Le Quy Don Gifted High School
Complete with a picture of Uncle Ho.
Today Class. . .
How do I describe something that is indescribable? It is one thing to try to put into pictures and words an awesome sight, like Angkor Wat or the Great Barrier Reef. It is quite another feat to try to describe an experience, an interaction with people, which leaves you feeling like a changed person. How do you explain a life changing event?
Early Monday morning we were picked up by a taxi driver in Hue to drive about one and half hours north to the small city of Dong Ha. Dong Ha has a population of 80,000 people and is one of the larger towns in Quang Tri Province. Quang Tri is the province lying at the crossroads of the former DMZ, which meant it was one of the most heavily bombed areas during the war. As a result, it remains on of the poorest areas of Vietnam and one of the areas most affected by UXO and landmines. We had no idea what to expect, but we knew were there for a reason - to teach English to a group of eager, gifted high school students.
The opportunity came to us
Le Quy Don
in a fairly circuitous way. I mentioned to a good friend, Josh Odintz, that we were going to Vietnam and were interested in trying to volunteer while there. He suggested we contact his former mentor, a fellow tax attorney, Bill Goldman with McDermott in DC. Bill has worked with Global Community Service Foundation (GCSF), which is an organization that specializes in various relief efforts in Vietnam, with a focus on Quang Tri Province. Bill put us in touch with Marcia, Rad, and Tam, who together helped us create a program to teach English. We were both excited and nervous about the experience. We were one of the first groups to teach at this school and we felt pressure to do a quality job.
As soon as the taxi driver dropped us off at Le Quy Don Gifted High School we were met by our contact from GCSF, Tam. Tam showed us to our room in the dormitory. Le Quy Don has about 600 students from Dong Ha and Quang Tri Province. Of the 600 students, about one hundred live in the dormitory on campus. We were going to be their neighbors for the next five nights. I would not
Mrs. Amber & Mr. Eric
The newest addition to Le Quy Don's faculty.
say we had western, four star accommodations, but it was good enough for our temporary housing. After dropping off our bags, we were escorted to the staff lounge to meet with some of the teachers to organize our classes. We were asked to show the students some pictures of US and International cities, and to discuss other specific topics. We were not sure how many students we were teaching and when we would be teaching what. We were unsure when we would be doing our presentations.
The teachers organized the week so that we would be teaching three to four 45 minute classes each morning consisting mostly of grades 10 and 11 (grade 12 was focused on end of school examinations). The morning students generally were not English majors. Even in high school, the students have majors, focusing on biology, chemistry, physics, literature, or computers. In the afternoons we were scheduled to meet with students who were majoring in English, and therefore were more advanced in their ability to comprehend our lessons. The afternoon class would be three hours long each day. Wow. We had our work cut out for us.
The first day we were thrown to
the wolves, at least I was. For the most part, Eric and I taught separately each morning so that we could meet with more students - spreading the wealth. The first morning, Eric was asked to just wing it - get into class and talk about himself and anything else he wanted to. Needless to say, as a salesman, he excelled. Those of you who know Eric well know he has no problem just talking. I, on the other hand, walked into a classroom where the teacher handed me the lesson plan and asked me to actually TEACH, including grammar. It was a lesson about announcements - what is an announcement, what is an announcer, and what information is included in an announcement. I also needed to teach the difference between “a,” “an,” “the,” and “zero article” - meaning on article is needed. As I remembered from Laos, it is one thing to understand the rules of grammar and use them practically. It is another thing to explain to students why I use one word rather than another. Why do I not use an article in front of “home” in the sample sentence? Because it just sounds right. I felt
like my parents’ reasoning for most things I asked about - because I said so. I did alright with the lesson, but knew I could do better with more preparation. After I finished my first class, while Eric “taught” another class - just talking about whatever he wanted to - the teacher insisted I was tired from the journey and asked if I wanted to rest. I returned to my room and waited for Eric to finish. I was feeling like a failure at my first real teaching gig. How could Eric be more in demand than me??
During our first afternoon we ate lunch with one of the teachers, Mr. Hai, and a representative from GCSF, Ms. Nguyet in the canteen. The canteen is the kitchen attached to the dormitory and where we intended to eat all of our lunches and dinners during the school week. I was quite impressed with the food. It was way better than what I remember high school lunches to be in the US. We received a large bowl of fresh rice, two kinds of stir fried vegetables, a grilled pork chop, a piece of fish, and soup. It was served with slices
of fresh garlic and small red hot chilies. Yummy. Mr. Hai and Ms. Nguyet were impressed that we knew how to use chopsticks. The cook had a small son, about two years old, who was totally adorable. The first time he saw Eric stand up I thought he would fall over backwards trying to crane his neck all the way up to see the towering giant before him. Although he was quiet, not speaking any English or Vietnamese, he became a ham for our camera and posed throughout the week. Quite a cutie.
We ate lunch around 11 am each day after our morning classes. Then we had the best part of the day - nap time. Each day the students finished school a little before 11 and returned to class at 2pm. In between, the students who live off campus would travel to their homes to have lunch, nap, and refresh, and most importantly to avoid the midday heat. On our first day, after a good hour long nap, we returned to the teachers’ lounge just before 2pm for our special presentation.
