A Whistle-stop CLE Tour of Vietnam

Sonya, Bruce, Freda and myself

Sonya, Bruce, Freda and myself

Saturday flight with my companion for the week, Freda Grealy, after many weeks of preparation.  No sleep and almost missed the flight in Kuala Lumpur.  Arrived Sunday evening in Hanoi.  Oh but it had changed since my last visit in 1994: cars and Westerners abound. Dinner by the banks of the lake with Bruce Lasky of partner BABSEA-CLE, Sonya Donnelly (formerly IRLI Malawi, now with the Hong Kong Refugee Advice Centre) and crew.

Monday up at 6.00 am after a poor night’s sleep in the BABSEA-CLE house.  Bed was fine.  Humidity hit me.  Wearing an Irish suit in the tropics is not advised.

Early morning into Hanoi Foreign Trade University where we met approximately 40 lecturers and students. Air conditioning inside did the job but if you still smoke like me, you’re in trouble nipping out into the wall of heat!

Bruce and Sonya were fantastic on the first day, as were Linh ‘Bear’ and Huong, our BABSEA-CLE translators.  It was just amazing how the team came together given some of us had only met the night previous.  Sonya’s experience as a lecturer showed with the students and, as was the case in all the Vietnamese cities we visited, all were incredibly enthusiastic and eager to get involved.

Great help to have extra hands on deck for the first day’s work.  Lunch was a time to sit down with faculty Deans and lecturers to discuss future initiatives and collaborations.  “Lunch”, with a selection of 15 different dishes, is a far cry from the quick sandwich we get here.

Student Ice-Breakers, Hanoi

Student Ice-Breakers, Hanoi

That evening Freda and I met Ms. Nguyen Minh Phuong from the Ministry of Justice and ate in a fabulous Hanoi restaurant.  Unfortunately, my choice of oysters and shrimp would come back to haunt me.  Her stories of being in Ireland, having oysters and “that heavy black beer you drink” in the village where I grew up in Cooley, Carlingford instantly broke the ice.  The world sure is a small place!

Tuesday morning up again bright and early and disaster struck – the dreaded Delhi Belly – the combination of lack of sleep on the way over, the heat, the stress of getting it right, the diet, and of course, last night’s shrimps and oysters took their toll.

We went to our meeting with Laura Hartigan in the Irish Embassy where we were joined by Bernadette Fahy, an Irish lawyer, who talked us through the realities of practising in Vietnam.  It was fantastic to make a connection with Ireland’s largest Embassy in the region.

Then it was into a taxi and a 40 minute flight to Nha Trang, the site of the first United States military landings in Vietnam.  A 2 ½ hour taxi journey to Hue – despite the fact the flight was advertised as to Hue, we learned the airport won’t open there for a few years!  It was great to see some of the countryside, this being the only time we saw anything outside the cities of Vietnam.  We saw duck and fish farms, basically operated out of small ponds, inlets and puddles! We saw the hills and valleys of this area, the throngs of people going to and from school and work, the sheer mass of humanity that is Vietnam. It also rained in Hue, as they say it always does. It was the humid rain of South East Asia.

People in Hue are regarded as amongst the friendliest in Vietnam and, while I found people all over Vietnam very friendly, it is true of Hue especially.

Wednesday was probably the most daunting for Freda and I.  Growing up as I did on a farm in Louth, the college seemed fine to me but something of this open-sided auditorium threw Freda slightly.  It wasn’t the 30 students and lecturers or indeed the 40 additional on-lookers, but perhaps the surreal presence of cattle wandering around the campus and outskirts of the hall.  For me, the fact that the air conditioning went down during the workshops was hell.  Quite literally beads of sweat were rolling down my face. Gone were Bruce and Sonya, although Huong and Linh Bear continued in the exemplary fashion in which they began, and the materials and role plays so long prepared worked a treat.

Group photo, Hue University

Group photo, Hue University

Again, the enthusiasm of the students and lecturers carried us through.  We had a nice lunch with the lecturers and back to finish the workshop.  We then had a dash to the legal advice clinic manned by the college students before yet another 2½ hour return taxi drive and 90 minute flight to Ho Chi Minh City.   On arrival at the hotel I was gallantly bestowed the “finest room in the house”: the street-view balcony room.  Needless to say, a night devoid of sleep ensued due to the boisterous clatter of life outside.

Thursday 6.00 am rising.  In Ho Chi Minh City Law University, whose facilities would put the facilities of most universities in Ireland to shame, we were greeted by 20 lecturers and 40 students.  I have to say that all participated wonderfully in the workshops.  The students were hugely enthusiastic, and indeed competed for attendance at the workshop by way of essay submission.  The inclusive learning between lecturers and students also made for a richer experience for students. Another fabulous lunch which, due to my delicate state, I laboured through. And what a great shame as the takeaway food looked amazing, and again such variety.

Lecturers and students learning together

Lecturers and students learning together

By the time we finished that evening, Freda and I were simply sorry it was over and that there wasn’t another university to visit.  We’d really found our stride!  That night I collapsed into bed, and even the next day I was so tired I slept through the street noise.  Saturday night I visited a beautiful French restaurant with two HCMC lecturers, Nga and Thien, to discuss further the needs of students in Vietnam.  They spoke of a Vietnam that would change in the long term but would remain Communist in the short to medium term.

A great country and a fabulous people who fought and defeated five major powers from 1945 – 1979.

All in all, if you get a chance to go on an IRLI training mission, you won’t regret it!

By Sean T O’Reilly, Sean T O’Reilly and Co. Solicitors, Dundalk

More photos here