Why can’t I volunteer around here?

Vung Tau

The challenges of free labour in Vietnam

If your social life currently revolves around food and drinks (raise your hands) and you’re looking to shake it up a bit, your thoughts might turn to volunteering. Or perhaps you’re a visitor wanting a different overseas experience. Here are a few things to keep in mind.

No one would dream of rocking up to a bank, marching in and announcing they were there to help. Yet you’d be surprised how often this happens at nonprofits. While NGOs are yes, chronically understaffed and yes, grossly under-resourced, they too are working professionals with bosses to answer to and staff to manage. Did you contact the nonprofit ahead of time or did you send an email saying you’d be in the city for three days starting tomorrow and you were looking to “do something”? Did you send a resume and and an outline of a modest project that you yourself could complete (beginning, middle and end) with little supervision (remember, there’s hardly any staff) that actually fits their mission? Do you even know what their mission is or were you just charmed by the pictures of the cute kids on their website?

For example, INGOs in Vietnam must obtain local authority permission before foreigners can go to field projects and this can take months. Mandatory criminal record checks and/or child protection screening also take time. My favourite story of the would-be volunteer is the one who turned up unannounced one morning and since he was a beach-attired foreigner, I was the one pulled out of the weekly team meeting to answer his questions. As I explained how I couldn’t accommodate him immediately (he had this week to spare); acquiring field-work permissions (since he didn’t want any “office work”) and how some nonprofits need to charge volunteers to participate in certain activities, he became increasingly angry, finally cutting me off at my “but here’s what I can do for you” spiel because nonprofits typically try not to alienate people, and yelled at me for “wasting” his time and perhaps I was too “stupid” to realize what a gift I was turning down.

It would seem to me that he approached volunteering incorrectly. His is the neocolonial approach and it announces, “Behold, I am here and I will save/help/teach you because I have good intentions and now when do I start?” I absolutely do want you to meet new people, gain experience, build your skills and network in a different culture, but don’t volunteer for the wrong reasons. It’s not about you and what an asset you are (neocolonial approach). It’s about thoughtfully probing the needs of an organization and helping it deliver its mission with limited resources (yup, non-neocolonial approach).

Give some real thought to what you want to do, for how long and for whom. Reflect on why you want to do this and your motives (bragging rights won’t cut it). Nonprofits adore collaborative approaches. Perhaps that guy in the swim trunks with the sombrero tied at his neck will do that too.


This article originally appeared in The Word Vietnam August 2013.

Problematic proximity

Gia Vien district, Ninh Binh province (as it should be)

More than a thousand years ago, Ninh Binh province was the first imperial capital of Vietnam. Before that, these vast plains punctuated with limestone karsts were just another distant outpost of China. This land is ancient and criss-crossed with history; monuments and shrines. 

On the bus my companion described Ninh Binh as like Ha Long Bay (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), but instead, floating on land. And she was right. Soaring plinths of limestone rocks and mountain ranges covered with thick green vegetation makes for pretty viewing out a speeding window. In fact, this landscape so inspired the Vietnamese that part of it became, in 1962, the country’s first national park (near where this picture was taken). You can understand why the Chinese wanted to hang on to it. Yet there is another companion in this scene, side-by-side nearly every other mountain you see. A cement factory hunkers, belching smoke and trying to minimize its appearance by situating lavish cement “gardens” out front replete with cement water buffaloes and elephants, and concrete-ivy trellises covering walkways and “labyrinths” (for employees on breaks?).
If you crane your neck just a bit more as you zoom by, risking breaking your nose on the bus window pane, you’ll also see the digging of the back hoes and excavators, relentlessly removing the karsts and hills from the bottom leaving behind such mushroom-shaped grotesques that you’d be forgiven for thinking they will collapse upon themselves. Approximately 1.6 billion tons of cement is produced globally every year and, says the IFC (part of the World Bank Group), is second only to water as the most consumed substance on the entire planet. 

The effluent from the factories mixes with the fog rolling off the mountain tops and produces a low hanging grey veil among the tangle of bright green trees and jungle shrub. In forcing yourself to look past the ruin of the landscape, you squint a bit out your window. Acid green slides, smudges and streaks into hulking navy blue rock. Here there be dinosaurs you whisper under your breath. And then you catch site of another concrete giraffe and the spell is broken.    

