Australian volunteers give back to Việt Nam

December 26, 2019 - 11:54

Most people visit Việt Nam to learn about the culture or enjoy the fantastic scenery, but for these three Australians, their love for the country stretches further. 

Mike Stephens has worked with the NGO ChildFund Việt Nam on projects to improve water sanitation and hygiene (WASH) in remote areas. — Photo Courtesy of Đức Hoàng 

An Vũ

Most people visit Việt Nam to learn about the culture or enjoy the fantastic scenery, but for these three Australians, their love for the country stretches further. 

Mike Stephens has worked with the NGO ChildFund Việt Nam on projects to improve water sanitation and hygiene (WASH) in remote areas by working with local people and private enterprises. 

Previously, he worked in Australia as a hydrologist, followed by a short period co-operating with small development NGOs in the WASH sector, providing fresh water to Kho Mu and Mong communities. 

Stephens felt lucky to travel in Việt Nam during 2017, and thought that if he got the chance he would come back to work in Việt Nam. He said his most memorable moment was working with ChildFund, which was established in Việt Nam in 1995, to protect children’s rights. 

“I was able to visit remote areas in the northern mountain so that means I get to see places and people, and talked to them. I found them incredibly beautiful. We were working in three provinces and I have been to all of them: Cao Bằng, Bắc Kạn and Hòa Bình.”

"So there have been projects that I am learning from, and that we are taking the lessons we have learnt, and we applied them to the new projects that we are designing now.

"So for something we did to the old project, we say 'hey, we want to keep that, and we want to use that for the future'. 

"And if we see something that did not work we think we can improve, we go 'hey, we can learn from that', and when we do these new projects, we can outwork them."  

He also added his work was focused on projects targeting children.

“Me and my team asked children what they thought about water sanitation in their community and at school, if anything we could do with the government to support them, how they thought about their conditions.

"I did not approach any children directly, but worked on the sidelines as a consultant.

"I think children, or people in any country, are happy to have clean water and with this programme, although I have had to live miles away from my parents in Australia for a long time, I feel extremely lucky to be able to be a volunteer in an open and friendly environment like here.

"People always have a positive mindset and are full of creativity.

"I would definitely return to Việt Nam next year to see the result of our ongoing work on water and sanitation.” 

For Rebekah Thielemans, volunteering is all about environmental sustainability. She works as a communications, campaigns and community engagement specialist. For the past six years, Thielemans has devoted her time to the environmental sector, both private and not-for-profit industries, living and studying in France, India and Indonesia.

She lives in Sydney and likes spending time in nature with her friends, but moved to Việt Nam recently for her volunteer work. 

Rebekah Thielemans, (fourth from right) thinks volunteering is all about environmental sustainability. — Photo Courtesy of Rebekah Thielemans

“This is my first long-term volunteering assignment on environment and community development.

"When I did volunteer work in Australia, it would be much shorter and mostly lasted for six months.

"I have been working with GreenHub, a non-governmental, not-for-profit organisation co-founded by local experts in Hà Nội that is fully immersive.

"It influenced all aspects of my life, so I decided to come live here. This is just not something I do in my spare time.

"It is not just volunteer work, but an opportunity for me to learn about the environmental context here as well. "

Among the projects she has been working on in Việt Nam, she is focusing on reducing plastic waste in Hạ Long Bay and sea level rises as a result of climate change in the Mekong Delta. She also helps educate children about the importance of protecting the environment and researches marine debris. 

She concluded that to raise people’s awareness on protecting the environment, they need to understand the problem of environmental issues, and the issues should be personalised.

“For example, for fishermen in the bay, they need to see their livelihood and source of income may disappear.

"For farmers in the Delta, because of climate change to cause sea level rises, they may lose their agricultural lands.

"Therefore, the problem is not happening out there, but to me, in my home.”

Brett Simmonds has more than 30 years of experience working in the hospitality industry throughout Australia and overseas.

Brett Simmonds dedicated his time teaching young people at KOTO on hotel managements. — Photo Courtesy of Đức Hoàng 

Over the years Brett has brought a wealth of knowledge to KOTO, a 20-year-old hospitality training centre in Hà Nội, giving at-risk and disadvantaged youths the opportunity to learn and thrive.  

He took a year off to travel Southeast Asia and became a self-funded volunteer at KOTO in August last year to help teach customer service.

He said balancing work and making profit is very challenging, since KOTO has been carrying out a lot of fund raising, with two restaurants in HCM City and Hà Nội to make money, and a lot of international sponsorships which help the organisation continue its work. 

“But for youngsters from 16 to 22, I do not find any challenges.

"They are very respectful, resilient and hardworking people who are completely different from teenagers from Australia.

"The advantage for them is I show them international standards in hospitality, and for me it's that the training has taught me a lot. 

"I think tourism in Việt Nam is booming, as well as the quality of hotels is increasing. When I asked my trainees, some of them said they wanted to stay here to open restaurants, while most wanted to go abroad. I think it is exciting and I want to learn more about management here.”

“I will bring my family to Việt Nam this Tết to enjoy Hà Nội and Hội An,” he added. — VNS