where she “wanted to build something better in Vietnam than making jewellery — an orphanage or something for children.”
“Marc knew many things about finance and I didn’t,” she explains. “I’m good with operations and because we are older, we didn’t want to have children or adopt. So we decided no adoption, no kids. First we looked at how we could leave everything in France and live here.”
The idea of building an orphanage in Vietnam came from Marie’s own experience with her adopted daughter. Adopted by Marie 17 years ago, the daughter was born in Vietnam. But from day one it was tough — the difficulties of acclimatizing the young girl to a new life in France proved to be very tough.
“I think it is best for children to stay in the country they were born in,” says Marie. “In my experience, it’s not blood that creates a link between people, but the relationships.”
As a result, if children are brought up together from infanthood, they will develop ties as close as if they were from the same family.
We now leave the orphanage and Marc takes me round the village. First to the local secondary school and then to the Cargill-built primary school next door to the orphanage which was co-funded 50-50 by Marc and Marie. Mai Nha has been set up not just to provide opportunities and a family for 20 unfortunate kids, but also to help the local community.
According to Marc, many of the more disadvantaged kids in the area drop out of school at an early age. Many are from single-parent families, or from families so poor that if work comes up that can pay VND100,000 or VND150,000 a day, then the kids will take it and sacrifice their schooling.
“Often, when the kids get to the age of six, seven or eight,” he adds, “they drop out of school because even the million dong it costs for tuition, uniform and insurance, their families prefer not to spend it. We keep these kids at school, so they don’t drop out.”
To do this Marc and Marie have funded books, supplies, insurance and tuition “which we pay to the school for each of the students.” This school year they are funding 90 children.
“We will never go beyond a hundred,” says Marc, “because our pledge is that each child we support, providing they do their very best — it doesn’t necessarily mean good results — we will support them for their ultimate potential.”
After these first two visits Marc takes me to a shack outside the village which doubles up as a tiny elementary school. The kids are fascinated by me and I find myself talking to the teacher, Ms. Kieu. One of the girls in the class, Na Na, can’t walk and can only crawl. When Marc and Marie found her, she was huddled up in the corner of her parents’ house, abandoned, lacking in confidence and uncared for. She barely spoke.
They found a school for her, have paid for a wheelchair and hired a dedicated nanny. With the help of Kieu they have managed to integrate her into normal childhood society. She’s blossomed. She still can’t walk, but now she’s crawling around, has a smile on her face, and is being helped by all the other kids. She’s also showing a great eagerness to learn.
Says Marc: “If it wasn’t for the teacher of this little class, this would never had happened. It was her who offered to take Na Na in.”
Some of the kids at the orphanage already have marked personalities. Son, the first child they took in in September 2012, is going to be a tour leader, says Marc. Another child, Dung, is going to be a party leader. With his high hairline, he’s already got a career in politics written all over his two-year-old face.
But when Marc and Marie first started looking for kids, they had no idea how difficult it would be. The local Catholic and Buddhist orphanages get government subsidies for each kid they look after. Ironically, it is the poor condition of many of those orphanages that arouses sympathy and attracts the donations, providing little or no incentive to improve those conditions.
Says Marc, “The priority is not to allocate all the money to the kids. And it’s very difficult to change these realities.”
So, the couple found themselves having to look elsewhere, with the third, fourth and fifth kids coming from Saigon.
Another issue they’ve faced is the problem of getting newborns. They have a license to take in kids up to the age of six years old, but by the time a child is just six months old, it has already formed an emotional tie with an adult.
“At this stage, emotionally it’s too late to take them,” says Marc. “When we get newborns, they need to be very young. This is why out of 16 children, we have nine who came the day they were born.”
It was only in February this year that they finally managed to get four children from the state orphanage.
Marc is taking me down a back path into the paddies and vegetable fields. We get off our bikes and walk.
The place is beautiful, idyllic in a way that only non-farm people could appreciate.
One man is working in his fields, bare-chested, his muscles glistening in the sun. Elsewhere kids try to talk to us, and try to get some money so they can buy candy.
Further on there is a lake, a lake surrounded by palm trees. Apart from one man who is fishing in it, there’s only me and Marc.
“Isn’t this place beautiful?” he says again and again. There’s a reason Marc and Marie chose Thien Nghiep as the location for the orphanage. They love the place.
“It’s about quality not quantity,” says Marc, “which is a paradox for people in charity. Naturally you would have a tendency to support the whole world. But it’s counter-productive to take care of too many kids because the support you give will be too diluted and none of the kids will really move forward in a sustainable way.”
I ask him what advice he would give to anyone looking to set up their own charity.
“You’d better be prepared for hardship,” he says. “Creating an orphanage or a charitable foundation is not like a new product that people are waiting or hoping for. In some ways it’s an intrusion. So, it’s for you to be the engine from the start to the end.”
He adds: “Before people in Vietnam give you their trust, you have to prove over a long period of time that you deserve the credibility you have. That can only be done through walking the talk and talking the walk. Also, don’t compromise with your base values. These are that you will use all the money you get for the kids and the people who look after the kids. So, never grant favours or facilitate favours, because it will be the beginning of the end.”
And if you get blocked?
“You need local Vietnamese to support you and to be your ambassador. And you need to remain behind the scenes. To get things done, you need higher level individuals from the local authorities to be convinced that what you want to do is something worthwhile.”