A warm welcome in a city of contrasts

The IWitness Vietnam Trip launched on Saturday 23 September with IKEA co-workers coming from different places in the UK, bringing different emotions and feelings from family, friends, places and where they are originally from.

Some had to fly to meet in Heathrow, some had to drive or catch the train. We had a very long flight from Heathrow to Bangkok, and from Bangkok to our final destination, Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam (formerly Saigon).

Ho Chi Minh City from the sky was a mosaic of green and lines of brown, and blue rivers and lakes mixed with blue, cloudy sky and fog. A mosaic of buildings as we drove from Tan Sah Nhat International Airport to our hotel. We experienced a strong contrast of social and urban diversity, which co-exists together. There were lots of people riding motorcycles as a major means of transport, verses walking and cars. There were slim unpolished buildings, verses extremely polished buildings, and those under construction. Then there were the very busy roads and the green public parks and spaces, which carry a great social connection between people of different social levels.

The people were humble and polite. It is worth mentioning that in the context of these extreme social and urban contrasts, I found humility and politeness among Vietnamese people a powerful aspect of co-existence, peacefulness and reconciliation between the diverse social fabrics.

We experienced the Vietnamese food on our first day, which held the freshness of the fertile land from the fresh fruits and vegetable. The weather was warm and drizzly.

Embarking on this, we tried to have an early night for next day’s very early morning visit to Vo Chi Sau Primary School, which is around 40 minutes from where we are staying in Ho Chi Minh City.

Upon arrival at the school, we were greeted with a huge welcome by the children and teachers. This left me feeling very emotional and touched by the warmth and excitement of the children. Their eyes and faces were filled with great love that will stay with me for the rest of my life.

The school was built with a huge courtyard at its heart, with a few levels of classrooms overlooking the courtyard. After the very warm welcome, which filled the air with the singing voices of the young children whom we joined in with, we moved on to do creative activities. This involved painting in the open air, gardening work and leaving paint stamps of our hands on the wall. After that, it was a free outside break for all the children.

I decided to make a little sketch in my notebook and give it as a souvenir to the children. Time went by for me, filled with emotions and inspiration from the children, after which we moved to visit the classrooms and had the chance to tell them a bit about us, sing songs together and chat with them about things they were curious about.

We finished our journey of activities by sitting with some of the teachers and the Head Teacher, to reflect on the Save the Children programme implemented by the school and funded by the IKEA Foundation. The programme is based on principles calling for play for change, raising awareness of children rights among children and training teachers to avoid child abuse, and understand the emotional, physical and mental needs of children.

The programme has been designed to become sustainable, so the school can implement it in the future it without the continuous need for IKEA Foundation funding.  It carries the potential of using this model to implement such programmes in other schools and gain council and municipal support.

We ended our visit by giving the children some IKEA soft toys as souvenirs, which were donated by different IKEA stores in the UK and some co-workers whose kids donated some personal soft toys from their home to these children.

    Paul Alkhudary