1: A tense beginning
I thought you might be interested in hearing the latest installments of my disastrous year.
China was just the start of my bad luck – apparently.
If one more person tells me this is character building I’m flying home to deal with you.
Much love x
So today saw me start the beginning of a six week volunteering project in Hanoi Vietnam, where I would be working as a business consultant for a Vietnamese NGO.
Part of me was excited – I remembered only too well the love and fulfillment of working with orphans in Africa two years previously and was desperately hoping to replicate that experience again – but part of me was nervous. This was because having visited Hanoi as part of a month long tour of Cambodia and Vietnam, I had learned Hanoi was one of my least favourite spots. However, I had the appalling experience of China behind me so I figured that things couldn’t be as bad as they were there and that I was due a change in fortunes. All would be well this time, surely.
Not even I could predict what I was about to walk into.
I arrived in Hanoi in the middle of the afternoon, to 37 degree temperatures, and was met at the airport by my contact from the NGO, Duong, who was a tiny but very sweet Vietnamese representative of the charity I would be working with. Holding a sign with my name on, almost bigger than her, she shook my hand with as much power as a dead battery (I very nearly snapped her fingers off) and she immediately informed me I would have to hang around the airport for a little while to collect another arriving volunteer – who had apparently landed an hour earlier but had gotten lost in the tiny airport. This didn’t bother me. I’d only been on a short hop flight from Singapore so it wasn’t like I was dead on my feet, it was just a little hot was all.
A few unsuccessful phone contact attempts later, my rather wishy washy guide decided that we should leave the airport and the other lost volunteer could wait to be picked up during another collection a couple of hours later. Rather harsh I thought but melting in the heat I eagerly agreed to get in an air conditioned cab and be escorted to my home for the next six weeks.
A circuit of the airport’s erratic one way traffic system saw us shortly arriving back at the airport arrivals to pick up the lost volunteer – a young German girl, who had experienced a mix up with her flights and was actually arriving a whole day later than planned. She had managed to contact England and through a phone relay had managed to make contact with our driver who decided to sweep back and rescue her from the crazy Hanoi airport. A minor delay to proceedings for me, but at least it gave me another new person to talk to. It’s nice to know you’re not in a boat alone sometimes.
Her English however was only marginally better than Duong’s so we managed to hold a few very basic conversations on the 40 minute journey to our accommodation. She seemed nice enough, I learned she was a little nervous, it was her first trip away from home at the age of 18 and she would be staying here for a month and teaching …English. Gosh.
During the journey, Duong issued us with our welcome packs – a map, a facemask (never a good sign) and details of our placement and accommodation.
My accommodation was a dorm of an unspecified number of people, one hour outside of the city of Hanoi. I was a little disappointed. But don’t worry, I was told, you can reach the centre if you take two sweaty buses (sans aircon) that stop about 20 minutes walk from the dorm. Oh goodie. 37 degree heat had never felt so attractive. My accommodation also had it’s own housekeeper and cook who would cook for us three times a day on request and do our cleaning. That was an unexpected bonus I was pleased to hear, though. I still wonder to this day how many lessons I have to have before my naivety stops. I guess I always just hope for the best in people and situations – and that’s something I clearly need to reverse…mental note to self.
According to my paperwork, my placement was titled ‘NGO Newsletter’ – and there was nothing more to go on. The other side to my placement information appears not to have been printed. I guessed it was something I was going to have to wait and see about. It didn’t seem to be quite the project title I was expecting though, even at this early stage but I reserved judgment for now, something could easily have been lost in translation…I had clearly offered myself with business acumen to assist the running of the charity and I wasn’t sure how I had been placed on the Newsletter.
Meanwhile, the taxi journey was taking us through the strange and dusty landscape of the outskirts of Hanoi, along the typically Asian chaotic streets of too many mopeds, too many people on said mopeds (not to mention live ducks and other farm animals) and not enough care for rules of the road. Having spent months in Asia this was now the norm to me but it never ceased to amaze me the lack of accidents I saw on these roads – thankfully.
In Vietnam, as with many other countries, land is scarce in the cities and is sold on square footage. Everywhere you look in the cities the buildings are tightly packed together along narrow roads. When there is open space, it is usually to allow for a small strip of farming land or the odd grave (which are haphazardly cast across the Vietnamese landscape in the most inconvenient locations – I still have no idea why). Every few metres or so you come to expect the sight of multiple storey buildings where the multiple rooms of the accommodation are stacked precariously on top each other creating perilously high, very thin towers that look liable to topple in the next gust of wind. But seeing as there is not even so much as a breeze in Vietnam they remain perfectly upright. Good for the buildings, bad for me. I was wilting. The aircon of the car was as weak as Duong’s handshake – I was sagging by the minute – Vietnam is H.O.T.
40 minutes later and feeling frustrated at the difficulty of conversation, we drove through the supposed ‘affluent’ residential area of My Dinh. If affluent means tightly packed 20 storey dauntingly dark tower blocks in varied stages of completion – then I was in it. The gutters on the road were roughly dug concrete channels a carelessly driven moped could fall in and there was rubbish adorning the streets like snowflakes in a snowstorm. It wasn’t nice. But hey, this wasn’t supposed to be clinically clean Singapore or moderately soiled England, this was a developing country where cleanliness and environmental education had not quite reached.
Again – I was used to this sight and overlooked it in my marginally growing tolerance of Asia. And besides, if these countries were in perfect working order then they wouldn’t need foreign assistance would they?
And so I arrive at my ‘home’. The German girl will not be staying here with me – she is staying elsewhere so a swift good bye and good luck wishes to her see her being whisked off in the taxi and Duong staying to escort me into one of the 20 storey coops that would be my home.
10 storeys later (thankfully via a lift which are rare in Vietnam – this really must be a posh area) we exit into a pitch black hallway where the only light is cast from behind a padlocked iron gate that marks the entrance to an apartment. From inside the gate and open inner doors, comes a stench of goodness-knows-what cooking and an elderly lady rocking a desperately crying baby (probably also offended by the pungent smell). My nose and ears are assaulted. Until my eyes adjusted to the darkness it was hard to see that there were several other gated and padlocked doors in the corridor, one of which was to be the entrance to my dorm. After Duong rattles one of the gates – the equivalent of ringing a doorbell it seems – the inner door of the chosen apartment is opened by a 6 foot, distinctly Chinese looking young lad. I overlook the Chinese part and hope it’s not an omen. His face is smiling and he swings open the door and welcomes me to my new home, with a soft Canadian accent.
As he moves out of the way of the door to let me through, I think I let out an audible gasp of shock and my face can’t hide my initial reactions.
At first glance it appears I’ve just been dropped off in a squat.
I slowly walk into the living area of the apartment I would be sharing with five others for six whole weeks. Duong is following closely behind me and despite my ridiculously heavy rucksack making my back sweat profusely and making my shoulders sag under the size, I stand there stunned – unable to extract any of my belongings from my person. I say ‘unable’ but the real fact was that I didn’t want to let any of my things make contact with this apartment.I wanted to turn and flee – immediately.
So, what was I looking at?
The first thing the eye makes contact with on entering this foreboding apartment is a knackered brown leather sofa, gaffer taped together in parts and held up by books as the legs have clearly long disintegrated or been eaten away. On it were sat 2 very sour faced French girls, staring at me like I was a complete disappointment to them – and clearly picking up on my ‘what on earth is this dump’ vibe.
Behind the sofa was a probably once rather grand corner bookshelf on a mirrored inset wall. The glass was smashed and standing in shards on the shelves. Apparently propped up by piles of rubbish – discarded toilet roll tubes, empty water bottles, tissues and various other junk. The dust was inches thick and I could swear the dust was moving.
The rubbish, dust and bug theme continued everywhere I looked around this apartment. As did the fluorescent strip lighting, bare wires and damaged and mouldy walls. The kitchen table in the open plan apartment was a camping table with 6 chairs surrounding it in various states of disrepair. The table hadn’t seen a cloth in months and the floor was dirtier than the roadsides.