During each afternoon class we taught five subjects: (1) US destinations; (2) International cities; (3)
American movies and the Oscars; (4) the dangers of fast food and traditional American food (including a discussion of the food pyramid and the concept of a balanced meal); and (5) the history of rock and roll in America. For our first afternoon Eric and I started with US destinations. We had a power point presentation with photos from our computer and from the internet. We talked about NYC, Chicago, Washington DC, and the First Family. We also talked about San Francisco, Dallas, Hawaii, and of course, Disney World. I was filled with trepidation after my somewhat disastrous morning, but the students were quite receptive. At first the students were very shy, not wanting to ask questions or answer questions we posed. By the end the students were more receptive, and by the end of the week we could not get them to be quiet! Quite the turn around. In the end we taught two English classes, meeting with each twice in the afternoon. Our presentations were a hit. Consistently, certain photos invoked similar reactions - our pictures of Times Square on New Year’s Eve, New York Style pizza, and Walt Disney World all elicited a combined “awh” from the
These children are not students, but showed up outside our door each afternoon wanting us to take pictures.
To explain the English words were using and to make the class more interesting, I broke out my NITA training that Baker & McKenzie has spent so much time and money investing in. NITA is the National Institute of Trial Advocacy, and part of the training includes learning how to tell a story - to a judge or to a jury - adjusting your delivery depending on your audience. It includes using hand gestures and facial expressions and changing your tone of voice to add emphasis to the words coming out of your mouth. I used these techniques more while teaching than ever before as an attorney. To describe the Sears Tower I raised my hands tall to describe the height, and explained about taking the elevator all the way up. And, if you forget something in your car you take the elevator all the way down and all the way back up. Then, if the elevator breaks, you walk all the way up the stairs, of course using my fingers to do the walking. I used large gestures to describe the fireworks on New Year’s Eve in Times Square and to describe the yellow taxi cabs and
Eric Trying to Keep up
Eric promised he would play football with the kids, but I think it almost killed him.
the traffic in NYC. I used my hands to describe a Broadway musical - to show singing and dancing. Of course I did a Hula dance for Hawaii. Most of the teachers at the school would teach from behind the desk in the front of the room. The students would stand when the teacher enters and not sit until the teach sits down. I would have to tell the students it was okay to sit after I greeted them, like I was the bailiff in a court room. I think the students found our approach refreshing, with both of us using the classroom as a giant stage to act, dance, and even sing. We paced in front of the class and down the aisles to ensure no student could hide from class participation. The teacher power was intoxicating!
As the week wore on, our morning classes were an interesting mix of chatting with the students and teaching particular lessons. Together, Eric and I covered the World Cup, a comparison of NYC and London, the Great Wall of China, the Pyramids, and the Space Age. And, Eric and I were prepared for virtually none of the lessons. Each topic would
Vy and the Turtle
One of the students presented us with a gift - a turtle made of shells from the local river.
include some sort of reading, where we read to the class to let them hear a native English speaker. We would ask them to repeat some new words back to us and spent time helping them understand the meanings of some difficult words. We continued with the lesson plans asking them specific questions from the book or doing fill in the blank exercises to test their comprehension. In the comparison of NYC and London the book described New Yorkers as friendly and open. I did not tell the teachers nor the students that generally New Yorkers are not known for being particularly friendly. I mean fuggedabouit.
Also, as befitting a celebrity, students started to show up at class with cameras, asking us to take pictures at the end of class. One day, I noticed students trying to sneak photos with their mobile phones. After a few clicks I made the mistake of smiling for one of the photos and suddenly a dozen students had their mobiles out. To restore order, and becoming the tough teacher I was supposed to be, I informed them that they could take no more pictures during class because we were there to learn and
make it through the lesson. I am such a hard ass. I promised them that they could take as many photos as they wanted when class was over. There were many classes where Eric and I were dazed from flashes and smiles after. It was quite flattering and I can only imagine how many pictures of us there are on facebook right now!
Inquiring Minds Would Like to Know
The real fun in the class came when the students felt comfortable enough to ask questions. In some classes it was like pulling teeth getting them to ask us something, anything. We always started by saying that they could ask us about personal stuff, US cities, international travel, sports, music, movies, celebrities, university life, or teenagers in the US. No subject was off the table. Some students took advantage and some students hid in the back, hoping we would not call on them. At the end of each 45 minutes class, it was usually the time the students started to feel more comfortable and started asking questions. But, like in the US where a teacher or student might avoid a question saying “saved by the bell,” at
the end of the 45 minute class I would be saved by the drum. Someone emerged at the end of each class period and banged a drum on the ground level. At least once this saved me from having to sing to a class.
Most of the teachers encouraged the students to ask questions, trying to point out that this was an incredible opportunity for the students to learn about English culture and customs. One teacher in particular gave the students a homework assignment. When I arrived in their class, there was no lesson plan, but every student had a question prepared. Some of the questions were fairly typical among each class. How long are you in Vietnam? What have you seen in Vietnam? Do you like the food in Vietnam? Do you have children? How old are you? What is your job in the US? What kind of sports do you like? Some of the students had more unique questions. What advice do you have on how they can learn English, study in the US, or volunteer? What is your love story? Another popular question included the students asking us to sing a song, which we sometimes did,
singing a lovely rendition of “You are my Sunshine” - the only song we could figure out how to sing. We are not that talented. Often we would then turn on the students, asking them to perform a song. Generally at least one brave sole would sing, and sometimes the entire class. They were generally more willing to volunteer to sing than we were.
