Vietnam News

Monk-turned-teacher runs floating classes for kids of Vietnamese returnees from Cambodia

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Venerable Sir Thich Chon Nguyen has been working hard to perform magic on children of Vietnamese households who moved from Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia to a hydroelectric reservoir in southern Vietnam, by offering them tuition-free literacy and life skill classes together complimentary meals on rafts that hopefully will benefit them in the long run.

Amid a floating village atop Tri An Reservoir and Lake, a hydroelectric dam and lake on the Dong Nai River in the eponymous province about 70 kilometers south of Ho Chi Minh City, is a special class run by Venerable Sir Nguyen.

Attending these free-of-charge classes are mostly children of the villagers, the majority of whom are returnees from Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, where they struggled to put food on the table as fishers.

After returning to their home country in the hope of building a better life, the villagers in Thanh Son Commune, Dinh Quan District are finding they have simply traded in a world of poverty for another.

Nguyen, from Lien Son Pagoda, began running the classes with one goal in mind: spreading the gift of education to these impoverished children, who might otherwise have never seen the inside of a classroom.


On a recent morning, kids arrived in class on six motorized sampans which Nguyen had lent to them.

The boat riders are sometimes the students themselves, some of whom are as young as eight years old. 

The 41-year-old ‘teacher’ shared his heart sank seeing the children, who are denied a proper education and do angling and odd jobs around the lake to help their families during a visit to the floating village.

It was then that he decided to teach them how to read and write and put life skills into practice so that they could reach out and make it in the modern world.

“I began with tutoring five children on a fisherman’s raft and later came to buy another big raft – the main venue – and two smaller ones to open my own ‘school’ as more students have joined my class,” Nguyen said.

More than 20 students attend his regular classes on average, which run from 8:00 am every day except Monday, at one time, the oldest student being 15 and the youngest six years old.

Nguyen has his hands full shuffling from desk to desk to teach math and Vietnamese literature to the students from first to fifth grades.

A female teacher comes over from Ho Chi Minh City to help him on weekends.

The clergyman also prepares lunch and milk for the kids after the morning sessions so that they will continue the afternoon lessons on a full stomach, using his own money and donations from philanthropists to cover meals, study tools, and medical treatment.

With no placement test, Venerable Sir Nguyen said the challenging part was individually following the learning pace of each student.

“I tailor my lessons to my students’ different abilities and integration while assessing their improvement after each session instead of giving weekly or monthly tests,” he explained.

But the charity classes have not always been smooth sailing, as harsh reality seems to be the biggest roadblock in most of his students’ lives.

The monk does not set rules on punctuality, regular attendance or homework submission as his students are too busy taking care of household chores or helping their parents with casting nets for fish.   

Many of the villagers would not let their children go to his classes, considering them an unnecessary distraction from daily work.

Shortly after the classes were launched, the monk even gave each student two kilograms of rice so that they would make it the following day as a way to slowly convince the villagers to reconsider their children’s future.

Brighter future

Venerable Sir Nguyen shared his classes are not just about ending literacy but also about providing students with core life skills that will allow them to find jobs and smoothly integrate into society.

“I try to tap the students’ communication ability to help them shine. If they are weak at life skills, I’ll help them improve day by day,” he said, adding he takes the children to his pagoda twice every month to put the life skills they have acquired into practice.

“I give them individual attention and adjust my teaching approaches to their own mindsets and family impacts. I love them dearly as if they were my own kin,” the monk shared.

Venerable Sir Nguyen makes it a point that love comes with discipline, insisting that his students abide by his stringent ‘code of conduct,’ including not swearing, littering and being naughty.

Those who fail to do so despite stern warnings will be suspended from class.  

Thanks to his lessons, students who may otherwise have never learned to read and write and do basic computation are given a real shot at literacy as well as life skills.

“Once they are ready, they can find a job, or choose to continue their studies,” the monk said.

“The classes are packed with fun and easy to follow. I can ask the teacher to explain whatever I’m at a loss,” said Nguyen Van Nam, 15, who joined the fifth-grade class upon its launch, adding he plans to find a blue-collar job at a factory. 

In addition to his children’s classes, Venerable Sir Nguyen also hosts study sessions for adults. There were times when the number of students topped 70 in a single session.

The students, who come in all age brackets, including fathers and children, were divided into three classes and sat on three rafts.

Rangers from Dong Nai Wildlife Reserve, nestled in neighboring Vinh Cuu District, lent a hand with adult classes.

With his charity classes going seamlessly and his efforts highly appreciated, Venerable Sir Nguyen thought there remains a long way to go to help alleviate poverty that has struck the fishing village for years.

He has given away rice and other necessities to many local fishermen households.

Thanks to his help, several have recently switched to other jobs on land.

Tuoi Tre News – May 3, 2020

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