Christine Byrne (1st, L) poses with visitors to the International School Ho Chi Minh City, where she works as the Admission Manager / PHOTO COURTESY OF CHRISTINE BYRNE
Christine Byrne had no real clue to what Vietnam was like when she got an opportunity to volunteer in the country more than 18 years ago.
"I considered that perhaps everyone lived in grass huts and so would I."
She drew up several lists of pros and cons to help her make a decision on moving to this virtually unknown country, leaving behind a job she'd held in an Australian primary school for 15 years, but decided finally that she was going to be a risk-taker.
She'd been divorced for many years and her three grown-up daughters had moved out and started their own lives, so Byrne, in consultation with her family, thought that a change of scene, doing something meaningful for two years, was just the ticket.
She did not know then that it was going to be a one-way ticket.
Byrne, who arrived in Ho Chi Minh City as a volunteer with a non-governmental organization that supported malnourished children, never returned to her old job, choosing instead to find new assignments here.
She has since made Vietnam her home and only returns to Australia on vacations to visit her family.
"It is incomprehensible to me at times that it is 18 years already," she said.
Despite many difficulties at the beginning, Byrne found that she "fitted in very nicely" here, and learned lots of things about the country and "so much more about myself."
For instance, after organizing a charity ball during her first year here that raised US$34,000 for needy children, she was "surprised" by her ability to organize such event.
"I not only learnt that I had the skills to organize an event of this type but also that many CEOs, General Managers of international corporations and the heads of some Vietnamese corporations wanted to support my efforts with sponsorship. I continued to organize a Charity Ball each year for the next 12 years."
She said her motivation for holding the event was that she wanted to raise funds and awareness locally, as the NGO where she was working only received funding from overseas then.
She organized the ball for the second year, and continued organizing similar events after she finished her volunteering stint and joined the Australian Chamber of Commerce (Auscham)'s Executive Committee.
During her ten years with the committee, she helped organize fund-raising events for helping small NGOs and other non-profit organizations that had "innovative and sustainable" projects. One of the beneficiaries was the well-known KOTO (Know One Teach One), which was seeking funds to set up a hospitality training school for disadvantaged children.
"I attended the graduation of 2 KOTO classes last week and most of those graduates already have been signed to work in high profile resort complexes, international restaurants and hotels.
"I can't be more proud of the funds that have been given to each of the recipients over all of those years as it is supporting the work of very dedicated people to empower Vietnamese children."
After retiring from the Auscham committee, she and seven friends organized events that helped raise funds and awareness for Loreto, an NGO working to provide education for disadvantaged children.
Featuring international and local entertainers as well as local food and beverage outlets, the annual event named LoretoFest gained considerable popularity before it closed four years later.
Byrne said they could not sustain the amount of work involved in organizing the festival while doing their fulltime jobs, without "no office structure to support the event."
So, having achieved their initial objectives of raising awareness of the NGO's programs and helped raise funds for them, "the decision was made that it was best to leave on a high."
Byrne is currently Admissions Manager of the HCMC International School's International Baccalaureate (ISHCMC IB World School) and the ISHCMC-American Academy (AA), and couldn't be happier about her job.
"I really enjoy meeting international and Vietnamese families and helping them enter our schools. Meeting and working with all of those families is the best part. I enjoy getting up and going to work each day."
Asked if her views of Vietnam and its people are different from her first impressions, she said:
"I don't think it's my view of Vietnam and its people that has changed, I think Vietnam has changed so much. It is amazing the changes that have occurred in the 18 years that I have been here. When I arrived here, there was barely any English spoken anywhere, there was no idea about customer service or international expectations or international food or standards of hygiene for good health etc.
"I remember if you went to a department store from 11 a.m. 1 p.m., nobody would be around to serve you as they would all be behind the counter on the floor asleep. Can you imagine going into Parkson or Vincom now and finding everyone asleep on the floor for two hours and nobody serving!
"Now there are so many international restaurants with amazing food from diverse cultures and such high standards of service. I always say that the Vietnamese potential to learn is great and that the learning curve of the local community is higher than anywhere else in the world."
Byrne has picked up some Vietnamese during her long stay here, enough "to get me into and out of trouble."
She once asked a cabbie to take her to a major street in HCMC, but ended up on the Hanoi highway heading to Phan Thiet and "he was so scared that he wouldn't stop the taxi to let me out. I had to grab the mic and beg the people at the taxi base to help me explain to him to stop, turn around and take me back."
She said she likes it that Vietnamese and foreigners in HCMC "have such a strong sense of community.
"Everyone is welcoming and wants to help you and make sure you are ok. It has what I call a "˜village' mentality where everyone looks out for everyone. It's a nice environment to live in."
She has been here 18 years. So what about the next 18?
No one knows "what is on the horizon," Byrne said.
"The motto in life is to be open to all that is around you and really take in all of the experiences that you can."
But she has not thought about leaving the country at this time.
Byrne said that while Australia is where her family lives, Vietnam is her home "in the true sense of the word."
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