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The volunteer experience in Vietnam - reflections on a remarkable country

Updated on August 4, 2013
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This article is a reflection on my time In Vietnam while I was a volunteer English teacher at a university in the Mekong Delta in a small, country town. Being the only foreigner in this town encouraged me to learn the language, immerse myself in Vietnamese culture and forced me well outside of my comfort zone. To this day, my time in Vietnam remains one of the most challenging but rewarding periods in my life.

In March 2013 I returned to the university for a visit and met with all my old friends and colleagues. It was absolutely heart-warming to see friendly faces and smiles of recognition after 7 longs years away!

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Reflections on Vietnam

The old man woke up but kept his eyes shut for a few seconds. Sighing, he glanced at his grandson. Fast asleep, the 10 year-old’s arm was curved and his little fist clenched with a kind of mock fury that wholly disagreed with the peaceful expression on his face. Stretching, he climbed over the bodies of his family, still unconscious in the waking dawn. He crept to the outhouse and squatted, worn toothbrush and cup before him on the makeshift stand his grandfather had hammered together one afternoon. That day, in the far reaches of his childhood memories, his mother had leant over a basin of mung beans, freeing them from their willing skins, hands all soft and soggy.

The joints of his cyclo creaked with each heave up the incline into the city centre. A day, heavy with fog, hung over the seeping river. He dismounted at the xôi (sticky rice) stall, the women already deep into their morning’s work, hands deftly wrapping the purple and yellow sticky rice in the flat palm leaves, tin spoons flicking coconut and white sugar into the folded creases of the leaves encasing the sweet moulds of rice. Tossing his dirty coins into one of the women’s hands, he felt the heavy warmth of the parcel as it dropped into his. Back in the saddle of his cyclo, he savoured the punctuations of salt and sugar in the rice and rode on, through the semi darkness towards the tourist strip in Saigon.

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I became aware of the morning the same way I did every day. I sensed the crackle of the speakers as they prepared to blast the students out of their sleep with a mix of love songs and the Communist People’s Party news, followed soon after by the trot of adolescent feet at 5am and their various whoops and chatter. Turning over, I tried my best to ignore it, hoping that the news would soon be followed by some music. There was something in the plaintive Vietnamese pop songs that stirred me. At least today, the burning bites of the ants that refused to give up despite my best efforts to kill them didn’t wake me. Most mornings I woke to see them gliding in straight lines along the sheets towards my toes. I looked through my mosquito net at the rainbow chart, a different hue for each month of the year, blue-tacked to the metal wardrobe. Yesterday I coloured in the segment that marked the halfway point of my volunteer assignment in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta as an English language teacher-trainer at a small town’s university. Six months had gone slowly, but just as the brown water of the canal outside my room flowed constantly to the coast, I could feel my return to Australia approaching. Sighing, I let my feet fall to the floor, shifting them over each-other to brush off the grit.

I walked into the bathroom, blinked at the mosquitoes huddled quietly against the tiles and turned on the plastic faucet with a squeak. Immediately as the water rained onto my feet, the mosquitoes woke with a flurry of panic and attempted to escape the stream of water I half-heartedly directed towards them. There was a point a few months ago that we agreed on a truce. As long as they stayed huddled and drowsy under the tables and beds during the day, I would try to leave them in peace. Night time was when they woke up and my mosquito net and socks were the only things that offered any defence against them.

The luke-warm water ran over and off me, ineffective against my skin’s new tropical oiliness. The slow melt I had felt since I arrived in Vietnam calmed me but also held me in such submission that I longed for the sensation of a shiver, the numb pain of icy, reddened fingertips fumbling to find keys, instead of the slick I felt between my swollen fingers and my room’s single blunt key as I tried to retrieve it from my pocket. I preferred the shock of cold water from my red plastic bucket that I used to wash with when the water was off. The gasps and sudden tautness of my skin gave me momentary respite against the torpor. The shower’s hot water system started vibrating as it chugged the last ounce of water through its squirming pipe, finally dying with a hiss over my upturned face.

