Whoops and cheers greeted us as we walked into the high school classroom. The wall of sound could have easily been for a rock star or the latest boy band. But it wasn’t – it was for us.To the students we were complete strangers from the West there to teach English. That, though, didn’t seem to matter in the slightest judging by the volume. Once the noise finally abated it was straight into the ice-breaking introduction. They say it is always good to start with a joke, so that is what I did. On the blackboard I wrote, ‘My name is Tom, not tôm.’
I am over six-foot tall (183cm). The Vietnamese word ‘Tôm’ means shrimp, so that line was guaranteed to raise a laugh. The hidden irony is that I am allergic to shrimp. The next move was to write-up on the board three statements about myself. Two were false and one was true. It was then up to the class to ask me questions and ascertain which of the statements was true. I won that game. Nobody believed I had two grown up daughters or that I had celebrated my 50th birthday. The most flattering estimate of my age was 25. Clearly, no one here has much practice with ageing Westerners.
After that it was onto the describing game where students took it in turns to pick out a slip of paper. On each slip was the name of an everyday object that the student had to describe to the class without saying the word or miming. That was fun and the class got quickly engaged in that activity and developing their speaking skills.
Lesson over it was time to pose for what seemed like dozens of photographs with students whom I towered over. Several of these pictures, I am quite sure, turned up on Facebook captioned, ‘This is me with a giant, sweaty Scotsman.’ I had a total blast. I was buzzing afterwards at what is probably the closest I will ever get to feeling like a celebrity!
It’s not all work and no play at CVTD Vietnam. Time off is more than ample to go exploring the local area or travelling together to places of interest. While I was with CVTD Vietnam (late 2014) we visited a pagoda as a group and had a chilled out time in the ornate gardens. As soon as you cross through the gateway there is an aura of peace and calm. It is like stepping from everyday reality into another gentler realm where the mundane concerns of life are banished and there’s a deep sense of tranquility.
After teaching English from kindergarten to teens and factory workers, it was refreshing to have some down time with my fellow volunteers to simply clear our heads and relax. Feeding the fish and watching butterflies dance from flower to flower became our focus. Sauntering through the gardens revealed a new haven of blissful retreat at every turn. Indeed, the whole experience was intensely uplifting and quite spiritual.
I struck up a friendship with one of the Buddhist monks. He is indisputably the calmest, wisest person I have ever met. He exuded a serenity and
imperturbability you rarely, if ever, encounter in today’s full throttle, high pressure consumerist era of modern living. There was much to learn from him. I suspect I may now be on a personal quest for inner peace. Even if it is only a fraction of the calmness I witnessed within that monk, I will, I am sure, have grown into a better person thanks to him and the opportunities afforded to me by the CVTD Vietnam.