Volunteering abroad can embrace all the thrills and spills of a great holiday while also giving something back – Rachel Watson talks about her experiences working at a day care centre in Hanoi, Vietnam.
I’d been telling myself I’d do more travelling for a while. However, life got in the way and I got bogged down with the day-to-day monotony of life in England. Then, the push I’d always needed came along and gave me an almighty shove in the right direction! In the space of a week I’d left my job, was in the throes of moving house and had separated from my partner. If I was waiting for the right time to travel, there would be no better chance than this.
A helping hand
I was apprehensive; as a lone female traveller I worried for my safety in a strange country. I also wanted to make sure my time away wasn’t wasted – I wanted to experience the local culture and give something back. It was these concerns that attracted me to i-to-i. Their trips include accommodation in a shared guesthouse, someone to meet me at the airport and support from their team. i-to-i offer ‘meaningful’ travel experiences – volunteering at a range of worthwhile projects from teaching to conservation, animal welfare to community development. I spent hours browsing their website and chatting to the team on the phone and decided on a month in Hanoi, Vietnam.
I would be working at a project for kids with special needs, and I would have my weekends free to explore. Before I knew it I was walking through the arrival gate at Hanoi airport.
After a day settling in I was accompanied to the project where I would be volunteering – the Phuc Tue caring centre. It was established in June 2001 to provide care and education for children and young people suffering from Down’s syndrome, Autism, Japanese Encephalitis and the effects of the chemical weapon used in the Vietnam war - Agent Orange. As soon as I walked through the doors of the centre I was surrounded by curious little boys. The staff were equally as friendly and all greeted me with their best English phrases (which didn’t stretch much further than hello… but then neither did my Vietnamese!). Working days at the centre were very varied. All the children craved attention, and although the staff were very dedicated, there just weren’t enough of them to go around. My presence enabled the staff to focus on those children who needed more help and care, while I interacted with the others and made them feel valued.
Not just a holiday
It wasn’t always easy – I often came home bruised and scratched when one of the kids took out their frustrations on me, and it was difficult to see first hand the awful effects of Agent Orange and how it still affects the Vietnamese people nearly 35 years after the end of the war. However, I quickly came to adore these little boys and as soon as I arrived each morning they would crawl onto my lap, demand a rendition of Incy Wincy Spider or have me building giant towers of blocks only to knock them down again. I spent my weekends with new friends I’d made at the guesthouse. I trekked through the Sapa mountains in North Vietnam, visited Snake Village and sampled all the unusual food on offer (the clue’s in the name) and spent many happy nights with the new friends I’ll keep for a lifetime.
I’d love to return to Hanoi one day, but first I have the rest of the world to see. I’m working towards my TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) qualification with i-to-i Volunteering at the moment, so that I can teach English around the world. I’m doing a 60-hour online course and I’ll also attend a weekend programme to get some advice and experience in the classroom, which should boost my confidence if I get work teaching when I next travel. To anyone thinking ‘one day…’ about volunteer travelling, either alone or with a companion, I’d say this – make it one day soon! I went to Vietnam heartbroken and cynical, and returned refreshed and full of enthusiasm. There’s a placement out there to suit everyone, and all the support in the world while you’re planning it.
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This article first appeared in Charity Choice magazine.