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I scraped the chair out from underneath the low plastic table and sat down, oblivious now to the scraps, bones and paper squares strewn over the floor. The old woman limped towards me with the usual determination and bemused expression I always shrank a little from and placed my meal in front of me. Nodding my head and smiling at the woman, I picked up the bent aluminium utensils and scraped some rice and chicken into the spoon. I split the egg yolk with my fork, a golden lake seeping like lava over the little bunches of rice, softening their brittleness. I ate this everyday, at 11 o’clock, at the same little hot cafe near the university. Most days, an old lady, tiny as a sparrow, sat out the front, beaming up at me behind her over-ripe fruit on the pavement out the front. Begging was simply something that didn’t occur in this town. Everyone worked, even if it meant selling rotten fruit or lottery tickets. It was something I came to learn about the Vietnamese people, particularly those not exposed to tourists such as the people in this town. Their dignity and work ethic was so strong that begging was absolutely frowned upon and left to the truly disabled or destitute. Once when I asked my Vietnamese friend about it, she said the only people that begged in this town were Cambodian women who had come across the border.

Routine was a source of extreme comfort to me as I waited here for something to happen. Work, I had long since realised, was simply my part to play in the well-meant but in my case I felt, ineffective, diplomacy between two countries once at war, now attempting to repair the rifts forged decades before. The branch I extended had never truly been received by my fiercely independent Vietnamese colleagues. I soon realised that I myself was not being rejected but everything I represented. Despite the warmth emanating from them, the joy new friendships created and the genuine affection they had for me, between us all rose a wall, as yet insurmountable. Once, at a memorial where three young Vietnamese soldiers had died in a battle with the Americans, I shed a quiet tear when I saw how much the President of the university struggled with his grief. For all his smiles and the positivity embraced by the Vietnamese to look firmly towards the future, I sensed in them a patriotism I had never known and a loyalty to their country that quickly revealed itself at these such moments or when I probed a little deeper. I didn’t understand the political intricacies and tensions but I did recognise something profound in their eyes. They glowed and flashed with something formidable at times, and once when my colleagues sang their national anthem for me in one of our classes I was moved like an anthem had never moved me before. It humbled me into silence, made me feel like the child I must be to them and taught me something about the power of a country’s determination despite a history of repeated attacks from outsiders.

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When I think of the impact that Vietnam had on me, I remember the ties of friendship, obligation, concern and loneliness over the 9 months that I lived there. I remember how I felt and looked a shadow of myself when I realised upon arriving at the airport in Sydney to the arms of my relieved mother, that my intentions had not protected me from the disillusionment and waste I felt my time there had been. Slowly over time, my colleagues stopped coming to the classes I held, the students I was able to teach only a few times before being circulated through another class left for university holidays, and I sat alone, on the log overlooking the canal wondering why I had given up so much to come here.

It was only some time after I had returned to my life in Australia that I realised there was a value in my having lived that portion of my life in such a dynamic yet poverty-stricken country. A value not only for my own fulfilment and sense of purpose in life, but in the people I came to care about and interact with – many of whom had never spoken with or known a foreigner. Poverty can bring out the best and the worst in people. There were friends I made in my town whose generosity and determination had carried them out of their circumstances, or at least had made them face their adversity with courage and honesty. There were others who slipped into prostitution and crime.

