I graduated in December 2016 with my Bachelors of Science degree in Communication Sciences and Disorders. Instead of starting my Master’s degree in Speech Language Pathology immediately, I wanted to take a break and do something worthwhile that could benefit others and help me grow as both a person and a professional. I found Projects Abroad through a simple Google search. The Speech Therapy Project in Vietnam particularly attracted my attention because of my Vietnamese-American background. I wanted to see where my roots came from. I volunteered at a rehabilitation centre, about two hours outside of Hanoi, for three weeks and it was one of the most rewarding and challenging experiences I’ve had in my life thus far.
My arrival in Vietnam
This was my first time in Asia so naturally I was very nervous. The Projects Abroad staff put my mind at ease immediately after I got off the plane, I never felt alone. The staff is available at any time and are very accommodating to the volunteer’s needs. The staff and other volunteers I befriended helped me adapt to Vietnam quickly. It’s helpful having a reliable support system that can help you learn your way around and deal with any unexpected complications that could be encountered. Having a safety net to fall back on helped me stress less and enjoy my placement and the country even more.
My Speech Therapy Project
The rehabilitation centre I volunteered at is located in one of the many rural areas of Vietnam; much more laid back than the busy atmosphere of Hanoi. My accommodation was in a hostel within walking distance from the centre. On the weekends I would stay at the volunteer house located in Hanoi and take the opportunity to see more of the country. Although the fast-paced city was fun, I also enjoyed being able to go back to the relaxing culture in my placement during the weekdays to take a break. The rehabilitation centre I volunteered at is considered one of the best facilities for handicapped children in Vietnam, but it is still largely underdeveloped. Generally, the healthcare system in Vietnam is very outdated, but this is to be expected when working in a developing country. Volunteering there was truly an irreplaceable experience that one can’t get working in the Western world.
One of the first things I learned is that it’s important to form bonds with the staff. Even though I couldn’t communicate with them entirely, eye contact, gestures and body language make a huge difference! The language barrier is difficult, but I learned a surprisingly good amount of basic Vietnamese during my time there to help me along the way. Projects Abroad also provided me with a full-time translator, which helped tremendously with therapy and communication with the staff.
Speech therapy is not recognized as a profession in Vietnam. What is unique about this volunteer experience is that you are not only there to learn, but also to teach. Once I built some trust with the speech therapy staff, I was able to give recommendations for the children and experiment with new therapy techniques. I was even asked to make an alternate AAC communication book for the children. In previous years the staff was opposed to change, but now they have begun making solid advancements towards the care of their children.
My three weeks at placement was not nearly long enough to make a huge difference, but in my short time I saw many positive changes. Perhaps the biggest accomplishment was adding tables to the feeding area. When I first arrived, the feeding area had no tables and many of the children who were capable of feeding themselves were spoon-fed. The staff had been notoriously resistant to the idea of tables in the feeding area but finally agreed thanks to the help of one of the more experienced occupational therapy volunteers I was working with. While this may not seem like a big deal to some, it was actually a huge step towards the children’s independence and the progression of the centre.
My overall experience
Volunteering in Vietnam has helped me grow both personally and professionally. Being directly immersed in a developing country is an experience like no other. It’s a great feeling to know that I contributed to a better quality of life for the children, and helped the centre advance even if it was only a small amount. The small things count!
The Vietnamese community and the incredible people I met along the way have inspired me forever and I hope one day soon I can return to Asia and continue helping as much as I am able to. I wouldn’t trade my experience with Projects Abroad for anything, and I encourage all who are curious to take a leap and go for it! It’s absolutely worth every cent.