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Huế, a special place in my heart

August 24, 2010

Last year, I spent a couple of weeks in Hue, Central Vietnam, as an English teacher for 20 over Vietnamese teens, thanks to the help of The Kind Exchange, a non-profit organization that matches young professions with community groups.

The Kind Exchange

The centre I volunteered at was called Bao Tro House, or, The Haven, by English speakers.

Bao Tro House (The Haven)

Bao Tro House (The Haven)

The Haven Education Project was originally established by the Alumni Association of the Đồng-Khánh High School for Girls in Huế. It relied on small, ad hoc donations from the community, with the objective of paying the school fees of children from disadvantaged families in the area who showed promise at school and wanted to continue with post-primary school education.

The Haven supports junior and senior high school students – Grades 6 -12 or 12-18 years of age. The students live at The Haven’s residential complex in Phú Thương Ward, Huế, Central Vietnam. They attend school during the day and then receive after-school tutoring focused on building vocational skills such as English language and computer literacy.

In early 2007 The Haven received a substantial donation from a Vietnamese donor from Australia which enabled it to expand and improve the quality of its services.

In December 2007, the Project received final permission from the People’s Committee of Thua-Thien Province to operate as a ‘live-in’ facility for up to 30 students, with full and part-time tutoring and support staff.

And in July 2009, the school had it’s first foreign volunteer… me!!

This is my first time doing community work outside Singapore, with no knowledge of any Vietnamese (language/history/culture) nor the realities of what entails this trip, just an opened mind, and an idealistic soul.

First Shock – Language

(Like Duh!)

I never learnt to speak any bits of Vietnamese before heading over. Not even basic words like Thank You (Cảm ơn) or Hello (Xin chào). How could I communicate with a bunch of Vietnamese kids whose only contact with the English language are classes conducted by Vietnamese teachers, who focused on simple writing, and little on speech?

In the Classroom

Their comfort zone – English words with Vietnamese “subtitles”!

Thank goodness for English – Vietnamese dictionaries *phew*~ I have to admit it was really tiring to breakdown sentences into words that we’ll have to search in the dictionary. Took almost forever to say anything. However, it taught me to simplify sentences using a couple of key words, instead of blabbering superfluously (my usual modus operandi).

Other methods of communication included sketching, gesticulating and observing.

It felt like a lot of work initially, and was extremely exhausting. Thankfully, there was Uncle Khon (his family contributes heavily towards The Haven) who spoke fluent English, and western expats near my hotel, who kept me sane with English conversations.

However, once you get over the initial stage of linguistic adjustment (took me half a week), it got really rewarding.

Often, we communicate so much with words (many of which are unnecessary), we forget the other forms of basic human instincts like facial expressions, body language, and energy levels. We also forget to observe simple visuals which are oh so gorgeous! While I still yak away incessantly (just check my phone bills for proof, or read my blog rants) the experience of communication without words was absolutely therapeutic, sincere and totally amazing.

Second Shock – Standard of Living

Call me ignorant, idealistic, or adventurous (take a pick), but my initial plan was to stay at Bao Tro House, instead of in a comfy hotel that Andrew (sponsorship Director of The Haven) suggested. Man was I in for a ride….

Standard of Living

The basic infrastructure of the centre is actually very well set up. There’s a TV, a shared computer, dormitory rooms, a huge kitchen, a yard, fans in every room, a proper washing area, a washroom in every bedroom in the centre wing, and common washrooms for the left wing… everything but… a HOT SHOWER!!!!!

I can’t live life without my hot showers. It’s ok if I had to sleep on wooden beds cover with straw mats, inside mosquito nets, no air-conditioning and even shower from a bucket, but here’s my limits. I need hot showers. Technically I could have boiled water and mixed it with the pail in the toilet, but I didn’t wanna inconvenient the matron (a sweet Vietnamese old lady who lives in the centre) or my students, or seem like some stupid foreigner who’s demanding superior treatment. So I moved out into a hotel (only US$10/night for cable TV, WIFI, aircon, clean sheets, nice bathtub, mini-fridge etc) after 3 days of endurance.

However, something my students said almost made me cry.

I really like Bao Tro House, because the standard of living here is much better than home.

These kids are so appreciative of everything. They appreciate the fact that there’s regular source of food (3 full meals a day) at the centre, loads of study time (kids often work in the villages as a contribution to the family) and education opportunities. The really simple things in life. Makes me feel really guilty, and a spoilt city girl.


Simple Living

Life in Bao Tro House is simple, and communal, the traditional Vietnamese way. During meals, the girls help to serve the food, and the boys set up the tables + chairs. Everybody enjoys their meals together at 6.30 am (breakfast), 11am (lunch), and 6pm (dinner) everyday.

When we go out for excursions, Bao Tro House has a full time cook, who’ll prepare the same meals, lag a pile of plates + pots with us and the routine never changes, when if meals are taken while squatting by the road side.

However, during my trip there, we took the students out to a “restaurant” for their first time ever!!! Talk about exposure huh? 😉

Best things in life are free!

I also love that my students are a really happy bunch. Besides hitting their books, life is pure joy. They play 5 stones (with actual pebbles), chess sets, traditional games, cycling, chasing each other, messing around in the yard and watching TV.

They always contented, even though don’t go out beyond school, tuition classes and religious lessons (except when donors of The Haven or foreign volunteers visit).

Cultural Exchanges

Foreign Invasion!!

Last year, the Hooper-Nguyễn family and their friends visited while I was there. By then, we’ve taken the students to a couple of temples, a beach and the Elephant Springs, but this time it’s a full fledged excitement!

