This is Vietnam’s Renovation Generation. Sonic portraits of young minds re-shaping the country’s future.

For episode 17 we travelled to central Vietnam to meet Tran Van Nhật. His start in life was very different to most of the Renovation Generationer’s. We met him in Huế’s town centre.  

When I was young, my Mother take me to the city once, but I didn’t remember that much…

Born in 1991, Nhật grew up in a village of only 300 people outside of Huế.

It’s a small village, small houses, small street. The river divides the river into two. It’s a peaceful place. Since I moved  back to Huế to work I spend my weekend there… go fishing…

He would have lived there until university age, but when he was nine, the course of his life changed dramatically.

We had another conversation with him on Skype…

My Father passed away when I was in Grade 3, then three years later my Mother passed away.

So himself and his youngest Brother were taken to live in the shelter, a home for orphaned children to live and study in Huế.

It was a very hard time for me and for everyone else in the family as well. My Brother and my Sister had to skip school so we can afford me and my younger brother to continue on studying.

This is when Nhật and his youngest brother spent the rest of their childhood, along with 41 other kids, from Grade 1 to university age.

It’s like a life I never ever imagined that I can have, you know back home I don’t have anything, I don’t know anything. Come to the shelter I have my own bed, I have people taking care of me, I have friends, I have books and pens, I have everything, I have night clothes and I go to a school that ten times bigger than the school I got to from my village. It’s like my home town was Huế and then Huế was like New York.

But it wasn’t all happiness in the shelter. Being older, he can reflect back now on parts of growing up there, which were really difficult.

I remember there’s a time they build a fence. They build a fence between the kids house and the staff houses, make people think they came here to live, but it’s not like a home.

Volunteers coming from around the world for their Vietnam experience

You can learn from them a lot, but it’s also a disadvantage for the kids, because it’s like you know people come and you get close and then they leave. Sometime they come back sometimes they don’t. Some of the kids they spend time with them and they don’t care about school, they don’t study, they don’t do anything.

 The typical teenage exam pressures came in school.

My dream was to become an English teacher at the time, but I failed my test and I was so down, I was like really disappointed.

So how did he react to losing his dream future?  

I left the shelter and then I got a job as a waiter and working in the hospitality for a couple of years, and I think phew, lucky, lucky I didn’t pass the university test.

He got to live outside Huế in Nha Trang, in Đà Nẵng, meeting and talking to people from all over the world, and of course becoming fluent in English.

Eventually he came back to Huế because he was missing out on seeing his family. When Huế airport opened, he became a restaurant manager there, and later he got the opportunity to work where he is at the moment, as an Office Manager at the NGO which helps the kids at the shelter.

Nhật was part of changes made to the shelter, for example, there is now no more fence, and they only allow long-term volunteers. Aside from that, he sees his role as even more meaningful.

I just want to be a role model for the kids that now living in the shelter to look up.  I also want to show others, you know show the shelter staff that you know university and school is not the only way to get you to success. Not all of them are doing good at school, it doesn’t mean you’re not good if you’re not doing good at school. They all suffer some things. Just raise them, but not listen to them, its not help..

So his career has led him full circle, to work with kids like himself who have experienced tragedy too young.

Nowadays, he also spends more time in his home village, going back there every weekend to be with his Grandmother.

I love my village, because whenever I come back I feel peaceful. You know, there’s not much car, there is noise.  They’ve been building, there been construction, there been changing. So we had a lot of building now back home. So you know there is company, big company come there. Some of the village near mine, they are close to the beach and so some of the companies they go there they build factories, they raise shrimp and it’s changing.

As most of our Renovation Generationers live in the city, we were curious to know if there was a divide between countryside and city life.

The city kids they get to know everything when they’re young, so they didn’t feel like strange to the world when they get older. But then the village kids live in the village and you know they’re not having so much…

….exposure maybe?

…yeah to know things. And so just only when they pass their high school tests, so if family that have you know good financials and so they send their kids to the city to study. But those who not, those kids still have to stay, stay back in the home town to study until they pass to university and then they have to move to the city. But when they move here and then you know everything is new so it’s hard for them to take everything in at the same time.

Was that the same for you?

Yeah it’s the same for me as well…

This has been The Renovation Generation. Follow us on SoundCloud or subscribe to The Renovation Generation on iTunes, Stitcher or MixCloud to never miss an episode.

It is produced by Eliza Lomas and Fabiola Buchele, our production assistants are Trang Nghiem and Trang Ngo. And script translation is done by me Maia Do. And I also narrated this episode. Jacques Smit is our photographer

In episode 18 we will speak to policy researcher and columnist Khac Giang Nguyen about the need to give civil society a voice, living in a post-ideological world and growing up in Uncle Ho’s hometown.

Be sure to listen!