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Guest Post: What Sharing Jars of Vaseline in Indochina Taught Me About The Big Little Things

April 6, 2017

via Erika Stalder

It’s fitting that Erika Stalder is our first guest writer. The bubbly beauty freelancer (her byline appears regularly in Refinery29) has been a cheerleader for Random Acts of Lipstick since our inception, and shows the same love for budding lady entrepreneurs through her site PSTOL

In true do-gooder fashion, Stalder turned her vacation to Southeast Asia into a philanthropic pursuit (with the help of Vaseline), and documented it along the way. Here she details her visits with the locals, and shares why their interactions went far deeper than a product exchange. 

One of the coolest things about travel is seeing how other people live. When I visit Southeast Asia, I’m reminded of how little stuff I actually need in life (put me in a developing nation and I suddenly no longer covet Gucci loafers — a few items of clothing and a hammock makes me happy). Ditto for the useful things I take for granted while in the US. Take hygiene and personal health products: tampons, drinking water and Vaseline are so affordable and plentiful and such a no brainer, they’ve become a part of the furniture.

But as the folks at Vaseline recently showed me, a little skin salve can go a long way to help people who don’t have access to the product or the funds to buy it. Through its Vaseline Healing Project, in partnership with Direct Relief, the company provides simple, but essential skin care to millions of people in places like Jordan, the Philippines, Nepal — and yes, the US.

As part of the project, dermatologists host medical clinics that give patients free dermatology examinations and medicines. And according to Directly Relief, a surprisingly high percentage of skin conditions treated (like cracks and burns) are those that could be easily healed or prevented if the patient had access to petroleum jelly.

In light of findings like these and upon hearing about my recent plans to visit Cambodia and Vietnam, the brand donated nearly 100 full-sized jars of Vaseline Jelly for me give to locals while abroad. My mission served me just as much as others. Sure, recipients of the simple skin salve were wonderfully happy and appreciative. But our interactions also reinforced a major idea that’s easy to forget: what we often think of as a little thing can actually be a very big deal. Below, see some of the people I met along the way:

Floating village of Chong Khneas on Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia.
Bright blue boats in this village, inhabited by a Vietnamese community, are built and bolstered by aluminum siding, tires and other recycled materials and houses entire families. The village used to be a fishing mecca — the lake reverses course during the monsoon season each year, creating the opportunity for hundreds of thousands of fish to be caught. Now, it’s become more of a tourist destination.

floating village

Girls at the floating village with their jelly

Does it feel strange to motor by these people’s neighborhood, gawking at their homes? Absolutely. But the lively fishing community has been hit the effects of hydropower super dams, built in the past few years by Chinese and and other governments. An ecological shift created by these dams (along with overfishing) has diminished fish populations. Meanwhile, a native Cambodian tells me that the government is doing its best to drive away inhabitants of the floating village by encouraging families give up their boats and move to stilted houses on land. The only hitch? Housing costs about $2K (a mint for most in the impoverished community) and the government won’t provide ownership papers for those who do buy. Though a steady stream of tour boats invasively circle their neighborhood daily, a the Cambodian man tells me that many residents don’t want to leave: this is their home, plus, there’s a growing tourism economy that stops off at the village’s floating restaurant to see caged crocodiles, snakes and buy fruit and trinkets from the villagers.

I gave a few villagers tubs of Vaseline at this stop. Though they didn’t know what Vaseline was at first, the girls of the village became really excited after a translator explained that it can wick away water from skin, mend cuts, and moisturize lips. After a few minutes, friends were bringing friends to score a jar for themselves.

Ho Chi Minh City Airport, Vietnam
After running my checked bag through the scanner at customs, the female agent asked me to open it up. Why did I have so many of the same thing, she wanted to know?

Later, I’m advised that the government and/or police often want their cut when bulk items come in, though particularly when carried by locals. A Vietnamese-born man with family still living in a rural area of the country tells me that supplies and services of NGOs that come to the country to provide medical care are compromised when they try to serve communities in the country. Some medical supplies are confiscated by customs and government officials, the man tells me. And for one such organization that he knows of, the government insisted on overseeing the application process for treatment in the past. As a result, I’m told, those connected to government officials were first to get seen, even at the expense of others who desperately needed medical attention. Now, the man tells, organizations like this are careful to directly hand out applications to those who need medical attention most.

Of course, I know nothing about such things when rolling through security at the airport. I explain that I’m here to give away 70-odd tubs of Vaseline, furnished by the company. After I offer her a jar, she declines, saying, “Your company will know one is missing.” After we talk for another five minutes, in which I try to explain that it’s my job to give them away, she agrees to take a jar. “I try to drink a lot of water, but my lips are so dry.” she says. Thankfully, my booty passes inspection and I’m sent on my way. Before I go, I ask if I can take her picture, but she points to the ceiling and subtly shakes her head.

Can Tho Market, Vietnam
There are a few floating markets in Southeast Asia that sell tchotchkes to tourists. But Can Tho is home to one of the last legit floating markets in region in which vendors sell fruit, fish and Vietnamese coffee by boat. At Can Tho’s on-land market, this woman was so delighted to receive a jar of Vaseline, she gave me a few of her pickled olives, before telling her friends to see me. In less than four minutes, I disperse 12 jars of Vaseline to smiling and grateful women.

Hoi An Market

A pineapple seller at Can Tho Floating Market.

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam
The limestone formations that dot Ha Long Bay are so beautiful. And so are the local fisherman, who I met along the way. These smiling boat operators were kind enough to pose for this picture before helping me on their motorboat. Once we shoved off, the guys dug into their tubs immediately, spreading the salve on dry elbows. The girl pocketed hers — she tells me she’s going to give it to her mother.

Ha Long Bay

The smiling boat operators!

Get Involved: Build a Vaseline/Direct Relief Kit for someone in need, right from your phone or computer. The items in each kit might seem #basic, but they do a lot to help those living in crisis and disaster-affected areas.

Erika Stalder is a LA-based author and beauty writer who contributes to Refinery29 and other publications. She is the creator of PSTOL, a site for girls who want to build their own empires and aren’t afraid to break a few nails along the way.


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