While the rest of the world was going gaga (not Lady Gaga) over the movie The Avengers, I was busy playing the part of superhero for some kids in a village in Vietnam.
The town of Kon Tum is located in Vietnam's Central Highlands. While not as popular as the beach resorts of Nha Trang or Mui Ne, Kon Tum is where a high density of Montagnard minority villages are concentrated.
Most of these villages are known for their traditional communal structure called a rong house. They're used for weddings, village get-togethers, as places of worship and sometimes as schools. As a rule of thumb, the bigger and more intricate the rong house, the more affluential the village.
Motorbiking through the region, I had the chance to meet and spend time with many minority villagers. A great majority do not see many Western travelers, so it was always a treat to be welcomed into their homes.
After spending the morning riding around various villages and seeing my umpteenth rong house, I was about to pass up another one when I saw some children playing outside in the yard, so I stopped and starting talking with two boys who were climbing a pole.
The other children came by and invited me to come inside the rong house, which also served as their school. Apparently their teacher was too busy having a conversation with somebody outside, so I quickly introduced myself to the classroom and decided to be their teacher for the next couple of minutes.
“My name is Sam and I’m from America,” I announced.
“Sam!” they enthusiastically responded in unison.
“I will be your English teacher today and I will teach you a couple of phrases,” I stated.
Before I could start my informal lesson, they demonstrated their proficiency in English by peppering me with questions.
“How many brothers and sisters do you have?”
“What city do you live in?”
“Are you married?”
“How old are you?”
After handling this barrage (these are common questions Westerners are asked when traveling in Vietnam), I started my informal lesson.
“Now everybody repeat after me,” as I started the lesson, “Sacramento is the capital of California.”
“Washington, D.C., is the capital of the United States of America.”
“I love to eat carne asada burritos.”
There was a young boy in a yellow shirt who was overly enthusiastic. He had made a paper plane and was launching it in every direction. If that wasn’t enough, he would climb atop a chair, desk or even up the walls to launch it from a higher elevation.
After observing him do this a number of times, I said out loud, “Spiderman!”
He responded by pointing at me and crying out, “Superman!”
“That’s right, I’m Superman Sam!” I replied.
Then the whole classroom erupted in unison, “Superman Sam! Superman Sam! Superman Sam!”
The English language lesson had now turned into a chorus, so I started to photograph the children in their overenthusiastic state. We had fun just laughing, screaming “Superman Sam,” and passing my camera around so all the kids could see themselves on the LCD screen.
There was one girl who was very shy and avoided my camera. Each time I tried to photograph her she would hide behind her friends.
To get her to open up, I abruptly grabbed my camera and declared, “Superman Sam is leaving! Goodbye!”
I had just exited the doorway when she ran out and in her quiet voice said, “No.”
Turning around with a smile, I replied, “OK, I’ll stay.”
The whole classroom erupted in cheers and I quickly composed this photograph with the shy girl in the doorway. I think National Geographic would be proud.
Marvel may have their superhero team in The Avengers, but I had my own superhero team, although brief, that afternoon in Kon Tum, Vietnam.