Vũng Tàu is one of the places where Teresa’s relatives live, a couple hours’ drive south of Saigon. Before then, we met with a friend of Teresa’s mom, Chi Vân, at her home, somewhere further out from the city center.
It was all stone and metal buildings as we drove further and further away. I love this part of traveling because you literally see no other people who look like you, and if you do, you know they’re probably having the time of their lives as well. It’s when you really feel like you’re immersed in the country you’re in. No one here was here to serve tourists. They were living their lives as they would, whether we were there or not. It’s the best ever.
After about half an hour weaving in and out of typically insane traffic, we made it to a tall apartment building. Chi Vân eventually came down and hopped on her motorbike, leading us through the narrow streets packed with thousands of other motorists. We made it to a large, marble cathedral. A very nice Catholic church indeed. We were introduced to the priest who we were there to speak with. We wanted to know about any opportunities to volunteer, at whatever capacity we could. He told us about an orphanage, located on the peripherals of the city, out by the international airport.
After a pleasant discussion, we walked around the cathedral for a bit. It was massive in scale, the blue-white rock carved in great detail.
Afterwards, Chi Vân led us out to the site the priest had told us about, heading back home after we arrived. The orphanage was located along a back alley, off the main road, maybe a kilometer or two from the airport.
We were warmly greeted by two young ladies, nuns working as teachers to the 13 boys who lived here. The only other adult was an older gentleman who assisted in the day to day chores. He also seemed to act more as a traditional father figure with the boys, passing down stern warnings and making sure their behavior was on point.
The boys were finishing up a math class when we got there, most of them very shy of us at first. They warmed up to Teresa pretty quickly, but as soon as they were comfortable with me, they couldn’t keep their hands off.
These kids were brought in from rural communities outside of Saigon and had little to no interaction with, and to some degree little to no awareness of, a person who looked like me. They seemed most fascinated with the hairiness. I’d be sitting on a bench, talking to them (Teresa translated their non-stop inquiries), and they’d be sitting all around me, pulling at my beard and my arm hair, or grabbing my biceps and hanging off as I lifted them up in the air. One of the nuns pulled out a map and we showed the boys where we came from in comparison to where they lived. These are boys between the ages of about 8 and 12, all studying together in the same classroom. They had a difficult time grasping the kinds of distances that separated our countries, or the notion of how far a plane can really take us (which is strange to think about considering the orphanage’s proximity to the airport).
We sat with them, talked with them, asked them questions about their lives and where they came from, exercised in the yard with them, and ate lunch with them at a long wooden table.
After lunch, Teresa and I helped wash the dishes, then we took off with the eldest boy, a 12 year old who saw himself as a mentor to the rest of the kids around him. He was a bigger kid as well, even for 12, and had a very somber sense about him, especially when he was just with the two of us. He’s the one in the blue shirt in the pics above, leading the other boys and myself during our calisthenics routine.
We crossed the main road, walked down some of the adjacent alleys and found a small market. We bought a couple bags of rice and dozens of packs of noodles. I carried the rice on my shoulders in the scorching heat, at one point having to cross a 6-lane highway to get back to the orphanage. We also bought them a variety of toys, I don’t really remember what they were at this point, some kind of transformer-esque robot toys, but where we were, obviously knock-offs. Nevertheless, those are the toys the young boy picked out for him and his brothers. He seemed somewhat reluctant at first to pick anything, but never said why.
The kids were really pleased with their toys, especially, but the nuns had to put them away for later because they still had a few classes to attend to after lunch, as well as midday naps. When the kids crashed out we said goodbye, and headed back into the city on our own.
One thing I will say about participating in volunteer work, at least in my experience on these particular travels, is that it’s something that really needs to be preplanned and thought out to be doing it at an effective and long-term capacity. I think some would argue that you need the latter to allow for the former, and in some cases I’d agree. In Saigon that day, though, I think we made a positive impact on these kid’s lives. We helped to feed them a bit more than they would have been fed, and we got to put a smile on their faces for at least this one day. We got to share in one another’s culture a little bit more and learn from each other. In Canada, we sometimes take for granted how easy it is to get along with people from all over the world, especially in a city like Toronto where you have pretty much every kind of person. In a country like Vietnam, where a vast majority of the population (93% or so?) are ethnic Vietnamese, I believe it’s always a positive thing to present one’s culture in as positive a light as you can. Most people, no matter where they come from, it seems, are open to learning more if you give them a good reason to.