Sandra Ngo Trong teaches girls at the Little Rose Shelter in District 7, Ho Chi Minh City
When Sandra Ngo Trong arrived in Vietnam last March, it was just one of the stops on a world tour, albeit the country being native to her parents.
The Vietnamese-Canadian, daughter of a Vietnamese couple who moved to Canada in 1975, did not expect that the visit to her parents' home country would be a turning point in her life.
A kinesiology (study of human body movements) graduate, Trong planned to get an English teaching certificate here so she could earn some money while living in the countries she planned to visit.
However, the short trip she planned lengthened to almost a year as the country and its people "grew on her, more and more."
More importantly, she found that she was able to do here what she'd always wanted to do - "to help and give back."
Trong, 30, has had her "fair share of careers" when living in Canada, she said including working at one point as a real estate agent and at another as a personal trainer.
The itinerant English teacher career that she planned next had to be put on hold, however, as she began a part-time volunteer effort teaching dance to underprivileged children.
When Trong decided to volunteer, her thought was that she could put her passion for gymnastics, fitness and dance to some good use.
"Because dancing makes me feel so good, strong and expressive, I felt that I could offer them these qualities as well."
She was hooked when she saw the joy and beautiful smiles on the faces of child patients at the Ho Chi Minh City Oncology Hospital during a dance workshop she organized with help from the English teaching center where she was working then.
She realized then that it was something she really wanted to do and something she was "good at."
Even as she continued teaching English, Trong applied to work as a volunteer at Mai am Hoa Hong Nho (Little Rose Shelter), a District 7-based center for girls from families who are too poor to bring them up as well as victims of sexual abuse.
Every day, she met with her students and worked together on dances she'd choreographed. It was a difficult challenge, given that her students spoke no English and her knowledge of Vietnamese was rudimentary.
She was not discouraged, however. She used body language to instruct them, showing them the moves, one by one, so they could imitate her until they could perform it skillfully.
"There's something so heartwarming about watching a group of young Vietnamese girls who've never stepped outside of their town, dancing to a foreign song with so much passion."
Trong also found it "amazing" how fast the girls learnt new dances and how well they remembered old dances.
"Their eagerness to learn and have fun dancing with me has motivated me to do more for them and for this country and its underprivileged kids."
The little girls are not only learners, but also their teacher, Trong found.
She said that when she spoke to them in broken Vietnamese, they immediately corrected her mistakes and made sure that she remembered the correct words and their pronunciations.
She still plans to continue her world tour, but that has been put on the backburner at the moment, Trong said, because she is enjoying her "new life" in Vietnam and her "journey" here has not ended.
During her stay in Vietnam, she has seen good things that makes her feel proud, and bad things that makes her want to do something to improve them.
"There is still so much more I can do to give back [to my native country]."
Just before Tet, Vietnam's Lunar New Year festival, Trong had to fly back to Canada to get treatment for her injured back.
But she told Vietweek in an email that she is eager to return to Vietnam, and "can't wait to resume activities" here.
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