I find my fourth roommate stood at a mouldy and battered looking fridge wearing rubber gloves and brandishing a bottle of cleaning fluid and a cloth. Another French person, a very Clarke Kent-esque young lad with a big smile masking a grimace at his task in hand. He nods a polite hello and apologises for not being able to shake my hand but he says he HAS to clean. I can see why, and he continues his task, without a second glance my way. The Chinese looking Canadian, named Axel, explains that Adrien (Clark Kent) only arrived yesterday and was making himself at home by cleaning, ready for his month’s stay. From initial surveillance, I genuinely believe it could take him the whole month to do this, but I admire his determination.
The kitchen is in disarray. Several jars of peanut butter with their contents smeared down their sides sit on the work tops in rings of dust and stickiness, more empty loo rolls, bottles and rubbish line the remainder of the bench. The sink is rusting, the hob which should be stainless steel is covered in black/green ooze and the wall behind has scorch marks. There is also an industrial-sized bottle of bug killer there. An ominous sign of things to come.
Despite the dark furniture and overriding filth, the apartment living area is very bright. It appears the apartment is a suntrap – but judging by the whirring fans positioned all over the filthy floor, there is clearly an ongoing battle against the heat.
During the 60 seconds of shocked silence in which I view my immediate surroundings, Duong is standing dutifully by, and appears disappointed by my less than enthusiastic reaction to my apartment. I realise I haven’t even greeted the two French girls properly in my shock and rectify the situation immediately. Marion and Pauline are their names. They muster a smile. Its not heartfelt but then I think I’m offending them in my uncontrollable reaction to what has been their ‘home’ for the last two months, so I make a mental note to work on them later once I’ve seen my room. Which, let’s be honest, I didn’t hold out any hope for – and I was right not to.
After standing awkwardly in the centre of the living space, being gawped at by several staring faces and having regained my power of speech, I ask someone to show me my room so I can put my bags down. Axel scampers ahead of me to wave me into a room directly off the living room.
On seeing my room my heart and my stomach fight for space on the ground where they have sunk to. If I said I was looking at something worse than Chinese Louise’s solitary confinement room, would you believe me…? Well you’re going to have to. When I said squat, I wasn’t joking.
The room was tiny and was clearly intended to house two of us. How do I know this? Because there were two bed shaped piles of dirty bedding on the floor, underneath a barred window with dirty sheets draped from the bars as a makeshift curtains. “Are you kidding me?” I say to no-one in particular “I don’t even get a mattress, let a lone a bed?!” Axel quickly informs me there are only three mattresses in the whole apartment, meant to house six of us, but that when he leaves next week I can have his. He looks proud of his offer. I feel appalled that any of this is acceptable and that there are actually people living here at all.
By this point I have no idea what I’m going to do. I’m in utter shock but due to the heat and the weight of my bag, I have to put my things down, and breathe, and think. Easier said than done because there wasn’t a free spot on the floor. My currently absent roommate had her stuff strewn all over the floor, as if someone had launched it through the door way in bundles in a competition to cover every inch of space. There were clothes, rubbish, dust, spiders, cobwebs, bare wires and an inexplicable amount of hair covering the room. I could have cried on the spot.
Oh and it stinks too. Just as a side note.
Duong realizes her newest recruit is not happy and beats a hasty retreat, wishing me a good night’s sleep (!) and tells me that she will be arriving back at the apartment at 9am the following morning to see myself and Adrien and give us our full inductions. I am literally unable to speak and stare at her with my mouth hanging open, in shock and despair, until she leaves the apartment, slamming the iron gates of my prison behind her. I’m stood in the doorway of my cell, still wearing my backpack, unsure what to do, with four of my new roomies staring at me in expectant silence. I can offer them nothing but a meek smile, not even vaguely masking the dread I’m feeling, knowing I haven’t yet seen the full horror of this apartment, and knowing that I at least have to spend one night here in this hell hole.
2: The morning after my 2nd biggest bad decision of the year.
To say it is the morning after, assumes some level of rest, some level of refreshment, some new and rationalised view of the world I entered yesterday, based on a good nights sleep.
I didn’t sleep a wink and I am no more settled with my current predicament as I was yesterday when I stopped writing. Let me tell you why.
My evening of shock and displacement continued well into the night hours and none of it was pleasant.
After finally summoning up a measure of civility, I introduced myself properly to my new dorm-mates after depositing my bags on the only bit of space I could clear in my room.
I didn’t quite know how to start a conversation and it was certainly faltered. Me leading with the hundreds of questions I had in an effort to determine whether I was being completely unreasonable in my discontentment and shock at being here.
The girls had been here two months and Marion admitted, in pidgin English, that the moment they arrived, she too wanted to go home but due to the volunteering placement being part of hers and Pauline’s university degree, they had to stay to ensure they didn’t fail their year. They also had no frame of reference for what they should expect as a reasonable basic level of accommodation so had reluctantly assumed that this was what volunteering would be like. A filthy, impossibly hot and uncomfortable squat like home. Being students, they also could not afford to reassess their position. They felt themselves to be stuck.
Until older volunteers had left, she and Pauline didn’t have a mattress either and had slept in my room – the hottest room of the three apparently. The boys, Axel and Adrien had a room with a balcony and so slept with the door open to allow in whatever breeze there was. She and Pauline had moved into the room with the ensuite bathroom, which as the door to the bathroom did not close and had a hole in the roof, which led onto the main bathroom, a draught could also be harnessed there to keep them cool and afford them some sleep at least. Unfortunately, proximity to the bathroom and sleeping at ground level had left them exposed to the constant stream of cockroaches oozing from the bathrooms and Marion now slept under a mosquito net, tightly tucked under her mattress after having woken up with them crawling on her one night.
Seeing as the door to my room also did not shut I was acutely aware of the fact that I too would be exposed to the bugs inhabiting our living space. The door to my room was also glass so even if I could ram it shut, the ad-hoc sellotaping of various scraps of paper to the glass still would not afford me any privacy. I dreaded having to sleep as I would have to do so wearing modest clothing that would not keep me cool – (but on the plus side would protect me somewhat from the multiple biters).
With regards to their volunteer placements, although totally unrelated to their course (which they had not expected), they volunteer at a home for autistic children and spend their mornings playing with the children – and unfortunately cleaning up sick and other children’s accidents – where I might add, regular paid staff look on and watch. Two afternoons a week they teach French at a local school – where the children all have cell phones and other gadgets which do not indicate, to me, that they are teaching in a ‘needy’ school that could not afford to pay their own teachers. Is this really a school in need of charitable support, you have to wonder, or are the school simply taking advantage of the opportunity of foreign do-gooders.
Axel has been here for a five weeks. His father is from Hong Kong and his mother is Swedish, but he lives in Canada. He’s clearly from money and is doing a gap year after flunking his university entrance exams. He apparently has never washed his clothes in the time he has been here, he stinks, and subsequently so does the mattress he has offered me when he leaves – which he sleeps on sheetless. Great. It also goes someway to describe the type of people that have filtered through the apartment and why it is in the disgraceful and appallingly filthy state that it is.
With regards to his placement, he spends two hours everyday teaching English to the son of the rich boss of the NGO he has been placed at. He signed up for orphanage work, which until he arrived, did not realise did not exist here in Vietnam. The rest of the day is spent doing vague admin work or sitting about doing nothing whilst two Vietnamese employed workers at the same NGO do nothing – unless you count playing World of Warcraft or surfing Facebook, waiting for the clock to tick to 5pm. He finishes in a week and does not feel he has done anything of value during his time here and will be embarrassed to tell people just what he has done with his time. In his very flamboyant style, he has already concocted a tale of life-saving, life-changing help he has supposedly given here so as to not look like a fool.
Adrien has not started his placement as he only arrived a day before I did. Although he is a born smiler, he is mortified by the accommodation and swears to continue his quest to clean, clean, clean. He has already looked into the price of hostels and his parents have offered to pay for this for him, but at the moment he is reluctant to leave the safety of the two French girls we live with – it seems they have already become his comfort and a taste of home.
As for the sixth dorm-mate and my roommate – she is absent from the squat and has been for sometime. She is called Linnie, she is from New York and is a med student who took up this volunteer assignment as part of her course for a month. On arrival, instead of being placed with medicine like she was promised, she has been assigned to an eye hospital which is of no benefit to her course – other than to tick a box and help her pass her year. She too does nothing all day and is angry. Her placement is not needy of help either. Also, her placement is a two hour commute from our dorm and added to the fact she is appalled by the accommodation, rents rooms in hotels and hostels in the centre of Hanoi and only pops back occasionally to collect fresh clothing. It would be some days before I would actually meet to get her version of events.
