Volunteer in Vietam

Exploration of Vietnam Volunteerism - Volunteer in Vietnam

Before starting with Volunteer in Vietnam let’s discuss its location. Vietnam is located on the Eastern Coast of Southeast Asia, the country of Vietnam is a landscape filled with diverse scenery, unique customs and delicious foods. It has neighboring countries including Cambodia and Thailand. From white sandy beaches to serene mountainous provinces, it is no wonder why so many seek to explore this small, but exciting country! 



My name is Lua and I am a half-Vietnamese American woman who has lived in Vietnam for 7 years. I am living in Hanoi as part of a USA year-long fellowship program that focuses on sustainable development and social service work. My placement with Coins for Change Vietnam began in September 2018 and mainly involves managing external relations, coordinating volunteer positions and creating partnerships. As someone who has volunteered abroad, I believe that it is important for you to research about a country before arriving. As Volunteer in Vietnam is concerned, research and learning play a vital role in understanding the country’s culture more accurately.

Today, I am going to share with you the most important, Vietnamese-specific cultural knowledge, social etiquette, history and more. I give you this information with the hope that you don’t volunteer in Vietnam with the inability to interpret your new experiences. Like any other country, Vietnam’s social practices, politics and architecture is greatly influenced by its rich and complicated history, and it is important to keep an open mind about the things you will witness!

Key Phrases to know

  • Hello = Xin Chao (Sin chow)
  • How are you? = Ban Khoe Khong (Ban Kwe Khom)
  • Thank you = Cam on (kahm uhn)
  • Sorry = Xin Loi (Sin Loy)
  • No Problem = Khong co gi (Khong koh zi)
  • Goodbye = Tam Biet (Tarm Byeet)
  • No, Thank You! = Khong! Cam On (Khom, kahm uhn)
  • Can you speak English? = Ban noi tieng anh duoc khong? (Banh noi thien an durkh khom)
  • How old are you? = Ban bao nhieu tuoi (Ban ban nyew twoi)
  • I am __ years old = Toi ___ tuoi (toy ___ doyy)
  • What is your name? = Ten ban la gi?  (Ten bang la zi)

Volunteering in Vietnam

Volunteer in Vietnam

The idea of volunteering is still a new concept for Vietnamese people. Many organizations that aren’t used to foreign volunteers, but still need the help, may just see you as free labor. Avoid these organizations, or if you wish, you can try to educate them on what it means to be a volunteer. 


Remember, you are here to help. You are not just free labor. If you have decided to make this important decision to volunteer abroad, make sure that you have a contract that clearly states your agreed hours, working days, benefits (if any) and any other requirements that both you and your host has agreed upon. Both you and your host should sign this contact and keep a copy of it. If any breach of agreement is made, you can pull it up and rediscuss.



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History of Conflict

Vietnam’s history is strife with war and violent occupation. The most well known and recent war is the Second Indochina War, or also known as the Vietnam War. In Vietnam, it is known as the American War due to the US having the largest military presence during the conflict. 


Lasting from 1954-1975, the fight to win back South Vietnam from the “Viet Cong” (North Vietnamese forces) was propagandized in the US as “fighting against the spread of communism.” It was assumed that if the South of Vietnam fell to communism, then it would create a domino effect and the rest of the nations would follow. Thus, democracy itself would fall, or so they say. 



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This war was only one of many attempts by foreign powers to rule this prosperous country. Filled with natural resources, ideal climates for poppy plantations, and having direct access to seaports, Vietnam was a country that everyone wanted access to. In 1859, Saigon was seized by the French and proceeded to take over the country’s political and economic affairs. When the North Vietnamese revolted and took back South Vietnam, this is what prompted the US and other powers to step in and try to take it back into “democratic control.” 


Even prior to this, China had begun their violent domination of the Indochina area in 111 BC and it’s estimated that this period lasted 996 years before the Vietnamese successfully pushed them out. It is this long time of Chinese domination that sparked traditional tales of invasion, suffering and overcoming foreign domination that you will see in many children’s stories. It has even evolved into what you may witness as a prevalent, intense disdain towards Chinese people all over Vietnam, although even this is disappearing among the youth. 


