Spring 2010 Feature Story

A Cultural Experience in Hong Kong and Vietnam

by Libby McCoy, 2010 senior in the UWL TESOL program

Giant Statue of Buddha in Hong KongIn January 2009, I had the incredible experience of traveling to both Hong Kong and Vietnam.  This two-week trip, which was sponsored by the UW-L study abroad office, was planned and led by UW-L staff members Kaye Schendel and Karolyn Bald.  I traveled with these two leaders as well as ten other students from UW-L.  The purpose of this trip was to embark on a “civic engagement tour”. Basically, the goals of this trip were for us to learn about, gain an appreciation for, and understand more fully a culture we knew little about through immersion in the culture and interaction with the Vietnamese people.  Of course, we were also there to visit attractions, see beautiful scenery, and eat delicious food! To tell about this entire trip would be quite an undertaking, so I’d like to focus on sharing aspects of the trip that I found most interesting and fun as well as the things I experienced that are most relevant to TESOL.  

Our first destination, which we reached after 24 hours of extremely tiring travel, was Hong Kong.  My favorite part of our time spent in Hong Kong was traveling to Lantau Island, which we reached by taking a long and shaky cable  car ride across a lake and through the mountains.  This island is home to a Buddhist monastery and one of the world’s largest sitting Buddha statues (which is so large there are actually two stories of rooms inside the statue you can enter).  The monastery and area surrounding the statue are decorated with ornate pictures and smaller statues; people come for hundreds of miles to pray at this sacred sight.  The other highlight of Hong Kong was spending the day at City University, the first of three universities that we visited on the trip.  At the university, we had the opportunity to sit in on information sessions for international students (mainly from the United States, Australia, Europe, and mainland China) where I learned a lot of interesting information about the university’s English as a Foreign Language programs.  City University is unique in that it has an international focus and all of its classes are conducted in English.  Many Asian students who hope to work internationally attend school there; thus, the school has extensive programs to help students become proficient in English.  One such program is the ELMS program.  Here, native English speakers are paired with English language learners.  The students participate in activities around the city together, such as going to movies, museums, and restaurants in order to practice English in a real-life, practical setting and get to know fellow classmates.  Remarkably, this program is funded entirely by the university.  Overall, spending the day at City University was a great way to gain knowledge about aspects of English language learning in another country.

After only spending three days in Hong Kong, we departed for Vietnam.  Our first destination there was Sapa, a rural mountain village in northern Vietnam, which turned out to be my favorite part of the whole trip.  Here, we got to visit the homes and villages of the native Hmong and Dao peoples, barter with the locals at the Sunday market (which featured items from woven baskets to cooked dog), and hike and ride motorcycles through the stunning mountains.  The Hmong and Dao are very interesting people: they live a very simple life with few possessions, no modern conveniences, and very minimal education.  However, they create the most intricate, detailed, and remarkable embroidered handicrafts and most children and young adults speak three languages: their native tribal language, Vietnamese, and English.  English is not taught in these rural schools, so it is primarily learned informally by the native people in order to interact with and sell goods to tourists. 

Mountain scene in Sapa, Vietnam                          Native Hmong woman in Sapa, Vietnam

           The mountains of Sapa                                            A native Hmong woman in Sapa

Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam located in the northern part of the country, was our next destination.  Hanoi is a not a wealthy city, but its people pride themselves on working hard to achieve what they want.  Owning a home is considered to be the greatest success, and education is extremely highly valued.  In Hanoi, we were able to visit Hanoi National University of Education, which was another amazing learning experience.  Here, we attended information sessions about Vietnamese history and education system.  The education system in Vietnam is remarkably similar to the education system here in America.  In terms of English instruction, about 60 percent of secondary school students learn English.  However, for TESOL students and professionals looking to work internationally in Vietnam, the majority of jobs exist at the university level.  This particular university, for example, has a partner program with universities in the United States where American TESOL students wanting to work in Vietnam come to the university to assist English professors, lead English clubs, and tutor students in grammar and conversational skills.  In general, most English teachers at the secondary level are Vietnam natives who have studied English education, while most teachers at the university level are native English speakers from the United States, Australia, and Great Britain.  In addition to attending information sessions, we also had the opportunity to converse with students majoring in English at the university.  While some of the students were majoring in English in order to teach, many students were studying the language in order to become tour guides, a very lucrative profession in Vietnam.

Libby at Halong Bay, VietnamOther highlights of Hanoi included a water puppet show (which is exactly what it sounds like – a show where the puppets dance and move through a giant pool of water) and the home and mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh (affectionately referred to by the Vietnamese as Uncle Ho).  Visiting Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum was a chilling, yet interesting experience.  No cameras were allowed and we were required to walk silently in a single-file line with our arms at our sides.  Inside the mausoleum, Ho Chi Minh’s body is visibly displayed, preserved in near-perfect condition.  However, there is much speculation that this may not be Ho Chi Minh’s actual body.   While we stayed in Hanoi, we also got to visit Halong Bay, a bay with breath-taking rock formations and hidden lakes, nominated to be one of the new seven natural wonders of the world.

From Hanoi we traveled south to Ho Chi Minh City (which is still referred to as Saigon by many of its people).  This city is more modern and prosperous than Hanoi, but widespread poverty still exists.  The people in Ho Chi Minh City have a reputation for being more relaxed and willing to spend money.  Near Ho Chi Minh City we had the experience of visiting the Cu Chi tunnels, which were used for travel and hiding by the Vietcong during the Vietnam War (or, as it is called in Vietnam, the American War).  Crawling through these tiny underground tunnels and seeing actual traps and weapons the Vietcong used to kill American soldiers was a haunting experience.  Similarly, visiting the War Remnants Museum and seeing the story of the Vietnam War told from a different perspective was educational, yet deeply saddening.  Many pictures, news reports, and personal testimonies showed violence against women and children by American soldiers, a side of war not often discussed openly by Americans.  On a lighter note, we also got to take a boat ride through the Mekong Delta, seeing forests of giant palms lining the water and touring small fishing villages which contained floating homes, markets, and even schools. Libby McCoy & "Sandy" Phuong Le

In Ho Chi Minh City we also had the experience of visiting the third and final university on our trip, the University of Economics.  This was the best experience in terms of actually interacting extensively with English language learners.  Here, we conversed with students from the English Club for over an hour, asking one another about culture, school, family, entertainment, etc.  This was a great chance for us to learn about life in Vietnam and a great chance for the Vietnamese students to learn about our culture and practice their English skills.  I talked with Phuong Le “Sandy”, who is studying international business at the university.  Learning all about her life and the Vietnamese culture from her perspective was fascinating, and she appreciated the advice I gave her about learning English.  In fact, we still e-mail one another; we tell one another about what’s going on in our lives and I also answer her questions about learning English.

Overall, my experience in Vietnam was an excellent way to learn about another culture, see amazing natural beauty and man-made attractions, make new friends, and gain knowledge about English language learning in another country.  I’ve always considered teaching abroad, and after this trip, teaching English in Vietnam or Hong Kong seems like even more of an amazing experience and a realistic possibility.