So not only am I mortified by the living standards, I am also not feeling convinced that the volunteer work will be of any value nor justify this seriously basic living.
And so back we come to the state of my ‘home’.
It takes me some time to risk using the bathroom that I would be sharing with the two boys and it is nowhere near even being termed ‘ok’.
As I venture in, the cockroaches make a dash for it and I realize I need to wear shoes at all times and make as little contact with my surrounds as possible. The ceiling is precariously sagging and peeling – looking as if there has been a huge flood upstairs – which is worrying because there are bare wires showing from the light fitting – which is directly positioned above the un-shower-curtained shower. I can see the hole towards the ceiling into the girls bathroom and realize there will be little privacy here either. My feet, as well as being encircled by creepy crawlies of varying sizes are also surrounded by empty, discarded and mouldy bottles of shampoo, gel and scum from weeks, maybe months, of no cleaning. There’s an array of exposed toothbrushes on the sink too – no less than 11 in fact. There is no way this place has a cleaner. I’m also pretty certain that not one of these belongs to the unwashed Axel, the clean freak Adrien – or myself.
The unrelenting heat is so bad that sleepiness comes to us all very early on in the evening. My new roomies inform me that because of the heat, they all take cold showers before bed (there’s no hot water anyway apparently) and tuck up early. We are so far from anyone’s placements that there are early starts all round so this is no real hardship to them. Plus there is no nightlife around here to tempt them into a late night either.
Although we have a cook (who doubles as a housekeeper) who prepares 3 meals a day for us (if you tick a list to say you require feeding), clearly no-one eats the food she has prepared that is lying on the camping table in the living room. I can understand this. She appeared shortly after I arrived and I didn’t feel convinced by the quality of her cleaning to trust the cleanliness of her food either. Plus I noted she used the same filthy red cloth to do everything with – even disappearing into the bathroom with it….to do what I’m not sure, but even so, I don’t want to risk having a Vietnamese belly and having enforced bathroom time.
And so we order a pizza. It’s the best part of my day.
Shortly afterwards, my new found friends gradually filter off to take their cold showers, remove the fans from the living areas and reposition them in their rooms ready for their night of sleep. I am last to move. The faux leather living room furniture is so filthy i am very literally stuck to it. When I go to stand, the back cushions adhere to my clothing and I have to peel them off – I’m sure it’s not just the litres of sweat I’m perspiring causing this. They are unnervingly sticky to the touch regardless. My water bottle, which I have been routinely filling and consuming in half hour intervals is now crawling with ant-like bugs which I have to shake off in order to refill for the umpteenth time. I am quite literally dreading having to go to my room and sleep and trying to put off doing so for as long as possible – except there is very little to do to help distract me.
With regards to my bed, Axel has kindly leant me his (thankfully) unused silk double sized sleeping bag liner as a substitute sheet to protect me from the scary pile of filthy bedding I have to face. I have my own liner I will use as a cover and a modesty blanket and my own pillow case salvaged from China. That and my trusty silk nighty from China I think I am all set for at least a marginally protected night of sleep. So that leaves me only to shower before I can settle in.
I managed to buy myself a small bath towel (of Asian proportions therefore not at all modest for my western size figure) before arriving so I grab this and my jelly shoes, to take my shower. The cockroaches do not seem to be too active in the now flooded bathroom so during my super speedy shower I am somewhat unaffected – so long as I don’t look down. The water is pleasantly icy and for the first time in hours I feel semi-clean and cool. I have already determined that standing under this stream of cold water is my favourite place in the whole apartment, but am slightly bothered by the film of ‘something’ that I can’t seem to wash from hair. I put it down to the hurried hair wash and that the residual stickiness is just unwashed shampoo – and I make my way to my bed.
Only one of the three light switches in my room connects to a working light, so once I figure this out, my bedroom is clinically lighted and the whole nightmare I have to spend the next 8 hours in is illuminated. I resolve to taking my shoes off last before I climb onto my makeshift bed, after positioning my fans as close to my bed as possible. In doing so I can already see the cobwebs wavering in the breeze and cringe at the thought of them dropping on me as I sleep. But that really is the least of my worries.
As I plug my phone into its charger, dangling from a surely dangerously barely attached plug socket close to my head, I realize this is it. I actually have to suffer this place for the night and I don’t relish the thought one bit.
It turns out the fans are just creating a warm breeze of recycled air and do not cool me enough to sleep. The fluff from my new towel that is stuck to my skin is blowing in the warm breeze and my mind is envisaging bugs crawling all over me. I realise my silk nightdress and silk bedding is in fact totally fake and polyester, and cooking me from the outside. I couldn’t stick to it more unless I’d lathered myself in superglue before I climbed in. It’s so hot and my mind is so busy with thinking about the new mess I have put myself in that sleep is impossible. Plus I’m worried about fidgeting. If I turn to my left I’m pretty sure I’m going to head butt a live socket and if I flail to my right in a bid to get cool I’m terrified of sticking my foot into a floor fan with no guard that I might get my toes chopped off. The static electricity I’m working up from the combination of my sheets and my clothing, mixed with the sweat that is pouring off me is also making me fear for my life. Electricity, moisture and naked blades is not making me feel safe.
I am in my worst nightmare. And it gets worse when I hear the commotion outside of my un-closed door, less than an hour after we all settled down for the night.
The lights are on in the living area and it turns out, an also restless Adrien, who has got out of bed to refresh his water bottle, has been attacked by gargantuan cockroaches in the kitchen. As I exit my room to see what is happening, all I see is Axel in a offensively skimpy pair of Vietnam purchased pants (he doesn’t wash his clothes he buys new ones) armed with a mop in one hand and a sweeping brush in another, bashing the living daylights out of a stream of cockroaches madly dashing around the kitchen. Adrien, still smiling although this time with an added look of horror, is looking on brandishing a feebly sized can of bug spray pointed in the direction of the battleground. My stomach lurches and I see for myself the bug horror at its worse.
The fight is a tough one. The roaches move fast and in vast numbers, all pouring out the plughole at the sink. The bashing and violent onslaught from Axel is not enough to defeat the enemy and once all of the remaining cockroaches have hidden there is little we can all do to defeat them and we know we have to retire to bed. Besides, the fumes from the ineffectual bug spray is choking us all and we are coughing a serious amount. The French girls have woken up now too – now sadly used to the nightly interruptions, and look close to tears at the defeat in the latest battle, knowing that a cockroach visit to their rooms is highly likely for yet another night in a row. I’m pretty sure Marion’s mozzie net will be tightly tucked in yet again tonight.
I feel sick. And I’m tired. And I’m hot. And I’m still mortified at where life finds me. But part of me hopes the fumes of the bug spray will knock me out for the night. I need something to give me a break from my mind and my hovel.
I’m wrong. The night turns into the longest I’ve ever experienced and my day begins at 5 am when I realize that attempting sleep is fruitless. And plus, my nose is streaming and I’m sneezing for Britain and all its islands. I’m definitely allergic to yet another appalling situation I find myself in…. what is today going to bring me, I wonder.
3: Maybe I expected too much…
Due to some severe nagging, the next instalments are ready for viewing…..needless to say, as some of you already know, I am in seeking refuge in Singapore until I figure out what to do next.
Feeling pretty nervous to make any big decisions – for obvious reasons.
I hope you’re all well.
Much love, Gems xxxx
This may be the 3rd instalment already but today is officially my first full day – and very full it will be after starting at 5am and following virtually no sleep to speak of.
I am the first up and whilst I survey my surroundings in the fresh light of day I know deep down that unless the volunteer placement I’m doing is stunning, I can’t stay here. My eyes are puffy, not just through lack of sleep but through sneeze after sneeze as well. I’ve never suffered from allergies in my life but I recognize them when I see them – this is not just a cold. The only place I discover respite is on the 2×2 metre squared smoking balcony off the living area of the apartment. The fact it is a smoking area is of no consequence to me as only Marion smokes and that’s rare from what I have seen, so I am quite sure this will become my thinking place and my non sneezing place for however long I stay here. Behind more jail like bars, it will be my tiny haven.
