How Vietnam Changed My Life

Sometimes, we look back at periods of our lives, and although everything is different we’re not sure when everything changed.

This was not one of those times.

This was a time when my life became clearly splintered, into a before and an after.

It was in a small village about an hour out of Ho Chi Minh, and I remember everything. I remember what I was wearing –muddy work boots, a t-shirt drenched in sweat. I remember the smells of lemongrass chicken and humidity. I remember wiping the sweat and dirt off my face with an icy-cold towel and feeling a seismic shift in my reality. I looked around at this village – these women walking up a beaten dirt path with baskets of rice on their backs and serenity on their faces. The children, laughing earnestly as they kicked an empty Coke can between them as a soccer ball. The men – with holes in their shirts and no shoes on their feet, moving cement blocks up to a construction site, where a group of volunteers like me were building a home for their neighbour.

volunteer week 2

I remember feeling suddenly ashamed. The heat rose to my face as I thought about why I had come on this Global Village trip. I had become bored of my normal holidays. I had grown tired of five-star resorts, work conferences in beautiful parts of the world. I had taken my lifestyle so much for granted, that I had allowed myself to not only get used to it – but to get bored of it.

I spent the rest of the week in a haze of laughing so hard my sides hurt, and working so hard everything else hurt. At the end of the five days, I cried as I hugged the mum of the family we had built for. Through the translator she told me how she would never forget me, or what we had done for her. I didn’t know how to explain that it was me who would never forget HER.

This is not what I had expected when I signed up.

volunteer week1

I did get a lot of what I had expected – an overwhelming sense of achievement and pride in what my team and I had accomplished. An insight into a country that I never would have got as a normal tourist. Strong friendships with my teammates that have continued until this day. A perspective shift – a better understanding of life outside of my privilege. And a whole lot of incredible memories.

I just hadn’t expected it to impact me as much as it did. Four years on my life is vastly different. I’ve now done three builds and relocated to Sydney to run the volunteer program for Habitat for Humanity. I get to send other bright-eyed volunteers on these trips and hear their stories. I realise now I am not alone in coming out of my first build as a different person than who walked in.

Vietnam showed me just how much I have to be grateful for, so now I appreciate the ‘monotony’ of my life so much more. I stop and smell the flowers. I tell people how much I appreciate them. I take the time to appreciate a beautiful sunset, and I am just as grateful at a beachside resort as I am up to my knees in mud on a build site.

Vietnam also showed me what I am capable of. It showed me that outside of my comfort zone is where growth happens. It showed me that I can make a difference with my own two hands.

I volunteered in Vietnam with Habitat for Humanity, hoping I could change someone’s life. I never expected it would also change my own.
– Lee Sayer

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