The members of Ho Chi Minh City's Great Bear Club have poured into the park for a summer of exercise and fun
Members of the Sao Bac Dau (Great Bear) Club stand ready for review at Tao Dan Park on Sunday
Last week, summer officially began for Vietnam's school children.
On Sunday, it seemed that every child had been suited up in a uniform and carted out to Tao Dan Park. Motorbikes overwhelmed the sidewalk along Nguyen Thi Minh Khai St. Parents, clutching application forms flooded into the park for a chance to enroll their kids in the Sao Bac Dau (The Great Bear Club so named for the constellation Ursa Major which points toward north).
Dr. Nguyen Quoc Tuan, 35, sat serenely on a park bench.
Long before school got out, he'd taken the time to pay a US$15 uniform fee and enroll his six-year-old son in the club.
"It's the fourth time I've brought my son here since he was admitted to the group a month ago," said Tuan, who pledged not to keep an eye on his son next Sunday. "I think, he'll have more fun if I'm not around."
Tuan watched from the bench as his little boy, Nguyen Quoc Dang Khoa, filed into a line of uniformed children. Soon his son was lost in a sea of dark blue berets, khaki short pants and olive drab shirts.
"It's an ideal program for kid's to grow up with," he said. "It will definitely take time. Three months of summer is not enough, because behavioral improvement and character training take a long time."
The doctor said his son would remain in the group for as long as he liked.
"I was told about such activities when I was young. I wanted to join but my parents could not afford to bring me to meetings, so I decided that my child would have that opportunity the minute I heard about this group."
Huynh Van Toan, dean of the Ly Tu Trong Communist Youth Union School's Department of Skill Training, founded Sao Bac Dau in 2007.
Higher ups had asked Toan to "create a new playground for youths, to breathe new life into the union's activities."
"The attraction from bars, dance clubs and the virtual world is very powerful," he told Tuoi Tre. "I thought "˜I've got to do something to get the youths back to the Union activities.'"
So he designed a program that would involve camping, surviving skills training and team games.
Anyone can join from five to 75.
The aim of the group is to help young people improve their communication skills, explore themselves, and develop a sense of civic responsibility.
"Nowadays parents are so busy, they just have enough time to provide for their children's material needs such as clothes, food and school fees. How about their character?"
Since then, the organization has swelled to include more than 2,000 regular members. It remains a major draw for busy Vietnamese parents looking to keep their kids busy during the summertime.
Toan was happy to see that the group had benefited a number of autistic children who had joined the group.
"Autistic children really need contact with the outside world," he said. "It really helps them improve their communication skills."
The first big day
Last Sunday, Nguyen Thi Kieu woke up early and brought her two sons (nine and five) to Tao Dan Park one of seven locations that the club meets every Sunday.
She believes that Sao Bac Dau will help her kids spend their long vacation properly and improve their social skills.
"At home, they just play computer games, but here they are asked to exercise and practice other "˜soft skills' that they're seldom taught in school."
It was International Children's Day and the group had planned a flag-hoisting ceremony and small circus performance for the kids.
When she arrived at the park at 8 a.m., teenagers and elderly volunteers were busy assembling tents and flagpoles, while the youngsters had lined up for an adorable muster.
Toan, 42, marched out before the group in his own official uniform and called them to order. He addressed the crowd, which had lined up according to height and age.
"I observed that some of you when arrived here didn't say goodbye in a respectful way to your parents. I also noticed that some of you are not wearing white shoes as your uniform requires," Toan said, "So, next week, you'll all have to watch your behavior toward the adults. It's only because of them that you are here and have a chance to enjoy a wonderful summer vacation."
Toan announced that the group would take a trip to Phan Thiet beach.
"Make sure you all inform and ask your parents' permission to join us," he said before the kids sat down for an afternoon of juggling and magic.
Toan is helped by a dedicated group of volunteers. The performers are all local artists, who showed up (some on unicycles) on this steamy Sunday dressed as clowns and animals.
The spirit of pitching in has even managed to attract a few teenagers
While the kids enjoy their show, Vo Thi Kim Hang, 16, helps organize volunteers as they assemble wooden flag stands for a subsequent ceremony. She was recently "promoted" to the position of team leader.
In her new role, she's charged with running group games and rallying kids to participate in group activities.
Every Sunday, she wakes up at 5 a.m. and travels for two hours by bus from her home in Cu Chi District to join the group. Her friends all want to join, she says but they can never manage the long journey.
"I have spent three months here as it's good for me to get out from my shell," said Hang who boasted that she's no longer shy about public speaking.
The bears take up most of her free time, but she doesn't mind.
"Weekdays are for studying and my personal things, whereas weekends are for my family and recreation activities like this," said Hang, who was sweating steadily in the mid-morning heat.
"I am not tired or afraid of the sunlight," she said. "I enjoy the meeting so much especially when we have a chance to do things for the kids."