Candice Clarke - General Care Projects in Vietnam
Despite many years of working in various professional roles and gaining valuable skills, the question “is this fulfilling?” constantly crept into my mind. Earlier this year, I was due to finish the project I was working on, with no further prospects of continuing work in the same industry in Australia. Feeling I had come to a crossroad in my life, yearning to do something that would make a difference, give back to society, yet at the same time challenge me.
I immediately walked across the corridor and stood at my friend’s desk, looking a little dejected. I posed the question to my friend, “What do you think I should do after this project?” His response was simple, “How about volunteering overseas?” With plans already in place to travel to Vietnam, I enthusiastically jumped online to source a programme that involved working with children in Vietnam. I was sold on Projects Abroad based on the interaction I had with their online team in Australia. Exceptional service!
About three months later, Hanoi welcomed me with a ‘warm’ embrace. By that I mean, the humidity hit me, smack bang!
As I left the airport in Hanoi, with a Projects Abroad staff member, en route to my host family, my first thoughts were about how clean the streets were! Perhaps a strange thought to most, however, having spent my childhood in India, I considered those streets pretty clean.
When I arrived at my host family, I was welcomed with a gentle hug from my host mum at the gate. It caught me off guard, as I had thought that the Vietnamese people didn’t show too much affection in public. Once inside I met her two young children who were very enthusiastic to have a volunteer stay with them, a first for them and for me.
I think I hit the jackpot as far as host families go. This generous family welcomed me with open arms and did all they could to make my stay as comfortable as possible. I was fortunate to have my own room and often there were little fingers rapping on the door at about 5pm, letting me know they were home from school.
The house I lived in was clean and homely. I had no complaints. It was not long before I felt a part of this warm-hearted family. One of the highlights of living with my host family was the exposure to everyday food, which was simple yet tasty. As I have an adventurous pallet, sampling new dishes was a treat to me. I tried everything that was put in front of me.
I had the pleasure of attending a local festival, featuring traditional vocal and dance performances. It was set up in an outdoor forum with a stage, and all the locals brought their own miniature chairs or makeshift versions of seats. Energetic children sprawled themselves at the edges of the stage for the best view in the house. Throughout the festival, it was a delight to watch the kids playing around in the background.
I was thrilled to have been invited to a Vietnamese wedding by my host family. The ceremony was quite different to the Western wedding, as it was filled with countless blessings, well wishes and full of festive colour.
Whilst all of these experiences offered unique cultural insights; what I cherished the most was the daily conversations with my host mum, drawing on an insider’s knowledge of this vibrant country and sharing stories of our personal lives.
As a general Care volunteer, I was an assistant to the class teacher. Day one was brief, due to a late start. Nevertheless, within minutes of being in class I found myself dumbstruck. Simply because I questioned if I could actually be of any help. It was overwhelming and disheartening at the same time. I was in a class of eleven special needs students, five of whom were deaf and mute. The teacher spoke minimal English and I spoke neither Vietnamese or had any knowledge of sign language. That said, by day three I felt more comfortable and started to settle in and the kids started to warm to me, which was a relief. I did have the aid of a translator for a few days a week which was a tremendous help, especially when teaching English and learning a little about the students’ personal history.
During my time there, I observed that there was some structure to the class; however, it wasn’t very rigid. In the mornings, I would see all eleven children, whilst on some afternoons only a handful would attend craft and skills workshops, such as sewing or IT. My main responsibilities revolved around assisting one student with very basic maths and teaching English to a few others. As I taught them English they corrected my incomprehensible Vietnamese!
Oh the laughs we had! It was a learning curve for all. But they were golden moments. As all the students varied in their learning abilities, I tailored my lessons for them. This often included me losing at Uno to a vivacious and cheeky boy who was hearing impaired and mute. It was our way to get to know each other and to spend time together. Before you knew it, I felt like I was part of the furniture.
My time with these kids was honestly amazing. They appreciate the simple things and value the time you share with them. By the end of my one month with them, the language barrier was replaced with creative communication. That said it would be very beneficial for future volunteers who are going to work in the Friendship Village to learn a little sign language, as there are other kids in the school who are also mute and deaf. Not only will the kids love that you are making an effort to communicate with them, it may also help prevent the hopeless feeling I had felt on my first day.
My advice to future volunteers is to speak with other volunteers when you arrive in the country and engage the services of the tourist information centre in the Old Quarter. And just remember, you get what you pay for. So it may be cheap but it is not always a bargain.
On a final note, be open-minded and welcome with an open heart all that this wonderful and colourful country has to offer. My time in Vietnam seemed short, not nearly enough to satisfy my never-ending travel appetite, but I loved every moment of it. I remember my experiences fondly and smile to myself at all the quirky moments I was part of.
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.