Bona fide travellers long to experience a destination like the locals. Taking a few tours and visiting main attractions just isn’t enough, and often leaves a huge void due to the absence of a true cultural experience. So how can one attain this “true cultural experience”? By volunteering! Working together with the locals grants a volunteer with the unique understanding of a culture – something that is very difficult to gain as a visitor looking in.
A few years ago, someone suggested that I do an overseas volunteer project, and I looked at them like they were crazy. I asked, though it was much more of a statement than an actual question, “Why would I spend my money to go and do unpaid work in a foreign country?” Fast forward to 2012, when I somehow had a change of heart and applied to the IVHQ NGO Volunteer program in Hanoi, Vietnam. I did as much pre-departure studying as possible by reading guidebooks, testimonials and blogs, but even that didn’t prepare me for the powerful experience that I was about to have:
Along with 13 other international volunteers, I lived in the Peace House, which was a basic accommodation provided by the volunteer program. The Peace House was situated in the district of Cau Giay, in a small residential neighbourhood located 40 minutes west of the city centre and completely vacant of tourists and foreigners. The town was characterized by children playing in the street, and families enjoying each other’s company while sitting out on the front steps of their home. We had a hard working House Mom named Mrs. Nga, who kept everything tidy and provided us with deliciously home cooked meals.
Rain or shine, she would make it to our house on her bicycle with a basket full of fresh meat, vegetables and exotic fruit from the local market for every meal. She didn’t speak a word of English, and all communication was done with a smile and a nod, but yet she remembered that I was severely allergic to peanuts and considerately cooked nut-free dishes. We would sit at the table like a family, reaching over or around each other to pick at the dishes with our chopsticks until we were almost licking the plates clean. To show our gratitude to Mrs. Nga, we would give her a very big smile and nod.
As anticipated, the work culture in Vietnam was certainly different than what I was accustomed to. The office was so quiet that I’m sure you could actually hear a pin drop. It was considered to be rude and disruptive to talk, so conversations would often be taken outside. On my first day, I returned from lunch early trying to seek refuge in the air conditioned office, and I found all the lights off. I flipped them on, and as I walked towards my desk, I noticed a pair of legs at ground level that were peaking out from underneath the desk. My heart started to race as scrambled to think of how to call an ambulance. I ran over and found one of my co-workers curled up under his desk having a good old snooze! Ten minutes later, he was up and looking fresh as ever while he diligently finished his report. Nothing like a power nap to get the juices flowing!
My most cherished lessons of local life were obtained through the invaluable interactions I had with volunteers from the partner organization. A group of about 10-15 Vietnamese teenagers hosted us during our stay in Hanoi, and they absolutely blew me away. Most of these ambitious youths were either finishing high school, or just beginning their post-secondary education. What I found most impressive was their enthusiasm as hosts and commitment to teaching us about their country.
They provided Vietnamese lessons, cooking lessons, city tours, and social nights for us, all while showcasing their beautiful culture – an experience that a tourist would be hard pressed to find. Aside from the activities they planned for us, I found the conversations we had to be the most educational. Fluent in English, we were able to converse about anything ranging from career aspirations to family life, and how it all tied back to Vietnamese culture.
I had set out to volunteer in Vietnam in search of a fulfilling experience from helping those who were “less fortunate”, but I had it all wrong. I felt like I was the one who was less fortunate, and they were the ones living a richer and more fruitful life. At the end of my placement, I had such a better understanding of what it meant to enjoy the simple pleasures in life and respectfully value the gifts of family and friends.