The months leading up to departure were packed with online modules, video chats, and plenty of advice from former participants, but as I discovered during my time in country, no videos, informative slides, or well-written stories could really describe what this trip is to someone who has never been. At its core, ACE is Vietnam isn’t about spending time in the beautiful countryside or the bustling cities or even the actual teaching to the kids. This is not meant to belittle the actual service work done on the trip, but the American coaches aren’t just brought halfway across the world to teach subjects that the Vietnamese coaches are more than capable of doing themselves. Instead, the relationships that get formed during those three weeks are what make ACE in Vietnam so special to everyone that been before and the reason why CFC keeps asking us to come back.
This was something that I had noticed when hearing about the trip from former teammates that had gone in the past. They never talked about how long the days were or their struggles with the nightly lesson planning. It was always about the people they connected with during their time, be it the directors, fellow coaches, bus drivers, kids at camp, or any of the other awesome people one has the pleasure of meeting on the trip.
At its core, ACE is Vietnam isn’t about spending time in the beautiful countryside or the bustling cities or even the actual teaching to the kids. This is not meant to belittle the actual service work done on the trip, but the American coaches aren’t just brought halfway across the world to teach subjects that the Vietnamese coaches are more than capable of doing themselves. Instead, the relationships that get formed during those three weeks are what make ACE in Vietnam so special to everyone that been before and the reason why CFC keeps asking us to come back.
It didn’t really start to hit me until the final weekend just how close everyone had gotten over our short time there. Saying goodbye to the kids was emotional for everyone involved. Less than twenty-four-hours before, the camp was filled with screams of joy and laughter as our final competition day was in full swing. But now, the kids were huddled in their color teams while all the coaches said their final goodbyes. A lot of boys tried to hide their sadness by poking fun at all the kids who were getting emotional, but when Beethoven’s “Für Elise,” which had been used to signal the end of class, was played on the megaphone one last time even the coolest of the boys couldn’t hold it back any longer. Leaving all those kids, despite never actually being able to hold one-on-one conversations because of the language barrier, was one of the saddest things I’ve ever experienced. I’ve taught hundreds of kids in the States, both in the classroom and on the field, but never before, and I doubt ever again, will I have dozens of kids chase after a bus just so they can get one more minute with us, one last wave goodbye.
As the bus made the long journey back up to Ho Chi Minh City, we had to say goodbye to a few of the Vietnamese coaches as we passed through their home cities. These goodbyes were very different from those with the kids. These coaches were the ones we had eaten every meal with, taught with, lesson planned with, lived with, and explored with every day. And as our departure times continued to creep up on us, we kept trying to find ways to get the absolute most out of every single moment we had left together. With only a couple hours left before we were supposed to catch the bus to the airport, one of the directors and I were able to convince everyone to go explore the city one last time instead of taking showers after a long day. The result was a beautiful night’s sky seen from the rooftop of one of the area’s luxury hotels and one last chance to just hang out without thinking about the little time we had left.
Eventually we found ourselves at the bus stop, where Johnny, a fellow Pink Team coach, informed us that this would be where we parted ways. Johnny and I worked in tandem trying to make the Pink Room the most energetic and fun place to be during camp. The remaining coaches got on the bus with us for what was close to a forty-minute stop-and-go ride through the city. Like every bus ride before, I broke out my speaker one last time for what would be one the most memorable moment of my time in Vietnam. Soon after the music started, people started to sing a mix of Vietnamese rap, K-pop, and American songs that I had added to my playlist at the request of different coaches throughout camp. From “Shallow” by Lady Gaga to “Kill This Love” by BLACKPINK, all of us, Vietnamese and American, standing in the back singing without shame as the handful of passengers in the front of the bus looked back very confused.
The Vietnamese coaches walked us all the way up to the departure bay where we said our final goodbyes. Again, onlookers watched very confused as a group of American and Vietnamese college students embraced and cried together one last time.