From 17th May to 3rd June 2023, 24 members of Operation Orion embarked on an 18-day Overseas Community Involvement Programme (OCIP) at Ngoc Minh Semi-boarding Secondary School in Ha Giang, Hanoi, Vietnam. This was our first overseas trip since the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, making it a highly anticipated trip for the team!
We partnered with Youth Employment and Society Development (YESD) to improve living conditions and overall quality of life for the ethnic minorities in the rural Ngoc Minh commune. The team from YESD, represented by Thu Trang (big Trang), consistently supported us throughout our planning phase and actual trip so we are greatly appreciative of their help. Our project comprised two main aspects – Operations and Programmes. To ensure that everyone could contribute in both areas, we took turns participating in the Operations and Programmes activities each day.
The existing temporary classrooms that the students used were built with wooden planks and tin roofs that had holes in them. These did not provide safe and sufficient shelter for the students to have lessons during the monsoon season with heavy rainstorms. As such, our team chose to improve their learning environment by building two concrete classrooms from scratch to replace the temporary classrooms.
From setting the foundation to laying the bricks, we were involved in each stage of the construction process. Though the construction process was long and tiring, it was definitely rewarding to see our progress over the days and the smiles on the children’s faces!
Starting from the top left in clockwise order:
- Breaking rocks into smaller pieces to be used in the classroom foundation
- Transferring the supporting beams for the roof to the project site
- Laying the bricks
- Mixing cement by hand
Although we put in our utmost effort under the sweltering heat each day, alas, our time in the school had come to an end. While we had hoped to see the project to completion, together with the local builders, we managed to construct the structure of the classroom during our two weeks there. This is a picture of us with the classroom that we helped to build!
With construction ongoing, we also conducted 14 days of educational programmes with three classes of Grade 7 students. The school lacked dedicated facilities and equipment for Science experiments and the students did not have a strong mastery of the English language.
With these in mind, our Programmes team carefully crafted lesson plans catering to the needs and education level of the students. In order to make the lessons engaging, we used more experiments and hands-on methods to teach various STEM concepts and conversational English to the students. However, due to the language barrier, we had to get help from our translators (and new friends!), Ashley, Peter, and Tracy (lil Trang), to facilitate the lessons.
Other than classroom lessons, we also organised mass outdoor activities for the Grade 7 students. This included Sports Day to encourage inter-class competition and Cultural Day to facilitate cultural exchange between ourselves and the students. Both of these programmes were well-received by the students as they allowed for more organic interactions and we were able to foster closer bonds with them.
The students split into groups within their classes and competed in various events (Captain’s ball, Chapteh, Tag elimination, etc.) through a round-robin matrix to determine the final winners!
To share our Singaporean culture with the students who have not visited Singapore before, we taught them how to weave ketupats using ribbons and had stations for them to get henna art drawn by us!
In exchange, the students taught us how to make a local treat, glutinous rice balls with brown sugar filling, and we all had a fun time making and eating them. We also fused both our Singaporean and Vietnamese cultures by making bubble tea with a twist, the pearls were made using rice paper (a common Vietnamese ingredient) instead of the typical tapioca starch.
After a full day of various cultural activities, the students also put up traditional music and dance performances while donning their traditional costumes. Finally, we gathered around the campfire together with the students and ended the night with a traditional bamboo dance.
Apart from conducting our Operations and Programmes, we had a fun-filled time with many new experiences during our two weeks in Ha Giang. From the sights and sounds of the village to the people that we befriended, all of these made our Orion 2023 trip even more memorable. Here are some of our highlights from our stay in the school!
Rain and lightning storms
The school experienced power outages whenever there was heavy rain and lightning which affected some of our initial plans and schedule. With limited time to spend with the students in the school, we had to adapt to the situation and continue with our planned activities where possible. On one of the nights, some members were rehearsing their group dance with torchlights! On another occasion, dinner was cooked using headlamps. Nonetheless, we still found joy despite the disruptions faced, successfully accomplishing our tasks at hand.
