It's not often something moves us so much that we up and change our entire lives, but that's what happened to Lismore's Bronwyn Finlayson when she visited Vietnam a year ago and saw the contrast between rich and poor.
Bronwyn did some work with the Global Volunteers Network and also taught English, and found herself so touched by Vietnam's gentle people and their struggle to find work that she moved there permanently in August to help the poor and disenfranchised of Da Nang set up micro-businesses.
"I was driven to go back so I packed up my house and just went," Bronwyn said of her snap decision. "Once I had gotten involved in these people's lives I saw the despair in many of them and how they feared for their future in terms of getting employment. Families sacrifice so much to send their children to school and get an education but even when they study and work hard for five or six years and get a good degree, often all they can get is a job with a pittance wage.
"I know one woman who slaved her life away working in rice fields and in a factory, and now has a job in a shoe shop... she supports her elderly parents, two unemployed sisters and has put her brother through school. I saw their lives and thought, 'I want to do something about this'."
Bronwyn said Da Nang's stunning beachfront is riddled with high-end resorts, but few tourist dollars flow down to the locals as the resorts cater for the elite visitors and the town is not on the well-worn backpacker trail.
She remembers well the moment that changed her world forever, inspiring her to leave behind her life in Australia to help her new friends in Vietnam.
"There is this huge golf resort, it's the very lap of luxury, and I was walking past it looking at these rich Westerners when I saw this little boy on the edge of the road, trying to sell a few flowers for a few dong to get his meal for the night," Bronwyn said, visibly emotional at the memory. "I was so overcome with shame and anger, and it really motivated me, so I started talking to some of the students who I had been teaching and Poverty Free Da Nang just evolved."
With a group of around 30 Vietnamese people, Bronwyn is now in the process of establishing the organisation Poverty Free Da Nang, which will help fledgling businesses get off the ground.
She hopes the opening of an international airport will put Da Nang on the tourist map, and is buying a shop that will be the headquarters for several micro-businesses designed to capture some of the tourist market.
One business, Off the Beaten Track, will offer Australians tours that include local cultural experiences while another, Brave Lady Homestays, will target foreigners wanting more authentic accommodation, and the two can work hand in hand.
There is also Seeing Hands Massage, a business which seeks to provide income for blind people who have magic hands, and Poverty Free Da Nang Handcrafts, so people in remote villages have a place to market and sell their homemade crafts.
"We're in the baby stages but the idea is once the businesses start earning profit some of that money will go straight back into building other micro-businesses - that's the dream," Bronwyn said.
Bronwyn returned to Australia this Christmas to visit family and try to recruit tour operators as well as spread the word to tourists who want to visit Vietnam or people interested in volunteering with the projects.
She realises there is a long way to go and it will take time to build, but she's in no rush - the fact she's doing something to help gives her a sense of peace and she said she has no plans to return to Oz.
"I just love it there... in fact, I had a bit of a meltdown when I came back to Australia because it's just so different," Bronwyn said. "There's something very real about being with the people I've met. The relationships you make with people in adversity are deeper than the relationships you make with people when life is easy. They are very special relationships. Vietnam's my home now - I'll die there."
For more information about the project, tours or volunteering, email Bronwyn at bronfinlayson
@hotmail.com or visit www.offthebeaten
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