Volunteering in Vietnam

Towards the end of 2019 I decided to look into volunteering. When I was younger I had thought about becoming a teacher but it only remained a thought. After doing some research online I found a company based in Vietnam and completed a Skype call with them.

A few weeks later the plans were all in place and in the middle of November after stopping off in Thailand and Malaysia I arrived in Vietnam.

It was my first time in Vietnam and I arrived at Ho Chi Minh’s Tan Son Nhat airport just after 5pm local time. After sitting waiting for my visa to be stamped I cleared customs, grabbed a sim card and ordered a grab taxi to take me to the host’s home. The journey took just over 2 hours and cost 25€. Which I found crazy! In the local currency it was 655,000 dong, which I also found mind blowing.

Once I arrived I met the host who was very friendly and was guided to the volunteer house. I was aware that the accommodation wouldn’t be 5 star or even 3, but I hadn’t fully expected how basic it would be. The bed mattress was made from foam and had a maximum depth of around 3inches and it wasn’t long enough for me to lay down flat. I went to dinner and met another 3 volunteers, 2 from France and 1 from the Philippines. I felt a bit out of my depth.

I discovered I would be teaching classes only in the evening and an age range from 4 years old to 28 years old.

My first class I went along with another volunteer to see how things work. I was unaware that the classroom was between 20-45 minutes away by moped. I’m not a fan of 2 wheels and soon I discovered how many mopeds there were on the road in Vietnam. WOW! I sat on the back of the teaching assistants moped just hoping to survive every journey for the 5 weeks I was there.

During the time in Binh Duong I had a lot of time to explore the area, well to be honest there was very little to explore. Most days I would just walk the streets to do some cardio and to kill time. It was located 65km north of Ho Chi Minh City which took around 2.5hours by bus. The food mainly consisted of rice with some meat and broccoli, at first it was ok but it got repetitive very quickly I did however master chopsticks and become very addicted to Vietnamese coffee.

Around 2 weeks after a new volunteer arrived from Brazil. Full of enthusiasm and a big smile she was a lot of fun. Shortly after the 2 volunteers from France were leaving. I felt sad, in just a few weeks it had became like a little family. We had a goodbye feast then we then went to a karaoke bar. It was my first time. In my head I was thinking I wont sing, 2 or 3 beers later and we were singing til the earlier hours it was a lot of fun. The last song of the night being Mariah Careys all I want for Christmas. It was just a week before Christmas now.

The actual teaching, did I enjoy it? I found quickly I enjoyed it a lot more with the pupils 8+ because they could grasp some concept of learning English. The younger children it was a long 45 minutes. Every class would begin with the welcome song then asking them… hello how are you? At which you would normally receive the reply I’m good.

The children in Vietnam study very hard, starting school at before 7am and attending extra classes until 9pm in the evening for English often they were very tired. They had little time to play and the 3 children that lived in the host’s house it sometimes felt that they didn’t have the chance to actually be children.

On a Friday I had no classes so I would take the 2.5 hour bus journey to Ho Chi Minh City, which used to be named Saigon. It was extremely busy and heavily polluted.  On the first trip I went round the independence palace, the war remnants museum and the central post office. Learning about Vietnams war fuelled past I was actually moved to tears. I found it strange that a war had ended just 10 years before I was born and I didn’t really know anything about it. With a cost of 676 billion US dollars and 14 million tonnes of bombs dropped, nearly triple that of WW2.

3 million people lost their lives. 2 million were injured and 300,000 missing. After the war and up to 2002 42000 people were killed from bombs or explosives left behind.I left the museum with a real somber feeling.

The next trip to the city I ventured out to Bui Ven Street. Which was like Bangkok’s Khason road. I had a lot of fun and a lot of cheap beer and one of my favourite meals in Vietnam, which cost around 1.50€.

Christmas day arrived, which I found hard. I had spent the last year away from home in Hong Kong. Which had a real festive feel, however in Vietnam Christmas isn’t celebrated. I had a class to teach at 430pm before eating a bowl of rice with egg and broccoli and cracking a can of local beer and listening to some music. For the first time ever I felt home sick.

I made the decision to cut my trip short and to fly home one week later. I felt like being in Vietnam was having the adverse effect to my mental health. It was a tough decision, as I didn’t have an action plan for the remaining weeks before I started work back in Europe.

With my flight booked back on new years day from Ho Chi Minh to Bangkok it was time to say goodbye to Vietnam and I left the volunteer house on New years eve along with the girl from Brazil for a big night out, where we had arranged to meet the 2 volunteers from France who had been travelling Vietnam since leaving.

I truly had the best new years eve of my life, we bought matching shirts and the watermelon gang was formed. 6 months on we all still keep in contact. I feel blessed to have made friends for life.

New years day, wasn’t so fun. I set my alarm for 1030am and went to the airport with one of the worst hangovers I’ve ever experienced. Being a flight attendant I was aware this was going to be a journey from hell.

Somehow I made it to Bangkok and to my hotel room to be graced with an amazing bed, after 5 weeks of the worst sleep I was so excited and face planted. Every day at the volunteer house i was woken around 5am by cockerels it made the day pretty long.

I took a trip to 7-eleven for some snacks then went to bed at 6pm.

The next day I took the 16 hour journey from Bangkok to Stockholm and onto London.

Looking back on it, Vietnam was not my favourite travel experience. However I did learn so much in the time I was there. I do feel though that I want to go back to explore the country especially the north.

I learnt from it these points that id like to share with you;

  • Research the country that you plan to volunteer in, check that the cause is what it seems to be.
  • Check the local area on the internet. What is there to do in your free time? If you are only 20 miles from the city, how long does it take to get there?
  • Familiarize yourself with local customs and traditions.

I feel like I had been a little naïve and if I volunteered again I can definitely take away points from this trip to make the next one more enjoyable.

3 Comments

  1. Hey John, it was amazing to read and see the photos from your volunteering experience in Vietnam 🙂

    Some years ago I also had a similar experience, in my case in a local youth center in Skopje, Macedonia 🙂 it was so amazing to contribute to the local community…

    Stay safe and greetings from Portugal,
    PedroL

    Liked by 1 person

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