As the sun continues its rise I try to make a decision about my future. It’s abundantly clear that I cannot continue to live here, and I have strong doubts about the integrity of my volunteer placement. A person cannot survive on no sleep for six weeks, I know this, and I feel like even after my short stay here I will need to be quarantined by the next country I go to. I am reminded of the bug infestation when I gingerly enter the kitchen for more water and see the murdered cockroaches still floating in the heavily blocked sink from the night before.
It’s not only my ability to remain in the ramshackle place of the squat I find myself in, but also the faith in my fellow roommates to be good roommates that I start to doubt. Between 3 of them they have been here for at least the past 4 weeks and they have done nothing to control the flow of filth and infestations of their own accommodation. I’m pretty sure with even a modicum of hygiene, a lot of these insects and the smell would not be present. There is no reason that even if the housekeeper fails in her cleaning duty that they cannot lift a finger to improve their own conditions – and that doesn’t just stop at affixing a mosquito net to their mattress. Even the girls bathroom, which only they use, is filthy. The toilet boil looks like an animal was killed in there and the sink’s brown and mouldy deposits could be cleaned off to leave a vaguely acceptable bathroom, if only they tried and if only they took pride in their surroundings. But I can see they have given up hope of controlling any filth based on the unwinnable battle the rest of the apartment poses.
The sofa will still be held up by books, the mirrors will continue to be shards, and the furniture will continue to be liable to break if sat on for too long. There will still be bulging mouldy damp walls and loose wires hanging from the ceilings and the heat will continue to be oppressive. Plus dorm-mates such as the very pretty but very dirty Axel will mean the bugs aren’t the only opposition to cleanliness.
Since getting up I have an agonising four hours to kill until Duong arrives to tell me what my being in Hanoi is all about. It’s a long time to dwell on things whilst exhausted I can tell you. And it only takes that long for me to start feeling utterly sorry for myself. These six months away from home were supposed to be inspiring, fun, free, and the source of many incredible memories and stories. All I’ve got so far are memorable stories that other people can dine out on and nothing for me personally to be proud of. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
Despite not being a regular breakfast eater, I find myself bored and having been awake for so long I’m peckish – just for something to do. In my perusal of the breakfast choices I find a peanut butter jar mixed full of Nutella – something I had already been warned about…Axel cant be bothered to spread them both separately on his bread so decides to mix them up in the same jar to save himself time, thus ruining it for everyone else. A stupid example I know, but one that shows his laziness stretches beyond his inability to wash his clothes. He’s probably just one of many hundreds of volunteers traipsing through this place over the past few months with poor hygiene. This does not excuse, however, the lack of mattresses, fresh bedding, hot water and basic facilities, which we have all paid for in our volunteer fees. I’m still pretty adamant about this.
I decide to skip yet another meal.
When Duong finally arrives, late, she sits Adrien and myself down on the sticky broken sofa to take us through 2 presentations. One about VPV and one serving as a general introduction to Vietnam and its culture, whilst being fanned by warm air from the ever repositioned floor fans.
Having been in Vietnam for 2 weeks and Asia for 5 months already, I could already guess the basics. A couple of interesting extras were, don’t wear a white headband (it signifies death) and don’t leave your chopsticks standing up in your food (that too signifies death). That’s all I can recall. I sneezed through the rest. I vaguely wonder why my subconscious retained only mortality related facts.
I perked up slightly when she started to explain about the NGO and our placements. It turns out the NGO are fed by volunteers from half a dozen other organisations including the one who I came through, and there are currently over 50 of us housed in their 3 dorms in the outskirts of Hanoi, undertaking a myriad of volunteer projects. It turns out I’m in the smallest dorm of the three, with the others, Lodge 1 and Lodge 2 each housing over 20 people each. When I enquired as to the availability of beds in these dorms I was told there wasn’t any. I later learned that they were not full at all – but had rat infestations, so I guess you could consider them full if you count them too.
Following on from the conversation of accommodation, I thought it a timely opportunity to bring up the inadequate arrangements of where I was staying. She knew I had barely slept (I think the bags under my eyes the size of airplane checked baggage gave it away) and when discovering one of the variables was due to the lack of proper bed to sleep on she went to check my pile of bedding. She rummaged through the layers of duvets and sheets and concluded ‘this is ok’ before returning to her spot on the sticky sofa. The cockroaches too were deemed ‘ok’ and after all ‘you are in Vietnam, it’s not like England’.
This kind of put me in my place for a second. In a way she was right. We were basically paying the equivalent of £15 a day for food and accommodation. What did we expect? Part of the problem was down to the type of people we were sharing our accommodation with, no doubt. That wasn’t Vietnam’s fault if they were happy to live like pigs, was it? And as for cockroaches, yes they were everywhere in hot countries and I guess the lack of cleanliness and inability to actually throw rubbish away was an attraction for them. I was silenced by this a little.
That didn’t stop me thinking back to Africa though. A 3rd world country where I could excuse these problems. Just as I had questioned them in China only a few months earlier. I couldn’t help but think though that despite the poverty and challenges Africa faced – I still had a bed. And I didn’t have to sleep with the risk of cockroaches crawling all over me whilst I slept. Yes they were in my wash-bag every morning and the surroundings were very rough and ready – but I didn’t feel as appalled as I did here. I guess I had to ponder it all in my head for a little longer…was I being unreasonable…? I’d definitely have to give that some thought.
Our meeting with Duong, although a couple of hours long, didn’t quite allow for an in depth discussion about our placements – all I knew was that I would be assisting in writing the NGO newsletter at the head office which I would be visiting tomorrow, after a two hour Vietnamese language lesson finished off our day today.
I remember nothing of this lesson. Literally nothing. We were given a 20 page photocopy of basic language that we were then read through and had to repeat back to our teachers parrot fashion. Or at least Adrien did. Something I have learned in Vietnam is that men are respected, women aren’t. It might as well have been a one-on-one for Adrien-the-smiler and I may as well have not have existed. This too was not a great surprise. The sexism in Vietnam had already driven me crazy for the two weeks I’d spent touring it already.
One of the golden rules of foreign language teaching is that the brain can only retain 7+/- pieces of information in any one sitting and that the higher number is only achieved through emotional attachment – relevance or amusement. None of it amused me and I didn’t see how learning 97 names of weird Vietnamese fruit that I would never eat was relevant to me nor learning how to ask certain questions would help if I couldn’t understand the answers. Plus, plastering a smile on my sneezing and tired face was too much to bear and I secretly did not believe I would stick it all out long enough to need these words anyway. And so I excused myself from the lesson, and retired to my smoking prison, just to try and ward off the sneezes and feel some sort of fresh air to keep me awake. It didn’t work and I knew I would just have to sleep it out instead.
A couple of hours later, in the stifling heat I awake and Duong and the language teachers were gone. Which also meant I was staying another night at least as I had been unable to establish my moving and also I had still not been given a key to the apartment – so securing my own release from my jail was impossible. (Reminiscent of China, no?) Once again I prayed for no fires, despite the thought that incinerating this prison block might solve my problems.
When the others roll back one by one from their daily placements, I find I am relieved to see friendly faces. Although conversation with the majority was hard due to language differences, they were stuck in this mess with me and I appreciated the companionship they gave me. They laughed at my lack of sleep and my sneezing – which they all claimed to have experienced during their first weeks but assured me would wear off. It was then that Adrien and I instigated a cleaning frenzy. I think the arrival of two newbies and the disgust we showed embarrassed the others into doing something to better their surrounds. And so we began.
Bin bags full of old volunteer unwashed and threadbare clothes were removed from the premises and deposited where they could be found and recycled if the finder so wished. The same was done with no less than 17 pairs of shoes you tripped over as you walked in the door to the apartment. The bathrooms were cleared of empty bottles leaving the bathroom empty so that the three of us using it could just carry our own in and out. There was little we could do about the cockroaches but ensure before we went to bed we had all covered drains and plugs to stop new ones strolling in. We also couldn’t wipe the termites and ants away…they defeated us like the cockroaches did but at least we had removed attractions for them.
We threw out the housekeeper’s multi purpose red rag (my proudest contribution). We threw out all the empty bottles, jars and rubbish we could find. We safely extracted and wrapped the dangerous shards of glass, dotted around the apartment. We bleached the communal table and thoroughly scrubbed the sticky sofas. It was something, but it wasn’t enough to make any of us feel clean.
