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Care, General Care Projects in Vietnam by Cindy Do

My eight-week adventure in Vietnam had been over a year’s worth of dreaming, planning and anticipation. When I finally landed in Hanoi this past summer, I could not believe I was actually there. As a Vietnamese American, I chose Vietnam for obvious reasons. I wanted to learn more about my rich culture and heritage, but also to give back to my roots in some significant way. I can honestly say that choosing to volunteer in Vietnam with Projects Abroad was one of the best decisions I have ever made.

Arriving in Vietnam

Children at my placement

One of the initial thoughts I had about Vietnam upon my arrival was how hot it was! I arrived in Hanoi on one of the hottest days of the summer – almost 40°c! It was unbearable, but the vibrant green fields and emerging cityscape soon caught my attention during the quick 30-minute drive to the volunteer house from the airport.

My Projects Abroad driver was friendly and happy to answer any questions I had about the city and which places I should see (I should mention that I do speak some Vietnamese!). Once we arrived at the house, I was greeted by Anh, the very sweet volunteer coordinator, who then helped me with my luggage and insisted that I rest before my orientation, which was scheduled for the next day. After hours of travelling, I was more than pleased to have the rest of the day to settle in.

During my first night in Hanoi, I developed a fever and felt dehydrated. I was afraid that my sudden sickness would inconvenience the Projects Abroad staff and their plans for my project; but as soon as they heard about my sickness, they were honestly happy and quick to reschedule my orientation and start date in order to take me to the hospital and allow me time to recover.

During those first few days, it became apparent to me that the staff members were more than kind and caring. They genuinely wanted to make sure that I had the best experience during my eight weeks there with them. And once I finally did have my orientation, I was pleasantly pleased with a quick cultural introduction, a nice tour of the city and a delicious, paid-for lunch at a local restaurant.

Living in a volunteer house

My placement

One of the reasons I chose to stay in a volunteer house rather than with a host family was because this was my first time travelling abroad; and as an inexperienced traveller, I felt like I needed a little more support and dependence than those who are used to travelling and living in foreign places. In retrospect, I am happy to say that I made a great choice!

The house was spacious, clean, comfortable, and in very close walking distance to the Projects Abroad office. The house had a total of six bedrooms, each with two queen-sized beds, an air conditioner, a lockable wardrobe, and its own attached bathroom. The house was also conveniently located in terms of supermarkets, convenience stores, the international hospital, pharmacies, and also Hanoi’s famous Old Quarter, the main tourist hub for shopping and dining. And while I heard many great things about the host families while I was there, living in the volunteer house made it much easier for me to make new friends.

It was great coming home after a day’s work and having a delicious dinner with people from all around the world. On weekends, we would invite each other to go on (surprisingly very affordable) tours to beautiful places like Sa Pa or Ha Long Bay, and on week nights when we were too tired or lazy to go out and explore the city, the entire house would play cards on our little but cozy rooftop.

Another thing I loved about living in the volunteer house was the food! Tuyet, our cook, was amazing at her job. She cooked traditional Vietnamese dishes as well as Western ones, and she was always happy to take special dinner requests or to accommodate food restrictions. When she found out that I was ill during my first couple of days, she went out of her way to make soup and bring it to my room for me!

Vietnam Friendship Village

Volunteering abroad

The Vietnam Friendship Village, which consists of a medical building, a school building, several residences, recreational areas, and a large organic garden, is a live-in rehabilitation centre for victims of Agent Orange and Vietnam War veterans. It was founded after the war by an American veteran as a symbol of peace and reconciliation, and as a Vietnamese American whose life and family history is heavily intertwined with the course and outcome of the Vietnam War, I immediately knew that the Friendship Village was where I wanted to be for my project; I especially wanted to work with Agent Orange victims because their life as disabled persons could have just as easily been mine, and in some modest way, I wanted to give back.

Most Care project volunteers engage in classroom activities their entire work day, but upon request, Projects Abroad was happy to help me incorporate a medical component into my project because of my pre-med studies. While I spent my mornings in the classroom teaching English and mathematics and playing games, I worked in the Village’s physiotherapy room alongside certified therapists during the afternoons.

The staff at the Friendship Village was super friendly and easy to approach, and all of the kids I worked with were incredibly happy to have me there. Out of my eight weeks there, happiness was the one thing that struck me the most about the Friendship Village. Despite the apparent difficulties in their lives, all of the children as well as veterans were incredibly playful, joyful, and overwhelming grateful for what little they have.

My morning class consisted of a group of 12 students ranging from age 12 to 25 with various disabilities from autism and deafness to more physical disabilities and deformities. Although it was difficult to teach a class with such diversity, with the help of some ideas from the online Projects Abroad Resource Database and advice from the local staff, I soon found out that the best way to teach my students was through the use of quick and interactive activities.

Volunteering in Vietnam

My afternoons in physiotherapy were just as great. As a pre-med student, I had only studied general subjects; I had no previous in-depth knowledge about the field of physical or occupational therapy, so I was therefore unsure whether I could be much of a help. But after a couple days of observation, I was soon able to plan and lead simple exercises, stretches, and occupational activities catered to each of my patients’ physical needs. I learned a lot during my time in the physiotherapy room and had a lot of fun as well. My favourite part of the week was hydrotherapy Mondays and Wednesdays when the other volunteers and I got to swim with the kids at the Village’s indoor pool.

Leaving Vietnam

During my second to last day of placement at the Friendship Village, one of my fellow volunteers and I decided to stay a couple of hours after work in order to spend some extra precious time with the kids we would soon be leaving. A couple of kids were playing soccer (like pros!), while others were sitting around engaging in friendly conversation or simply running around enjoying the fresh air.

I was sad to think that I was leaving behind something that I came to love so much, but I was also consoled to know that the Friendship Village, with the help of Projects Abroad and other organisations, would continue to be the very happy and lively place I had known it to be.

Having to leave Vietnam and especially everyone at the Friendship Village was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. I came to Vietnam hoping to help and make a difference in the lives of those I met, but I definitely left Vietnam having been changed and inspired in ways that I could never repay.

Read more about Care in Vietnam.

Cindy Do

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