The Open School

"The Open School" project is a series of meets that my friends and I organise across South-East Asia and Hong Kong. Anyone can attend these; there is no fee. The participants teach and learn skills and discuss a range of topics - travel, relationships, career, education and personal development. The meets are held at local libraries, cafes, co-working spaces, riversides etc. - any venue that we can beg, borrow or steal. We have no sponsors, and we do not require registration and never collect any personal information from the participants. 

(Hong Kong - living with less, how to make a forest, travelling long-term)

There are no pre-selected speakers at an open school; all the participants are invited to join in and lead a session if they want to teach something or get answers on some topic.  The discussion leader can decide to run the particular session in English or the local language. 

(Singapore - learn to freedive, how to talk to strangers while travelling, adapting to a new country or culture)

How does someone post a topic?

When you come in, take a post-it and write down some skill or topic that you want to learn, teach or discuss. Stick this post-it on the designated board. Other participants will place stickers or leave tick marks on your topic if they like it. 

Once your topic has 5 or 6 stickers, we will assign you a corner where you can run your session with the group interested in your question. We will have two or three discussions running at the same time. Feel free to move on to another discussion group if you like.

(Fake news and Readcamp in Phnom Penh)

Some topics that we discussed in the past.

(Singapore, how to make a great cup of coffee)

  • How to search better on Google? How to find trustworthy information online? How not to get scammed?
  • How to travel to another country with less than 30$? How to travel alone as a female traveller? 
  • How to freedive?
  • How to live with less and not care about things?
  • How to motivate your students or colleagues?
  • How to run a family business and still maintain a personal life?
  • How to make great coffee?
  • How to know if someone likes or loves you? 
  • How to become more confident? How to write a better CV?
  • How to become a better learner?
  • How to meditate?
(Saigon - running a family business, learning languages, meditation, long-distance relationships)

Why run Open Schools?

We believe that there is a lot of knowledge locked away in our cities and communities, but not many platforms for people from diverse backgrounds, ages, and occupations to come together and share.  I was tired of rigid academic conferences or events where the organisers look at participants as an audience for some marketing initiative. We created the Open School as a neutral venue for people to come together and share skills, ideas and interests. There is a lot of talk of smart cities, and these tend to focus on technology, big data etc.   The Open School community is of the opinion that a "smart" city is the one that is smarter by sharing. 

Participants from Singapore and Phnom Penh join the "Art of Getting Lost" in Saigon. We are also encouraging people to move around and participate in Open Schools in other cities. In 2018, we will have Open School in Danang, Hanoi, Hai Phong and Jakarta in addition to the ones we have in Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, Hong Kong and Singapore. 

If you want to join the next Open School or organise one in your city, email me at (I promise that I will never spam you). 

Let's get some coffee

Mobile cafe, run by a student, outside a campus near the Turtle lake in Saigon. I asked her if her shop is part of some school project. She said that it is her own venture, she runs it when she has no classes.

Later on It turned out that this student was a friend of a friend. Small world indeed. 

差不多 In Vietnam

What is the Vietnamese word for 差不多?I was just commenting yesterday at old Asia hand post that some experiences in Vietnam remind me of time in China in the early 2000s.  Today I walked into a neighbouring hairdresser to get a shave. The girl did not have a razor, but that did not dissuade her, she just unpacked a safety razor blade, and wedging the blade in her fingers, made my stubble disappear. 

差不多 (chau bu duo) Is a Chinese phrase used to describe the process of just getting something done via a hack. A bit like jugaad in India. 

In 2002, I was at the Indian consulate in Shanghai, renewing my passport, and I realized that I needed a clean shave for a new photo. I walked into a small saloon in the next building. The ladies there too, made short work of my facial hair with bare fingers and a blade. The girl later told me that I was the first customer who had walked in asking for a shave, and no one says no to an economic opportunity in China.

Rainy day for nostalgia

Rain, for me is a good excuse to find a new hiding places. This cute cafe, at Nguyen Trung Truc street in Saigon, had a 50 year old reel to reel tape machine, playing songs by Khanh Ly, a popular singer from the early 1970s. Back in those days, Khanh Ly used to run a cafe at the the nearby Dong Khai Street. The cafe was a lively gathering place for students, artists and musicians. Bui Vien (the current evil backpacker area) was where they had many local clubs, and singers like Khanh Ly used to sing there. She also performed impromptu concerts on the stairs in front of local universities - singing songs lamenting the war. I hope the tape machine could turn into a time machine and teleport me to those days. Khanh Ly had some following in Japan too, here is a song in Japanese.


Street tofu in Saigon

Walking into the alley is always wonderful. Fresh tofu with coconut, ginger and tapioca garnish - costs 25 cents.  For the less adventurous, there is always the Doraemon tofu at a supermarket.

The Saury fish festival in Meguro, Tokyo

Just as I land in Japan , NHK shows a documentary about cats in a small town in North Vietnam. Now I miss Vietnam again. I better not turn on the TV today, they may make me miss more of my homes. Today Meguro (my home in Japan) is smokey, but we needn't fear. There is no fire but it is the Sanma Matsuri (saury fish festival), where people come outdoors and grill saury fish. The festival is based on a Edo times story about a lord who got addicted to the taste of grilled saury fish served to him by local farmers, while on a hunting trip over here - Meguro used to be farmland and hunting area for the nobility then. When he got back to his castle - his chefs prepared the best saury fish in the land, but for the lord, the taste could not compare to the one that farmers in Meguro grilled in their humble settings.