Sunflower Mission: Workcamp 2012

A recap video I made of our trip to Vietnam this summer. Footage taken in Hue, Ha Noi, Halong Bay, and Sa Pa, Vietnam. 

- Dan

By popular demand, Work Camper Andrew Poon covers a Workcamp 2012 favorite, “What Makes You Beautiful” by One Direction. 

Thanks for the Sunflower Mission shoutout, Andrew!

Unforgettable Moments

by Nikky Phi

My two weeks in Vietnam were filled with plenty of unforgettable moments: working at the school site, winning the first SM vs Locals soccer game in 10 years, and touring many beautiful cities. Unfortunately, all of that came to an end on June 17th when the majority of the SM group returned to Houston, including me. Due to my failure to adjust to the 12 hour time difference, the first three days home consisted of staying up all night, sleeping all afternoon, and a little bit of reflection time in between. Before this strange sleeping schedule takes over my body again, I thought I’d share a few of my favorite memories from the Sunflower Mission Workcamp 2012.

Thursday, June 7th

The first ever Sunflower Mission robotics/English workshop was held on June 7th with Nicole Richard from National Instruments as leader.  Nicole brought 10 laptops and 10 Lego kits with her to Vietnam. One laptop, one Lego kit, and one SM volunteer were given to each group of three students. I got the privilege to work with three nine year olds named Nguyen Duc Phuong, Pham Dinh Phong, and Pham Thi Minh Chu. The students were instructed to build either a kicker or a goalie with instructions provided. After assembling their kicker/goalie, the students connected their new “robot” to the computer using USB chords. On the computer, Nicole taught the students how to create a program in order to control their robots. After the robotics workshop, the entire SM team taught the children a few English songs. The kids obviously learned a lot from Nicole and the rest of the SM team, but I also learned a lot from the kids. In America, a lot of us take an education for granted. We go to school every day, take some tests, go home, and do homework. However, it seems like we’re just going through the actions. Seeing the kids excited and eager to learn taught me that education isn’t something we should take for granted; in fact, education is a privilege that each and every one of us should be lucky to have.

Saturday, June 9th

This is a date that everyone should remember; on Saturday, June 9th, 2012, Sunflower Mission won its first soccer game against the locals in 10 years. As the winning goal was made, everyone’s faces sparkled with joy as the sweat dripped down their backs; a roar erupted from the SM crowd as the locals’ faces were overcome with defeat. Although this win was mind-blowing, the completion ceremony for the school site in Quang Loi was the highlight of my day. As Mr. Tuan Dao made his speech, the red ribbons were cut, and the children sang and danced, you could see pure joy illuminating their faces from miles away. All my life, I’ve heard the saying “money doesn’t buy happiness”, but at that moment, I realized that that saying really is true. We take so many things for granted here in America: food, clean water, a place to live, an education, etc., and we’re still not happy with what we have. On the other hand, some of these kids barely have the necessities to live, and just by looking into their eyes, you can tell that they are truly happy. This taught me that I need to appreciate all that I have in life, and do my best to give back. Another day passed, another lesson learned.

Thursday, June 14th

June 14th was our second day in Sapa. Out of all the places I’ve travelled to, I can easily say that Sapa is the prettiest. From the beautiful mountains to the quaint Cat Cat Village, it was love at first sight. The moment we stepped out of the hotel, the cute Hmong women flocked to us like the flies at the workcamp after smelling our sweat for the first time. Persuaded into buying almost everything the Hmong women were selling, each and every one of us left Sapa with bags full of stylish, ethnic accessories. That night, we departed for Hanoi to “experience a night sleep on a train”, and boy, was it an experience. Soon after boarding the train, we discovered that we had a few little guests in our room: cockroaches. After sending Don on a little exterminating excursion, the train was roach-free. Then, it was on to the next challenge: choreographing a dance on a moving train for the completion dinner the next evening. After a few hours of stumbling, flopping, and laughing, the choreography was complete. Needless to say, that was an experience I’ll never forget.


Going into this trip, I didn’t know what to expect. In a way, I thought I’d be experiencing and feeling the same emotions that I felt on last year’s work camp. However, it quickly became apparent that I was utterly mistaken; everyday was a new experience, and I enjoyed every second of it. 

