Quardrangle. Photo: Ba Han
Vietnam Heritage, May-June 2011 — There are a number of historic schools in central Ho Chi Minh city. The oldest still standing is the Le Quy Don, founded by the French in I874. It is at the crossroads of Nugyen Thi Minh Khai and Nam Ky Khoi Nghia Streets, just across the road from the Reunification Palace. The school has recently been renovated.
It is a pity that masses of tourists daily pass by such gems of historic architectural beauty without knowing they would be worth a visit. The school too misses out on earning some funds from arranging guided tours and serving tea and spring rolls. However, this is a fully functional working school, so perhaps it is best not to disturb the scholars.
The school was originally known as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, changing its name in 1966 to that of the eighteenth-century French/Genevan’s contemporary and fellow home-grown philosopher and encyclopaedist Le Quy Don. It may be considered the Eton of Vietnam, as its alumni include many influential people both within Vietnam and worldwide, with a particularly stong contingent in California.
As I remember it, the main part of Le Quy Don consisted of two cloistered quadrangles with two tiers of classrooms topped off with terracotta tiling. In the first there was a statue of the eponymous hero and some delightful tall trees. Children were summoned to assembly not by bells but by the beating of a huge drum. In the second quad, facing the palace, there were well manicured gardens and a quaint fountain. This part of the school operated out of normal hours as a Japanese language school open to the public, as evinced by an advertisement at the gate.
Such was the setting for one of the most bizarre incidents of my teaching career, as I was to give classes at the Le Quy Don.
Opposite, top: Blind, shutters. Photos: James Gordon.
The form of 55 boys and girls was a huge challenge not merely because of its size but also due to the unsuitability of the room to modern language-teaching methods. Uncannily, like in some of the classrooms in the English grammar school of the sixties I myself attended, pupils sat in rows of pews rivetted to the floor. The smell of the benches was also redolent of my own school days. And as Arnoldian as my alma mater itself, the teacher and his desk stood on a dais.
I used to begin my lessons with a technique called Model, Action, Talk, whereby students mimic the actions of the teacher and repeat words and phrases. In this way one can teach or review, for example, the English for early morning routines –‘Wake up’, ‘Rub your eyes’, ‘Wash your face’, ‘Clean your teeth’, ‘Brush your hair’, etc.
Now, I always carry an umbrella into class. It serves a multitude of purposes. For example I use it as a pointing stick or to rap for attention. Umbrellas are rare in Vietnam. The locals prefer to don plastic ponchos when the downpours come. Every teacher must have a nickname and mine inevitably is Ông Cái Dù or Mr Umbrella, in English.
That morning my umbrella became even more famous. I imagine forty years on it will be recalled in the annals of the school or on its old boy/girl website. We were early into routine. I gave the command ‘Raise your arms’ and, naturally, to illustrate this, I raised my umbrella. A crack sounded, like a pistol shot. I was left holding just the umbrella handle and for a split second I thought the Taleban had arrived. Stunned silence ensued. Then teacher and 55 children burst out laughing as we realised what had happened. The umbrella had hit a low-hanging ceiling fan that was in full action. Luckily no human contact had been made and the main part of the brolly was to be found in the corridor, the door having been left open to ease the heat.