Dear Xuan, Dear All,
In that recall of our experiences in the orphanage of Bo De pagoda in summer 2013 and 2014, I want to give you an impression of what work and daily life there is like.
Before I started at Bo De pagoda, I taught English at a primary school in Hanoi, Yen Hoa primary school. Due to a lot more freetime in the afternoon and during the summer vacation, we decided to support Xuan in the orphanage as well.
Teaching was a lot of fun. Controlling a class of up to 40 students and trying to teach them English is an experience I don’t want to miss. Despite the fact that Vietnamese schools are a bit unorganized and not well structured, teaching was totally up to us as a teacher. Being a native speaker from United Kingdom and a fluent English speaking student from Germany helped to find out where the strength and the weaknesses of the students were. We were totally flexible in the way we taught. We could just use the grammar books, do vocabulary training, write and read out stories and dialogues, or play games in order to combine the fun and the learning. Especially by having fun, the students learned a lot and recalled a lot of their knowledge in an easy way. It is a challenge to make the students speak and read out loud. Although their grammar knowledge is really good, they are too shy to speak in front of a class or to read out loud. That leads to the point that they don’t really use their knowledge and cannot show their skills. We tried to solve these problems during singing famous songs and writing dialogues or speaking about e.g. their weekends. The staff at the school was very helpful and supporting in everything we did. In the end they said they learned a lot from us and are happy we supported them.
The orphanage in Bo De pagoda is a bit outside the center of Hanoi. It takes around 10 minutes to get there by taxi from the old quarter. You have to cross the Long Bien bridge to reach the district. It’s located in a quiet neighborhood and part of a Buddhist cloister, which runs the orphanage by donations. At the time we worked there, in 2013 summer and 2014, the orphanage was home to around 150 children and other elderly homeless people. The children’s age was from a few weeks up to ca. 14 years. We had disabled and non-disabled children there. The children lived in different rooms, separated by age, together with at least one nanny to educate and raise them.The main project in that orphanage was the kindergarten class. Children from the age of 2-6 years of age joined the classes and spent their days there, in order to learn, have fun and have a distraction from the boring life in the rooms.
The kindergarten itself is well equipped with air condition, a TV, a lot of toys, materials for drawing and art works, studying and as well clothes and hygienic products, other volunteers bought or sent from all over the world. The children, when in the kindergarten from 8-11, and from 14-16 are the happiest children on the planet. They really enjoy getting out of their small rooms and have that possibility to experience different things every day. The day usually starts with studying in the morning. The children for example learn how to count in both, English and Vietnamese, and get to know daily things of life, like foods, beverages, days of the week, months of the year, etc.
After lunch break and lunch nap, the day moves on at around 2pm for the afternoon session, which is the fun part of the day. It includes drawing or arts and crafts or just playing with all that stuff in the cupboards. Some children like to play in the backyard or go for a little walk to the shores of the river. Once they have been showed the outside of the classroom, they don’t want to come back and enjoy the surroundings of the orphanage a lot. They are not used to see anything else than their room and the class room.
More than that all the children are lonely! It's hard to tell, but you can feel that these children need love and attention. They are gorgeous little human beings, carrying a very difficult destiny, which we can see scratched their souls. They build up a relationship to everybody really fast and don’t want the volunteers to leave in the afternoons. But, when playing and studying throughout the day, they are the happiest children in the world and forget everything around them. These hours of the day brighten up their time there and let them be just normal children, who love to play, draw, sing and run around. Words can express what these little children are like and how easy we fell in love with them.
So deeply, that we went back to Hanoi a year later, in order to see them again and spent our time with them. For us, it was more than a job, we loved giving our limited time, to make them smile and let them have a good time. We were sure that some of them recalled us in 2014, which was heartwarming and the biggest compliment. Spending our time there gave us a new look onto our life back in good old Europe. It sounds like a cliché, but we valued things more after we came back from Hanoi and these children. We are so lucky with our lives, we often forget that. A single trip to cinema or watermelon in the afternoon is the biggest thing in the world for these children and makes them smile for hours.
On the opposite side of the kindergarten class, there is the baby room and the disabled room. In 2013 we were really lucky and had so many volunteers, that we could support both these rooms as well. We spent our time in both rooms, by playing with the babies, taking them out to the fresh air and entertain them by playing with their baby toys. These children are from a few weeks until one year of age old, and were either found in front of the gate or brought to the orphanage by relatives, who couldn’t, due to whatever reasons, obviously mostly money, care for them anymore. This room needs all the support possible. Only three nannies care for around twenty little children. It’s impossible for them to be there for all of them at the same time, so that they need help by feeding, washing, changing diapers and playing with them. All these children were so easy to handle and were so happy to get out of their beds and being entertained in whatever way. Little humans search for attention and love. We experienced this in that room again and even stronger. Left behind children needs attention and the help of grownups to not fall in a depressed mode. Working in that room with these children was frankly more difficult for us, because these little children weren’t able to show their feelings by expressing words. Smiling or crying was their only way to communicate with us. Every smile shows you are on the right way, but doesn’t help our heart break when we had to leave in the afternoon or at the end of our limited time. That’s the main problem for us.