Vietnam’s long history of foreign invasion has developed its people into a patriotic community. Foreigners are always welcome, but there is always that underlying sense of “Vietnam above all.” However, this is common in most countries across the world and has never caused any issues for myself or those that I know. Locals here actually love to meet foreigners and will definitely ask you to practice English with them or maybe even invite you for dinner! 


Despite its history of conflict, Vietnamese people are very peaceful. You are unlikely to experience violence here, especially as a foreigner, and I have never felt that someone was trying to cause me bodily harm. Even as a woman, harassment here is much less aggressive and violent than what I have experienced in the US. Volunteer in Vietnam is like learning history and culture


Vietnam is now considered an authoritarian, communist country that has embraced the rules of capitalism. Socialism, the founding ideology, seems to have disappeared from the hearts of its citizens. Although there are benefits such as public education, healthcare, and access to roads, Vietnam’s economy is basically a free market. There are few laws retaining to copyright infringes and anyone can start up a store, as long as they have some pocket money to give under the table. 


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One thing is still clear: Vietnam is authoritarian. It is a country that has a one-party system, no freedom of the press or speech, and protests are banned. You will frequently see young officers carrying guns the size of their abdomens, which may scare you at first if you don’t come from a country with similar circumstances. However, unless you are highly political, this will probably not affect you. You aren’t going to be randomly stopped and asked for your papers. You aren’t going to be surrounded by a bunch of violent looking officers and harrassed. If you follow the law then you will disappear into the crowd and not even be noticed. In fact, many of these officers are even quite nice! You will see them stationed on nearly every corner and they will usually be happy to help you out if you need directions. I have even had 2 officers come to my aid, unasked, when I fell off my motorbike. 


However, if you want to be let into the country again, I advise you to never attend a protest or demonstration, try to take photos of military activities (it’s illegal), and don’t speak badly about the government on the internet. They have access to your web activity. If you want to make a real change in Vietnam, educating the open minded youth is the way to do it. Certain websites are also banned, so you may consider getting a VPN. However, they are illegal, so only do this at your own risk. 


Laws that you should know: https://www.citypassguide.com/en/living/ho-chi-minh-city/real-estate/blog/20-vietnamese-laws-every-expat-should-know 


Now to some of the fun stuff! One of the best parts about Vietnam that makes people keep coming back is the huge variety of delicious food. From tiny street stalls to fancy restaurants, Vietnam is truly a heaven for foodies. Rice is the main staple food and will be in almost every dish. Allergies are not a well-known problem, so you will need to make sure to explain to your cook not to include items that you are allergic to. I recommend saying “I will die if I eat this!” This is the only method that our volunteers have found to be effective. 


Here’s the thing. At some point, you are going to get sick. If you have not frequently eaten in Southeast Asia then it’s likely that your stomach is not used to the local bacteria. Even if you don’t get food poisoning, it’s likely that your stomach may feel a bit weird during your first couple of weeks. Drink. Lots. Of. Water. Vietnam doesn’t have the best sanitary conditions, which also means there are sometimes worms. Don’t worry! They won’t affect you and you can’t even feel them. Just take an anti-worming pill every 6 months and you will be perfectly fine. If you are violently sick for more than 2 days, go to the doctor!


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It’s common to see street stalls with tiny stools. Despite their looks, these places usually have the best food! Meals here cost 1-2 USD per dish and are amazing. Go to the places that seem busy. The locals know the best spots to eat, so follow them! Vietnam produces over 90% of its agricultural products, which is why food is so cheap. 

Guide to Vietnamese food: http://www.vietnam-guide.com/food.htm

Markets and Bargaining

Bargaining is a big part of market culture. You can bargain for a lower price in most situations, except for buying meals, at chain stores, and in very fancy shops where the items have price tags. If you are on a budget, I highly recommend practicing bargaining. It can be uncomfortable at first if you haven’t done it, but you will save a lot of money. Foreigners are overcharged a lot and you will gain respect if you bargain. 