One student asked Eric what he thinks of Vietnamese women. Being the diplomat he is, he answered that the women are beautiful, intelligent, but shy. And, the women like to giggle - which they do. I held my hand to my mouth and giggled like the Vietnamese women, which made all of the girls in the room giggle. When I pointed out that they were giggling just like we said they would, they giggled even more with their hand raised to their mouth. Every time we told the story to more of the girls, they always giggled. It was precious.
Take Me Out to the Ballgame
We talked about the Chicago Cubs and the perennial heartbreak that comes with being a fan of the Cubbies. We showed them pictures of Wrigley
Eric and the Ladies
Accepting a gift of a Trung - local musical instrument from the minority tribes in the area.
Field. In response, a student asked how to play baseball. A good question indeed. So, Eric and I drew some diagrams on the chalkboard and acted out some throwing and hitting. We explained it in simple terms. Then, the class took a 15 minute break. During the break many students came up to Eric to ask more questions about how baseball is played, so we decided to explain it in more depth once class began again. We remembered we had some more pictures of the Cubs on our computer, including a video of a pitch from the seats behind home plate. During the break, Eric reviewed what pictures we had and while reviewing the folders of photos a few students saw a folder entitled “Wedding pix”, which contains only seven or eight photos from our wedding. So, we showed the girls the photos, with the appropriate oohs and aahhs.
When class returned we described baseball with some more visual aids and although they seemed to understand, we made a plan to play baseball Friday afternoon. Somebody obtained softball bats and balls for GCSF that were made available to us. We agreed that we would teach baseball on Friday. After
Now, this was a sight - singing Old MacDonald.
the topic of baseball was put to rest, we ran through our music presentation and still had more time for questions. Of course, the students who were not in the room during break did not see our wedding photos, so we were asked to show them again. Then, they wanted to see even more photos, so we showed pictures of Eric’s family and my family, down to the newest niece and nephew in their matching pink and blue onesies. Another round of ooh and aahhs ensued.
Friday afternoon, of course, was the hottest day yet. Eric and I reviewed our strategy on how to teach baseball to about fifty students at once. We started inside in an auditorium to just stay out of the sun. Now, we had no gloves and we were trying to encourage the students not to throw or hit the balls too hard. Our first task was warm up, just to have the students stand in lines across from each other to throw the ball back and forth. That was successful, so we moved onto running around the bases, which were drawn in chalk on the concrete floor. Then, we asked the students to line
Are the students actually interested in what I am saying?
up to start hitting balls and running around the bases. Eric pitched and I fielded balls until the first student made it to home, and then they joined me in the field. We continued in this fashion until about ten or fifteen students had hit, and then Eric needed a break from sweating in the stifling heat of the auditorium. We stepped outside for some air and within only a few minutes I returned to quite the sight. We had been warning the students about how hard the balls are, and about not standing near the batter as he swings. All of these warnings appeared to go in one ear and out the other. About a half dozen students were swinging bats, while their friends were pitching to them. Then, the batters would hit the ball all over the auditorium with students standing everywhere. We had not yet taught them “heads up.” I tried to make the rounds to encourage safety first, but there was too much excitement to stop now. So, we agreed to move it outside.
Eric found a small area in the back of the school in some shade to continue the rounds to ensure that
each student had an opportunity to practice hitting the ball. After everyone hit, we took a break. At this point, the students had warmed up to us completely. I sat on a step and at least a dozen students crowded around me, sitting on the step or on the ground, as if I was Santa Claus, and it was time for a story. They continued asking me questions, including one girl whispering in my ear so that Eric could not hear “Did you have any boyfriends before Mr. Eric?” I asked them if they had boyfriends (only one admitted it) and what they were going to do for summer vacation (take extra classes in chemistry and physics of course). As the afternoon wore on, a group of students petitioned Eric to play a real baseball game, with teams and innings. As tired as Eric was he continued to give everything he had, although I was starting to fade fast in the heat. Eric and Mr. Hai set up some teams and play began. At first, things moved along well - Eric pitching for both teams. One of the girls caught three pop ups in a row and then took to
The Dreaded Drum
Although, it was also my savior when I escaped singing.
bat and hit a home run - a total natural. After a few innings though, one of the teams just started hitting triples and home runs left and right, and the team in the field just could not catch the balls. It was a romp. We lost score and had to teach the teams about the Mercy Rule to get the other time to get another chance at bat. Eric was melting in the heat, and he trained a young protégé to pitch for awhile. She held her own but after about 30 minutes pleaded “Eric can you help me??” So, Eric returned. The students were having a great time, but Eric and I were still nervous about injuries with no gloves. I am amazed that there were no broken bones at the end of the day.
We also found out that there is a traditional Vietnamese game similar to dodge ball in which a small, extremely soft ball is thrown at players. This became a problem. We taught the students the two ways to get an out with the ball - to tag the base before the runner or to tag the runner directly. At first, the rules
sunk in, but in the end, in all of the excitement, many students just started throwing the ball at the runners as they passed by, completely relying on instinct. At this point, it was getting close to 5 and we called last ups to prevent any further injuries. All in all it was a great success! The students were so excited to learn baseball and to get out there and play with us. It was a good ending to a wonderful week.
