7 lessons I learned as a volunteer in Vietnam
A step out of my comfort zone. This is what this travel represented for me. To someone who had never been away from home for more than 3 weeks, going literally to the other side of the world with no returning date seemed crazy. Maybe it was. And there were moments when I would feel really terrified by the idea of doing it. But I was also terrified by the idea of never having another opportunity again. So I did it.
My plan originally was to go to Europe or USA, the way all of my college and highschool colleagues were doing. And then, after saving money for a year to do that, one day I just decided that I could have a much more different and adventurous experience for way less money. I started to look for volunteering opportunities, and registered at Worldpackers, looking for something in South America, when Mr. Dung sent me an invitation to join his Yepvin in Vietnam!
It was something that I’ve never thought about. To be honest, I knew very little about the country. But I considered the offer even so, and as the time passed by, I started to feel more and more attracted by this idea.
And that’s how I ended up in Yepvin. I went straight out of the bubble I’ve been living in my entire life, being protected, watched and sponsored by my parents, to a completely different country, and a completely different life, with lots and lots of “first times”, everything I’d do being a whole new thing for me. I’ve been living in the volunteer house, teaching English for kids, for almost 3 months now.
In this time, I met many people, from all around the world, and I’ve had a great experience. I had already some experience with teaching, but it was the first time I did it for kids who don’t speak my language! Also, living here, I could get to know the real Vietnam, not only those attractions designed especially for tourists but the actual way of life of Vietnamese people. It was a cultural immersion, enhanced by the presence of the other volunteers, who would share many awesome experiences and stories of being abroad. I can feel that this time here made me grow up and change in a positive way. Working as a volunteer is something that I definitely recommend, especially for new travelers!
You’re free! And you’re on your own. Now you have to make your own decisions, and face the consequences. You can finally choose not to eat your veggies, or go to sleep late every night, or just not sleep at all. But you’ll have to deal with your whole body complaining for the next days or weeks, and guess what, your mom is not there to make you a tea. You have a lot of things that you want to try, but if you don’t plan and prepare for them, nobody will do it for you. Sometimes you won’t have any kind of guide or even a friend to do something with you, and if you didn’t spend time researching or preparing, you’ll miss a lot of the experience, or end up lost. This makes you be much more responsible and thoughtful about everything you do, but after all, you’ll feel so good when you realize how independent you are, and how well you can handle yourself!
But, sometimes you can’t handle yourself. Being on your own is also a huge kick to your pride. I’m talking about that bad kind of pride, that makes you believe you don’t need anyone, and you have to deal with everything by yourself. But eventually, someone will offer you something, a gift, a ride, free stuff, some help, something that you want or need. And from my experience, I can say Vietnamese people are especially kind, they’ll offer you anything they can, and stop whatever they’re doing to help you, sometimes. It’s not like they’re saying you can’t buy or do things by your own. They are really just being nice. And you won’t owe them anything, even that you feel you do. So just accept, and be sincerely thankful. And after that, you’ll see your own kindness improving, and how willing you’ll be to help other people and expect nothing in return.
You know that you don’t have all the time in the world. Each possibility that crosses your way when you’re on a trip, is a unique thing, maybe you’ll never have the chance to do or see that anymore. So you have to stop being lazy or afraid, and go for it! Maybe it’s too hot or too cold or too rainy to climb a mountain, but if you don’t do it now, in the next week, instead of a crazy story about how hard it was to get to the top and how worthy of it the view was, all you’ll have is a memory of a boring tv show you spent the whole day watching in the hotel room. Maybe you were saving money for a new camera or a tattoo, but you can buy these things in any part of the world, and the tour through an amazing place, you can do it only where you are right now. Maybe a new friend invites you to do something in a day that you’re really tired, but hey, maybe you’ll never see this person again in your life. So just say yes!
Before I came here, I had to hear several times something like “but why Vietnam? Europe is much better. Everybody does this or that internship/program, you should try it too”. The opposite might happen too. “Going to Europe is so mainstream, you should do something different”. Advice can be really useful if you’re not sure about what you want, but if you are, you have to stop caring about what people say or think about what you’re doing. It’s your experience, after all. Yes, Europe is a really interesting place, but you go there, and you miss all the temples and different cultures and amazing sights in Southeast Asia. And yes, there’s nothing new about the Eiffel Tower, millions of people have gone there, but you haven’t! So if you feel like doing it, just do it, there’s nothing to be ashamed of.
Just because you did this or that, you’re not better than anyone. I met people who had just stepped out of their mom’s home and would brag about it as if everyone just needed a share of their international experience and knowledge of the world. And I met people who had been in several different countries and was always opened to learn more. Getting to know a lot of places and people makes you realize that you’re not a special little star and that the world is so full of knowledge and opinions, that is very unlikely that you’re the only one with the right answers for everything. So the best thing you can do is to humbly share your opinions, and always learn as much as you can.
You know amazing places and amazing people. You’ll wish you could stay there forever, or have these people always with you, but you know you can’t. This is one of the hardest things I had to learn. The more attached you get, the hardest it is to let it go and move to the next adventure. Eventually, you’ll find yourself in a dilemma, stay or go? Anyway, you’ll miss something. So be grateful for what you already had, and take the next step! There are other amazing places and people to meet. So put your things together, let go what you got to let go, and move forward!
But it’s inevitable. If you truly have a heart, you’ll leave a little bit of it in each place you go. It may seem tough, but what’s the point of getting to know amazing people and places if you don’t allow yourself to love them? So feel it all, love it all… After you leave it behind you’ll suffer, but it will be a good feeling, the feeling that you enjoyed it, that you lived that and it was good. We Brazilians have a beautiful word that describes perfectly this feeling: Saudade means “the love that remains”.