When I was visiting my home town Bac Giang during my summer holiday, after a year of learning Polish in Hanoi, one day I received a summons to the Ministry of Higher Education in Vietnam, it informed me that on the 28th August 1980 all the candidates for Polish universities had to be present in the Foreign Language College in Hanoi, in order to prepare for the departure to Poland.

Older school colleagues (from previous years) went to Poland by train. The journey from Hanoi to Warsaw through Beijing, Ulan Bator and Moscow took them two weeks. Because of the Indo-Vietnamese conflict we had an opportunity to fly to Poland. It was the first time on a plane for all of us. 

For some of my friends the flight was an amazing experience, but I was overwhelmed by some kind of sorrow, because of the idea that for 6 years of studies I’ll be far away from my family and more importantly from my Vietnamese female colleagues ( I thought I would come back home a confirmed bachelor, because there were no girls in the group going to Poland, moreover, it was impossible to expect a girl studying back home in Vietnam to wait six years for a boy). How could an eighteen year old boy have known that in Poland there are such beautiful and amazing “new Polish female colleagues” just “waiting”.

Another thing that made me sad a little bit was that I and my friend were to study Mathematics. I was a little bit fed up with maths, after 3 years of rat races at that faculty. But then the motherland needs mathematicians, and Poland was famous for its scientists, mathematicians and chemists, so we had to follow Party’s decisions.

Before we arrived in Poland we had to spend a few days in Moscow. On 6th September 1980 we were at the airport in Hanoi and in the afternoon of 7th September 1980 we landed in Moscow. The airplane journey took 12 hours with two stopovers.

After we arrived in Poland, the free Polish trade unions begun to actively take part in the political situation (Solidarność), the Party was very concerned about us. The authorities thought about looking for alternate studies in the Soviet Union, because in the “stubborn” Poland the situation might be unpredictable.

Finally, we got train tickets to Warsaw. On Saturday 13th September 1980 we arrived in Warsaw. After a few days in Warsaw in the morning of 19th September 1980 we went to Lublin by train.

I’ve got the dates, not because of my extraordinary memory for numbers but from …. the sixth tome of my journal that I have kept. The previous five tomes I left in Vietnam, they were probably recycled for wastepaper. The seventh tome is not existent, since there was nobody to write in it, I didn’t have time or the will. In Poland we had better “things” to do. Actually, we had to study hard, since the studies were hard, there were no special allowances made for the foreign students.

All the students received a sweater each form the Ministry, because the Party took care of us and knew that it is cold in Poland. Each student – either from a rich or a poor family – could own up to 2, 3 shirts and 2 or 3 pairs of trousers and pack them into their huge suitcases. At that time all the textiles were for coupons, and in the shops there were only tops and shorts to be found from time to time. We had to save our small scholarships in order to buy some winter coats in Poland.

I was happy we were taken care of by the Party. But there was one significant problem, all the sweaters were identical. There was only one size only one pattern and colour. Red, of course they were red, what other colour could they be? When we were in Poland we were always embarrassed when we went on some kind of school walks or trips with our teachers. We were told that only twins wore identical clothes. Later on when we had some more clothes the red sweaters were set aside. Maybe some of our friends managed to send their sweaters home to help the less well-off family that was left behind in Vietnam.

We still didn’t have jackets. Neither for autumn nor for Winter. We saved our scholarship money and we gradually bought the needed winter clothes. At the beginning we loaned each other clothes when somebody had to go out, because some of us couldn’t afford the clothes for a long time.

We wanted to follow the fashion as the Polish youth did. We bought leather jackets, actually imitation leather from privet operators, in boutiques. We looked for winter coats and other clothes in regular shops, but it was really problematic since all the sizes were too big for us. Sometimes we were forced to buy children clothes.

Everybody was very happy when they could buy fashionable jeans like Levi’s or Montanna corduroy trousers with a tiny American flag. Later on we found out that you can buy currency form a money-changer and buy some western products in Pewexs.

We had a rather small scholarships, we got 1600 zloty every month later on we got a raise to 1800 zloty and next one more raise 2250 zloty. The corduroy trousers costed … 3500 zloty. We borrowed money from each other. One person bought trousers one moth the other had to wear the old Vietnamese trousers they brought from home. We had some remorse because in the motherland there was incredible poverty and we wanted to have fashionable clothes, we only tried to look presentable like our Polish friends.

The time spent studying at UMCS was very interesting. I remember in the university canteen there weren’t any rules concerning soups, everybody served themselves so they could take as much as they wanted, but there were people who took 2 or 3 bowls of soup before the main course and as a result there wasn’t enough soup for everybody. Later the lunch ladies served soup, one bowl for each student, but that rule wasn’t bone hard. For a pretty smile some students could get some more soup – thus the Polish lunch ladies were awesome.

Studying in Poland looked a lot differently than studying in Vietnam. Here we had more time for fun for example walks, playing football and tips to Polish secondary schools. We read Polish newspapers like “Trybuna Ludu”(People’s tribune) “Sztandar Młodych” (Youth’s Banner) and “Kurier Lubelski” (The Lubelskie region courier). There wasn’t much information about Vietnam. We were very happy because we found out Dang Thai Son won the International Chopin Piano Competition. I can’t decide if that was the time when I became interested in classical music but later on when my children went to school they also started attending music school and persistently learned to play instruments for 12 years. A fun fact is that many Vietnamese children attend music schools in Poland.

But the student’s life doesn’t consist only from studies. There are other important things in life. For a Vietnamese, being far away from his family is very exhausting. Everyone missed their families, and  the telephone contact then wasn’t easy or even possible. We all awaited the postman, but again at that time it took a long time for letters to be delivered. So we longed for affection, and the sadness was a constant companion of the foreign student. The feeling grew, especially during Christmas or other holidays when Polish students left for their families and the dormitories were empty. There were only few foreigners left.

When we had some days off, even with our small savings, we travelled to other cities to visit our older school colleagues, and to learn some of “the techniques of picking up girls”

One time me and my friend went to Cracow on a night train in order to visit some older colleagues. We were lucky because there was a big group of girls in the same carriage. At that time it was rather easy to be a foreigner in Poland, there were little signs of racism. Polish boys in the train didn’t bother us and my friend and I spend the whole night talking with the girls. But then we couldn’t yet think about any serious relationships, since we knew we were forbidden to have girlfriends. So the interaction was very short, we wrote only couple of letters. There was no dating at the university in Lublin.

There were disco parties in the dormitory club in Lublin, but then we couldn’t yet dance so it wasn’t a place where Vietnamese men often went. We were very cheerful when after the one year language course, with some older students, we worked at the student camp in Przemysl. By that time, we knew Polish rather well.

And we were more experienced, not only linguistically…


To be continued

By Ngo Hoang Minh

Translation Dominika Chmielewska