Our evenings in Dong Ha were spent experiencing the city’s extreme generosity and hospitality. Part of our volunteering experience was to make the rounds to help people outside of the school practice their English. Our first night, one of the teachers, Mr. Hai, took us out for coffee with some of his friends and one of the students. We hopped on the back of a couple of motos. We were becoming naturals on the back of the motos - no need to hold onto the “oh shit” bars this time. We quickly realized our celebrity status. Once people in town started to hear that two Americans were there to teach English, word
Throwing in the Auditorium
When we still had the game in control.
spread like wildfire. Because so few tourists head to Quang Tri Province, people who are trying to learn English rarely have the opportunity to hear a native speaker or to practice their English. We became guinea pigs to help the community try to better their conversational English. Even people who were too shy to speak in English, or have not been learning English for very long, came along just to hear us speak. It was unusual for us to feel so special. As a result, about nine of us sat around a small table drinking coffee and tea and chatting about anything that crossed our minds.
So, for our first night we sat with an engineer named Mr. Linh, Quang Tri’s version of Oprah who is the M.C. or host of the local news show, a graduate from law school who is now a journalist, and one of the most promising students at the school - who spoke almost perfect English. At the end of the night we never saw a bill come to the table. As Eric tried to pay for our tea, the Le Quy Don student explained that there is no concept of “going Dutch” in
Vietnam - the group invited us out so they paid for the round of coffees. We figured we would make more of an effort to pay in the future. We hopped back on the motos and in a few short minutes we were back on campus.
Tuesday night we were invited to dinner by a Chemistry teacher from the school at a local restaurant. I do not even think the restaurant had a sign outside. Inside, we sat at one table along the wall and there was another table behind us. There were a few tables of beer drinking Vietnamese outside. We were both nervous about what we would be offered to eat and excited to start eating like the locals do. The teacher and her husband, a doctor, wanted us to have dinner with their twelve year old son, Hung. Hung is in sixth grade and was the complete opposite of the shy students we met during class. He spoke English pretty well and was very inquisitive. He was always ready for another question for Eric or me, often so excited to ask the next question that we did not finish answering the first. The family also brought
their young daughter, who was maybe six years old. She wore an adorable white party dress dressing up for the new celebrities in town. The dress immediately became dirty when she had a chocolate ice cream bar, which immediately melted and dripped all over her pretty dress. The family also has a seventeen year old daughter who is studying in Singapore on a scholarship. Quite the intelligent bunch. Although the mother is still learning English, the father spoke pretty well. When his daughter came home from school in Singapore the first time she brought some of her old tests to show her parents. When her father reached for an exam, the daughter suggested he try a different one first that was easier. He said “my daughter thinks she is smarter than me.” His son, Hung, also excelled in computers and explained a lot about the internet and technology to his dad. The father exclaimed “my son also thinks he is smarter than me” to which Hung replied “no dad, just in computers.” I tried to explain to the father how in the US all parents hope that their children excel at school and become smarter and more successful than their
parents - that it is a source of great pride to a parent. I think he understood.
Ms. Nguyet from GCSF and two of the students from Le Quy Don also joined us for dinner. The conversation was never ending. Neither was the food it seemed. This started our experience of drinking beer the way the Vietnamese do. When we sat at the small table with small chairs the restaurant owner brought a large plastic milk crate filled with 20 bottles of the local beer, Huda. The crate sat at one end of the table where the father constantly reached for new bottles to fill the glasses around the table. We also received a large bucket of ice and thongs. All night our glasses were rarely empty, or even half empty, as the father and another man consistently dropped ice cubes in our glass and filled it up with beer. We had a great chicken soup that was served hot table side in a pot over the burner. The pot included chicken and vegetables in a tasty broth. Plates of sticky rice noodles were placed on the table and you would add the noodles to your bowl, pouring the
hot soup over the top. Some diced chilies on the table added to the flavoring. In addition to the soup, the father also ordered two plates of fantastic frog legs with chilies and lemongrass. At the end of the meal, we had tea of course. They had to practically roll Eric and me out of there. When Ms. Nguyet left the table towards the end to make a phone call, I asked her if we could pay for dinner to thank them for their hospitality. She replied that no, that would not be allowed. They invited us to dinner. At the end of the day, I felt okay with their treat considering we provided a good two hours plus of “free” tutoring for their ambitious son.
One our third night in Dong Ha we were back out with Mr. Hai and his friends. He asked if we would be interested in trying the local seafood, from the Dong Ha River. We said we would try anything, and he took us to our word. We hopped on some motos and actually left the town of Dong Ha, riding through the city, past the market, over the river, to a group
of restaurants on wooden planks reaching out into the river. Our experiences in Dong Ha continued to get more “local.” We were dining with the same four women we met at coffee, including “Oprah,” Mr. Linh, and a manager from one of the local banks, who spent two years living in the Netherlands. At the table next to us was a group of about nine soldiers dressed in their drab olive green uniforms. As the only westerners at the restaurant, and in fact, probably the only westerners in town, we were a little nervous with the guards next door. But, Mr. Hai appeared to know some of them and as they left the restaurant they waived to our table and some even said hello in English. We were safe.
