Top 5 things to do whilst volunteering in Vietnam!
So you’re considering volunteering in Vietnam. You’ve undoubtedly made the decision in a Vietnamese restaurant whilst shovelling your main course into your face in disbelief something could taste that good. The volunteer programs available in Vietnam are diverse and mostly quite hands on, so you’ll really get a sense of accomplishment that you’re making a difference by the end of your stay. A nation with widespread poverty such as Vietnam requires good people like you to volunteer as the social structures aren’t in place to ensure everyone gets access to health and education. Volunteering not only gives you the opportunity to help in Vietnam, but also to get to know the country, its culture and its inhabitants. On that note, you’ll be happy to hear Vietnam doesn’t just have some of the finest cuisine in the world. There are a stack of great reasons to explore and volunteer in this incredibly beautiful, historically fascinating and culturally unique South East Asian country.
Here are my top 5 of a million things you can do (when your not busy volunteering of course):
1. Explore the Mekong Delta and visit the Cai Rang Floating Market.
What can I say, I’m a sucker for a floating market and this one is a biggy! There are a few on the Mekong, but the Cai Rang is notably the biggest. Typically you get the boat from Can Tho, but be prepared to leave early as the market only runs from 4am to 10am. From Can Tho you’re looking at about a 45 minute boat ride to travel the 6km to the market. The boat route to the market takes you through some beautiful scenery of rice fields, lush green countryside, houses built on stilts over the water, and plenty of local activity on the water. If you time it right you’ll be able to catch all this at sunrise. So make sure to pack your good camera! This market isn’t so much for souvenirs but you can get some amazingly fresh food. Most tour companies will organise that following the market you have an all-inclusive locally produced, fresh food breakfast at a local orchard. At the orchard you can get a tour and sample the fresh fruit straight from the tree. The ride back to Can Tho will take you via a series of canals which are aesthetically beautiful.
2. Try poo brew…this might need some more explanation.
It’s a little known fact that Vietnam is actually the second highest distributor of coffee in the world. It’s just that their coffee is the stuff 'instant' is made out of so no one boasts their coffee is from Vietnam. However Vietnam does produce good coffee and furthermore, it manufactures civet cat coffee, the most expensive coffee in the world. That’s the one where the civet cat eats the best beans and their digestive enzymes ferment them. When it comes out the other end it creates this amazingly delicious coffee that is smoky with a hint of chocolate flavouring. If you come across civet coffee in the Western world, you’re looking at paying up to $30US for a cup. It’s a hell of a lot cheaper to try it in Vietnam. Buon Me Thuot, the capital of the Central Highlands Dak Lak province is the coffee capital of Vietnam and where you will find what they call “ca phe chon”. This is a great excuse to go to this beautiful region whilst volunteering in Vietnam. You can also tour the coffee farms, which is a great way to spend a morning or afternoon. Another good opportunity to take some great photos.
3. Crawl your way through underground war bunkers.
Part of the reason Vietnamese food is so incredible is due to its fusion with French food during their occupation. Foreign forces on Vietnamese soil have left the country with an incredible history that’s well worth exploring. One such icon of Vietnamese history is the Chu Chi tunnels. They were originally built during the French occupation and expanded extensively during the Vietnam War. A very effective strategic advantage to move around unnoticed when they were heavily out-armed by their enemies, the tunnels were also used as hostels, classrooms and much of their strategic planning took place down there. They helped maintain a semblance of regular life as their town was being heavily bombed. The tunnels are approximately 40 km northwest of Ho Chi Minh City in the south of Vietnam. Any tour operator in Ho Chi Minh City will be able to organise a bus. The Ben Dinh site is where everyone goes, whilst the Ben Duoc site is a lot quieter but a little more expensive to get to. It’s best to go to Ben Duoc by your own vehicle or hire a driver.
4. Visit Hoi An
This postcard of a city deserves a visit. If you were to have a day in Hoi An, start it by hiring a moped/motorbike. Ride it around the city, taking in its beauty. You can check out a Japanese bridge made in the 1600’s and ride to the picturesque beaches. There you can go scuba diving or soak up the sun. You could spend the afternoon learning how to cook or make traditional Vietnamese lanterns. At night time, take yourself to the Old Town where the Lantern Market will keep you more than entertained. The market is lined with traditional lanterns (hint is in its title), you can grab some great dinner and munch it as you watch the traditional dancers in the free outdoor theatre on Nguyen Thai Hoc street from 9pm – 10pm.
An alternative day could be spent riding your moped to the Hai Van Pass, an hour north from Hoi An. You won’t regret stopping at the local waterfall/public bathing area just near the base.
5. See the body of the main man himself, Ho Chi Minh.
Speaking of the fascinating history of Vietnam, there are no names bigger in shaping the modern Vietnam than Ho Chi Minh. The body of the leader of the Vietcong against the US and their allies in the Vietnam War is on display at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi. As it is a human corpse, there are constant closures of the mausoleum for repairs and airbrushing of the revered leader, so it’s important to check that it’s open before making your way down. Unless you’re an earlier riser, it’s best to do this one with someone for company or bring your iPod as you can wait in queue for quite some time. Bring a bottle of water as Hanoi is hooooot.