Thursday, January 8, 2015

Mountains, mopeds and a (slightly) manic classroom

You know you've been in Vietnam for awhile when it's strange to use silverware again. Not a negative strange, but just a sudden - oh, back to this now. And with it, back to a reality I'd disappeared from for 3 weeks. No more chopsticks, no more rice, no more mosquito nets.

3 weeks doesn't sound like too long, but my experiences of those days were immeasurable. Everything I saw was new. Everyone I met was new. I'd never been immersed in this degree of new-ness before, to say the least. It was wonderful and terrifying all at once - and being on my own made it all the more so. 

I arrived in Hanoi on a warm, overcast day. The Vietnamese would tell me winter was coming, but it was the most summer I'd felt in a long while. Even without the sun, I was in heaven. But the weather was the least of my focus within the hazy chaos of this 6.5 million-person city. And almost that same number of mopeds, no joke. 

riding on the back like a pro

I explored the city on the back of my trusty translator Anh's moped, and was stunned we survived the excursion. Incessant beeping, hundreds of mopeds everywhere, whizzing around carrying anything and everything on their backs - a refrigerator, a family of 4, the carcass of a freshly slain hog. Somehow, it all works. For the most part, at least. It amazed me every day of my visit. For the locals, it was just another day in the life.

the view stepping out from my homestay

I spent just 2 nights in Hanoi before taking an 8-hour night bus to my volunteer placement in the mountainous north - a tiny place called Tha Village. Population: about 500. Although I doubt it's ever been counted. We arrived to the village at about 4am - me, my translator, and my host family's son, Little Son (naturally, being the younger of their 2 sons). After a nearly sleepless night, I had exactly 4 hours until my first class as an English teacher. No reason to delay these things I guess. 

Teaching for me was truly a challenge. The city kids I taught a few kilometers away sat at desks in classrooms with notebooks and had a vocabulary of, say, a few hundred English words. The village kids, who knew only a few dozen English words, squeezed in along narrow benches in a large open space with a high roof and cement wall structures built around parts of the room. The kids ranged in age from 5 to 15 - basically, whoever in the village felt like showing up. Some evenings, 50 students sat in front of me; other times, fewer than 10.

In the midst of the chaos of this village "classroom" (if it can be called that), whatever other activities that were happening at that time would be happening in the same space, just a couple feet away from our lessons. This included a dozen elders "stretching their bones" to a work-out video; a meeting of the governing members in the community; and women practicing a dance for an upcoming festival. Not to mention the several construction workers who were temporarily living in the space. I never knew what I'd be walking into on any given evening. 

That being said, the moments when I experienced a break-through with the kids, however small, were incredible. And seeing their enthusiasm to learn was heart-rending. 

During the days, some of the kids would wander into my homestay on their own to play games or sing songs, a few carrying a tiny sibling strapped to their backs. Fortunately, I had lots of Swedish candy to share with them as prizes. They loved it.

earning my keep at my homestay - rice laid out to dry

It's difficult to summarize such an experience. The trip was one of the hardest things I've ever done; but one in which I grew the most. I truly immersed myself in a completely foreign place with only my translator to communicate with. No English-speakers, no "same-boat" confidant. Just me. And it was tough. But I also saw everything through my own eyes, rather than being influenced by how others interpreted any given situation. I observed a lot as events that I did not understand unfolded around me. And I wrote - filled 2 journals in fact, first page to last. 

I met some wonderful people in Vietnam who truly welcomed me as one of their own. One such man, a Mr. Cat, told me when we said goodbye that I was family now and should come back anytime. He said (all through Anh's translation) that you never know what the future holds, so Vietnamese people appreciate each moment as it's happening - just like Mr. Cat and his family had with my visit. 

I am trying to carry this wisdom with me, back to what feels like another planet here in Stockholm. Thank you Mr. Cat, Anh, Tha Village, and Vietnam for the experience of a lifetime in one of the most beautiful places in the world.

late afternoon light in Tha Village


  1. What a challenging experience! I am so proud of you! Lots of experiences to write about.