I was in the Teaching English and Special Needs programs for six weeks in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Here is the short version of my review for anyone who isn't into reading longer reviews:
This program is fantastic. The staff are nice. The food is good. The volunteers feel helpful. If you can handle heat (which you get used to) and a dorm room with bunk beds, then prepare yourself for a wonderful time in this program. Ho Chi Minh City opens up to you with this volunteer experience, and you truly get to see the local and cultural side of Vietnam.
Now for the longer review:
During my time in this program, I was involved in Teaching English and Special Needs Daycare. Both have their distinct advantages. In the Teaching English program you work with Vietnamese students at the Saigon Tourist and Hospitality College in their English classes. You assist the teacher in their lesson, which can mean anything from helping with pronunciation, to simply having conversations with them for the whole class period. The students are incredibly nice and are excited to get to know you. Several times, other volunteers and I have gone out to dinner or to amusement parks with our students and had a fabulous time hanging out with them. The Teaching English program is also conveniently located downstairs from the dorms.
The Special Needs program is phenomenal in a different way. You truly feel that you are needed in this program. Whether it be through aiding in recreational or educational activities or helping out with lunchtime, you know that your actions are much appreciated. The kids have so much love to give and it's an honor to be able to share in that loving environment for even a short time. This program is about a 20 minute walk from the dorm, but a coordinator always takes you, so there is never any need to worry about getting lost.
The food at this program is served in the restaurant downstairs from the dorm. You are given three vouchers for six days a week, for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. You can order a variety of meals, smoothies, juices, or even baked goods from the bakery. Although the menu varies slightly from day to day, realistically it is possible to get sick of the food. Even then, you have to take a mere few steps outside the dorms to find fantastic Vietnamese cuisine for no more than 2 USD.
The wireless internet at the dorms is okay, but with more people connected it becomes unreliable. However, there is a cheap coffee shop across the street from the dorms with fantastic wifi! Additionally, buying some 3G for your phone is incredibly inexpensive.
The staff at this program are incredibly amazing. They will go above and beyond to serve your needs. I sustained a fairly serious knee injury during my first week in Vietnam and my coordinator, Anna, promptly took me to a hospital and translated for me. This ended up being a whole day excursion, and when I realized I hadn't brought enough money with me to cover my MRI (which was 100 USD, for those of you wondering), Anna lent me the money until I reached an ATM. She stayed with me through a 3 hour wait for my diagnostic results in a cramped room, and never spoke a single word of complaint.
Additionally, the other coordinators are terrific, as well. They are eager to get to know you and show you the best places around the city. Many times the other volunteers and I would travel on weekends or to local hotspots on the accurate recommendation of the coordinators!
Many times when researching my volunteer placement I read that people had a terrible time in Vietnam. They were scammed, frightened by the traffic, or had to deal with the trials of petty theft. I hesitated in my choice of this program, but I am very grateful I took the risk because that was not at all my experience. After spending six weeks in Vietnam, I wholeheartedly love this country and am already planning a future trip.
Yes, the traffic is hectic. But the coordinators teach you how to be most effective when dealing with it. Sure, there is petty crime. If you don't wear across the body straps (backpacks are ideal) you won't encounter any of it. And to be honest, getting scammed in Vietnam is fairly hard to do. Paying twice the price for a souvenir is often the difference between paying 2 USD and 4 USD!
More than that, the dorms in this program are located in the Tan Binh District, which is not the tourist district (District 1 is the tourist district). This allows for a truly local experience.
District 1 is fun and has a great night life. It is only a 5 dollar taxi drive, or 15 cent bus ride away (yes 15 cents). However, the Vietnamese people in District 1 are sales oriented, a bit pushy, and are not afraid to follow you down the street with their wares.
In the Tan Binh District you don't have to deal with any of this nonsense. Even the market in the Tan Binh District is known for not partaking in the high pressure sales of the District 1 markets. There is a local supermarket nearby, and street food within arms reach at all times. The people are friendly and eager to decipher meaning through hand signals for a sale. As a female, I walk alone frequently during the day without worry and can do so for short distances at night. In groups at night, there is no concern for any sort of criminal activity.
I really can't recommend this program enough. If you are on the fence, do it! The country has fantastic people, history, and this program is a gem.