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Building a Legacy

Sitting proudly on 9.2 hectares of prime real estate, UNIS Hanoi’s Ciputra campus, with its state-of-the-art facilities, remains the largest school campus in Vietnam.

Sitting proudly on 9.2 hectares of prime real estate, UNIS Hanoi’s Ciputra campus, with its state-of-the-art facilities, remains the largest school campus in Vietnam. Ten modern buildings, playgrounds, a sports centre and playing fields are dotted across the enviably vast land, facilitating the learning of more than 1,100 students each and every year. 

It’s a far cry from the facilities the School started out with thirty years ago. “Back then we had rented four classrooms and an office space from Hanoi Amsterdam School” recalled Graham Cherry, UNIS Hanoi’s second Head of School. Leap forward to 1997, and driven by the sheer number of students, the third Head of School, Jim Ambrose began conversations with the Government of Vietnam to have a 10-hectare purpose-built campus, rather than a one hectare site - an agreement sealed with a bold gulp of snake vodka, as was tradition. 

Laying the foundations

In 1998 (UNIS Hanoi’s 10th year) then Head of School, Dr Frances Rhodes, set the wheels in motion for a world class international school campus. School enrollment was increasing at an incredible rate and the allocation of classrooms at Hanoi Amsterdam School no longer sufficed. Board Chair at the time and mother of two, Jane Guy recalled, “Our son was in Grade 9 and our daughter was in Grade 5, and at the time the School only went up to Grade 10 because the building that we were in didn’t have any more classrooms! So we didn’t have a physical space to even go up to Grade 11 or Grade 12. To me that was really important, so that our son could continue on at the School and it was the main reason I joined the Board because I thought something could be done about this.”

With the backing of the 10-member Board, Dr Rhodes set up a New Campus Committee; its first member, Peter Ryder.

“David Baggs, a member of the School Board and finance committee gave me a call one day” said Peter, a New York property magnate based in Vietnam. He continued, “We played softball together and he knew I was involved in real estate here. David asked if I would be interested in chairing a New Campus Committee, and I agreed, not realizing how all consuming it was going to be!”

Although not a parent at UNIS Hanoi at the time, but knowing that he wanted his twin boys to study there in the future, Peter dived straight into action. “I was the Chair and only member of the committee” he mused. On hearing the vision Dr Rhodes had for the School, Peter recommended Ciputra as the ideal site. 

Working closely with Dr Rhodes and Jane, and recruiting renowned American lawyer and UNIS Hanoi parent, Tony Foster into the mix too, Peter began negotiations with Ciputra. 

Peter recalled, “Almost immediately it just struck me that the opportunity to convince the Ciputra Group to provide us with some sort of arrangement made sense and was the only thing we really pursued [as a committee].”

Tony Foster added, “Ciputra had enormous amounts of land and it would have been quite straightforward to sublease land from Ciputra, but we did not want to sublease from them because we thought they would go bankrupt. So in 1998, they ended up carving out 9.2 hectares of land and giving it back to the Hanoi People’s Committee who we would eventually sublease from. We had to go to Ciputra who were quite happy to give up [the land] because it was something to kickstart and anchor their project. We had endless meetings and petitions that were signed by over 100 ambassadors, including the first post-war US Ambassador, Pete Peterson.”

But negotiations would continue for another two years before Dr Rhodes and Jane would sign the agreement. “Our agreement with the Hanoi’s People’s Committee was literally the very last thing I signed before I left Hanoi in December 2000 for Dhaka, Bangladesh” Jane revealed. 

During the two years it would take for a contract to be signed, the School had vacated Hanoi Amsterdam’s premises and occupied two five storey apartment buildings in Van Phuc, refurbishing them into classrooms as a temporary solution for the 398 enrolled students. 

Dr Rhodes said, “It was during my fifth year at UNIS Hanoi that we finally had a land site with space for gyms, playgrounds, performing arts and other facilities.  An architectural firm from Australia was hired to design the campus and I and my administrators spent several months that year designing a three-phase construction plan for the campus which has now become a showcase international school campus in Asia.”

But the story does not end there. “One huge goal remained” stated Dr Rhodes. “That of securing funds with which to build the facility, a truly gut-wrenching task.”

“On a Sunday, we [the finance committee] were summoned to the old school” shared Tony. “Fran said we just can’t do the deal anymore. The costs had just come in from the contractors and it came in at USD1 million more than we had available through loans and the amount in the School’s kitty. Peter subsequently drew up a plan that would mean that the development could go on.”


Construction begins

Work to construct the world class learning institution began in earnest in 2003, by which time Dr Rhodes had left for retirement, handing the baton over to British national, Alun Cooper. ‘I arrived at an interesting time” exclaimed Alun, Head of School from 2003 to 2008. “We’d received the ‘Red Book’ to build in Ciputra but we’d just lost our project manager and the site was one boggy, marshy, derelict piece of land with an occasional splodge of sand. And that was it!”

Undeterred, Alun spent his days commuting between his office in the Russian Towers in the old campus and Ciputra navigating a host of issues to be expected with such a pioneering project. Working with the New Campus Committee, Board Members and construction firm, AIC, Alun was able to ensure the school relocated to their new permanent home by August 2004 as promised, albeit two weeks over schedule. 

The student body which had grown to more than 600 by 2004, suddenly mushroomed as a result of the ‘magnetic’ campus. Alun relayed, “As soon as we moved onto the campus, student enrollment grew every single day. It was incredible. People suddenly arrived in Hanoi.”

Now in UNIS Hanoi’s 30th year, long term residents of Vietnam and parents of UNIS Hanoi graduates, Tony and Peter affirm the School’s incredible contribution to the country. Tony said, “There is not a single school in Vietnam that has the facilities we have and on a site like ours. There’s no school that has this space. 9.2 hectares of land was a good size and the reason [the campus] could be done was that it was done at the right time with passionate visionaries, Fran and Jane.”

“And if I hadn’t come up with the idea of Ciputra, it couldn’t have been done either” quipped Peter. 

Speaking from Victoria, Canada, Jane remembered, “When we went to Hanoi in 1996, student population was 357 and at that time we knew it was going to grow. Everything that we did, every step we took, we took knowing that more people were going to be coming and we had to pave the way for new people. I remember having a meeting with parents and explaining that we had to increase the capital fees and they were unhappy. But I remember my theme in trying to explain it; it was something along these lines: ‘we are laying the foundation today for future generations and just as previous people sacrificed and started the School from scratch so that we had a school for our kids to go to, we should do the same’. You can’t do these things for yourself, it has to be for the future. What you put in, someone else is going to reap. I look now and I say ‘My! We actually got to 30 years!’ This is what we wanted. Now the School is entrenched. It’s never going to fail, never going to go away. UNIS Hanoi is not only bricks and mortar, it’s also everything else that the School stands for. And people are going to Hanoi to live and work and they are always going to know that this is the school to go to. And this is exactly what you hope for at thirty years.”