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This is how I bargain: I ask their price, I say that I want to pay 50% of what they asked for, and I try to get it to at least 75%. I smile a lot, I try to use humor when I can, and I act like it’s not important if I don’t get it. If you think that you are not being given a good price, just walk away. If it’s a bad price, then they will run after you and suggest a new one. You can always come back and get it if the price was good.

Dress Code

Nowadays, dress codes are very liberal in the cities. You will frequently see local women in short shorts, transparent shirts, and low-cut tops. However, what you want to wear is up to how you want to be perceived. Foreigners, especially women, are still often seen as wearing clothes that are too revealing and therefore making a negative impact on local women. Funnily enough, men go around without their shirts all the time. If you are in a homestay, you may even see your male hosts eating with you at dinner without a shirt. This is common practice. 



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However, clothes in the rural regions are still very conservative. Some areas, especially among ethnic minority villages, actually ban revealing outfits. I recommend dressing more conservative in these areas if you care about how people perceive you. 


WEAR CONSERVATIVE CLOTHING TO TEMPLES. Many temples ban people from entering if they don’t cover their shoulders, stomachs, and legs. Bring a shawl, long shirt, and long pants when visiting temples or religious sites, just in case.

Hierarchy in the Workplace

As a volunteer, you will probably experience a strong hierarchy in the workplace. Superiors and bosses in Vietnam are not used to being directly confronted about issues or complaints and it is often the oldest person in a company who makes the decisions. It is definitely a top-down management style. If you have a complaint, you should voice it in the most diplomatic way that you can manage. 


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Make sure to pay your respects to your superiors and older coworkers if you want to have a good experience. For men, you can do this by buying them drinks. Drinking culture in Vietnam is huge and important for business and working life. For women, you can buy them treats. Drinking isn’t something that is seen as appropriate for women, but as an expat, you will be exempt from most gender expectations. If you definitely aren’t sure what to do, just buy your whole team a box of cookies or chocolate to share!


Vietnam’s road infrastructure was made for bicycles. Because of these outdated roads, traffic is horrendous in large cities. Motorbikes are the main mode of transportation in Vietnam and people rarely have drivers licenses, although it is legally required to ride one. You will notice that all drivers honk a lot for seemingly no reason. They may honk to tell you to go faster, to say that they are about to practically ram into you, or just because they want a red light to turn green. Who knows why people honk so much in this country! 


Anyways, the main problem of all of this traffic is the air pollution that it causes. In cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh/Saigon, people often wear face masks on the motorbike or just walking around. Don’t buy the cloth ones because those do nothing. Buy medical grade air masks that have replaceable filters. 


When walking across a street, always give the cars the “right of way.” You may think that you are entitled to walk across the street on a crosswalk, but drivers will happily run you over if you aren’t too careful. Walk slowly, raise your hand up so that drivers can see you better, and keep an eye on the drivers as you cross the street. You can do it! 


Grab is like Uber and is the best way to get around the city if you don’t own a motorbike. Download the app and follow the instructions. All Grab Bikes will provide helmets. Taxis are likely to overcharge you. If you use a taxi, make sure that they turn their ‘meter’ on or agree to a price beforehand. You can bargain with taxi drivers. 


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You can check the daily air quality levels here: https://aqicn.org/map/vietnam/

If you are in Hanoi, I recommend the NeoFit masks here: https://www.facebook.com/breatheHanoi/


Vietnamese people, especially the older ones, tend to value family above all. Due to Confucianism influences, there is strong importance placed on taking care of the parents. Unlike in many areas of the West, for example, it is common for young people to live in their parents’ households until they are married and/or have a family of their own. Parents will often try to prevent their children from living abroad or in another city. Since Vietnam does not have a good retirement system in place, this may be another reason why children are highly expected to provide and care for their parents. Volunteer in Vietnam is just full of such observations.


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Families are very private. If there is a conflict within your host family, they will do their best not to let you know. If you notice something, you probably shouldn’t ask since this is seen as very rude. I say this with experience from my own Vietnamese family. 


