Studying Polish at the Foreign Language Study Centre by the Maria Skłodowska Curie University in Lublin was rather unproblematic. There was Mr Tadeusz, he has worked in the Centre and he took care of us. He helped us and arranged some things during our stay in Lublin.

We learned Polish from two Mrs Anna and Mrs Danuta, two very nice teachers. Mrs Anna was very young (she was barely engaged) and Mrs Danuta had already have a family, a husband and children. Following the Vietnamese tradition we were very respectful for our teachers, we studied hard and listened to them. 

We passed all the exams. Most of us (myself included) finished the academic year with best grades. Boring…. There is no need to talk about the studies too much. So we waited, impatiently for the summer holiday, the time for fun and rest, as we deserved. After the holiday we were to go to different universities in Szczecin, Gdansk and Warsaw. After a while I learned one of my colleagues quit the programme and came back to Vietnam. A big group of seven, would go to Wroclaw, two people would study applied mathematics (I didn’t really know what it would be), two chemistry and three physics.

In those days the Vietnam Embassy organised summer camps for its students every year. From our older colleagues we’ve heard that in 1979 the camp was in Chelm and it has been a very interesting time for all the students. At the camp there would be meetings of the Communist League of Vietnam Youth, where we all were members, but there would also be some work so we could improve our modest student budgets. Of course there would be some fun as well, since we are studying in the “relaxed” Poland, where people from the Embassy aren’t able to monitor or control everything. The best thing was that at the camp there would also be some Polish students. In 1980 the camp took place in   Przemysl.

After an emotional goodbye with our teachers on 26 July 1980 we were taken to   Przemysl by a morning train. We all received small souvenirs from our teachers. Of course we also chipped in and bought flowers and small memorabilia for them. I received a small notebook with a golden title “Diary”, where all the teachers and students left some inscriptions. I really liked the inscription from Andrzej – Ania’s fiancé. Towards the end of the academic year Mrs Anna transformed into Ania, we got rid of the distance between students and teachers and we could talk to each other on a first name basis. I’ve learned his inscription by heart: “Dear Minh! Always remember that all the cows are black at night, even the blond ones”.

I don’t remember distinctly what kind of work we did in   Przemysl. I don’t even record why there were such scarce entrances in my journal for example “A little bit of work, a little bit of leisure and fun, in the evenings we sometimes have bonfires”. Maybe I already knew that I shouldn’t write about certain things, since I clearly remembered the time when I lived in the dormitory in Hanoi, and some of my friends “stole” my journal and read it out loud making fun of me.

When my memory comes back to secondary school times, as far as I remember we all had some warm memories from Vietnam, but none of us had any serious relationships or girlfriends back there, no so-called big loves. We were so young and “ideologically clean” also “a bit inexperienced”. At the University in Hanoi in the tenth grade there was only one girl studying maths, her name was Hoa, it means “Flower” I really liked her, since she came from Bac Ninh and I came from Bac Giang we belonged to the same province – Ha Bac. We were and still are friends. For a very short time I became friends with the prettiest girl in the tenth grade (there were only 3 or 4 in total) whose name was “River” There were some walks, and doing homework together (or solving maths exercises), but there was no “holding hands”, not to mention any first kisses, so I can say there was “nothing between us”. Both of somehow us got scared. I wrote a poem for her and I’ve never told her about it, she began to avoid me. So, all that time I didn’t know what love or infatuation were. I will never understand Vietnamese women’s minds. They supposedly always talk conversely about love.

I can’t say for sure but during the time of studies in Lublin all of us only studied hard and there were no closer contacts with Polish girls. I can say we were keeping eyes on each other.

The atmosphere at the camp was slightly different, more relaxed, all of us looked for opportunities to get to know Polish girls. Of course the older colleagues were more confident and experienced.

We had guitars and we sang together. There were some Vietnamese patriotic songs but we also learned Polish song of Czerwone Gitary (Red Guitars), the Beatles of course and some other bands from the “rotten” West. In the evenings we organized disco parties with our Polish friends. It was always fun. Besides, we sometimes went sightseeing not only in Przemysl but also in towns like Baranov or Rzeszow.

During the time in Przemysl, I became friends with Teresa. We went for walks to the forest. We were in Poland so holding hands was not so embarrassing. But as a precaution we avoided being seen by other students and we didn’t advertise our relationship. Later on I met Iwona, who was a very pretty blond. Unfortunately, inexperienced, young me made the first mistake of my life. Namely, I started courting Iwona, who liked a friend from my group - O.

Teresa was really mad at me, and she no longer wanted to go on walks with me. She ostentatiously went for walks with my other friend D.

So it ended my contact with both mentioned girls. We didn’t end up as a romantic Polish-Vietnamese couple, but there was a bitter taste, It was an epic fail, and it ruined the rest of my holidays. I wasn’t interested in what my other friends “were doing”. They could do whatever they wanted, they should fend for themselves. I learned a very valuable life lesson: be happy with what you have, never lust for too much!

The summer camp didn’t work out also because of financial reasons, at that time in Poland difficult times came round. Zloty collapsed, and food prices went up very quickly, actually there weren’t many goods in the shops, and during our summer jobs we earned little. Some products could have been bought only with food coupons. We had a brief time to appreciate leaving poor Vietnam and ending up in a richer country, where you could eat as much soup as you wanted. So we were still poor students

We went back to Lublin, were many letters from Vietnam awaited for us. I was very happy because of the letters but the Polish economical and political situation worried me. Moreover, at the suppers in the canteen we sometimes received only 2 slices of bread, so we went to sleep hungry once more. Those were difficult times. We had flashbacks from the time of war in Vietnam.

There was some holiday time left so I got a Student Work Card and looked for some work, because the scholarship was barely enough to buy food, and I knew I would need books when the school year started. Besides, after the first year in Poland we had to start thinking about buying some items to help our families in Vietnam. I couldn’t dream about buying a bicycle or a sewing machine, because those things were very expensive in Poland, and only after 5 years of studies I would be able to afford them. But at that time, a few meters of black material for women trousers, and some white material for a shirt would be welcome by the family in the even poorer Vietnam. All the Vietnamese graduates took some packages prepared especially for their friends’ families when they were leaving Poland.

I found work in a Notary Office by the Voivodship Court. My task was to order all the files in the library and the storeroom. I earned more money there than in Przemysl, and my modest student budget grew.

Moreover, during the time I spent there I met a very pretty black haired girl, whose name was Adela, and who worked as a secretary there. Life is unpredictable, since even now I sometimes work in courts as an interpreter.

We became friends, but soon after I learned Adela had a boyfriend, who was in the army training in Gdynia and they were planning to marry. Once again life showed me some unexpected, sad and difficult times.

But, all is not lost yet, chin up, because the beautiful and romantic Wroclaw waited for the nineteen year old bachelor from Vietnam. It would soon turn out that the fortune was generous for the poor student, however nobody knows what kind of future awaits for him.


To be continued

By Ngo Hoang Minh

Translation Dominika Chmielewska