The unsteady thrum of the engine bounces up through the air-conditioned van as we make our way through the mid-afternoon swarm of motorbikes and mopeds. Dozy as we scuttle past the never-ending expanse of paddy fields adorned with nón lá hats and cattle, and then sprint over a magnificent bridge and into the heat of Hanoi. This is something I have come to notice since arriving in Hanoi; the juxtaposition of the old and the new, the marriage of the traditional and the modern; it is an unmistakable truth whichever road you happen to wander down. The engine quietens, I lift myself from my post-flight slumber, peel myself from my seat and step tentatively into the Volunteer House, where an assortment of friendly faces welcomes me. Delirious from lethargy, my senses are heightened and the overwhelming smell of hot concrete, engine fumes and, closer, somebody’s left-over lunch pushes its way up my nostrils, confusing my stomach which left it’s time schedule on the plane.
I am here to volunteer at the Centre for Sustainable Development Studies (CSDS); a non-profit, non-governmental organisation based here in Hanoi, which invests in the youth of the community in order to affect positive change for the future. A quiet woman, with apprehensive eyebrows but undeniably kind eyes, shows me to my new home for the coming weeks: a cosy bottom bunk in an airy 3-bunk dorm with playfully covered mattresses, offering a welcome respite to the humidity outside. After acquainting myself with the refreshingly chilled shower, I venture downstairs and fill my still-confused stomach with a delicious buffet-style dinner (a lot of rice and egg) shared with my fellow volunteers and soon-to-be friends. Later, on the rooftop of a bar decorated with colourful bottles hanging from the ceiling, I get to know this group of like-minded individuals from all over the world, many of whom I would never have met otherwise. CSDS facilitates multiple avenues for volunteerism; whether that be teaching, looking after children with disabilities or working with community projects. I will be working in the office of CSDS itself, immersing myself in the day-to-day lives of the local staff and helping to edit reports, develop project proposals, writing their monthly newsletter and generally assisting in any way that is needed.
CSDS strives to tackle some of the most critical issues in Vietnam, often in partnership with other organisations such as the British Council, the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) and local businesses. Recently this has involved trying to combat the growing global issue of human trafficking through a project called Moving to Raise; the project seeks to raise awareness of this dangerous issue among children and women who are at risk, to educate them about possible prevention tactics, and to suggest how they may be able to help victims. Another commendable project seeks to empower women in rural or remote areas through micro-finance schemes in order to improve their quality of life and increase their status and value within the community. This project may work hand-in-hand with the previous one, because empowered and more educated women surely become less vulnerable to issues such as trafficking. On a slightly different scale, the Active Citizens programme seeks to train young people to become leaders in promoting social change in their community. By focusing on the youth of society, the project seeks to build a more sustainable and equal future in which peaceful cooperation on social and environmental issues will lead to positive outcomes.
The Vietnamese staff working at CSDS welcome us with a warmth rivaled only by the climate and I am struck by their sincere interest in what I have to say, especially given the fact that I am far more intrigued by their opinions and thoughts than my own. Indeed, chatting to the local staff and discovering their views and opinions on the world swiftly becomes my favourite part of my new job here. At the weekend, these lovely people take us on a tour of the city centre; we traverse the city by local bus, getting a feel for the life of the city in between marveling at mystical temples and watching a traditional water-puppet show. I am utterly captivated by the unassuming and gracious nature of the people here and the incredibly colourful culture of this country. Later, stepping off of the number 14 bus and onto the bustling streets of the Old Quarter my senses are overwhelmed; to my left is a lake surrounded by a rainbow of lights, their reflections glistening off the water and mingling with the stars. In front, the night markets stretch before us, a never-ending expanse of stalls selling anything and everything from joyful trousers to donuts on sticks, and to my right the infamous ‘beer corner’ is overflowing with merry travellers and locals alike.
Photo by Olivia Brady
One evening we make our way up to the balcony on the 6th floor of the Volunteer House and, against my better (afraid-of-heights) judgement, I find my feet stepping onto the cool bottom rung of a thin ladder made of bamboo, leaning precariously against the wall and leading me up towards a small opening onto the rooftop. Above the congested streets we can hear the incessant cries of car horns below, whose daily chorus floats up into the night sky, brushing against our ears whilst we wait patiently for the sunset. We quickly realise that the beauty of the sunset will be blocked out by a heavy fog of angry looking clouds, but before our disappointment sets in we are silenced by sudden flashes of rage among the blackened clouds in the distance. Our attention is grabbed as we lean forward in our front-row seats, watching this magnificent show of thunder and lightening. I feel strangely at peace as I sit on the rooftop, breathing in this beautiful moment, and I am reminded to never take anything for granted.
At the weekend a group of us are eager to explore the area around Hanoi, so on the recommendation of a girl I met, we decide to pay the Ninh Binh province a visit. She could not have spoken more highly of Hoa Lu and Tam Coc, and now we know where her adoring words came from.
After driving two hours south of Hanoi, we arrive at the ancient capital of Vietnam. I always love visiting places full of so much history; I can’t help but wonder what life was like when these buildings were built, what events have these walls seen and what secrets have they been privy to? And I love the feeling of having shared the experience of visiting this place with so many before me and so many more to come. I wonder who else has stood where I am standing and gazed up at this intricate stone building and what they made of it.
Next up is a climb up what feels like a never-ending staircase etched into the side of one of the many beautiful limestone mountains in the area – in 38 degree heat and 90% humidity I might add but that’s totally fine – to see the burial ground of the king, and the sort of view that makes everyone fall silent.
After lunch we cycle down deserted roads, past mountains and rivers, the wind in our faces and the sun on our backs. Later we are sliding down the river on a wooden rowing boat, driven by an alarmingly petite woman who never even broke a sweat. Our river cruise takes us into grottoes under the Trang An mountains and past rural villages living on the banks of the river.
There is absolutely nothing I would fault about our visit. So much so that we couldn’t resist returning to explore another corner of this beautiful area. The following weekend, hiking through the jungle of the Cuc Phuong National Park I am extremely hot but I am extraordinarily happy. The sheer beauty that surrounds me is breathtaking (I’ll happily claim this as the reason I am out of breath). The jungle constantly evolves with every step, one moment the canopy is thick and we are clambering over branches and ducking under overgrown trees; the next we are stepping out into an open expanse of banana trees, pairs of butterflies fluttering past us locked in a never ending dance with each other. We visit the ‘thousand years old tree’ and the ‘cave of ancient man’ and I look out, back across the jungle through which we just trekked and feel unimaginably lucky.