Our rooms were down to us as individuals though and I felt too exhausted to start disturbing the dust and whatever else in my room so close to bed time, when allergies would be at their worst anyway. So for one more night only, I settled into my flea pit after my cold shower in the hopes of a good night’s sleep. My stomach rumbling in anger at not having been fed all day.
Tomorrow I would learn about my placement and potentially the only saving grace of being in Vietnam and going through my 2nd worst ordeal of the year.
There were no cockroach disturbances this night. I hoped this was a good sign.
4: The placement is as great as my bed
After having my wrists slapped yesterday about expecting too much of volunteering in a developing country, I half hoped for my placement to be of real value and be the factor that makes me stay here and see this all through – but I also half hoped it was useless so I wouldn’t have to stay and could justify my leaving. Unfortunately I had until 2pm when I was to be collected by Duong, to fester in my apartment alone with my thoughts (and the bugs) about this. I’m still pretty sure I’m right about expecting a minimum quality of living whilst I’m doing all this. I’m still sneezing, the cockroaches still float in the sink and I barely slept on my pile of rags – again.
As usual Duong was late, but when she does arrive we immediately leave to catch the bus to the NGO offices. Which are incidentally on the ground floor of the Lodge 1 dorm. I am baffled as to why I would not be based there seeing as my placement is based there, but hold my tongue for now. I wanted to take this opportunity to see it for myself and decide whether it is worth the fight to move there or not. I don’t want to jump out of the frying pan into the fire – even though I’m pretty convinced the jump would be the other way around.
The stroll to the bus stop is actually only a 10 minute walk and it appears our accommodation is at the bus terminus so there are always plenty of buses there. That doesn’t mean they are moving however. As we stand on the pavement ready to board the right bus for the journey, the drivers and ticket guys are sat in a makeshift circle of bricks playing a card game. Which apparently must be finished before a bus driver decides to drive his bus. There are no timetables other than those which are dictated by the cards.
Once you see the driver strolling towards you, you pray he has had a lucky game for the sake of the safety of your journey and the fortunes of other road users, and you have a matter of moments in which to dive on the bus. As soon as he is in and seated the bus pulls away – regardless if you still have one foot in contact with the pavement at the time.
At 5’7” I’m tall for a girl but I don’t think I’m tall in general. But in Vietnam, as with China, I am a giant, and as I walk through the dusty bus my head skims the ceiling and I wonder what grot is being picked up my hair as I do so. Incidentally, my shower this morning didn’t manage to wash the deepening film of goodness knows what off it. It still hangs lank and looks greasy…it has to be something in the water.
The bus journey is a roller coaster of an affair – the driver drives like he is at the wheel of a runaway train and it definitely pays not to look out the windows at all the close shaves and utter mayhem of the roads he is ploughing down – it will take years off your life. When he comes to a bus stop, there is no stopping as the term would imply, the buses just slow to a gradual roll, the doors open, and you have to haul yourself on or off whilst it moves, in quick sharp time. At first it makes me chuckle but then I realize I’m going to have to get off this thing whilst it’s still in motion and then it’s not so funny after all.
The journey to the NGO offices is an hour and half journey – including the walking. Annoyingly the bus drops you off the far side of a huge bridge crossing a main highway through to the city centre. So once it’s driven over it, you have to walk back over it again which is doubly annoying. There is no path on the bridge and whilst you dodge traffic, you realize why you were given a facemask in the induction pack. Add that to the busy dusty track you risk your life walking down to reach the offices and I’m glad of some form of lung protection. It feels worse than Beijing but then I have been suffering from a sneezing issue here anyway and I seem to be developing a persistent cough now too, so that’s not going to help.
The NGO offices and the Lodge 1 dorm is a ramshackle building in desperate need of a paint job in a dusty back road in a less affluent area of Hanoi. Although we are closer to the centre, this still feels off the beaten track in comparison to where I my accommodation is.
Duong leads me into the offices and they positively stink. Sweat (despite being cool) and the smelliest food I have come across in Asia as it is also the meeting and eating area of the volunteers. I baulk at the stench and realize that if I stay I have to tolerate this too.
I am told to wait at a table in the office, staring into space whilst Duong sits herself down and fiddles with her computer. From my vantage point I get to watch a Vietnamese staff member painfully concentrating over typing a ‘No Smoking’ sign for an endless amount of time and hear a huge Australian volunteer boasting about her volunteering experience and her traveling adventures to a bored looking audience of what appears to be also new volunteers. We were all warned to dress non-provocatively and formally whilst being in Vietnam and this very big girl couldn’t be wearing any less if she was on a beach. She takes every opportunity to flash her large cleavage at her audience and sitting in my t shirt and long shorts I feel like a nun in comparison. I can also hear all her stories about Asia and I can’t help but think I could shatter her expertise and assume authority in one sentence after everything I have been through these past few months. I feel grateful I don’t have to share a small squat like apartment with her. I would take cockroaches any day over the loud, brash, boasting. Part of me is glad I don’t live here and have to tolerate the ‘big I-am’s’ that often congregate in these places, but I can’t rule it out as being the worse option right now.
30 mins later, after Mr No-Smoking-sign has changed the font numerous times and added and removed the word ‘please’ just as many times, Duong sees fit to free from my voyeurism and eavesdropping and finally introduces me to the purpose of my volunteering – the NGO newsletter.
I have to say that due to my love of writing (you may be shocked to learn this) I am curious to see how my words will be used and can’t help dreaming that the world may read them for a greater good. But, again I was wrong.
It turns out my placement, is not that of a business consultant as per my initial placement information, but that of roving reporter assigned to writing about the volunteer activity of the NGO and in particular, my first assignment is the activity of NGO volunteers at a home for children born with defects as a result of the use of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.
For those of you not aware of Agent Orange, it was the herbicide launched by the thousands of tonnes on the forested areas of Vietnam to defoliate the area, expose the Viet Cong and force them out into the open for obliteration by the US forces. What the US failed to admit at the time and what the Vietnamese later realised, to their suffering, was that the herbicide would cause death, miscarriage and birth defects for many generations to come due to its contamination of the air and of the ground in which crops would be planted. Today’s ‘victims’ of the long finished war are 3rd generation children being born with deformed limbs, autism, down syndrome and severe physical and mental impairments. Google it. It’s horrific.
Despite it not being my original job description I’m not too disappointed. It’s definitely a subject that interests me and part of me is excited to write about. Until I learn a few challenging details.
They want me to write about what volunteers do there but they have no present volunteers I can speak with, and the next one is not due in for another two weeks – which is a whole week after my deadline. This poses a problem as how I can write an informed article based on no experience at all.
Another confusion arises when I am given a 3 page typed document detailing the placement at the home and I wonder why, if they have this document already, am I being asked to write about it in my own words – again?
Concerningly, as I read the document I read a few details in the ‘challenges’ section that do not please me. It specifically details how volunteers should expect to see the children hit with a stick and to not be alarmed because this is normal behaviour for discipline. The challenges also tell volunteers not to be disturbed by the fact that these children may be locked up in solitary confinement for periods of time because the staff cannot handle them. Oh, and they may also be filthy because the carers do not have time to care for each and every one of them properly.
I feel sick and overwhelmed with sadness for them.
So I immediately offer my services for the duration of my article writing to be a volunteer there. Every little helps, is my assumption and besides, it’s the only way I can write honestly about the place, even if I have to do so in my evenings. Duong agrees and we arrange to meet the following morning at 8.15am half-way across town, in order for her to escort me on another rolling sweaty bus to the Children’s Home.
I feel ok about this arrangement but continue to question Duong about the article I will be writing. I want to know the audience, the readership, the purpose, the promotional objective of doing so etc. All this info will help me write appropriately and I am determined to do a stunning job on it.
