The Legacy of the Vietnam War and Disability in Vietnam

Vietnam is a beautiful country, with stunning scenery, delicious food and incredibly friendly and welcoming people. However, the Vietnam war has left a lasting legacy on the country. Between 1961 and 1972, the US military embarked on Operation Ranch Hand – an operation to destroy forest cover for Vietnamese troops, as well as the crops that were being grown to feed them. During this time, 19 million gallons of ‘Rainbow herbicides’, the most effective and notorious of which was ‘Agent Orange‘, were sprayed over 4.5 million acres of land in Vietnam.


It was later found that the herbicides used to produce Agent Orange contained TCDD, a highly toxic dioxin. The impact on Vietnam and its people was severe and its impact is still ongoing. The Vietnamese Red Cross estimate that over 3 million Vietnamese people have been affected by Agent Orange, including 150,000 children born with birth defects. Decades after Agent Orange was used, children in the fourth generation continue to be born with disabilities and life threatening illnesses.

According to a recent study, there are over 6.7 million people with disabilities living in Vietnam – approximately 6.3% of the population. Due to the social stigma attached to disability, many people are hidden away by their families and never leave their homes, while others are placed into orphanages or government care homes. Disabled people are also often denied the same opportunities as other members of society, in terms of education, employment and social care – they have little chance to change their path in life.

Lifestart Foundation – Changing Lives for Those Living With Disabilities in Hoi An

The area around Hoi An has been badly affected by the use of Agent Orange.  Although Hoi An itself was spared direct spraying of Agent Orange, the nearby hills were heavily contaminated. The area around Da Nang airbase, which was used as the largest storage facility for Agent Orange, has dioxin contamination up to 350 times higher than international recommendations for remedial actions. The contamination of the area has had a lasting and devastating effect. Quang Nam, Hoi An’s province, has one of the highest levels of disability in the country, with an estimated one in ten households affected by someone with a disability – this puts a tremendous strain on these families.

Lifestart Foundation is an amazing grassroots, non-profit organisation in Hoi An, which supports disadvantaged Vietnamese people and their families, helping them to become self-sufficient and independent.  By giving people opportunities that would otherwise be unavailable to them, such as education, healthcare and key life skills, Lifestart Foundation aims to start a generational change and create sustainable income streams for these families.


Lifestart Foundation was founded by Australian, Karen Leonard, in 2000 and her story is nothing short of inspirational. While travelling around Vietnam several years ago, Karen befriended a young street boy and met his friends and their families – from this point onwards, Karen has dedicated her life to supporting this young boy and other people in need in Vietnam. This was the start of Lifestart Foundation.

However, Karen explained to us that it wasn’t always easy – she was unfamiliar with the customs in Hoi An and had to quickly learn how everything operated in Vietnam. She was also very concious of being ‘a stranger in a new country and… not trying to impose western thoughts and ideals within this culture’.

Despite these early challenges, Lifestart Foundation has gone from strength to strength – it now offers secondary school education scholarships to disadvantaged children, runs a free disability community centre which offers disabled people access to rehabilitation and exercise plans and has recently started a programme to build new homes for Vietnamese families in need. Over the previous 15 years, Lifestart has sponsored over 100 families, granted over 100 education scholarships to disadvantaged children, mentored over 45 at risk young people into traineeships under their Jobstart programme – as well as a huge range of other amazing achievements.

Lifestart Foundation also has its own workshop in Hoi An, where beautiful fair trade handmade items are made by disadvantaged and disabled people, who receive 100% of the profits from the sale of their products. Tourists can not only buy some of these items to bring home with them (each items is tagged with the name and story of the maker, so make incredibly personal gifts), but can sign up to craft classes in the workshop, including lantern making and traditional Vietnamese painting (we highly recommend it!).

Making lanterns at the Lifestart Foundation workshop
Making lanterns at the Lifestart Foundation workshop

The sale of the items from the workshop provides the workers with a sustainable source of income that would otherwise be unavailable to them, but allows them to regain their self confidence in a supportive and empowering environment. At the moment, there are 16 people working in the Lifestart Foundation workshop and a further 18 Cotu Yaya ethnic minority women work off-site; however, with a recent move to a larger premises, Karen is hoping that the crafting team will continue to grow.

Over the years, Lifestart Foundation has built up a great reputation and Karen told us how their ‘work and effort is appreciated at all levels of the community‘. By helping people with disabilities achieve their full potential, Karen also explained how Lifestart Foundation has changed attitudes towards disabled and disadvantaged people in Hoi An:

I think that being able to teach our disabled members to make such beautiful products for sale in the Lifestart Foundation Workshop shows the community that despite having severe disabilities all of our makers, given the opportunity, are able to live independent lives. They are valued members of our team, they are financially self-sufficient and are active members of the wider community – Karen Leonard, Founder of Lifestart Foundation

Lifestart Foundation really is an amazing project that is changing the lives of disabled and disadvantaged people in Hoi An. Karen hopes that with the ongoing support of their sponsors and tourists visiting the town that she can ‘continue to grow Lifestart Foundation in a sustainable way and to continue to help as many disadvantaged and disabled people as possible’.

