I walk along the brown Thu Bon river,in the golden beauty of the UNESCO World Heritage town of Hoi An. I skirt the groups of Japanese tourists in traditional dress, Vietnamese women slender in white Ao Dai, and older women enticing me on to their brilliantly painted boats. I am neither tempted nor diverted: my goal is in sight. An ethical, local based craft collective, a charity that helps disadvantaged Vietnamese people and their families to become self sufficient.
Blessed air conditioning polished floor, elegant displays. Fine embroidery, handstitched tablecloths limpid silk scarves. Not your usual crowded market at all, but I recognise the handwork of the Hill tribes in the north of Vietnam. In Sapa, I observed the traditionally dressed women in the public squares with their children, bargaining, selling, scratching a living. This is much the same product but in a very different environment.
An Australian voice welcomes me. She describes her annual trip to Vietnam- 3 months every year helping with the products and people associated with the shop.
All the makers here are paid a fair wage, so they can send their children to school. We give them advice about what sells best, we support them to keep these crafts alive and productive.
Now that I have read It’s Not About Me: Discovering Voluntourism is a Problem, Not a Solution, I ask myself, Is that voluntourism?
In neighbouring Laos, there is a picturesque little town in the north called Luang Prabang. This is where the Mekong river is joined by the Nam Khan river. A must-do is to get up at dawn and walk to the street leading from the temple. You take packages of food , and you sit quietly and respectfully on the edge of the high gutters . You hear the bells first, ringing out in the morning mist, then you see the long orange line of monks coming toward you. The youngest, smallest monks come first, then they get bigger and older, all carefully processing in increasing size,like an old fashioned sports team.
You bow your head and hold out your offering, which is received silently, wordlessly. The procession moves off into the distance, and you turn back toward your guest house, knowing you have done well, you have been generous, you have contributed to the local people.
Later in the morning I walk up to the house of Big Brother Mouse. I sit at a long dining table and wait for a local to join me. Sometimes my partner is a young shaven head monk, sometimes a teacher from a local school. Often it is a well dressed business woman who owns two very smart dress shops on the main street. They all come with excellent grammar and vocabulary, but they want to practise their spoken conversational English with a native speaker. It is fun, like meeting friends in a café. It seems to be contributing something , I feel like I am offering something in return for the privilege of travelling in this little country with a big sad story. IS this voluntourism, I ask?
Was that a ‘good thing’ to do? Was it wrong to have these short-term encounters?
I am beginning to doubt myself, having read Sally Hetherington’s book.
Sally is an Australian woman who travelled to Cambodia on a short term assignment with a development agency.
In 2011, while working in a financial sector job in Sydney, Sally came across statistics that frustrated her like how 1 in 4 Cambodians over the age of 15 are illiterate. Sally bought a one-way ticket with the one mission: to help build the Human Hope Association (HHA) become a social enterprise and be self-sustainable.
For almost four years, Sally Hetherington OAM worked as an Operations Manager for Human Hope Association, one of Cambodia’s ethically driven grassroots organisations which is now sustainable, being solely operated by locals who have overcome poverty themselves.
It is a fascinating story. She describes dealing with numerous well-intentioned volunteers, and with insensitive tourists, led by enthusiastic tour guides with no idea of the impact of their visit. Sally and her team established schools for the local children with carefully designed programs, which were regularly disrupted by a group of tourists wanting to teach them a song and pose for the poignant picture. The mental health of the teachers, associates and of Sally herself was regularly challenged by unthinking do- gooders and go-getters. Finally they banned volunteers, and began the process of indigenising all the staff.
The aim was to make the program entirely run by locals, and providing the training and support to make this happen.
Sally was heartbroken to leave Cambodia but ‘it isn’t about me and my wishes. This is about empowering Cambodians to take care of and empower other Cambodians so that the country can grow and thrive, which is exactly what sustainability should be about.’
She is now back in Australia, and the CEO of Human and Hope Association Incorporated, which is about Empowering Communities to reduce inequalities. https://humanandhope.org/
SO does she support any kind of volunteering or tourism? Yes, for Human and Hope, you can volunteer in marketing, fundraising, social media and events coordination, all based in Australia! She organises ethical travel to Cambodia intended to inject money into the Cambodian economy. https://humanandhope.org/travel-to-cambodia/. The trip is limited to 10 people and has been rescheduled to 2021, because of Covid 19.
What do I now think about the Luang Prabang experience of English conversation? It is not exploitative, it is probably of some short term benefit, and it certainly raises awareness. So I checked the Big Brother Mouse website.
I was so pleased to see that ‘Big brother Mouse is a not-for-profit, Lao-owned business, licensed by the government since 2006. All of our paid staff is Lao, and they earn a living by working here: we have no foreign paid staff. The aim is to educate young people, with high quality books and exciting inter-active schools.’ http://www.bigbrothermouse.com/
And the beautiful shop promoting local craft and art in Hoi AN which I visited two years ago? The website says it is now closed, because their focus is now solely on fundraising (in Australia) for educational scholarships.
If travel broadens the mind, then reading about what happens if you include some volunteering in your itinerarywill challenge your mind, and probably make you rethink.
Sally tells a great story about her personal journey and discoveries and decisions, her heart and mind adventures, and her determination to make this part of the world a better place.
‘It’s Not About Me: Discovering Voluntourism is a Problem, Not a Solution
Sally Hetherington OAM | CEO
Human and Hope Association Incorporated