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Outside this Blog, Vietnam, Voluntourism

Adventures of a Voluntourist: Vietnam

This is the fourth and final installment of a series that I’ve written for WorldNomads. The anecdotal stories focus on my experience volunteering abroad.


Randomness. A good percentage of the world does not believe in the randomness of birth—birth is either predestined or the result of a causal event. In other words, your lot in life (and the family into which you are born) is either part of a greater plan, or the direct result of the deeds of your previous life. Some people believe that if your actions are especially heedless or ignorant in one life, you can even be reborn as an animal in the next. To be truthful, I see nothing wrong with any of these points of view because I recognize that I simply do not know. But I do think about it, and it seems the topic rears its head more often when I volunteer. In fact, it was while I was volunteering in an orphanage in Vietnam that I thought upon it again.

On this particular volunteer trip, there was no volunteer coordinator telling me that I had been reassigned to work with street children; instead, the placement I had arranged at an orphanage remained as planned. The Ky Quang orphanage is privately run by a Buddhist organization in a fully functional Buddhist temple in Ho Chi Minh City. It has approximately 200 orphans that range widely in age (a few months up to 24 years old). Some are “true” orphans, but sadly, an inordinately large percentage of them have some kind of disability and were abandoned by their parents at the temple’s doorstep. It’s a sad contradiction that in a country that values family deeply, many people here are ashamed of family members with disabilities—a disability is viewed as “unlucky” or as proof of some former wrongdoing. Some families simply can’t afford to care for them.

My job at the orphanage was to work with the disabled children. The nurses that are employed at Ky Quang have many demands on their time, so cannot provide the constant one-on-one attention that these children need. The volunteers are there to play with them, keep them mentally stimulated, make sure the mobile ones didn’t get into scrapes, and help feed them during mealtimes. Within a very short timeframe, I developed attachments to several of the children. It isn’t a hard thing to do. Among them was Sau, who upon my arrival in the morning, would grab my hand and take me for a walk around the grounds, sometimes sitting with me at the front entrance to watch the world go by. Another was Chau, a mischievous boy that was born blind. Each time I saw him, I would hum a little tune so he would know me immediately from the other volunteers. By my last day, I barely uttered a note before he would scramble into my arms. And one of my special favorites was Di, a seven year-old girl who I visited regularly. Di was born with severe hydrocephalus and despite a surgically implanted shunt, her head had grown to a massive size that could not be supported by her tiny body. As a result, she was forced to lie on her back all day and stare at the ceiling in a dimly lit room. Di had rarely seen sunlight, so her skin was silky smooth, translucent, and delicate as fine china. Several times a day, I would stand by her bed, take her hand in mine, and caress her cheek gently.

These are the times that I reflect upon the randomness of birth. With a mere roll of the dice, I can have my life; with another roll, I can be an animal struggling to survive on the floor of a wildlife hospital in Greece; or I can be a child in a poverty-stricken village in Peru, without access to clean drinking water and uncertain about my next meal; or I can be living on the streets in India, roaming barefoot amongst the garbage and filth, and forced to beg (or worse) to survive; and with yet with another roll, I can be a prisoner in my own body, mentally aware but physically disabled, and abandoned on the doorstep of a Buddhist orphanage in Vietnam.

People ask me all the time why I volunteer abroad. I do it because it gives me a unique opportunity to see a side of a culture that travelers normally don’t get to see. I do it because as a person who often travels alone, it provides me with a sense of community in a foreign land. I do it because I want to give back to the countries that I visit. I could list dozens of good reasons, but perhaps one of the most valuable is also the most subtle: I do it because of how volunteering has made me think and feel. My sense of connection to humanity and to the world has deepened with every experience, and the depth of my appreciation for what I have has grown beyond measure. This has been my finest reward.

Thank you for sharing in the journey.

About colleen finn

Colleen Finn is a globe trotting, sight seeing, day tripping, frequent flying traveler with a penchant for voluntourism.

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