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Vietnam :

Living in Can Tho

Moto-boulot-dodo ?

From Monday to Friday... Up around 5:30 am, well prepared by the outside noise, notably that of the public loudspeakers (in every streets) starting at 5:00. I went downstairs, switched on the coffeepot bought in Saigon. I bought also the paper filters there, unavailable in Can Tho. Gag : the first day, my cleaning lady emptied the used filter, washed it with the dishes and then dried it !

A shopping street in Can Tho

I then went to the "bathroom" and remembered, amused, its epic installation...

Replace the "Turkish" toilet by a western one ("No, Mr Thum, the seat of the WC should not be leveled with the ground : please, fill in this hole") and install a shower with a water mixer ("No, Mr Thum, I do not want a shower of ice-cold water and a shower of boiling water which cross themselves to make some lukewarm water"). It was necessary to constantly watch the works ;)

But I could henceforth take a shower in the morning (and another one to three others during the day because of the heat), without pressure of water and with a very variable temperature...

I got out (dried myself just for the principle, because anyway, with the heat and the humidity I was going to be dipped again two minutes later) and prepared my "breakfast" tray, to bring up to my living room. Privileged moment, during which I read the "Courrier du Vietnam" (when one has no other media, it is a treasure) or learnt an Assimil "Vietnamese without any trouble" (hem !) lesson.

At about 6:30 or 7:00, according to days, I got ready : dressing (clothes remained dry a few minutes only) and a second dose of deodorant. I closed the house : fenced door for the bedroom-office, for the terrace and at the entrance (so many locks doubled by monstrous padlock). Being original, I put my helmet on. I sat on the motorcycle and got ready mentally : be attentive, concentrated. One second of inattention in these streets would be fatal, with this traffic...

Short route (6 of my 9 schools were less than 5 minutes from my home). The guard of the school knew me ; fortunately, because otherwise I would have never been allowed to enter.

Among the crowd of pupils, many enjoyed my arrival ("Look, a foreigner !") Laughter, kind mockeries, one came to touch me and pull the hairs of my arms if one dared : that "carries luck".

The pupils of the bilingual classes, them, knew me well and surrounded me, greeted me (sometimes with a very respectful reverence, even the boys).

Sometimes also they went crazy : "Mr Pierre , ouééh !"

Mandatory exrcises at every recess :
Vietnamese kids stay in shape

I waited for the first course and entered class. The class chief (a pupil) gave the orders:

"All raise !", "Good morning Mister Pierre !"

(The whole class stood up and repeated)

I : "Good morning class, how are you ?"

"We-are-doing-fine-and-you-sir ?" Etc.

Either I spoke a little more with them, or I sat directly in the back of the class to attend the lesson. When it was finished, I had an interview with the teacher, to discuss of his methods, his class, his pupils. After this interview, often constructive, I left for another class, in the same school or in another one.

Thursday was different, it was my "big day". I met with all the teachers of a level for a few hours to help them prepare and to insure the coordination ; when we had the time, I also animated educational workshops.

Back to the normal rhythm.

In Vietnam, schedules are particular : one begins at 7 o'clock, stops from 11:00 till 13:00, then works again till 17:00 or 18:00.

So, usually I was back home around 11:00 am, for the noon break. I ate and offered myself a small half-hour nap, in my air-conditioned room. That was so good ! For a moment, I escaped this clammy heat which makes the work here really painful. In the afternoon, I left for more visits or dedicated me to the other tasks (papers, etc.).

In the evening, I stopped working at 17:00 or 18:00 (the Vietnamese take their dinner at this time). I relaxed, read, played with the computer or ended a small job, wrote... In Can Tho (and in Vietnam) in 1997, we didn't have Internet yet.

At about 19:00, I exchanged the pair of shorts (not much appreciated by the population) for trousers and a T-shirt, and took the motorcycle again (after the perpetual fun of padlocks and locks). Direction : restaurant. At the beginning, my destinations were varied enough. Quickly however I had just one : the Mékong.

This small restaurant is on the Ninh Kieu wharf, the small "backpackers - tourists - expatriates" district of Can Tho. And yes, there are tourists in Can Tho ! The Mekong was held by a very nice family, and of course one quickly got acquainted...

