Expectation Versus the Reality of Volunteering in Vietnam: What to Know Before You Go
Volunteering in Vietnam is my first time traveling to an Asian country. I knew that it wouldn’t be as convenient as it is back home in the United States, and I knew it wouldn’t be as easy as it was when I studied in Europe. But, I honestly didn’t know what to expect.
I was aware that Vietnam is an up-and-coming country, but when I read in the Greenheart Travel orientation packet that I might have to take motorbikes or rickshaws almost an hour to work every day, I thought I would be living outside the city in a desolate, rural town. And although I have a great international phone plan, when the company said Vietnam wasn’t on the list for service or Internet, I just knew my comfy lifestyle would be over for the next two months.
But, I was wrong.
Commuting in Hanoi
Even though my commute is long, it is because Hanoi is a huge city! I go by bus with other volunteers, by buses that have air conditioning and Wi-Fi. I’m still living in the city of Hanoi, and even though it’s about a 30 minute Uber ride to the city center, I’m still super close to shops, cafés, and restaurants. (And yes, Uber’s are everywhere, even motorbike Uber’s!)
Vietnam is definitely still developing; you can see that in the architecture, by the availability of air conditioning, in the practices of selling raw meat on the side of the road, or by the unstructured traffic that crowds the streets. But, there is some of the nicest restaurants downtown, Wi-Fi is almost anywhere, and everyone I’ve met has a smartphone. It’s certainly an interesting place and way of life. I’m thankful to be able to witness and experience this.
Expenses in Vietnam
Another positive surprise is how affordable Vietnam is!
Traveling around, you come to expect it to be costly, even if you’re buying cheap bus tickets and booking last minute hostels. I heard that it was inexpensive to travel around Southeast Asia, and specifically Vietnam, but I didn’t realize just how inexpensive until I got here.
After adjusting to the price difference from USD to Vietnamese dong, you learn that spending more than $5 on a traditional meal is pretty uncommon. I buy a typical sandwich almost every day for lunch, which comes out to be around 50 cents, and even a 30-40 minute taxi ride is only $4-$6.
There are certain foods or products that are pretty similar to the prices that I would pay at home, but I have found that many things are usually much cheaper. So, if you are searching for your next international trip, I would definitely recommend coming to Vietnam. Not only for the culture and the beautiful scenery, but because it is one of the most affordable destinations, and with so much to offer!
Cultural Norms to Get Used to in Vietnam
However, there are some customs that Westerners are probably not used to that are common here in Vietnam:
- Taking off your shoes before entering homes or cafés
- Sitting on very short chairs or cushions while eating
- Bargaining in the market for food
- The long naps that the locals take in the middle of the day
- Not tipping at places you usually might tip at
Even though it is rare to come across a native that speaks English, it is easy to communicate by hand gestures or using notepads or cellphones.
Advice for Volunteers Coming to Vietnam
- Some advice I would give to volunteers or travelers coming to Vietnam would first be to prepare for the heat.
- Even if a place does have air conditioning, the temperatures are usually not set very low, so get ready to sweat!
- Always have filtered water with you, since the tap is not safe enough to drink, and stay hydrated.
- Come prepared with sunscreen and bug spray from your home country.
- Lighter skin is valued in Vietnam, so almost anything sold that goes onto the skin has whitening agents in them, including lotion.
- Be aware that dog meat is sold legally in Vietnam, and you might come across it multiple times a day being sold on the road.
- Whole bodies of not only dogs, but chickens, ducks, etc. are on display for the public, and that is a common practice for the culture and one needing to be accepted by tourists, even if they disagree with it.
- The roads are typically full of traffic, and you will have to get used to the constant honking.
- Most of the locals get around by motorbike, and motorbikes have much more leniency when it comes to traffic laws compared to cars, but both are still hectic, and come extremely close in traffic.
- If you do decide to take a bus, however, know that there is an unwritten “no talking” policy. With all the noise and commotion coming from outside, the drivers typically like it quiet, so you may even get hushed.
What to Try in Vietnam
But, there’s some pretty fun advice, too. If you travel to Vietnam, you have to try some of the traditional food, like phở. Also here, they have a variety of delicious fruits unheard of in the USA. Meals are commonly served buffet style at your table, where you have a bed of rice or noodles and grab from an array of yummy veggies and different meats. The coffee is delicious, and you have to get a warm bánh mì for lunch with an avocado smoothie.
I’m positive that there is much more great tasting foods that I have yet to try, but tourists coming from anywhere will be delighted by the differences and the flavor that Vietnamese dishes have.
And my favorite piece of advice is to explore around! Booking excursions to breathtaking islands or remarkable mountains through a travel agency, or planning it on your own, is very achievable, even on a budget. It’s an amazing way to see other parts of the cultural and scenery you can’t find anywhere else.