One particularly dear friend, limbs thin as a bird’s and constantly sick with stomach complaints, could not support herself on her shop assistant’s wage. One night when we were walking down the main street a man on a motorbike stopped and asked her something I couldn’t understand. She went red and looked very embarrassed and shook her head repeatedly to him despite his exhortations. I asked her what he wanted and she wouldn’t look me in the eyes. I eventually understood that to supplement her income she would make men ‘vui’ (happy) as she said it, eyes darting and the humiliation hovering around her like a swarm of flies. At that moment my heart dropped and I finally understood how someone could turn to something that would turn them into a social pariah and strip them of the respect and dignity so many of these country’s women I had met held so firmly onto. I suddenly understood why the shop owner’s mother where my friend had worked had spat on her and fired her, screaming and chasing her away with a broom the other week. The next week she fell off her bike and broke her arm. Now she was unable to make the long bike ride into town to work and yet she still gave me the warmest smile despite everything she had suffered and always refused any money I offered her for medicine or food. I used to have to hide it in her jacket when she was in the bathroom for her to accept anything, despite her destitution. I will always be haunted by the memory of her unnaturally youthful spirit, in the body of a middle-aged woman, ravaged by illness, a young widowhood and social disregard because of her choices. All the pain and disappointment I felt at times in my stay in Vietnam mean nothing when I think about the times we laughed and the chance I had to meet someone so valiantly positive despite everything in her life working against her.

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Fast forward to 6 months later and I’m back in Sydney, trying to emerge from my delirium and creep back into myself. When I arrived home at the airport, my mother’s face was like an orb, a shining moon of safety and the one thing I kept in my mind as I fought off the anxiety before I bought my ticket home in a hot tourist shop in Saigon. Waiting that last day for my plane to leave, panic rose in me like steam, soft at first and later excruciating. I drank 3 vodka cocktails, a ludicrous thing to do in the middle of the day in Saigon’s tourist strip. I was so on edge that when the sneering hotel owner refused to store my bag in the reception on the day of my flight, I just cracked apart, my unearthly wail drifting behind me when I climbed up to my hot room. I left the wooden, religious carving that some of the teachers had given me, on the table in my hotel room. Everything seemed now like pretence. That particular group of teachers who gave me that gift hadn’t turned up to my classes for months and didn’t give it to me with a truly genuine spirit. Chi Trang, my friend, gave me a wind chime that I treasure, because unlike their showy gift, it was a small but charming reminder of her generosity and kindness to me.

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How grateful I was when I saw again the old cyclo driver, riding stiffly around the corner on my last day in Vietnam. This old man had ridden me to my first Vietnamese lesson and helped me shop for curtains the first week I’d been in the country. His eyes, large and browned at the edges with age held my gaze and gave me strength when all I felt was failure for leaving three months before the end of my contract. Knowing that I faced 6 weeks of empty days while the students were on holidays and my colleagues had returned home, with no access to English newspapers, TV, books or people I could spend time with was just too much to bear in the end. On top of that my darling grandfather was sick with cancer and I missed home and my family terribly. Rationally I knew there was nothing much more I could achieve by staying the last few months but in my heart I felt incredibly down on myself for not being strong enough to tough out the loneliness and stay the final few months. In a kindness that fate gave me on this last, difficult day, I was able to spend a couple of hours with this old man. When I told him how I felt, he had insisted that I was a good person, when all I could think about was the people I felt that I’d let down by leaving early.

The afternoon I arrived back in Sydney felt so warm and familiar, despite it being the middle of winter. I sank onto our blue couch and slept, curtains drawn, heater on, becoming delirious and overheated while my mother went out to shop for groceries. On her return, I woke up disoriented and started speaking to her in Vietnamese, incredulous that she couldn’t understand me and asked in Vietnamese, “Why can’t you understand me?” to my mother’s repeated exhortations for me to speak in English.

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These days, I type, here at my computer, fingers freezing to numbness. I breathe Australian air, eat the food I was brought up with and have finally found peace over my time in Vietnam. The memories are still tinged with sadness but not the regret and guilt that almost capsized me when I first returned. Being in Vietnam in that little town, which felt like my 2nd home, brought me closer to knowing myself than I ever wanted to come. It also cemented even more firmly than I thought possible, my love for my mother. Her love, belief in me and constancy, are the foundations of who I am and who I want to be.

Click here to read my diary excerpts from my time as a volunteer in Vietnam.

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