I was born in an isolated province in Vietnam, Cao Bang - a villages with less than 20 houses built from bamboo; no electricity, no roads. The only equipment giving access to the outside world was a radio, given to each household by the government. It was the only way I knew of the Vietnam outside of my village.
There was no nursery school where I lived, only a very small primary school built temporarily from bamboo. My parents wanted us to have better opportunities so, when I was 9 years old, they made the decision to move us to a town where there were proper schools. It was the first time I’d seen of roads, bikes, TVs – all the things we take for granted. In the town, people spoke Vietnamese – I didn’t. I’d only ever spoken my local dialect, so I couldn’t talk or interact with my classmates. My language wasn’t written down either, so I couldn’t write. Kids would make fun of me, and I clearly remember getting a ‘0’ on my first set of tests because I couldn’t write.
I had to learn the language very quickly; watching, listening to classmates… and then I had to learn to write it too. A year later, I was in the top 3 in my class. It meant that I was doing so well, I was encouraged to apply for High School for Gifted Students; you sit a tough entry exam, which I managed to pass.
After finishing High School, I wanted to go to university. When I sat the National University Entrance Exam, my grades only allowed me to get into a low-ranking university. I decided I wanted better prospects, so aimed for one of the most prestigious universities in Vietnam, Foreign Trade University. People told me that someone like me wouldn’t be able to get in. When I sat the exam the second time round, I got in. It turned out that my course would be taught in English which, at the time, I didn’t speak well!
How did I learn English? With grit! I love that word. With grit, I had to keep trying. It was stressful in my first year, trying to learn a new language alongside my course. Living in a new environment was challenging to. I was the only ethnic minority in the University; some people would make judgements about how little I knew because of where I was from.
In my second and third year, I kept exploring. I volunteered with children who’d been damaged by Agent Orange and also worked a part-time job. But I wanted to explore further.
Moving to the UK
I’d always wondered what was beyond the mountains that surrounded my village as a kid, and I wanted to see more of the world. As part of my course, we studied British culture; it gave me a keen interest in the UK. By now it was 2009 and tourism was booming in Vietnam. My plan was to study Tourism and Hospitality in the UK, and bring back what I’d learnt. I worked hard, saved money and moved to Glasgow – how different their accent is to what I’d heard! The weather was totally different too! I was in a new environment again, but this time I loved it.
In Vietnam, the traditional expectation was that I, as a woman, would grow up, get married, have children and look after my family and my husband’s family. What I appreciated about Glasgow was that I was never asked how old I was, or whether I had a boyfriend, or when I was getting married. I felt free. I loved the creativity of the learning system too; an assignment had never been an option for me before, having only sat exams. While studying, I even had a part-time job as a translator.
I decided to take a next big step – to stay in Glasgow and do a full-time PhD, working part-time jobs to cover the cost. I was so interested in the subject I chose: looking at how entrepreneurs practice marketing in tourism and hospitality in Vietnam. It fascinated me.
During my PhD, I asked my connections about teaching opportunities. In 2016, I became an associate lecturer at LSBU – it was great teaching students and supporting them on their journey. More recently, I became a Course Director for Postgraduate Marketing programmes.
New challenges give me the chance to develop myself. My home in Vietnam has recently been listed as a UNESCO Global Geopark. I recently met with the province chairman and am now working on a project proposal with an American professor to look at how we can develop sustainable tourism in the area. I once heard that “you can’t share with an empty bowl” – now I have a bit more in my bowl, I’m keen to share it with the place I grew up. This is the perfect project to give me the opportunity for me to do just that.
Don’t let others tell you what you can and can’t do. Don’t be afraid to challenge the status quo. Have grit.