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I threw up the morning that Duke Engage Vietnam’s project officially began; not because of food poisoning, but because I was so anxious and frankly terrified to meet my ESL class of Vietnamese 5th graders.

I get nervous before meeting new people all the time. I had already faced the same feeling before meeting my Duke Engage peers, and yet again before meeting our local Vietnamese roommates. However, getting to know fellow college students wasn’t nearly as painful as I had expected, and I quickly fell in love with the people in this program with me.

Teaching class was a very different hurdle. I don’t particularly love or hate working with kids. Honestly, I had been hoping for an 8th or 9th grade class who would know more English to make things easier on my end. I was worried about being an authority figure, about making the class too difficult or too boring, and of course, about the obvious language barrier. I knew that above all, I wanted to make meaningful connections with my students, but I wasn’t sure exactly how to go about that.

Despite the anxiety, I managed to make it through the first day of class. The class was just what I expected- a group of girls giggling loudly in the front, a rowdy group of soccer-loving boys in the corner, and a few shy kids scattered about. For the first two weeks, my roommate, Nhu, and I struggled to keep the class in order as we tried to figure out the best way to bring out the best in all of our students and keep them engaged in our lessons and games.

Now that the first month has ended, I am happy to say that Nhu, our students, and I have all finally found our balance between work and play. The students have become more confident in their English abilities, and while they’re definitely still a boisterous and playful bunch, they’re well-behaved and know when it’s time to learn and when it’s time to have fun. More and more of my students stay in the classroom during break or after class to talk to me, and they all crowd around my desk in anticipation whenever I’m reading and correcting their papers. They laugh at me when I try to speak Vietnamese- but to be fair, my Vietnamese is pretty horrendous. They’re sweet kids and excited to be there, and I’ve found myself looking forward to teaching more and more each day.

ESL students with teachers
Having sugarcane juice with my students at the end of the week


Other First Impressions

Vietnamese Roommates

The roommates are amazing and definitely one of the best parts about this program. From getting smoothies after our construction work in the mornings, playing soccer or volleyball after class, to watching horror movies, going to karaoke, and busting out a guitar to sing together on the balcony at night, the roommates are always super enthusiastic and excited to spend time with everyone. The language barrier might have been daunting at first, but now, we all enjoy teaching and learning each other English and Vietnamese. We all live on the same floor of our guesthouse, and at any given time, you’re bound to find someone in the common area lesson planning, reading, playing cards, or cutting up fresh fruits for everyone to share.

Quang Tri

It’s a relatively small town, and the Americans definitely stick out. The locals are all so friendly, though; on our first day of construction, a family brought us all watermelons to eat for working so hard. Every day on the bike ride back from school, the same two young kids run out of their house to wave and yell “Hello!” to us. At the smoothie shop across from the guest house we’re staying at, the owner’s daughter always runs out to talk to us and give us high-fives. Even if I draw stares sometimes, I’ve always felt welcome in Quang Tri, and I already know that I’ll miss this town.

Construction Work

It’s hot. We work from 7 to 10 am to avoid the sun as much as we can, but it’s still so hot. So far, we’ve cleaned out dirt paths, mixed a ton of cement, placed tiles over the paths, and cut away weeds to make space for the outdoor exercise equipment that we’ll be putting up in a few weeks. We’re all sweaty and covered in dirt by the end, but it’s a good workout, and getting mango smoothies afterwards is definitely a plus.


The food here is fantastic. I’ll admit, having pho for breakfast every morning is a little tiring, but you get used to it. For lunch and dinner, we’ll usually eat rice with greens, meat, and fresh fish from the chef’s farm, and wash it down with a cold glass (or two, or five) of lemonade. Everyone’s definitely gotten a lot better with their chopsticks. We’ve also had avocado smoothies, winter melon tea, sweet bean soup, chicken heads, and frog legs. No matter what you eat, you know it’s fresh- you can watch the fruits being chopped up for smoothies and the sugarcane being put through a juicer. It might take a bit more time than a smoothie from ABP, but it’s worth it.