General information to help you prepare for an enjoyable experience.

Vietnam is a tropical, developing country. That said, it is a vibrant, rapidly growing country full of seeming contradictions: lush green countrysides and a slower pace of life, or bustling cities with new high-rise buildings springing up over night.

Bac Giang province is located in Northern Vietnam, about 2 hours from the center of Hanoi. It is a rural area with higher levels of poverty and a more challenging way of life for its many inhabitants. There are a few important things to consider if you wish to volunteer in Vietnam.

1.) Transportation

You may have heard that foreigners often ride motorbikes or motorcycles in Vietnam, and this is largely true. However, just because we “can” do it doesn’t always mean that we should.

Vietnam has some of the most dangerous roads in the world. The traffic situation has gotten a lot more complex in the past several years now that there are more automobiles on the road, and automobiles always expect the right of way, whether they are right or not. Other large vehicles on the roads such as semis, buses, farm machinery, and construction vehicles further compound the driving challenges you’ll face, that is, if you still want to ride a motorbike.

It takes several months of extremely defensive driving before foreigners get the hang of commuting around here. Unfortunately, most foreigners feel more confident after a couple of months, and this is when they usually have their first accident. Yes, it’s not a matter of if you have an accident, but when.

So, when you have an accident, your insurance will not cover your medical expenses because you do not have a Vietnamese driver’s license. And if the police get involved, there’s no telling how gracious they’ll be. Please consider this part very carefully. We can help you get transportation to Bac Giang, and once you are settled, you can arrange alternate modes of transportation from there. We cannot accept any liability if you are determined to transport yourself around Vietnam. Above all, we really, really want you to remain in one piece for the duration of your stay.

2.) Immunizations

Because Vietnam is a tropical country, it has tropical, food-borne, air-borne, and water-borne diseases. Before your trip, you need to get your shots. These are the most important:

  • Routine Vaccinations: Measles-Mumps-Rubella, Diphtheria-Tetanus-Pertussis, Polio, and your yearly Flu shot.
  • Hepatitis A: food hygeine standards are not the same here. A must-have vaccination.
  • Typhoid: because you will be in a rural area, and also because of the food hygeine issue. Try to get vaccinated for this one a few weeks before coming, in case you have side effects (which can be common but uncomfortable).
  • Japanese Encephalitis: chat with your doctor and talk about your travel plans, which include staying in a rural area.

Other considerations:

Please do read the CDC recommendations, and keep the following in mind:

  • Use plenty of bug spray, and ask for a mosquito net. Mosquitos carry Malaria and Dengue Fever. There are vaccines for Malaria, but not Dengue Fever. If you do get Dengue Fever, it lasts about 4 days, with a recovery time of about two weeks or so. Recent studies suggest drinking as much Pocari Sweat as possible, as it can drastially reduce recovery time from Dengue Fever (OHH is in no way affiliated with Pocari Sweat, and is not promoting their products. This is simply for information purposes).
  • Drink only bottled water. Tap water is mostly unsafe for a few reasons, none of which will concern you if you drink bottled water.
  • Traveler’s Diarrhea: consider bringing medication for this, especially since you will be exposed to bacteria that your gut is not at all accustomed to, and you will likely eat a lot of local food. Anti-diarrheal medication is not enough, it should be taken in conjunction with an antibiotic. If you experience any gastrointestinal distress, please let us know and we can help.

Source: U.S. Center for Disease Control

Further Reading:

3.) Seasonal Changes:

Northern Vietnam has four seasons, which may come as a surprise to you. Here is a short guide for how to prepare, based on the time of year you come:

May – October:

It can reach a balmy 40 Cº at the height of summer. Light cotton pants and shirts, a sun hat, sunscreen, and plenty of fluids are your summer attire. Life slows down during peak heat times, and resumes in the evening once the sun starts going down. This is also tropical storm season with heavier, sudden rainfall, especially from July to September. Weather this time of the year can be exciting.

October – December:

The weather is much milder, and the nights can actually get a bit chilly. Layers of light cotton clothing and a windbreaker jacket are ideal.

December – March:

Starts off chilly, gets a little warmer by the end. Mixed days of sunshine, but lots of cloudy skies, damp air, rain showers and low temperatures mean that it can get cold, which comes as a surprise to newcomers. A rain jacket, waterproof shoes, extra socks, and layers of cotton clothing are great. Lightweight wool sweaters are amazing: wool stays warm even when it gets wet. If you come and are under-prepared, don’t worry. Many places around Hanoi sell jackets that fit larger Westerners.

March – May:

These mixed days are starting to warm up again, with occasional rain showers and higher humidity. The sun starts to shine more and heat things up.

In general, there is no bad time to come, as long as you’ve thought ahead about the climate when you arrive and can bring along some extra layers, light wind- and water-resistant jackets, and maybe even a light wool sweater for those unexpectedly cool winter evenings.

4.) Etiquette:

There are numerous sources of information about how to conduct ourselves as foreigners in Vietnam, so this short guide is only a starting point. You are encouraged to click on the links provided to learn more.

  • Shoes: Please take your shoes off when entering someone’s home. There are other situations where removing your shoes is necessary, such as temples, schools, and some other public places. Look for shoe racks or piles of shoes by the door if you’re not sure; if you see them, that’s your cue.
  • Interpersonal relations: Northern Vietnamese people are kind, conservative, shy, and mostly hands-off. Handshakes are usually welcome, but start with a soft grip. Not sure about any other kind of physical contact? It’s far better to keep your hands, and everything else, to yourself. That said, if you’re male, other males may put their hand on your knee or on your shoulder or even lean into you when sitting together; if so, it means they accept you, so you must be doing something right. Don’t initiate any physical contact with the opposite sex. Children may be more touchy and affectionate; ensure that you are only minimally reciprocating and around other adults.
  • Money: Try to keep your money out of sight, so that you don’t appear showy. Also, whenever possible, pay with small bills (5k, 10k, 20k, 50k). ATM’s often dispense the largest bill (500k), but vendors and taxi drivers rarely have that much change and will get frustrated. Ask the bank to change your money into smaller bills. Everyone will appreciate your thoughtfulness.
  • Attitude: if you’ve never been to a developing country before, be prepared for everything to work….differently. Schedules may change, things may or may not arrive on time, instructions may change or make no sense…all of this can try one’s patience, especially if we come from a country where things are more organized. Just breathe, relax, and smile as much as possible. It will go a lot further than a scowl or harsh-sounding words. Even if they don’t understand your words, they can sure understand your mood and your face.
  • Speaking of face: this is a complex concept and you need to do some research on it. In general, it has to do with refraining from expressing anger, not shaming others, and maintaining harmony of relationships. You don’t want to make anyone lose face, and you don’t want to lose face yourself.
  • Language: Vietnamese is tricky, with six tones to consider when pronouncing words. If you can, try to learn some basics like: hello, thank you, good bye; concepts like numbers, colors, directions, foods, and the appropriate way to greet people based on their age relative to your own. For instance, a woman who is older than you has a different title than a younger woman. Children have their own title, as do older or younger men.
  • Getting asked questions: Vietnamese people are really curious about us and want to get to know us better. Don’t be surprised if people here ask you questions about your age, where you live, your income (just answer vaguely- “Oh, not that much” and then change the subject), whether you are married, the whereabouts of your family, and loads of other inquiries. Don’t take offense, just answer with your level of comfort (but do answer), as this is how to establish trust and goodwill. You’ll get asked about your age so that you can be callled by the correct title as well, and, if you’re older, will garner some added respect. So answer away!