Driving away from the little town of Mai Chau, I remember feeling unbelievably peaceful. Rested. Happy. Four weeks earlier, I had no idea that I had such an amazing trip in front of me. It was organised incredibly last-minute – on a whim, after one of my closest friends suggested doing a volunteer trip. We applied via a program called Projects Abroad. Having left it so late, we didn’t think we would get accepted. We were wrong. We quickly found ourselves organising visas, malaria tablets and vaccinations ready to make our way to the brilliant green hills and rice terraced of North Vietnam and our Mai Chau homestay.
Getting to Mai Chai from Hanoi
The project we chose was based in Mai Chau village, Vietnam, a 4-hour drive from the busy capital Hanoi. Local and private buses run regularly from Hanoi, and Mai Chau Ecolodge offers a direct shuttle service. A stark contrast to the bustling city, Mai Chau is beautiful in its simplicity, surrounded by mountains, rice paddies and stunning greenery.
Mai Chau Homestay
We were greeted by Mrs. Thuang, the mother of our host family and also the director of the project that we would be working on. Mrs Thuang first started the project, Hoa Ban, in 2008. Distressed by the growing number of homeless women in her town, she decided to open a refuge for disadvantaged and disabled women. She not only offered them a home, she also began to teach the women how to sew and weave in a traditional way, that she had learned as a child. Now, nearly 10 years on, she has helped to improve the lives of over 200 women, giving them the skills to earn an income while preserving their traditional culture. For the next two weeks we lived with her and her family in their traditional stilt house, eating, sleeping and working together.
Hoa Ban Plus: Helping Disadvantaged and Disabled Women
After hearing Mrs Thuang’s story, we were keen to get to work, adopting the same mentality as home, ready to work from 9 to 5, or as long as was needed. Instead, we were told to relax, take naps and take our time with the work we wanted to do.
In the end, the days became fluid as we adapted to ‘Mai Chau time’. We spent much of our day in the tiny shop speaking with the women and hearing their stories as well as experiencing the beautiful art form of silk dyeing and weaving.
I also spent two days filming Mrs Thuang as she showed us how they dye their cotton and silk by hand using bark, vegetables and leaves. She then took us to a nearby house where six women spent nearly half a day carefully weaving the newly dyed silk around four timber stilts of a house, before mounting onto a loom ready for weaving.
During our two weeks with Mrs Thuang we helped her with a number of tasks:
- A video showcasing the art of dyeing and weaving silk and cotton to prove the quality of her products.
- An English brochure showcasing all her products with prices and codes, which would allow for easier negotiations with non-Vietnamese speaking wholesalers.
- Setting up social media accounts to raise awareness of the shop to potential visitors to Mai Chau.
- Maintaing their website and Facebook accounts.
- Helping around the Hoa Ban Home Stay by cleaning rooms and helping to prepare meals
What we loved about this project, was the fact that we could bring skills that we already had in marketing and journalism, to fulfill Mrs Thuang’s needs. We’re incredibly proud of the fact that we were able to contribute to her social enterprise and her goal of supporting at least ten additional women each year.
Volunteering in Vietnam
- This was a paid volunteer trip to Vietnam. We paid for our own flights, accommodation, food and transfers. Find more information at Projects Abroad.
- Our volunteer project wasn’t particularly structured. If you want a project where they will give clear direction about how to help and what to do – this isn’t it. We created our own schedule, which worked for us.
- Bring lots of insect repellent. We had lots of resident mosquitos, spiders and geckos in our room. Mosquito nets were provided at the Mai Chau homestay.
- Bring cash – we could only find one ATM in Mai Chau – and unfortunately it ate our travel card.
- There was one translator who stayed with us most days. The rest of the time – we relied on Google Translate and basic Vietnamese.
- Volunteering with a friend was a great way to be able to share the experience. Mai Chau is quite remote.
- Make sure you get your own travel insurance before you go as it’s not covered in the program.
Even if volunteering is not for you, there are some incredible things to do in Mai Chau and it’s definitely worth a visit if you are planning on heading to the north of Vietnam.
The Fit Traveller is in no way affiliated with Projects Aboard. This is a personal story. We advise you to do your own independent research before working with any international volunteer organisation.
Natalie is a Senior Social Media Producer and Product Manager who has worked across Australian media brands such as PLUS7, 7News, The Morning Show, X Factor, Home and Away, The Daily Edition and Australia’s No.1 Breakfast show, Sunrise.
During university, she lived and studied in Italy where she took full advantage of cheap Ryanair flights. That year she travelled extensively through Europe and has continued her love of travel ever since.
Natalie enjoys unplanned adventures and hates to travel with a map. She also swears by getting her hair cut at the beginning of her trips – hairdressers have all the best tips for exploring a city