[Updated: A few days after posting this, I saw this campaign. Hooray, targeted advertising working finally. Children are indeed not a tourist attraction. It does not help the weird helpless feeling I have when I try to help and it seems they just want money or an English teacher. One day I hope I find something else I can give.]
I try to volunteer. I try to do a lot of things I do less than I like, like sketching and reading. Well I’m catching up on all of those this week. It helps to stay in one place more than a day or two. So I’ve been in Nha Trang about a week now and I discovered a most interesting restaurant. In a city known for debauchery, drugs, and resorts I found a place trying to help local orphans.
Lanterns Restaurant is a travel book recommended place owned by an Australian who came on vacation, visited an orphanage on a tour, and had his life focus shifted to this beautiful country. He spent what sounds like a year living in orphanages trying to help out. He had never opened a restaurant before and opened one solely to funnel profits into local orphanages.
So what does that mean for volunteering? If you go to the restaurant, they’ll happily take you to visit an orphanage. I’m not usually much of a kid person, most of my interaction was sitting at the other end of a table watching how they play. These kids are pretty darned cute though. Once at the orphanage, it mostly involves just playing with these kids who often are thirty or forty to a few adults and don’t get that much love and attention. Play aimlessly with children? I can handle that. They also asked if I’d like to return to teach English, but I have already come to the conclusion at other volunteer places that a mere week will do nothing for their continuity of learning. I wish I had a way to apply my skills more than “I am a native English speaker”.
Most of these places will take monetary or clothing donations as well, but I’m rather more flush with time than any of those. I was also impressed that I went on a longer visit where a bunch of college students took us. I couldn’t help but think that I was much too self absorbed with the college experience to volunteer all that often after my freshman year. Granted, these kids looked quite a tad hungover as well, but that makes it even more impressive that they cheerfully took us to far off orphanages in the pouring rain. I do meet more locals when I volunteer somewhere and I get fun glimpses into the culture. I asked these college students why their T-shirts for their group “We ❤ Nha Trang” had a Facebook link. Facebook is blocked in Vietnam. The college student then tried to tell me about some proxy trick to get around the block he kept insisting didn’t exist.
The other thing the restaurant does is hand out free food to the needy every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. I showed up for that this Monday and got to have an interaction with the lottery ticket sellers and cyclo drivers that was based on something besides them trying to sell me something. I still wasn’t exactly having conversation with them but it was pleasant to see them in a different situation than screaming “Madame, madame, cheap ride!” at me. I’m not really sure I was much help at all as the employees volunteer their time to do this and are way more effective than this bumbling traveler. I did enjoy talking to the employees, who have rather impressive English, about local life.
So, if you have time for it, just eating at this restaurant would be helpful. The food is decent, if at tourist prices and flavorings, and the money goes towards good things. I can get behind that, I just wish I could do a little more. They’re also about to move locations, so if you can’t find it from the guide book, ask around.