It’s then I’m told that the audience is existing volunteers. Only. Further questioning reveals that they have decided to do this because the NGO believe it will motivate other volunteers on other projects. Motivate them for what? As soon as their placements are up, they are leaving. Just because they read an article detailing someone else’s placement, does not mean they will offer more income or funding for the NGO just because they read a nice story whilst they were here. The catchment for these projects is mainly career breakers and students who don’t have unlimited funds to give up to these projects. The other audience is people who have already paid and signed up to volunteer, to detail their placements to them. Again, I can’t see any real advancement for the NGO in doing so. After all, haven’t I just read the placement info? Is that not good enough for them? Why are these articles not used to market projects to encourage sponsorship? To encourage those unsure of volunteering to make the decision and sign up therefore securing potential revenue? It appears to me to be a very passive and reactive task…and I’m not happy to be a part of something that isn’t blatantly furthering the NGO – which is what I thought I would be doing.
I suggest all of these things to Duong i.e using the articles to encourage donations, sponsorship, attaching to websites, marketing etc and she smiles at me like I’m talking a foreign language. I understand other cultures, and especially NGO’s, suffer from lack of commercialism but surely that’s what we Westerners are here for? To offer advice and improvements based on our skillsets and experiences. I feel frustrated. I don’t feel like my time is going to be well spent. Why have I volunteered my time here when in fact exiting volunteers could spend an hour of their time writing a summary of their own experiences and thus ensure the NGO have a summary of every volunteer placement from those that have had the real experience themselves. This suggestion falls flat on its face too.
Meanwhile, during the hour and half I have been here, the ‘No Smoking’ sign has made it to print, minus the ‘please’, but in a very pretty font. Just in case you were wondering. Don’t ask me how long it took the guy to put sticky tape on it – its infuriating.
Before I leave the NGO offices, I ask Duong if I can have a guided tour of the upstairs accommodation. I figure its best to know the possibilities, should my placement turn out to not actually be the farce I now am sure it’s going to be.
That’s not impressive either. The accommodation is filthy, rammed with too many beds (but real beds and mattresses nonetheless – oh my!) and it stinks as bad as the offices do. I’m not feeling convinced a jump here would be too great either, even though I just learned there were definitely free beds.
And so, underwhelmed by my entire day, I head back on the sweaty and dangerous bus to my pile of rags in my sweatbox – still undecided how much I can personally give to this placement, physically and mentally. I have decided to wait and see what the Children’s Home is all about.
I’ve paid for accommodation and food for six weeks. If China has taught me anything it is to not continue with anything that is not going to make me happy or fulfill me, so I resolve to give Vietnam only two weeks more of my time. In that time, if it hasn’t produced, then I will leave. Life is too short. Plus I’m sick of the utter heartache Asia is giving me.
I think that’s a fair timescale. 11 days and counting.
5: The village of lost hope
After another pitifully sleepless night and another traumatic communal cockroach attack, I awake from almost two hours sleep to make my journey to the designated meeting point for 8.15am.
None of my other housemates are up by the time I leave at 6.45am just to get there on time. I’ve factored into my journey the unreliability of the cardsharp bus drivers, who even at that time of the morning are eagerly playing their games.
I leap off the rolling bus at the designated meeting point at 8.15am on the dot and am not surprised to not see Duong there, bearing in mind her recurring tardiness. The heat is already unbearable and despite a string of phone calls I make, checking in on her whereabouts, and many indecent approaches by Vietnamese motorcycle riders promising to ride me to my ‘dream place’ (where do they learn this stuff?!) she doesn’t rock up until 8.45. Her first words to me are ‘next time we can arrange to meet later – I get so tired in the mornings’. As cute and as tiny and as harmless as she is, I’m feeling less tolerant of her everyday. She has no idea what it’s like to be tired in the mornings…I sleep on a disgusting floor fearing for my life every night and have only managed two hour stretches of shut-eye at a time since I got here.
I bite my tongue and follow her on to the next bus that will lead me to the Children’s Home. The place on which all decisions about my next few weeks will ride.
On the journey she proudly announces that very famous British popstar is a celebrity supporter of the Home, amongst other apparent celebrities whose names are lost to her pronunciation. This increases my curiosity as to where I am heading, thinking that credible endorsement is a good sign. Bearing in mind at this time I am still trying to keep an open mind as to staying here and doing something worthwhile.
Arrival at the Children’s Home follows another painfully long bus ride and a stroll through the humming streets of a more bustling area of Hanoi than where the NGO offices reside.
When we make it through the token security at the gate, it appears we have a meeting with the Director of the Home, who, as soon as we walk into her office, dons a surgical white cap and doctors coat – making her look the part of a clinical and serious member of staff. This security and authority rigmarole is apparently usual for anyone visiting the Village as it is not designed to be a tourist destination. I respect this and am eager to see what comes next.
I sit down in her office and let Duong do the introductions of myself and of my journalistic task. It becomes one of those comedy interviews where the director talks for several minutes at a time that Duong translates into 3 word sentences and short form questions back at me. I’m pretty sure key information is being lost here. It makes me inwardly chuckle to myself. That is until Duong tells me that because my placement is six weeks long, the director will accept me for six weeks of volunteering here. There’s nothing like moving the goal posts, hey. But still, I keep an open mind. The nurturing of the talents and futures of disabled people is something very close to my heart. They have a world of untapped talent to offer the world, I know this well, and if I can help further this then they have me hook, line and sinker. No question. Surely it’s better than spending my time writing useless articles for a pointless newsletter?
Apparently, I ‘pass’ my extensive interview to allow me to be present here, (after having to discuss my personal attitude to disabled people and after stating I have a disabled sister who is a credit to society this is easy) I am therefore accepted into the Home team and am told I am allowed to begin my volunteering right this second.
Duong, having been a worker here back in her student days is my tour guide. The Home is a collection of 3 buildings in a U-shape. The entrance is the open end of the U and in the centre of the buildings is a pretty green area, a small playground and an open concrete area which is obviously an extension of the play area. The offices are on one stroke of the U on the first floor and there are a couple of designated hospital rooms on the ground floor, with a couple of beds in each room to cater for the patients. The patients wave as I walk by and the only word I understand is ‘foreigner, foreigner’. I smile in greeting and continue to follow Duong. She leads me into the building which is on the base of the U and up some dusty stone stairs in desperate need of a lick of paint and a sweep. Along the dark corridor she leads me down, I can hear murmur of the students as we approach open doors. It sounds lively…but as I am introduced to my first classroom I feel a little angry.
When I look into this classroom, I see 12 children with down syndrome and autistic children sitting on wooden benches at tables with a limited supply of battered Lego, mostly staring into space and looking unengaged and bored. Why? I wonder. And then I look to the teachers desk and I get it. She is sat there in her white coat, mobile phone in hand, looking as bored as the kids are and intermittently scowling at them and smacking her stick on the table in warning to some of the noisier children. They didn’t appear to be misbehaving so I’m unsure why the stick is brandished. This is a classroom…there is no teaching…just a disinterested adult sitting at the front of the classroom playing on her phone. I’m disturbed to see this but try to keep an open mind as to the reasons for it.
Opposite the first classroom, I am introduced to the vocational skills workshop. I already know The Home supports the students in learning a marketable skill so I am interested to see this room. I look in and feel further confused. The ‘teacher’ is sat there at a loom winding balls of tangled yarn, and there is only one other person in there, weaving a scarf. I’m told she is staff too. But there is a classroom opposite of a dozen bored students doing nothing? Seems like a waste when they could be doing/learning something. Is this room just for show?
I bite my tongue and move on. But the sights are no better.
I see another classroom with a teacher sitting bored at the front whilst the students get restless and bored…they seem to only be supervisors or crowd control, not furthering these kids in any way. How maddening. And the kids have to endure this from 8-12 every morning and again for the afternoon session? What is the benefit of this?
Then below these classrooms, on the ground floor, sit another couple of classrooms – the rehabilitation classroom (more of the same bored teacher / restless student combo and the autism classroom. The only difference in the latter is that there are 3 teachers here – having a powwow at the front of the room, instead of just one playing with their phone or staring into space… Still totally ignoring the children.
I express a concern to Duong that there doesn’t seem to be anything happening here to support the kids. She tells me it is school holidays so that’s why there are no lessons. I just can’t compute this attitude. What’s wrong with educational fun games instead? What’s wrong with arts and crafts because I can see they have supplies? What’s wrong with utilising the space upstairs in the vocational room? Holiday time or no holiday time, there should be some constant for these kids other than total disregard.
