Elderly treasure

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Huynh Phuong Ba (L) and a student at the Nôm class he opened in 2006

A retired military colonel in Hai Chau District, Huynh Phuong Ba, 85, has been doing a job for seven years that is unrelated to his former career as a military man: running a language class out of his home.

The class is held on the first and the 15th days of every lunar month with students who range in age from nearly 60 to their upper eighties.

And, just like Ba, they also come from backgrounds that are totally unconnected to their current pursuit: Nôm, which was used as the country's official language between the 10th-20th centuries, but nowadays has nearly faded into oblivion.

However, they all share the same objective: to be able to read and understand historic documents written in the Chinese-based language so they can learn more about Vietnamese history and culture.

Explaining what initially motivated him to learn Nôm, Ba said that on many occasions when he visited the house where his family's ancestors are worshipped, he saw texts written or sculpted in "ancient characters" scattered around the house.

Desiring to comprehend those texts, Ba thought that there must be some way to learn the language.

So he started teaching himself the language through books, and now after more than ten years, the man has acquired a fair amount of Nôm knowledge.

He even managed to open a Nôm class in 2006, after successfully convincing elderly people in his area to join.

At first there were just about ten students, but now up to 30 attend the class.

Ba said the class is "relaxing" and "fun," as it is run through self-teaching, meaning that each student develops their own curriculum instead of being forced to study with thick, heavy textbooks.

Field trips are also organized periodically for students to visit historic relics and pagodas which contain ancient epitaphs and texts, in order to practice reading and translating them.

With hard work, it takes about two years to learn how to read, write and translate ancient epitaphs and family records, Ba said.

Despite their old age, every student in Ba's class is eager to learn and does their best.

Nguyen Hien, a farmer in his late fifties, for instance, never misses the class, even though it is nearly 50 kilometers from his home in Duy Xuyen District, the central province of Quang Nam.

He said every night he "struggles" with each character and its meaning. By day, when he takes breaks from farming, he practices writing characters he has learned in the dirt with a tree branch.

According to Hien, studying improves both his mental and physical health.

Moreover, when he studies hard, he also sets a good example for his children, and his knowledge will help them at some point in the future, the man said.

For some, Ba's class is a rewarding experience to share with their spouse.

Phan Thi Le Ha, 60, joined the class more than a year ago. At first, she went to the class by bus, but lately with the company of her husband, she travels there by motorbike.

Ha said going to class with her husband it is quite "fun," as it reminds her of her days as a schoolgirl.

Ngo Thi Lieu, 58, also decided to attend the class with her husband, Nguyen Quang Son, after watching him study hard every night.

She said besides going to the class regularly, they also study at home on their own, which encourages their children to study harder.

Thanks to the students' efforts, in September last year, Da Nang City's Study Encouragement Association upgraded the class's quarters to the Da Nang Hán Nôm Center, which has been entrusted with spreading the knowledge of the language, and translating historical records.

The class now translates documents which date back to the French colonial era and are related to Vietnamese sovereignty, especially those concerning the Hoang Sa (Paracel) and Truong Sa (Spratly) Archipelagoes, Ba said.

"Once we thoroughly understand historical records, it will be easy to raise awareness about sea and island sovereignty among young people," said Nguyen Truong Dan, a history and culture researcher who has been attending the class for more than two years. 

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