Revisiting Vietnam American RadioWorks
  Vietnam Scrapbook

David Funk
Eugene, Oregon, USA

Three Weeks in Another Century
David Funk

Journal Entry:
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 never investigated.

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 the night.

Journal Entry:
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 critic.

Journal entry:
Friday, 11/5/99
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.

Journal Entry:
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 speak.

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 hard."

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.

Back to scrapbook index


©2018 American Public Media