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Volunteer Review: Sema D., Occupational Therapy in Vietnam

Sema with fellow volunteers in Vietnam

I am so fortunate to have had the opportunity to spend four weeks this year working with the beautiful children and adults at the Friendship Village in Hanoi. I have been practicing as an Occupational Therapist for the last two years and it has always been a goal of mine to volunteer my time in a developing country. After an online search and some discussion with Projects Abroad staff, I decided to volunteer in Vietnam and with Projects Abroad.

My Occupational Therapy placement

The Friendship Village is a center about 11km out of the center of Hanoi that provides medical care, physical therapy, schooling and vocational skills to children and adults who have been affected by the Vietnam War in some way. The clients I worked with were aged between 14 and 30 years and had been affected by Agent Orange, which is a biochemical used during the Vietnam War. The range of conditions that they experience includes cerebral palsy, hemiparesis, blindness, developmental delay, Downs Syndrome and autism. All of the children and adults have cognitive impairments and speech disorders.

A scenic view in Vietnam

The staff and children of the Friendship Village were all welcoming and friendly and the clients were motivated to participate in therapy to improve their functioning. I worked in the rehabilitation center that provides Physical Therapy, but not Occupational Therapy, as it is not yet widely recognized in Vietnam. My day involved providing upper limb, functional and cognitive therapy to eight or nine clients per day, both in groups and individually. I also recommended equipment and grab rails to increase safety for some of the clients when using their bathrooms at the Friendship Village.

I worked largely autonomously in the rehabilitation room and was required to be flexible with my therapy plans as clients tended to come and go rather than attend at a specific time. Although I was required to explain my role as an Occupational Therapist (particularly when recommending equipment to increase safety), my ideas and skills were highly valued and welcomed at the Friendship Village by both the staff and clients.

Entrance to the Vietnam Friendship Village

The language barrier was difficult at times and, at times, I found it difficult to work collaboratively with the other staff at the center. However, I was able to build rapport and work with the clients with only a small Vietnamese vocabulary, using gestures and a translator provided by Projects Abroad. Projects Abroad also provided regular language lessons that increased my confidence to speak Vietnamese.

My first impressions of Hanoi were the chaotic streets full of motor scooters, the strong smells of food and fumes and the sheer amount of people in the city. One thing I loved about Hanoi was despite the busyness, Vietnamese people always seemed relaxed and comfortable in the city life.

My accommodation in the volunteer house

I chose to stay in one of the volunteer houses in Hanoi. I settled in quickly to the accommodation and felt welcomed by the volunteers already residing there. The house was basic but comfortable, and the food prepared by the evening cook was delicious. I also made some life-long friends from around the world at the house, and we spent a lot of time traveling together on the weekends.

Vietnamese women

My free time in Vietnam

Weekends were spent exploring Hanoi and doing day or overnight trips to nearby places. I can strongly recommend weekend trips to both Sapa and Halong Bay. I spent two days trekking in Sapa, where I was immersed in village life in the mountains. I also had two nights on a boat in Halong Bay, relaxing and exploring the stunning scenery of the huge limestone isles.

Some quick practical tips for future Occupational Therapy (or other allied health) volunteers are:

  • Bring some of your own resources, as resources may be scarce at your placement.
  • Bring along some hand sanitizer and antibacterial wipes with you.
  • Download the Grab app and use a GrabBike for cheap transport around Hanoi.
  • Take a roll of toilet paper everywhere with you – not every toilet provides them!

I feel so privileged to have had the opportunity to volunteer in Vietnam. I met some life-long friends during my stay and volunteering placement, and hope to be back soon to see everyone again!

Sema D.

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.

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