Many families, especially in poor regions, are still very patriarchal. Men will hold decision-making power and are expected to provide for their family. Women are expected to have exactly 2 children (as propagated by the government) and take care of the household. Domestic violence against women and children is also still prevalent. However, this is not as common in the cities and is definitely changing among the youth. Many gender equality organizations and movements are spreading across Vietnam and gender inequality is probably the lowest now in Vietnamese history.

Meal Etiquette

In most of Asia, chopsticks are the main utensil. If you live there for more than a few weeks in this Volunteer in Vietnam journey then you should definitely learn how to use them. It will be worth it! One rule to remember with chopsticks in Vietnam: don’t leave them to face up in the bowl. This is seen as being like incense sticks, which are used to honor the dead, and the superstitious believe that this means you are wishing for someone at the table to die. Instead, place your chopsticks across the top of your bowl or on a plate. 


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It is very impolite to start eating before your hosts or before ‘inviting’ them to the meal. You can say “xin moi” (sin moy) to invite everyone, or just use English. If you aren’t sure what to do, just ask! As a foreigner; Volunteer in Vietnam, you aren’t going to be expected to follow all the local social customs and people are happy to teach you about their cultural practices.

Importance of Teachers

Back when I was volunteer in Vietnam as an English teacher, my co-workers and I used to joke that being a teacher was like being a God. Students don’t question you, they are so polite, and parents treat you so well. Generally, if a child isn’t doing well in class, it’s seen as their own fault. Teacher’s methods are rarely questioned, unless by an actual superior, but this is all the more reason to make sure you give good lessons. Because of this lack of questioning, students may be even more hesitant to tell you that they don’t understand something. Repeat what you say often and try to pay attention to the body language of your students. There are many resources online that you can use. It was really fun for me Volunteer in Vietnam.


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You may find that you are even offered some “lucky money” (bribes) from parents. In a country where teachers are underpaid, classrooms are far too large, and there are not enough resources, “lucky money” is a way for parents to ensure that their child receives enough attention. While volunteer in Vietnam as a foreigner, I recommend not taking this money. Not only is it obviously illegal, but it’s unethical. Do your best as a teacher, ask for help when you need it, but just don’t take the money.


I often hear from foreigners who travel or do volunteer in Vietnam that Vietnam is a Buddhist country. After living here on and off my whole life, I’d say that it’s closer to ancestor worship than anything. Most houses have an altar where families can give their respect to dead relatives or certain Gods. If the family cooks a meal that their dead grandmother likes, they might put the dish upon the altar for an hour before the meal so that the grandmother can ‘enjoy’ it. On death anniversaries, they will have small ceremonies that involve incense and lots of food. You’ll look many glimpses of these beautiful traditions while volunteer in Vietnam.


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Learn more about local religions and spiritualities here: https://www.anywhere.com/vietnam/travel-guide/religion 

Gender Expectations

Vietnam is still a bit traditional in terms of gender expectations. While volunteering in Vietnam you’ll observe that local men are expected to make the household’s money and local women are expected to stay at home to care for the children/household. However, the government of Vietnam itself has recognized the need to get more women into the workforce and has produced a series of propaganda and programs aimed to increasing gender equality. It’s widely recognized that gender inequality is bad for Vietnam’s society, government and economy, so many projects have been launched to reduce these gaps.


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As foreigners, during volunteer in Vietnam, you will not be expected to practice local gender customs, even in poor, rural regions. As a woman, you might hear an odd comment or two about your uterus drying up before the age of 25 (an old woman told me this upon hearing that I didn’t want children) or that you’d make a fine mother, but other than that, you are unlikely to face any serious issues. As a man, if you want to date local women, you may also discover that you are also expected to pay for all the dates no matter how long you two have been together. Hopefully, you won’t have to deal with anything more serious than this during the journey of Volunteer in Vietnam.

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  • justin33
    July 19, 2019 4:09 am

    Love it , thank you so much for the article

  • Ruby
    October 31, 2019 12:26 am

    Thank you Lua for this article. I learned a lot and looking forward to see you and the Vietnamese soon!


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