In February this year, I spent some time volunteering with a wonderful organization called Sapa O’Chau in cold and misty Sapa town, teaching a basic financial literacy course to young girls from the local Black Hmong community. I had been dreaming about Vietnam, especially about Sapa all of last year, and knew I wanted to volunteer while I was there. After some research, I found Sapa O’Chau and felt like they would be a good fit. I’m quite late with this post but here it is finally; I hope this helps you if you’re thinking about volunteering in Vietnam or looking for an organization.
Sapa O’Chau is a social enterprise consisting of a school, café and trekking company. The school helps young adults from the Black Hmong community who would otherwise not be able to complete their education due to financial or geographical limitations. The Black Hmong tribe is an ethnic minority in Northern Vietnam. The main occupations are agriculture and and small businesses selling trinkets, clothes and bags to tourists. Many women from the community also work as tourist guides for treks to the surrounding mountain villages. The community is essentially very poor and although the younger generation aspires to move away from traditional occupations, poverty and the need to support their families prevents them from getting an education, learning English and getting higher paying jobs.
The school is supported by volunteers from all over the world who teach the students English, Arts & Crafts, Mathematics, IT skills and other life skills. Volunteers are asked to design and teach a course according to their own areas of expertise with good support from the coordinators. Of course, there is always the need for English lessons as the students are trying to improve their language and writing skills. In addition, there is a hostel where students live for a major part of the week while they attend volunteer run classes, with some of them returning to their villages to help their families with farming and attend Vietnamese school on weekends.
I taught a basic financial awareness course that focused on economic concepts of savings, debt, small business profitability, markets and competition among others. I wanted to teach these topics but also didn’t want them to remain abstract concepts in the minds of my students. So I used story like case studies with illustrations so that they would be relevant and interesting to my students. Most of my examples were about economic decisions that small business owners such as those of cafés, clothing and handicraft stores need to take. Some students work in similar businesses or on the street selling to tourists and so they could relate quite well to the topics. For a few sessions, we played games that required the students to form groups and strategize to improve their sales and manage competition among them. The students are at widely different levels of language and comprehension ability, in spite of being in the same age group. But they are all very bright and have great potential, I am confident that if they had access to more knowledge and opportunities, there’s so much they could achieve. Interaction with foreign volunteers has vastly broadened their world view and increased their confidence and English speaking ability, that would have otherwise not been possible.
Volunteers have the option to stay in basic accommodation provided by Sapa O’Chau but I chose to stay in a guest house in town instead, wanting to be in a more central location than the one the school and volunteer accommodation were in. The daily routine consists of two teaching sessions of two hours each, one in the morning and the other in the afternoon with a two hour lunch break when the students and volunteers prepare their meals in the common kitchen and eat together. My afternoons would be spent preparing lesson plans over lunch at Baguette & Chocolat and the evenings discovering new places to eat in Sapa town.
The town is very small, one that you can easily walk around in a day and consists of a main market where you can find everything from fresh food to beautifully embroidered clothes, fabrics and souvenirs, a church, many restaurants, guest houses and stores. The different hill tribes that live in and around Sapa and dress in their distinct traditional styles can be seen around town selling their wares or trekking guide services to tourists, and bring a lot of color and character to the town.
Sapa is not an expensive place to live in; at the time of writing private rooms are available for as low as $6 and meals for $2-$5, sometimes even cheaper. The weekends were spent exploring the villages and trekking in the rice fields around Sapa with fellow volunteers. Sapa O’Chau runs a trekking company and offers guided treks and tours such as the one I took to Bac Ha market, although they’re slightly more expensive than others because of their need to support the school and hostel. However, you can always hire a motorbike and explore on your own if you’d like to keep expenses low; it’s an adventure of sorts and the views are breathtaking. Sapa is an absolute delight for trekkers and nature lovers and I did not tire of the gorgeous scenery and treks for a single day. If you’re looking to travel with purpose, then culture rich Sapa in Vietnam is a beautiful place to explore and Sapa O’Chau is a great choice.