Thought into Action
The North Vietnamese village of Tong Thouy is so remote that its needs are often unmet by government officials who are hours away in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City. That may all change soon, though, thanks to the work of an English professor from Southwestern University.
Elisabeth Piedmont-Marton first visited the village, which is located just 30 miles from China, on a 2007 trip to Vietnam. As a result of that trip, she also met Phil Deering, a former early childhood educator from Minneapolis who shares her passion for doing something to help the people in Vietnam.
The two have spent the past two years raising funds to build a new elementary school in Tong Thouy. The former school there in another location was wiped out by a landslide and children are currently attending school in a temporary structure with a dirt floor and thatched roof. Piedmont-Marton and Deering plan to replace this with a permanent, two-room cinder block structure.
To date, the two have raised $23,000 for the project, mostly from small donations from friends and a few fundraisers. “We need to start construction soon because the inflation rate in Vietnam is 15 percent,” Piedmont-Marton said. “The longer we wait, the more money we will have to raise.”
Piedmont-Marton is returning to North Vietnam in July to help secure approvals for the school. She and Deering hope to return in November to start construction. The two are channeling the money they have raised through a Houston-based non-profit organization called Sunflower Mission that is dedicated to improvement projects in Vietnam.
Getting to Tong Thouy involves a 27-hour plane trip (Austin to Los Angeles to Hong Kong to Hanoi), followed by a 6 ½ hour drive or an overnight train trip. Piedmont-Marton plans to post updates about her upcoming trip on a blog that can found at www.brightenthecorner.blogspot.com.
While she is in Vietnam this summer, Piedmont-Marton will also be doing research for a book on contemporary North Vietnam, which she hopes to write in the next year. She received money to fund her trip from Southwestern’s Competitive Faculty Development Program.
“Over the past several years I have become more interested in the Vietnamese perspectives and stories about the American war and its aftermath,” Piedmont-Marton said.
Piedmont-Marton is particularly interested in the lives of the ethnic minorities who live in the northern highlands of Vietnam. The people who live in Tong Thouy are members of such ethnic minorities, either the Hmong or the Phula. Although they have their own native languages, they are taught Vietnamese in their schools.
Piedmont-Marton said she first became interested in Vietnam when she was doing her doctoral thesis, which focused on the role of poetry in telling war stories.
“The Vietnam War was really the backdrop for my childhood and adolescence, but it was too soon to study it when I was in college, and too late to watch it,” she said. “When the first waves of films about the Vietnam War came out beginning around 1979, I knew I needed to know more about it.”
Piedmont-Marton teaches a class at Southwestern on American Literature and the Vietnam War. She said her work on the school project has enabled her to bring new perspectives to this class, as well as a Capstone seminar she teaches on War in American Literature.
She credits her participation in Southwestern’s Paideia program with motivating her to become involved with building the school in Vietnam.
“My involvement with the Paideia program has made me think more intentionally about what responsibilities you have when you have this kind of education,” she said. “I probably would have let this opportunity pass me by if I hadn’t been thinking this way.”
Once the school is built, Piedmont-Marton said she and Deering would like to continue to support it by raising funds to supplement teacher salaries and start a lunch program. She said the school is so remote that its four teachers have to stay there during the week. They live in one room with three beds and have no water or electricity. Families have to arrange with local farmers to provide lunch for their children so they don’t have to walk home at lunch.
For more information on the school project, visit www.bachaschool.org