Mary Cox - Speech Therapist in Vietnam
Why I decided to volunteer in Vietnam
As a third year (mature) student, studying Speech and Language Therapy at Birmingham City University, I decided to use part of my summer break volunteering. I decided to go completely out of my comfort zone and travel to a developing country where my clients and fellow workers wouldn’t speak any English, so my non-verbal communication would be well and truly tested, plus I would have the challenge of culture shock. I Googled "speech and language therapy" + "voluntary work abroad" and Projects Abroad came up first. They listed about five specialist SLT projects, and once I had ruled out those which required fluency in French, and the confidence to train the local staff from scratch, the country left standing was … Vietnam.
My first impression of Vietnam
Walloping heat, near 100% humidity and crazy motorbikes – these were my first impressions of Hanoi. There did not appear to be any rules of the road; cars would overtake and undertake, and bikes do the same and try and squeeze through the gaps. Not content to drive directly into oncoming traffic, bikes (and sometimes cars) would also sometimes ride at 90 degrees or diagonally across roads. I saw up to five people on one bike: baby on driver's lap, two little children behind, sandwiched on by a larger person at the back. Indicators were ignored in favour of horns, so it was overwhelmingly noisy all the time.
After the weekend, I was recovered enough to attend my induction, before travelling to the large rehabilitation unit which catered for around 200 disabled children.
The regular staff had a programme for each child; this generally consisted of encouraging them to repeat common words such as family names, animal names, colours and counting to ten. I did my best to learn this vocabulary – the challenge was to pronounce it correctly! Our volunteer translators worked as mediators between me and the staff/those children who could talk. General interaction with the children was great fun as I tried anything (games, picture cards, pulling silly faces, singing songs, playing Peekaboo, tickling them with feathers, blowing bubbles) to get and hold their attention, and elicit speech.
Twice a day I went to the feeding area, to help spoon-feed those children who were too impaired to feed themselves. The children’s diet was the same for every meal: rice and tofu, with broth. Feeding was often interrupted by other children wanting a hug or to hold my hand. I also spent a long time back at the Hanoi office entering data about the children, their full names, ages, diagnosis, presentation and the work I had done with them, to try and provide a picture for the next volunteers and thus aid continuity for the children’s therapy.
I shared a large room with the other volunteers, and we all used a tiny outside kitchen and bathrooms. We also had the use of a washing machine, very helpful in the heat and humidity, as we needed frequent changes of clothes to stay comfortable. Conditions were clean but basic, and appeared palatial compared with the children’s hospital dormitory-style accommodation. Our meals consisted of plain, wholesome food, often chicken or pork pieces, with the addition of peanuts or tofu for vegetarians, always with rice as an accompaniment. We volunteers ate together in the canteen after the children’s meal times, and then we cleared and washed up our own dishes in cold water using the tap outside in the yard.
So, what did I learn from volunteering in Vietnam? My motto was "Go with the flow", which really helped: sometimes things took a very long time, like the 60 km journey from Hanoi to the hospital, which took around three hours; it was much more relaxing just to sit back and try to absorb the atmosphere, sights and sounds, rather than fret about missing a meal. I learned that "different" doesn’t necessarily mean "wrong" – the Vietnamese therapists believed that children should fear the teacher, and that physical correction should be the norm. Coming from the UK, where smacking is outlawed, and respect for teachers and older people is often sadly lacking, and discipline in schools is a big problem, can I say that either the British or the Vietnamese culture is "better"? It’s certainly different, and that cultural difference is not going to be changed by one volunteer dropping by for a few weeks. In the UK, it is easy to take our good fortune for granted – we have free schooling and healthcare and a whole infrastructure which is lacking in Vietnam, where the concept of "health and safety" has not yet landed. UK residents enjoy clean streets, regular rubbish collections and recycling, well-maintained roads, safe electrical supplies, safeguards against pollutants from factories and debris falling from scaffolding and antenatal care begins soon after conception. From my observation, all these things were rare or absent in Vietnam.
My overall experience in Vietnam
I found the Vietnamese people that I met at the hospital to be hardworking, dedicated to the children in their care, very family-oriented, respectful of their elders and they have an amazing resilience, ingenuity and tenacity. Most Vietnamese people have travelled very little within their own country, never mind going abroad. There were some obvious signs of the collectivist/Communist culture, such as the nightly curfew, and regulation of travel, which again was strange to someone from the West who takes freedom of movement for granted. I felt that the country itself was beautiful, but in danger of being spoiled by pollution and over-crowding in the urban areas. The whole experience in a different culture of a developing country has had a lasting effect on me, and I am continuing to process and come to terms with the experience. I would like to return, maybe in a few years, to see what has changed, as the influence of the Western world becomes more widespread, and the peoples’ horizons expand and their expectations change.