Alexandra Bagi’s adventure started this summer: over the course of the past few months, she has been living in a completely different culture as a volunteer, alone, without the knowledge of the local language teaching English to Vietnamese children.
Alexandra had encountered both good and bad experiences and lots of interesting cultural differences since she moved to Vietnam. She talked to szeretlekmagyarorszag.hu about volunteering, Vietnamese students and teachers, local traditions, foods, everyday life and her future opportunities.
She has always been attracted to the idea of living abroad, but lack of money and her responsibilities kept her in Hungary. She was afraid to start something without plans or any purpose, but after getting her master’s degree she felt she had to try.
She has always loved children; she had already volunteered in a children’s camp, and has a good knowledge of English, so teaching English seemed like a good idea. A friend told her about European Volunteer Service – the European Union pays or reimburses almost every cost of volunteering in this program, meaning that travelling abroad would be almost free.
Alexandra wanted to travel as far as possible – first, she applied to Spain, but did not receive any feedback. Then, she tried Vietnam. She applied through the Fekete Sereg (Black Army) Youth Association, and after a personal meeting, her application was accepted. This was followed by a bit of paperwork and a preparatory day.
She only had to pay HUF 30,000 (95 EUR) due to the high cost of the plane ticket, and although there are no mandatory vaccinations in Vietnam, she felt safer getting the recommended ones.
In Hanoi, the host organization welcomed Alexandra very warmly. They introduced her to Sam, a Lithuanian volunteer who also teaches English, and held a preparation week for her. At first, she was shocked by the motorbikes and the noise.
The volunteering program is based in the south, in a city called Tuy Hoa, where they arrived after a 24-hour train journey. Although it is the capital of a province, for Alexandra the sea, which she hadn’t seen before, was the most exciting thing about the city.
She continued with her experiences at the volunteer center: there are only two beds, a wardrobe and a fridge in their rooms, in addition to the most important things: a fan and air conditioner. Her Philippine roommate cannot sleep without it, but Alexandra claims that it gives her a cold. They arrived at the end of the dry season, when the temperature was above 40 degrees Celsius– now, in the rainy season it is usually between 28-32.
Three days after their arrival, Alexandra and her fellow volunteers were already teaching children. Vietnamese teachers only observed them, and helped them control the students. Volunteers teach pupils aged 6-16 years for 1.5-3 hours each day. Their job is to improve their speaking and pronunciation skills.
According to Alexandra, it is sometimes hard to communicate with Vietnamese teachers as their pronunciation is difficult to understand. In addition, they would rather spend their free time with their families, they are tired of teaching and discipline the students with rulers.
She had a shocking experience when one of the little boys misbehaved in her class and his classmates encouraged her to hit him. Overall, though, she has had great experiences with her students. They help her with everything, give her drawings and gifts.
Vietnamese people look at Alexandra as peculiar; sometimes even strangers came up to her on the streets, telling her how beautiful she is, wondering where she came from or taking photos of her.
She has learnt some Vietnamese, but most of the time, she communicates with google translate and body language, as most Vietnamese do not speak English. A smile sometimes says more than words. Locals are very nice, but of course she has had negative experiences as well.
Alexandra said that the most interesting experience so far was the typhoon. They didn’t have electricity or water for days, the storm twisted trees and poles, but in the next morning everything went on as usual. The hardest thing about the typhoon was that she could not communicate with her family, who worried about her.
She really likes Vietnamese food, but she misses her own cooking, sour cream, and mustard. Vietnamese cuisine usually includes rice with different meats, seafood and vegetables. They eat rice with almost everything as rice is really cheap and they have plenty of it. Alexandra also eats pho (a Vietnamese soup) almost every day.
She plans to travel around the country during the Lunar New Year (Tet), as it is a huge celebration, and the school will be closed for weeks.
Alexandra arrived in Asia on 1st September and will stay until 28th February. Half year is plenty, she thinks, and is already planning her next move: maybe travelling to another country, or researching intercultural communications, symbolic goods, or different cultural traditions. She is also thinking about going back to university for a PhD degree, but one thing is sure: she loves being with children, and can easily imagine herself in camps and volunteer centers.