Since I – Phi Ha Nguyen – arrived in Vientiane, Laos, on the 26th of October 2019, I have been taken care of by the staff of the Vocational Education Development Institute (VEDI) in the most lovely manner. Actually, even before I arrived in Vientiane, I was already in contact with two persons from the VEDI. The first one was Ms Somphalang Ngonphetsy, one of the English teachers at the VEDI, and the second one was Dr Phouvieng Phoumilay, the Director of the VEDI. Dr Phouvieng even gave me a call on the phone to say hello and to tell me that they were looking forward to meeting me, which made me even more excited to get to Laos and work at the VEDI.
Ms Somphalang had been asked to communicate with me beforehand about my flight schedule in order to organise my pick-up from the airport. Unfortunately, then she could not pick me up herself because she takes university classes for her Bachelor’s degree on weekends. This is why she made sure that Mr Aod Thammavong, another teacher at the VEDI, would be there to welcome me. She even sent me a photo of him and requested a photo of me to show him, to make sure that we would not miss each other – and it worked out wonderfully. Ms Somphalang and Mr Aod were also kind enough to agree to pick up my friend and co-volunteer Jacqueline Muss as well so that she could join in greeting me at the airport.
Mr Aod took really good care of Jacqueline and me on my first day in Vientiane. I arrived around 11 o’clock in the morning, and he first drove us to the VEDI dormitory which will be my home for the next three months.
We three volunteers – I happen to be the first one to arrive – have two new rooms, one bedroom and one kitchen, with two bathrooms even, specially built for us. I was very happy to see that the bedroom was fully equipped with air conditioning and the bathrooms with water heaters for the showering water – both luxury items that I really appreciate. (The other rooms and flats in the building do not have this, as Lao people normally wash outside.) When Mr Aod told us that the students of the VEDI built the flat and also the furniture, I was not only impressed at how much work they invested in the preparation of our arrival, but also very thankful that they were taking such good care of us.
After my team-mate Jacqueline and Mr Aod kindly gave me some time for a wash, Mr Aod invited both Jacqueline and me to my first Lao noodle soup, which was delicious! Then, he took us to shop some groceries and a few missing items for the new flat. He was very accommodating and made sure that I was feeling welcome and comfortable. Mr Aod actually can speak German as he studied in Germany twice for a year in 2009 and 2013, but also English, which made communication easy, and so we got along very well quite fast.
In the evening, Dr Phouvieng picked Jacqueline and me up and drove us around to show us Vientiane. He invited us to dinner at a place
near the Mekong River. We did not only have a fantastic view, but also very delicious food! Dr Phouvieng ordered a variety of Lao food, including fried seagrass with sesame seeds, crispy chicken, and fried pineapple rice served in a pineapple.
After that, we went to the “Oktoberfest in Laos”, which happened to take place on the weekend I arrived. Dr Phouvieng’s generous hospitality throughout the whole evening contributed to us all having an enjoyable time on my first day in Laos.
Only on my second day did I figure out that some of the VEDI teachers also live in the dormitory. They either share one bedroom and one bathroom with several people or live together with their family in one bedroom. In fact, the dormitory houses six teachers and their families. From a Western perspective, sharing a bedroom with more than one person (except for spouses) is rather unusual, but in Laos this is normal. It proved to be a real fortune that some VEDI teachers also live in the dormitory as I was having problems with the water. A new water tank had been bought and installed specially for the arrival of the volunteers, but maybe the connections were not working well yet.
This is how or why I got to know Mr Yeekeo Ounlarsith, short “Keo”, by accident in the hall. Mr Keo is one of the “Travel and Tourism” teachers – and he is such a nice and helpful person! Whenever I have problems in the dormitory, e. g. when I do not know what to do when the water is not working (you have to plug in a plug outside first or when that also does not help you just have to get a big bucket and fill it with water from the community pool outside, where the Lao teachers wash themselves), I can knock on the teachers’ doors and ask for help without having to feel bad about it in the least. Being accustomed to the German sense of privacy and not wanting to impose, I did not want to disturb them too much, so I felt a bit uncomfortable asking them at first every time when I did not understand how things were working in the dormitory. However, I was soon to learn that this was not an issue here. People help other people as a matter of fact all the time. Mr Keo and the other teachers surely play a big role in making me feel less alone in the dormitory now as I am living on my own for the time being because Annabell Kosalla and Laura Jakob will arrive later.
On my first working day at the VEDI, I got to meet Ms Vankhame Sisoulath, one of the three English teachers. When I met her, she instantly gave me a big hug, which is rather unsual for Lao people to do – more a western greeting amongst friends. Her hug made me feel more than welcome rightaway. She then showed me around the VEDI campus, which has some new-looking buildings as they have only just been built. The campus is full of champa trees, the national flower and symbol of Laos, and is further surrounded by basketball, soccer, and volleyball fields, making it a very cosy place to work and study.
Ms Vankham also introduced me to many staff in the different departments, e.g. the “Academic Affairs Division”, the “Administration Division”, or the “Curriculum Division”. Everyone greeted me with a big smile and I was able to have a small chat with most of them, either in English, German, or Vietnamese. I was born and raised in Germany, so my first language is German. My parents are from Vietnam, however, which is why I can small-talk in Vietnamese. In primary school, I started to learn English and kept studying it through secondary school and university until now.
My working desk is in the same room as Ms Vankhame’s, Mr Khamphoun Sitthisay’s and Ms Sounita Phanpipak’s. Although Mr Khampoun and Ms Sounita speak almost no English, we still get along with each other really well thanks to using gestures and a translation app, which often leads to lots of laughter as the app sometimes translates sentences in a way which do not make sense at all. The first days I spent the most time with Ms Vankhame, trying to adjust to my new living and working environment. She made this very easy for me to do so as she is taking care of me as a “daughter”. This is why we already established that I call her “me may” – “new mother” in Lao, and it really feels that way.
On my fourth working day, I finally got to meet Ms Somphalang in person. She had been in training outside of Vientiane over the last days. We had a lively first chat – she is a really energetic person – and had a great conversation due to her highly developed English skills. Apart from getting to know each other, we shortly discussed my time-table and how we could work together in the future, which I am really looking forward to!
As you can see, my first few days in Vientane have been packed with new and interesting encounters and I cannot wait to deepen these relationships! The staff at the VEDI definitely contributed to reducing my initial anxiety bit by bit and I started to relax and feel really comfortable. Over the next few days I got to know more people better – and I would love to mention all of them, but there are just too many for this first post! More to come later!
Text by P. Nguyen
Photos by P. Nguyen (& passers-by)