By Eric Petersen
The Vietnamese people are some of the friendliest I’ve met in 20+ countries. Their warmth and hospitality, unlike the images portrayed in war movies, have proven that much has changed since the war ended in 1975. Even as an American, many Vietnamese respond to my nationality with a firm ‘thumbs up.’
The welcoming smiles of the Vietnamese are one of the reasons I decided to live here. After two backpacking trips and several new friendships, I now work as a tour leader helping other westerners experience the same.
Perhaps the biggest smiles of all are found in Quy Nhon, a quiet, coastal town midway between the shopping mecca of Hoi An and the beach resort of Nha Trang. It receives few tourists as it is located in one of the least developed areas in the country. In 40 trips across Vietnam, I’ve been fortunate to stop in Quy Nhon seven times.
Nguyen Nga Center
The smiles are reciprocal when I visit the Nguyen Nga Center, home of disabled students creating a self-reliant lifestyle. Young people with physical and intellectual disabilities gain the vocational skills to become economically independent. And beam brightly in their new community which accepts and supports them.
The students’ excitement is palpable. The comment I hear most often from my departing passengers: “I’ll never forget the expressions on their faces as long as I live.”
Seventy-five percent of Vietnam’s workforce is agricultural, with rice, coffee, rubber, tea, and black pepper contributing largely to the GNP. The physical strength and stamina required to preclude many disabled workers, who subsequently become perceived as financial burdens to their families.
Miss Nga, the founder of the center, is acutely aware of this having cared three years for her younger sister who suffered a severe leg injury. She now officially aspires, “to improve the quality of life of young people with special needs in the Binh Dinh province while developing social and vocational skills that will foster independence.”
The Vietnamese people are extremely industrious, commonly working 12-14 hour days while refusing days off. When asked about their eagerness, they often reply “it’s a chance to earn money.”
Miss Nga understood the key – people simply want an opportunity. When she offered the first class, 12 openings for students with hearing disabilities, it filled quickly with 96 completing the new course. The curriculum expanded to include classes for students with visual, intellectual and severe physical disabilities.
Students wishing a better life are first educated to become economically independent. Through the center, they can pursue three different careers which reflect their culture and enable them to make a contribution.
Vietnam has a rich cultural heritage, with 54 different ethnic groups and a recorded history that dates back 4,000 years. Traditional vocations include embroidery, tailoring, painting, writing, music, jewelry and stoneware.
Artistic students at the center can pursue any of these livelihoods through specialized training. Brocade weaving, a specialty from Miss Nga’s home village of Nam Phuong Danh, incorporates traditional patterns from Cham, Viet and other ethnic groups into hand-crafted clothing, handbags, furniture decorations and personal accessories. Sixteen students have become professional artisans.
Vietnam is an interesting combination of political socialism and economic free enterprise. Spurred by the Doi Moi reform in 1992, the country has averaged 7% growth since 2000 and is now considered by many to be ‘the next China.’ Families living street-side took advantage of their location by converting the front of their homes into shops that spill out onto the sidewalk.
Entrepreneurial students at the center can learn retail, business, and computer skills through the Self-Reliant Club. All crafts made at the center are sold on-site, at exhibitions and through retail outlets. Twelve students have opened their own businesses.
The Self-Reliant Club is fundamentally important in helping the center become sustainable. All proceeds support the center’s financial viability to continue serving students now and in the future.
Vietnam’s value on education has helped it achieve one of the highest literacy rates in the world. One of its oldest temples, the Temple of Literature in Hanoi, was originally dedicated to Confucius’s learning. Today, it hosts a large number of domestic tourists, wedding photo shoots, school field trips and graduation ceremonies.
Academic students who have successfully passed university entrance exams receive financial assistance and vocational guidance from the center. Twenty-four students have entered university with 11 graduating and one progressing to graduate school.
Visitors who call in advance are treated to Cham, Vietnamese and other ethnic dances performed by groups of up to 20 students. This is one of the few venues in the country where dance is regularly available, as performing arts in the east are different than in the west. In Vietnam, karaoke is king, with entertainment systems found inside bamboo houses with mud floors and no running water.
The performance is also an insight into Cham culture, which dominated present-day central Vietnam from the 1st-17th centuries. Travelers who drive through this region will inevitably notice the well-preserved temples sitting on top of several prominent hills. They are an architectural marvel as historians today cannot explain how the clay was baked without mortar.
Artistically, the dance is easy to appreciate with brightly colored silk Cham costumes flowing in synchronicity. Boys wave large flags overhead and carry drums while girls display fans and conical hats.
More impressive, though, is the technical challenge as most dancers are deaf and unable to fully follow the auditory cues in the music. The choreography relies heavily on everyone coordinating their movements with each other visually. Easy for those standing upstage…but not so for those moving downstage in front of the audience.
I was invited to the wedding reception of two former students during one visit. In Vietnam, family is paramount, extending as far as the communist government establishing laws around its protection. Two of the first conversational questions in Vietnamese are, “do you have a spouse yet?” and “do you have children yet?”
Vietnamese weddings span at least two days starting with a small, private ceremony for immediate family only. The big celebration, whereas many people as possible are invited for good luck, includes emcee entertainment, several courses of tasty food, speeches, karaoke and dancing. Foreigners are considered especially lucky and can expect a rapt audience if they speak or sing.
Of the 11 marriage celebrations I’ve been to in Vietnam so far, this was the most outwardly joyous. Many of the guests were present and past students who obviously had established strong friendships. People with similar backgrounds and appeared to also be celebrating an independent lifestyle of their choosing.
The Family Club is an instrumental social program at the center which gives singles relationship support and married couples assistance with health care, sexual education and parenting. Miss Nga’s foresight extended beyond vocational training to help disabled people fully integrate into the larger community.
I was greeted by the familiar face of a previous passenger at the center recently. Jason, who had cycled with me through Vietnam a year earlier, had returned to the center to volunteer. I first saw him changing ceiling lights, as he had the vertical advantage of reaching those heights unassisted.
This was actually Jason’s second stint at the center, having just visited about a week before on his solo adventure through Vietnam. But, after moving on to the next destination, decided he wanted to rejoin the camaraderie instead of continuing along his itinerary.
Travelers in Quy Nhon are warmly welcome to visit the center, take a free guided tour, watch traditional dances and meet the students. They can support the students’ training to become independent through volunteering, shopping and donations.
The center has been gifted its first permanent home ever by the government if a development goal is reached in time. Another of Miss Nga’s efforts to improve the lives of disabled students, beyond the 800 who are already smiling.
Nguyen Nga Center
Phone/ Fax: +(84) 56818272
Address: 91A Dong Da, Quy Nhon, Binh Dinh, Vietnam
Eric Peterson is an American tour guide who has led more than 50 groups of westerners through Southeast Asia since 2007. He lives in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.