Nicola's story of Vietnam
Well where do I begin with this description of my first volunteer project at the age of 37!Perhaps a good starting point would be with the months leading up to the project as this [I believe] assisted in the whole success of the project. Well here goes……
Once I had decided to undertake a project I had to perform the daunting task of a web search to find a suitable organisation. As can be imagined the search found hundreds of thousands of sites.For me important factors included a friendly organisation and one that when I emailed or rang them were always there to help me and to answer any of my concerns. Spending a weekend with the organisers and other volunteers was particularly useful. I had the opportunity to talk to people and found that we all had the same concerns and excitement about planned projects. Learning about other projects on offer was very good also and being able to talk to host organisers gave me confidence to think of other countries that I had perhaps at first thought best to avoid. The weekend definitely gave me a taste of things to come (but can I stress only a taste as nothing can truly prepare you for the actual work experience).
Travelling alone at first seemed exciting but as the day approached I experienced waves of nervousness if not nausea! I did not really want to travel alone but when it came down to various people who wanted to come with me on the project but unfortunately did not end up committing in the end for various reasons: it was a case of ‘go on your own or not at all’. I am so glad now that I did this first project on my own as I believe this made the whole experience unique and I developed people skills that at my age I didn’t think I had!!!
The journey itself was long and tiring! I wish I could put into words how nervous I was the days leading up to my departure from the UK. The feeling of being many miles away from my family and friends and going to do something I had never done before was overwhelming. How many times I had gone over scenarios in my head typically starting with the words “what if”!!! Travelling on my own was a whole new experience to me also but to be honest I met so many people on my journey to and from Vietnam that I believe I wouldn’t have spoken to if I was travelling with others. I quickly discovered how many people actually travel alone and are eager to talk to you. The planning of my journey involved some form of ‘mental’ criteria being met and I was glad I planned well.For example I made sure I landed in Hanoi during the day and not at night. I had arranged with the host for collection from the airport and I felt reassured when I saw the taxi driver with my name on a card. Unfortunately when I arrived at the youth house there wasn’t anyone to meet me. I no this is a negative point to raise but is something that other volunteers from other organisations had experienced. A positive point was that we just got on with it and were fine. In fact that first night we sat eating scones, butter and jam that I had brought all the way from England (trust me it was a great ice breaker!!.
Being immersed in the true culture of Vietnam was out of this world. We see poverty portrayed in the media etc but to truly understand how this must feel is something else when you are actually living it. It was hard to get accustomed to such poverty but you would be surprised how quickly you adjust and definitely having a positive outlook on life and the experience helped. Also appreciating that our way of life is so different to other communities and not expecting too much of our very indulgent lifestyles to be upheld on our chosen ventures!! Days of no running water certainly makes you appreciate what we have here!!
My project was working with street children but I was fortunate enough to have met a Vietnamese teacher who took me to a Pagoda housing 55 orphans. This was great as any free time I had I went to do some work there too. Praying with Monks was something else and so many tiny babies to cuddle.The general organisation of my work load and timetable was structured by the host lead. It was reassuring that the teaching sessions and daily job allocation was written on a wall planner. This gave all the volunteers the chance plan ahead. Working with the children that involved cooking or teaching was so wonderful. The children were so great and accepted us into their lives. Emotionally it was exhausting and involved periods of tears falling and bursts of laughter but each night reflecting on a truly unique magical experience.
I thought I would end this paper by trying to reflect on a question that I have been asked so many times and am still struggling to answer. “Why volunteer in the first place” answers that I had read from other volunteers included “do good work”, “to be able to give something back”. For me I don’t know why I wanted to be part of this other than I wanted to do something useful…..even if it was for only a short period of time. I truly believe I contributed to something unique in this mad world.
The emotional journey I went through in two weeks was extraordinary and I learnt so much about myself and other people. I now feel inspired to take on more projects and I am keen to involve my sons too.