Eugene, Oregon, USA
Three Weeks in Another Century
Tuesday, 11/9/99, Cao Lanh, Dong Thap Province, Vietnam.
Khach San (hotel) Hoa Binh
It's 6am. I know that by the pounding outside our room. They always
begin right at 6. They're chopping wood for the kitchen fire, I
think. But I don't know for sure. In the week I've been here, I've
I'm already awake though. I was awake when the loudspeakers out
on the street interrupted the early morning roosters at 5am. It
is that way every morning. The loudspeakers blare forth with the
early news and propaganda, interspersing the dialogue with martial
music. By the time the loudspeakers come on, the streets are already
busy with bicycles, motorbikes and pedestrians streaming in and
out of town.
I look around for the geckos that belong to our room. I see the
little one clinging lethargically to the wall. He's the boldest
of our two permanent gecko residents. The big one is hiding behind
the curtain. As geckos go, these two are a disappointment. Unlike
their hallway cousins, who deftly wheel and turn at full speed on
the ceilings and walls in blatant defiance of gravity, our room
geckos are indolent. At first I thought we had inferior geckos,
but now I'm thinking we've frozen them into slow motion with our
pumped-up air conditioning. I don't know. It's hard to read a gecko.
Our group has settled into sort of a routine after the first week.
There are seventeen of us, all members of Global Volunteers, a nonprofit
humanitarian group based in Minneapolis. We have traveled to the
Mekong Delta city of Cao Lanh, 120km. southwest of Ho Chi Minh City
(Saigon), from all parts of the U. S. We met at Ho Chi Minh City's
Rose Hotel on October 30th and drove four and a half hours in a
small bus into a century past. Into an area where the sight of a
Westerner is cause to drop everything and stare openly. Into an
area where the concept of having a phone in your house is as foreign
as having a summer place on Mars.
We're here to teach English pronunciation. Our students are doctors
and nurses in the local hospital, English teachers, college students
and ordinary people from the villages. Many of them know some English
grammar, and some can write in English, but their pronunciation
is so different that they are impossible for us to understand. The
Vietnamese government, under the auspices of the People's Aid Coordinating
Committee, is aware of this. They asked Global Volunteers to help.
To the Vietnamese people, English is the key to an economic future.
Most of our group are older than my wife and I. Only three are
younger. For some, this is not their first Global Volunteers experience.
Duane, my wife, is an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher
at Lane Community College, and one other of our group teaches ESL
as a substitute teacher. The rest of us are amateurs.
We have a real estate developer from Denver, a legal secretary,
an art historian, an engineer, several retired elementary teachers,
a librarian, a healthcare administrator from Alaska, and a graphic
designer (me). As it turns out, we all come to rely on Duane to
teach us how to teach.
Duane is the reason I'm here. With summers off she has time to
think up trips. The more unusual they are, the happier she is. Earlier,
the week before we got to Vietnam, she had me trekking over impossible
mountains and through leach-infested streams to stay with hilltribe
villagers on the Burmese-Thai border.
At least in Vietnam, at the Hoa Binh Hotel, we have beds with
mattresses and a toilet. Sometimes we have electricity. In the Karen
tribal village of Najaclok, high in the misty mountains southwest
of Mae Hon Song, Thailand, we slept fitfully on split bamboo floors,
with pigs and water buffalos grunting and rooting below us throughout
Monday, 11/1/99, Cao Lanh, Dong Thap Province, Vietnam.
Khach San Hoa Binh
Yesterday we were given our teaching assignments. I was assigned
to teach in the evening at My Tho, a nearby village, and at the
Foreign Language Center in Cao Lanh at night. There are four of
us assigned to teach at the school at My Tho, starting at 5pm every
evening. The My Tho students, they said, would be office workers
eager to learn English. We're told that we will get there on the
backs of motorbikes driven by teachers from the school. In this
part of Vietnam, indeed in most of Vietnam, cars are a rarity. Bikes
and motorbikes on the roads, and all manner of boats on the ubiquitous
canals, are the primary modes of transportation.
As it turns out, I indeed have some office workers in my class.
