So I am sitting in a three bed hotel room, high up with a floor to ceiling window overlooking Cat Ba port – an Island about an hours ferry ride off the Vietamese mainland. Ellie is typing out a poem on her tablet, Tully and Zoe are doing craft, Mel sits next to me with her tea and discusses books with Lynne.
Lynne. The result of us throwing an idea out to the world of striking a contra deal with a teacher where they would do a month of school work with the girls in Vietnam and we pay their living expenses. All they needed to do was get here.
So we were hoping for the best but really just expecting a young student teacher who was able to jump ship at short notice and head to Vietnam during their Christmas break. But we expected nothing like this. Our hopes and expectations were blown out of the water and left behind in a trail of passionate, dedicated and artful education that is a joy to watch and an even greater joy to see our daughters immersed in.
We settled into Hanoi, taking residence in a four level house nestled near the shores of West Lake – the now well-to-do expat area of Hanoi. A nice distance from the sometimes overly intense explosion of noise and colour that is the old Quarter of Hanoi. I didn’t realise how much we had been moving until we had been there three or four days and I suddenly didn’t know what to do with my day. So we set about re-creating some of the things that the girls long for from home. Home made pancakes in the morning, Cat Empire tunes playing, different rooms in different parts of the house. It was more than a little emotional when after barely one night separated in two rooms, Zoe had her mattress dragged next door and set up at the foot of the older girls double bed. It seems that the idea of having space is not actually as warm as the reality of sleeping 2 feet away from your sisters.
We found (luckily) a nearby cafe that served a brilliant espresso that you enjoyed whilst perched on a bench 25m above the lake facing West to capture the surreal colours of the sun sinking through deep layers of Hanoi smog and mist.
Then Lynne arrived. A four foot nothing ball of energy that burst in the room from the plane and hugged me straight away. She was here. The girls crept downstairs late at night when they heard her voice. Zoe nearly literally popping with anticipation and excitement. Her little blue eyes bright and bursting, her hands clasped between her legs in restraint.
So after a day of settling in and walking around town together they settled into a routine. School from 8:30 to 1pm. Mel and I upstairs doing visa and travel plans before we snuck out for a morning coffee. Our initial guilt of leaving Lynne alone was lost very very quickly as 1: we saw how capable she was and 2: we realised how much she loved what she did. Us leaving for an hour barely raised a look from her or the girls. Their heads buried in books or drawings or little multi coloured number sets scattered across the table.
And there we had it. We settled back and watched this masterful educator juggle the different needs of our three daughters like it was the most normal thing in the world. She had a 10, 8 and 6 year old eating out of her hand. She had them doing shared games that were appropriate for all of them and then had them alone working at different tasks as she floated from one to the next – correcting, asking, encouraging, motivating, checking and stretching. It was (and is) poetry to watch.
I woke Zoe up on the second day and before she had barely opened her eyes she literally squealed and said “School today!!!!”. Is there a greater compliment to a teacher than that?
Lynne launched into her craft, Mel and I planned feverishly and the girls responded brilliantly. Each afternoon we would all move out of the house into the madness of Hanoi. A land of anarchistic roads, blaring horns, feverish persistent hawkers and mouthwatering food. Some days the girls would just stay in the house and lie around. Reading, playing with an iPad, wandering. It was like they were filling their “home” bucket before the next phase – big, cold distances through China and Russia.
So we had our two weeks of home and then set off for Cat Ba Island. A Vietnamese summer tourist spot and pass-through destination for foreigners visiting the world heritage area of Ha Long Bay. And again we got into a rhythm. School, then out in the afternoon. A few days off here and there for a hike and a one day boat trip through Ha Long Bay.
I won’t write about Ha Long Bay because it is one of those places that you can’t describe or – I found – even do justice through photos. I desperately tried to capture it and ended up just looking around in silence with the camera around my neck. Like walking through the Grand Canyon but you are floating, and the land is broken up into 1,600 islands. Pinnacles of hovering, impossible limestone that would not look out of place in a science fiction movie. Small coves filled with floating villages of fishing families and pearl farmers. Kayaking through ancient caves to emerge in completely contained lagoons. Surreal ancient landscapes where you feel that were a dinosaur to peek its head through the trees you would think it completely normal.
It’s lovely staying longer than usual because you notice the “shifts” of travellers move in and move out. The shortest stay a night, the longest stay 3 or 4 days before they are replaced. All the while we slow down into our little routine of morning coffee and school days. As I walk down the street at 8am the road side egg roll seller waves to me and beckons me over – asking “two? two?”. So I squat beside her as she fries the eggs, cracks open a fresh baguette, fills it up, takes my $1.50 and sends me on my way. Good, slow days.
I have just looked up from the computer and everything is still the same. Craft, iPads, books, fishing boats drifting past the window, birds, hills, sun. I am soaking it up because before we know it Lynne will be back in Australia and we will be moving North into China where walking around in a t-shirt will be a distant memory and our breath will hang in the air as it emerges from our scarves and hits the -20 Celsius air.