A Vietnamese journalist and novelist (and all-around do-gooder), Linh Vo, has created a brilliant and innovative way for travelers to Vietnam to stay for FREE while also being engaged meaningfully in a service activity meant to help Vietnamese kids. This is not, by the way, one of those ‘responsible tourism’ packages where you pay an arm and a leg to dig toilets and shed a little of your liberal guilt. This is the real deal, where you live for free with a warm and caring Vietnamese family while helping poor kids learn English.

Vo devised this plan – which has galvanized hundreds of Vietnamese youth and countless backpackers toward selfless volunteer activities – in response to her own back-packing adventure in Nepal and as a result of a harrowing adventure there which brought her amazing prominence in Vietnam. Vo just plain picked up one day and left her comfortable and secure job because, in part, she realized how limited her future job prospects were going to be due to her inability to speak acceptable English. She traveled to Nepal because the cost of living in that country was cheaper than Vietnam and she wanted to investigate the possibility of running trekking tours for Vietnamese folks while also finding a way to communicate as much as possible with Western trekkers to improve her English. In that country she made many discoveries about effective English education, discovering that even poor kids could often speak English, but she nearly died in the 2014 blizzard and avalanche on Annapurna that killed 43 people, including 21 trekkers (it stands as Nepal’s worst trekking disaster).

Initially reported dead, Vo had been trapped with others who decided to stay on the mountain instead of making a desperate dash toward a base camp. Her written story of survival propelled her into instant fame and she soon found that she had thousands upon thousands of new Facebook followers interested in her life, insights and opinions. Before returning to Vietnam she went to the village of Aruchor, in a remote area of Nepal, to do volunteer work. There she made the discovery that the villagers spoke English well despite their relatively poor living standards. Realizing a higher quality in Nepalese English textbooks compared to the Vietnamese textbooks she had used, Vo wrote to the Minister of Education of Vietnam to propose improvements in Vietnamese English education. As Vo explained to me, ”The press published my letter and I, once again, accidentally got myself in the spotlight…I took the opportunity to advocate for a better education system for our young people.”

She asked her new Facebook buddies to work with her to create a new project she called Volunteer House Vietnam: free accommodation for travelers in exchange for English instruction to children free of charge. The response was overwhelming as Volunteer House Vietnam now has about 2,000 (mostly youthful) volunteers and at least 70 available places for backpackers to stay around the country for free – if they will contribute 5 to 8 hours a week (in the evening) toward working with Vietnamese kids who want to learn English. With the help of many volunteers she has been running the program with no funding, selflessly devoting many hours each day (pro bono) because she realizes “…how critical the ability to communicate in English is to Vietnam to enter the world community on an equal footing.”

As Duong Thuy Hanh (a.k.a. Mi), a graduate of one of Vietnam’s premier business universities, full time employee at Australia Awards Vietnam and full-time VHV super-volunteer points out, “These are mostly children whose parents love them very deeply but who cannot afford after-school programs and these parents leap at the chance to have their kids in an enrichment program which is free, fun and effective.” Indeed, it was Vo’s goal to make sure that even poor Vietnamese children would be able to learn English, since this language is essential to any developing country and can contribute to a child’s future educational and economic success.

Trekkers, of course, are often just passing through a country, and so the whole program is geared around young and enthusiastic Vietnamese youth who can speak passable English, and whose work is supplemented by the native-speaking or fluent speaking volunteers who can drop in for days or weeks. A curriculum has been chosen and is followed systematically by the Vietnamese teachers. When a trekker/back-packer is available, he/she is given the proper materials and invited to lead classes with the assistance of the Vietnamese teachers.

Therefore, this system seems ideal for European and North American young people who need to travel economically – VHV will provide free accommodation during the time one volunteers. VHV volunteers are also always willing to take their new friends to discover Vietnamese culture and cuisine if travelers would like to. The collateral benefits, of course, are priceless as the traveler meets many quality Vietnamese people (the volunteers seem to be the crème de la crème of Vietnamese youth), stays with a family and has a ready support group of caring individuals around him/her. By all reports the children are delightful, grateful and fun to work with.

Vietnam is, in fact, slowly but surely becoming one of the hottest travel spots in Asia. It is filled with World Heritage sites and opportunities to see amazing natural beauty. There are many national parks with camping opportunities in tropical forests and the beaches at Da Nang are said to be among the most beautiful in the world with crystal clear water. Furthermore, the Vietnamese people were recently rated among the happiest people in the world and will treat you with kindness, warmth and respect. You will not find expensive Starbucks coffee shops, but, instead, will be able to relax at inexpensive French drip-coffee sites – these places are ubiquitous in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. The food is fresh, delicious and inexpensive and, in fact, the street food is considered among the best in the world. Finally, you can enjoy many traditional festivals that date back generations, like the famous buffalo fighting festival of Hai Phong.

As VHV expands, its mission also expands. While investigating the possibility of starting classes in the historic Dien Bien region, VHV volunteers discovered that the people of the region are quite poor and could possibly use a little help in regard to the construction of new school units. To this end VHV has started its own ‘gofundme’ page, which includes some interesting videos which you can see below. Also, the government of Vietnam prefers that non-profit organizations have a relatively high operating budget, and VHV is hoping to receive contributions to meet these standards. It is just amazing that Vo created a working operation involving hundreds of engaged volunteers with zero money. It is interesting to think about what they can do, in the future, if folks will be kind enough to donate to their effort.

If you really want to be changed through travel, it is obvious that you must do more than just sight-seeing. You need to find ways to engage the people of a new place and pick up on their unique perspectives, attitudes and ways of dealing with the world. In Vietnam, the nature is so pristine and lush, the cities are so charming and the people so wonderful, you cannot help but be changed for the better. Volunteer House Vietnam seems the ideal way for the cost-conscious back-packer to experience a dynamic developing country and to give back to the people of the country at the same time.

For more information:
Linh Vo