Volunteering in Vietnam

By Francoise Yohalem, Volunteer Team Leader

In 1995 I had the pleasure of leading a Global Volunteers team to the village of Tan Hiep, located in the Mekong Delta area, some two hours south of Ho Chi Minh City. There we worked at the local high school teaching conversational English, and also helped build a security fence at a local kindergarten. While we were there, on July 11 1995, the U.S.government announced the re-establishment of its diplomatic relations with Vietnam. As we worked alongside our Vietnamese friends we felt like “unofficial diplomats” helping to build and consolidate a new bridge of understanding and friendship between the people of our two countries. When I returned home I wrote a story: “Back to Vietnam – With Love” and was interviewed on the Voice of America. Unfortunately, in 2003, the program in South Vietnam was discontinued, but Global Volunteers was determined to return there.

In 2008, Global Volunteers was invited by the Vietnamese government to help them achieve their ambitious “Mega English Project”: English will be the language of instruction by 2020! In Hanoi, our host is the Department of International Cooperation in the Ministry of Education, and we have four community partners.

In March 2009 I happily returned to Vietnam, as team leader for the 4th team sent on a service program to Hanoi. Our team of 20 volunteers included three personal friends of mine who had wanted to join a service program for a long time. This mostly senior group of professionals had impressive backgrounds and credentials, and several had taught in our China programs. Our team would teach conversational English at Nguyen Binh Khiem High School and at the Foreign Trade University.

We all loved our hotel: The Hoa Binh Palace Hotel (means “Peace”) our home away from home, where the friendly staff attended our every need with efficiency and a smile. The hotel is located in the heart of the historic Old Quarter of this vibrant city, where one feels both intimidated and fascinated by the dense, chaotic, and exotic atmosphere. Hanoi is the political and cultural center of Vietnam. The population is now over 6 million people with an almost equal number of vehicles (90% are motorcycles or scooters and other 2 or 3 wheelers). At first daunting anddizzying, the noisy and unruly river of traffic is a challenge we learned to navigate after mastering the proper technique: launch bravely and deliberately across the street, keep an even pace, don’t stop, and don’t look back! Miraculously, the drivers will avoid you! The Old Quarter is a feast for all the senses: the beauty and smile of the slim women with conical hats balancing their bundles of freshly cut fruit, the smells of the food being cooked right on the sidewalk and served to locals squatting on mini plastic footstools, the packed market across the street with itsflowers vegetables and pungent spices, the buzz, rumble, honking of the motorcycles and the cries of hawkers!…The streets around the Old Quarter still bear the names of the original guilds of artisans and merchants who sold their products there. Our two favorite were Hang May where we frequented some of the gorgeous silk shops, and Ma May which had several wonderful restaurants we could walk to for some of our evening
meals (we all loved the rich variety of Vietnamese food!)

About three blocks away from the hotel along the street we called “Shoe Shops Street” we could walk to peaceful Hoan Kiem Lake and enjoy the uncluttered wide sidewalks and lovely trees surrounding the beautiful lake, an important and sacred site in the history of the city. In the very early morning the surroundings of the lake are transformed into a sports training camp with groups practicing all types of exercise rituals from slow motion T’ai chi to lively jazzercise (with loud music.)

Our teaching assignments at both the High school and the University were challenging at first, but – ultimately – we felt a sense of accomplishment and enjoyed the friendliness of both the teachers and students we worked with. With each new team, the staff at NBK high school are improving how we work together and learning how to best use the volunteers. The greatest need is for the students and most of the teachers to improve their pronunciation, so the volunteers, working in teams from 2 to 4, developed exercises and games aimed at building confidence by helping the students
improve their speaking ability (their grammar and spelling skills are quite remarkable!) This can be difficult when one has to operate in classrooms – especially with the younger students – that are quite noisy and with students who are used to learning in a distracting environment. I was glad that my three friends – who had less teaching experience – were “taken under the wings” of some of the more experienced teacher volunteers who integrated them into their classrooms so that they felt satisfaction in having contributed and also in having learned a lot.

At Hanoi’s Foreign Trade University, the volunteers with a business background lectured students whose English skills were good – although uneven. The lectures focused on international business and trade, and the students were curious, responsive, and most appreciative of the volunteers who enjoyed the friendship of the teachers they worked with.

One evening, we had a Vietnamese class at the hotel, and our pathetic efforts at struggling with simple words made us understand the difficulty the Vietnamese have in mastering the English pronunciation! On another evening, we enjoyed a uniquely Vietnamese cultural experience: a show at the Water Puppet Theater near the hotel. We also walked to a classical music and modern dance performance at Hanoi’s Opera house, a beautifully proportioned French building nearby. On another night, several older students and graduates from the High School came over to our hotel after
dinner to escort us on a tour of the Old Quarter and have a chance speak English and answer our questions. One of the students was a most gracious young woman who was a practicing physician. Everyone was eager to “make friends” and we very much appreciated this opportunity to socialize outside the school. In general, everywhere, we found people who were courteous, friendly, hard-working, and most eager to improve their lives and catch up with the rest of the developed world. They were not interested in dwelling on the past.

On the week-end, the grey skies opened up to the sun for a trip to beautiful and mystical Halong Bay, where we glided peacefully among the dramatic limestone rock formations. Some went for the two days, others only for one very long – but worthwhile – one-day excursion. Along the way we enjoyed the peaceful scenery of rice paddies, and traversed animated and crowded small towns. Others stayed in Hanoi to explore some of the many historic sites, and wonderful museums the city offers.

Our last week seemed more efficient and the students were less shy as they stopped to talk with us in the halls or during our lunch time in the cafeteria. One couple on our team who was celebrating their 45th wedding anniversary was surprised by a group of giggling girls who brought them a cake and flowers and sang to them! Some volunteers were asked to be the judges for an English speaking competition within the Bilingual department… We were invited to a lovely “thank-you” dinner by Dr. Hoa, the founder of NBK High School, and the children organized some fun
interactive games for us on our last day!

All together, this was a wonderful and rewarding experience. We had bonded with each other and worked well as a flexible, caring, and efficient team, and also bonded with our gracious Vietnamese hosts and the children we worked with.

Next year, Hanoi will be celebrating its 1,000th anniversary! Its founder, King Ly Thai To, made the city the country’s capital in 1010. There are already many signs of preparations for this momentous event including new infrastructure and public art projects. This will be a most exciting time to go to Hanoi and continue to help the Vietnamese teachers and students achieve their goal. Do join! I will certainly be there!

**Francoise Yohalem is currently in Vietnam with another team of volunteers.