I had the best time of my life volunteering in Hanoi, Vietnam for six weeks over the summer in 2013.
Both Plan My Gap Year’s UK and abroad team were absolutely fantastic. There isn’t anything I would have changed about the experience. Everyone was so friendly, professional and happy to answer any questions, no matter how big or small to put you at ease before you left. You really felt, unlike in many commercial organisations, that you really mattered as a customer not that you were just another source of income on a production line. In terms of money although such trips are expensive, PMGY offers the most affordable on the market. You just have to except you have to pay to volunteer and it really is worth it.
Before departure you are giving an in-depth volunteer handbook specific for you country of choice, which really did cover everything you needed to know. When I arrived I was collected from the airport and taken to the volunteer house in the suburbs of Hanoi. It was nice to live with other volunteers, who were all so friendly, as you had people right there to socialise with and go on trips at the weekends with.
The house had a lounge with a computer and TV (including some English channels), a kitchen, a general meeting/classroom/spare room, 6 bedrooms (5 of which had 2 bunk beds in, the other three), 4 bathrooms, a laundry room, an area to dry clothes and a roof terrace too. So literally everything you needed was on hand, and there is a ‘nanny’ too who cleans your room once a week and cooks a delicious lunch and dinner everyday. The food there was literally incredible. It was so fresh, healthy and tasty. Lots of dishes are prepared and you pick and choose what you want and help yourself. Always a big bowl of rice then vegetables, salads, meat, egg and fruit. And there’s lots of choice so there is always something you like (I only found one dish I didn’t in 6 weeks though, so you needn’t worry).
There is so much to do in Hanoi, in the evenings we mostly went and had a few casual drinks at a local Vietnamese place for Bia Hoi, (30p beer), but there was also a huge new shopping centre with Burger King, Pizza Hut, KFC nearby too for occasional eating out. At weekends I often went to the old quarter of Hanoi, which is about a 35 min bus ride away (free because you get a bus pass during your stay) and really easy to get to. There, there is lots to do, shopping, cafes, museums, general wandering, spas etc. So it’s really nice to be close to this.
At the weekends we also travelled quite a lot (when the monsoon rain wasn’t an issue - it always seemed completely dry in the week then wet all weekend annoyingly). From Hanoi everywhere is relatively easy to get to, such as Sapa, Halong Bay, Perfume Pagoda or even flights to Ho Chi Minh or Hoi An. And prices are so cheap there you really can make the most of your free time to explore the rest of the country.
You can see how much there is to do without me having even talked about the volunteering yet! In terms of the actual volunteering the programmes all seemed great. No one was unhappy with their placement and any small issues that cropped up were always resolved quickly and easily by the amazing in country team, who I’d like to thank enormously, as they are one of the most important contributors to making the experience so great.
I chose the NGO programme and PMGY are one of the few who offer this, hence why I initially become interested in them. I would highly recommend this programme, especially for longer stays as the work was incredibly varied and never dull. The NGO I worked for were absolutely fantastic. I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent working for them. The staff was all so lovely, and I really enjoyed the work. I had multiple responsibilities, big and small, but basically my job was to support the NGO is whatever way possible. My most important task was composing concept papers, outlining projects, for submission to large international organisations donors to seek funding. In addition, I was required to write reports on the NGO’s activities for distribution purposes including for the monthly newsletter. Often I edited documents too, to ensure the English was to a high standard. I also taught three mornings a week for three weeks in a summer camp to gain insight so that I was able to design a successful summer camp for the NGO to run themselves. I was also able to make suggestions which I felt might be of benefit to the NGO, which previously they may not have been aware of, this was particularly in relation to technology and marketing. As the NGO I was working for was in charge of the other international volunteers in Vietnam too other tasks included ensuring the smooth running of their programmes through answering their questions, helping with the orientation my providing tours of the local area and helping the in country team address any questions volunteers had by acting as a link between them. In essence my role encompassed multiple tasks and I was required to maintain flexibility and good time management through out. The programme would of course vary depending where you placement was, what the needs of the NGO were at that time and your own skill set.
One recommendation I would make is to stay for a minimum of four weeks. People who came for 2 or 3 often regretted not staying longer, because although its still great to go at all, you get much more out of a longer trip because you can achieve more, both in terms of volunteering and seeing the difference and in making the most of the city/country. Otherwise you just get settled then you’re going home again.
The best thing about Vietnam was how friendly everyone is there. The NGO staff, local volunteers and locals were all so genuine, quite unlike anywhere else I’ve ever visited. I felt safe the whole time I was there because everyone treated you like you’d been friends for life.
The international volunteers were great too though! It was really nice to be able to meet new people, make new friends and nice to spend time with other people who care about making a difference.
It really was the most unforgettable and touching experience of my life and as such I would highly recommend volunteering with PMGY (in particular with an NGO) and visiting Vietnam to anyone. In fact I’m already thinking about booking my next trip!