As soon as we sat down, a nice plastic milk crate of beers arrived, along with the ever present bucket of ice. Let the evening’s festivities begin. Mr. Hai ordered two kinds of oysters. One was more similar to small clams in a broth of, what else but, chilies and lemongrass. They were phenomenal. We also had a small plate of salt, pepper, chilies, and lemon to dunk the clams
Eric and Mr. Hai
A self portrait.
into. Totally yummy and fresh. As I looked over the wood rail to the river that was once the home to the shellfish, I thanked the river for providing the bounty. The other oyster was a small round white and black shellfish which did not like to open easily. Mr. Hai continuously pried the fish open for me as the bevy of beauties sitting on Eric’s end of the table consistently filled up his bowl with the clams and open oysters. I definitely preferred the clams more, as the oysters were a little too gritty for my taste, but they were both bood. We had some green leafy vegetables, similar to a spinach or morning glory. This became an every present item on our table in Vietnam, generally stir fried with some soy sauce and large chunks of garlic.
As I continued to fill up on vegetables, shellfish, and the constant supply of beer, the conversation really started to flow. The girls were still pretty shy, but one was taking the lead on trying to ask questions and practice new words. The first night we met they kept trying to use Hai to run interference, but the great teacher
A typical case of Huda
The tab is calculated by the number of empty bottles at the end of a meal.
he is would tell them in Vietnamese - ask them yourself, forcing them to practice. We talked about the river flowing out to the South China Sea, pointing out that you could flop yourself in the river and float the 10 or 12 kilometers to the beach. One of the women kept repeating “river flows to the sea” to practice saying the word flows. She has a husband who owns a construction company and runs a guest house, in addition to her job as a journalist. I don’t know how it came up, but she started talking about how fat her husband is, and one of the other ladies agreed that he is really fat. This would probably not be a typical topic of conversation in the US, and it was refreshing. We told them about drinking habits in the US, including an explanation of the special way we drink shots of tequila. As I thought the evening was coming to a close, and as the dusk sky turned dark, a fish soup arrived at the table, with the sticky noodles on the side. This soup was similar to the chicken soup from the night before but instead of chicken
Seafood With Friends
That's Mr. Hai on the right
there were indescribable fish parts in the soup, possibly with some fish roe. I tried some of it to be polite, but it was not my favorite part of the dish. The soup itself, the vegetables, the noodles, all totally tasty, but the fish insides were too much for my western palate, particularly when I was no longer hungry and trying to force feed myself more food. And, although we tried to pay for dinner, the ladies chipped in to take care of the bill. This was going too far. The hospitality of the Vietnamese continued to surprise me.
After dinner we made our way to a café in town. Mr. Linh invited us to his English club that meets once a week to practice English. We were unsure what to expect, but continued along with the plans that were set for us. After many beers and several courses of fish, I again rolled myself out of the restaurant and onto the back of Mr. Linh’s moto. I was at first disappointed in English club. There were too many westerners there for my liking. I liked being special - I liked thinking we were the only foreigners in town.
Dinner with Oprah
That's the Oprah of Quang Tri Province on the Right
The English club was established by a Finnish woman named Maria who has spent two years working for a development fund in Quang Tri. She was joined by three Dutch women and a handful of young Vietnamese with varying levels of English competence. At first it seemed the westerners outweighed the Vietnamese in the group, but with the addition of Mr. Linh, Mr. Hai, Ms. Nguyet, and her “real” boyfriend, things evened out. We did not stay very long, maybe an hour. It was enough, though, to make a connection with a young Vietnamese woman, Ha, who works with Maria for the development fund. She has an interest in traveling and wanted to spend more time talking with us. Unfortunately, Maria was pretty particular about the group dynamics, and sometimes seemed annoyed with us for just talking amongst ourselves, having conversations with individuals sitting near us. Instead, she wanted one person in the group to talk at a time, but that did not leave much room for multiple people to practice at one time. Oh well, after an iced passion fruit tea, and making a new friend in Ha, we went on our way. We told Ha we would be
happy to be a connection for her in the US because she has an interest in visiting. Apparently it is quite difficult for a Vietnamese citizen to obtain a visa to visit the US. It is unclear to me whether the difficulty is caused by our country or theirs, but anything we could do to help we would.
We returned to the school about 9:30 Wednesday night. After three full days of teaching and three nights out in a row, Eric and I were exhausted - possibly letting on our tiredness a bit too much during the day. Earlier that day, on Wednesday morning, Tam and Nguyet took us for pho. We were told prior to our arrival that we could eat lunch and dinner at the canteen, but that for breakfast we were on our own. Knowing that, we brought some crackers and snacks for the morning to get us through until lunch. Our first morning Tam stopped to pick us up for Pho but there was a miscommunication on our part. We thought breakfast was at 7 and class started at 745, but instead breakfast started at 6:30 with class at 7. On Tuesday we had just
woken at 6:30 when Tam knocked on the door, so we had to pass, regrettably. On Wednesday, we were prepared. We were ready to go at 6:30 for breakfast. We hopped on the back of Tam and Nguyet’s motos and sped through town to have Nguyet’s favorite pho, and probably the best pho we have ever had. It was a steaming hot bowl of goodness with meat, greens, and chilies. We were, however, worrying about the time. The restaurant was a distance from the school and we were coming up on 7am. We assumed that Tam and Nguyet had cleared our schedule with the teachers, until the mobile rang around 7am, when we were finishing our pho and drinking the obligatory after meal tea. We raced back to the school and started late, Ms. Quy not too pleased with our tardiness. I did not want to get detention for our late arrival.
