By Cathleen Ann Steg
Torches held by boys in traditional Vietnamese garb flicker around the edges of the outdoor stage. Lit only by the eerie glow, shining ceremonial swords clash as boys and girls in bright silks spin across the stage, demonstrating ancient dance routines of Southeast Asia.
The crowd of 1,100 cheers wildly at their expertise, startling the frogs and crickets into silence in the Virginia woodland.
This celebration of Vietnamese culture is, in fact, a gathering called Thang Tien 6 - the 6th International Jamboree on Vietnamese Scouting.
The four-day camping extravaganza last June drew Scouts and Scouters from countries across the world to Lake Fairfax Park in suburban Reston, Va. Organized by Scouters in the greater Washington, D.C., area, "TT6" followed the tradition begun in 1985 with the first Vietnamese International Scouting jamboree and then subsequent gatherings, which have been held in countries as far-flung as Australia and France.
Thang Tien means "moving straight forward," explained Duc Bui, Scoutmaster of Troop 396 in nearby Gaithersburg, Md., and TT6 assistant camp chief for operations. "Our theme is to 'strengthen our bonds for the new millennium.' Our generation is getting older, so these younger Scouts need to continue the Scouting movement and take over."
William To, a Scoutmaster from California, agreed. "We need to continue the traditions - of Scouting and of our culture - with the next generation. I'm not just a Scoutmaster but also a mentor to the older Scouts, a helper to the Explorers [now Venturers], able to help pass on what I've been given."
The strengthening of bonds among generations was ever-apparent at the jamboree, from the youngest Cub Scout, gleefully holding a toad near the water's edge, to an elder Scouter in an antique uniform, who joined the movement when it was first introduced in Vietnam in 1930. Jamboree Scouts and Scouters of all ages worked together to share the labor and the fun - and exchange e-mail addresses from around the world.
Everyone at TT6 had two major things in common: membership in Scouting and a Vietnamese ethnic heritage.
Scouting has not existed officially in their homeland since the war ended in 1975. But the Vietnamese people who left to settle in other countries carried the spark of Scouting with them and formed troops and packs in their adopted countries.
The boys from Vietnamese families who joined these units participated eagerly in the Scouting program. But the troops also offered an opportunity to hone their Vietnamese language skills and learn about the culture and history of their ancestral homeland.
Knowing Vietnamese was especially useful at the jamboree. Most of the younger Scouts spoke English or French or some other language of the new country in which they were born and now live. To communicate with other Scouts, they used Vietnamese, the official language of TT6. Games were explained, meals announced, and new friends made in the native language of their parents and ancestors.
Hue Thi-Anh Nguyen, who learned her English in Australia, believes strongly in teaching the Vietnamese language along with the Scout program. "The boys in my fiancé's troop in Oregon didn't know any Vietnamese when they started," she said. "Now they're doing really well - and they're even learning some 'Australian English' from me."
Hue's fiancé (whom she met during a course at Gilwell Park, the famous Scouting training center in England) is Tuan Chinh Nguyen, Scoutmaster of Troop 231 in Aloha, Ore. "At an event like this," he observed, "the kids realize that language is important to learn or they'll be left out. When they get back home, they'll have a better appreciation of the value of keeping their roots."
Long Pham, a 15-year-old Eagle Scout with Troop 904, Arlington, Va., said he appreciated being able to belong to a Vietnamese-American troop and the chance to attend TT6. "I go to school with very few other Asian students, so being in Scouting helps me remember and keeps me in touch with my heritage. And here I've really used my language skills, speaking with people from all over."
Many units at the jamboree blended enthusiasm for their Vietnamese heritage with a show of pride in the ideals of Scouting. Explorer Post (now Venturing Crew) 1930 of Orange County, Calif., for example, lashed branches together to create a revolving door at the entrance to their campsite - an irresistible lure to passersby to come in and enjoy some friendly hospitality.
"We've built a bridge, a swing, monkey bars, things to entertain - especially the little Cub Scouts and Brownies who might walk by," explained Nini Mai, 16, the only girl in the post.
Offering her guests a delicious dinner of Pho (a traditional noodle soup, this version loaded with tender chicken), she described the effort put forth in constructing the site. "We arrived three days early to help set up. The moment we got off here, the weather turned horrible, but we just threw our stuff down and started building the tower over there."
Dinh Thien Tran, another Explorer with Post 1930, looks to the future, when he can give something back to Scouting by serving as a crew Advisor.
