Postcard from Vietnam

By Ray Sullivan

The grey-green patchwork of rice paddies and flooded plains of the Mekong Delta were a long way from the quiet little rural school and the cold, wet Ballarat spring that we had left behind. As we started our descent into Ho Chi Minh City you had to wonder what possessed two reasonably mature adults with secure teaching jobs in Ballarat to throw it all away and head off to start a new teaching career in Vietnam. Our first view of Than Son Nhat Airport in Ho Chi Minh City did nothing to convince us that this was a good decision. This first impression of Ho Chi Minh City was not wonderful. The buildings are drab and badly in need of maintenance. Rusty, derelict outbuildings, the remnants of the Vietnam war dotted the outskirts of the airport. Enduring the queues in immigration and customs and losing your entry visa didn't exactly make for a pleasant introduction to Ho Chi Minh City and ยท Vietnam.

Our first impressions of the City were the traffic noise and the staggering numbers of motor scooters, bicycles, cyclos and pedestrians choking the roads. The twenty minute trip from the airport to the hotel was a real eye opener. The unusual feeling of being on the wrong side of the road only added to the confusion of vehicles and people.

On the way into the city we stopped at The International Grammar School, Ho Chi Minh City, our new workplace for the next two or three years. More reasons to wonder if we were insane. The building that we were supposed to occupy as a school in a little less than a week was still well and truly a building site with piles of bricks and tiles stacked amid the rubble and debris of what could have been mistaken for a demolition zone. The Vietnamese Director proudly showed us around the site and we visited our classrooms and even braved the stairs and the tangle of electrical wiring to visit the library which was now a furniture factory and paint shop as everything from tables and chairs to cupboards and doors was constructed on site.

Four of us had made the trip from Australia together. We were to be the staff at the International Grammar School, Ho Chi Minh City, the first international school to open in Vietnam since 1974. A married couple from Ballarat and two single girls, one from Sydney, one from Melton. We were deposited at the Bong Sen Hotel in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as the city is still called by most of the locals. After a restless night of being disturbed by the incessant traffic noise, a rattling air conditioner and an altercation with the hotel's cockroach population we were ready to face up to our first day in our new country.

After four days of briefings, meetings with parents and the customary sightseeing trips we were eager to get ourselves organised for the first day of school. Not in the school building as we had hoped but in temporary accommodation as the school site seemed to be a long way away from being ready. School was to start in two villas. I had never envisaged the prospect that I would be teaching a composite class of fourteen students from eight different countries in the school director's bedroom, nor did my wife expect to be teaching her class of ten in the dining room downstairs. The rest of the school, six pre-school and kindergarten pupils and two Korean brothers who made up the high school occupied the principal's residence. We had started lessons with twenty-nine pupils from sixteen different countries, many of whom had little or no English.

It was back to basics teaching. Most of the school equipment and resources were still being inspected by customs as were our own small collections of books and teaching aids we had sent over before we left Australia. All pupils were given a set of basic supplies including exercise books, pencils, scissors and a wonderful set of paintbrushes but no paint. There were only a few text books and even fewer library books. Teaching was very much "chalk and talk" as the white board we had been given became the focus for most of our lessons in that first two weeks.

By the time the Christmas break came around those first two weeks were only a memory. The school had grown to over 50 students. We were in a great new school with enthusiastic students, new equipment and resources and feeling very positive about the future. The school went from strength to strength. Enrolments were increasing rapidly as more and more families were moving into Ho Chi Minh City. At the end of the first school year the number of students from pre-school to year 9 had risen to 70. Teachers had to be flexible as roles were changing almost as rapidly as the enrolments. My own class for the second semester of that first year was a composite 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9. It was an interesting exercise balancing the primary curriculum against the high school timetable. Mathematics and simultaneous equations in one comer of the room and grade 5 creative writing in another were poles apart.

Other areas of the school were also developing at the same rate. The library that we originally saw as a furniture factory was now operational and the number of books was increasing. The administration saw the growth and development of the library as vitally important to the structure of the school and a considerable budget was allocated to the purchase of books and other teaching materials. Plans to computerise the library were well in hand by the start of the second school year.

It was not possible to go down to the nearest book store and put in an order as we were used to doing in Australia. For a start there were not many book stores available in Ho Chi Minh City and there were no suitable books in English. All library books had to be imported from Australia. This appeared to be a straight forward exercise but never turned out that way. All books imported into Vietnam had to be approved by the Ministry of Culture. This was a complicated process as details of the order had to be translated into Vietnamese, including titles, authors and publishers. Some of the translations proved to be very difficult. The Vietnamese translations for books like "Far Out Brussel Sprout" caused more than a little confusion with the authorities. Once the books arrived in Vietnam they were indefinitely held in customs for inspection before being finally delivered to the school where they were locked away until officials from the Ministry of Culture had inspected and approved every book. It was not uncommon for books to be taken and later returned with pages containing culturally inappropriate information neatly removed.

Despite these difficulties the library continued to grow. At the end of the 1995-96 school year it contained over 8000 books, was fully computerised on two sites and was well established as a substantial resource for all curriculum areas and all members of the school community. Enrolments at this time had reached 450 students and the staff had increased from the 4 of us who endured those first difficult times to 30 foreign and 20 Vietnamese staff. Six months on the school has moved into a campus that will cater for 800 students. The fourth move in just over three years. Numbers are still increasing.

Three years of teaching in Vietnam will always be a career highlight. The opportunity to be involved in the growth and development of a school from such small beginnings to its present size and achievements is an experience that I count as significant in my teaching career.

Ray Sullivan

Deputy Principal

Ho Chi Minh International Grammar School