Care, Care & Community in Vietnam by Alexandra Bach
I spent two weeks in Hanoi, Vietnam volunteering at the Friendship Village with twelve other volunteers in July 2015 and I can honestly say it was one of the best experiences of my life.
Volunteering abroad was always something I have wanted to do, an opportunity to explore a new place as well as making a difference. I had studied Vietnamese history in school and it was somewhere I had always wanted to visit. A country rich in culture and beauty as well as history was always going to make for an incredible trip. I had never been to Vietnam before nor had anyone in my family so I was truly unsure of exactly what to expect. However I was excited to meet new people, try new food and experience Hanoi!
Arriving in Hanoi
After a very long journey I arrived at Hanoi airport and was greeted by one of our lovely Projects Abroad leader and taken to my accommodation. It was late at night and I was very tired so I didn’t take in very much but it was still incredibly warm and I remember how many motorcycles there were!
Hanoi itself was a vibrant, busy and diverse city. On our first day we explored the Old Quarter and it was a total shock attempting to cross the roads; our leaders always told us to keep walking and that they would stop but it’s easier said than done! However, by the end of our trip crossing the roads felt like second nature. The atmosphere in Hanoi was always electric and bustling no matter what time of the day it was and walking around there was always something to see or do. We did so much, from sampling new food, a water puppet show and attempted to bargain in the market.
Volunteering with Projects Abroad
Of course, the main reason all of us were in Vietnam was to make a difference and help the local community. George Mizo, who was an American war veteran, wanted to help those affected by the Vietnam War and so founded the Friendship Village. The centre provides support for children growing up having been affected by Agent Orange and elderly war veterans. We spent our time both in the classroom with the children helping with their lessons as well as helping to renovate the centre. We were also lucky enough to spend time with the war veterans learning about their own experiences of the Vietnam War, which was not only fascinating but also incredibly humbling for us all.
Working in the classrooms was such an amazing experience and truly unforgettable. I was in class three, with children who I will always remember. Despite the difficulties communicating some of the children had and the language barrier between us we quickly learnt hand gestures and basic Vietnamese phrases in order to help the children understand us. We were always encouraged to come up with activities and games for the children to play, which led to some really fun and creative times. For example, we spent one afternoon making origami fortune-tellers with the children, which they loved.
We also spent time in the skills classroom teaching basic cooking, where we made crepes and sushi. Once all the food was made we all sat around a table and ate together, which gave such a sense of inclusiveness and community. It was so lovely to see the children enjoying the food that they made themselves.
However some of my favourite memories at the Friendship Village are without a doubt the time we spent with the children outside the classroom. We spent time after their lessons before we would leave to go for dinner with them in the playground. The kids loved having us there and would run up to us and encourage us to play football, go on the see-saw, or take our phones to take selfies! All the children were so full of character and we all loved spending time with them. At one point all the volunteers plus loads of kids were all standing in a huge circle singing and it was so much fun.
Being at the Friendship Village taught me so much about tolerance, understanding and Vietnam history and culture. It was an amazing experience and I feel so lucky to have been able to go there.
Leisure time and weekends
We spent our leisure time at the weekend at Ha Long Bay, one of the most popular tourist destinations in Vietnam and having visited I can see why! It is absolutely beautiful and a really amazing way to spend our weekend. From a delicious lunch served on our own private boat to going kayaking in a bay where we saw monkeys jumping in the trees, it was amazing. We stayed in an amazing hotel and despite being warned that the next morning we had to leave fairly early to return to Hanoi we all got up and took a quick dip in the pool.
Ultimately my time in Vietnam was the highlight of my summer and an experience I will never forget. I was so lucky to have such an amazing team of volunteers to spend my time with and to meet so many new people from around the world. I cannot wait to return to Vietnam!