Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) is like Vietnam concentrate: all of the excitement, beauty, and chaos of Vietnam distilled into a fast-paced city pulsing with energy. After periods of colonization, war, and civil unrest, Vietnam is gradually working toward a more progressive economy, led by the cultural and commercial giant of HCMC. Despite generating momentum that is driving the whole country forward however, Ho Chi Minh still struggles with various social issues. Now is the time to become an HCMC volunteer, as there are many diverse projects in infrastructure, education, hospitality, and tourism, all of which are helping the whole country grow. Volunteer in Vietnam now!
Volunteer Work in Ho Chi Minh
In the vast urban fog of Ho Chi Minh, there are countless volunteer projects working to better education, health, community development, and the tourism industry. As a volunteer in Vietnam, you will probably be working in a people-focused project in one of these areas.
Orphanages. If the thought of small Vietnamese children without parents tugs at your heartstrings, you could look into volunteering with orphans in Ho Chi Minh. There are various homes to more than 1000 children who have been abandoned, orphaned, or are living on the streets in HCMC. Volunteers will have the opportunity to teach, help, or provide awareness and hope to vulnerable children.
Community Development. Volunteering abroad in Ho Chi Minh provides several opportunities to participate in the development of local communities, with activities such as cooking classes, language education, and independent community projects. Volunteers will have the chance to visit iconic sites and attractions and enroll to workshops such as embroidery and jewelry techniques. English-speaking volunteers are valued for their ability to help the locals learn the basics of English.
Health. Volunteers who are medical professionals or working towards a degree in healthcare will find plenty of opportunities to get practical experience in Ho Chi Minh, where specialized health volunteers are always welcomed. Medical volunteers will gain firsthand insight into how healthcare operates in a developing country, and have the chance to work with diseases and conditions they may not encounter at home.
When choosing your volunteer placement in HCMC, you should also consider what the weather will be like during your stay. Vietnam experiences only two seasons: wet and dry. From May through to November Ho Chi Minh gets a lot of rain, with dry periods in January, February, and March. Whenever you go though, you can expect temperatures to be high, so pack accordingly.
Life in Ho Chi Minh
Buried in the immense sprawl of Ho Chi Minh are many malls, cafes, bars, and other amenities. Although at times the city can seem chaotic and uncouth, you will still be able to find everything you need in HCMC, and most of the modern comforts you are accustomed to.
Public transport is certainly much more exciting than in developed countries, but it is generally fast and efficient (even if it is hair-raising). It is also cheap, and you can get to most places within the city center for $1. For those who prefer to have their own transport, volunteers may rent motorbikes. Motorbikes for rent are readily available and could be hired cheap for long term rentals. However, foreign visitors will need to provide adequate papers in order to be able to drive.
During the weekends, volunteers have the option of visiting neighboring towns for a quieter and more laid back pace. A two hour drive north to Mui Ne will take you to the famous desert sandbar, or two hours south to Can Tho will take you to a sleepy town by the river. For those who want to stay in the city, there are also various places to relax such as spas, cinemas, or even excursions to Mekong River or Cu Chi tunnel. Weekends can be well spent even when staying in the city.
Costs & Affordability
Volunteering in Vietnam is rather cheap, although the total amount will vary according to the individual. A meal in a local restaurant costs $1-$2, but can cost more than double that in a more upscale restaurant. 1.5 liters of water costs $0.5 while beer costs $2-3. Bear in mind that unless a printed menu exists, you will need to haggle the price of even the most basic items: poverty is still a reality for many Vietnamese people, they will take advantage of foreign visitors if they can. The internet service around the city is decent and readily available for nomads.
Fees for volunteer programs in Vietnam typically include transfers from airport to the project location, accommodation, and meals. Most programs will also offer pre-departure and in-country support, with 24 hour emergency contacts should anything go wrong. You should factor in the fact that you will also receive training for the tasks you will be expected to carry out, so consider the value of the skills you’ll acquire when weighing up program costs. In general, Vietnam is a very affordable destination for volunteers, so it’s perfect if you are still a student, or a recent graduate with limited means.
Accommodation & Visas
Most host organizations will take care of your accommodations, whether that be in a homestay, private room, or shared apartment. If you have a preference, be sure to communicate that to your program provider to see if they can accommodate you (ba dum tss). For volunteering jobs which do not provide accommodation, you may opt to take a private rooms or shared apartments with colleagues. Accommodation options will vary according to the type of the room, location, and amenities. Private rooms in Ho Chi Minh can cost anywhere from $70-$200, ranging from single to double rooms, with ensuite or shared bathrooms.
Most volunteers will need to obtain a Vietnamese visa prior to arrival. The process for applying for a tourist visa is fairly straightforward, although fees vary for the type of visa and the length of your intended stay. They are regularly adjusted, so to get the most up-to-date information, you should contact the nearest Vietnamese embassy. Once in Vietnam, it is possible to apply for a visa extension of up to a month if you can’t tear yourself away from your volunteer placement.
Benefits & Challenges
Ho Chi Minh is a modern city, and although your volunteer work may be carried out in poorer suburbs, your living conditions will generally be comfortable. People living in the city are accustomed to foreign visitors, and finding your way around should not be a problem. Although not everyone speaks English, most people are used to miming their way through conversations, and an overall warmth and willingness to help means you can get by without speaking Vietnamese (although learning a few basic phrases is always a good idea).
Exploration as a volunteer in HCMC is endless: there is always something new to discover, another colonial ally to walk down, another street stall dish to sample, and another market to dive into. Just getting around the city can be something of a challenge though, with traffic in the city reaching epic proportions. The congestion, noise, and complete chaos caused by an never-ceasing stream of motorbikes can be overwhelming, especially if you have to navigate your way through sure death to the other side. If you get stuck, don’t be afraid to ask for help from a local: sooner or later someone will help guide you through the gridlock and on to your next adventure.