Rebecca Small - General Care Projects in Vietnam
My first impressions of Vietnam
Arriving in Vietnam was an immersive experience. Having never travelled as far as South East Asia I really didn’t know what i was letting myself in for. The roads were chaotic and there appeared to be few if any traffic rules. As I sat in the back of the taxi and stared out of the window I was overcome with a sense of uncertainty and excitement. I knew life here would be different to anything i had experienced so far and the language barrier was already proving to be a challenge as my taxi driver shoved a phone in my hand, only to be greeted by the reassuring voice of my work placement officer.
Hanoi itself was a rather large city filled with bikes that swarmed around cars like bees around honey. I had never seen anything like it! The incessant over taking and undercutting at any given opportunity. No party or person was too big to carry, as whole families piled onto the back of bikes, barely clinging on as they weaved in-between traffic. That being said, being a pedestrian was no easy feat as my project co-ordinator escorted me across the road; just walk out into the traffic and whatever you do, don’t run! So with that in mind I soon became accustomed to stepping out and trusting the drivers would veer around me, soon enough I was crossing without hesitation.
The language barrier was initially quite a challenge. The old quarter whilst filled with bustling streets and heaving with tourists was relatively easy to navigate, however, once you step outside the tourist bubble, English can be somewhat of an alien language and so it is imperative to learn the basics.
The host family experience
I can honestly say my host family was amazing. After arriving in a country that felt so alien to me, I soon felt at home in their company.
After meeting my project co-ordinator and being given a brief guide on how to get about I was soon whisked off to my host family along with my project co-ordinator who introduced us. Anh greeted me with open arms and a warm smile at the door along with her two young children who were keen to introduce themselves. Once my bags had been lifted from the taxi and contact details had been exchanged, my co-ordinator waved her goodbyes and so I settled in for my first night in Vietnam.
The family had set up a room for me at the top of the house complete with it’s own wet room. The children had even written a sweet little note and stuck it to the door to welcome me.
I spent a lot of time with my host mum that evening discussing my background and sharing information about each other. This continued on into dinner as the whole family, including the father and mother in law, crowded around the table as various dishes, an array of vegetables, meats, fish and tofu were placed on the table for you to pick and choose as you like. If I wasn’t quick enough I soon found the children taking it upon themselves to place various items in my bowl. This was always accompanied by a huge spoonful of rice that inevitably I could never finish!
When i first arrived I was concerned that the language barrier would make dinner times confusing as I am vegan and so there are many foods I do not eat, however, this was no bother and Anh; a chef for the volunteer houses run by projects abroad was more than accustomed to meeting various dietary requirements. That being said, her mother in law did attempt to sneak meat into my bowl at any given opportunity. I put this down to a lack of understanding and trying to feed me up as family and sharing food is a very important aspect of their culture.
In total I spent six weeks with my host family and so I developed quite a close rapport with the family and my host mum in particular. On a few occasions my host invited other volunteers from my project for dinner and put on a feast to entice even the fussiest of eaters! National holidays were celebrated with enthusiasm and they would often invite their friends and children around for big gatherings where my basic understanding of Vietnamese was always tested.
My Care placement
I was first introduced to my work placement by the Care supervisor, a young Vietnamese woman who was employed by Projects Abroad to monitor and support volunteers. Anh accompanied me to my placement on the bus and discussed any concerns I had along the way. I was also provided with a card with addresses, names and contact details of all those I would be communicating with.
As we made our way though the gates I was greeted by the giggles and excitable screams of the children. Despite the play area looking a little worn, the children appeared more than happy to entertain themselves and some wandered over hand outstretched ready to greet me. It was clear that they were accustomed to volunteers as they approached with eager curiosity.
Although I was initially placed into only one classroom at the start of my placement I soon had spread myself across two as I felt my skills and experience could be utilised more effectively in this way. Projects Abroad were very supportive of this and were happy to facilitate any ideas and suggestions I had on ways in which the classroom environment could be improved to further meet the individual needs of the children. In this time I worked closely with another volunteer to organise the classroom furniture in a way to encourage the children to engage with a variety of activities, introducing new materials such as ‘gloop’ and toys to stimulate all areas of development while preventing boredom.
The placement was very accommodating and despite the language barrier did their best to ensure we understood what was expected of us. Information of the children was hard to come by and so myself and other volunteers facilitated Projects Abroad in compiling profiles on each of the children based on their needs, likes, dislikes and effective teaching strategies to use.
The Friendship Village provided us with food on a daily basis which was funded by Projects Abroad. We often ate in a separate room from the staff; however, this enabled us to interact with volunteers from other organisations and share our experiences. Due to the lengthy lunch times when children would have a mid-day nap, we would often wander to a local cafe to socialise and/or catch up with any planning we were working on. For those who couldn’t handle the heat, there was a volunteer room located in a separate building to rest your head and escape the mid-day sun.
My time at placement has left me with some wonderful memories to look back on. I learnt a great deal about the culture and the generosity of the Vietnamese whom I spent a great deal of time with. Working within an educational setting that is so different from the West was quite a challenge, however it made me really appreciate just how lucky I have been with the education and care I received growing up in the UK. I have a new-found appreciation for all the opportunities I have had so far when I know that many Vietnamese will never be able to afford passports and opportunities to travel are likely to be heavily restricted.
Hanoi to Saigon
My experience in Vietnam was only the start of the round the world trip I had organised. I planned to work my way through Vietnam and explore other areas along the coast and inland which was an experience I was grateful to share with a fellow volunteer. I chose to take my two weeks holiday after my placement so that I could explore the other areas of Vietnam at my own pace. In this time we experienced the joy of night trains and buses along with the language barriers and at times uncertainty of exactly where we would end up! One of the most exhilarating experiences we participated in was the motor bike tour we took from Hue to Hoi An. Our riders spoke good english and bought us drinks along the way. Although this was a rather short tour in comparison to many others we saw it gave us a taste of the Vietnamese landscape with stunning views along the way!
If you are considering partaking in a voluntary experience in Vietnam I cannot recommend it highly enough. To really immerse yourself I would suggest completing three full months; however, any time you can give to a project will prove worthwhile and support Projects Abroad in developing closer working relations with the settings. My co-ordinator once told me not to expect to change the world but to be aware that you are one of many cogs in a wheel that is forever turning and growing. So while you may feel your contribution may only be small, it is invaluable to all those you are working with.