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.
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.
A flying trip to Vietnam in 2000 began my love affair with that country. I am not sure what it was that so deftly captured my imagination, as it could be described as no different from one of many frantic Asian countries. To me it is a magical blend of cultures – uniquely Vietnamese but with strong French, Chinese and American undercurrents.
Its siren song was answered in 2010 when I decided to return to Hanoi as a volunteer with VietHealth. This organisation delivers health services to people with disabilities, mother/baby health and HIV/AIDS patients. That was an interesting and culturally-challenging experience and I think it deserves its own separate blog post.
My role at VietHealth was your traditional Monday to Friday stint and I used some weekends to escape the happy madness that is Hanoi. Begging an extra day to offset some ‘overtime’, I booked a memorable, if incredibly damp, walking trip to Sapa in the far north west of Vietnam.
After a bit of shopping around and a small amount of haggling (something I am hopeless at) I booked a 3-day tour with ET Pumpkin. Not sure how they came up with that business name but it was certainly hard to forget. The day arrived and I was to meet my fellow travellers (a mini United Nations) at the travel agent’s office to catch a shuttle bus to Hanoi train station. It soon became clear that the bus was missing in action, so the travel agent paid a taxi to provide transport. Imagine our surprise when the taxi driver insisted that we pay again when we arrived at the station. We were not that gullible and pushed into the swarming crowd with an irate taxi driver’s shouts ringing in our ears.
The train station was absolute chaos with thousands of people milling about, jostling for tickets and seats. Once we got through security it was relatively straight-forward and we quickly found our train, our carriage and our 4-berth sleeper compartment. Being Vietnam, there were six people in the compartment including three sleeping in the one bed. Oh well, go with the flow….
After 10 hours on the train, we pulled into Lao Cai station early the next morning and a lovely lady woke us with the offer of coffee. This was just what I needed after a rough night interrupted by constant mobile phone calls and text messages (evil, black looks aimed at the multi-occupancy berth) and insistent rapping on the window each time the train stopped. Why? I have no idea. The coffee, when it arrived, was miniscule, disgusting and five times the normal price of a coffee in Vietnam. It should have been a wake-up call that there is no such thing as a free lunch OR a free coffee!
Lao Cai was a cacophony of minibus touts and local hawkers. After spotting a hand-written sign that said Mrs Melanie, my fellow ‘ET Pumpkinites’ and I found our transport, and journeyed up to Sapa in the lowering clouds and eventual rain. Sapa itself is a neat and clean town that clearly makes the most of its tourist status. We were delivered to the Pumpkin Hotel (what else would you call a hotel?) to await our guide while we watched the rain fall.
After shuffling luggage around (leaving the bulk of it at the hotel), we stumbled off into the deluge with our Vietnamese guide, Diep. I suspect we were most probably crazy but our craziness was matched by the determination of the Black Hmong women who followed us for two whole days trying to sell us trinkets and local craft. Now that is commitment to a sale!
I slid. I slithered. I slopped through puddles. If I was lucky, the mist parted for 30 seconds and the reward was a spectacular panorama of terraced hillsides complete with buffalo and quaint villages. Unfortunately Vietnamese mud has a greasy consistency and the ability to clump and clod, turning normal footwear into shoes the size of bean bags! It meant that 99% of the time I had to keep both eyes firmly glued on the path rather than peering through the rain.
“Pride goeth before a fall” as the saying goes, and I was feeling particularly cocky at one stage as I was still relatively dry and mud-free. Just as that thought exited my brain, I did an extremely inelegant pirouette and landed backside first into a rice paddy. Nothing like getting up close and personal with the local agriculture!
As I walked, I reflected that the landscape probably hadn’t changed much in the last 1000 years. Yes, the houses might be marginally more modern and the roads slightly improved, and the presence of electricity poles irrevocably changes the vista, but the locals were planting rice and farming with buffalos thousands of years ago and they are still doing it today.
While I wouldn’t wish to trade places, I can’t help but think there would be some small comfort in knowing what you are going to do every day and every season. A rice farmer is a rice farmer is a rice farmer and that is what society expects of you. No doubt younger generations yearn to join ‘modern’ society but I wonder how many actually get the opportunity to break out of their traditional roles?
Due to the desire to get out of the incessant rain, we covered the distance in record time and arrived back at the Pumpkin Hotel where I fell into a very welcome hot shower. I then had time to explore the town (in the ever-present rain) before the return bus trip to Lao Cai and on towards home in Hanoi.
The return bus ride was a highlight of the trip, thanks to my travelling companions. The bus trundled around Sapa collecting various ordinary tourists like myself as well as a number of locals cadging a free ride back to Lao Cai. Perhaps relatives of the driver? A none-too-hygienic lady plopped herself next to me, smiled and proceeded to eat her bread roll and drink my water bottle dry. She did ask permission via the usual international sign language and what could I do but say Yes.
Everything was going well until the bus shot around a particularly sharp bend and my Vietnamese lady flew out of our bench seat and landed unceremoniously on the floor in the aisle. After lots of laughter and more smiles, she decided to avoid this happening again – and hung onto me and my arm for the remainder of the trip. Gripping tightly, she couldn’t believe the muscles in my arm (yes, I am quite robust) and proceeded to roll up my sleeve to check them out. Even more shocking to her were the hairs on my arm, which she then pulled, tweaked and giggled at all the way to Lao Cai. Personal space? Who needs it?!
Despite the filthy weather and the invasion of privacy it was an unforgettable couple of days. If nothing else, walking for two days through rain, mist and the muddy rice terraces of Sapa confirmed to me the beauty of the country, the friendliness of its people and the privileged life I have with my ability to travel.
All those old clichés really are true.
International travel challenges, teaches and breaks down barriers.