We signed up to volunteer at a project for 2 weeks, teaching English to the ethnic minorities of the highlands. Selected students, from impoverished farming backgrounds, are offered a 2 year full scholarship to learn English and receive full board for free at the school, in hope to develop a career in tourism and change their futures.
There wasn’t a whole lot of structure to their learning, which was both good and bad. Good because we had full control over our teaching, but bad because it was hard to gauge what level the students were at without trial and error with our lesson plans.
The project was very welcoming and we immediately felt at home. The students cook, clean and maintain the property of the school, while our job was to give them the best education we could.
As we are native English speakers and the other volunteers were Chilean, French and French Canadian, we took on teaching the advanced class. We changed the programme to give the students more classes and set the students a goal to give a 1-3 minute presentation about their chosen place, to practice speaking to groups like they would on a tour. We had an incredible time there and the students were very responsive and eager to learn.
On the weekend we helped out a local monastery clearing land for them to plant fruit trees. They then thanked us with a gourmet meal of delicious Vietnamese dishes. We had cooked green papaya with salted pork, chilli tofu, roasted peanuts, mountain greens broth and rice. On top of that we were given all types of fruit, pomelo, oranges, watermelon, apples, needless to say we were stuffed by the end of our meal which plummeted us into an after lunch daze. Luckily they had kindly laid out woven mats for us to fall asleep on. One thing that we mastered while in ha Giang was sleeping on the floor! Our sleeping arrangements at the project were made up of hard foam synthetic fold out mattresses with no sheet, which quickly made sleeping on their wooden floor more desirable, and much cooler. Definitely a wake up call into how privileged our lives our generally! However I must say it took a while to shake off the princess in me, I have never not looked forward to going to bed so much, and I quickly tagged it as ‘going to floor’ I would say to Rick “I don’t want to go to floor, but I am so tired”!
Later that afternoon we hired a scooter (200,000 VND), which seemed very expensive, but the going rate for where we were, and explored the local wild swimming spots and mountains in Cao Bồ, an area well known for its delicious green tea. We found a beautiful river and many small waterfalls scattered all around. There were incredible views from the top of endless mountains and rice fields carved so neatly out of the hills as far as the eye could see.
After a refreshing swim, we drove to Ha Giang City (21KM from Vi Xuyen) for dinner, 20km north on a pretty unexciting highway. We found a decent coffee house though, Cà phê Tùng Dương, and then had dinner at the busiest local restaurant we could find. We started with Phở bò (beef noodle soup) and suddenly then approached by a young Vietnamese guy with 2 shot glasses and a bottle of rice wine. He poured 2 shots and then gestured us to take them. We took the shots and then he poured two more, and gestured for just rick and him to take it, then two more for him and I. Each time after he would shake our hand with both of his hands and wide smile. He went to pour another shot, but as rick was driving, he politely declined. He was out with 8 of his friends and asked us to join them after we had finished our Phở. Not more than a minute later, one of his friends was at our table with 2 shot glasses, another bottle of rice wine, and begun pouring. After a lot of hand gestures explaining that we had to drive and couldn’t have anymore, we agreed to have just one more. After dinner we were uncertain with what to do, so decided to join them anyway, what is the worst that could happen. It was a bit of a disaster! With not a word of English spoken, we caved and started drinking a lot of shots one after the other. Luckily they were not very strong! The boys were 18-24 and were getting very, very drunk. One draped himself over Rick immediately, whispering in his ear, asking what kind of women he liked (knowing full well that we were married) and saying that he had a hot cousin. He then fell into a repetitive cycle of questions; “You come Karaoke? What’s your name? You stay at my homestay? I’m sorry!” He was becoming quite aggressive and we decided to leave, laughed and proceeded to find a second course for dinner to sober up and have a yoghurt coffee for desert. A yoghurt coffee is as it sounds, frozen yogurt topped with a shot of hot coffee, it reminds me a bit of an affogato – a must try!
One day while walking back from getting water we were beckoned into a bar, they asked us to sit down and wait 5 minutes. We weren’t sure what was happening. 5 minutes later a woman arrived and it turns out they wanted us to come to their primary school and teach their kids an English lesson or 3, they said that they would pay us. Having nothing to lose we agreed to it but said we would check with the leader of our volunteer programme. Long story short, we didn’t get paid. We did however have a very strange afternoon. Treated like celebrities we were greeted at the school by 100 kids, screaming with excitement. Rick then taught a class of thirty 8-10 year olds, followed by us sitting on a stage in front of 300+ kids running wild. Students were passed a microphone to ask us questions in English. Each kid asked the same questions over and over again, it was hilarious.
To thank us for our efforts, the principal invited us for a hotpot dinner at a local restaurant. Of course there was a lot of rice wine, and as it is rude to say no, 30 shots later we had eaten a pre hatched baby duckling, a chicken head, lungs, and subsequently felt a little queasy and drunk. One of the guys at the table read our fortune and told us that we were destined to be together, while the principal asked for my phone number and Facebook. All in all it was the weirdest collection of events in one day I have ever experienced. Feeling slightly emotionally scarred, it is definitely the last time I’ll ever eat a baby pre hatched duckling!