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The Maastricht Diplomat

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Vietnam Experience: Part II

I still remember the adventures of my first day of work. Coming back to school from lunch break, I was a bit sleepy and completely lost my bus stop, finding myself in at the station with no idea where to go. I, therefore, decided to rely on a toothless old driver, who luckily was able to convince me (don’t ask me how) that he was the most trustworthy out of his colleagues. It was amusing to see how Vietnamese sellers people compete with each other to get something from Westerners.

Volunteering at REACH: Eye-opening Experience 

Teaching English to people with whom I lacked any means of communication proved very challenging at the beginning. The first day I arrived at REACH, I was particularly shocked when, while I was testing the students level, I asked very simple questions like “What’s your name?” or “How old are you?” and received no answer.

I was a support to the young Vietnamese teachers, Hien, Ly and Niem, who were all very caring, understanding and mastered English perfectly. REACH (website: is an NGO which offers four-month vocational programs that train students to become sellers, hairdressers, hotel personnel, bartenders and other practical jobs. The teaching method, therefore, is focused on the communication skills that are necessary for basic communications with employers, colleagues or customers. My work as a teacher mainly consisted of improving their pronunciation and phonetics, as Vietnamese words have downward, flat or upwards tones and therefore it is difficult for them to say the right sounds. The first day at the NGO I was supposed to work at for three weeks, I came home asking myself if there was anything in power to help the students. After three days of work, since I could not communicate properly with the students, I asked Que to switch me to another project to teach students with a more advanced level of English. On Friday, however, at the end of my first week at REACH, I thought I was acting in a selfish way, especially because I was getting closer and more attached with the students, although I could not remember their names. For once, I felt bad about myself and regretted my decision a lot much. I remember that I was a bit scared of telling Ly, who has been teaching there for 5 years, that I wanted to remain there. To win my fears and take actions, I decided to rely on Hien, who was a freshman teacher, as, being a peer of mine, I thought that by explaining my situation to her she would understand me. And I was right. After I told her how I felt, and while I was tearing up she then spoke with the other teachers, who of course gave me this chance. I’m extremely grateful for the time spent with LY and Niem and I was a pleasure to work and spend time with such motivated and passionate people. I considered myself blessed for having established a deep and meaningful friendship with Hien, and I’m sure I will come back to visit her again and maybe travel around the country with a motorbike. She’s a very passionate, genuine and caring person.

Starting from the second week of volunteering, I decided to change my mentality and my perspective on things. Indeed, what may be insignificant for me, such as teaching the alphabet, can potentially mean the world to someone else who has never seen or talked with a foreign person before. The students there transmitted me enthusiasm, joy and passion that I have rarely experienced in my life before. These students, whose age ranged from 18 until 26 years, left their homes and went to live by themselves in Hanoi in a completely different social and urban setting and often in precarious living conditions. Despite all of this, they could really enjoy themselves in any moment and did not need material things to do so. I myself had the chance to spend one night at the house of a student who became a friend of mine. He used to pay $25 dollars per month and his house did not have an actual shower, a kitchen, nor a door that separated the bathroom from the rest of the room. It was terrible.

Travelling tales  During the weekends, I had the chance to travel with the other volunteers in the house. The first one, I went close to Ninh Binh south to Hanoi and spent a day with my friends visiting Buddhist temples and going boating on the river. As I was hungover from the previous night, I decided to take the bus on the way there. On the way back, however, I travelled for more than 150 km with an improper Vietcong’s helmet that somehow served its purpose, although I lost it more than once on the street while driving.

The second weekend, we did an absolutely worth it two-day trip organised by Central Backpackers Hostel to Halong Bay. The cruise, which brings you to Cat Ba Island, included lunch on board and lasted from about 12:30 am until 4 pm, where we reached our wonderful resort on the beach. The sea’s water, however, was not very clean due to crowds of tourists. The resort where we spent the night, however, was magnificent due to the breath-taking view that we could admire from it. At night, we drank all together and afterwards I was laying on the beach with my travel mates contemplating the beauty of the sky. The next day, as you might have already guessed, was quite challenging to wake up and embark on the journey back. If you intend to spend a weekend in Halong Bay, then I highly recommend you to book with Central Backpackers Hostel because it was absolutely worth it.

Last weekend we decided to go trekking in the Sapa Mountains, on the border with China in the north of the country. After the night on the train, we took the bus and travelled to Lao Cai, which was the base of our itinerary. Our trip was organised by the “Sapa Sisters Trekking Adventures” which is made up by local female guides belonging to the Hmong ethnic minority. These friendly women will bring you through adventurous paths that will make you appreciate the majesty of a unique landscape composed of rice fields, hills and mountains. During our journey, our guide explained to us that it’s absolutely normal for the women from her village to marry in the early 20’s and that their suitors can even follow them without talking for years due to embarrassment.

Moreover, while we were eating, we were ‘assaulted’ the whole time by peddlers who were trying to sell us staff. After half an hour of resistance, however, we were forced to surrender. I found bargaining prices in Vietnam extremely fun. My strategy was to pretend to be uninterested about stuff and simply leave, which was very effective as the sellers would do anything to get rid of what they had. Two women indeed accompanied during our trekking to sell us something at the end, but unfortunately for them, it did not work out. The trekking tour was very enjoyable and on the way to our destination, we went through many typical villages. At night, we were hosted by local people, who very kindly cooked dinner and made breakfast for us. Shortly after we arrived at their house, our guide made me cross the walking paths between the terracing and due to my precarious balance, I risked to fall of more than one, with unforeseeable consequences.

Life Lessons I learned that, as a volunteer, we cannot expect to change the world. What we can possibly do, however, is helping a bit people in need by taking small steps towards the righteous direction. I believe in the power of gradual changes and good habits because I trust the difficult and challenging process of human development and the investment in human capital. Moreover, at REACH for entire days they lacked either current water or electricity, which made me reflect on how many comforts that I take for granted my life is full of. Life at the end is pure and simple social lottery and we shall not take any credit for the opportunities that are denied to many other people because of luck. However, this is why we have to learn to appreciate more who we are, what we have, and the people that are by our side. We should not always attempt to reach success, money and fame, because this eternal race with ourselves and others will constantly make us stressed, angry, jealous, unsatisfied. In the meanwhile, life goes by without us being aware of the plethora of things, moments and people that we should be grateful for. It is essential to keep looking ahead of us, but sometimes it’s also necessary to settle down for a while, sit down in a mini chair and drinking tea in the streets as Vietnamese people do. Let’s not always feel that we are short of time, it is up to us to decide what we value as important. Let us guide our life in the direction we want it to go, without having to chase anything or anyone.


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