'Just Do It!-Ciara Spain's Experience in Vietnam'
When I declared to my family and friends that I would be volunteering in Vietnam I was met with an air of concern. As I’m only 19 it did seem a bit strange to everyone that I wasn’t so keen on a 3 week trip to Ibiza with my friends. However after a long chat with Anton from EIL I felt totally reassured and more eager than ever to take on the expedition. I had previously volunteered in Kenya and Namibia on school building projects. From these trips grew an urge to work more with children. So when the opportunity to teach street children English on Asia arose, I was eager to start planning.
About a month before the trip EIL organised an introductory day whereby I met other volunteers planning their trips to Ghana, South America, India and other places around the world. We discussed problems in the developing world, how to deal with certain personal challenges and got the chance to meet other past volunteers. Fortunately for me I met Aishling and Ciaran there who would also be going to Vietnam at the same time. We swapped numbers and we were all ‘Vietnam on the brain’ for the next few weeks.
Finally the day came when I was to leave and I shook with terror. I was terrified. Nearly 17 hours on a plane later I arrived on the same flight as my fellow volunteer, Ciaran, into Ho Chi Minh. I was still petrified only now I was jet-lagged, very hot and sticky. Vietnam was humid. Seriously humid! Andy, the local co- coordinator was there to pick us up and take us to Volunteer House where Minh and his family lived with about 15 other volunteers from Australia, England, America, Canada, France, Vietnam and China. Aishling had arrived earlier that day. It was late so we quickly introduced ourselves and went to bed. A few days later I learned that we all buried our heads in our pillows that night asking ourselves how we managed to get here and felt that really we should be at home with our family and friends in familiar surroundings, even it was raining in Dublin. Little did we know it but we all felt the same sense of nervousness that first night and we would later laugh about our unnecessary anxiety.
After a city tour with local volunteers and a few introductory Vietnamese lessons we received our placements in local schools and street shelters. I was placed in a local girls’ street shelter teaching a class of 7-11 year olds English. I quickly fell in love with every one of them. Even after only 3 weeks I knew who was the cheeky one, the smarty pants, the comedian, the quiet ones and all the other characters. The local volunteers sat in the class if the language barrier presented a problem but I’d been getting quite good and charades so they mostly joined in with songs and stuff. I taught them A, B, C and the numbers, animals, colours, professions and seasons. The classes were 90 minutes long so we sang the Hokie-Pokie song, head, shoulders, knees and toes and Itsy-Bitsy spider for fun. At the end we played games and I nominated a girl to ‘be teacher’ so she would point at something and the class would shout out the word in English. Before I would leave I gave each of them a sticker that they prized.
In the afternoons I taught local volunteers with a more advanced level of English. We based our classes on the differences between Asian and Western culture, Music and Cultural Traditions. These classes flew by. I really enjoyed them and learned so much about their way of life, expectations, ambitions and traditions. They taught me to see the elderly in a new light. None of them could understand why the Western world generally cast the elderly into nursing homes instead of taking them into their own homes where they can live with their grandchildren. By the end of the class I couldn’t either.
The three weeks flew by. I savoured every day. There were challenges and at times I questioned certain Vietnamese cultural norms. For example some volunteers and I were sitting on the bus one afternoon chatting and laughing. We weren’t being loud, or boisterous, we were simply talking about how terrified we were one our first night in Vietnam. A girl turned her head and said in a commanding voice ‘You are on a public bus, this is quiet time.’ We were all embarrassed into a state of awkward silence but a few locals on the bus exchanged cheeky smiles on the way out as if to say ‘never mind her.’
As my 3 weeks were up the only regret I had was that I wasn’t spending longer in Vietnam. The girls and one boy I taught in the shelter hugged me as I left the shelter for the final time and I really didn’t want to leave. Also I was surprised at how close I got to the international volunteers in the house. The house was filled with a concoction of various accents and delightful spontaneous bursts of laughter were never far apart. I missed them dreadfully when I returned home. I talked with them about things I wouldn’t discuss with my closest of friends at home. We shared fears, ideas, and feelings of ecstasy, loneliness and utter joy. We became family.
It’s hard to know what to tell people when they ask about Vietnam. The truth is, it’s just the kind of trip you need to experience yourself. If you are willing to be reefed from your comfort zone, eager to learn and love children and getting to know people, if your open- minded and a little bit brave, then yes, this trip is for you. But if in any doubt, well then, ‘Just Do It’.