By Eve Harrington
I am almost halfway through my volunteering experience here in Vietnam and already I have learned more than I had expected to at this stage of the journey. We are currently living in the village of Quoc Oui which, despite being referred to as a village, is actually not all huts, trees and open spaces. Quite the opposite, to my surprise.
Perhaps the biggest realisation has been that appearances really can be deceiving. Despite many homes and shops here living up to the image we have of a struggling “third-world” country, Vietnam, is not a destitute nation. For instance, I knew before arrival that mopeds were the most popular means of travel, but literally everyone has one or at least two per family. On our drive from the airport, I was really amused and surprised to see a lot of people with smartphones and mopeds. I found it a surprise because- though I didn’t have a clue what it would be like here- the portrayal us ‘Westerners’ have of Vietnam is an outdated one from the Vietnam war. One of forests, huts, dusty roads and a country lagging behind the modern age. Yes, there are merchants selling everything and anything on the side of the roads, women cutting meat and preparing vegetables on the street outside their homes, but there are also clothes boutiques, skyscrapers and we most recently discovered a kids play centre here in Quoc Oui that really took us by surprise as it is of equal standard and infrastructure to those in Ireland despite being located in a detritus filled area. My perspectives of Vietnam have most definitely been challenged so far.
In summary, their country still has a way to go in terms of rebuilding its economy, but it has made much more progress than we have been led to assume.
The second biggest lesson I’ve learned which also took me by surprise is how Vietnam places huge emphasis on the importance of education. And this isn’t in the stereotypical extremist way that is often believed, but in a very nurturing way. The biggest example I’ve seen is in the work of CSDS, the organisation that we’re volunteering in partnership with. Despite it being an NGO that receives no financial support from their government- whereas Irish NGO’s would receive this funding- they gather all the money, materials and volunteers need from their own resources, their own pockets and the incredible goodwill and hardworking nature of the Vietnamese people. It is amazing to see. For instance, our first two weeks have been dedicated to two programmes; structuring and teaching English classes to primary school students (aged 10-12), then planning and carrying out workshops (i.e.: art, sport, music and youth development). All of which are free for these kids- many of whom are from lower income families- to take part in, which demonstrates how education is held in such high regard.
My experience in teaching our assigned English class has been nothing short of challenging and rewarding. Shauna, Carol (or ‘Sauna’ and ‘Carrot’ since the children struggle to say these letters) and myself have been teaching a class of children who had virtually no English other than ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’. Despite this, all the children we teach show the same eagerness to learn. Compared to the groans or unwilling students you’d most often get in Ireland when a teacher walks in, the children here literally yelling ‘Hi teacher hi teacher!!’ the second we walk through the gates or jump about in their seats with excitement when we walk in. But the best part is truly the reward of seeing these children- who, in my case, could not understand a word we said initially- now able to say back loudly and confidently the days of the weeks, months, tell us about their families and express themselves. Granted they are still by no means fluent, but the Vietnamese children we have worked with have proven themselves to be perhaps the most hardworking, willing and optimistic children I have had the pleasure to meet. I saw this most prominently through our workshops with the children local to Quoc Oui.
After our first week of workshops, I was caught off guard by two realisations. Firstly, during the music workshop that I co-run, it was a lot more challenging to get a lot of the children fully engaged with the topic since music as a subject is considered with basically no importance or necessity in Vietnam. So, naturally, we had to do a lot of on the spot adjustments during the first workshops. Secondly, even through I was only a helper during the art workshops, it was pretty heart-warming to see these children- who come from such a reserved, humble heritage- slowly come out of their shells and express themselves, thus get to know them. I was really moved by some of the children I got to meet and bond with. It wasn’t something I was expecting to happen in that setting but it has really helped shape my outlook on this experience and this culture so far.
Finally, one thing I had the pleasure of having affirmed and strengthened further was what I had been told about the Vietnamese people- that they are incredibly friendly and hospitable people. For instance, the house that we’re staying in and which I’m currently writing this blog from belongs to a family of four who have two young daughters. The fact that they have whole-heartedly welcomed us into their home and allowed us to stay for two weeks while they stay temporarily elsewhere is astounding and exemplary of what the Vietnamese are like.
To conclude this long spiel, though Vietnam has and continues to make progress in re-establishing itself, it still needs the funds for schools and kids programmes in small area outside of the major cities. It also still needs volunteers like us at SERVE to assist them in what they want to achieve and work in solidarity with them so that they can reach their full potential as a nation.
With just over two weeks to go until my time here is up, I hope that I can continue to learn, share, help and work in solidarity with this community.