Living in a foreign country is one thing, but working there is a completely different story!
Giving me a couple of days to acclimatise, if that is possible in a bustling Asian city, Miss Mai, my local contact, arrived at the apartment to introduce me to my placement at VietHealth. My role was to ‘Anglicise’ project proposals and other funding documents. As my background is in professional grant writing, I was confident that I could add some value. In my naivety, what I didn’t understand was the whole range of other cultural and personal dynamics that would colour the experience.
Picture this: it’s late Friday afternoon in Paris. We have finally arrived back in the City of Light after missing our train in Vernon (near Monet’s home at Giverny). The reason for the missed train was because we had been advised by some officious Frenchman, that we must pull our bikes apart, and bag them up, to be allowed to board the train. Sparks flew from both our spanners and our finger tips as we frantically disassembled the bikes but alas, the train doors slid shut and the train slowly pulled away from us and out of the station.
What makes us, all of a sudden, decide to step away from the comfort of our ordinary lives, and into the Great Unknown?
One day I am a plain-Jane, sensible-type. The next day I have locked myself into an adventure that is guaranteed to take me well out of my comfort zone.
In 2010, I was hankering to travel, but as my ‘better half’ couldn’t take time off work, I was looking for an adventure that would give me some sort of context or framework to travel in. After much searching and comparing, I decided to volunteer for a month in Hanoi, Vietnam.
Unbeknown to me, international volunteering is big business and some companies charge substantial fees to place a person in a volunteer role. Part of me still can’t understand the logic of paying for the privilege of working for free, but it was a good introduction to the contradictory nature of my time in Vietnam.
The company I chose to travel with is called IVHQ, based out of New Zealand. They seemed to have the largest range of volunteer opportunities at the most reasonable price, and they were happy to accept ‘older’ volunteers like myself. My teenage-gap-year days are far behind me, and I wanted to feel comfortable that my skills were going to be appreciated and useful, as well as providing me with a genuine opportunity to contribute.
The fees they charged covered the sourcing of a placement, my accommodation, meals and some local transport. I would also have local contacts in Hanoi to provide support and information. Not that I am a chicken or anything, but an Asian city with no local language or knowledge can be a tad intimidating.
Following multiple clarification emails, it was confirmed that I would be living in an apartment, not the organisation’s volunteer hostel. While more power to them, the thought of living with 40 squealing and partying 18-year-olds, made my blood run cold. Give me a bit of peace and privacy any day.
After the usual chaos and stress of packing and shutting down my business for a month, I was on the plane. Vietnam Airlines was a good introduction to my ultimate destination. The lights didn’t work, the video/entertainment didn’t work, the food was questionable, and there were various other broken and worn out parts of the plane’s interior. But, the staff were friendly, we took off and landed on time, and in one piece, and I knew I just had to go with the flow.
Hanoi airport was the typical chaos and cacophony of an Asian airport, with their hawkers and hasslers. Thankfully I was greeted by my local contact and transported to my hotel, only to find that the hotel had transferred my booking to a different hotel around the corner. I was quickly learning that things worked differently in Vietnam.
In the heart of the Old City, I played tourist for a couple of days, and then I was moved to my apartment in the north-western suburbs of Hanoi. During our trip through the suburbs, the taxi driver knocked over a lady on a motorbike, but he didn’t blink, slow down or stop. ‘OK’, I said to myself, ‘we obviously do things differently in Vietnam’.
There was some initial confusion, as my local contact tried to drive me to the volunteer hostel, until I gently, but firmly, confirmed that I was to live in an apartment. The taxi changed direction, and my new home became one those non-descript, high-rise apartment blocks that you see crammed closely together in rabbit warren streets, clustered on the fringes of countless Asian cities.
The apartment was quite spacious and the living areas were simply furnished. There were a few things lacking like beds, linen and the remotest hint of cleanliness or hygiene! Yes, it was filthy! I quietly inquired about the housekeeping arrangements and was told that a cook came daily and a cleaner once per week. Perhaps that week was in 1984!
My room was a bare mattress (none too clean) on the floor and a few scraggly wire coat hangers dangling precariously from electrical wiring protruding from the walls and ceiling. Before leaving Australia I had confirmed that all linen would be supplied, but obviously that had been lost in translation too. Luckily I had packed a silk sleeping sheet and brought along an old beach towel. That became my linen for the next month.
But again, the local staff were warm, friendly and welcoming and I was determined to make the most of the experience. After finding the local supermarket, I purchased the complete suite of cleaning materials and scrubbed my room and shared bathroom from top to bottom. Believe me, I am no neat freak, but even I could not live in someone else’s scum and grunge.
