Over the summer, I made the decision to volunteer at the Mai Tam HIV/AIDs Orphanage in Saigon, Vietnam–despite my grandma telling me how extremely “dirty” Vietnam was.
After three flights, 26 hours of traveling, and extremely mediocre airplane food, three friends and I landed at Tan Son Nhat International Airport in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (or Saigon, as the locals call it).
Getting into the taxi and leaving for the orphanage, you could tell the city was alive. Motorcycles honking and people shouting were flooding the atmosphere. Buildings both modern and old with vibrant colors lined the streets.
We pulled into the narrow alleyway that led to the orphanage and were welcomed by my friend Dede, who had been staying at the center for about a month. We were greeted by kids aged 10 months to 16 years, both girls and boys with sincere smiles. I remember meeting some of the children two years ago when I went to visit with my father, but I was not sure they would remember who I was.
The center is divided into three tall, townhouse-styled buildings. The first two were dedicated to the children and were organized by the children’s sexes. The girls’ building houses the girls and newborn babies, while the second building houses the boys. In addition, any mothers with children in the orphanage stayed in the girls’ building, and the priests who worked at the center stayed at the boys’ house. The third building is the most recently constructed and is still being worked on. It’s used for administration and a “front desk” sort of entrance for any new visitors, as well as where I and other volunteers stayed during the night.
The typical day would consist of waking up around 7-7:30 am and doing various sorts of activities: teaching dance lessons, helping feed the younger ones, teaching piano/music lessons, bathe and dress the younger ones, and overall spend quality time with the kids while boosting their self-esteem and making sure their physical and mental states were healthy.
Since the kids were on summer break, we took field trips to places like small amusement parks and zoos and attended retreats/workshops. What I found most interesting was the two-night “life workshop” taken by all kids older than 8. At the workshop, the kids were taught healthy coping mechanisms for mental health days, as well as procedures they should follow when sexually molested or assaulted. The older kids were taught using various icebreaker activities and circle talks, while the younger kids were taught through catchy songs and dances.
Even though my time at the orphanage was brief and no amount of imagery could paint how eye-opening it was, this trip taught me that my culture and its diverse peoples embody both grace and strength through their everyday lives. Therefore, I am hopeful to go back in the future to learn more about my second home and bring more stories and experiences to the US.