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Still True to Their School : Alumnae Lend a Hand to Educators in Vietnam

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They are all grown now with husbands and children and are separated from their former teachers and alma mater in Vietnam by an ocean.

But graduates of Trung Vuong School, for sixth- to 12th-graders, have not wavered in their love and loyalty. These Orange County residents hold annual fund-raisers, such as a dinner-dance tonight, to send much-needed money back to the educators of their youth.

“With us, sentiment is the most important thing,” said Kim-Toan Do, 48, head of the school’s alumnae group. “To see people who had taught us and cared for us now so poor, we have to do what we can to help them. Their letters thanking us are very touching.”

There are about 1,000 former Trung Vuong students in Southern California and most of them live in Orange County, she said. As new members arriving from the homeland bring updated news about former teachers and school administrators, the group adds addresses to a list of people needing help.

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Last year, the alumnae were able to send $50 to each of 40 educators, a sizable amount of money in one of the world’s poorest countries.

The gifts, usually arriving during the Vietnamese New Year between February and March, provide emotional as well as economical support, judging from the letters alumnae receive.

“Sincerely, we are very moved facing the hearts of you . . . those fortunate to have secure lives but still remember the native land, of beloved Trung Vuong, of our silently struggling lives, and then (send) help and comfort when we are dealing with hardships,” wrote Vo Thi Hong Cuc, a recently retired teacher.

The list of educators even includes an ailing 70-year-old woman who was superintendent when Trung Vuong was still in North Vietnam. The campus moved south to Saigon in 1954 when the country was divided in two, with the Vietnamese communist government controlling the north.

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The public school was named after two sister queens who ruled Vietnam for three years from about AD 40. It was one of several prestigious campuses in Saigon that required entrance exams.

Do, a resident of La Palma, still remembers the love-hate relationship she had with the strict teachers and administrators. They frowned at students who wore high-heeled clogs, scolded those who used makeup and punished any pupil whose uniform of all-white traditional Vietnamese dress did not cover her from chin to ankles.

But the educators also pushed the girls to do their best in any endeavor, Do said. “They had our respect. There was pride in teaching. Here, students do not listen to teachers as much, and teaching is just another job.”

Loyalty to the teachers is inseparable from the affection alumnae have for Trung Vuong, one of the most romanticized schools in Vietnamese literature. A common sight described in poems and novels is of thousands of girls in white uniforms pouring onto city streets at the end of a school day.

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Those preparing for tonight’s dance spoke with delight of peddlers selling fruit, barbecued dishes or salad rolls near the campus. They remember sneaking into the botanical garden next door to the school and being scolded by gardeners who caught girls stealing flowers. They also recounted the many awards Trung Vuong students won in both academic and athletic competitions.

But the Trung Vuong of old is no more, lamented Nga Pham, whose family came from Vietnam just last year. The Fountain Valley resident graduated with Do 29 years ago.

Two years after communists took over Saigon and renamed it Ho Chi Minh City in 1975, the government turned the school into a coeducational campus. Today the girls wear white shirts and navy blue pants on campus instead of white dresses.

“Each day I’d take my daughter to school past Trung Vuong and I’d get so sad,” Pham said. “It’s not as pretty anymore.”

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Memories of the old Trung Vuong are so precious to her that she has brought school mementos to America: black-and-white photographs of the campus, classmates and teachers, autograph books filled with poems and letters penned by those who made up her second family.

She was ecstatic to find other alumnae in the United States, Pham said. “The old Trung Vuong no longer exists back home, but I came over here and found it.”


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