One year volunteering in Vietnam

Sam Briggs (2012, Geography)

There were several reasons behind my decision to volunteer, but these were all rooted in a desire to engage in overseas charity work. Coming from a low socio-economic background, I have always been grateful for the opportunities provided to me before, during and after my time at Cambridge. However, I am acutely aware that not everyone is fortunate enough to be given similar opportunities. As such, throughout my time at Cambridge I committed myself to several voluntary organisations and societies, including Linkline, the Cambridge Marrow Society, Streetbite and the International Citizens Service. In my final year of undergraduate studies, I sought a way to extend my charity work overseas. After much research, I came across the Intercultural Youth Exchange (ICYE) and with the help of ICYE, the THA and Hazel’s Footprints Trust I began my volunteer journey in Vietnam.

Throughout this year, I have experienced and seen so much that I cannot put everything into words. However, I hope this report will give a taste of what living and working in Vietnam is like, and shed light on how this experience has not only helped the many people I have been honoured to work with, but aided my growth and development as an individual.

First impressions and culture shock

Being my first time in Asia, the moment I landed I experienced culture shock. First, I was hit by a wall of heat and humidity. With an average temperature of 25°C and humidity of 79%, the weather became a constant unexpected struggle in my first few months, causing headaches and fatigue. The language barrier also struck me in the airport – even saying, ‘hello, how are you?’ was met with frantic head-shaking and cries of ‘no English, no English’. Over time, I gradually learned to speak some Vietnamese (though the tonal nature of the language has made this incredibly difficult), simplified my grammar and vocabulary and communicated non-verbally.

The journey from the airport was terrifying, and again highlighted the huge differences in culture between England and Vietnam. In Hanoi, road lanes are completely disregarded as hundreds of Hanoi’s 6.5 million motorbikes weave in and out of cars. It is common to see motorbikes stacked high with boxes, plants or animals, for there to be 3–5 people on one motorbike, and for people to text or call whilst driving. For me, the chaos on the roads reflects the Vietnamese way of life and the seeming lack of rules and laws: bypassing red traffic lights; jumping queues; turning up hours late for meetings; throwing rubbish onto the street. The lack of consequences for these struggles is something I have continued to struggle with despite accepting it as part of Vietnamese culture.

Despite these more negative culture shocks, I was pleasantly surprised by several elements of Vietnamese culture. Perhaps the most notable example is the warmth and open welcome of the local community. In the beginning, I was overwhelmed with invitations to peoples’ hometowns, offered free tours of the city and asked to drink coffee or beer or eat dinner with locals. A family I knew welcomed me into their home for one week to celebrate Tết festival (the equivalent of Christmas in the UK). If I was lost on the street, I only had to show a map to someone on the street and they would point me in the right direction. Once, I lost my phone on the street and five Vietnamese strangers grabbed their torches and helped me look for it in the dark. The kindness of strangers is all too easily lost or forgotten in our cultural focus on individuality, but it is a value I hope to take with me when I leave Vietnam.

NGO work in Hanoi

Whilst living in Hanoi, I volunteered in an NGO called Center for Sustainable Development Studies (CSDS). CSDS places young people at the heart of their work, with the belief that by raising awareness of development issues and empowering youth they will become the responsible leaders of the future. My role within the organisation was a project developer. Working with a team of international and Vietnamese staff, we carried out research to determine what young people needed the most, and then fleshed out ideas, sourced funding and eventually implemented programmes and workshops with the help of young people themselves. Not only was this grassroots approach invaluable experience for my future career, but seeing the enthusiasm of the participants and watching them grow and develop their skills was truly rewarding.

One highlight from my time with CSDS was our creation of the ‘NGO Traineeship Program’. In Vietnam, it is notoriously difficult to enter into an NGO career. This is in part because the NGO field is only 10–15 years old, but limited NGO funding also reduces the number of possible employees. The NGO Traineeship Program was created by CSDS to train university graduates for employment in NGOs, before offering them a 3–6 month internship. During the two-week intensive training process, I thoroughly enjoyed delivering workshops on leadership, teamwork and fundraising, whilst watching the participants develop agency by thinking critically and generating solutions to problems. This work was not without difficulty however, and I quickly learned that there is a fine line between sharing culture and imposing culture. At times, wondering if I was crossing this line caused me great emotional conflict, and I heavily considered whether it was right for international volunteers to work in a Vietnamese NGO. For example, in November 2015 CSDS hosted a discussion on the environment and how to reduce Hanoi’s motorbike pollution. Almost all of the participants owned a motorbike, and naively I insisted they try to cycle, walk or use public transport. Due to Hanoi’s weather and the poor quality of public transport, this suggestion was laughed off. Instead, a participant proposed turning off the engine at traffic lights. Through this experience, I learned the importance of compromising, consulting locals and understanding culture when working abroad.

Moving to Ho Chi Minh City

After seven months in Hanoi, I packed my bags again and headed south to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). HCMC was even hotter and busier than Hanoi, and my experience it was completely different. Though originally I wanted to work solely in an orphanage in HCMC, my host organisation (Volunteers for Peace Vietnam (VPV)) and I decided that my skills and experience could be of use in the VPV office. As such, I split my time between visiting Kỳ Quảng Pagoda’s orphanage and working for VPV as a communications officer. As a tourist, you mainly see the positive aspects of Vietnam: its outstanding natural beauty and the generosity of the locals. Below the surface however, corruption and deep-rooted abusive beliefs exist. The first time I truly realised this was at the orphanage. Most of the 170 residents at the pagoda are disabled, and the way they are treated is truly shocking. Despite the huge number of disabilities caused by the spread of Agent Orange in the Vietnam War, people with disabilities in Vietnam are excluded from society and their carers lack appropriate training and knowledge. The children in the orphanage were rarely allowed outside, normally confined to one or two rooms for their entire lives. Several were strapped to chairs or beds and lacked stimuli such as toys or books. At meal times, food was forced into their mouths as quickly as possible. Though coming to the pagoda was difficult, it is one area where I truly believe international volunteers can make a difference. By coming to the pagoda and showing the staff how to treat the children better, the quality of life for the residents can be significantly approved.

The future

When I came to Vietnam, I had expectations about the country, the people and life as a volunteer. But I did not adequately consider how it would affect me as a person. Completely out of my comfort zone, my personality, communication skills and values have been continuously tested. I have learned that I have less patience, stronger values and more resilience than I realised. I have adapted to the culture, whether it be losing some of my British politeness and replacing it with Vietnamese bluntness, or using chopsticks over a knife and fork. In short, I am not the same person I was when I came to Vietnam, but a more enriched, experienced individual. When I first began my journey, I never imagined that I would want to stay in Vietnam. However, I believe that my time here is not over yet, and I still have more to give. As such, I have recently begun a new chapter by securing a job teaching English in a primary school. I intend to teach English here until May 2017, when I will begin to develop my career by volunteering for one month in a Greek refugee camp before moving to Australia to work in a refugee centre.

Finally, I wish to whole-heartedly thank the THA for supporting me throughout this experience and making it possible. Volunteering for one year in Vietnam has been truly invaluable and it is a time of my life I will never forget.

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