Vietnam - An unforgettable journey

Three years ago, some parent came to register their handicapped child in our infant school which was unable to meet their request as they had neither suitable premises nor persons trained to teach these children who are different. The parents, who lived too far away from specialised centres, were very insistent. So, we asked the parish if we might have the use of a room so as to receive the children for two hours each afternoon, except Saturday and Sunday. We told the parents very clearly that it was simply a day-care centre, none of us being trained to do anything else. That is how the ’class of love’ came into being.

At the beginning there were three children, now there are eight. The work is becoming more complex. We are beginning to organise ourselves better and we get advice from teachers who specialised in teaching children with learning difficulties. 
 
Last year, in community, we planned holidays for this group and members of their family. We were received in a monastery of Franciscan priests where we were able to have a certain degree of independence. The monastery is in the south of Vietnam, in the Mekong delta. For our stay there, the young woman from the Di An hostel, who organise the activities in the afternoons during the year, had prepared varied activities for each day. They were helped by two young women from the Thu Duc hostel who are training to be teachers for special needs children. Three sisters from the community accompanied the group during those few days. 
It was a welcome change for all; even those who thought they would be sick during the journey were perfectly well! 
 
The departure took place from the Đông Hòa parish on the 27 July 2013 at 9 a.m. Our group consisted of eighteen persons: three sisters, two teachers in charge of the ’class of love’, members of the pupils families and the young women who are with the LSA. The tourist coach, which seated thirty persons, took us to the Mỹ Luông (An Giang) ferry in the late afternoon. As we were getting into the ferry, a breeze filled with the smell of the Tiền Giang river refreshed us, chasing the stifling midday heat and chasing away the fatigue after the long journey. 
 
In a short time the ferry took us to the verdant Cù Lao Giêng, surrounded by water. The coach then continued its journey, turning off to go through gateway leading to the Franciscans’ enclosure. Before our eyes a majestic old church emerging from an archway of leaves that seemed to protect it appeared as something coming from a peaceful promised land, far from the bustling life of this world. 
 
We had hardly left the coach when we could already see the priest responsible for guests coming welcome us with a pleasant smile. He led us to a reception room, offered us fruit from the garden and chatted warmly with each one, asking the name and the age of the guests. Then somebody guided us to where we would be living. Here the interior was simple but comfortable, airy and clean. From the open window it was possible to see the enclosure as a whole. 
 
In the refreshing shade of trees thousands of years old, there emerged the steeple of the church built at the time of the French colonisation. Early in the morning and in the evening, there are waves of sound that resonate within each one, awakening the Human conscience and directing it towards The All-Powerful. 
 
To the left of the church are the living quarters of the priests and brothers; these had been built in several stages. But everything has a modest, respectful and simple aspect. In front and to the right of the church is the spot where there are trees hundreds of years old, with their luxuriant foliage, a place divided by magnificent flowered alleys, very well tended. Continuing on from there are papaya trees that border the alley leading to the exterior of the enclosure and the rice fields. On the other side of the alley there is a whole mass of green lotus, interspersed with lightly-perfumed red flowers and ponds that look natural, with fish darting about in the yellowish water; all of this recalls the tranquil countryside of long ago. 
The day began at 5 a.m. At the sound of the church bell everybody woke up, and washed quickly. Then there was the morning mass. After the mass the two sisters, Colette and Điệp, prepared the breakfast with help from the young women. Ten minutes after breakfast the whole group began the activities, with the help of the teacher Hồng Phúc. These activities were varied, with appropriate content aimed at giving the handicapped children or those with retarded mental development the opportunity to mingle with non-handicapped persons. The group was divided into four sub-groups with names that were showy but pretty: Blue Bird, Nightingale, yellow stag. The members of each subgroup were varied: old persons, young people, strong or delicate – all participated in the games with prizes. 
 
Some days there were open-air activities: throwing and catching balls or a three-legged race, etc. There were also competitions for drawing and for cutting out and pasting paper. Sometimes there were songs and dances for everybody. It was both amusing and touching to see those from the class of love participating. The pupil Phạm Ngọc Quỳnh is already 30 years old, but is like a child of five and clumsy, but he coloured attentively, pasted the pictures or made the movements in the action songs. The pupil Khôi, 8 years old and frail, small as a 4 year old child, has a beautiful face, as if sculpted; his pale skin highlights the redness of his lips; his timid gaze when he looks up moves people. Khôi worked furiously to colour, to paste and, continually, his mouth said ’a’… ’a’… as if there was something he wanted to say. At the end of the competitions there were marks given, an evaluation and prizes awarded. The prizes were symbolic but the pupils were very pleased. 
 
This journey took place on the occasion of the anniversary of the death of the two martyrs of Cù Lao Giêng. A celebration was organised by the parish church with the presence of the Bishop, who gave his blessing. Pennants and flags filled the sky all along the road leading to the church. A crowd of people appeared from all sides and filled the square in front of the church, remaining outside to assist at the mass as there were so many people. All admired and were proud of the exploit of the two martyrs who accepted death peacefully and defiantly for the Glory of God.
 
 
Also, the group had permission to visit the domain of the Sisters of Providence of Portieux, which is beside the Franciscans. The buildings that were built at the time of the colonisation, already dilapidated, are beside renovation sites and evoke painful feelings of history. On the other hand, here the herbs and splendid flowers of all kinds and colours have been meticulously cared for and are like a breath of fresh and youthful air flowing over sad moss-covered walls. There is also a pond of modern design that is teeming with fish. This is surely a source of fresh food for the sisters’ meals. Beyond the house there is an immense garden with fruit trees, leafy and green: the ’cóc’, the mango trees the ’quất’ and, above all, the banana trees. A little path winds among the trees leading to the cemetery reserved for the sisters when they will go to the Kingdom of God. There were very many little whitish tombs very close to one another, neatly arranged, for persons of different nationalities. There is a forest of white crosses, dazzling in the afternoon soon, as if reminding people to turn towards the eternal life of the Kingdom. 
 
We were also allowed to visit the pavilion reserved for the old sisters. There are sisters who have difficult in walking, others are in wheel-chairs or are bed-ridden, but all seemed peaceful, close and optimistic. 
 
The trip came to an end and we returned home on the evening of the 1st of September. Everybody was delighted, especially the pupils of the class of love. It can be said that these unfortunate children had never had the opportunity to travel, to live like that in an environment full of new joy. This is enabling them to take their first steps in adapting with everybody, it is like a ray of sunshine that is shining on unfortunate destinies. 
 
For the success of this journey, we must turn our thoughts to two sisters: Srs Colette and Điệp. They were the two of the group who worked the most: they had to go to the market, even when it was raining, roll up their sleeves and cook three times a day, so as to provide tasty meals for everybody. It was truly a sister’s sacrifice! 
 
Also, we must mention the teacher Hồng Phúc, who loves the children wholeheartedly, who educates them and who has a talent for organisation and activities, with interesting and educational games throughout the stay at Cù Lao Giêng. 
 
If the handicapped children of the class of love could put into words their thoughts and their feelings, they would surely express their deep gratitude towards the sisters, the teachers and all those who helped to make this trip a marvellous success. An unforgettable journey: Cù Lao Giêng.
 
Đông Hòa, September 2013
H. T (Quỳnh’s mother )
30/06/2014
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