In July 2015, I waved goodbye to my friends and family, rolled my suitcase inside the automatic doors of the Salt Lake City International Airport, planted both of my sneakered feet on the smooth tile and realised that I was about to embark on the biggest adventure of my life. I was a 17-year-old high school student from Utah, USA and my only international experience up to that point had been a family excursion to Mexico a few years prior.
I discovered Projects Abroad through a simple Google search and after a little more digging (and negotiating with my concerned mother) it was decided that I would be volunteering for two weeks on the Care & Community project in Hanoi, Vietnam. From the start, I had been interested in travelling to Asia due to my own country's historical connection to the nation, as well as its purported beauty and vitality.
Volunteering in Vietnam
I was assigned to work at the Friendship Village. The Friendship Village is dedicated to helping victims of the American War, including those affected by the warfare chemical Agent Orange. As volunteers, we would be working with the children to help teach them maths, English and personal hygiene, among other things. We would also paint the dining room and lend our hand in the gardens.
Three of us volunteers worked with class five, which was comprised of about eight older teens with varying degrees of mental handicap. During the first day, we arrived just in time to eat a curious soup of beans, Jell-O, and fruit that the kids had prepared. This class was focused on cooking and basic hygiene. The next day we showed the students how to wash their hands and brush their teeth; another, we taught them the song “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” and later, we all danced to “Gangnam Style.” There was never a dull moment!
The kids were eager to help cut, glue and colour anything we gave them and they were always full of smiles and laughter. We each made the flags of our home countries and hung them up on the wall with our names on them. We coloured a lot and one of the students shyly gave me a signed colouring of a teddy bear and a cake (I still have it).
A Japanese volunteer showed everyone how to make origami swans. Using our empty water bottles and a small ball, we showed the kids how to bowl. That activity took an unexpected turn when one of the kids, a notoriously rambunctious and inventive boy, began using his left shoe instead of the ball to knock the bottles over! The kids always gave their own twist to the games we played, and we quickly learned each of their personalities.
One day, after our regular schedule of volunteering (which included a four-hour lunch break typical in Vietnam), we stayed late at the Friendship Village to watch the movie “The Incredibles” with the kids. I laid on my backpack, a little girl laid her head on my stomach, and another her head in my lap. We passed around bags of candy and peanuts and laughed at the funny parts in the movie. Another day, students and volunteers from other classes joined my class to make crepes and sushi. We helped the kids cut up and combine the ingredients to make our delicious snacks.
Our other activities at the Friendship Village included painting the lunchroom (which was a hot and sweaty but gratifying two-day affair) and having an open Q&A with the resident war veterans, who told us their life stories. We were able to spend some time simply playing with the kids outside, playing soccer, swinging on swings and going down slides. It was a beautiful place filled with wonderfully kind and amusing children and I miss it.
Too quickly, our time at the Friendship Village came to an end, and we began volunteering at other charity centres throughout Hanoi and sometimes beyond. Our supervisors, two young women from Hanoi, helped us adjust to each new situation and translate conversations we had with the local children. They also helped us cope with any confusion, homesickness, illness, or miscellaneous problem we encountered.
During the weekend, we travelled to Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for its gorgeous limestone cliffs and blue water, and stayed at a fancy hotel. We were able to go to a man-made beach and kayak in a beautiful bay, where we saw monkeys peering back at us in the trees. Back in Hanoi, we went shopping in the Old Quarter (where we learned how to bargain), attended a show at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater, visited temples, and ate at a wide variety of restaurants, sampling Vietnamese cuisine from multiple regions.
While the other volunteers returned home after their two weeks of volunteering, I had planned for one more week in Vietnam in which to explore on my own. Projects Abroad was very accommodating while working with me on this objective. They helped take me to the tourist centre, book a Sapa trek, stow my extra luggage while I was gone and arrange for extra nights at my hotel. I remained in contact with them during my independent travel and never felt abandoned or alone. It was invaluable having a contact within the country that I could rely on in the case of an emergency. I returned from my independent travel safely, and Projects Abroad, as promised, helped transport me to the airport and return to the United States.
Overall, my time with Projects Abroad in Vietnam was amazing and unforgettable. Though it was sometimes challenging, volunteering in Vietnam helped open my eyes to a bigger world. I met people and saw places that I would never believe existed if I hadn't experienced them first hand. Volunteering with the kids made me a kinder, more patient person, and my immersion in the Vietnamese culture provided me with another perspective on life. I spent a long, hot three weeks in the Southeast Asian jungle, but every second was worth it. Volunteering abroad is an experience without compare.