English teacher Jon Dillingham (R) speaks with a student in a free English class at La Pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City's Go Vap District. Photo: Minh Hung
Le Thanh Tao was too afraid in the past to talk with foreigners though he has been learning English at school for years.
“I could not pronounce correctly,” the student of the Ho Chi Minh City Technology College says.
But a few months after joining the free English classes at the La (Leaf) Pagoda in Go Vap District, Tao is more confident after speaking with foreign teachers.
Tao is among some 50,000 students who have benefited from the pagoda’s free foreign language center.
It opened in 2009, attracting both local and foreign teachers and international volunteers, most of them teaching for free as a contribution to the charitable heart of the pagoda’s head monk Thich Nhuan Tam.
Now more than 3,000 students study six languages -- English, French, German, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean – from around 100 teachers.
Monk Tam has always thought about helping other people. He tells Thanh Nien News how he got the idea of starting free classes: “I used to study at the HCMC University of Social Sciences and Humanities. I am aware of students’ difficulties.
“I used to get donations of rice to help poor students.
The small La Pagoda is situated in an alley in Ho Chi Minh City's Go Vap District. Photo: Minh Hung
“Many students from other provinces have to pay a lot of money for studying, rent, food, etc. and so could not afford to study a foreign language though it is very important and a must to know a foreign language.”
Tam says since it started the language center the pagoda has also been offering students loans equal to half of the fee for get international certificate exams like TOEIC and TOEFL.
“The loan has no interest or security, and has no due date. Whenever they get a good job, they can pay the money which will be used to teach other students.”
Many successful people have returned to contribute to the pagoda and donate for the free classes.
Tam says though the pagoda has difficulties funding the classes and a proposed new classroom, he still tries to get good teachers, besides international students facilitated by AIESEC, an NGO that provides young people with leadership development and cross-cultural global internships and volunteer exchange experiences across the globe.
“I went to international schools and universities to ask teachers to teach at the pagoda. Now we also have nine or 10 permanent foreign teachers here.”
The pagoda pays each teacher a “symbolic amount” of VND1-1.5 million (US$46-69) a month.
“Most foreign teachers teach for free and we offer to pay their rents and give them food.”
Tam says La (Leaf) Pagoda was built in 1995 with palm leaves and earthen floors on a lowland area near a canal. It only became a concrete structure in 2000.
A picture of La Pagoda when it was first built 20 years ago. Photo: Minh Hung
In 2009 poet Lam Quang My donated VND100 million (US$4,600) to build a classroom on a small piece of land nearby.
American Jon Dillingham, who teaches English for free at the center, says: “We speak with the students, improving their confidence about speaking English rather than teaching boring lessons.”
He had been impressed when he first came to the pagoda several years ago after some people he met in a park told him about the free classes where he could teach.
“Everyone can do whatever they want here. No one will ever ask who you are or what you are doing here.”
The head monk, who is also deputy chairman of the Vietnam Ornamental Stones Association, also displays stones all around the small pagoda.
A volunteer teaches little monks at the La pagoda. Photo: Minh Hung
Dillingham, who has traveled a lot around Vietnam since he quit his job with a leading English newspaper in Vietnam a few years ago, says he found peace for himself at the pagoda.
“I often meditate three times a day besides teaching English at the pagoda,” the 33-year-old says, explaining that is not for enlightenment but for the recognition of impermanence.
“Nothing lasts forever. Everything keeps changing. Happiness or sadness. Even your breath.”
A large photo of poet Bui Giang at the pagoda. Photo: Minh Hung
Van Tien Duc, 66, teaches English and French at the pagoda, saying he does it as a good deed.
“Teaching at other facilities can fetch high salaries. I am old and after dozens of years of teaching at other places, I recognize that money is not everything.”
Someshwar Gowda, a student from India who teaches English at the pagoda, says his three-month stay at the pagoda has offered him unique experiences about the Vietnamese people and culture.
“It’s great to be in another country, interact with local people and learn about their culture.”
Thinh, a Vietnam Airlines pilot, says he became an associate teacher at the pagoda because he wanted to do something good.
Besides foreign languages, students are also taught soft skills, taken on trips and given speeches on Vietnamese culture and ethics.
The pagoda’s efforts have proven effective.
Many students say they will return to contribute to the pagoda, including by teaching future generations.
Le Trung Kien says he is from a poor farming family in the north who never thought he would be able to learn a foreign language.
As he lives with his relative in Binh Chanh District, he rides nearly 20 km on his bicycle every day to attend the French class at the pagoda.
“In the beginning there were only two students, but the teacher still taught,” he says.
He is grateful to the pagoda and wants to contribute to its free classes in future.
“I will ask for the head monk’s permission to teach French to beginners.”