The reason we headed up to Ha Giang in the first place was to do some voluntary teaching through a website called workaway.info. The premise is that you donate 4-5 hours of your time each day and in return you get food and accommodation so no money needs to change hands. We’ve tried to arrange them a few times on our trip so far without too much success so were pretty excited to get involved with a project for a couple of weeks.
Ha Giang is one of the poorest provinces in Vietnam but also one of the most beautiful and unspoilt by tourism so we were hoping to be able to help some of the disadvantaged people there and learn more about their way of life.
The centre where we stayed is centrally located in Ha Giang city. It’s a pretty small city, more like a town really, and it’s very different to Hanoi – in a good way! Everyone is so excited to see you, they’ll wave, say hello and children will run down the street after you. We got a good vibe! We met Tân when we arrived, the lovely Vietnamese intern who runs the centre almost single-handedly. He cooked us amazing food everyday and did his best to answer our many questions.
The organisation is described online as non-government and non-profit, but unfortunately it’s really not. Everything at the centre where we were based was classes provided for paying students, allowing only the wealthier members of society to consider it. It’s a business.
We did get go out to local schools as well, although I’m not 100% sure we were supposed to! That was a great experience, just to witness the children in their natural environments.
Things were generally very vague, we were never too sure what we were teaching, what we were allowed to do, what we should do and if/when things were going to happen. It could get a bit fraught, especially as you live in the same building as the teaching, it’s very easy for it to become all-consuming! There were a couple of occasions that were very stressful where we had lots of pressure put on us to ‘win’ new business from schools!
However, if you took the politics out of the picture, the interaction with students young and old was amazing. It was so refreshing to be around people who were generally so enthusiastic and curious.
My favourite class was in someone’s house in the city. A group of parents had decided to club together and pay for extra English lessons for their daughters in one lady’s house; she’d turned one room into a classroom! This did mean that these girls didn’t get a single day off in the week as they have these English classes on a Saturday and Sunday but they’re so eager to learn, they don’t seem to mind!
The adult class were very friendly and wanted to show us round their home. They took us on a hike up the Forbidden Mountain in the centre of the city.
On our first day off we were taken to Thon Tha village, and cooked lunch with Tân in Mr Quyen’s kitchen. It was great to go there, and we’ve obviously spent a lot of time there since! We have the centre to thank for this introduction!
On another day we cycled to the Chinese border, 20km down the road from Ha Giang, passing by the village. It was super hot and muggy but it was a really exhilarating thing to do, especially as we met lots of local people along the way. Everyone thought we were a bit mad but it was a great way to escape the pressures of the centre.
During the second week we were joined by Jonathan, from Sweden, and Maren, from Norway. It was so great to talk to other volunteers and escape from the bubble of the centre.
In their first couple of days it was the Mid-Autumn festival, something that we had seen lots of preparation for the week before. It is one of two festivals in the year that celebrates children. Around the whole city you could see star lanterns being made out of bamboo and paper… very simple but very effective en mass. We were invited to the village school to see their performance, which was pretty special just to witness.
We were definitely used as marketing material for the school; there were SO many photos taken of us!
But we got to watch the show, dole out candy to the children afterwards and watch them scoff it. Then, very suddenly, it was all over and everything was packed away in record time.
We sat with the teachers in the staff room, drank beer and ate dried octopus. You can’t write that stuff!
The festival show in the city was the next night, so we went to that too. This involved huge flotillas, created by communities, parading round the town and being judged and then a pretty elaborate dancing performance under the watchful statue of Uncle Ho. Again it was a bit of a photo fest, Jonathan in particular is so tall that people flocked to marvel at him.
It was all good fun though and great to be a part of it.
Needless to say, we just stayed for our two weeks at the centre and didn’t extend it like we hoped we might. It was a big shame as there’s so much potential to help the amazing people in this area. It was definitely our gateway to meeting some of them and having a fantastic base for the next month.
Ha Giang is a beautiful city, surrounded by incredible scenery and crazy mountains. If you’re ever here, we definitely recommend that you stay in Thon Tha village rather than the city. It’s only 6km away…