Written December 22, 2019
Published December 23, 2019
Written by Eduardo Hernandez (former volunteer from Spain)
Eduardo Hernandez was a former Teach for Change volunteer with C4C this January in Nam Dinh. He traveled and volunteered together with his lifelong friend Javier Fernandez de Lascoiti Mateo (Lasco), who passed away in early September in an accident in Malaysia. These lines reflect upon their time together in Nam Dinh.
Lasco and I decided we would go to Vietnam around November last year and, shortly after, at the beginning of January this year, both of us were already there with our motorbikes loosing ourselves through the beautiful streets of Nam Dinh and the surrounding areas.
We had no initial expectations and arrived with open minds ready to take in whatever the country threw at us. It was Coins for Change Vietnam that gave us the opportunity to become volunteer teachers in this great country.
Coins for Change Vietnam operates as a nonprofit social enterprise that helps empower woman and children throughout Vietnam to learn English and develop key skills for future success. We were also helped from the very beginning by Thom, our host and Laythen, a fellow volunteer, with whom we lived together happily during our time there, enjoying great moments. Some weeks later, Josh and Denise joined us as volunteers in the organization and brought us great memories as well.
Prior to arriving, we were told that Northern Vietnamese people were much more conservative and private but from our experience nothing could be further from the truth. Many Vietnamese locals had never seen foreigners and were quick to invite us into their homes for dinner. They cooked delicious meals and made us feel at home. When trying to give back, they often refused and wanted nothing in return. It was practically impossible to leave our house in Nam Dinh and not find ourselves sitting down for tea with locals or being gestured to come join them for meals at a nearby restaurant.
We did find some closed and harsh attitudes in center Hanoi and other touristic areas. But once you get to all the non-touristy part of Vietnam you see a completely different picture. Once you stop seeing western faces you start seeing the real Vietnam. And what a fascinating experience this is.
We met an American traveler that quickly left Nam Dinh arguing that there was not enough “nightlife” and that people just stared at him with a firm gaze. We never had that problem. With Lasco nearby it was easy to change initial hard gestures for smiling faces. Two days after he arrived (I got there a few days before he did) we were already mingling in a rooftop with a group of strangers who ended up becoming good friends.
Even late at night and into the early morning, locals would see us walking or driving and call us over to give something to us. Whether it was their company, their food, and/or their homebrewed Vietnamese wine, the Vietnamese were always willing to share with us. I remember one morning around 3 am I was walking with Lasco down a street filled with merchants preparing for the day. The entire street was busy with people unloading fruits and other goods that they would later sell that day. One truck after another, people set down their fruits and temporarily stopped working to interact with us and share some food.
We met great people in “Cà phê 18” and “Fanxipan” like Hoàng, Chuong and Phan among others, with whom we would mingle and chill at the rhythm of the guitar chords and Lasco’s rap rhymes. They didn´t understand what Lasco was saying as he would normally sing in Spanish but they liked his style, and they would continuously ask him to continue improvising new songs till late at night.
But not all was a bed of roses. Lasco got used to those rough mattresses they had there much quicker than I did, though that won’ t come as a surprise to those who joined our trip to Sapa and saw him taking a nap on a rock. We also encountered certain communication breakdown that could have driven us mad, but we got by with the best weapon we could use, Lasco’s sense of humor. Some of the tough situations we went through were among our favorite stories to remember later on when we continued travelling to new countries.
Every morning we had a wonderful driver, who we referred to as “Mr. T” who took us to the public schools we taught at in the countryside. He was also kind enough to drive us to several places in Nam Dinh and the surrounding areas to explore beautiful scenery and small villages. There were times where early in the morning, while still drowsy, we thought we lacked the energy to teach but once we arrived at the schools, students would surround the car while chanting, yelling and smiling at us. Even students on the higher floors would exit their classes and walk out onto the balconies to wave and greet us. Their energy was infectious and always succeeded in waking us up and filling us with motivation to teach. In the classes, students were always engaging with us and laughing. Many of the students spoke English well, but for those that didn’t, we were lucky to have an assisting teacher helping us translate.
Every teacher has a different personality and tools at their disposal to engage and teach students. Lasco’s biggest tools were his good humour and cheerfulness. That allowed people to quickly become comfortable around him, which made it easier for them to learn and feel comfortable enough to engage in the classes. Many times, he was seen singing, dancing and joking with his students, making their learning experience as pleasant as possible. Looking back at our own school days, I have no doubt that Lasco would have enjoyed having himself as a teacher.
During the breaktime we would chill with other teachers who would offer us some tea, water and their kindness. Again, it was difficult to communicate with them, but through signs we could manage to get by and have some laughs with them.
5 months after my volunteering period, I revisited Nam Dinh. It was incredible to see the great speed at which things had changed. This is something we could already feel while we were there. Indeed, “times they are a changing”, and faster than anywhere else, in Vietnam.
Lasco was going to meet us some weeks later, as he was looking forward to enjoying again the whole experience of volunteering in Nam Dinh. Unfortunately, early September, he was involved in an accident in Borneo while on the way to a boat expedition in the Pacific Ocean with friends we met there. He passed away shortly after.
I would like to thank Coins for Change Vietnam and all the people from Vietnam for all the signs of love and affection that so many have shown towards Lasco since we received the sad news. It is very stimulating to see the impact he made in such a short time in Vietnam. As I´ve heard many times in the last weeks “one was always happier having Lasco nearby”.
For me, and for all the people who loved him and were fortunate to know him well in the course his life, the values and attitudes he has always shown throughout his life will be an inspiration for the rest of our time here.