We wish Karen, and all the Lifestart Foundation team, all the best for the future!

Sinh’s Story

We were moved by everyone’s story at Lifestart Foundation; however, for us, the story of Sinh really epitomised what Lifestart Foundation is about – allowing disadvantaged people the opportunity to realise their full potential and change their futures.

When Sinh was 6 months old, his mother died. Sinh, and his older brother Tu, were then abandoned by their father. When family members could no longer take care of them, they were placed in an orphanage where they spent the next 11 years. This is where Karen first met Sinh – they had an instant connection. Karen also found that Sinh was an extremely talented artist. Over the years, Karen and Lifestart Foundation have helped Sinh build a career as a successful artist.

Sinh became a Lifestart recipient, enabling him to purchase painting equipment and Karen found him an art residency in a local cafe, which gave Sinh the opportunity to sell some of his paintings to both locals and tourists. Sinh also expressed an interest in the work Karen was doing at Lifestart Foundation and asked whether he could volunteer teaching art at the school. Sinh is now a successful painter and his talent is recognised both locally and internationally.  He is also a fantastic teacher – during our traditional Vietnamese painting lesson with Sinh, you could clearly see how much he adores painting. It was infectious! You can check out Sinh’s wonderful artwork on his website.

Sinh from the Lifestart Foundation
Sinh teaching one of his traditional Vietnamese art classes. Photo courtesy of Lifestart Foundation.

Karen not only gave Sinh the confidence and resources to develop a successful career as an artist – she also gave him a new family. In 2006, Karen adopted Sinh and Tu, giving them the opportunity to live in a family environment after a very difficult start to life. Both the boys still live in Hoi An with Karen – Sinh continues to paint (you can visit his gallery at the Lifestart Foundation workshop) and Tu, who originally trained as a woodcarver, visited Australia with Karen to train as a couture dressmaker. He is based in Hoi An, but has customers worldwide!  Sinh and Tu also volunteer at Lifestart Foundation. Both of Karen’s sons are happily married with children – making Karen a very happy and proud grandmother!

There are so many wonderful stories about people that have been helped by Lifestart Foundation; however, Sinh’s story truly shows the massive impact that one person can have on someone’s life. Karen is a truly inspirational lady and we were honoured to meet her amazingly talented son, Sinh.

How Can You Help?

Tourism plays a big role in Lifestart Foundation.  Hoi An is, understandably, a popular tourist destination in Vietnam and the number of visitors to the town continues to increase every year. Karen said that she has noticed that most tourists do want to ‘do the right thing’ and are keen to support local initiatives that directly help the local community.

Most of our tour customers have said to us “if we are going to spend a half day doing a tour then we would much rather it be to benefit the disadvantaged and disabled people in the local community” – Karen Leonard, Founder of Lifestart Foundation

However, Karen explained to us that ‘the main challenge is fundraising to support the growing projects that Lifestart Foundation has developed’.  So, what can you do to help support the great work that goes on at Lifestart Foundation?

Buy gifts and souvenirs from the workshop – each item is tagged with a photo and a brief background of the maker, making it a very personal gift to bring back home.

Sign up for a workshop at Lifestart – the half day workshops include a lantern making and traditional painting class (with Sinh) for $33 per person. You will also get to see the wonderful workshop staff  in action, making their beautiful products.

Donate to Lifestart – you can either make a one off donation or become a Lifestart Foundation Monthly Member. All donations  help fund Lifestart Foundation philanthropic projects.

Buy someone a gift certificate to help a family – rather than buying friends and family presents for special occasions, why not buy them a gift certificate to help disadvantaged people in Vietnam. Prices range from $50 to buy a family chickens to $3,500 for a Secondary School Educational Scholarship.

Become a ‘Sales Angel’ – download the Lifestart Foundation catalogue and help to sell the makers’ products around the world.

Let us know: Will you check out the Lifestart Foundation in Hoi An when you go? Tell us below!


3 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Pingback: Why and How to Help Locals When Travelling

  2. Charlie 9 August, 2015 Subscriber

    What an incredible story, and it’s so amazing that there are people doing great things to support the community on Hoi An.

    • Karianne 23 August, 2015 Contributor

      It really is such an amazing organisation and we felt very lucky to have met all of the Lifestart workers – such wonderful people with such inspirational stories to tell!

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