I received an invitation from my collaborator Ms Thanh Binh Ton Nu to join in the ‘handover’ celebrations at Ka Sen school, that is, handing over the funds raised and goods received to the kids and the teachers in the school. The school is located in the northern mountains that border Laos. And she opened up her family home for me to stay with her extended family for the time we make the trip to the school.
It was seven days of jam-packed travelling and learning –with a good measure of fun. It was also seven days of being an outsider-insider observing and learning a version of Vietnam that I typically saw from their other side. The other side, my side, is that of being an Australian and also a Vietnamese refugee.
Ka Sen school was about 3 hours drive from the Dong Hoi, the capital city of the province Quang Binh. It was a beautiful drive through the mountains and villages. That beauty was witnessed with the full awareness of the poverty and hardship of the people in the homes I passed, and concern for motorbike riders in their thin plastic raincoats as they go about their day on the slippery roads with the water rising fast from the downpour. The school is in a region denoted as border territory next to Laos, with indigenous communities living in the mountains.
The children and their mothers, the local teachers, and over 40 volunteers made up the crowd at the school as we arrived. It was a flurry of activity, dressing the kids in their new uniform and hand-knitted woollen vests, handing over gift bags of treats, seeing the build of the new kitchen, new day sleep room and beds (which had to be high up and be wood of sufficient quality to withstand any water damage from flood waters and humid air), and some speeches and photo ops. I had not expected such formality, and was initially taken aback when I was called to handover the cheque for the photo-op. But this was Vietnam, and I decided to go with the grain. (By the evening, that photo became the featured photo for the leading article on the home page of a Vietnamese news outlet. The news outlet, ‘Nguoi Lam Bao’ were the leading instigators of the campaign to upgrade the school facilities).
Once the formality finished mid-morning, the mothers were quick to usher their children out to climb back up the mountains, as the grey clouds build up and rain looked like it would set in fast. Most days, the kids, aged 5-8, make their walk back home together as a group, with the older kids stewarding the younger ones. On wet days, the teachers chaperone the kids back on their motorbikes in multiple round-trips. Some days, to keep the kids in school (in cases where inclement weather would prevent the kids coming back to school), the teachers provide lunch (mainly rice) for the kids in class, funded from the teachers’ private money. Teachers are not paid well in Vietnam.
Co Minh, one of three teachers at the school, proudly told me that all the kids were ‘children of Uncle Ho’, that is, their surnames were ‘Ho’. I smiled politely. This was my first encounter with such spirited praise of ‘Uncle Ho’ since I landed in Vietnam six months ago. I was to encounter much more of this on what I coined ‘the communist pilgrimage’ through the war torn province of Quang Binh. More on this in my next post.