Coli and I first visited Hanoi in 1999 when we spent the summer leading a language exchange program between Boston University and Hanoi University students. That summer project was the first time I had ever spent an extended period outside of the United States, and I was completely surprised by what I saw and experienced. As we toured Hanoi with our students, I couldn’t help but marvel at the ingenuity of the Vietnamese to meet challenges and solve problems in manner that is both practical and highly creative.
For example, one time the students and I were travelling by public bus from the university to Hoan Kiem lake and the throttle cable to the engine at the rear of the bus snapped and completely detached from the engine. This made it impossible to go anywhere! Rather than simply sit there and wait for help, the ticket collector rapidly walked to the rear of the bus, removed the cover above the engine, and then used his hands to throttle the motor. For the remainder of the trip, the driver would call out instructions to the ticket collector (“faster”, “slower”). We arrived safe and sound and with a new respect for Hanoians as well!
Even though my wife and I had only planned to spend a summer in Hanoi, something special in our hearts and we fell in love with the people of Vietnam. We began to talk together about how we might prepare ourselves to live and work here long-term, investing our hearts, minds and skills into the lives of teachers and students alike. These questions led me back to school for a time, where I completed a Master’s program in education, specifically Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL). for our children the benefit of understanding life outside of the United States. After completing my Master’s degree in Education in 2004, we joined REI-Vietnam out of appreciation for its focus upon life-on-life mentoring and exchange. We returned to Hanoi in February of 2005.
While it was easy to mark the changes between 1999 and 2005, it has been all the more impressive to witness them for ourselves from 2005 until now! The most obvious changes can be seen simply by stepping outside our door. New roads, new shopping centers, new housing developments, and now even a 70-story skyscraper are visible to the naked eye. Less obvious, but perhaps even more important: out of the chaos of rapid development and change, a principled system of organizing and managing resources is emerging. Sometimes the solutions initially baffle me. For example, after building so many new roads, the authorities have in turn closed off intersections such that it is impossible to drive straight through them. While the resulting “round about” (see image below) is anything but the shortest distance between two points, it actually works better because Vietnamese drivers no longer compete to be first or last through an intersection as the light changes from green to red. In each of these developments, I see again the practical and creative solutions which Hanoians apply to the challenges before any developing country.
In my work here, I function as a teacher-trainer at the university level. I am responsible to provide professional development courses for educators that improve not only their English language skills, but also their actual approach to teaching others. It is in these capacities that I am able to gain a much more personal appreciation for the practicality and creativity of Vietnamese educators. While the role of educators is greatly respected with the Vietnamese cultural, the work demands placed upon educators (be they primary, secondary or university-level) are unending. Yet with a little bit of encouragement, dignity and support, the educators around have taken on the increased responsibilities of preparing their fellow countrymen to both receive foreigners and to travel aboard, making significant contributions on the global stage with diligence and excellence. Coli wife and I count it as a true privilege to both live in Vietnam and to work alongside Hanoians as well.