Hannah Saunders-Pedersen - General Care Projects in Vietnam
Travelling to Vietnam
I have always liked to challenge myself and do things out of my comfort zone, as I believe that is when you learn the most about yourself and you see your true potential. So when Projects Abroad emailed me before my trip and asked if I would be interested in going to a government-run centre for homeless people, two hours out of Hanoi to work with children and people with disabilities, I couldn’t think of anything better. The whole purpose of me taking part in this journey was to help people less fortunate than myself because I was due to go to University in September and before I started embarking on my own reality of the world, I wanted to see how different the reality was for people living in third world countries.
Before my trip, I wrote to local companies and asked all my friends and family to donate clothing, books, colouring pencils, pens, toothbrushes and toys to the care centres. I couldn’t have asked for a better response, much more than would fit in a 20kg suitcase! I then wrote to the airline and asked if it would be possible to have additional weight allowance; after much persuasion and perseverance I was given an extra 10kg!
Once I landed in Vietnam I got picked up from the airport and taken to Hanoi where I would be staying for five days. I certainly wasn’t in England anymore; the car journey alone demonstrated that to me. The following day I went to the Projects Abroad office to have my induction and met the local volunteer who would be accompanying me on my placement, Anh. Instantly we hit it off and the following day I went over to her family’s house where I tried my first bowl of Pho – a Vietnamese noodle soup.
My Care placement
I can still remember when the car pulled up to the care centre. I was filled with nerves and excitement, I couldn’t wait to start! We got shown to our room, which would be our house for the month. It was much nicer than I had expected, yes it was basic but I was going to volunteer in a homeless shelter not a hotel so nothing shocked me. We were given the afternoon to rest and get settled, but Anh and I were eager to meet everyone so we went and introduced ourselves to the children. Anh was a life-saver, because no one spoke English at the centre.
At first the children were very apprehensive, which Anh explained was because I was the first person they had seen who had pale skin, blonde hair and blue eyes. They kept saying that I had cat’s eyes; because that was the only thing they had ever seen with blue eyes. The children were so welcoming, holding my hand, playing games with me and making me feel like a part of their family. After staying in Hanoi for five days, HoaBinh felt a million miles away. It was quiet and tranquil, other than the occasional beeping horn in the distance - you really can’t escape the horns in Vietnam!
The centre had a lot of ground, so it really did seem like the children’s happiness was the most important thing. It amazed me just how happy the children were, considering everything they had been through. They were the happiest children I had ever met and they loved the attention.
The next day at 5am, the children went for a morning run for about 30 minutes. This became my gruelling exercise regime whilst in Vietnam. After breakfast the older children go to school whilst I taught English to the disabled children. Usually between 11am and 2pm is lunch time in Vietnam and then nap-time for everyone. During nap time I was able to do as I pleased, but due to the centre being in the middle of nowhere (the nearest store was 11km away!) it meant that I mostly just read or copied the Vietnamese way and also took a well needed nap. After the lunch break, we would play games with the children and then after dinner I taught an English class from 7.30-9pm for the children who had been at school.
When the time came for me to give the staff the donations that I brought from home - I gave each child a new toothbrush - they were happier than any child I had ever seen. The manager then told me that although the centre is run by the government, the government gives them less than $1 a day for each person at the centre to cover all costs.
During my month in Vietnam I was also able to do some travelling and see different parts of the gorgeous country. My first trip was with Anh to a small village called Mai Chau. We went from the centre by bus, there were 24 seats on this bus and at one point the total went up to 57 people! Not only were there people on this bus there was grain, wood, suitcases, children, everything imaginable. People even had to enter and exit through the windows, because the door was so blocked up with people!
Once we arrived at Mai Chau it was a 2km walk down a dirt track to the ‘hotel’ where we were staying, but the views were astonishing. It was greener than I have ever seen. The smell was something else altogether too; the sweet, delicate smell of rice fields encompassed you and the air was so pure and fresh. Once we arrived at our hotel we soon realised it wasn’t the normal sort of ‘hotel’, it was just one room with individual mats on the floor where all the guests slept together – something else I loved about my experience in Vietnam because it was something I had never experienced anywhere else.
I was also able to go to Ho Chi Minh City and Vung Tau for the weekend. I had no idea that there would be some differences between the North and South of Vietnam, so I wasn’t expecting the contrast to be so noticeable. Most store workers knew good English and there seemed to be more cars than motorcycles, which is something unimaginable in Hanoi where everyone’s mode of transport is a motorbike.
On my final weekend in Vietnam I was able to go to Sapa from Friday night to Monday morning and then Halong Bay. Sapa was similar to Mai Chau with the rice paddy fields, except these fields were layered and they were H’mong people – a minority group – who appeared very traditional in their ways yet spoke fluent English. Halong Bay was something that seemed should only appear in a fictional film with the rocky pillars rising from the deep green water creating something extremely stunning.
After my month in Vietnam I realised that all my life I had been working towards the wrong thing. In September I was due to start studying international business management and human resources, but after just a couple of weeks in Vietnam I felt at home and as if I had unearthed the real me and (not to sound cheesy) but it felt like I had found my calling in life. The day I got home was the day I got my results for university so it was a very anxious plane journey home ,but more so because I had to tell my family that I no longer wanted to study what I had been aiming for (for the past two years).
I got my results and I had got into university, but I was certain it was the wrong thing and I was destined to help those less fortunate than myself so instead of accepting the offer that most people would have been overjoyed with, I declined my offer and went through clearing to find a course more suited to my new career path. After five unsuccessful attempts, because the courses were all full, I was able to find a course focusing on childhood studies and the way in which children learn so when I hopefully achieve my degree I can go back to Vietnam to live and give more to the country than I was able to give this time.
This trip really did change my life because it made me realise, before it was too late, what I was actually meant to be doing in life and I was able to find the thing that I love to do. I have only the children of the homeless centre to thank for what I was able to get out of this month, because they taught me more than any teacher has ever taught me about myself and about life. I can’t wait to visit them again next summer and hopefully stay for longer.
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.