The apartment turned out to be a comfortable and enjoyable location with enough interesting flat mates over the month for me not to feel lonely. A trio of Irish girls had me in stitches with their aversion to bugs and anything else that crawled. There would be squealing and shrieking, and they would all be standing on their beds or chairs as I rushed in to remove the offending creepy crawly.
Like many Asian cities, electricity was sometimes an optional extra. Huge lightning storms would take out the whole suburb or maybe it was just our turn to lose power. Not a drama except for the lack of cooling and light. One day I returned to the apartment block and had to walk up 27 flights of stairs in the pitch dark! Phew! My work out for the day.
I enjoyed living amongst the local Vietnamese people and I suspect I would have been one of only a handful of Westerners in the whole suburb. Being tall, white and female, I attracted a fair bit of attention as I walked to the supermarket or to catch the bus. Once I said hello, good morning or how are you in my best Vietnamese, people would break into beaming smiles and return my greetings in their best English. Never underestimate the power of a genuine smile.
The daily commute to VietHealth was equal parts interesting and entertaining. As other commuters entered the bus there would be a stampede to sit next to me as I was a source of free English lessons for the next hour. Rarely have I felt so popular or so useful.
When I wasn’t conversing in English it was a joy to stare out the window at the overloaded bicycles, motorbikes and small trucks. One day we passed an old man on a bicycle carrying a four metre long ladder through peak hour traffic. Yet, it seemed effortless to him and no inconvenience for the surrounding traffic.
If I wanted to step out of my comfort zone on every level, then I got that in spades just by living in Hanoi.
Have you ever step right out of your comfort zone?
What: Volunteering with IVHQ starts from $180 per week, with over 33 countries to choose from.
Where: Living in the north-western suburbs of Hanoi and working in the north-eastern suburbs.
When: I visited in May. Like Goldilocks, not too hot and not to cold but a bit of everything weather-wise.
Why: Volunteering ticks all the boxes of culture, contribution, challenge and friendship.
How: I flew to Hanoi on Vietnam Airlines. I am not sure they would be my airline of choice but at least I lived to tell the tale.
Who: Myself, four Irish girls, one American girl, and sundry bugs and bities.
Related Posts: For a walking perspective of the high mountains of Vietnam, have a peek at my post about walking at Sapa.
Book Title: Slow Journey South. Walking to Africa – A Year in Footsteps
Author: Paula Constant
Promotional Blurb:Everywhere is walking distance if you have the time. When Paula Constant and her husband, Gary, attempt to break away from the conventional 9-to-5 routine, a few weeks lazing in a resort or packed in a tour bus is not what they have in mind. What starts out as an idle daydream to embark on ‘a travel to end all travels’ turns into something far greater: an epic year-long 5000-kilometre walk from Trafalgar Square in London to Morocco and the threshold of the Sahara Desert. Quite an ambition for an unfit woman who favours sharing cigarettes and a few bottles of wine with friends over logging time on the treadmill. But if the sheer arduousness of walking over 25 kilometres a day through the landscapes and cultural labyrinths of France, Spain, Portugal and Morocco – without a support vehicle – is overlooked in her excitement, then so too is the unexpected journey of self-discovery and awakening that lies beyond every bend. Both the companions she meets on the road and the road itself provide what no university can offer: a chance to experience life’s simple truths face to face. Paula’s transformation from an urban primary school teacher into a successful expeditioner is a true tale of an ordinary woman achieving something extraordinary. It is a journey that begins with one footstep.
My Thoughts: I am going to have to stop reading these walking books. All they do is to fill me with an urgent wanderlust. I could pack and leave home tonight.
Paula and Gary Constant come up with the idea that they want to walk across the Sahara desert. This dream expands to walking from London to the Sahara, and they finally settle on walking from London to Cape Town!! And I thought I was a bit partial to a long stroll! All these dreams and plans are delayed and postponed, as they work up the courage to finally put one foot in front of the other and actually start walking.
I can’t believe how ill-prepared they were with virtually no training or fitness to speak of, AND carrying a pack the size and weight of which makes my back pack look like a day pack! I am surprised they even made it out of England let alone across France, Spain, Portugal and on to Morocco.
Although like me during my walks, they had some incredibly tough times, they also shared immense joy – especially with the people they met along the way.
There is so much that resounded with me in this book and Paula’s voice is honest and amusing. An entertaining read for walkers, dreamers and would-be adventurers.
Author bio: Paula Constant began walking from Trafalgar Square in 2004. Since then, she has walked over 12000km through eight countries: England, France, Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Mauritania, Mali and Niger. From 2005-2007, Paula walked over 7000km through the Sahara, until she was halted by civil war in Niger. Her first book, Slow Journey South, was released by Random House in 2008. Her second, Sahara, was released in October 2009. Paula is currently planning another walk, and lives in rural Victoria.