Name: Isabel Bonnet
Hometown: Gainesville, Florida
Languages spoken: French, Spanish, English (fluent), German (beginner)
University: Santa Fe College
Past travel experience: Avid
Volunteer Abroad: Teaching French in Hanoi, Vietnam
Duration: 3 weeks
Start month: August 2016
Claim to fame: Isabel has lived in four different countries from three different continents: France, Venezuela, the Ivory Coast, and the United States. Welcome to the UBELONG family, Isabel!
Why did you decide to become a UBELONG Volunteer?
Always a passionate photographer, I had always wanted to go to Vietnam to take pictures. However, my sister’s best friend convinced me to volunteer by talking about her UBELONG Volunteer experience and by posting pictures on Facebook of her in Hanoi, Vietnam. A few months before summer, I finally took the initiative to go with my parent’s permission. What better way to travel than volunteering?
UBELONG offered daily meals and the accommodations and the reviews said it was easy and safe to travel around Vietnam. In addition, there were many different projects to volunteer with, which gave me the opportunity to volunteer in three different places all at once in Hanoi.
What did you find most rewarding from you volunteer experience?
Looking back, my volunteer experience in Hanoi, Vietnam, was the most rewarding experience of my life. My expectations were very high before I arrived, but once I got there I became worried that my efforts weren’t enough to help everyone. However, one day one of my fellow volunteers who was teaching with me as part of a sub-program told me about a school-building project that he was coordinating. When describing what motivated him to begin the project, he told a story about a young man who was walking through the beach and throwing the starfishes he found in his path back to the sea. One day, an old man told him he couldn’t do any difference because there were too many starfishes to save. However, the young man grabbed one on his hand, threw it back to the sea and answered “I just made a big difference to this one.” And that is what volunteering is about. The story really resonated with me because I realized that it just takes one gesture to change a person’s life.
I have learned that by helping others, we help ourselves become better human beings. In addition, it was amazing to share this life experience with the Vietnamese students and teachers, who were incredibly hospitable and sweet people, with my fellow volunteers, a host family who became forever friends, and finally the volunteer I fell in love with, my boyfriend.
What three pieces of advice would you give to a future UBELONG Volunteer?
My first piece of advice would be to TRY EVERYTHING. If you want to feel part of the culture, the best way to do it is by trying the food, the clothes, the bus lines, and trying to speak their language or any opportunity that will be offered to you. For example, for many people, street food doesn’t sound appetizing. However, in Hanoi, the best Bun Cha, a Vietnamese soup with beef and noodles, is found in the street.
My second piece of advice would be to read about the culture and the customs before you travel. The dress code or the normal behaviors are not the same everywhere. My last week in Vietnam, one local volunteer told me it was rude for woman to give them the bills with one hand, and I couldn’t count how many women I had possibly already offended by doing it for the past two weeks.
Finally, if you are a future UBELONG Volunteer, you should write everyday what you’ve done and learned. You’ll think you’re too busy, or jet lagged, or you’ll probably even think your experience is so amazing that you won’t forget anything about it. However, today I wish I could remember every single detail of my trip, which was less than two months ago.