Volunteer Review: Community Village Project in Vietnam – Jasmin Watson
Vietnam was my third destination with Projects Abroad and I was ready for a new adventure. I am only 18, so when I was offered the opportunity to live in the tiny rural village of Mai Chau, as the sole Western volunteer, I was a bit unsure.
With this placement being such a new placement, I had no idea what to expect and how I would react. Little did I know that I had absolutely no cause for concern - I was about to set off on the most incredible trip I have ever been on, and would meet the most inspirational people I have ever met.
Arriving in Vietnam
I travelled to my project with Tam from the Projects Abroad office, and my translator, Hung. Nobody speaks English in Mai Chau, and I speak no Vietnamese, so I needed someone to translate and help me teach.
I stepped off the bus after a four hour ride, tired and hungry, and feeling a little unsure. However, all feelings of doubt left in an instant as soon as I took one look at what lay before me - paddy fields so green they could have been in a painting, beneath rising mountains which stood magnificently over the land. Decorating the countryside were many little bamboo houses on stilts. The sun was shining and the day was hot. There was a slight breeze, and the air was clean and fresh, filled with the delicate scent of flowers. It was so quiet but I am a country person, having grown up and lived all my life in quiet English countryside, so I instantly felt at home.
When we reached the house of my host family, I was shown my room. It was a room on stilts, with nothing but a little fan and a few bed sheets inside. There were just holes as windows and you could see through the floor. I took one look at it, and was filled with excitement!
Living in Mai Chau
I would often walk around the local area. One particular walk I remember, took me to an area where loads of little white butterflies were flying around. As I walked past they all flew up, surrounding me. It was the most magical feeling - like stepping into the pages of a book! At night fireflies darted through the air like little sparks and I also saw some very impressive insects including huge spiders!
There was a little village a 10 minute walk from my home stay which I loved to visit, simply because the walk was so beautiful. Here they sold all sorts of handicrafts and souvenirs. At the weekends, the village was buzzing with tourists, however during the week, it was much quieter. I loved to buy a coconut ice cream or a sugar cane juice and sit in the sun.
There were a few little cafe-type places that had free Wi-Fi, which was very useful for keeping in contact with the outside world. On one of my trips to the village, I saw a woman bashing the trees with an enormous stick, causing a shower of leaves and twigs to fall to the ground. She then produced a pair of giant wooden tweezers and started picking things off the ground, and dropping them into a little pot of water. Upon closer inspection, I realized she was collecting stink bugs from the ground, that had fallen from the trees.
Hung and I joined in to help her for a little while, which she found very amusing. Hung explained to me that the woman was collecting the bugs to fry and eat. At first I couldn’t quite believe him, however to my horror, the very next day I found my host family knocking up a plate of fried stink bugs that was to be served up for dinner. To my surprise they didn’t taste as bad as I had expected.
As well as the stink bugs, I witnessed many other interesting dishes being placed on the table during those two weeks. We had snails, pig’s eyes, and cow intestine. Everybody would watch in amusement, as my face turned each time they set these delights down on the table. The family had realized that I wasn’t too keen on eating those types of foods, so they would very kindly cook me something different. Another key part of the family’s diet I noticed, was the vast amount of rice wine they would drink, and to show their hospitality, they would offer me some too.
I got on extremely well with the grandmother of the house, despite the fact she didn’t know a single English word. She was absolutely lovely, and her face would always break into a huge smile every time I saw her. Like many other members of the older generation in the rural areas of Vietnam, she had a set of completely black teeth. This is not due to the fact that their teeth are rotten but from constantly chewing betel, which is a mixture of different types of leaves, nuts and other ingredients.
My Volunteer Project
Despite all of these amazing new experiences, by far the most unforgettable part of my trip was the incredible people I met, especially the three ladies I taught. Their names were Lien, Hien and Hung (not to be confused with Hung my translator). Lien and Hung were in their late twenties, and Hien was my age. Both Lien and Hien had lost their left leg, and Hung had a back condition. They were each so lovely, and three of the happiest, most hilarious people I have ever met. Not one of them let their disability get in the way of their enjoyment in life.
I was very nervous the first time I sat down to teach them. I am not a qualified teacher, and I had been teaching kindergarten level in Hanoi, so to go from kindergarten to adults in a few days was very daunting. I had no idea what to expect, and had nothing prepared. I have always thought that I would like to teach young children only, but as it turned out, I enjoyed teaching adults so much more! Over the two weeks, we all became very close. Lien, Hien and Hung all have such a great sense of humor, and we had so much fun.
I couldn’t wait to teach them every day, and they were so keen to learn. Their English improved by leaps and bounds, and it was so exciting to see the improvement. They would always give me a little Vietnamese lesson after their English lessons but I was absolutely terrible! It was very embarrassing how quickly they learnt English, and how slowly I learnt Vietnamese. I got so much out of teaching them because they were desperate to learn. When you are teaching someone that wants to learn, and you can see the improvement, it is one of the most rewarding things you can do.
We sometimes had neighbors and locals also come and join in for a lesson to try and improve their English as well. There was a little girl who lived next door, who would come and sit on our laps and watch the English lessons. By the end of the two weeks, she had learnt how to count to ten. Every time we saw her she would show off her new skills. It was great to see everybody so keen to learn English, and it made me realize even more so, that we were really making a difference.
Deciding to go to Mai Chau was the best decision I have ever made. I had two of the most incredible weeks of my life there. I met some very special and truly inspirational people, and learnt so much about a culture and way of life so far removed from my own. I also lived in the most beautiful surroundings I have ever seen.
I was made to feel so welcome, and although nobody spoke English, we still managed to communicate effectively, using arm gestures and exaggerated facial expressions. Not once did I even feel slightly lonely whilst I was in Mai Chau. There was too much to do, see and discover. Hung was great at helping me to involve myself in everything I could. Two weeks was not nearly long enough and saying goodbye to all the wonderful people I met was the hardest part of it all.
To anyone that is considering going to Mai Chau I would say stop thinking about it and just go! You will have the experience of a lifetime. The more you put in, the more you will get back, and it will be such amazing, rewarding adventure. I can guarantee you will absolutely love it.
This is a personal account of one volunteer’s experience on the project and is a snapshot in time. Your experience may be different, as our projects are constantly adapting to local needs and building on accomplishments. Seasonal weather changes can also have a big impact. Find out more about what you can expect from this project, or speak to one of our friendly Program Advisors.