A New Experience

by Joanna Nguyen

Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect when I came to Vietnam. It was my first time there. People told me tips and stories of when they went. “Oh, be careful with what you eat.” “It’s so hot there, especially around this time of the year.” “Be careful about what you say.” I was a little timid and nervous being there, and even more afraid of doing something rude or wrong. 

The main reason my mom and I went to Vietnam with Sunflower is because they were dedicating the school in my dad’s honor. Being a school administrator, my mom was so touched and dragged me to go with her. We met up with the group the day of the ceremony for the first school. I was so shy at first and didn’t feel like talking to anyone that day, until a few people invited me over to play some games. I didn’t know that many people there and everyone had a head start of knowing each other. But, I felt welcomed by the end of the day.

The trip went on as we traveled to different cities and saw different things. I had a great time with everyone while learning more about my country. It was a new experience for me, and I hope to remember it. Next year I promise I will do to the “work” part in “workcamp” and not arrive a week after the group.

Photo by Nanhi Tran

A Beautiful Experience

by Kim Yen Vu

I took the journey of the thousand steps…all the way up to San May or Cloud Yard at the Ham Rong Mountains where I was able to see the beauty of it all from above. The journey or walk up the path was not easy, but the journey itself was rewarding and a beautiful experience. My Sunflower Mission work camp experience is somewhat similar to that journey…

As a public school principal, this work camp to build schools for the children of Vietnam has been one of the most positive, meaningful experiences for me in terms of education and working for children and Hope for the future. This past year has been a difficult year for me, and I didn’t know what to expect of my emotions from this trip to dedicate a school in memory of my late husband, Anh Toan. And yes, I could not withhold the emotions at the dedication of Phong Thu Elementary School. It is such a beautiful gift that Sunflower Mission has given these students and that is the gift of an education and hope for the future. It is such a beautiful meaningful gift for me and my family that Sunflower Mission dedicated this school in memory of Anthony Nguyen Thanh Toan. Thank you Sunflower Mission for the work that you do in building hope for the future! My daughter and I have made many friends on this trip and we plan to go back in future years.

Photos by Kim Yen Vu

Newfound Appreciation

by Don Dao

Three days later, relaxing in the comfort of my own bed, I reminisce on the events of the last two and a half weeks that made the work camp so special in innumerable ways: the breathtaking beauty of the terraced mountains of Sa Pa, the colossal islets dotting the waters of Ha Long Bay, the nights spent alongside fellow work campers in the night market bargaining with the locals, the smiling faces of the children as they waited for our arrival each morning, and most importantly, the spark of interest that lit up their eyes as they observed their robots roar to life and connected it to their future.

Reflecting on the seventeen day journey, I realize how blessed I am in every possible way. I wake up each morning in a great home with a caring family, I never have to face the strife of hunger or poverty, I have everything I could want from my laptop to my phone to my toy poodle, and best of all I have freedom, the ability to act according to my beliefs. But this was all by chance. For example, Phong, my student in the robotics workshop who giggled and grinned from ear to ear as our kicker launched the paper ball off the table- I could have been in his place and he in mine. It was by chance that I lead the privileged life that I do and he tends to his cattle in the afternoons.

But what never ceases to amaze me is their unwavering happiness, in life itself. Their continuous grins spanning the entire duration of our days at the school. Content with the simplicity of life. After seeing us with our fancy DSLR cameras and shiny iPods, no trace of jealousy or anger shown across their faces only curious smiles and bursts of laughter as the earphone I let them borrow filled their ears with foreign music.

And as a fourth time work camper, though I consider myself relatively smart and relatively talented, I know that so many of these children who I’ve observed in my experiences in Viet Nam have much more potential and ability than I do; the only thing that I have the upper hand on them in is the life full of opportunities that I’ve been raised in- a life nurturing success.