Every time that the Hooper-Nguyễn family and/or their friends visit, they always prepare lots of games, prizes and a fun-filled time for the students. Last year, they organized a drawing contest at the temples, a boat trip along the perfume river and a building contest at a heritage site (all in a day)!

After all education’s about fun, creativity and cultural exposure too!


All good things have to come to an end, so did my time in Huế.


Both times that I visited Bao Tro House, the matron (she’s like my Vietnamese mother) threw me a party. It’s really a simple gathering with candies, fruits and loads of singing, but it’s always really nice and touching.

Often it’s the best gifts aren’t the most expensive, but those from the heart. I always feel really bad when the matron offers me nice food or drinks, throws me a farewell party or gives me presents. However, I never appreciate any gifts more, because I know the giver has very little for themselves in the first place.

That’s sincere generosity, a true spirit of giving.

I thought I wouldn’t cry, but my girls did after the party, and when I eventually got back to my place at night, my eyes were moist.

Positive Changes (one year later)

As mentioned in The Haven website, the centre is focused on building vocational skills such as English language and computer literacy. I’m really really proud to say that when I visited the centre a year later, we have definitely managed to achieve both of these goals!!

During the one year, when I was back on Sunny Island Singapore, a few of my students were constantly in touch via emails. This is an amazing feat in 2 ways. (1) During my first trip there, the internet/computer seemed like a huge unknown force to some of these students. So the concept of logging on, on a regular basis felt surreal. (2) For teenagers who struggled to string even the most basic sentences together, writing a proper account of their experiences, that’s way impressive.

Just when you think we’re ready to feel congratulate ourselves, check this out!!

Technological Upgrade!

Laptop’s mine actually but it’s lovely seeing them get all excited checking out pictures we took a year ago! Even got one of my students to transfer the files to Bao Tro House’s shared computer, so everyone can look through these memories whenever! =D

Finally chased the big scary monster of the unknown cyber world out of the room and replaced it with a friendly chirpy cyber angel! *gRiNz~

My personal growth

Of course the exchange was 2 ways. In fact, I now believe that volunteers often receive more than they give out.

First, I learnt to appreciate life much better. The simple non-materialistic physical aspects of life. Which once you understand, and get used to, make you a much happier person.

Second, I learnt the power of love and appreciation. Again, contributes to happiness.

Third, I learnt how to slow my pace and be less uptight about life.

Fourth, human kindness, love, and more joy.

Finally, I learnt some Vietnamese!!!!!!!!!! How else can I convince my young punks to speak English unless I make the effort to learn their language?

(Actually this isn’t the best representation of my lessons, but some experiences are better felt than read. Didn’t wanna make it sound like a preachy or romantic speech either >.< )

Community Spirit in Huế

I know my impression of Huế may seem biased to many, due to my personal experiences, but most of Vietnam has a really strong sense of community. Besides orphanages and centres for the disabled, there are also loads of ventures in Huế that are community driven.

Food with a cause

Both of the above restaurants are set up as a means to provide a learning environment that aims to alleviate the situation of children wandering the streets of Huế. The French Bakery even provides training for its students, and pair them up with jobs post graduation. The prices are a tad steep by Vietnamese standards, (which is still reasonable by first world standards) but it’s all for a good cause!! Not to mention, the bread is so awesome it melts in your mouth… even the Europeans would agree, and these people know their pastry…


Besides my students, friends, and a surrogate Vietnamese family in Huế, it’s not difficult to understand why this part of Vietnam holds such a special place in my heart. Of course there are many other beautiful memories I can’t share in a single post… =)

Next up, I’ll share more about the beautiful sights of Huế, and experiences outside Bao Tro House!!

(Hopefully there won’t be such a huge gap in the time lapse too!)


If you’re ever interested in community work, write me comments on my post and I’ll answer all questions to the best of my abilities. Meanwhile, do check out The Kind Exchange (Singapore based), for various ways to contribute to our community, whether you’ve only a couple of hours to share, either on an ad hoc basis or as an ongoing commitment.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Walter permalink
    August 25, 2010 14:52

    What a nice post! I like your requirement for hot showers. 🙂 When I visited Singapore, I never had a hot shower – I always wanted to cool off!!! 🙂

    I’ve slept on mats and old metal bunk bed frames like that before, but (thankfully), I’ve never had to stay at a place that only had a squatty potty. That’s my requirement: a nice clean, western style toilet. 😛

    You’re absolutely right about the best things in life are free. 🙂 And it goes to show that kids really don’t need all of the technology stuff – cellphone, video game consoles, etc… to have a wonderful childhood. I once had a coworker at one job who was from Vietnam. He told me when he was growing up, they’d raise the Siamese fighting fish (bettas) and then put them together to fight. I showed him the photos of the selectively bred fancy fish with the longer fins that were popular in the aquarium hobby these days and his response was, “that fish would never win in a fight”. 🙂

    It’s always a humbling experience to go to country where the standard of living is lower than yours and it makes you appreciate what you have more. 🙂

    • August 26, 2010 14:57

      Thanks for sharing your experiences Walter, and for being such a regular reader here =)

      Totally agree about the humbling experience and that technology isn’t a real childhood need. There wasn’t much of that when I was growing up either =)

  2. Sean Tierney permalink
    August 26, 2010 14:43

    Hue was the capitol when Vietnam was a monarchy, and even though its been neglected, I am sure it still holds a lot of charm.

    Especially when you’re there ;P

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