Organization: Volunteers for Peace Vietnam
In May of 2011, a team of 16 students flew across the world to South East Asia where they spent 4 weeks volunteering with special needs children in Vietnam and spend 2 weeks experiencing and seeing the tragic history of Cambodia and Laos. After two stopovers and 18 hours of flying, the team arrived in Siem Riep, Cambodia. It was about 40 degrees outside and as instantly sweaty as we got we were super excited to finally hit land. After dealing with visas and lost luggage we finally made it to our first hotel in Siem. Even though it was passed midnight, we were all too hyper to go to bed and so we left our bags at the hotel and went to explore the streets of Siem. Surprisingly the streets were alive even passed midnight, motorbikes zooming in and out, children running up to you, people waving at you or laughing at you because you did not know what you were doing. The most surprising part of all was the menu: $1 for vegetables and rice, $1 for fried noodles, EVERYTHING was $1! We spent the next few days exploring the streets of Siem, bargaining at the night markets, and temple hopping the temples of Angkor. Once our time was up in Siem, we got on a bus and made our way to Phnom Penh. On our way to Phnom we stopped at this small village to enjoy one of the most well known foods in Cambodia: Fried Spiders… yum! After 6 hours, we finally arrived in Phnom Penh. Here is where we saw the tragic past of the Cambodian genocide. We visited the killing fields were thousands of people were killed, S21 prison and the land mine museum. Phnom Penh was unreal!
Our week in Cambodia was up and we made our way to Vietnam by BOAT on the Mekong River! We arrived on our home stay for the next 2 weeks. Saigon was a great place. The streets were filled with motorbikes, people crossing in all sorts of directions and the nation’s DELICIOUS traditional meal - Pho! We settled in our house and were introduced to our area by Andy, our in country supportive staff from Volunteer for Peace Headquarters. Our first few days, a few of the local volunteers took us around Saigon to give us a sense of their culture and history. We visited the War remnants museum, the Reunification palace and the Ben Thanh Market. Then we went over our volunteer placement with Andy. We were very fortunate to have the opportunity to work at two placements, one was a rehabilitation centre for special needs children at the hospital (LTK) and the other one was taking care of special needs children at the orphanage.
At the LTK, in the morning we would do all sorts of different activities such as drawing, sing songs in circles and even get our moves on from time to time and dance with the children. After lunch, the children would be a little more settled down and most activities consisted of more drawing and lots of bubble blowing. At the orphanage we would help any way we could, from feeding the children at lunch, to putting them in their beds, playing with them in the common area and even taking them around the complex for a walk. As the orphanage was behind a beautiful temple the children loved going inside to play hide and seek or simply walk around the long halls, up and down the stairs.
The most fascinating thing with working with these disabled children is that they teach you that they are very sufficient and that they are simply children who like to run, draw, dance and blow bubbles. Even the slightest interest you shows them you instantly put a huge smile on their face. By simply grabbing their hand and leading the way for a walk around the complex, you just started an adventure for them. Then you realize that these kids are giving you a message, that you are not there to change they way they are living but to put a smile on their face by simply grabbing their hand or looking at them and making a funny face to them.
After our two weeks in Saigon we departed for Thuy An, a small town outside of Hanoi. There is where we spend our next two weeks and it became our second home in Vietnam. In Thuy An we got the opportunity to volunteer in a rehabilitation centre where children with all sort of different disabilities come and they teach them different jobs they can do in order for them to be able to support themselves in society. Since there was a structured day for the children during the morning we got the opportunity to hoe a field where they would use it in the future for growing food. Once that was done, we hoed the playing ground and re-painted making it more vibrant and fun to play in. Once it was done you got to see the children loving it. We got plenty of time to walk around the town and become familiar with the community. It was very small and very beautiful. There were not many cars or motorcycles or big buildings popping up everywhere. There were rice fields stretching for miles where you got to see farmers in their every day life. The local market was very small but it had delicious pineapplesand you could get the BEST bbq meat on a skewer. This is where the team really bonded as we lived in very close quarters. This experience really opened our eyes and allowed us to see different ways of living and adapting to your surroundings. It allowed us to grow as individuals and as a team. On our last day we had a multicultural day with the local volunteers where they taught us more about Vietnamese culture, food and history.
Our next destination and our last with ASB was Laos. Laos is one of the most untouched places in the world where its beauty absolutely takes your breath away. We landed in quiet Vientiane where we spend two nights. Then we made our way to Vang Vieng where the team spent two days between the most beautiful sights Laos has to offer. We got the opportunity to dirt bike on rocky roads, explore the beautiful caves, and taste delicious Laos’s cuisine. Then we were on route for our final destination where Team Vietnam members would eventually depart on their own adventures. After 8 hours of a bumpy bus ride through the mountains of Laos we made it to Luang Probang. Luang Probang is a beautiful town with one of the most beautiful night markets where you see tea and Laos coffee, intricate Laos textiles been sold and the most amazing food market where you could eat all you want for under $5. One of the days some of the team members got to see a beautiful waterfall and bears that were rescued. On our final night we had a team dinner and next morning we all packed and departed for Thailand where tears came down, hugged and said our goodbyes.