Vietnam Education Initiative Update – June 2024

By Bruce Izard – ICO volunteer and Vietnam Education Initiative sponsor

Below is a summary of Bruce’s journal of his three-week volunteer trip in Vietnam with Vietnam Education Initiative Lead, Thanh Tazumi.

On April 5, after an unexpected layover in Seoul we arrived in Hanoi where Minh was waiting for us with a driver. Thanh Tazumi has a talent for rescheduling on the go, so that we were not stressed by what was beyond our control. We had brought extra suitcases packed with clothes, gifts, treats for the students, and games for group activities. 

That evening we met five students for dinner at a nice restaurant. These young men would have had little opportunity to complete post-secondary studies without the support of the ICO Vietnam Education Project in partnership with CAMA Vietnam. 

Phong is graduating in IT, Va Anh is studying Korean, Lam IT, Nam engineering and Thien psychology. They were chosen for sponsorship for their family needs and their prior success in grade school. Like the other students in the program, they have all suffered loss in their lives. Some are orphans, some have parents with chronic health problems and have been raised by grandparents. 

The partnership with CAMA is vital to the success of the ICO project. Students in need are identified at a young age and are given support at a critical time in their childhood development. Faced with a lack of resources, they experienced a lack of confidence in the future. CAMA gives a leg up by providing school supplies, books, rice for their families, and counseling. CAMA organizes camps in their home cities and towns to teach life skills, teamwork and awareness before the students arrive in Hanoi for their post-secondary studies. Both organizations share common values and a holistic approach to education in which students are nurtured.

On April 7th, we met at the Thang Long Citadel, a world heritage site to take photos with this year’s graduates. It was heartwarming to meet Bang, the student who we have supported for five years. He has graduated in Automation Engineering and has been hired by a Chinese company that manufactures hardware for Apple Watches. His father died of a lengthy disease when he was 8 years old. What is striking about this young man is his resourcefulness, his maturity, and his readiness to help others. 

Thang Long is a beautiful venue for photos with its gardens and old buildings. Caps and gowns had been rented for the occasion and some of the undergraduates came to help. Thanh and Mau Le, the CAMA director, have a warm connection with the students. It is very important to celebrate the success of the graduates. It is a joyful occasion for the undergraduates too. 

Afterwards we have reservations at a restaurant for a grad dinner. Each graduate received a new wallet so they can keep all the money they will earn once they are employed. 

April 8th, I am impressed with the readiness of the students to help each other, and to come by to help us. Thanh decided to move to a different Airbnb with an extra room and kitchen in order to invite students for meals. Van Anh and Phong come by on their motorbikes to help with the suitcases. We take them out for iced coffee afterwards, where we meet with Lan, who after a number of years at Apple Headquarters in California, decided to move to Hanoi so that he could do more humanitarian work in his spare time. An important part of our visit is to foster connections and friendships. It is a good opportunity for Phong and Van Anh to get career advice from a successful Apple Executive. 

In the morning I meet for breakfast with Thanh and Anh, who slept over in Thanh’s guestroom. Then we go to Lan’s office to meet with a man who has developed a start up ESL app with online support. We explore possibilities to help the students who would be the most suitable to sponsor for this program. Lan stresses the impact of English language proficiency for the career path of our students. 

Anh is studying business management and is eager to improve her English language skills. Over coffee she asks me if I could tutor her and Hien via Zoom in the coming year. For a retired teacher, I am already thinking ahead to lesson plans and strategies. 

Cô Thanh has a gift for making others feel special. When students had a morning or an afternoon off, she invited one or two out for coffee or a meal. 

I am interested in the art, culture and history of Vietnam and accompanying students to museums is a highlight of my trip. It gives me a chance to spend time with several students including Viet and Lan, two students who we will be sponsoring. The visits resonate with student trips during my career. 

April 12-14. Thanh has organized a grad weekend at Ha Long Bay for all the students, not just the grads. We take Bang, Phong, and Yen with us on Friday and the others who have jobs or classes join us on Saturday. Yen graduated in the first cohort who started in 2016. She went on to get a master’s degree in food Science. Like other graduates she remains close to the project. 

Thanh’s guide is a personal friend who has arranged lodgings with rooms for 20 and a big open area downstairs for the grad dinner. We start off with a ferry ride with amazing backdrops to Cat Ba Island where we tour large caves. One is a field hospital (in a cave) where the wounded were treated during the “American War”. It is gripping to think of the spartan conditions where lives were saved and lost, hidden from the threat of aerial bombardment. These peaceful young people in an earlier generation would have been duty bound to serve in a brutal war against young Americans and their own countrymen. 

The next day I accompany the student’s on a boat tour of HaLong Bay, while Thanh goes to the markets to buy groceries for the grad dinner. We stop at an island to hike through two large caves, marveling at the limestone  formations. We make another stop for a kayak excursion. 

When we get back, all the students have signed up for jobs, cutting vegetables, making sauces, barbecuing outside, and cleanup. It is most impressive to see how everyone pitches in. The dinner was wonderful.  Anh is the emcee for the party. She asks me to share some words. Minh, who has sprained her ankle, translates for me. 

April 16 – 20, After traveling to Ninh Binh and Ba Vi, it was time to return to Hanoi for the last few days. We stayed with friends of Thanh, who were interested in the project. It would be a new phase for the project if we were to have sponsors not just in Canada, but in Vietnam. 

April 20 – 23rd, We were able to spend more time with students in our last few days in Hanoi. New accommodations were found for the girls’ dorm in a safer neighborhood. We purchased an air fryer for the housewarming. On our last evening a group of students cooked us dinner and accompanied us to the airport in the morning for a heartwarming farewell. 

As a follow up to our volunteer experiences, Thanh and I gave a PowerPoint presentation at our Rotary Club in Campbell River, with a number of sponsors in attendance and Bang attending via Zoom from Bac Ninh. And I have started to tutor English on Zoom with Anh and Hien.