During Thursday, just to make small talk, we joked about how tired we were from the beers and fun the night before. We learned, though, the difference between the “I am exhausted” chit chat we engage in with friends and colleagues in the US. In the US,
everyone is always tired. I think we spend our lives working and balancing fun at the same time. Every Monday we say how much fun we had over the weekend and “boy, am I tired now.” “Looks like somebody’s got a case of the Mondays.” The gracious hospitality we experienced in Vietnam from all of the teachers and the representatives from GCSF took our tired comments to mean that we were actually too tired and needed a break. When Hai showed up at our door at 6:30 am on Thursday for pho, we were caught off guard. In our culture, meeting for food first thing in the morning requires advanced notice and preparation. On Thursday, Eric was ready by 6:30 but I was just getting out of the shower. So, Eric graciously declined the offer. When we joked later that morning about being tired, our hosts felt genuine concern. We were treated with kid gloves the remainder of the day and the teachers and GSCF gave us the night off Thursday night. We were scheduled to eat in the canteen and spend the night relaxing. In the end, we were happy for the night off with our busy schedule for
Friday, but we would have “cowboy’d up.” We knew we only had a few days in town and were trying to see and meet as many people as possible. Eric felt extremely bad that he declined Hai’s offer and felt we had made a huge cultural blunder by declining breakfast and saying we were tired. After our night in on Thursday, we prepared ourselves to get up earlier on Friday to readily accept an invitation for pho. But, of course, no one invited us! Again, we felt so bad that we had offended our hosts! This just meant that all day Friday we were such troopers - never saying we were tired. Even when teachers asked whether we were tired, we said it was just really our voices, from talking too much. This was a situation the Vietnam Lonely Planet Guidebook did not prepare us for.
Our Never-ending Farewell to Dong Ha
By Friday morning, our teaching gig was winding to a close. We were informed in the morning that we would be eating lunch in the canteen with some of the teachers. We were not prepared for what came next. The cook from the canteen
Eric, Hai, and Dieu
Mawt, Hai, Ba, Yo! 100%!
put out a spread in the staff lounge that could have fed a royal delegation. We had at least two plates of each item, including morning glory with garlic, a fantastic salad I think called nom, grilled prawns, pork, cuttle fish, rice, soup, and more. The entire table was filled with small plates of food. And, there were only about ten of us eating. We probably had food for twenty. The Huda beer was also poured quite generously, with ice of course, as we toasted our stay at Le Quy Don. The principal joined us for lunch and although his English is limited, his toast was translated to us. He said such kind and wonderful things about Eric and me and our help during the brief visit to the school. Eric tried to get across through translation that the pleasure was ours. Our experience in Dong Ha was the best part of our trip. The students were wonderful, bright, and full of promise. The teachers were welcoming and encouraging to us and dedicated to their students. It was a wonderful lunch.
The funniest part of the lunch was sitting next to one of the more senior teachers, who we
Our Chef for Our Last Night
A locals' bar in a small town.
later found out is heading into retirement soon. Mr. Hanh had taught several of the teachers and GCSF representatives at the table, including Ms. Quy, who has been teaching for twenty five years. Mr. Hanh also taught Tam. Tam became the butt of several jokes about his very fancy job with GCSF. He is a VIP - Very Important Person, although Mr. Hanh was pronouncing it more like “veep” rather than using the initials. He said VIP stood for “Very Impolite Person” referring to Tam, who was as sweet and polite as any person I have met. Mr. Hanh continued his antics by encouraging Eric and I to stay in Dong Ha and to teach permanently at Le Quy Don. He suggested that we return to the US to settle up our affairs to move to Dong Ha for the next school year, then changing his mind to say we should stay for the rest of our lives. He was giving us the “hard sell.” He informed us that in Dong Ha we would be unique and special, but that in the US we would just be normal. Why would we want to be normal? It was also interesting to
see the young ladies at the table doing most of the serving, including to Eric and I. When we slowed down eating the young teachers would encourage us to eat more by picking up pieces of food with their chopsticks and placing them directly in our bowl. It is how I ate more shrimp and pork than I initially planned.
At the end of the lunch Ms. Quy presented us each with a thank you gift, with the warning that the gifts were to be used at home in Chicago, not in Vietnam. Eric received a warm and cozy blue-grey wool scarf, and me a bright pink wool scarf and hat set. Totally funny as they each continued to warn us not to use them in Vietnam, and I introduced Mr. Hai to the phrase “thank you for stating the obvious.” As we modeled the wool for the teachers, we had to immediately peel the wool from our skins. Certainly too hot for Vietnam! After too much cuttle fish, shrimp, and Huda beer, we thanked the teachers and the principal once again and took a nap before our afternoon lesson - the baseball.
