|Learning: Students listen attentively to ‘teacher' Huy. — VNS Photos Giang Pham
by Doan Bao Chau
Even though the time is past 7pm and no matter how hot and uncomfortable the early dry season is, the "One-bowl class" of the Coi Vien bookstore in HCM City's District 3 is packed with participants who make a beeline here from work or school.
The class has no set curriculum but draws the participants' attention to the real images projected on screen from a projector in response to their questions that are often tough to answer using words.
"When was coffee first introduced in Viet Nam?" asked a participant after "teacher" Phan Khac Huy announced Sai Gon coffee as the topic for the day.
To the great surprise of the participant, a series of live images were projected, featuring the reputed coffee shops on the then-Catinat Street (the present Dong Khoi Street), demonstrating how Saigonese at the Cheo Leo coffee shop made excellent coffee.
Over 40 participants simultaneously exclaimed in surprise "Oh really" or "Oh yes, that's right; that's right", before getting involved in a lively discussion.
The "One-bowl class", which is held once every two weeks, on Thursdays, always has similar surprises for the participants.
"Instead of buying a bowl of hu tieu (noodles with seasoned and sauteed beef) for VND20,000 (about US$1), participants can now buy a bowl of knowledge in joining the class," said teacher Huy.
Comfortably sitting cross-legged on the floor with small desks in front of them and cups of cold tea on top, participants cluster around each other.
"It was long thought that history means stories of wars and of dynasties overthrowing each other, but very few know how ancient people ate, what they wore, and how they travelled. I expect people to know about such simple things," said Huy when asked what prompted him to organise such classes.
Huy put his thoughts into action. He has been collecting, cross-checking, and delivering every bit of information to participants in an interesting way, though he encountered many difficulties in the beginning.
Wearing simple clothes, the 27-year-old teacher always has a pleasant smile and frequently amuses others with his humour, establishing a warm and amicable atmosphere in the class even though he is addressing serious topics such as ancient tombs.
In addition to imparting knowledge acquired from books, Huy provides empirical knowledge to the class.
In one instance, he demonstrated cooking with coconut oil while discussing coconuts in class and also allowed the participants to try it. Also, participants often learnt to read the City's map.
During a class on gastronomy in south Viet Nam, Huy invited a professional cook to talk about the typical food people usually cook during floods and about the various kinds of cake in the region.
Participants also went on a picnic where the cook taught them to prepare braised fish in a bowl, a typical dish of the south.
"We first let them cook by themselves, and then, we helped them while adding ingredients to bring out the typical flavour of south Viet Nam in the fish," said cook Nguyen Hoang Phuc.
He did not hide his astonishment when he was invited to the class.
"What is most interesting in this class is that participants learn culture through gastronomy. Huy and I helped people understand the culture and development of food over time," he said.
A participant and staff member of a financial advisory company, Lam Hong Ngoc, said even though she usually feels tired after work, she does not want to miss any of these classes because the way the teacher imparts knowledge to her is easy to understand; it is similar to conversations between friends.
"I am now armed with knowledge that I thought I was aware of, but in fact, I was not. For example, I learned the difference between the way people lived in the north and the south and the difference between how ordinary people and the elite drink wine at functions," Ngoc added.
|Source of knowledge: Huy has tranformed the room into a free library for young people.
Another participant with a masters in urban planning and design, Nguyen Thanh Viet, said, "I find it interesting that the class is named 'One-bowl', which is defined in a very smart manner and manifests the wholeheartedness of the teacher."
"For me, the class is not only a hobby but also helps with my work," Viet added.
Critical thinking is always welcomed in the class. Huy said he enjoys listening to the participants' views.
"I think I can learn from them too," he stated.
As many as 60 per cent of the participants are employed, working in a variety of fields, and there is no difference between students whose majors are in human sciences and those with majors in architecture.
"I gained valuable insights after listening to an architect's remarks about ancient wooden houses," Huy recalled from a session on the topic.
Having run for one year, simply by passing on the schedule and venue orally and through Facebook, the class has a regular attendance of 30-40 persons in each session.
Although this figure is likely to increase, Huy said he will maintain the current fee because the primary aim of this community work is to share knowledge.
Huy revealed that he intends to invite culturists and historians to share their knowledge with the class and will even organise longer sessions with participants, such as prompting them to sing don ca tai tu (southern folk music).
"The depth of his knowledge surprises me the most," said a college student and a regular attendee, Nguyen Quoc Chinh.
"Every lecture is similar; he prepares them very well, from providing information to presenting images and video illustrations. Sometimes, I am able to bring home handy products and dishes that help me remember everything I learnt."
Surprisingly, very few know Huy has graduated from HCM City Medicine and Pharmacy University.
Huy has been fond of history and culture since he was a little boy, luring him to spend most of his time reading books, and he continued to maintain this hobby even when he moved to HCM City to study at the university.
It was in 2011 that he came up with the idea to publish an online magazine about culture and history to share his knowledge with everyone.
Huy collected information and wrote on his own, took pictures, and prepared a layout for his magazine.
As many as 14 issues have been published online so far covering diverse topics from children's folk games to his fondness for vendor food and the traditional Lunar New Year of the residents.
To gather more information, he interviewed experts and specialists in the field.
"Every time I meet an expert, my mind is filled with additional knowledge," Huy said, adding that the breadth of his knowledge is supplemented with every interview.
"It is a pity that this information hardly ever reaches the public although youngsters today want to learn. For this reason, I want people in this community to have easy access to knowledge, though I am not a researcher," Huy noted.
In addition to preserving and developing the "One-bowl class", Huy has transformed the class into a free library for young people.
More than 1,000 books on culture, history, and other fields are available, which can be borrowed from the library. Youngsters are encouraged to make daily visits to read the books and collect information for their research.
Photographer Pham Hoang Giang said he usually comes to the library to read books and converse with people.
"It is interesting to explore everything in a small room nested in an apartment building in a hustling and bustling city," Giang said.
Yet, Huy is still worried about reading habits among youngsters.
"This place can accommodate more people. I am worried because many are not interested in books. Although attending one class is sufficient for acquiring some knowledge, reading remains an important foundation to gain insights on various subjects," he said. — VNS