The next wing of the U, I hope for better evidence of care and advancement for these already disadvantaged kids. As we walk into the 3rd and equally uncared for building, I see a young man being coached to walk up and down the stairs on obviously damaged legs. He does well and his physio is sweet – they both smile and welcome me. My first acknowledgement since I arrived (other than the director) and my first sign of warmth from the staff. It goes without saying these kids have a lot of love to offer anyone and I saw that on my short tour so far, but sadly without a reciprocating smile from the staff until now.
Further down an even darker corridor than before, I am shown a fleeting glimpse of a physiotherapy room. 3 physios knelt at intervals along a long mat. One actually providing the service to a teenager, the other two? One playing on her phone, the other rummaging through a bag of twigs. Whilst the classrooms of idle, physically impaired children sit upstairs unacknowledged. My stomach is in knots, twists of anger at the lack of hope I can see – in every aspect of this place….
Tour over, Duong takes me back to the original classroom she showed me. There’s still nothing productive happening, but seeing as this is where I will be ‘volunteering’ for the next hour or so, I settle in with the kids playing Lego. And they’re great. And it’s fun. And my face aches from the only form of communication I can offer to the entire school and its Vietnamese speaking staff – my face and its expressions. I have enough of those to last for an hour, but I don’t think I have enough for a whole morning, let alone 27 mornings of my now new placement. I have to wonder at the benefit when all the adults around me clearly don’t give a damn and no matter what I do here in my short time, I can’t see their attitudes changing long after I have gone. This is voluntourism at its best. Is this for my short term self gratification or for their long term benefit? I’m going for the former theory. But the fact is, I don’t actually feel gratified by this…and I had hoped to leave a benefit.
Just as Duong and I am about to leave, 20 young students from a local comprehensive school turn up to ‘volunteer’ as part of their school holiday program. There is now more than one volunteer per student. I am redundant. The white, blonde, foreigner has been replaced by younger native speakers who can interact with them on levels I can’t. The kids are distracted, so I slip out, feeling like a fraud and surplus to requirements.
As we walk to the bus-stop in silence, I feel my heart sink. I don’t feel rewarded by this, I don’t feel like I can make a difference here when the staff clearly don’t appear to ‘care’ like they should, it’s a losing battle, and I cant help but feel they take volunteers just for monetary exposure. But I don’t have money. I can’t honestly say money could help these kids…they have the staffing wrong. They have the attitude wrong. They have the hope of these children in their hands and they’re failing them…what could I possibly do?
This is turning into a long entry but it has to be – it’s been a big day and will continue to be in my Vietnamese experience.
Immediately after my visit, Duong and I catch the bus back to our meeting point, where she will leave me and I will lead back to my prison.
As we get on the bus there are only two seats available, one single seat and one seat at the rear of the bus where a Vietnamese man decides to occupy two. The Vietnamese are small people so this is unnecessary and when Duong takes the single seat, I head to the rear of the bus to take the seat he should free up and that the conductor is frantically waving me towards.
As I get into touching distance of the seat, the man occupying both snarls, doesn’t look me in the eye and aggressively waves me away like I’m a dirty drunk tramp who just climbed in off the streets. How embarrassing. The fact is, I’m foreign and god forbid, female and with yellow hair to boot and he’s having none of me. The man beckons Duong towards him and violently spits at my feet. (It didn’t hit me – thankfully this is not China) but it is a clear sign that I repulse him and must sit on my own. Duong gives me a sympathetic look and switches places but by the time I have made it back to her spot, the seat is taken and for the next four stops I am the only passenger to have to stand, head hung in shame in front of an entire bus who witnessed my rejection.
6: Wet dogs and not-so-absent housemates
My interchange for the bus is outside the only supermarket I have seen so far in the whole of Vietnam. The lure of more varied and hygienically prepared food options and potentially purchasing some fresh and clean bedding is strong so I make a swift visit for fresh fruit and brand new clean sheets to cover my dirty pile of bedding. It’s something to tide me over for the time being whilst I decide my next moves. Plus, there must be something up with the water in the apartment because whatever I do I can’t seem to get my hair clean, so a strong cleansing shampoo is also on my list.
By the time I arrive back to the apartment Adrien and Pauline have already rolled back from their placements, Marion had taken the day off ill (lack of sleep). Everyone is present except Axel, who works in central Hanoi and eats locally before he comes home. He’d better not leave it too late to get back though – because there is an almighty storm brewing. Which I am looking forward to as I hope it’s going to cool the air. Even a single degree would be a godsend.
And that’s when I finally get to meet my absent roommate Linnie. She is adorable. She is from New York and the medical student placed at an eye clinic who I mentioned earlier in my blog. Whilst she animatedly catches up with her original roomies in my/our bedroom, the French girls, I sit and listen. They talk mostly about where she has been hiding for the past couple of weeks and how her placement is going. It turns out that every night she stays at hostels in the centre of Hanoi until she has enough of the constant loud stream of backpackers and then she seeks solace in a private room at a hotel as a treat to herself. Her money is running out fast though so she cannot afford to travel as she had hoped to be able to when her placement is up. As for her placement, she explains she has been bored to literal tears every day simply sitting watching what happens around her, unable to participate, given 20-minutes worth of filing to do each day, and doesn’t know how she has got through the days not eating her own arm for some entertainment. Add to that the stalking by one of the eye doctors who manages to ‘discover’ where she is staying each night and on many an occasion and hangs around unnervingly outside her accommodation for hours on end, and you can tell she is clearly wishing for this whole ordeal to end.
It turns out Linnie is here at our apartment to refresh her stock of clean clothes before leaving again to head to a hostel. As Marion and Pauline leave the room to take their nightly shower and bed down for the night, I am free to talk to Linnie on my own. I think from one look at my face she realizes I have strong views on what we are both embroiled in, and she asks me how I’m finding it, with a bemused look on her face. She admits that the second she walked into the apartment on her arrival day she said “**** this” and moved out a couple of days later. She is disgusted at the quality of accommodation we are getting for our money. Albeit a small sum, there are basic standards of living that are simply not met (even though she was lucky enough to get a mattress). She too wonders why on earth the six of us were not housed in the dorms with an extensive support network around us and closer to our placements, instead of being placed in a squat and being over an hour commute from the other volunteers, in the back end of nowhere. Apparently one of the dorms (Lodge 2) has been newly built and is less than a few weeks old. My envy rises as I look around our filth pit.
I explained to her the seeming farce of my placement and she confirms that she has met many volunteers undertaking spurious and unnecessary placements. She also explains that if she does not complete her month placement as part of her summer studies then she fails a module in her medical degree. Despite the fact this offers her nothing to support her studies, the completion certificate is what she is holding out for – and that is the only single reason she is still here. She openly admits she would have gone home immediately otherwise and this is all a waste of a great opportunity to really volunteer in the true sense of our intentions.
We discussed complaining but even this seems fruitless. Due to the vast amount of younger volunteers rolling through, there seems to be a strong element of either fear/embarrassment about complaining, or a naivety about what to expect when you volunteer. There also seems to be a distinct lack of understanding of the difference between volunteering and volun-tourism which is the most damaging aspect of this whole business.
To my shock, she also informs me that the NGO sent a representative to Hanoi just last month to check on the volunteers that theoretically pay their wages. The representative even made a visit to our squat to check out living conditions. Clearly nothing was seen as amiss. She obviously didn’t count mattresses, use the bathroom or disturb any of our army of cockroaches. She also visited placements and wrote a journalistic masterpiece on the ‘great work’ that was being done. That news just makes me angry. Although this particular NGO are in the top 10 volunteer organisations in the world, they are clearly totally naïve to the cause or purpose of running these operations. I wonder how many other volunteer organisations are making their focus business instead of aid…. Preying on innocent naïve do-gooders who know no better, and on charities who have no foresight to stop the damaging voluntourism trend and are damaging their own causes along the way.
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my meeting with Linnie. Although Axel is English speaking, he is young and a little wet behind the ears. Speaking to Linnie has been a breath of fresh air. She is strong, she has opinions, and we can converse at length in a common language. It’s been pretty useful hearing her experiences too and it reassures me that I haven’t got this situation all wrong.
