By Tom Scott
I always come away from ISTA events with a warming sense of awe and wonder.
Four hours by car, 15 hours by plane (with a cheeky stop in Brunei) and then another 20 minutes by car that seemed to take a lifetime. Vietnam (Ho Chi Minh City specifically) is a rather long way from Falmouth in Cornwall but very much worth the time and sleep deprivation – after all here I am in one of the most exciting and culturally rich countries in the world.
Why am I here you ask… for ISTA’s first event in Vietnam. In our 40 years we’ve never brought ISTA’s magic to this amazing place, but boy, was it worth the wait. The sights, smells, tastes and endless noise of mopeds immediately fill your senses with wonder and awe.
I always try to tag a few days onto an event so I can experience it as fully as possible and this was no different – a walking tour around Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) taking in the Ben Thanh Market, War Remnants Museum, Independence Palace, Notre Dame Cathedral and Saigon Central Post Office – followed by some spring rolls and lotus flower rice (delicious of course!)
Day two was slightly more wild with a trip down the famous Saigon River to the Mekong Delta – a trip of great immersion in the local culture. There really is nothing better than getting stuck in and seeing the real people and places behind the usual tourist traps. The day was topped off with a lovely dinner and performance at the Saigon Opera House with Dinos and a meeting with Paul (host) over some bubble tea!
On day three the work began and we found ourselves sat in ‘Elephant and Books’ coffee shop near Ben Thanh Market. What. A. Gem. So peaceful with coffee to die for, cracking on with emails and festival planning ahead of the team arriving. I could (and did) sit there for hours.
Day four was the planning day at the school. It’s set within the busy streets of Ho Chi Minh City and right on the Saigon river. A beautiful and very well thought out school with spaces for students and teachers to feel welcome and at home whilst promoting learning and relationships with others.
I have to say I was blessed at this event to be joined by artist extraordinaries Dinos, Fenella, Mhairi and Ulrich – experts in their fields and utterly gorgeous people – the planning day was a huge success and then, after a cheeky cocktail in Xu bar and yet another beautiful dinner, it was time to crash.
Day five and it all begin for the students and teachers who arrived full of energy, excitement and enthusiasm for what awaited – the day got going quickly and soon we were on the buses and preparing for the two hour drive north. Ordinarily, ISTA’s out and abouts have a maximum of 30/45 minutes travel each way but this was special and warranted the long journey. We were heading through the lush landscape of Vietnam to the Cu Chi tunnels – a vast network of over 270 kilometers of underground tunnels – no more that 4 foot high and pitch black. For those who don’t know much about these, please do some research online. I was ashamed to say I knew so little about the Vietnam war but came away compelled to learn more. The resilience and bravery of the Vietnamese people is something to behold and learn from.
Day six saw the standard ISTA activities taking place with ensembles, some stunning workshops and teacher PD&L. Another very successful day topped off by a beautiful social meal with teachers while their students walked the streets of Ho Chi Minh City (nearby and closely monitored of course).
Day seven and that same feeling of ‘how are we here already’ – it just goes so very fast and in a blink of an eye (after another fabulous day) here we were watching the students perform a moving and humbling piece of theatre showing just how affected they had been by the learning and experience of being in Vietnam.
Goodbyes are always hard and for the students especially so – but it’s somehow easier knowing it’s likely we’ll see those faces again at an event somewhere amazing in the near future. After all I’d only seen Mhairi in New York two months previously.
Back on the plane and now with the prospect of two flights totaling 18 hours and a four hour car journey, I reflected on the last week. I always come away from ISTA events with a warming sense of awe and wonder. We really do take for granted these remarkable experiences and I think it’s important to appreciate the opportunities we have and the magic we are able to create with young people.
In my five years working full time for ISTA I have been so very blessed by the work I get to do and the privilege of travelling to so many exciting places around the world. For those I am yet to meet and work with I am hugely excited to and for those I have – thank you for all you do to enrich my life… for me it’s now on to preparing for Terezin (March) and Tanzania (May). Wow!