Making a difference while traveling the world

Cultural Exchange

One of the best parts of traveling is the people you meet along the way. Even better – as a volunteer traveling the world, you get to meet and live with other volunteers with whom you share a common bond and become friends.

I’ve been living in one of three volunteer houses Volunteers for Peace Vietnam provides – known as Peace House 3 – for almost 3 weeks now. Since then, I’ve learned that flip flops are called “jandals” in New Zealand, tank tops are known as “singlets” in Australia and “Are you all right?” is how the English ask, “How are you?” When I came to Vietnam, little did I know I’d be learning so much about other western cultures from countries I have yet to visit!

Despite our slight cultural differences, we’re all devoting our time, energy and money here in Ho Chi Minh City for one purpose – to love and care for disabled orphans.

Marie Claire feeding lunch

Marie Claire is from England and is half Vietnamese. So during her 2 months volunteering here, she’s also getting to spend time with family members who live in Ho Chi Minh City and has never even met before!

Alice and Nghia

Alice is a 19-year-old university student from China, who’s never traveled outside of China before this. She and this little boy, named Nghia, have formed quite a bond as she helps him practice walking every day. This is her last week volunteering and she says she doesn’t want to go home yet. I have a feeling this won’t be the last volunteer trip for Alice.

One volunteer from Ireland, named Lorraine, is spending 10 weeks volunteering here – and get this – she doesn’t even like Vietnamese food! She’s willing to live off rice, bread rolls,

Lorraine feeding lunch

smoothies and candy bars for the kids. She just bought the children paints, paint brushes and paper so they can unleash the creativity within them. She also plans to buy more high chair/strollers and clothes for the orphans with the money she raised at home.

Phat, Tam and me

Here I am with two of the more independent kids of the nursery – Phat (the boy in green on the left) and Tam (on the right). Phat usually wears a sort of padded helmet on his head, but isn’t in this picture right before his bedtime. He can speak, but not very clearly, and walks with a bit of a jerk. He can never remember or pronounce my name, so he always comes up to me saying, “My name – my name.” Phat’s the oldest in this part of the orphanage and acts as a little assistant for us volunteers, the nurses and caregivers. He helps us volunteers identify which kid goes in which bed or helps us find the kid that matches the name labeled on the bowl for feeding.

Tam is a monster – but so adorable. He’s known as “naughty boy” around the nursery. Even Phat calls him that. He’s blind in one eye, but other than that, he seems to be a smart and agile kid. He can repeat the English words and phrases we tell him perfectly – no accent. Even when they had two French volunteers a couple of weeks ago, he could mimic their French! Tam loves to be tossed, spun, swung and hung upside down. He takes a lot more energy to play with than the other kids, but we have enough volunteers to pass him around when one of us gets worn out.

Aside from being co-volunteers, we’re also travel buddies. After taking a couple of trips by myself in Thailand, it’s nice to have others to check out the other

The lake in Dalat's city center

parts of Vietnam with. Last weekend, 7 of us girls (4 from England, 1 from New Zealand, Lorraine from Ireland and me) took a tour up to Dalat – part of the Central Highlands region of Vietnam and a 7 hour bus ride from Ho Chi Minh City. It was a much-needed getaway to lush, green trees, clean air and cooler weather after living amongst the intense heat, sweatiness and crowded streets of Saigon.

View from the top of the Crazy House

One of my favorite parts of the trip was visiting the Hang Nha guesthouse, better known as the Crazy House. Lonely Planet says walking through it makes you feel like Alice in Wonderland – and it’s true! The gnarly tree designs, the funky animal-themed rooms that you can actually stay inand the twisty, maze-like staircases and hallways. The view from up top was gorgeous, too.

Another highlight – after the mostly boring bus tour comprised of flower gardens and parks with cheesy plastic animal figures, Lorraine and I hired two motorcycle tour guides, known as Easy Riders, to take us to Elephant Waterfall – one of the biggest

Easy Rider and me

waterfalls in the area. They took us on a one-hour ride through the beautiful countryside till we reached the thunderous waterfall pounding down on boulders that resemble a herd of elephants bathing in the water. First, the Easy Rider guide showed us the waterfall from up top, but then he took us on a hike – climbing down the slippery and muddy rock paths to get a side view of the waterfall and through a cave where we got sprayed by the mist. There was the adventure I was looking for!

Elephant Waterfall

Five of the girls I went on this Dalat trip with are leaving tomorrow – a bummer, but we say our goodbyes to different volunteers every week and welcome in new ones, as well. And this week, we got two more Americans! They’re both Vietnamese American and can speak the language, which helps a lot. One of them is even from Nor Cal! I know I’ll get to learn more Vietnamese from them (already learned “toi qua” = “I’m hungry” and “no qua” = “I’m full” from one of them) and eat more of the authentic stuff with them – maybe even dog?


Comments on: "Cultural Exchange" (1)

  1. Rebecca Woodland said:

    Hi Jessica, I sent you an email about my return visit to the orphanage, with an update on Tam, Phat, and Nghia. In a separate email (from a different email address) I sent some photos. I spent last week with these kids and had a blast! Did you get the emails I sent? Aloha, Rebecca Woodland

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