Looking back, I am disappointed by my history classes. I remember my high school teacher talking about the Vietnam War; he glorified the American soldiers who gave their lives to fight the spread of communism. Vietnam remains a communist country, so every history class from high school to college reaffirmed that the war was a victory for Vietnam.
It wasn’t…Vietnam was far from victorious. We swiftly glossed over the fact that this bloody, 10-year war took millions of lives in Vietnam and essentially devastated the country. We destroyed the vitality of Vietnam’s entire eco-system with the use of Agent Orange. But this is not history yet. Our actions during the Vietnam War are still seriously affecting Vietnam and the well being of its people.
As I was teaching some Vietnamese history to my 3rd graders in Thailand during our ASEAN unit, I did more of my own research on Agent Orange. Agent Orange was contaminated with the most toxic dioxin (2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzodioxin), which made it the prime weapon of destruction during the Vietnam War.
During the war, the U.S. military sprayed about 20 million gallons of Agent Orange all over Vietnam but most heavily in the South. It’s a herbicide and defoliant, so it cleared areas where the Viet Cong could take cover. (A large amount of food crops in rural areas were also sprayed, which led to widespread famine and uncontrolled urbanization to cities in south Vietnam, which also has its slue of negative effects).
Agent Orange is still prevalent in the eco-system of Vietnam; soil, human blood, and even women’s breast milk contains high levels of dioxin. An estimation of 3 million people have suffered from a variety of health problems because of this dioxin including: reproductive and developmental defects, birth defects, blindness, cancers, cleft palate, and mild to severe mental disabilities. It continues to poison generation after generation.
Before leaving Thailand, I wanted to volunteer in Vietnam with an organization dedicated to caring for victims of Agent Orange.
For 2 weeks in late April I volunteered at Vietnam Friendship Village outside Hanoi, which provides education and treatment for victims of Agent Orange. Friendship Village was started by George Mizo, an American Vietnam Veteran who wanted to begin healing the wounds of war. He said, “The horrible experiences during the war and the suffering of everybody on all sides inspired me to do something that would be a living symbol of peace, reconciliation and hope.”
Friendship Village is a warm and welcoming community. The first time I walked in, I was greeted by so many beautiful little souls. A young girl with down syndrome immediately took my hand and gave me a tour around.
Friendship Village has 2 main focuses: veterans and residents. Veterans from the war come every few months to receive treatment and therapy in the medical clinic. Residents also receive medical care and speech/physical therapy. About 150 residents, both kids and adults who have a range of physical and mental disabilities, live at Friendship Village.
In addition to medical care, residents receive education and vocational training. There are 4 vocational classrooms where they learn computers, embroidery, sewing, and flower making. The products they make are sold to visitors and profits benefit the village.
Many students also have practical classes throughout the day where they learn and practice skills like cooking and washing their own hair.
I worked in one of 3 special education classes with 15 students. All of the students were deaf, and most had additional mental disabilities. These students were 3rd and 4th generation deaf. The young lady in the picture below is 4th generation deaf.
Although I have spent a lot of time in the classroom, I had never worked with deaf students before. My attempts at spoken language fell by the wayside after a while; it became normal to spend my day participating in activities with them without talking.
I often sat with students as they completed handwriting work or other written activities. They were easily frustrated, but desired attention and love, so even just a simple thumbs up and a smile would encourage them to keep going. I was continually reminded how powerful non-verbal communication is.
We were amused by making faces at each other, finger painting, and doing arts and crafts, and they loved teaching me sign language and taking pictures with my camera (as you can see by the selfie below).
Some residents at Friendship Village have much more severe cases. One of my most poignant memories was taking Châu for an afternoon walk. Châu (pictured below) is a young resident who suffers from deafblindness. He lives in his own little world.
I was apart of his world for a few fleeting moments. This volunteer experience further opened my eyes to the struggles that Vietnamese people face bravely everyday. I am blessed to have had the opportunity to work with these wonderful kids who have the ability to smile all day and live their lives with glee and gusto; their abilities outshine their disabilites.
Volunteering in Vietnam:
I found my program online with Friends for Asia; they coordinate volunteer projects all over Asia. Once I arrived in Vietnam, and throughout my 2 week placement, I worked with CSDS, Center for Sustainable Development Studies. They provided me with Vietnamese lessons (which were very helpful), a sweet volunteer house, a nanny who made delicious Vietnamese food for lunch and dinner, a city tour of Hanoi with local students, and support during my time at Vietnam Friendship Village.
Why not volunteer directly with Friendship Village? There seems to be more structure and support when volunteering through Friends For Asia and, in turn, CSDS. Even though it was more expensive, I don’t mind paying more for the extras above, especially when I know my money is benefitting great organizations.
CSDS is not funded by anyone, so their money comes from volunteer fees and grants from local companies. They have many local, nonprofit partnerships, like Vietnam Friendship Village, and they focus on 3 major areas in order to have the most impact in Vietnam:
I very much appreciate the way CSDS is run, and I can’t thank the staff enough for the support and knowledge base they provided in order to ensure a wonderful volunteer experience.
While in Vietnam, as an ambassador for the United States, I felt a duty to understand the effects of the shameful decisions my country made and contribute my time to a prevailing tragedy that we created. We can’t take back events in history, but we can work together to ensure a brighter future.
Volunteering allows individuals to become part of a solution while experiencing a country in-depth, even for a short period of time. There are many affordable volunteer options in Vietnam, and many organizations, like Friendship Village and CSDS, depend on volunteer efforts and funds in order to continue taking steps towards a progressive society with healthy, functioning citizens.