"I really appreciate what Scouting has done for me," he says with a warm smile. "If I hadn't joined Scouting, I would probably be in a gang or something worse. But here, we are all brothers, all friends."
American-style Scouting has also helped improve generational relationships in Vietnamese families, said Scoutmaster Thai Pham of Troop 612, Falls Church, Va. "For many Vietnamese families in the past, the 'gap in respect' between fathers and sons was so wide that many a youth would say, 'I have a father, but I don't have a Dad.'"
The parents here are adapting to the American way of parent participation, he noted. "More and more, they're saying, 'sure, I'll go camping - or fishing or hiking - with my son.' This is good for families, and it's also good for our culture."
In planning the jamboree, camp chief Nhan Vo wanted to focus on activities that reflect Scouting's special appeal.
"The Scouts want to have fun, but they also want to be challenged," he explained, pausing briefly from pedaling his official bicycle around the grounds. "So we try to give them both."
Vo gave a tour of some of the impressive activities. From canoeing in Lake Fairfax to boomerang-making to massive water-balloon catapult battles to the big Adventure Game - in which units competed against each other in challenging rope and obstacle courses - the Scouting spirit had countless opportunities to blossom.
Cub Scouts had as many opportunities for fun as the older attendees. Nam Dang Pham, a highly enthusiastic Tiger Cub, spoke for all the members of Pack 904, Arlington, Va., when he said that "the two best things here are 'Steal-the-Bacon' and 'Tug o' War' - and we beat the girls at 'Tug o' War'!"
Dennis Huynh, a fifth-grade Webelos Scout in Pack 904, said his highlight experience happened at the Canadian Games area: He ate an apple - no hands allowed - as it dangled from a string.
Thomas Le, another Webelos Scout, had another reaction."The most challenging thing for me," he declared, "was working on knots. I had to show that I knew how to do all the new ones - and I still remember them!"
As the long week reached its end, campers noted a melancholy that Charles Le, a 17-year-old member of Post 1930, described as "kind of a gloomy feeling around camp, now that it's the last night."
A silent, torchlit walk through the woods to the final campfire helped drive out some of the gloominess, replacing it with an exciting sense of mystery. As participants moved from torch to torch, they read about key moments in the history of Vietnamese Scouting, written on parchment and mounted on trees.
But no planned solemnity can mute for long the high spirits of young boys. As the Scouts filed silently into the campfire area, they awaited the ceremonial lighting of the flames. Then a sound, like the sudden flapping of thousands of bats' wings in the night, broke the silence.
Scouts in the Canadian contingent were generating the noise by waving paper Maple Leaf flags with patriotic fervor. "It's July 1 - Canada Day!" explained a U.S. Scout, obviously enjoying the birthday celebration by his northern neighbors.
The moment, like other special happenings during the week, was not on the program, nor anticipated by the organizers. But in the shadows of the campfire light, all one could see were smiles.
Cathy Steg is a volunteer Scouter and a Scouting magazine contributing editor. She added the following note to her report on the Vietnamese jamboree: "I will be forever grateful for the kindness, the hospitality, the food (!), and the willingness of so many Scouts and Scouters of all ages at TT6 to be interviewed. I only wish there were room for each one to be mentioned or pictured in this story. As they say in Vietnamese, "Than ai bat tay trai." ("Shake with the left hand to show that you're friends in Scouting.")
If It's Tuesday ... Where Are We?
The 39 delegations at TT6 represented Australia, Belgium, Canada, Germany, France, Britain, South Korea, Switzerland, and the United States. The Australians came the farthest, but some North American units spent more time away from home visiting various sites along the way.
Explorer Post 33 and Post (now Venturing Crew) 216 of California's Santa Clara Council packed their sight-seeing into about two weeks of travel. "We've been to Maryland, New York City, Rochester, Niagara Falls, Toronto, and the jamboree," said Dao Diep Huong, Advisor for Post 33. "Afterward, we'll visit Washington, D.C. - to see the Fourth of July fireworks."
Troop 231 from Aloha, Ore., flew directly to Virginia to have time to tour Shenandoah National Park. Two buses of more than 100 Scouts and Scouters from the Sam Houston Area Council made the trip nonstop from Texas to be able to visit Washington. "There is nothing more worthwhile than experiencing our nation's history in our own capital," said Scoutmaster Nam Luong of Troop 495.
Area commissioner Barry Jones said traveling was no problem for his Canadian Venture and Rover Scouts from Group 134 in Toronto. "To them, a 12-hour drive is no big deal."