On the first night, we were having a hearty dinner after our 7-hour bus ride to the village when we were introduced to the insects of Vietnam. It was the biggest cockroach that we had ever seen (roughly double the size of the usual roaches in SG!) and Shan who was at the vege-table jumped out of his seat to take cover. While everyone was in shock, Ashley (our translator) caught the cockroach with her bare hands to yeet it out of the room. Throughout our trip, we cohabitated with these pests, from watching gigantic lizards run across our rooms, to spiders jumping on our backs when we used the toilet and cockroaches crawling inside our mosquito nets 😣 However, by the end of the trip, most of us had grown accustomed to the insects and even Shan was unbothered by those that appeared during our mealtimes!
Water Dam Visit
To cool off from the summer heat after a long day of Operations and Programmes, Big Trang suggested visiting a nearby water dam in the evening to go for a dip in the cool waters. Having finished their lessons for the day, many of the kids also followed us on this 40-minute trek towards the water dam. Along the way, we were greeted by magnificent views of Ha Giang, with the kids being our “tour guides” and taking care of us. Our short swim at the water dam was really enjoyable as we played in the water with the students from the school. On our way back, Big Trang “managed” to hitch a ride from a truck that was meant for transporting livestock to bring all of us back to school instead!
Other than staying in the school, this time around, Big Trang and the team from YESD also arranged a homestay over the weekend for each of us! We were split into five groups to have a 2D1N homestay experience with five Vietnamese families in the commune and truly immerse ourselves in the local culture.
All of us were looking forward to the homestay with the locals to have a first-hand experience of the Vietnamese way of life in Ha Giang. During this short break from our usual routine of Operations and Programmes, many of us participated in a variety of exciting and unique activities (most of which we had never tried before). In the daytime, some groups followed their homestay families for agricultural activities such as harvesting wheat, peanuts, and corn, while other groups even went cave exploring! These activities opened our eyes to the magnificent scenery of Ha Giang that we would not have been exposed to if we had only stayed within the school grounds.
Dinner was prepared together with the elders, some of us helped to skewer meat while others helped to barbeque under the night sky. The meal together with our homestay families was so fun and enjoyable as we not only learnt more about their lives but also had a casual chit-chat about everything under the sun, from the recent SEA games hosted by Cambodia to tiny little gossip (hehe).
In communicating with the children, we also learnt about their dreams and their aspirations. Some wished to become teachers, while others wished to travel the world as adults. One of the homestay kids, Nhien, a 15-year-old girl, was extremely accommodating and eager to share her culture with us. She also shared that being an older sibling, she would often skip school to help out with work, as her parents preferred that she bring in income rather than go to school. She felt somewhat envious of the younger children’s freedom to play all day as compared to her responsibilities. Talking to her, some of us learned to empathise with the societal expectations imposed on her. These heart-to-heart conversations and learning to build personal relationships are things that will stay with us beyond this trip.
The next morning, we tried authentic local breakfast at nearby shops with our homestay families. One of the groups had Bánh Cuốn (Vietnamese rice rolls; similar to chee cheong fun back home) and Súp Bò Viên (beef ball soup) for breakfast. We were taught to dip the “rice roll” into the “soup” before eating and SHEEESH, this combination tasted amazing! All of us thoroughly enjoyed ourselves during the homestay but before we knew it, the time had come for us to say goodbye to our lovely host families and head back to school 😭
The homestay and all of the new experiences that we had with the locals are definitely highlights of our trip and will be fond memories for us to look back on.
Goodbyes are not forever!
After spending two weeks in Ha Giang with the students and village residents, it was finally time to bid farewell to our newfound friends 🙁 The greatest takeaway would be the friendships that we have formed with the locals in the community which will continue to stay with us beyond the trip. The homestay experience with the locals in the village allowed us to empathise and gain new appreciation for the privileges that we have back home, while also learning to find the simple joys in life! Embarking on this Orion expedition has been a fulfilling journey for us to not only support the disadvantaged community in Ha Giang, but it was also rewarding for us to reflect and grow as individuals and leaders from this experience.
Watch the highlights of our trip here!