The Reading Glass Project



(Guidance from 54 Traditions, Hanoi, Vietnam)



See Additional Photos of Ethnic Villages

The need:

•The rural areas are poor, the mountainous areas more poor, and the tribal areas even more poor.

•The “poverty line” in the mountains varies, but hovers near $125. US a year (not a month) per person.  About 1/3 of  residents of the mountain areas fall below this line.

•Reading glasses are rarely seen in the most isolated communities

•Older people, especially women, often have poor eyesight, in part from hours of embroidering in bad light, etc.

•Although not a large expenditure by Western Standards, the $3-4 that they cost is a problem there.

•For older women, embroidering is one of the few ways to contribute materially to the family (by making embroidery for sale). Some women lack a family or spouse to support them (the residua of half a century of wars). For them, there are few, if any options or opportunities.

The answer:

•In Hanoi, reading glasses cost around $3. US. In the mountains, they cost more (transport costs, no competition, etc.).

•In the US, drug-store chains charge over $10., but good ones can often be found in “99 cent stores” for…99 cents.  In New York City, Jack’s 99 Cent Stores are “the place” (40th and Madison in Manhattan, others).

•The range needed is 2.00 to 4.00 diopters, with preponderance at 2.50 to 3.75.   4.0 is rarely found . (The worse the close vision, the higher value that is needed).

•Also needed is an object upon which to have each potential recipient  focus, to get an estimate of strength (in diopters) best suited for him/her. Postcards (especially New York City skylines) are great for this. They double as a small gift.

The “drill”:

1.When entering a village, connect with the child who will, inevitably, be the first one to greet you.

2.Identify respective homes (“Viet Nam, New York. Viet Nam, New York) with appropriate pointing at him/her and yourself.

3.Establish that the postcard shows your home, again by pointing (alternating between the postcard and yourself, and saying, “N.Y., N.Y.”). 

4.Autograph the postcard on the back (e.g. Love, Traveling Tom).

5.Give the child the postcard.

6.He will run home, show it around the family (siblings, parents, etc.), generally starting with the youngest and ending up with the elders.

7.When you arrive in the village, observe the distance at which each elderly person holds the postcard, which is the distance at which it is in clearest focus.

8.Estimate strength needed (14”-needs none; 18”- 2.0 diopters; etc. , up to a fully extended arm’s length (which demands the strongest that you have- usually 3.50 or 3.75).

9.Give her a pair of the appropriate strength. It is often obvious that she does not know how to wear them. Demonstrate on you and then on her.

10.Observe what she picks up to be the first object seen – almost always, it is her coat or other textile. The realization that the glasses will allow her to embroider (by making the weave visible) is immediate, as is the joyous reaction to that fact.  (See the photo above for an example of this experience.)

11.Smile, shake hands, and get a picture of her and you (for the folks back home). Leaving  the tag on the glasses for the photo is good; it makes the point that these are new, and it gives you a chance to explain what has transpired and perhaps motivate others to become “reading-glasses distributors”.

12.Refuse any token offered as compensation, unless they seem to be offended by this (in which case, you yield).

13.Cut off the tags with scissor, nail clipper or pocketknife.

14.Watch the other kids who observe this interaction.  they will scamper off to tell their own elders; if you stay a while, expect   the arrival of other elderly folks who know a good thing when the “see” it.

15.Repeat steps 7 – 14, as needed.

16.Although women have the greatest need, men will also want them- to read, etc. However, few (if any) will participate in the aforementioned public distribution.  Presumably, this is because (being guys) they are unwilling to admit their “aging” or “imperfection” in front of the whole village.

17.Expect women of progressively lower ages to come and request glasses. Some do, in fact, need them now.  For the others, it is, “Hey, the price is right, and sooner or later, we WILL need them.)

18.If possible, reserve 2 or 3 pair for your departure from the village.  Expect a few men to tug at your sleeve (in semi-private) as you leave, indicating a need for them that they were unwilling to acknowledge in more public surroundings.

19.Bask in benevolent and justifiable joy.

20.Tell everyone that you know to bring glasses to Viet Nam.  Even if not coming to Viet Nam any time soon, you can still help.  Send glasses (or the money to buy them) to the 54 Traditions office in NYC to the  c/o M. Rapoport, 1215 Fifth Ave, Apt. 2C., New York, N.Y. 10029.  Other travelers will transport them to VN and still others will distribute them. 

21.It’s a mitzvah!

Mark Rapoport, MD

54 Traditions Gallery

Hanoi, Vietnam 

To order lots of dollar glasses, check this link:

Village Woman with New Glasses

Photo courtesy of Dr. Mark Rapoport, 54 Traditions Gallery