Whilst we have been chatting, I have made up my ‘bed’ with my new sheets. I’ve evened out the blankets I sleep on and completely sealed their filth in with the new sheet I have bought. I have fashioned my pillow out of towels and hoodies and placed a fresh crisp pillow case over them. It might not be an ideal sleeping place but all the filth will be trapped away from my sleeping body and the lack of polyester might mean I might be cooler. I have no time to wash the grotty rags beneath my new sheets so this is going to have to do for tonight. I’m sensing that I won’t be here long enough for any badness to seep out of the hidden grot to get at me.
Just before Linnie begins her jaunt back to central Hanoi, Axel appears. It’s been raining heavily and he is soaked to the bone, leaving a trail of rain water and dirty footprints behind him. He is immediately excited to see Linnie. He dashes into our room just as I am getting up to use the bathroom. The two North-Americans have been reunited and who am I to stand in their way.
As I pass him I nearly gag at the stench emitted from his soaking and unwashed-for-several-weeks clothes. He smells like a filthy wet dog. The more I see of him, the more the filth of the apartment is explainable. With people like him around this place has no hope.
When I return from the bathroom, I can still smell him, even before I have rounded the corner to our room. I’m immediately miffed because with no through wind in the apartment, that smell is going to linger in MY room. It’s hard enough to sleep here as it is without being able to literally taste the smells around you. And I can assure you, his stench also tastes baaaad.
It wasn’t until I walk through the door of my sleeping quarters that I see he is not only infecting the air of my disgusting boudoir with his body odour, but that he is laying sprawled out on my bed whilst he casually chats to Linnie. Soaking his dripping wet unwashed clothes into my sheets and resting his unwashed mop of hair on my pillow. My nice new clean sheets, ruined. The ONLY uninfected thing in this apartment. My ONLY solace.
I resolve to put an end to this misery sooner rather than later.
7: One last try and I’m out of here
I’ve decided that today I will go back to The Home as arranged and see whether my views can change, if I missed something yesterday, and to seriously consider if I should continue or not. If my Beijing experience has taught me anything it’s not to continue with something that doesn’t make me happy. So today will be my decision day. So far I have neither witnessed or heard anything that makes me think this is a worthwhile use of my time and won’t instead be damaging to the causes I am wrapped up with, or my health if I continue to stay.
It doesn’t start well when I discover something has bitten my neck during the night. I have 3 small puncture wounds that look like scratches and are a little red, but nothing too serious. I consciously try not to touch them and aggravate them, even though they are constantly burning on my skin. In addition, the streaming cold I have had since I arrived has not improved much. I had put it down to allergies due to the living conditions (although I have never suffered an allergy in my life before), but I now have a permanent headache and a cough too.
I fear my frame of mind is not going to ensure an objective day but there is little I can do about this.
I nod my hello to the dead cockroaches still floating in the sink and leave for The Home.
I timed by bus journey luckily to coincide with the end of an early morning card game so there was no loitering on the street today. This also meant that my journey got me to my destination much earlier than I had planned.
When I arrive, the kids are milling around the courtyard and the staff are huddled in their social group, chattering amongst themselves and paying little attention to idle kids. I find a bench several feet away and sit down to observe the happenings. Next thing I know, a young girl of maybe 6 or 7 has appeared at my side and is trying to touch my arms and my face. The fascination with the white skin and yellow hair has not escaped this little one. I usually would not mind being fawned over by a little curious kid but unfortunately, she was bleeding heavily from her gums, had blood and saliva spatters all over the front of her t-shirt and, from sticking her fingers in her mouth at every given opportunity, her hands too, were covered in blood and saliva.
That makes things a little awkward. Especially when she takes an interest in the 3 small cuts on my neck, and as all kids do, wants to investigate with her hands. Her very bloody hands. I am now stuck in a position of wanting to satisfy her interest and giving her some needed attention, but having my self-preservation take over and know that I should not be coming into contact with this blood, and especially not in open wounds, I know I am not in a good situation here. My heart goes out to her as I wriggle away from her touch and so blatantly have to reject her. I try to wave to the staff and point to my mouth and then the girls mouth, trying to communicate a message of ‘can you help this girl?’. They don’t make any moves to come over, they just look at her, look at me, and carry on with their conversation. I realise I am on my own. And so is this poor little child. Instead I have to turn her attention to a game of hide and seek so at least she is smiling and amused but there is no contact between us and her blood continues to get smeared over whatever play equipment she swings round.
Shortly after, I hear the Venga Boys blasting over a loud speaker and the kids gather on the concrete playground and begin dancing. A routine that previous volunteers had taught them. It was good to see evidence of positive and sustainable inputs from past volunteers. Beyond that though, things turned sour again.
There was a little frail girl trying to dance along with her peers when she vomited down herself. She was struggling to stand as she was clearly weak and gentle crying. No-one seemed to notice so I caught the attention of the staff and gestured to this new little girl. Eventually one of the white coated staff slowly stood up from their social session, wandered over to her, used the girls own t-shirt to wipe the sick of her chin, then gestured to have her re-join the dancing. No damp cloth to clean her face, no sip of water, no invitation to sit down, no hug for an ill child…my heart sunk back down again.
When the dancing had finished the kids all sloped off to their classrooms where the disappointing inattention from carers and teachers began again, the children amusing themselves and being reprimanded for too much noise. Today saw several Westerners and more school children appearing to volunteer their time to entertain and amuse them I once again saw that the NGO who I was working with was placing volunteers here with no actual need or requirement. With that in mind, not wanting to step on any toes, and with no guidance for my day, I headed to the craft room.
What I knew from this craft room was that the children and wards of the home created crafts for selling to raise funds for the school. What I did not witness last time I was here was any of the children doing anything, only staff and today was no different. What I was surprised to see was a Western couple winding bobbins of wool: Bernadette and Vincent, also from the same NGO I was being seconded from. They were nearer my age and were apparently nomadic in their volunteering so we had an interesting conversation about our ‘employer’. They were only on a two week placement during their world travels and had moved out of the volunteer dorms the same day they arrived. They were currently paying an additional £200 a week for a nearby hotel to the Home in the hopes that they could independently be of some local value without having to suffer the environment at the Lodges.
They had been visiting the Children’s Home on and off for the last couple of weeks and had not felt comfortable or useful there either. It was their ‘job’ to dole out food, which meant, very literally, carrying a vat of stew from the kitchens to the tables. And that was all. They invited themselves to pass the time winding wool or other rare odd jobs they could pick up, but their days were short and unfulfilling. They too were yet to see any signs of the children being significantly entertained, occupied or taught. Disturbingly they also asked me if I had seen the ‘bedrooms’. Which I had – basic single beds with straw mattresses. I remember being glad to see them raised off the ground so the kids could have a chance of escaping creepy crawlies – unlike my own sleeping arrangements. Turns out I got shown the ‘show room’ which exists for the purposes of influential visitors. The real dorms were sacks on the floors I did not get shown.
The only real caring I witnessed that day was a clearly blind and physically handicapped girl in the queue for the food at lunch time, her more able bodied little friend holding her arm. The friend collects two bowls of food and somehow manages to also guide her friend to a seat to eat at. They are giggling together as the friend feeds the other. It’s the biggest display of love and caring that I have seen here in my short time…and it was from the children themselves, towards the other children. Are the children bringing each other up here?
I think I already knew at that point that I was not coming back. When I enquired with a teacher how I could add anything of value to the children it was suggested I think them up a new dance routine. But that was all they could come up with. I was being humoured. And I was done. I’d given the charity my money – I was not giving them precious time in my life too.
Our dorm was empty when I got back that day and I began to pack. It was too late to venture out anywhere or move out that night so I resolved to spend the last night in the dorm, call in sick the day after (which was not entirely a lie because my breathing was worse and the bites on my neck had turned into a 2” square scab on my neck and who knew how to get healthcare out here, I HAD to leave) – besides no one would miss me or notice my absence, I was sure. I planned to move to a hotel in Hanoi for my last night or two before I could get a flight out. Luckily my flights had been flexible so I could change them at any time, so I did. I told the French guys when they got home that I was going and they looked resigned. Already depressed, I’m not sure they weren’t envious that I had the power and means to give it up. But not one of them had the words to persuade me otherwise. Axel was also planning to move out to Hanoi for the weekend as he usually does to escape the filth, so I would at least have company for my farewell dinner in Vietnam.
And so that’s what I did. I left that dank and infested apartment the following morning, the farcical placements and the good hearted volunteers who were being used.
And I never looked back.