Broke backpacker’s volunteer experience in Vietnam

It was long past lunch time when I arrived at the Hanoi International Airport. I had endured a 30-hour journey which included a dusty bus ride from Pokhara to Kathmandu in Nepal, a long wait at the Kathmandu airport, layover at the Kuala Lumpur Airport and a rather smooth flight to Hanoi. I felt a sudden pang of melancholy leaving South Asia behind.

So it was a relief to see two smiling Vietnamese girls standing at the exit gate of the airport and holding a card bearing my name.  They were from a language center where I was supposed to volunteer as an English teacher and they came to pick me up.

“I’m sorry. My flight was delayed by an hour. I thought you’d leave,” I said.  “Oh no, it’s alright. We thought you’d be late so we waited for you,” one of them said.

I was on my fourth month of long-term solo backpacking journey when I decided to go to Vietnam. Even before I set off on this journey which began in India, I knew Vietnam has one of the most lucrative job markets for teaching English abroad. I was already broke after four months of being on the road, so volunteering was the best option for me.

I was combing Workaway.info, a website where you can find volunteering gigs all over the world, when I found Cool English, a language center helping underprivileged students in Hanoi to learn English. I guess they charge a minimal fee.

There were dozens of English centers looking for volunteers but Cool English  replied to my query within the day. And it was perfect. I would volunteer for the center for four to five hours from Monday to Friday in two weeks, and still I would have the time to do some writing. In exchange, the center will provide my accommodation, meals and tours around the city.

Nguyen Yen, the one running the center, asked me to teach on the day I arrived because their volunteer teacher left all of a sudden due to an emergency. “Sure!” was the only response I could give her. I thought I’d be a zombie teacher in front of the class. But surprisingly, I felt energized, probably by the enthusiasm of the students. There were a dozen of them and I could see from their eyes their eagerness to learn.

It was a good start of a two-week volunteering work, which had been nothing but rewarding and fun.  In all honesty, it was me who was there as a learner. Helping them learn English had enriched my travel experience. Plus, I gained more friends in a country where I am a foreigner.

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The students of Cool English with my Vietnamese co-teacher
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Hanging out in Hanoi Old Quarter

My students showed me around the city during the weekends. We had food trips, conversations over coffee and milk tea in Old Quarter. One of my students Pham Hoang drove me around the city on a motorbike one morning so I could visit Ho Chi Minh museum and the 946-year-old Temple of Literature, which hosts Vietnam’s first national university. One of my students Sieu Luoi who was staying with me in an apartment taught me how to cook some Vietnamese (and Korean) dishes.

Volunteering if done right is an excellent way to immerse oneself in another country’s culture. And to me, it was totally worth it.

PS. My volunteering experience was featured in Vietnamese newspaper Tuoi Tre in time for the celebration of the Vietnamese Teachers’ Day. Here is the link to the story.