Rachel North - Medicine & Healthcare, Speech Therapy in Vietnam
I spent five weeks volunteering as a speech therapist with Projects Abroad at Thuy An Rehabilitation Centre in Hanoi- and loved it! My time at Thuy An was filled with many challenges, but also many joys (and many very sweet children!). I’m currently studying Speech Pathology in Australia and was able to complete a placement in a developing country in Asia as part of my degree- a pretty incredible opportunity. I decided to go to Vietnam...and that’s where the adventure began!
Arrival to Hanoi
I was unsure of what to expect upon my arrival in Vietnam; I didn’t know anyone in the country, and hardly knew any of the language. I was terribly nervous. Projects Abroad put me at ease- they had so much under control and were very helpful with so many things- including late night trips to the hospital! They understand volunteers’ needs, the complexities of working across practice, resource, and cultural barriers, and have chosen to invest in sustainable projects which are in need of support. These all made such a difference to my time in Vietnam. It’s always tricky being in a foreign country, but they provided so much of the support network that I needed in order to thrive.
Thuy An Rehabilitation Centre
My placement was located a few hours from the city. I lived at my placement during the week, which was a lovely break from the hustle and bustle of Hanoi. We could breathe easy in Ba Vi. Not many staff at Thuy An spoke English, so I had a full time translator- amazing! She helped with so many of the cultural and language barriers. I spent the first few weeks of placement with another volunteer from the US which was so lovely- we were both processing so many new experiences and challenges at the same time, and it was good to be able to talk things over, to laugh, and to cry together.
Thuy An is one of the only rehabilitation centres for children with disabilities in the North of Vietnam. Speech therapy is still a very new concept in Vietnam, and so practices and understanding of communication development was very different compared with my home country. This was a challenge at first, and it was hard to see that the support available to children at Thuy An seemed so little compared to what was available for children with disabilities at home. Though many of the staff had limited understanding of child development and disability, they worked hard to do everything they could with the skills that they had- and it was important for me to come to acknowledge this.
The pace of life in Thuy An was much slower than in Hanoi- which seemed to be pretty typical of rural areas in Vietnam. We’d work from 8am – 10am in the language therapy room; working with a number of different children. Much of my work began with observation, and I quickly learnt that I needed to build relationships with the local staff before I could get more involved and make a real impact.
From 10am – 11am we’d head to the special feeding area, where we helped feed lunch to some of the children with higher needs. I hadn’t done much work in paediatric feeding back home, so this was baptism by fire! I saw many cultural differences here, but in time I was able to work through some of them and appreciate the hard work of the nurses.
We’d eat lunch and then have a break for a few hours. I often frequented the local café for much needed coffee and WIFI. At 2pm, we started work in the language room again, and then would help with feeding at 4pm. The day was quite segmented, but it had a good rhythm to it.
Towards the end of the placement I did some work in educating the local therapists about various therapy techniques, theories, and ways of understanding disability and speech therapy. It was good to be able to exchange knowledge and experiences, but I very quickly realized that there were many gaps in my own knowledge!
I also did some work teaching English to some of the local elementary children with another volunteer. This was good fun. Being involved with the community was an important part of my time in Thuy An- conversations with local staff and villagers, frequenting coffee shops, and teaching English all formed part of this. The more you are involved in a community the more the community begins to build a relationship with you, which I found an important aspect in cross-cultural work.
As a volunteer you soon realize that empowering change in any situation is hard and takes time. Over time you become reminded that it’s small steps of commitment to projects and to people that enacts real and sustainable change in communities. Whilst the change that I enacted on the project seemed small, I came to realize that my work would link together with the work of other volunteers to make lasting change at Thuy An. I’m very thankful for my time at Thuy An, and for the many things that I have learnt and been taught.
Change is in the air in Vietnam- change that will empower people in minority groups, women, and people living with disabilities, to hold valued and important roles in society and communities. This has been a long time coming, but we’re making small steps towards this. And this- this is something to be very excited about.