After baseball, Eric and I
took about a 5 minute shower and quick change before we headed out for the second part of our farewell party. Mr. Hanh arranged a minivan taxi to take Eric and I with Ms. Nguyet and a few of the teachers, including Mr. Hai and Ms. Quy, down to the beach. The beach is only about 12 kilometers from Dong Ha and Mr. Hanh was pretty mortified when we told him we would be leaving the area without seeing the beach. After a nice thirty minute ride we arrived at the beach. It was set up in a similar fashion to Sihanoukville, Cambodia, only much nicer. There were about a dozen or so large wooden beach shacks all serving beer and seafood. The shacks were set back from the beach which meant there was an enormous soft white beach stretching from the shacks to the water. There was also white sand as far as the eye could see on either end of the beach. There were virtually no hotels or development surrounding the area. Although one of the teachers expressed a concern that the government was not spending money to improve the area, I thought it was perfect. It was
Ms. Nguyet, Tam, and Eric
Enjoying a spicy pho - a perfect hangover remedy.
everything S’Ville was not - quaint, pristine, and non-touristy. There were virtually no touts on the beach - nothing but small kids running around and playing in the sand and families splashing in the South China Sea.
Back at our chosen shack, the Huda beer and ice continued to be poured, with people taking turns inventing excuses to drink, yelling cheers or “yo”, and clinking glasses. Ms. Nguyet, as the designated young hostess, watched everyone’s belongings when people went swimming, cut up watermelon, and distributed other snacks including small shrimp in a sweet gelatin wrapped in a banana leaf. After everyone finished snacking, we moved to a different table to share a thick, fish rice porridge, called chao. It was very good. I started like I do most meals by adding in hot chilies, until I realized the porridge itself was quite hot. It was fantastic and made the sweat bead on my upper lip. Again, we helped people practice their English and again Mr. Hanh continued to give us the hard sell. Again, we tried to pay for the meal, but again we were rebuffed.
We also learned more specifics about the Vietnamese culture and the people in
Dong Ha specifically. Unlike in the US where certain topics are most certainly off limits for new friends or colleagues, including money, politics, and religion, the opposite is true in Vietnam. Everyone talks about money, and in fact, Ms. Quy volunteered how much she earned at the school. She also informed us that she had been trying to marry off her two daughters to two of the younger male teachers who had joined us that night. When I asked one of the teachers about the proposed marriage, he suddenly seemed to forget that he spoke English. Convenient. Mr. Hai continuously asked us if we would find him a girlfriend in the US. The other topic off limits in the US - never ask a woman her age. In Vietnam, the students always asked us how old we were and weather we had children. It is always acceptable to talk about age. Again, this was information that we would not have learned about in the Lonely Planet guide.
Another peculiarity is the treatment of a driver. We hired a taxi to drive us to the beach, wait for us, and then drive us back to the school. As part of
the deal, apparently, the driver hung out with us on the beach, went swimming, drank beer, and joined in our meal. Even more interesting was that on the way back to the school we took a detour down some dark streets in Dong Ha for Ms. Quy to stop at a food stall to buy a watermelon for the driver. When we asked why they bought him a watermelon, the simple answer was “because he has children.” But of course; that explains everything. We noticed it other times as well. During our dinner with the chemistry teacher and her family, the driver that took us there stayed for beer and dinner. If I don’t take Mr. Hanh up on his teaching offer, I may just move to Vietnam and become a driver for the perks: beer, soup, swimming, and a watermelon!
On the way home from the beach I was in the back row of the van and Eric was in the front passenger seat. The entire ride home was filled with conversations in Vietnamese, which did not bother me. It was dark and I was just marveling at the beauty of the quiet scenery as we blew past,
with horn honking. The landscape was dark but the houses we passed were lit, and open, allowing us to peer inside a Friday night in Quang Tri. We saw friends and family gathered for dinner, something rare these days in the US, but similar to the US in one way: the TV was generally a glow in the background. We continuously have had moments during this trip that start with “I never thought that . . . “ Eric and I simultaneously had the same thought during the ride back despite our distance from each other in the car. Never in a million years did I think while I was growing up in New Jersey that I would be sitting in a taxi van with a bunch of drunken Vietnamese in Quang Tri Province in the middle of the night.
And the Farewells Continue
When we returned to the school, we offered to pay for the taxi to and from the beach, but were quickly told no. Mr. Hahn, who we later found out majored in philosophy at university, could not understand our offer. He questioned, why would we pay for the car? He arranged for
Eric is Always in My Heart
Ms. Quy was definitely trying to encourage Eric and I to be sweethearts.
the car, so it is his responsibility. Okay, I guess that makes sense. We said our farewells to Mr. Hahn, Ms. Quy, and the other teachers and started walking to our room. Then, Mr. Hai, our good friend, asked if we could drink more beers. We, of course, replied yes, but under one strict condition. We would join him for beers solely with the caveat that we paid for beers. At first he protested, but eventually figured that we would not be joining him at all if he insisted on paying, so with the terms set, we went on our way. I was not sure where the three of us were going and hoped it was close, because I did not think the three of us would fit on Hai’s moto.