When I arrived, I settled down at a table, often on the walkway (which serves as terrace and as motorcycles parking). Not need to ask : a bottle (66cl) of BGI beer was on the way, with a beer mug, the menu (that I made in three languages for them) and a cold towel.

Most of the time, I didn't even have the time to serve my beer. If they had not followed (or even jumped on) my motorcycle at my arrival, the kids were quickly there : "Craven A! Tchoup-tchoup! Massage! Shoeshine!"

These boys and girls were 6 to 16 years old and did not go to school. Some were really "in the street", but most had a "family" which sent them to work all day long, mainly on the wharf because it's there that the foreigners were. Their needs were simple : a little money (otherwise they were beaten or did not have to eat), affection, contacts, amusement.

A lot of people considered them as vermin, and it's true that they looked like it, notably by their "children who live all the time in the street" attitude, without limits, without education.

Thi, whom I nicknamed "Gaston Lagaffe"
(Belgian comics character who makes all kind of blunder)... Thi proved many times I'd been right ;)

Others tried to help them. With some other expatriates, I believe to have attempted all of what we could think of with our weak amateurs' means : promotion of the street childrens' house, alphabetization every afternoon in a nearby school, a teacher whom we paid to give courses on the spot (in a restaurant which lent us a room), small jobs, visits to their families, supply of clothes and food, etc.

Nothing worked, either because the children didn't want to restrict their freedom, or because their parents didn't want that they waste time instead of gaining some cents... The food ? If we didn't make them eat it in front of us, they took it to their parents. Same for medicines ! Clothes ? They resold them at the market, or even to the shop where we had bought them, for the tenth of their price.

But the worst was the glance of some passer-bys ! An expatriate whom I had had to hurt one way or another had even launched the rumour as "I loved children too much", while she had been one of the first to try these same attempts of help ! Jealous ?

So it was a big disappointment for us and after one year of efforts, we abandoned, just having a few comforts :

The satisfaction to have tried, to have given them (another) chance to get out of this ;

Good moments with them, because once the contact established, they could be nice, charming, funny, helpful and rather honest... As long as one did not tempt them too much and as long as one respected them.

And as for me, it's with them that I learnt Vietnamese the most, thanks to their patience with a foreigner who speaks bizarrely ;)

And in a sense, that distracted me from my classes, privileged with regard to the other Vietnamese classes and even more with regard to them. I had the impression to be even more useful...

Phat, whose mother made work
from morning till night and who came
to take refuge at my table for
one moment of tranquillity

Let's resume our story of a typical day...

At about 21:30, streets emptied and it was blatant in this place : it is there indeed that the Vietnamese come to make their evening stroll, the whole family on the motorcycle (sometimes up to 6 persons !) : they go around, and around... At the evening end, as everybody, I went back home and once in the house (padlocks, locks...) I offered myself a small glass of red wine for the pleasure. (Padlocks, locks...) start the aircon, go to bed...

Saturday... Yes, work to do ! Well, actually I had done a lot during the week, so I could take it more easy. My cleaning lady arrived at 8 o'clock, and as I was more or less used to the noise, so I could sleep till 7 am. A morning of administrative job, notably the establishment of my schedule for the next week, always a true puzzle : juggle with 42 schedules plus mine... Often nothing to do in the afternoon but rest.

On Sunday, up at 7 o'clock most of the time, for a holiday... Most of the time. It was not rare (once on three) to be asked for job-related activities : meeting, extracurricular activity... These often beginning at 7 o'clock in the morning !

And the rest, will you ask me? Well, daily life, including : go to the post office to look for my mail, go buy food (we have a small "Seven Eleven" which even has some Gouda cheese, some ham and Nutella chocolate !) go order drinks (brought at home), etc.

I often took advantage of my routes between schools to make these common small things, which often took here another shape or another sense than in Belgium.

Leisure activities? Limited. Strolls, see friends...

No way to go to Saigon often : far, exhausting, expensive... And little interesting (big polluted and congested city). I preferred to stay in my nice town and to take advantage of the quarterly meetings to go back to civilization (which one, anyway ?)

I went several times for a stroll by boat :
small canals (arroyos),
floating market...

And appreciate a good meal in an orchard,
With the family of the owner.

Subject which will be the object of a page too...

Next page : School year 1998-1999

Page créée le 27 novembre 1998 -  Mise à jour le 13 juillet 2002

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