Each year I grow older, I gain a more profound understanding and appreciation for experiences; this trip, for example, holds so many lessons and humbling encounters in memories that last a lifetime. The blistering heat of the days at the work camp went unnoticed or at least without (too much) complaint by even the most pampered members as we were overwhelmed with the joy of the children and the comprehension of how we impact them, not only enabling them but giving them the interest to move forward and become someone beyond the world that is their village. I have been blessed to have been able to return on this trip for the fourth time; this work camp is not only to help the village children, it is a humbling and amazing experience for both sides to share.

 Photos by Don Dao and Britney Dau

The Journey of a Thousand Steps

by Oscar Truong

We’ve all heard about it, we’ve all seen the pictures, and everyone knows what it is. Ha Long bay is a name that sparks the imagination and sends the mind into a frenzy of awe and amazement. The bay filled with hundreds upon thousands of towering isles, each as unique and as grand as the last.

On June 12, 2012 I was able to finally see this wonder first hand and up close. With wakeup calls at 6:30, I hauled myself out of the comfort of my cozy bed and made my way down to breakfast at the hotel. With sizzling eggs and a steamy bowl of pho to start of my morning, it was gonna be a great day. At 8:00 a.m. we checked out of the hotel, congregated in the lobby for some small talk, and were soon herded onto the bus.

Within a few minutes we arrived at the harbor. Getting off the bus was certainly the second wakeup call of the day for most of us, the sun already out and happily shinning as we scrambled for our sunblock, hats, and fans for relief.  Finally fully awake I gathered my belongings and allowed my eyes to adjust to the new lighting.  I found myself at a harbor with boats moored as far as the eye could see and towering islands in the background, I knew I was finally here. As our guides collected our tickets from the usher and distributed them amongst the group we made our way to the boat.  As I approach the vessel I stand there and take in the details before me, a modest ship with paint flaking of the sides, this would be an experience indeed. Merchants cling to the side of the boat in attempts to swoon oncoming passengers to buy their goods; I politely decline and find my seat.

Within the next few hours there is picture taking, socializing, and sightseeing as our boat slowly chugs its way to our destination. As the islands draw nearer and nearer all of us flock to the bow to get a better look at the island. The island towers above us as we dock and make our way to solid ground. Once the initial exploring is done and the quick browsing of the local shops we gather under a cabana to decide our next plan of action. Our group splits up into two teams, one to swim in the bay and one to hike up to the top. I choose the later of the two and begin preparing my belongings for my oncoming journey.

With sunglasses on, a straw hat secured tightly on my head, a water bottle in one hand, and a fan in the other, I’m ready. The sun was unforgiving and the humidity was dense, coupled with the lack of a breeze our group was profusely sweating within only a few steps. I look around, grateful for the trees that provide me shade but unfortunately, I notice a sign. The sign proudly reads that there are 1600 steps to the very top.  Fantastic. Un-phased I continue my journey with the rest of my team onward, as the steps get steeper and our breaths grow shorter we quickly loose our team moral. As we continue upward we occasionally stop for the quick Kodak moment or two, all of us grateful for a little break. We take a swig of water, pass the fan around, and force ourselves to keep on moving. With the top finally insight, we all find the final burst of energy needed to push ourselves to the finish.  Triumphantly we gather around in celebration, taking in the view around us, our reward. There is sense of euphoria for overcoming the challenge, for conquering the obstacle, we’re exhausted but we made it. As we reap the fruits of our labor, we take more pictures and absorb the stunning scenery. We congratulate each other and prepare for our descend. A wonderful experience and well worth every step and drop of sweat, my day at Ha Long Bay will be a day to never be forgotten.

Photos by Oscar Truong


by Dan Dao

The past few days have been full of readjustment. Some of us are readjusting to home cooked food, some to the weather, and most of us to the 12 hour time difference. But before we sync completely to our calendars and routines, I’d like to think we have time for one more reflection. Amidst the fun, excitement, and intensity of work camp, we forget to pause and interpret our own experiences and the ritual of self understanding easily slips into the shuffle.

Our two week journey took us from the pagodas and citadels of Hue to raw, scenic mountains in Sapa. By plane, train, and boat, we crossed huge distances, covering the entire Northern half of Vietnam. Over the years, I’ve come to find that my self reflection is best done in transit. From sitting on the bus with my headphones in to taking long walks by myself, I see that the act of moving from place to place helps me process information better. This year, I realized a shift in my own thinking, one that has allowed me to recognize all the small details in the big picture.

