A Vietnamese immigrant who lives in Cambodia’s Siem Reap Province has dedicated the last 10 years to teaching overseas Vietnamese children vocational skills, offering them a shot at a better life and route out of poverty. Thao Lu reports
When he first started working, Bui Hoang Sang sold fish and traded pigs. A world away from being deputy director of a travel agency.
Sang was born in 1975 in Dong Thap Province. As his family was very poor, Sang only completed junior high school, then he had to leave school to join a group of friends and become wandering traders.
In 1988, Sang travelled through Cambodia. Learning some Khmer words as he went, he toured the provinces as a street vendor and a pig trader. Then he visited Siem Reap.
Although his life was very hard by today’s standards, Sang did not forget to learn the customs and habits of the indigenous people he met on his travels.
Sang began to learn English when he had saved enough money.
When he realised that many people from across the world visited the Angkor Wat and the countryside around Siem Reap, Sang studied to become a tour guide.
As he was hardworking, efficient and friendly, Sang quickly won the hearts of many visitors.
He began to speak with more confidence in front of large groups of tourists about the majesty and history of the Angkor temples, Ta Prohm Temple, Bakheng Hill, Phnom Pagoda and Tonle Sap River, the magical Apsara dance and the idyllic life of the Cambodian people.
From being just an ordinary worker, Sang eventually became a deputy director of the Asia Inn Travel Company.
Sang has asked me to join a group of tourists from Dong Thap Province who had arrived in Siem Reap to visit the Angkor temple complex.
At Angkor, Sang held a small flag in his left hand and a loudhailer in his right hand. With his warm voice, he described the attractions, from the construction process to the unique floral motifs carved on each square centimetre of the temples, which portray the culture and development of the Khmer people.
As I travelled with the group of tourists for a few days, I became very impressed with Sang’s colleagues, who worked hard and were very friendly.
I talked to them and discovered that they had all attended free classes that Sang had provided at his house. Today, they are Sang’s colleagues, but they still call him “teacher”.
Ouk Channy was born in 1983 in a poor family who could not afford to send her to school. She thought she would spend her life working with her mother at the local market.
Sang met Channy at the market, he talked with the poor girl and felt sad for her, so Sang asked her mother to let her study at his home class.
After Channy began to read and write Vietnamese and English fluently, Sang recognised that she was quick and willing to learn, so he taught her how to become a tour guide.
Channy studied passionately and after two years with her teacher Sang, she felt confident enough to work as a tour guide.
She now works as a guide, interpreter for Vietnamese people who arrive in Siem Reap on business. When she has time, Channy feels excited when she can help her teacher Sang leading groups of tourists on visits.
“My elder brother is Sok Try, he is 36 and also learnt what he knows from Sang. On average, each month we earn between US$450 and 700,” she said.
To help people like Ouk Channy, Sok Try and Sok Hen change their lives was a long and hard journey for Sang that began way back in 2004.
Travelling across Siem Reap as well as other provinces in Cambodia, Sang realised that many overseas Vietnamese people there are destitute.
Some could hardly manage to send their children to school.
Many Vietnamese teenagers can hardly speak either Vietnamese or Khmer fluently, but they have a thirst for knowledge.
“Without knowledge, they can’t develop,” said Sang, so in early 2004, he decided to begin free classes.
He rented a 200sq.m plot of land and built a house with a tin roof. He picked up enough timber to make furniture, bought a chalk board, pens and books, then went off to find students.
After a month visiting each family in turn, he went to the markets and the bus station to encourage overseas Vietnamese people to send their children to his class. Sang was surprised to see 60 children turning up on opening day, there weren’t even seats in the class.
From that day until now, in the morning he works with the tourists and at 4pm he returns home to teach his students. At 8.30 in the evening, after the children have gone home, Sang just has time for his dinner and then goes to sleep.
“It is very tiring, but I just think of the children’s shining eyes and I become excited,” he said.
As the free classes built up a good reputation, more young people eager to learn would come, even some Cambodian children.
Then his reputation spread to Viet Nam.
After people who had visited Siem Reap and been helped by Sang, his story spread.
Huynh Thi Thanh Hang, a young woman from Binh Thanh District in HCM City, admired him a lot and sent him an email to encourage him.
On July 2006, Hang travelled to Seam Reap to meet Sang.
As their love blossomed, she decided to marry him and help with the class.
Although their lives were still difficult, the couple decided to invest $2,000 to expand the classroom, another $2,200 on new chairs and desks and $1,000 to buy sewing machines so Hang could teach the kids sewing skills.
Now Hang also teaches Vietnamese and Sang teaches English.
After admiring Sang’s efforts, the director of Siem Reap’s Rasmey Hospital, Thai Ba Y decided to sponsor the class and give free health care to all the youngsters that attended it within three years.
From their classroom, 120 children have now completed the third grade programme.
Sang encouraged some gifted children to go to a higher level school or take up the classes to train as a tour guide.
He sent 26 of them from the tour guide class to work with travel agencies and earn a stable monthly income of between $450 and 700 each.
The chairman of the Vietnamese Association in Cambodia, Chau Van Chi, said only 20 to 25 per cent of young Vietnamese living in Cambodia manage to learn Vietnamese and Khmer to 1st or 2nd grade level.
“Our association has tried its best but we can only help them from 1st to 5th grade level. People who create jobs for the children of overseas Vietnamese like Sang are invaluable, this is the only model that exists in Cambodia,” he said.
For Sang, his happiness is very simple, it is to help others.
“I am lucky to have help from partners like the An Giang Province Travel Company, Dong Thap Travel Company, Sunnyland and Pacific travel agencies so we can help young people find good jobs with stable incomes, I feel very happy about this,” he said. — VNS