My volunteering experience with the Centre for Development Sustainable Studies (CSDS) in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, has undoubtedly represented a life-changing period of my life, although, in the end, my stay stretched for ‘only’ 25 days. I’ve been told myself many times to put my memories on paper. However, I figured that as time was going by it was simply impossible to write down my thoughts, as I was constantly processing what was happening to me and around me. The fact that other people will be on the same boat as I was in few months, however, triggered the most vivid and profound emotions, images and stories from which I take off the dust by thinking back to my wonderful time spent there. The sequence of my little diary won’t be necessarily in chronological order, as it will comprise meaningful moments that I cherish with myself and the people that were with me.
First Impressions: Vietnam and the magic environment at CSDS
When I first arrived in Vietnam on the 31st of July 2017, I thought I found myself in an open furnace, which together with the unbearable traffic created an explosive combination of confusion and chaos. Here comes the first simple rule that you have to follow: plan you time but expect the unexpected. Two things, in particular, are peculiar in Vietnam when it comes to heat and driveability: these are respectively the level of humidity and the number of motorbikes in the streets. Therefore, if you want to have a more peaceful stay in Vietnam, I highly recommend taking into account two independent variables. The first one is that you will have to cross the street at some point, no matter how many motorbikes drive by. You will probably feel like Eminem in the YouTube video of “Not Afraid” when he crosses the street and no car hits him. The second constant of your stay in Vietnam is, as I said before, the degree of humidity. Taking showers certainly makes you feel good, but it is indeed useless in the long-term. In less than 5 minutes after going out, you will be as sweaty as a marathon runner at the end of his race. No kidding. When your concentration of dopamine is high, however, the outer conditions do matter, but to a certain extent. The very first day I arrived, completely captured by the euphoria of the moment and jetlagged, I decided to play soccer under a torrential rain. My team was composed by me, one Vietnamese and one Cambodian, and our opponents were an Irish, a Spanish, and a Burmese. Up for grabs, the famous Golden Goat, a very much desired and contended trophy between the CSDS Team and that of the Volunteers for Peace Vietnam (VPV), who lived in front of our house. At the end of an epic battle fought in extreme conditions, VPV won, taking the trophy back home. In coming back home, the driver kept pretending that he had no clue where he was going to overcharge us. After a turbulent drive, however, we managed to make it home. My advice, therefore, is the following: do not take taxis by any means and download the Uber app and use it to move around, because it’s much cheaper. In the next few days of my staying at CSDS, the Staff prepared me to for my project, which started the second week. The people at CSDS were extremely helpful and supportive of me and were always willing to give me a hand when I needed anything.
Reflections on Vietnamese Politics & Society
On my second day, I was given more specific information regarding the NGO I was assigned, namely REACH, which was located ten minutes away by bus from the volunteers’ house. This NGO, as the Vice-President and inspiring Que explains me, takes care of students that come from disadvantaged families mostly living in the countryside. In discussing the de facto contract of my staying at CSDS I had to sign its terms and conditions, which conveys a clear picture of the political and social context of Vietnam. Volunteers were indeed forbidden in any way to engage in any form of political activism. Although the Vietnamese government has opened up the country to the world, it’s still highly politically repressive and controlling of society. As I have been told, for more than a month, when the leaders of the Communist party meet up, the Internet is completely shut down. The Socialist Regime, although from the 1990s onwards it progressively opened its markets, still makes a large use of propaganda and its huge manifestos, which you can observe while walking in the streets. By having conversations with the Vietnamese people, I came to understand better their different and yet unique perspective. When inquiring about the War with the US, they reported to me that in the past, American volunteers told them the story that has been sold to their former enemies. According to their distorted version, the US government simply chose a side to ally within the ongoing civil war between the North and the South, whereas as we are all aware of, the Americans supported the anti-Communist and repressive dictator Ngo Dinh Diem in the 1950s. However, when they were given the chance to visit and volunteer the Friendship Village, where children affected physically or mentally by the chemical compound Agent Orange are looked after and educated on the War, the US citizens heard the other side of the story. In history, and especially in such a devastating war, no party of the two is absolutely right or completely wrong. History is much more complex and shadier than what they want us to believe. It was amusing when in visiting Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi, built by French colonialists at the end of the 19th century for political dissidents, I saw videos showing how well the American prisoners were treated when the detention centre came under Vietnamese control during the War. However, the Americans fought a war that was a lost cause from the very beginning and, even worse, committed crimes and atrocities that still nowadays are reluctant to admit. Nonetheless, as I have been able to discover myself, Vietnamese people are not very willing to talk about their traumatic past and prefer not to discuss about their politics. When I asked Que the rationale of why the government was not economically supporting their projects, she answered by saying that it has “more important problems to take care”. This answer left me somehow perplexed.
Vietnamese People & Volunteers
However, what left me even more surprised was the fact that Vietnamese people, despite their tragic history, are extremely well disposed and favourably inclined towards foreign people and particularly Westerners. The latter are for unknown reasons considered as some sorts of divinity by the Vietnamese people, who go as far as to worship them. This also might be because I was living among the locals in a less touristy part of the city and therefore the differences were perhaps more visible. Apart from the physical appearing, another major difference was represented by the composition of society. Differently, from our ageing and inactive Europe, Vietnamese society is very vibrant and dynamic, as the majority of the people have a working-age. I would definitely invest in human capital if I had the chance. The Vietnamese are the friendliest and most welcoming people I have ever met in my life. Period. Differently from people in Western societies often chasing money, success and fame, when people there ask personal and intimate questions, they are genuinely interested in getting to know you better and deepen their knowledge about your life. Moreover, I observed that Vietnamese people are much more caring and reflective about their role in their community and its harmony. This can be inferred from the fact that they are much more discrete. The emphasis of education is indeed more on self-control and retaining a high dignity, rather than on individual achievement and self-driven interests. I also got along really well with the other volunteers at the house, who were involved in many different projects. They were from many different cultural and national backgrounds and I can tell you for a fact that in these type of experiences you will meet very interesting, active and resourceful people with whom you can engage in real conversations and spend some quality time. At least, this is what happened to me.