Teacher James Fisher writes about his first weeks as a BOVA volunteer in Vietnam.
I had been looking forward to travelling to Vietnam and working with the Salesians and was very excited if not a little tired as the plane touched down in Ho Chi Minh City at 9 0clock Vietnam time on Wednesday 3rd of August 2016. As arranged there was a gentleman waiting for me with transport to take me to my placement, or so I thought. He handed me his phone and I was welcomed via the phone to Vietnam by Father Vincent who said he would see me soon. My Vietnamese driver ensured I was comfortable and off we went making our way slowly and sometimes dangerously through the thousands of motorbikes which clog the roads of Ho Chi Minh City. I had no idea where he was taking me and he could not speak English but I was slightly assured when I saw the statue of the Blessed Virgin and St Joseph looming large on the dashboard.
Twenty minutes later we arrived at the entrance of a large house which for some unknown reason had been built in the middle of what I can only describe as an industrial estate. An exuberant Father Vincent was there to meet me with the words "Welcome to Vietnam and welcome to English camp." English camp had not been in my plans, I did not know what it was and I certainly did not like the idea of camping out in Vietnam with no air conditioning not to mention all the dangerous creepy crawly things that might be lurking or even slithering around. My fears were soon distant memories when over a bowl of finest home-made Pho Father Vincent explained to me what English Camp was.
English camp is two weeks of residential intensive English tuition, spiritual readings, talks, mass, rosary, singing, performing and sport. It was forbidden to speak or even think in Vietnamese. The students, and there were fifty of them, were all aspirants for the Salesian priesthood or brotherhood. In short the English camp was as much about spirituality as it was about learning English. It was clear from the start all the students had some experience of the demands of English camp and the spiritual life. I have been used to working as a teacher in England where many of the students were disengaged in education or paid lip service to it so it was a pleasant culture shock to work with a group who were highly motivated, totally obedient and very eager to please.
Another shock for me was that prayers and readings started at 5.30 am. I really found it a struggle to get myself presentable at that time of the morning and yet the fifty students were always in their seats before 5.30am and all were immaculately turned out, usually in smart dark trousers and white shirts. So we had readings until 6 o’ clock and that was followed by mass. At 6.30 am it was breakfast time. It took me a time to get used to having noodles and meat dishes for breakfast but there was also lots of fruit, vegetables and yoghurts. Unfortunately, no English tea and certainly no toast with lashings of butter. The students took it in turns to do readings of their choice from the bible before and after breakfast. Then it was clean up time which the students did without question. This was followed by animation which is basically indoor games. The students had all been allocated to teams and most activities turned out to be very competitive.
English lessons started at 8.30am and each teacher had a class of 10 /12 students. The students had been allocated to classes based on their levels of English. I took an intermediate class but most pupils in the group were somewhere between basic and intermediate. The students were very keen to please in lessons and were very keen to do well in English. There were three formal lessons of English each day and these were broken up by hymn practice, readings and of course lunch which was usually pork, chicken or fish with rice, noodles and Vietnam soup. After lunch all the students took advantage of siesta when they went to bed for an hour. Instead of siesta I retired to a local café for a good fix of caffeine in the form of a café sua da which is iced coffee with lots of condensed milk. After another bout of animation, a formal English class, readings practice and an hour of sport (always football) it was soon time for dinner which was always an excellent meal with a good choice of home cooked Vietnamese dishes . To finish of the day the rosary was said while walking outside or in, and the day was completed with a short talk from one of the volunteers on the camp. The pupils had an opportunity to watch an English movie before going to bed. Everyone was usually in bed by 9.30pm.
Although it was not in my plans I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed the two weeks. The two priests Father Vincent and Father Tamr were fantastic to work for as were the other volunteers and I doubt I shall ever encounter a better motivated, more mannerly and obedient set of students anywhere. The food I can only describe as glorious and akin to what you would expect in a top restaurant. I am now taking it easy at the Provincial House in Ho Chi Minh City, doing some one to one work with brothers and priests and awaiting the return of the pre novitiate students I will be teaching English to for the next twelve months in another part of the city. The students, brothers and priests, like all the Vietnamese people I have encountered, have all been very supportive, caring and generous.
English camp is a lovely way to spend two weeks but it is very tiring. The early rises can be a burden if you are not used to them. The students will use every opportunity they can to speak English to you and will want you to speak back to them. It does not matter what you are doing and there is no escaping it. It is very positive but it can be quite draining. The students throw themselves body and soul into the religious and spiritual aspect of the camp. I did the same in that I attended all the readings, rosaries, masses etc but it was clear from the start of the camp that the spiritual aspect of the camp was optional for the volunteers and there was at least one who opted out.
I believe that there are two English camps in Vietnam each summer. The first is in Dalat in July and is three weeks long. The second is in Ho Chi Minh City at the beginning of August and lasts for two weeks. Some volunteers did both camps. If you have a long summer break and maybe can't commit to a longer volunteer placement or you are not sure, then this could be the experience for you. Be aware that if you come to volunteer in Vietnam you will be working with young adults who are somewhere in the process of becoming priests or brothers. The Salesians do not have any schools in Vietnam.
Just ensure you come with an open mind, an open heart and be prepared to be flexible and to work hard.
James is a teacher by profession and is currently one month into his 12 month placement with the Salesians in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. We hope to be able to share more stories from his experience and our other volunteers currently overseas. If you know of anyone who is interested in short or long term volunteering with the Salesians overseas please contact us: firstname.lastname@example.org