Aliya Biggs - General Care Projects in Vietnam
I have recently returned from four months travelling where I spent the first month in Hanoi volunteering in the Hope Centre, a school for children with mental disabilities such as autism and Down’s Syndrome, and those with cerebral palsy.
I am currently on a gap year and starting university in September where I will study psychology, with the aim of becoming a child clinical psychologist. I decided to volunteer in Vietnam because it is a country I have always wanted to visit, and has such a fascinating culture.
Landing in Vietnam
Arriving in Hanoi airport I had no idea what to expect! I’d done some reading on Hanoi before I arrived but it didn’t mention just how busy the city actually was; motorbikes everywhere! I was picked up from the airport from a member of the Projects Abroad team and was driven to the office for my induction. This included more detailed information about my care projects and the problems I might face there, as well as difficulties there could be adjusting to the local culture and homesickness.
After a quick language lesson I was shown around the local area and the centre of the city, then taken to my volunteer house. Everyone was so welcoming and happy to answer any questions I had, which made me feel a lot less anxious about my new surroundings.
My Accommodation in Vietnam
I lived in shared volunteer accommodation with other volunteers who were from all over the world. One of the reasons I enjoyed my time in Vietnam so much was because of the amazing people I lived with for that month. Despite all of us speaking different languages and having different cultures we all got on so well and had so much fun! We also had Tuyet, our Vietnamese cook, who made us the most amazing food I have ever eaten, and even tried to teach me how to cook.
Our house was a 20 minute walk from the main city centre (the Old Quarter) or a 10 minute taxi, and there were many amenities nearby including supermarkets, loads of clothes shops, parks and a gym. It was also only a five minute walk away from my care placement, which was very handy when the children had their three hour lunch break, allowing me to go and visit some of the city's tourist sites, or just to have a quick nap!
My Care Placement
I volunteered at the Hope Centre in a class of 15 children who were the oldest in the centre, ranging from 9-13 years old. The majority of the children had autism or some form of pervasive personality disorder, as well as three children who had Down’s syndrome. The centre was well equipped and very clean.
My day began at 8.30am where I played with the children before lessons began at 9am. While the teachers worked with those who could read and write, I helped look after two children called Zim and Yung who were unable to do this. We played counting games, made shapes with lego and worked on coordination by playing with balls. Morning lessons finished at 10am. The children were allowed 30 minutes to run around and play with each other before lunch time. Most of the children were able to eat by themselves, but some of the children required hand feeding. Myself and the three other teachers shared this job.
After lunch I helped set out the sleeping mats for their 3 hour nap time. This lasted from 11.30am to 2.30pm. I got to the centre at 2.15pm to help the children wash and put away the mats. The children then had an afternoon snack. After they’d eaten it was time for the afternoon lesson. These involved the whole class. We did many different activities designed to help improve the children’s physical abilities like balancing games, throwing balls into baskets and threading beads. These were my favourite lessons as I was able to play with all the children and really get to know them. The children even put on a play for the other children and staff!
The day finished at 4pm when I helped the children put on their jackets and shoes ready to go home.
During the week I and the other girls in the house liked nothing better than sitting back and relaxing in front of the TV, or getting a full body massage in the nearby spa after a tiring day at work. That all changed at the weekends though! I took an overnight train to Sapa with a group of other volunteers where we spent two days trekking through the mountains and rice fields, learning about the different ethnic minorities in Vietnam; and another weekend we went on an oriental cruise two day cruise round Ha Long Bay, one of the new Seven Wonders of the World.
On the weekends when we weren’t travelling, we spent time visiting the many tourist sites in Hanoi. I went to the ethnic minority museum and the Old Quarter, where I spent hours exploring all the alleyways and shops. It’s fair to say you can never get bored in Hanoi, there’s always so much to see!
Leaving Vietnam was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done - I wished I could have stayed there longer. It was very upsetting saying goodbye to the children in my class who I’d spent nearly every day with for a month, and had gotten to know so well. It was harder still saying goodbye to all the amazing and hopefully lifelong friends I made there. I will never forget the time I spent here, and the experience has made me a much stronger person and made me even more determined to achieve my aim of becoming a psychologist. I can’t wait to come back!
This volunteer story may include references to working in or with orphanages. Find out more about Projects Abroad's current approach to volunteering in orphanages and our focus on community-based care for children.