Offal appearance

Dinner is served / Photo: Lottie Delamain
The other night I went to my first supper club ever and I was really looking forward to it because supper clubs are underground, off the radar kind of affairs where cool people cook in their homes for total strangers. I like to be a cool person. We had to give a password and everything and not just because the Vietnamese authorities would never permit foreigners cooking for cash out of their homes. 

Tasty is the name of the supper club run by two American best-of-friends and cooking school drop-outs who came out east armed with knives and much hutzpah. Chad also runs a city/food tour on Vespa motorbikes and Fredrick has large Mickey Mouse tattoos on his arms. Their apartment kitchen pumps out metal and hip hop, while in the dining room strangers make yabber with one another and take pictures of their food. (Which is a good thing because my camera typically goes mechanically MIA at just the moment its services are actually required.) I didn’t know what was on the menu and frankly didn’t care. Six courses of yum; Chad and Fredrick hurtling around their kitchen, knives akimbo; and the keeper of the passwords bringing me my own beer from one of two giant fridges in the living room.

The fourth course was a dusty rose smile on a plate; like an oddly coloured wedge of melon on its side. But firmer and clearly not a piece of fruit. “What’s this?” I whispered to my new friend Jen. “Pig’s tongue,” she replied. Oh. Dear. Me. 

Now I’ve unintentionally eaten tendon, hooves, knuckles and once memorably, fish uterus studded with little fishy eggs. At any local quan you’ll see many a dish brought to your neighbours’ tables with arachnid-like legs sticking up in a steaming clay pot. Black, disjointed and well, just not pretty enough to stick in my mouth. Turns out those are not scorpion, spider or even gecko dishes of delight … they’re duck tongues. Lots and lots of wee fowl tongues attached to the very cartilage nature intended them to be attached to, plopped in caramelized soy sauce. I’ve intentionally avoided those—insect or entrails or otherwise. So manhandling a pig’s tongue in someone else’s house was going to take some grace.

The vegetarian across from me looked up from her aubergine. “Give us a bite,” she said.

It was damn tasty.   

Going up the country redux

Saigon River, Thu Thiem, District 2, Ho Chi Minh City
Sharp eyed readers will recognize this is a sister image of a time when I was contemplating dead boys far from home deep in the Mekong Delta. Now I am thinking about a new kind of destruction, this time current and in my backyard.

The Saigon River is the main water supply for Ho Chi Minh City, yet this boat and this waterway—all distant cousins of the mighty Mekong River will simply not exist in a few years. 

This is the destruction of Saigon in the slow inexorable march of progress. The area in particular is Thu Thiem a huge undeveloped area that juts into the river, a fat green finger pointing towards the South China Sea where the river surges to meld with the ocean. Today’s destruction of Saigon isn’t with guns anymore; now it’s with developers and their cement because the wealthy need condos.

Once upon a time the city was full of thriving canals that carried passengers and commerce from the sea inland to Saigon and beyond. Thi Nghe Canal and Ben Nghe Canal in what is now District 3 and District 4 respectively were in use for at least 200 years before officials cemented them. Unsurprisingly, given how many waterways have been filled in, Ho Chi Minh City during the rainy season floods badly and brings the city to a standstill. What’s left of urban waterways are mostly black water sewage outstreams that look and smell exactly as such. Folks fish in them and the government has stocked some of the canals with shit-eating fish, but it’s a Band-Aid solution for something requiring surgery.  
Sitting in the small wooden boat pictured above, we are a slash of cheerful blue; almost like a reflector vest in an environment that is steadfastly green or brown. Our boat has totemic eyes painted on it to ward off sea demons and evil river sprites. Inside, our profane beer cooler sits alongside an altar to both Buddha and Thien Hau, the goddess of the sea. Some dimwit wrote an authoritative article about how there are no animals and certainly no birds left in Saigon because they’ve all been eaten. Had this fool left his District 1 five-star and headed mere moments south—to the river—he too would have been delighted at the flapping water fowl almost close enough to touch across a boat’s wood prow. He too would have seen plenty of signs of life in moored fishing boats, fishing nets and small crab traps laid along the banks, and small groves of bananas. And if he had removed his designer sunglasses he likely would have seen small wood houses with thatched roofs dotted here and there among the swamps, most with a curious, but silent, dog standing on an embankment.   