"Getting everything into our van was the biggest challenge," added assistant Rover leader Harry Pham. "Everything" in this case included a huge tepee for their campsite and a marching snare drum (which was heard each time the Canadians paraded across the jamboree grounds).
Ahh, Shrimp Rolls!
A popular stop for campers and visitors alike was the Vietnamese food canteen, where shrimp rolls and other tasty Southeast Asian munchies could be purchased.
Next-door, Troop 1794 from Wheaton, Md., maintained a cold-beverage concession. "We are selling beverages as a troop money-earner," said parent volunteer Chau Duong. (The $400 earned was more than enough to send two Scouts to summer camp.)
A large, white tent housed activities like photo exhibits, games involving Vietnamese culture and history, and a silk-screening section for customizing camper's T-shirts.
Making a Jamboree "SOMETHING DIFFERENT"
Vietnamese-American Scouters from the greater Washington-Maryland-Virginia region spent more than two years preparing for the jamboree. Camp chief Nhan Vo promised "something different" for this last jamboree before the new millennium.
Most striking was the camp gate, a huge bamboo tower marking the jamboree entrance.
Dr. Tung D. Nguyen, a local pediatrician and Webelos den leader with Falls Church, Va., Pack 612, built the gate (as well as a bamboo platform for his tent, which kept his family dry, three feet off the ground, throughout the rainy Virginia weather).
Planning, recruiting, selling
Assistant camp chief Duc Bui noted that the biggest challenge was "recruiting enough volunteers to take charge of projects, hosting, and managing the system. Nhan Vo and I went to the national Scout jamboree at A.P. Hill in 1997 and learned a lot about the process."
Vo, newly elected committee chairman for L.D. Potomac, added that they gave themselves only three days to set everything up and had planned (optimistically, they thought) for 600 to 800 people.
Actual attendance, however, was more than 1,100 Scouts and Scouters, Vo reported with pride.
A Thanksgiving-like feast
Vo also promised the International Central Committee on Vietnamese Scouting (the group that oversees Vietnamese Scout groups around the world and coordinates the triennial jamborees) that the jamboree would include a feast unlike anything ever attempted at a Thang Tien.
"We have never done such a big cookout before in Vietnamese Scouting," he said. "We wanted it to be just like Thanksgiving Day in America."
The food (mostly an American-style menu, including corn on the cob and watermelon) was served outside, efficiently and cheerfully, by an enthusiastic staff. All 1,100 campers were able to finish only moments ahead of an evening thunderstorm.
Hosting the next one
During the week, Californians and Texans contested for the honor of hosting the next Thang Tien in three years. Both delegations offered great campsites and unique programs.
When the Sam Houston Area Council was announced as the next host (California had hosted the event in 1990), some hefty Texas cheers filled the woods.
Vietnamese Scouting In America
Troops made up of Vietnamese-American boys are full members of the Boy Scouts of America and adhere to the official advancement program; adult leaders learn their skills at the same training sessions as other American Scouters.
However, because the Communist take-over of Vietnam in 1975 put an end to Scouting in that country (as happened during the Cold War in every country in which Communism came to power), Vietnamese Scouts and Scouters incorporate some traditions of their former program into regular Scout meetings.
Scoutmaster "A" Truong, of Troop 904, Arlington, Va., describes this blending of programs:
"I was a Scout in Vietnam when I was 11," he says. "Here, as an adult, I went to BSA training, then met with parents and American leaders to create our unit's program. We keep all the best traditions and culture from Vietnamese Scouting and work 'parallel' with the BSA program. The boys are really involved, proud of their culture, but also appreciative of the opportunities American Scouting offers."
A special grouping of Scout units called a "Lien Doan" (L.D.) helps them incorporate Vietnamese culture into their programs. Typically, an L.D. will include a Cub Scout pack, a Boy Scout troop, and a Venturing crew - all chartered to one organization (which is sometimes a committee of Vietnamese Scouters formed for that purpose). Some L.D.s, in fact, are large enough to support several troops and packs.
An L.D. may be named after famous Vietnamese heroes or cities, such as "Chi Lang," a great fortified city in ancient Vietnam. Others, such as "L.D. Potomac" in Maryland, are named for their location.
Minh Trinh, a mother with Girl Scout Troop 3005 (traveling with BSA Troop 495 of the Sam Houston Area Council), explained the advantages of an L.D.: "All our Scout units are chartered to one Catholic church, and everyone - boys, girls, families - attends Mass together, in Vietnamese and English. We also have games together and share expertise among adult leaders. We might organize a picnic or a barbecue for everyone and then divide for Boy Scout or Girl Scout unit meetings."
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