Is it normal in Vietnam for a man to offer food to the women first?" I asked, holding the rice bowl out to Na, Oxfam Great Britain's deputy director of education in Vietnam. "No," she said, "normally we give it to the oldest person first." After a brief check, it turned out that I was older than Thu Ba, so I got the food first.
This respect for age is deeply embedded in Vietnamese culture, and is nowhere more evident than in the classroom. At the first school we visited, I was struck almost immediately by the speed and uniformity with which instructions were followed. A gentle shake of the tambourine was the signal for everyone in their groups to turn and face the front. Similarly, the end of breaktime was signalled by the beating of the enormous school drum, and lines were formed with no fuss and in double quick time.
I was in the first week of my two-week tour of Vietnam with Oxfam, in Tra Vinh province, half a day's drive south of Ho Chi Minh city. As well as helping to build classrooms and provide basic equipment such as desks and chairs, Oxfam has helped schools introduce active learning - group work, games, visual aids, displays and practical investigations, as opposed to the traditional format of the teacher doing all the talking that has been the norm in Vietnam. Every school we visited told us that the children learn more, test results are better and attendance rates have improved.
The second half of the tour was completely different. After five hours by car, three ferry crossings, two hours on a plane and an overnight train journey, we were in the breathtakingly beautiful hills of Lao Cai district in the far north, close to the border with China.
The first thing you notice as you travel up towards Sapa, where we were based for this second week, is different groups of people in traditional costume. The Hmong people wear a distinct black and red costume, the Dao people are easily distinguished by their red headdresses, and the Day people by their pink headdresses.
Each of these indigenous groups has its own language, which can pose problems for the schools, where they are taught in Vietnamese. One young teacher I met at a training session told me about her first lesson as a teacher in the province: she pointed to a number and asked (in Vietnamese): "What is this number?" The whole class simply chanted back: "What is this number?" in perfect unison. She wasn't quite sure what was going on, so she tried something else. They were used to repeating what teachers said - this having been the norm in Vietnamese schools for so long - and didn't have a clue what she was talking about. After a few minutes, she managed to discover which of the children spoke a little Vietnamese, and used them as interpreters.
Looking at the schoolchildren in the Lao Cai district, it was clear that some were from seriously poor homes. While most wore either wellies or plastic sandals, some had no shoes. We were privileged to be invited into the home of one of the parents. It was larger than most of the houses in her village, divided into three areas - one for sleeping, one for eating and receiving visitors, and one for cooking, washing and bathing. It was a hard stone and mud floor, and there was particular pride in the new bath, a large wooden vat. This house was shared by 11 people.
Teachers in Vietnam earn just enough for rent, food, basic clothing and petrol for their scooters. From what I could gather, it was common practice for the teachers to buy notebooks and pencils for their class out of their own salaries. Normally, a family will buy these essentials, but in the poorer areas, this was not an option.
Oxfam has also been working with the parent teacher associations in the Lao Cai province. The associations consist of the head of each village in the school's catchment area, a party official, the head of the local farmers' group, the leader of a local youth project and a couple of teachers. Members of the PTA have been known to help a family in the fields for a day so that the child is free to go to school.
Some children sleep at the schools, simply because their home villages are too far away. The system in Vietnam in some ways resembles our clusters. There is one lower secondary school, fed by several primaries. The Vietnamese government has now reached its target of providing a primary school within 3km of every home in the country. With the lower secondary schools, however, the distances are far greater. So a lot of the children are, in effect, weekly boarders.
Another way Oxfam supports Vietnamese schools is through scholarships for children from the poorest homes who have worked consistently hard. When we spoke to two of the pupils on these scholarships, they were very shy, particularly with two westerners in the room. However, they told us that the scholarship meant they had a good supply of noodles, a toothbrush, a bowl, a water filter and possibly a bit left over for stationery. The most striking thing about the time spent with these two youngsters - Tung and Lu - was their obvious enthusiasm for boarding. This is hardly surprising when you consider that many children in the area come from tiny villages where they may have no friends of their own age. As Lu rather shyly said: "Going to school is my hobby."
Not all of our experiences were so positive, however. Our visit to Bat Xat, a district in a different part of the province, which had been most affected by the typhoon that hit northern Vietnam earlier in August, was traumatic. Several children and one teacher had been killed and one school had been totally demolished. Fortunately, the typhoon and floods had not hit during term time, or else the death toll could have been a lot worse. It was raining the day we went there, there had been fresh landslides during the night, and in the end we had to turn back.
Instead, we went to the district's education office and got involved in a lively conversation about assessment. When I mentioned that children in England have a week of public exams at the end of their time at primary school, I was looked at with a mixture of surprise and disapproval.
We did have such a system, they told me, but we ditched it four years ago. Much fairer, they said, was to find the mean average of a child's results throughout their time at primary, giving the final year a slightly higher weighting.
What I've seen in Vietnam will help my teaching back home. I certainly intend to include a far more global perspective in my classes and hopefully form links with a school in Vietnam. I'll also look at my own teaching from a fresh perspective. In England, the debate over teaching methods is so polarised, but the best lessons we saw in Vietnam cut right across that. They contained a good mix of interactive activities and individual work, but not a wholesale rejection of traditional methods. My ideal would be to combine the best of what they have, and the best of what we have here
David Grundy is a Year 5 and 6 teacher at Tilney St Lawrence School in Norfolk
SCHOOLS IN VIETNAM
Children normally start their primary education in Vietnam at the age of six. Education at this level lasts five years and is compulsory for all children.
To graduate from intermediate or middle school, which they then attend for four years, they have to pass the Intermediate Graduation Examination.
Pupils attend high school, equivalent to Years 10-12 in the UK, for three high school terms, after which they sit a graduation test, which determines university entrance.
Vietnamese schools have two semesters a year, with two assessment tests each semester.