After five crazy months of studying in Singapore, travelling throughout South East Asia and a short trip home, I begun the second part of my exchange adventure. Funded by the Westpac Asian Exchange Scholarship, I commenced a business volunteer project in Mai Chau, a village four hours outside of Hanoi, Vietnam where I worked for a NGO called Hoa Ban Plus.
Hoa Ban Plus is a social enterprise that employs disabled and poor local women for weaving and embroidery to make and sell a variety of different handicrafts locally, in Hanoi and abroad. They also offer homestays and tours to help fund the other parts of the business. As I began my project in Mai Chau, I started to appreciate the differences in business practices and the challenges that Hoa Ban were facing as they tried to gain international clients. Getting the brand out into the international market where they could efficiently distribute the products was a concerning issue as firms abroad were clearly interested in their business but didn’t know how to start using them as a supplier.
One of the things that I enjoyed the most about working at Hoa Ban was that I could bring the skills that I studied into practice. They were very flexible in terms of what they wanted me to do, as there were so many tasks that needed to be done. An average day would consist of a variety of tasks including building the website to translating sales records, creating spreadsheets to help apply for sponsorship and government grants, designing a product catalogue for distributors or helping establish pricing policies to ensure consistency in their local shop.
Evenings often involved assisting in teaching the local children English. I would help run an extension class for 5-13 year olds so they could extend on what they learnt from school. Luckily my translator was there to help as I focused on teaching the correct pronunciation. Whilst I often wondered what value foreigners added to the English classes, I soon realised that parents were more inclined to bring their children to learn English with foreigner teachers as my classes went from 8 students to over 40.
I certainly had my challenges during my project. The remoteness did get to me as I’d walk the streets with the cows in the village or be woken up at 5.15am in the morning by the rooster before the motorbikes with the radios started at 5.30. But my time at Hoa Ban was unlike anything I could have imagined and was an experience that gave me the opportunity to appreciate the challenges so many NGOs globally face as they become more profitable and try to become international, established firms.
The end of my time in Mai Chau brought me back to Hanoi where I started a two-week journey along the Reunification train to Ho Chi Minh, the last stage of this incredible six-month adventure.