Volunteering in Vietnam: Spontaneity and Generosity

Catherine Loy, second from left, has lunch with friends and colleagues. Photos courtesy of Global Volunteer Network
Catherine Loy, second from left, has lunch with friends and colleagues. Photos courtesy of Global Volunteer Network

By Megan Tady

It wasn’t the response she had in mind when she asked the class if there were any questions.
But then again, Vietnam had been full of surprises for the new teacher. One more wouldn’t hurt.

After a short silence from the students, a girl stood up to speak for her class: “Have you ever been in love?” she asked.

“I think the most interesting thing is that although the students are quite shy, they ask very personal questions,” Catherine said. “They will also be very up front about, ‘Will you come and have coffee with me?

Will you be my friend?’” Catherine Loy laughs when telling this story. After two months of volunteer teaching in Vietnam, and three more to go, Catherine is finding it easy to keep her sense of humor.

Riding the Ho Chi Minh trail in North Vietnam.
Riding the Ho Chi Minh trail in North Vietnam.

Which has all been fine for Australian-born Catherine, who volunteered through the Global Volunteer Network (GVN), an organization that connects volunteers with communities in need. She hadn’t expected to be embraced by the community — a city called Da Nang located on the banks of the Han River — with such graciousness.
As an English teacher in a country where 30 percent of the population is under the age of 15, Catherine’s been impressed by her students’ tenacity to grasp the language.

“I think my fondest memory will be how much people have opened up and invited me to be a part of their life,” Catherine said. “It’s one of the greatest things that happens when you become a volunteer.”

Da Nang panorama - photo by Graham Fyfe
Da Nang panorama - photo by Graham Fyfe

“Vietnamese students are very eager to learn English, to the point that people will accost you on the street to try to practice their English,” she said. “Learning a second language is such a difficult thing. It’s amazing to me that they’re all putting so much effort into something that is so difficult.”

The reason behind this eagerness, however, can sometimes be unsettling.

“They all know that getting a good job and having a better life depends on their ability to learn English,” Catherine said. “It’s kind of sad, what’s driving it.”

Da Nang street scene - photo by Graham Fyfe

Although Vietnam has made strides in improving conditions for its population over the last few decades since the end of the Vietnam War, and even inched its way up on the United Nations Human Development Index, 17 percent of the population still lives on a dollar a day.

And while some people are experiencing the economic benefits of a more open economy, others are marginalized as the gap between the rich and the poor, and between rural and urban populations, increases. As Vietnam becomes ensconced in the global system, and as English increases its reach as the universal language, Vietnamese students are learning English less as a hobby and more as a dire necessity.

Because of Catherine’s unique position as a volunteer in Vietnam, she’s been able to reach a better understanding of this once reticent country, and to see first hand both the struggles and triumphs of its people.

“When you’re a volunteer, you experience the country in a completely different way from how you experience it as a tourist,” she said. “Even if you don’t speak the language, your level of understanding of the culture and what’s going on around you is so much greater.”

GVN volunteers also work in orphanages like this one in Hoi An. Photo by Hilary Adamson

On a day trip with two Vietnamese friends to Hoi An, a tourist-bogged ancient port city, Catherine was reminded of this difference.

“I had always seen this game being played, but I never knew how to play it,” she said. “It’s a type of musical bingo. My Vietnamese friends convinced me to play. A lot of western tourists were standing around on the edge of the game. They obviously had no idea what was going on. I ended up winning and we were all really excited so we were jumping up and down like crazy. And all the Western tourists were staring at us and asking, ‘What’s happening?’ I was able to experience something they never would.”

But it isn’t just her own experience that’s made volunteering meaningful for Catherine.

“I think it’s very empowering for a community to feel like they are worth something, and that someone was interested in them enough to come and work with them without pay,” she said.

She’s seen the impact past volunteers have had on people in the community.

Dai Loc Orphanage - photo by Clare Beckingham

“People here talk about memory in a different way than Westerners do,” Catherine said. “They feel the importance of having happy memories and they talk about their memories a lot.

"So I’ve had people talk to me about their memories of past volunteers in a way that it’s obvious that those memories are really important to them. I don’t think you’d have a Western person saying, ‘Oh, my memories of this person are so special to me.’ It made me realize that they really appreciate the volunteers coming and they feel like having the volunteers here is a really special thing in their lives.”

Catherine has been astounded by the lengths people have gone to in order to help her and make her feel comfortable in the new environment.

“I was riding my bike on the street one day and it broke down,” she said. “And this man came along and said, ‘Oh, let me help you. I’ll fix your bike for you.’ He didn’t even want any money. He just saw that I was in trouble and needed a hand. That would never happen to me in Australia or England.”

She’s noticed other cultural differences as well.

“Here, people are very spontaneous,” she said. “Someone will just ask you, ‘In half an hour do you want to go away for the weekend with me to my grandmother’s house?’ But the Western response to that is, ‘Oh gosh, no. I’ve got to do this and this. Maybe another time.’ But those are often the opportunities that you get the best experiences out of.”

And as Catherine has learned to embrace these new opportunities, she also hopes she’s left her mark on a country that has taught her the art of frankness, spontaneity, and generosity.

“Everyone has something they can teach someone else,” she said. “I’ve learned so much from my Vietnamese students here. And I hope they’ve learned something from me.”

Further information: Global Volunteer Network

Megan Tandy
is journalist and media advisor for the Global Volunteer Network, an organization that connects volunteers with communities in need in 19 countries.

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