Two or three, I think. In actuality I have 25 people, ranging in
ages from 10 to 55, most of whom rarely see offices. Outside the
windows and at the doorways I have another 20 or so spectators eager
to see how an American acts. Mr De, the Vietnamese teacher assigned
to work with me, explains for the first time, as I stand there before
my class, that there is no text. "Just teach'" he says. So I teach.
I draw a map of the U.S. on the blackboard. I hope that they can
see it, as there is only a single bare lightbulb in the room. I
tell them about Oregon, about my family, about the weather and about
our holidays. I have no clue if they understand me.
Somehow, with the help of Susan, another of the volunteers, who
shows up in my room to help just as I am running out of ideas, I
finish the evening feeling satisfied. In total darkness we four
teachers jump back on the backs of our motorcycles and start the
return 7 kilometer journey back to the hotel for dinner. The road
back to Cao Lanh is straight, very dark and still busy with motorcycles
and bikes passing on the left, right and in between. On either side
of the road people work, eat and play by the light of candles or
lanterns. We cruise along from tableau to tableau, each splash of
light revealing a new scene.
The Vietnamese venerate their ancestors and incense fills the
air from private shrines in every hut. The dim glow from our headlight
picks out ghosts of bicycles and people in the roadway. Mr. De deftly
maneuvers around them as I cling to the motorbike in subdued terror.
All the way Mr. De asks me questions. Why do Americans travel
so much? Why do they move away from their families? Do I think children
should move away? Am I worried about Y2K? Why did I join Global
Volunteers? What do I think of Vietnam? Do I like the Vietnamese
people? Do I know anyone with two cars?
November it usually rains in the evenings so we often arrive at
the classrooms soaked to the bone from our motorbike ride, which
is okay, because it makes the heat a bit more bearable. Each time
we get to class at My Tho there are new faces. We don't know where
they all come from or whether we had them the night before, so it
is hard to plan sequential lessons. So we don't. Each lesson is
like a new show and we end up having fun just doing the planning
for the night's performance. At the hospital and the Foreign Language
Center, things are more structured, which is easier for us.
My schedule, which has me starting off to school at 4pm, leaves
me plenty of time for other pursuits. It only takes Susan and I
about an hour each afternoon to plan our lessons. In the morning
I keep a daily journal with drawings on each page. This, like everything
else we Americans do, draws crowds. When people ask me my job (it
must be evident to them that I'm not a real teacher) I tell them
I'm an artist because my phrasebook doesn't have the words for marketing
or graphic design.
The news that I'm an artist leaks out to the Communist officials,
who seem to be aware of most of what we do, and I am invited to
be an honored guest at the opening of a showing of paintings by
local artists. The show begins with a very serious opening ceremony
featuring solemn speeches and a red ribbon cutting ceremony, We
are followed throughout the gallery by crowds as Duane and I view
the pictures. If we comment on any one of them to each other, the
crowd buzzes with the news. I'm interviewed on the radio with the
help of an interpreter. I'm asked to write my comments on the show
in a special journal. When I finish, a crowd gathers to hear the
interpreter read what I had to say. Ah, the heady life of an art
Cao Lanh, Dong Thap Province,Vietnam
Khach San Hoa Binh
It's morning in Cao Lanh. Bicycles. Motorcycles. Honking. Beeping.
People walking. Boys hand-in-hand. Young girls in white ao' dai
and conical hats, pedaling upright on bicycles like exotic Victorian
postcards. Chickens. Dogs. Sing-song saleswomen balancing platters
on their heads. Gaping holes in sidewalks. "Hello! Hello! What's
your name?" Shy children see us coming and hide behind their mothers,
emerging to shout hello, then darting back. Men stare without expression
We smile at everyone, this gaggle of odd-looking Westerners, as
we walk to town for our daily chores. Below us, in the green water,
boats putt-putt by, the occupants staring up at us as we cross the
bridge. At the roadside stands, some faces are familiar already
and we nod in recognition.
I need to cash a traveler's check, so Susan and I split from the
group and maneuver through the parked motorbikes into the bank.
Inside, the glowering tellers examine my passport, examine my travelers
checks, examine me. I'm dripping with sweat. I can't get my signature
right. I'm sure to be arrested. Susan, who speaks a little Vietnamese,
explains my needs to the officials, then stands calmly, reassuringly
by, smiling serenely at the sober faces around us. I wipe sweat
off the counter.
