There are places that have a too strong history and a so different culture from your own that could not be discover only on a journey.
That was what I felt about Vietnam. I wanted to know Southeast Asia and Vietnam was the place that most caught my attention. Anyway, I doubted if this was the place that suited me to spend some time living, considering how rich and interesting is the culture in Southeast Asia and the amount of wonderful places that have to be discovered.
One day, while I was planing my future months somewhere in the south of Asia, I received an email from a portal with international programs in which I was pointed saying ‘VOLUNTARY WORK IN VIETNAM‘ as the subject. In the mail there were more offers of interesting projects, and all of them in Europe and was such a chance that what it came prominent in the email subject was Vietnam, that I decided to contact with the organization that was proposing this voluntary work program.
The deal offered by this NGO in Hanoi city was that volunteers helped children and youth in the suburbs of the city to learn English and in exchange, the organization gave you a place to sleep and food. Actually, they gave something more important that they did not say in the offer of the project: the opportunity to learn the Vietnamese culture. And I, as a journalist I am, there is nothing that fascinates me more when I go to a new place than knowing well the local customs.
After convincing myself for the opportunity, I flew towards Hanoi, where I stayed with a family, the sister of one of the members of the organization, with her husband and her three young children. I don’t deny that it wasn’t hard at the beginning. The cultural shock was strong. In Vietnam there are few people who speak English and, what is more difficult is that many basic gestures with hands don’t always mean the same in all cultures, so most of the time was impossible to understand.
And in many cases, voluntary workers felt strongly that the woman from the family where we lived didn’t want to have us there, until one day, thanks to a neighbor who worked as a translator, we realized that it was not like that at all. There were many more cultural shocks, inevitably, and uncomfortable in many occasions.
Nevertheless, the experience payed off. I had 12 years old students learning very fast, and another group of adults who, with time (it was not so easy to know things when you questioned them by the large language barrier that exists in Vietnam) I knew that they were young rural immigrants from Vietnam, and they had moved to the outskirts of Hanoi, where they studied at night at a school created for workers.
They worked in large factories as Panasonic or Canon creating cameras and smartphones for consumption in the West. In other words, these workers, exploited in the name of communism, which appear on television and we are shocked by their working conditions, were my students, young adorable teenagers, all under 20, with their heads full of dreams and to reach a better future. It was like this because after 10 or 12 hours of daily work, always stood, were attending to night school and were searching three hours free in their weekends to learn English.
In other words, although what the organization proposed to me was that I would teach in exchange for a room and food, what I got was much more: new friends, knowledge of new customs and cultures, learning to handle different situations and, above all, the unconditional love of a people born in other points of the globe, with whom I still keep in touch.