As it turned out, we walked across the street from the school and walked about 20 meters to the left, arriving at our destination. I cannot think of enough adjectives to continuously describe places like “small town” or “locals’ bar”. In this case, you just need to trust me that it was a locals’ bar in a small town. As we sat down, we enjoyed our status, feeling
like we were the only westerners in town, and possibly the only Americans to every step foot in this restaurant. Hai informed us that the security guard from the school would be joining us after he finished his shift. The more the merrier. We enjoyed the familiar sight of a milk crate of beer dropped table side and our cooler of ice with thongs. And, even though we were totally full from our beach dinner Hai insisted on ordering a little snack - our favorite morning glory vegetable with garlic. Just something to eat while drinking. It was nice to have Hai to ourselves for awhile, without the large group. We were then able to spend some time really talking with him. By this point in the week I think Hai considered us his friends, despite our decline of the pho offer the morning before. One thing that is very different between the two cultures is the friendliness of male friends. Eric had to become used to a more “touchy feel” male companion, including arms around each other and hands resting on thighs. As I confirmed that Hai is our good friend based on experience of the week, I asked
him what people in Dong Ha and Quang Tri Province think of Americans because of the War. He replied that for most Vietnamese the past is the past - its history. I have to say that I was concerned being an American traveling to Vietnam, particularly with how we have felt traveling to a lot of places over the past few years under the Bush regime. I have felt nothing but welcomed in the country, from Hai and everyone else. Hai’s opinion just reinforced our experiences.
After the guard, Dieu, arrived, the drinking continued with many calls of 100% and bottoms up. I pulled the girl call each time 100% was called - which meant the guys needed to finish their beers. I said I am “just a girl” and could only do 33%. It worked. We also learned that when we clinked glasses there was a hierarchy, the oldest person raised their glass the highest. Respect would also be shown for teachers or parents, etc. Again, not included in the Lonely Planet.
I could not count the beers that we had drunk, and Hai was pretty persistent in that he wanted to see Eric drunk. We needed
to explain to him the difference between sober, drunk, and buzzed. And, more than anything, Eric and I were totally bloated! All the beers, plus ice, plus food - yikes. Also, after a few trips to the glorified outhouse in the back of the bar, I don’t think I wanted more beer going in or out of me. We talked Hai and Dieu into calling it a night because we were buzzed and bloated, and we counted the beers - totaling fourteen. Then, Hai laid on us the biggest bunch of B.S. I have heard - that it is bad luck to drink an even number of beers, we had to stop at an odd number. So, we broke open one more beer, and at 15, we called it a night and stumbled back to the school. Oh, and even after our deal with Hai, Dieu wanted to pay for the beers, even though he did not invite us, and did not speak enough English to get free tutoring out of it. We told him thank you but no way. We received the bill for 15 large bottles of beer and two dishes of food - a little over $7. It was a great evening.
And the Farewells Continue to Continue
We arranged for a car to pick us up Saturday morning at 9am to bring us to the airport down in Hue. We knew the students had class on Saturday morning so we thought it would be a good idea to get up early, maybe by 7am to hang out in the staff lounge to say some goodbyes. A few minutes after the alarm, however, Tam and Nguyet were at the door asking us for breakfast. In fact, just after I heard the alarm I heard the sound of the moto engine outside our door and anticipated their arrival. We asked for 5-10 minutes and took the quickest showers of our lives. We explained to Tam and Nguyet the concept of a “hangover” and thought some spicy pho would be just what the doctor ordered. We hit a place for pho just outside of the school, which we now know about for the future. It was spicy and just what the hangover doctor ordered. And, we were even allowed to pay for the pho - 4 bowls for 40,000 VD, about $2.25.
After pho, they invited us for coffee just across the street from the school. If I had known fantastic Vietnamese coffee was available just outside of the school I would have spent a lot of time there. As it was this was our first Vietnamese drip coffee - a large espresso style coffee, dripping from a fresh coffee press. I had mine with some condensed milk to sweeten it up. Now, seeing that the coffee is similar in style to an espresso, I finished mine quickly in 2 or 3 sips. This totally took Tam by surprise as the Vietnamese may spend an hour or more drinking the small cup of coffee. I was immediately addicted. And, as is also customary in the smaller cities, free green tea was poured both before and after our coffee. So, we had tea, espresso strength coffee, and more green tea. By the time we left for the airport I was jittery from caffeine. Hai, and several other teachers joined us for our coffee, and as is customary, our driver. Our airport driver arrived about an hour early, so he joined us for coffee before we took off.
After coffee, we spent less than ten minutes packing our bags - we have become experts at this point - and made our rounds to say goodbye to some of our students. A large group met us near the teachers’ lounge to take some pictures and I spread my arms out for a big group hug. Then, we were briskly escorted to several classes of English major students. While we traversed the campus, other students were hanging on the balconies and were waiving to us as we departed. Again, we felt like celebrities. We posed for pictures from the paparazzi, and as the class break ended we heard the familiar beat of the drum. As the students headed back to class, and we promised to return to Le Quy Don, we said our final, final farewells to the teachers and hopped into the taxi to return to the Hue airport.
This was the type of experience that travelers hope for on extended journeys. We were allowed a brief glimpse into a culture and met new friends. We were serious about our promise to return - we just need to plan when.
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