Saigon Savvy Summer

By Idara Effiom

Summer of 2019 was a very interesting one for me. It was a summer of exploration, professional development, travel and volunteerism. I got to explore southern Vietnam, live in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon) for a month and work with my favourite demographic of people- children! Talk about a hot girl summer!

 In actuality, the whole of my trip to Vietnam was a stretch experience for me. From navigating the bureaucratic process of visa application, overcoming my fear of rodents by living in an area that had rats to commuting around Ho Chi Minh City with public transport and no knowledge of  a single word of Vietnamese. However, the main purpose of my trip was to provide care for children with special needs. This project was organised through CADIP, an organisation that is advertised through the University of Alberta Student Union. CADIP partners with various international counterparts to exchange volunteers between Canada and the rest of the world. In my case, the partnership was with Volunteers for Peace Vietnam (VPV) to recruit quality volunteers for various projects across Vietnam. 

Exploring HCMC

The first thing I noticed upon arrival in Ho Chi Minh City(HCMC) was the number of coffee shops! I can recall counting over 30 coffee shops during the short 15 minute ride from the airport! Later discussions with locals revealed HCMC’s burgeoning coffee culture which caught on quickly and I soon found myself stopping for an iced coffee every morning before work. My first day consisted of finalizing the logistical aspects of my trip such as accommodation and feeding. The local volunteers oriented me through talks of culture and precautions to take in the city. From discussions with other volunteers, I understood the work would be challenging and rewarding.

 Of course I Still found time amidst my busy work schedule to explore the city! HCMC is developed, busy and lively! It is of commerce and  a culture that is chaotic, energetic and is home to many of Vietnam’s notable landmarks. 

In touring the city, amongst the places I visited were; Saigon Opera House, the municipal theatre of Ho Chi Minh City, Saigon Central Post Office, which was constructed when Vietnam was a French colony and Ben Than Market, a popular spot for tourists seeking to get souvenirs. 

Another thing I noticed very early in my trip was the overwhelming number of motorbikes in HCMC. In fact, when pointed out to one of the local volunteers, he mentioned that the city boasts of a record number of over six million motorbikes used by individuals from all walks of life! From the young university students to the middle aged business women, motorbikes seem to be the preferred mode of transportation in Ho Chi Minh City. 

Getting Around 

I could not leave HCMC without using a motorbike a couple times! After the first frightening experience, I realized there was not much to fear, as long as you have your helmet on and take proper precautions! On workdays, however, I stuck to using busses to get to and from the pagoda. The routes were pretty simple with minimal walking, and the bus operators always had a smile (or smirk) to offer me. I recall a particular day, towards the end of my project where I failed to communicate my destination effectively to the bus conductor, missed my bus stop and had to walk 15 minutes to my destination. That was a nerve racking experience that made me extra vigilant for the rest of my trip. Walking around in Ho Chi Minh City reminded me of being a pedestrian back home in Lagos, Nigeria. Both cities adopt an idea that vehicles (cars, buses, motorbikes) always have the right of way. Pedestrians must cross cautiously wherever they get a chance while vehicles weave around them. I found myself applying the ‘look left, right and left again’ method of crossing the road that I had learned in primary school in Lagos. 

My Project

I spent my project in a pagoda (Buddhist social base) close to the heart of the city. Weekdays from 8:30 am – 5 pm, I was required to provide care to children with  physical and cognitive disabilities. My duties included assisting local staff in providing rehabilitation exercises and therapy treatments for children, entertaining and educating children with games, music and art, helping to develop fundraising initiatives to ensure ongoing funding for the institution and teaching English to local staff. 

Working with a very specific population (similar to that which the majority of my educational background is training me for) was a very eye opening experience. It shed light on the practicality of what I have learned in the classroom. In caring for children with congenital, physical and learning disabilities, I was opportuned to put into practice (as limited by my education as a third year student) care tactics learned in the classroom. The opportunity to shadow physiotherapists and psychologists was invaluable to me as I got a chance to witness various levels of care as administered by professionals.

 It is worth mentioning that, as expected, there were cultural differences in the ways that care was provided which, in the beginning of my project, were shocking to me. A particular example I noted was when it came to feeding the children. Local staff tend to adopt a more aggressive approach in ensuring their dependents eat and finish their meals. 

Throughout the course of my project, I got to interact with the children and locals on different levels. The children and I made artworks, built forts with LEGOS and even played in the pagoda pool. With the staff, I practiced Vietnamese and taught them greetings in English until we were all able to say exchange pleasantries in both languages. With the monks, I talked about my experiences living in Canada and Nigeria.

The pagoda in which I worked had a very open policy about visitors. This means that it would see hundreds of visitors daily who come bearing gifts for the children, and this was usually a good opportunity to engage with well wishers in an attempt to fundraise for the organisation.

My Takeaway

The overarching themes extracted from my stretch experience are resilience and the importance of humanity.  The local staff showed resilience by their willingness and eagerness to work in sometimes uncomfortable situations and with limited resources.They handled adverse conditions ,such as insufficient funding or resources, gracefully and with a positive attitude. They were able to improvise and recover from tough situations such as resistance when dealing with children with more severe disability. The children also displayed resilience by remaining joyful and friendly. 

The pagoda as an institution is built on the foundation of humanity. The administration strives to provide the children with resources that will equip them to be functional members of society despite their situation. The head monk is benevolent, caring and invested in the well-being of the children. He often make decisions, no matter how tough they are, that are beneficial to the children. For example, administration recently decided to restrict adoption after a string of unfortunate cases involving maltreatment of adopted children. This inevitably meant additional resources will be required for care. In order to mitigate this situation, the administration doubled fundraising and volunteer recruitment efforts. That, to me, is a rare act of kindness. 

Travelling to Ho Chi Minh City was arguably one of the best decisions I have made in my academic career. This experience broadened my horizons, threw me out of my comfort zone and gave me the opportunity to interact with some of the most charming children I have met! Through this, I have formed many friendships with local and international co-volunteers and have actually been invited to visit again by the Pagoda! I have also had time to reflect on how privileged I am to have this opportunity through PPLC! I definitely have plans to return to Ho Chi Minh City for more experiences. Until then, catch me looking for ways to fundraiser for the pagoda! 

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