Sapa, with its terraced fields and colourfully attired Red Dao and Hmong peoples, is a Mecca for tourists. This is where the idea for Vision Vietnam blossomed. Vision Vietnam recycles old eyeglasses and gives people in need a new shot at seeing clearly. This is especially important for the ethnic minority women who spend hours in poorly lit environs embroidering bags and garments with impossibly small and intricate stitches.
The charity began eight years ago when five women from Sorel-Tracy, Quebec, asked Denis Bissonette to be their guide on a trip to Sapa. Anne Berard, Christine Bouchard, Lise Cote, Johanne Lamothe and Claudine Raymond came with a bag full of glasses to give away. The villagers they met had no access to vision care and were delighted with the new eyewear.
“The older women could work again, doing their sewing. Those who were literate could read again and some were able to drive safely again. Countless daily tasks were made easier. We were so happy to see the joy and hope on their faces,” recalls Bissonnette.
Vision Vietnam’s co-founder and project coordinator, Bissonnette is originally from Quebec and moved to Vietnam 12 years ago. He came to the country as a volunteer with World University Services of Canada and currently works in Hanoi as a university tourism lecturer and tour guide trainer. Of the five women founders, only Lamothe is still involved. “I thought it was a great idea and I wanted to keep it going,” says Bissonnette.
A Clear Vision
I met up with Bissonette at a local cafe and between sips of delicious Vietnamese coffee he told me how his eye doctor helped keep the project alive. “Dr. Quy is the president of the ophthalmologist Society of Vietnam. He put together a team of two doctors and four technicians and we went out to the floating villages in Halong Bay, as well as back up to Sapa,” says Bissonnette.
Glasses are usually collected in Canada through individual drives, association charity events and at opticians’ offices. Once enough have been collected, they are packed up and sent to Bissonnette for redistribution.
How does it work? “Dr. Quy takes out the old lens, checks the candidate’s eyes, cuts a new lens and pops it into the frame. The lenses are cheap and Dr. Quy gets them from his association. We collect the frames because they are so expensive,” he explains.
So far the team has visited 12 villages and distributed 10,000 pairs of glasses. Ten more villages are on their list and Bissonnette hopes to make the next trip in April or May. “We try to go out three or four times a year. We have to go when it is warmer, otherwise the older people don’t like to come out of the mountains,” he explains.
Vision Vietnam, a registered non-profit organization since 2008, has since branched out and is now also distributing glasses in Mali and China.