Finally, after more examining looks by more examiners, I'm a millionaire.
$1,400,000 dong, give or take a dong or two. Not bad for a $100
buck investment. My millions tucked away, we stroll to the Foreign
Language Center to try the e-mail. But alas, the electricity in
the whole city is out, and may be for hours, so instead we visit
with the ever-gracious Mr. Be', the Center's assistant director.
We talk economics, a topic with which I'm now well-acquainted, being
a millionaire and all. We talk about rice. We talk about what a
great country America is. Mr Be' loves America.
Vietnam is a country where nothing seems consistent. Schedules
change constantly. Sometimes there's electricity, sometimes there's
not. Sometimes it rains. Sometimes it fries. Perhaps to instill
some constancy in their lives the Vietnamese have some rigid customs.
Duane, who is left-handed, finds out the first day that things
are different in Vietnam. While we were warned in advance not to
touch people's heads, (the body's most spiritual point) not to wear
shorts and not to be affectionate with members of the opposite sex
in public, we were not warned about the perils of being left-handed.
At our very first meal, as she starts to eat a bite of food with
her chopsticks, the waitress comes up, removes the chopsticks from
Duane's left hand and transfers them to her right. This happens
everywhere we eat. Sometimes the waitresses or waiters just slap
her left hand. When she first writes on the chalkboard with her
left hand, the class gasps in astonishment. We find out from our
government liaison that people who use their left hands are possessed
by evil spirits.
Wednesday, 11/17/99, Cao Lanh, Dong Thap Province, Vietnam.
Khach San Hoa Binh
At the Continuing Education Center this evening, Susan and I are
at our best. It is our last evening teaching there and all of the
students are upbeat. It's a light class, only 34 students but they
sing their hearts out and laugh heartily at the stupid donkey in
the fable we read them. The thunder outside tries to interrupt us
so we sing louder, shout instructions and refuse to be beaten.
Near the end of class the students argue amongst themselves and
with Mr. De about how they are going to honor us. Finally two girls
are chosen to come up and pin flowers to our shirts. When they step
back all of the students and Mr. De stand and clap for an embarrassingly
long time. Then it's bedlam. Hugs. Flowers. More hugs. More flowers.
Autographs. Addresses. Promises to write. More hugs. Then tears.
Darkness finally forces us to leave and we move through the crowds
to the backs of the motorbikes. On the long ride home in the dark
with Mr. Kiat, I don't say a word, because I'm too choked up to
After three weeks in Dong Thap Province we feel we're a part of
the community. We've gotten to know the shopkeepers and the vendors
at the market. Whenever we arrive their on our daily shopping excursion,
the vendors rush to get us small stools and we sit with a large
crowd of onlookers.With a great deal of help from our phrasebooks
we hear about them and tell them about us. We share photos and admire
the handsomeness of each other's families.
We find that we're not all that different, the Vietnamese and
us. They are friendly and sincere. They are very proud of their
children and their country. They are happy, yet very poor. The average
annual salary in Vietnam is $280 per year. Most people work seven
days a week.
Ho Chi Minh's father, Nguyen Sinh Sac, is buried at Cao Lanh.
The park-like memorial for him has about three acres of lawn. A
gardener at the memorial is paid 15,000 dong per day for cutting
the lawn. That is the equivalent of $1.07 US dollars. They cut the
lawn with scissors.
Pharmacists at the hospital make $40 per month. Doctors get $50.
As the director of the hospital says to us at one of the many ceremonies
we attend, "The Vietnamese people work very hard, and play very
With little money, the people live simply. Living in Cao Lanh,
we decide, is sort of like backpacking, but not as comfortable.
Canals and fingers of the Mekong are everywhere. People bathe in
the canals, wash dishes, wash clothes and even get their drinking
water from them. The canals are alive with boats of all kinds and
fishermen ply their trade 24 hours a day.
Everywhere we go we find that the Vietnamese admire Americans
and want to be like us. They want the material things we have. They
want to be able to travel. Most of them haven't even been as far
as Ho Chi Minh City. Hanoi is out of the question. They want cars
and phones and reliable electricity. They want life to be easier.
We wonder, however, if they would be happier if they had what we
have. In a way, we hate to see it happen. These smiling, warm people
seem, in so many ways, to have it all.
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