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Volunteering in Vietnam: Independently and with Organizations

Showing children in Vietnam how to take photos.
Beth showing children in Vietnam how to take photos.

“You look like a fat tree trunk.” After just a few weeks in Vietnam, this sort of comment about my 5’2”, 115 pound body (considered small-framed in the U.S.), did not faze me. The phrase was often uttered by my ESL students who attended my classes three times a week. The students were both shorter and thinner than I and were quite willing to express their thoughts on the matter. I found it endearing and, in turn, I named them after my family members (though they never knew this). Nguyen was Norman (my dad), Bao became Bob (my brother) and Minh became Mark (another brother). I also enjoyed the interactions that came from getting to know a different culture beyond my hotel desk clerk or rickshaw driver.

In my early years of travel, when I was a young backpacker, it was sufficient for me to simply be an observer and soak in the environment. I was content to be a witness to other cultures through their food, art, and observing their way of life. As I matured, however, it was evident that my passion for travel was not waning. I felt the need to be more involved with the local people at my destination. Rather than lounging at a coffee shop for an afternoon while I watched the world go by, I wanted to develop a deeper relationship with the people and understand—to the degree possible for any traveler—what made them tick.

The U.S. State Department’s website notes that the average yearly income for a Vietnamese person, while very rapidly rising with its economy, is about US$6,400. Given this statistic, it is easy to see how even backpackers on a tight budget can make a difference by volunteering.

Independent Volunteering in Vietnam

My first experience in diving deep into a culture was in Vietnam in 1992. I arrived in the country in the early months of a year-long backpacking trip and immediately felt a strong affinity for the people. Though most of my knowledge of Vietnam was gleaned from documentaries and (American-bent) historical information about the Vietnam War (known in Vietnam as the American War, of course), I strangely felt at home from the moment I landed.

My visa was for one month, but I knew that I did not want to leave the country in such a short amount of time and extended my stay for an additional two months. I landed a job teaching English in Saigon to students belonging to the U.S.-backed Orderly Departure Program. As part of the ODP, these South Vietnamese men and women were permitted to leave Vietnam, many of them choosing English-speaking countries. Through a bit of networking in the expat community, I also taught wives of communist diplomats as well as young students in private secondary schools and universities.

These teaching opportunities were really quite unofficial. Because Vietnam had just opened up to tourism, there were no programs to connect willing teachers with students. But I was interested in spending time aiding these soon-to-be-immigrants departing for North American and Australia.

If you are a native English speaker, young and old alike will want to practice their English. To find these willing students, once you are in-country, visit NGOs, schools, hospitals and offer to spend time teaching. If you have a special skill or interest, such as cooking, you might offer lessons to the locals, creating your own cultural exchange. I taught the owner of one café in Saigon how to cook macaroni and cheese, a staple of her menu more than 16 years later.

There is nothing more rewarding then being able to take the knowledge that you already have and put it to good use by teaching others.

Organized Volunteering in Vietnam

Children in Vietnam after receiving soccer balls.
Children in a small village in Vietnam smile after receiving new soccer balls.

I returned to Vietnam six more times after my initial stay and discovered many volunteer program. By joining an established program, you will most likely be working alongside other foreigners as well as locals. You might even be able to learn some new skills. Habitat for Humanity, for example, has projects in several regions of Vietnam. While I do not know how to build a house, I could certainly learn some of the finer points while swinging a hammer on one of their projects.

There are also many private volunteer sending organizations where you can help the people of Vietnam.

Helping Vietnam from Home

Returning to the U.S. after that year-long trip, I often thought about the eagerness of the Vietnamese people to improve their lives in order to help themselves and their families. With that in mind, I joined the Greater Seattle Vietnam Association, Seattle’s Sister City organization. With a group of dedicated members of this non-profit, we set out to raise money, build a playground and donate clothes and cash to an disadvantaged children in our sister city, Hai Phong. We even managed to carry about 40 soccer balls (deflated) from the Seattle Sounders to small villages in Vietnam where the children were thrilled to replace their well-worn balls with clean new ones.

During each subsequent visit, I set aside volunteer time which allowed me to peel back a little more of the onion to peek into the country. I returned to the place where I had volunteered to check on the progress of the children with whom I had worked. My help and presence were received enthusiastically which encouraged me to stay connected with these people in the years that followed. Even if more than a year had passed between visits, I was always remembered and treated like a returning family member by my hosts.

Whether you plan in advance or decide on a whim to do some volunteer work in Vietnam, both you and the recipients of your kindness will enjoy the benefits of the exchange. Just do not take it personally if you are compared to a deciduous plant.

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