I can sum up Vietnam in one word...wow!
My trip to Vietnam was inspired by a desire to try my hand at "responsible tourism". This is a topic we have covered briefly during my university studies, and it's something I would like to experience all over the world over the coming years.
After an extensive search for reputable agency to volunteer through, I settled on International Volunteer Headquarters, a New Zealand based organisation founded in 2007 by Daniel Radcliffe with the goal of...
"providing safe, affordable and high quality placements in areas where there is a real NEED for volunteers"
IVHQ's Vietnam Volunteer Programme info page - http://www.volunteerhq.org/programmes-volunteer-vietnam.html
IVHQ partners with local volunteer organisations, who handle the reception, orientation, accommodation and transport requirements of volunteer placements. In Vietnam, IVHQ partners with Volunteers for Peace Vietnam.
I arrived in Ho Chi Monh City (formerly known as Saigon) a few days before my programme started, which gave me an opportunity to see some of the city attractions, and to try to acclimatise to the weather. This was humidity on a scale that I haven't experienced since visiting Bali 20 years ago.
On the first day I took a tour along the Mekong Delta, through TNK Travel (http://www.tnktravelvietnam.com) which was located right next door to my hotel. For the princely sum of USD$10.00, the tour included:
- a long boat ride down the Mekong Delta, the world's 10th longest river
- a visit to the My Tho floating fishing village for morning tea
- a boat ride through Tan Thach natural canal in Ben Tre, cruising under the cooling shadows of water coconut trees
- lunch on Tortoise Island
- a visit to a family business which epitomizes the idyllic rural lifestyle
- a few other stops, such as a handicraft factory/shop and a stunning pagoda
As with most tours through South East Asia, this one represented great value for money, considering all coach and river transport, food and an English-speaking guide.
The following day I took a walk around Ho Chi Minh City's "District 1", the main shopping/tourist district. I visited the Vietnam History Museum, Notre Dame Cathedral, Reunification Palace, War Remnants Museum and Ben Thanh Market.
A visit to Ho Chi Minh City is not complete without a wander along De Tham Street, the Pham Ngu Lao "backpacker area" and local equivalent to Bangkok's Khao San Road. My hotel was in the heart of it all, with Go2Bar and the Crazy Buffalo on opposing corners. I had a luxury suite on the 8th floor, and the music (and scooter hotns!) could be heard well in to the night. On the second night, I gave up and joined the crowd (if you can't beat them...). It was a good night out, but it was quite sad to see mothers dragging 4 & 5 year olds around the bars and even sending them up to drunken tourists on their own, to either try and sell cigarettes or souvenirs, or simply to beg for money, as late as 2am in the morning!
The price of drinks can vary dramatically between the various bars along De Tham Street, though it's really quite negligible from a "big picture" perspective. The more popular bars can charge up to AUD$4.00 for a basic spirit drink (standard glass size), whereas a smaller, less popular bar next door is selling "buckets" of spirits + mixer for around UD$2.00. These literally are a plastic bucket, filled with half a bottle of your preferred sprit, plus mixer, and half a dozen straws (only for those who are sharing the drink...nobody in our group did, we were knocking ours back single-handedly! :-). Obviously, alcoholic os quite cheap through Vietnam. A bottle of local spirits can be bought for around AUD$4.00 in the supermarkets/convenience stores, and brand name drinks like Smirnoff Vodka sell for about AUD$10.00.
On Sunday the 14th November 2010 I was collected from my hotel and taken to Peace House 3 in the Phu Nhuan District. The living conditions are quite cramped in Ho Chi Minh City, much like the rest of South East Asia. Our house was five stories high, with a garage/office area at street level, and then a mezzanine floor which had a kitchen/lounge area, followed by 3 floors of bedrooms and am open rooftop. Each bedroom floor had 2 rooms, and in total the house could accommodate 24 volunteers, along with the manager's family room. That's a lot of people in a tall, thin (approx 20m frontage) building. The big shock here initially, was no hot running water, but the humidity kept the water bearably tepid around the clock (and it's easy to forego some creature comforts when you're volunteering in a developing country).
Monday was Orientation Day, which started with an introduction to Volunteers for Peace Vietnam and the work that they carry out, followed by a crash course in Vietnamese (none of which I have absorbed, but it was fun to try nonetheless!). Tuesday turned out to be a walking tour of Ho Chi Minh City, which of course was exactly what I had done on my own three days prior, but it was great fun this time around with a group. We had a fantastic banquet lunch which cost an incredible 1,700,000.00 Vietnamese Dong (approx. AUD$87.00) for 17 of us, including drinks (beer/wine/cocktails/spirits).
My volunteering work started on Wednesday, and I had chosen to work with mentally and physically handicapped children at an orphanage for abandoned children in permanent care and at a hospital day care ward for disabled children. Sadly, handicapped children tend to get shunned by a local community (and by families themselves, as a handicapped child is presumed unable to contribute to a family's income in later years). This situation is more prevalent in Ho Chi Minh City where the socio-economic conditions are generally weaker than in the north of the country, around the capital of Hanoi. This means there are no shortage of guests in Ho Chi Minh City's orphanages, and therefore no shortage of volunteer opportunities, and I would urge anyone, of any age or nationality, to try this form of tourism and reap the personal benefits of simply lending a hand where it is most needed, and appreciated.
During my two week stint, I worked (and bunked) with a crazy Canadian from Halifax, named Marc Whoriskey, and we alternated each day between the pagoda and the hospital. It is challenging work, which stirs up a wide range of emotions. Happy, sad, rewarding, confrontational, inspiring, humourous...you name it, it's right there. A typical day for a volunteer can include taking children for walks (those who are physically able), and playing games/puzzles, and the big one - helping to feed the children. This is a very time consuming task, especially with the more severely handicapped children, and one can only wonder how the few staff members in these centres would cope with all that needs to be done without the help of volunteers.
When we returned from Mui Ne we stopped in at the Seventeen Saloon for dinner. Good bar, with a distinct country and western theme, and great meals.
We had a night out at Apocalypse Now, which seemingly ended up quite disastrous for one Perth lady in our group, who lost her purse. Thankfully the bar called her the next day to let her know it had been handed in, with all of her money and bank card/license/etc all in tact, which was fantastic.