 As we sit chatting in the boat, sliding through District 2, I think of the Chinese river pirates on the payroll of the French authorities, Hell’s Angels of the colonial waterways. They soon gave way to river boat patrols of the North and South Vietnamese and the Americans during the last war, before giving way again to poor fishermen and women reclaiming their right to a post war—but meager—existence among the mangroves and muddy brown water.

Now the developers are staking their claim and vast swathes have already been cleared arcing out from the centre. 

Here’s a thought. New homes must be built, fine, but instead of choking off some of the last remaining urban waterways, why not develop better passenger river service to ease Saigon’s notorious traffic? Promote tourism and even eco-tourism (birdwatchers  rejoice) in the area and—instead of taking the illegal boat ride that we did—register and licence the fishermen and women as drivers, operators and guides.

Condos for money now or preservation for tourism money for the long term. But it shouldn’t be an either/or proposition. The government could actually have both. 

Now that’s a thought.  

Roadshow follies

I have been saving these up for awhile, yes, but I present them to you now in the spirit of the annual movie awards season.
It never ceases to amaze me how some folks behave when they are caught red-handed doing something they shouldn’t be doing.

This woman and her passenger were driving on the wrong side of the street and without helmets when the police, unsurprisingly, pulled her over.

Oscar-worthy, isn’t it? 

A woman in Hanoi was charged after repeatedly slapping a police officer after her 13-year-old nephew and another boy were pulled over for driving without helmets.

A very drunk customs officer smashed his car into a US embassy vehicle parked in front of the American embassy in Hanoi. He then got into a fight with the security staff and called up his drinking buddies to come and beat up the guards and police officers on the scene who were attempting to tow his car, while righteously hollering the equivalent of “Do you know who I am?”

Ignore the sensationalized title of the video below and the announcer’s God awful pronunciation of Vietnamese names and think instead how this might have played out where you live.

The remarkable thing is how calm the cops are during these incidents with nary a fist, nightstick or gun brandished. Elsewhere, Canadian cops Taser teenagers in the head without provocation and American cops routinely mace and club peaceful protestors or shoot to kill unarmed black boys.

How is it that in a country like Vietnam, with few civil liberties, these traffic antics are tolerated, but in the West—constitutional rights and all—there is increasingly less room for dialogue, let alone public dissent, and more lethal power granted to the ones who should be serving the people, not mastering them.


It’s not original at this time of year to be musing on change. But there you have it—Buffalo Surf is musing on change.

The Western New Year is behind us and Vietnam is transitioning into spring and its own Lunar New Year (Tet), the Year of the Snake (good omen!).

Vietnam has made the transition to a lower middle income country, as defined by the World Bank, and now ponders the vast social development that was left behind in the rush to integrate with the global economy. The prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung took some time to ponder his political future. The general secretary of the Central Committee took Mr Dung to task for his personal connections to the scandal-plagued Asia Commercial Bank (ACB), the country’s biggest private-owned bank, and at the Vietnam Shipbuilding Industry (Vinashin), which mislaid $4.5 billion. Executives from both companies are under investigation or have been jailed for corruption. However, when the 14-member Politburo concluded their chat with Mr Dung, they issued a statementsaying they “seriously criticised themselves and honestly admitted their mistakes.”

Buffalo Surf also pondered its career (happily minus the fraud) and I am happy to report a job transition is under way.

A remarkable transition was shot in 1977 by American husband and wife filmmaking team, Jon Alpert and Keiko Tsuno. They were the first American television crew allowed back into Vietnam after the US withdrawal in 1975. The end result is “Vietnam: Picking Up the Pieces.” The access the filmmakers were given is extraordinary given the authoritarian paranoia that blights the government today. Alpert and Tsuno travel through North and South Vietnam, filming the new postwar transition to Reunification: prostitution; food shortages; drug addiction; ruined hospitals; overflowing orphanages.

A very random, beer-addled query among friends turned up no known Vietnamese proverbs on change, which given this country’s long historical tumult, seems surprising. However, a close approximation offered up was “có nhiều thay đổi mang lại nhiều sự khôn ngoan,” meaning something along the lines of “many changes brought much wisdom.”

As so with all change and transition the Buddha noted it is better to conquer yourself than to win a thousand battles.