My concerns proved to be unfounded as I had a wonderful time with my fellow volunteers and the children at the centre were adorable. I had been told I was going to an orphanage, which was a reasonable description but I found out it was in fact a social centre. Most of the chilren weren't actually orphans, only about 40 of the 500 or so (the centre has previously had up to 1000) live there full time, most return to either their parents or family members who are now responsible for them during the weekend. This doesn't apply to babies, of which there are probably another 40 or so and who have mostly been abandoned.
The reason most of the children are there is due to learning difficulties; some of the kids are deaf/mute so the centre teaches them sign language and education comes through that. They were really bright and beautiful and the only frustration I felt was when my limited sign language meant that we could only communicate a little. Most common question was "what is you name?" and "how old are you?" which we all managed to master answering eventually!
We were split into 3 groups of 3 with a timetable that was set out from the beginning: 8-11am was the first task and then another in the afternoon 2-4.30pm. The job was either taking care of the babies, painting two rooms (a task that we completed during our two weeks) or teaching. This was in some ways the hardest job because of language barrier. We all had a Vietnamese speaker in our group which meant the class was kept busy but I did struggle to feel useful sometimes. We did plan our lessons to a degree which was done equally between the three of us but because I couldn't talk to the children directly I found it a little frustrating. We stuck to basic things, playing games, drawing our countries flags, basic origami and playing with a world map, all of which the children responded well to.
The other children had various mental disabilities and were really sweet and good natured. The obvious Vietnamese language barrier meant only Mai and Huong, the Vietnamese volunteers could really talk to them but they did their best to help the rest of us understand what the children wanted to say. All of the kids mostly just appreciated the attention and affection which we were happy to give them. In the evening when the day was finished we had the option to go into the yard and play with the children which was really fun (if exhausting!).
The babies were adorable and due to no communication problems, being with them was in some ways the easiest job. Usually we just sat cuddling them and sang to them if they cried or fed them from a bottle of watery rice mixture, as milk is too expensive. When I found this out I was a little concerned as I was unsure if it gave the babies sufficient nutrion. The budgest for caring for them is only approximately 400,000 dong a month per baby, which just doesn't go very far. This was a hard fact to swallow but the reality is the babies are being cared for better at the social centre than they would be elsewhere so you have to appreciate the context. This was also hard when I quickly realised that the babies are not provided with nappies, meaning that if you're holding a baby and it pees, that's right, you get wet! This happened to nearly everyone at least once in the two weeks and while having to go and change your trousers is annoying (particularly if you foolishly wore jeans) it's even nastier for the babies; as they are left with extremely red bottoms which looked very painful in most cases.
Once I realised our main job was just make sure the the children had fun I found the project much more satisfying. They really did enjoy the novelty of us being there and they were such a joy to spend time with that we all gained from the experience. I was the only Westerner in the group, everyone else being Vietnamese, Korean or Japanse. I was slightly concerned about this beforehand, wondering if I would be treated as something of an outsider, but all the other volunteers were wonderful and we all got along really well. There were two other volunteers from Germany, Martel and Heshar. They were on a longer term project, several months but they were still friendly and happy to talk to us even though they worked seperately to us and had seen short term volunteers come and go before.
The close friendship I found in such a short time both surprised and delighted me. The language barrier was an issue when some volunteers didn't have fantastic English but it really wasn't a problem, it just meant talking a bit more slowly.
Only Shiwon and I stayed for a few weeks following the completion of the project. Huong let us stay with her which provided a really intersting opportunity seeing how Vietnamese students live. She was a wonderful hostess who cooked for us and took us all over Hanoi on her motorbike to see all the sites. She genuinely couldn't have done more for us and I am forever in her debt. We also went to Sapa with Mai where we spent a night doing homestay with some of the local tribal people and it was lovely to spend some time with her too. I'm still in touch with a lot of the people I volunteered with via facebook and email and I really hope one day we will see each other again.
Katherine Blacklaws, Vietnam March 2009