The most difficult children to work with were the disabled ones. It`s easy to entertain a “normal developed” child by drawing or running around with it. But it was a highly important task to give treatment to the mentally and physical disabled children in that place. The physio volunteers did their treatments every day with the children and helped them to improve their condition step by step. That was important, because otherwise most of them would have been lying on their back for almost the whole day. The other children, blind, waling disabled or downn syndrome tried to join in the classes or played and did activities with all the “normal” ones in the afternoon and had a lot of fun doing that. At the end of every day we had to clean the whole kindergarten room and take the children back to their rooms for dinner and the rest of the day until bed time. The older ones helped to clean, or tried to and did at least of what their impression of cleaning is like.
We tried to set up a daily routine for the children in the orphanage, starting with teeth brushing and breakfast in the morning, studying until lunch and playing and bathing in the afternoon. That helped them to get used to an organized day and to recognize what to do next and what is important every day. They got used to it and especially enjoyed the washing in the morning and the bathing in the afternoon, which turned out to being a wet mess with a lot of fun and loud shouting coz of the cold water.
But, every future volunteer should know that, although that place is, due to the kindergarten, a happy place, these children are alone and cannot be considered being really lucky. This place needs the volunteer’s courage and help to make it a bit better, for the sake of the children. Our time is limited and we cannot stay longer than planned. The feeling of letting these beloved children behind is the most uncomfortable thing to experience. Children’s tears aren’t easy to carry, that’s what everybody should know and be aware of, before going there and start to work. The positive and heartwarming memories overweight though and let us want to support all these children for as long as we can. They deserve it, and they are not only taking your time and strength, they give you back so much more. A smile, a hug, a tear, that’s what matters to these children and that’s the currency we experienced during our time there and what we value much more since then.
In the end I have to say, that my time in Vietnam was one of the best in my life so far. Not only because I met so many nice people and was able to travel the whole country on the weekends, but because of the memories I have with these children. Every child there needs attention and helps and gives much more back than a smile or a hand. It helps to get a new perspective on life and is able to change views. These children value things totally different from what we do. They don’t have their own room and toys and properties. They are used to share even their clothes and bed, but they are happy whenever someone pays attention and listens to them, even thought it might be senseless Vietnamese childish speaking. It’s impressive that we could build a relationship to these children without speaking their language, just by being there for them and help them to improve their situation. Giving them the greatest joy by eating some watermelon or buying some new trousers or colors is a feeling that one in Europe will never value that much, because we are used to that and raised by having almost everything.
These children welcome everybody, doesn’t matter sex, age, skin colour, religion, height, weight or nationality. They gave us the chance to be part of their life and paid us back by just being happy, remind us and smile at us every single day. Working in Bo De is not the easiest job, but to us, it is one of the best experiences we made so far. We are still supporting Xuan and the kids from Europe by sending daily things they need or just making some gifts or donations from time to time, because we know how much they need that and how highly they and Xuan value these and appreciate all our efforts.
Xuan in fact, is the nicest and kindest person on the planet! She always helps if there is any problem not only inside Bo De but if we had problems in Vietnam as well. She fights for the sake of the children and does an impressive job. The children love her and kind of see her as their “second mother”! She treats every child as it is her own one and would do everything for them. I cannot remember any volunteer ever had and argument with her or spoke badly about her work and character. Xuan is, what we in Germany would call, the good soul of that placement and constantly works to improve it, although knowing its difficult, time consuming and sometimes almost impossible. She needs and deserves every support she can get and will become a good friend at the other end of the world.
Living and working in Hanoi was exciting as I expected it to be. Hanoi, especially the old quarter, had so much to offer and I a city where the modern and old Vietnam meet and join their hands in peace. It offers, museums, parks, lakes, a fantastic old quarter, amazing street eateries, free tai chi at 6am every morning, cheap accommodation, a perfect start to explore the country and a lot of fun at night time, due to the thousands of travelers in the hotels and hostels gathering in the pubs, bars and clubs. Meeting different people from different countries is the easiest thing in the old quarter and helps to build relationships and make friends from all over the world. It is an unique experience I will remember with a smile and everybody should make this experience if possible! It widens the horizon and puts another, new, unknown perspective on life!
Sebastian Ehmke, 08.06.2015, Germany