Though many of today’s teens have grandparents who fought in the Vietnam War, it is surprising how little most students learn about the war in school, let alone Vietnam itself. On our Vietnam: Ban Than program, students spend 25 days immersing themselves in Vietnamese culture, visiting markets and museums, trying dishes like pho and spring rolls, practicing Vietnamese language skills, hiking through the Sapa valley, and getting to know some of the nicest, most thoughtful, and most generous people we have ever met. The program blends city life with quiet time in the countryside as we divide our days between the city of Hanoi and the Hoa Binh province.
For many students, one of the most memorable aspects of the program is their time volunteering at Friendship Village, a residential health and education center for children and adults living with the effects of Agent Orange and its contaminant, the chemical dioxin. Although it has been almost fifty years since US forces sprayed this dangerous herbicide over Vietnam’s countryside to kill trees and crops that were providing cover and food to Vietnamese soldiers, many Vietnamese citizens, as well as US veterans, still experience its impact in the form of birth defects, neurological issues, and even cancer.
During our time volunteering at Friendship Village, we focus on international solidarity, reconciliation, and efforts to heal the pains of war. Assisting students in special education classes, playing sports and games with children and veterans, and helping in the center’s vegetable garden are some of the ways our group lends a hand. Bookending our time here, we share in a cultural exchange night full of music, dancing, and recognition.
To provide a student’s perspective on our Vietnam program, we are excited to share a blog post from alumni traveler Rowan H. She was an incredible asset to her group this summer, bringing humor, energy, and compassion both to their work at Friendship Village and to the construction project in Hoa Binh. Her trip leaders were impressed by her natural ability to connect with locals as well as her hard work and positivity during their service work.
Read on for Rowan’s moving reflection on her last day at Friendship Village.
Reflection by Rowan H.
When I think back to my experiences in Vietnam there are a number of moments, memories and highlights that come to mind, but one that particularly stands out is the day we said our goodbyes to Friendship Village. Friendship Village is an organization located in Hanoi that provides healthcare, education and vocational training to Vietnamese children with physical or psychological disabilities due to Agent Orange. We had spent over a week at Friendship Village, growing connections with the hilarious, kind-hearted, and inspiring children, and I happened to have developed a strong relationship with a girl named Chung.
When we came in on the last day, we immediately ran over to the children sitting on the benches and began playing and talking with them as usual. A girl named Mỹ ran up and hugged me and as warm as this made me feel, I was a bit anxious as while I was hugging her I made eye contact with Chung and let’s just say she did not look happy. I tried saying hi to her but she crossed her arms and ran away. Later, I tried to play a hand game with her, but again she shot me down. In special ed class, I tried asking her what was wrong and she proceeded to point at each person in the room and give them a thumbs up, but when she turned and pointed at me she gave me a thumbs down and growled. At this point, I was worried, because I realized that in just an hour or so I would be leaving and was likely to never see her again. I asked a couple of the other children why she was mad at me and finally found out that she was angry because she saw me hugging another girl.
When I finally was able to get her attention I said sorry, thinking she would accept my apology, but instead, she pointed at me and made the hand-motion that I had learned meant “crying”. She then turned away but from the part of her face that I could see, I noticed tears rolling down her face. I felt awful. Watching Chung cry triggered something inside of me and before I knew it I was crying as well. I wasn’t completely sure why I was crying, but once I started I couldn’t stop.
I tried hiding my tears, but a couple of the kids noticed and one, in particular, approached me. He was a larger boy and had down syndrome, as well as a severe skin condition. He began playing a slow Vietnamese song on his small flip phone, wrapped his arms around me and swayed me back and forth. As he did so, so many feelings passed through me. Here I was supposed to be helping him, but instead, he was supporting me just out of the kindness in his heart. It was one of the most touching and memorable moments of my life and even though I don’t know how to explain it in words, how I felt at that time is something I’ll never forget.
Friendship Village is home to so many amazing hearts, like his, and I feel so fortunate to have been given the opportunity to meet such beautiful, kind, inspiring people. It really showed me the meaning of kindness.
Interested in volunteering in Vietnam this summer? Check out the Vietnam: Ban Than trip page!