"Semester in army" - a popular training program for teenagers - has left several parents worried after a report in the Sai Gon Tiep Thi newspaper revealed teen campers could get more than they bargained for.
The story, published July 8, quoted the mother of a 17-year-old girl as saying the one-week course she signed up for her daughter turned out very differently from what she'd expected.
"One week to learn how to manage time, plan your future, settle conflicts with others, master your mind and learn how to love"¦Those are just sugarcoated words," Chi, the mother, said in a fretful tone.
Chi paid VND5.2 million (US$250) for the course, organized by Ho Chi Minh City Youth Cultural House, hoping her reserved and shy daughter Kh. would become more open and confident.
However, after returning from the course in Vung Tau, the beach city near HCMC, Kh. seemed more estranged and distracted.
Kh.'s friend H.Anh revealed that she and a male trainer had become involved in a "closer than normal" relationship.
Kh., with her unusual manner, got depressed after being isolated by other friends in her platoon, H.Anh said.
"Mr. S., who is several years older than Kh., came to talk to her and they became more and more attached," she recalled.
"Semester in army " is designed to be a army-like camp with no phones, no internet and a series of strict codes to instill self-discipline and self-awareness among teenagers.
Several campers who violated the rules by smoking or playing cards were given excessive punishment by trainers, some of their friends told Sai Gon Tiep Thi.
B.Tr, a camper, said a boy named T., who was caught smoking, was made by a teacher to stand in front of his "comrades" with two lit cigarettes sticking in his ears, two in his nose and around 16 in his mouth.
After the cigarettes burned up, K. (the trainer) furiously threw the lighter on the ground before the fearful eyes of campers, some of whom were crying, Tr. said.
Tr. revealed another incident that happened at the camp. Two campers were asked by a trainer to slap each other's face as a punishment for their goofy singing while standing in a line.
"The teacher said the slaps were not strong enough so he asked the two to step forward, and slapped them in front of the others.
"One of the two was slapped until his face turned purple."
A group of campers were caught red-handed playing cards, and a trainer threw the cards into a toilet sink; later, he took them out, tore them in halves and forced the campers to hold the cards in their mouths.
Good and bad
"Semester in army" originating in the US and South Korea was first introduced in Vietnam in 2008 by the Southern Youth Center, with several changes were made to suit Vietnamese youth.
The program has since developed into a favorite camping activity, with teenagers provided with "discipline training, survival tactics and team spirit", during summer vacation in various locations in Ho Chi Minh City and southern provinces.
Since 2009, more than 60 organizations have opened these profitable training courses with advertising leaflets, boasting the courses would improve life skills of teenagers, distributed among parents of teenagers.
Le Phuong Nga, the mother of a camper, said: "I know my boy cannot change his habit and nature in a few days, but I hope the course can teach him things that I was too busy to teach."
Many parents have been thrilled to see their children become more organized, tidy and good-mannered after returning from summer camps.
But a mother named Thuy complained that the course that her son attended was too poorly designed.
"My son was a bit disappointed because he had only one chance to visit a ship during his "navy semester " and not much martial arts training," she said.
Tran Thi Kim Lien, deputy director of the Southern Youth Center under the Central Youth Union, told Sai Gon Tiep Thi most curricula used by those organizations are copied from foreign counterparts.
Several organizations named their courses after local army stations, but the courses did not have any army-related activities, she said.
"There are no state agencies which take responsibility for the content of the courses.
"The success of the courses is determined by coordinators (called "teachers" by teenage campers), who are qualified members of Youth Unions; the courses will fail if the coordinators do not have good organizing skills."
"Semester in army" is not a magic wand to turn mischievous teenagers into good children and students, Lien said.
Phan Van Mai, secretary of the Central Youth Union, said the union could not supervise organizations and individuals that set up life skills training courses since it is not authorized to do so.