There are millions of small bits and pieces that I will remember just as well as I remember the trip in its entirety: A small child trying to help carry a chair twice his size, a cheesy dance choreographed in the bumpy hallway of an overnight train ride in Lao Cai, and the exact construction of the gift package we presented to the students at the school’s closing ceremony. I’ll remember the language barriers between Americans and Vietnamese, and the idealogical barriers between the adults and the youth. 

What can you take away from these observations? Sure, there is beauty in small details. But what is even more beautiful is how small things connect to form bigger things. How small acts of kindness and small sums of money can build a school for a village in Vietnam, or how a bunch of small lego pieces can become a bird, alligator, or robot. When you see the rice terraces of Sapa, think of the old lady tending her crops for 50 cents a day. When you see the school we built, remember each of your own contribution to the finished product. When you look back on our work camp trip, see the moments that made each day possible. 

Photos by Don Dao

Being a Teacher

by Zoe Pham

I was nervous and anticipating starting the robotic workshop at the school we had finished painting. The point of the workshop was to teach the children about engineers and what they do, and to encourage them to think about engineering jobs in the future. I cannot speak Vietnamese, and I was thinking about how hard it would be to help the kids, who did. Only two groups of kids were allowed to participate because the other children were either too young or too old. I felt bad that the other village children couldn’t come in and play too. I felt guilty and sad having them watch through the window as we taught the children inside. The village children were told not to come in, and had to be content playing games outside with other volunteers.

The volunteers inside were each assigned to a table of three kids, and were expected to help the children build the lego figures, then with motors, and show them how to use the computers. Firstly, we would show the children a game very similar to the computer programming to help them understand the concept. I could see they were very shy but eager to learn, listening to Nicole and Khoa, two engineers lecturing about engineering and what engineers do. Nanhi then explained how to play the game, and took three volunteers to show the kids an example. The kids akwardly stood up to play when it was their turn to play the game, then slowly got into it. Next, we showed them the contents of the box, full of brightly colored legos. None of them had ever even seen legos before, and I had to first show them how to design and assemble a wall to prepare them for building a “kicker” later, which would then join with the “goalie” to try and kick paper balls into the goal. It was quite an experience just watching them pick up which piece fits into which, and how eager they were to create something.

I could see they were very proud of their wall, but that didn’t stop them from breaking it apart and putting the pieces away when it was time to build the kicker, which is harder to build. Most of the students had never seen laptops before either, and watched eagerly as we showed them how to use the mouse. We then showed them what we were building, and went to a program showing them step by step how to build the kicker. They were very serious about finding right pieces and fitting them together, and it was very fun helping them put it together. It was amazing how they went from not knowing which way to fit the legos, to building a machine by themselves. I was very proud of my kids. We plugged it in, then I showed them how to program the motor from the laptop. They were very surprised when the kicker whirred to life and kicked the crumpled paper ball. They played with their machine and the goalie for a while, and I could see they loved it. I cannot describe the workshop as anything other than amazing and an incredible experience that changed my perspective on opportunities and education.

Photos by Dan Dao

Two Weeks of Amazement

by Trang Nguyen

The past two weeks had been an eye opening experience for me. Images that are still stuck in my head are the smiles on the children’s face in Hue, a young 3 ft tall girl carrying her younger brother who is half her size, and an old lady selling jewelry in beautiful Sapa. I could understand them because I was once a poor child from the countryside. A notebook and pencil could bring a huge smile to a poor child yearning to learn.

Being young or old, when poor they have to work hard to help out the family. The little girl taking care of her brother is very touching. Perhaps she is babysitting for her parents to go work. She is too young and yet she is carrying someone almost as big as her size. The other touching image was when an old lady came up to me; asking me to buy her jewelry in Sapa. Her face was all wrinkled, and both her hands and feet were black. It’s sad to see her still working hard at old age. May Sunflower continue to bring hope and joy to those that are less fortunate.

Photos by Dan Dao and Nanhi Tran