Solo travelling and volunteering in Vietnam: A life-changing experience

Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.

Solo Travelling

It was 4:30 PM in the evening and I was sitting by the Saigon River in District 1, Ho Chi Minh City after a tiring day of teaching and exploring. Quietly observing the serene view, I was reflecting on my journey in Vietnam up until that moment. It had been a roller coaster ride, a real adventure.

It all started in the month of October 2019, when I decided to volunteer abroad in the following winter. Being a part of AIESEC in NIT Trichy (an international organisation facilitating student exchange programs) made the process of finding opportunities easy. I finalized an English teaching project in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam and within two weeks, all my procedures were complete, and documents were ready.

Since the time I made my decision to solo travel and volunteer in Vietnam for 6 weeks from December to mid-January, I experienced feelings of hesitation and curiosity up until the point of my departure. For a period of two months before I left India, I was in contact with AIESECers in Vietnam and they helped me with everything I needed for my entire exchange program. When it was time to finally leave, I decided to keep my apprehension aside, travel with no expectations and to live each new day as it unfolds.

I reached Ho Chi Minh City (also known as Saigon) on the morning of December 8, 2019. I still remember doing my first immigration alone in an international airport and that feeling of momentous enthusiasm which filled me. My AIESEC buddy (project manager) came to the airport to receive me, after travelling for 90 mins all the way from her dorm. She was extremely sweet and helpful and accompanied me to my homestay- ALOLAN. Here, I met my homestay managers- Tuyen and Loc, two of the kindest people I met in a long time.

The initial few days of my exchange were slightly difficult as well as challenging where I experienced culture shock because of various factors such as people, language, food and lifestyle. The climate being quite hot and humid, was one thing that reminded me of India. In the first week, I strolled around the neighbourhood and it took me the whole week to just settle in and adjust with the surroundings there.

The hard part was over and I began to feel comfortable with the people, food and lifestyle there. It started getting easier and I began to live a local’s life. There were four more volunteers belonging to different age groups from the UK, Canada, USA and India residing in the homestay along with a few locals. We used to have our meals together and that’s when I connected and bonded with them. We played board games on weekends, went on trips together and explored the city and places around it. I made some of the best memories with those people and they will always hold a place in my heart! I also attended a Global Village (an AIESEC event where all volunteers come together) later in the second week and that opened up an opportunity for me to connect with so many people from diverse countries- Thailand, Kenya, Romania, Australia, China, Myanmar and Malaysia. This was truly insightful, and I am filled with nothing but gratitude for such an opportunity.

As time went by, many such circumstances came along the way where I had to come out of my comfort zone. Stepping out of my comfort zone and travelling on my own made me realize that I was capable of things I never thought I could handle. It was scary at first but as everything moved forward and as each new day unfolded, it got more exciting and I became much more confident.

This very exchange was a working-vacation where I got away from my usual routine life and discovered myself. It was an exchange filled with insights, meeting travellers coming from diverse backgrounds with exciting and inspiring stories, volunteering and learning. I could see myself transform into a more confident and solution-oriented person. It was an opportunity that made me believe in the goodness of people. It has made me a more grateful person who doesn’t feel like complaining anymore. I started looking at everything from a much bigger perspective and focusing on things that matter. As my exchange was coming to an end, I looked back at my journey and listed down countless valuable lessons I learnt out of which the three, that I feel, most important are:

  1. Travelling safely- Read about the places before visiting them, carry all necessary medicines and have local numbers handy.
  2. Being thrifty- Staying in homestays or hostels, having weekly budgets, using local transportation and motorbikes over cabs (Grab/GoViet in case of Vietnam). Eat local food or cook your own food- it’s cheaper and healthier.
  3. Meeting and interacting with people- The people I met left a lasting mark on me. They made my exchange the most memorable. Their stories were inspirational and were the most significant part of my journey.

Volunteering abroad

My project was a work exchange program where I had to teach English to students in exchange for free accommodation and food. My work started the next day I reached Saigon which involved preparing lessons and teaching students with their English listening and speaking skills. People in Vietnam aren’t fluent with the English language and as English has become a necessity in today’s world, they need great help with learning it.

Volunteering gave me a deep sense of satisfaction. It’s helping people without expecting anything in return. The sweet and kind gestures that I received from my students were priceless and they filled my heart with contentment. This was also my first teaching experience as a foreigner, and it was very insightful.

Now talking about my preparation phase from an AIESEC point of view, which started after I decided to solo travel and volunteer and went on until my departure point can be arranged in the following order:

  1. Fix on the opportunity
  2. Payment of AIESEC fee and get necessary documents ready
  3. Book flight tickets
  4. VISA application (It is on-arrival for Vietnam)
  5. Pack and fly!

I feel really fortunate to have had this opportunity to solo travel and volunteer at the same time. This very experience changed my perspective and helped me become a much better version of myself. I strongly suggest everyone out there to get out of their comfort zone, solo travel at least once in your life and feel the difference. Don’t fear the culture shock and challenges that you will face because they will help you grow. There are several platforms like AIESEC (https://aiesec.org/, for students) and worldpackers which can help you connect with projects and people in the country of your choice.

As you travel solo, being totally responsible for yourself, it’s inevitable that you will discover just how capable you are!