Volunteering in Vietnam offers opportunities to explore life in one of 54 hill tribes, build relationships with young people, and give back to a country with a past filled of harsh warfare. Vietnam welcomes volunteers in a variety of capacities and industries. From education to healthcare, and youth development to environmental sustainability projects, there is a volunteer placement for everyone on this Indochinese Peninsula! As a volunteer in Vietnam, you can hike the lush jungles, visit the limestone islands, adventure into one of the ten national parks, or float along the Mekong Delta.
Volunteer work in Vietnam can be found in and around the major cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, as well as in the north near Ha Long Bay.
Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) is Vietnam’s largest city, found down in the south of the country. It has a more colonial feel than Hanoi up in the north, with some very famous western-looking buildings, such as the Notre-Dame Cathedral. While volunteering in HCMC, (as it is often referred to) a great place to visit is the Cu Chi tunnel, where visitors can climb into the original Vietcong tunnel system used during the war to gain fascinating insight into the conditions in which the soldiers from the north worked when they managed to overthrow the mighty West in the late 60’s.
Hanoi, the lively and ancient capital city, is considered the main cultural center of Vietnam. In the old centre you can buy produce and handicrafts from street sellers, watch traditional water puppet shows, and experience what this modern city has to offer in terms of shopping, Karaoke bars, cinemas, and dance clubs. Volunteer placements in Hanoi can range from centers for individuals with disabilities to community development projects or health placements.
Ha Long Bay. North of Hanoi, this archipelago of rocky limestone towers on the northern coast is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that attracts thousands of visitors each year. Volunteers can sail through the mystical landscape in traditional ships and explore caves and grottos in more modern canoes. Local fishing villages also regularly host visitors for seafood feasts, which is a must try for those who volunteer in Vietnam.
Projects & Placements
Working with the disabled is one of the greatest areas of need in Vietnam, but also the value of good English language skills within the Asian market means that volunteers that can teach English in Vietnam, or help local teachers to build their own English skills, too.
Other common placements for volunteer work in Vietnam are at orphanages. Help is also widely needed within the area of social development, law and human rights, the healthcare industry, and eco-tourism. Vietnam also has a surprising number of conservation initiatives. The nation’s rapid development and growth socially is not reflected in its environmental practises, and now organizations focusing on the natural habitat and indigenous wildlife of Vietnam have become more popular places to volunteer in Vietnam.
Volunteer projects in Vietnam that support children abound due to the after effects of Agent Orange and the disabilities it inflicted. The prevalence of Street Kids, children who have run away from home to escape abuse or violence, is another reason volunteering with children is needed. Also, because the education system in Vietnam isn’t free, poorer families don’t have the same access to education and rely on outside programming for support. Some schools are entirely run by those who volunteer in Vietnam, many of which provide English lessons for low-income children.
Short-term volunteer opportunities in Vietnam exist for as little as two weeks, and longer term six month stints are available across a wide range of industries too.
Costs & Affordability
In the mid-1980s almost three quarters of the Vietnamese population lived in poverty. A very successful government strategy has turned this around recently, so by 2003 that figure was down to less than 30 percent - a remarkable achievement. Yet, poverty still exists in rural areas, and the health care system is basic and antiquated, hence many volunteer programs in Vietnam focus on placing volunteers in health care placements or with the disabled populations, both within the cities and rural communities.
Since the improvement in poverty levels and the economy of the country is only recent, the cost of living in Vietnam can vary greatly. Locations that are more popular for tourists can be significantly more expensive than rural or secluded areas. Costs for everything from accommodation and transportation to water and snacks can vary between locations. In general, individuals who volunteer in Vietnam will need to haggle to pay the real price for most items, unless a printed menu exists.
Accommodation & Visas
In some cases, volunteer programs in Vietnam include accommodation, but many times volunteers will be on their own when finding housing. If you are only volunteering in Vietnam for a short time, hostels are an affordable option, as they run from about $6 to $17 a night! Some volunteer organizations in Vietnam may also place volunteers in a volunteer house or dormitory.
However, the most popular type of accommodation for individuals who volunteer abroad in Vietnam is guesthouses. Guesthouses vary in quality and price, but generally are of a fairly good standard for the price. Restaurants are often run within guesthouses, so you will be able to buy meals there as well, but meals are generally not included in accommodation costs.
While volunteering in Vietnam, volunteers may need a working or tourist visa, depending on their specific program and the duration of their stay. Tourist visas are valid for 30 days and can be extended if necessary, but MUST be pre-arranged. Although unlike most countries, in Vietnam visas can be picked up upon arrival at the airport in Vietnam at an immigration booth, as long as arrangements are made prior to travel.
Benefits & Challenges
The unique thing about volunteering abroad in Vietnam is that it remains a communist country. As such the traditional NGO (Non-Governmental Organization), does not truly exist, as the state is involved in all elements of public and private businesses. This can mean that the regulations and requirements for volunteer organizations in Vietnam, and their subsequent volunteers, can change with very short notice, and preparation for accepting volunteers can often involve more extensive measures. It is important not to criticize the way that the political system works or the government's activities while volunteering in Vietnam, which can sometimes be a challenge for more outspoken Westerners.
The roads of Vietnam, in particular within the cities of Hanoi and HCMC, can be amongst the most congested in the world. Uniquely, however the congestion comes from motorbikes and pushbikes who miraculously weave through the traffic in a seemingly impossible moving-gridlock. It is recommended that volunteers cross busy streets with a local until they get used to the process. The Vietnamese generally find great amusement in helping foreigners cross their streets, by simply holding on and taking the lead.
During your volunteer program in Vietnam, you can allow yourself time to explore bordering Cambodia, Laos, and China too!