I arrived in Hanoi after 24 hours of travelling. As soon as I left the airport I could feel my clothes stick to my skin, and entering the air-conditioned taxi to the volunteer house was a relief. This was my first time travelling anywhere tropical, and I felt it.
During my drive through Hanoi I experienced the vast differences between Vietnam and the West. The throng of hundreds of scooters, rice hats, the rickety houses and cobbled-together shacks: all of this gave me a sense of the very different culture I was about to enter.
Friday was my first day volunteering at Friendship Village, a compound set up to support those affected by Agent Orange. This is still its primary goal, although it now
includes special needs schooling for local disabled children.
I was scared, I have to admit. I was still feeling jet lagged, spoke little to no Vietnamese, and felt thoroughly out of my depth and out of my comfort zone. I was going to work one on one with students to help them with maths, as this kind of support was difficult for the staff to offer due to the demands of keeping order in a class, with pupils with complex behavioural issues.
On Monday, I began the project in earnest. From Đức, who rewarded me for my attempts at Vietnamese with high fives, and in turn received high fives from me when he got a correct answer; to Ngọc who, despite seeming easily distracted, really enjoyed our sessions; and to Mai Anh, the most infectiously happy girl I have ever encountered, who seemed thrilled whenever she got an answer right and laughed with me whenever I tried to catch her out: all of the children were great and their curiosity and enthusiasm for working with me made it a pleasure.
Of course there were difficulties. It was frustrating to see Đức struggling with the same sums day after day, or Đường (age 6) struggling with recognising shapes, although not even this dented their high spirits. It was these good moods, maintained by the children, which helped me to enjoy the experience as much as the children did.
Working with the children, I realised I loved it. Ultimately, the personalities and quirks of the children made it the kind of work that doesn’t really feel like work. Before this project, I’d never worked with disabled children, travelled out of the West, or seen anything of what health and social care is like in low and middle income countries. Through this project, I have been able to get a taste of all three. I had to do this to continue down the career path I’ve so far been following. Not to meet any requirements, but to see that it was something for me, something I could do and would enjoy doing. Definitive answers to those questions may take more time, but this trip reaffirmed my commitment to this path, and felt wonderfully like a step in the right direction.