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Our lasting bond: How volunteering created a cross-cultural connection

A volunteer placement that began more than a decade ago continues to benefit children with special education needs in Vietnam and has laid the foundations for a special relationship between two extraordinary women, writes Gavin Haines.

Marianne Simpson VSO volunteer

Marianne Simpson arrived in Vietnam in 2005 to volunteer with VSO

It was a chilly night in Hanoi and Marianne Simpson lay in bed with her coat on. Shivering she contemplated the year-long placement that lay ahead of her and felt a pang of homesickness as her mind wandered to the family she’d left behind in Oxfordshire, England.

The year was 2005 and Marianne was fulfilling her dream of volunteering with VSO. Having been granted a sabbatical from her job teaching children with physical difficulties, she decided to take her knowledge to a nation that had always fascinated her. 

“I wanted to utilise my skills in Vietnam,” says Marianne, now 67. “My children had taken a gap year – I thought it was time I did mine.”

Helping improve special education

After receiving VSO training in the Vietnamese capital, Hanoi, Marianne decamped 1,000 miles south to the National College of Pedagogy in Ho Chi Minh City, to help train special education teachers.

“Special education was a relatively new subject and the lecturers themselves had only just graduated,” explains Marianne, who immediately encountered obstacles.

“The first challenge came when I was preparing to do a workshop and found there was no paper. I had to get some from the British Council and take it back on a motorbike.” 

VSO training Marianne Simpson/VSO

Marianne at VSO training

This experience kind of set the tone for the rest of the placement and Marianne admits to feeling like she wasn’t having much impact.

“There were challenges every day,” she says. “The [teachers] I was meant to be working with weren’t there half the time –their salaries were low so they were running their own businesses.”  

This was frustrating for Marianne who left Vietnam acutely aware that children with learning difficulties were still not getting the support they needed.

Return to Vietnam

Marianne at the school Marianne Simpson/VSO

“Many children hadn’t gone out of their homes much – their parents felt ashamed.”

After retiring from her job, a determined Marianne returned to Vietnam for a second VSO placement in 2007 – this time at a teacher training college in Nha Trang. She was joined by her now-late husband Chris, who’d also retired.  

Marianne Simpson and Do Thi Hien Marianne Simpson/VSO

Marianne and Hien on thier travels in Austria

“Nha Trang is a coastal city and it’s pretty idyllic,” says Marianne. “Chris learned to ride a motorbike and we pootled around on that – we had a lot of fun.”

Marianne needed a translator and found one in Do Thi Hien, a Vietnamese teacher and VSO volunteer who’d studied special education. The pair achieved a lot together.

“We opened an early intervention centre at the college where parents could bring their children for one-to-one sessions with teachers,” says Marianne.

“Families travelled long distances to visit the centre – they hadn’t previously had much support.” Student teachers, meanwhile, had the opportunity to work with children.

Making an impact

Marianne and Hien also organised events for families who needed special education support.  

“Many children hadn’t gone out of their homes much – their parents felt ashamed,” recalls Marianne. Thanks to the new centre, however, they no longer felt the need to hide.

“I could see a change in attitude,” says Marianne, who says parents’ expectations are now much higher for their children who have disabilities. “There is still a long way to go.”

A deep impression

During her placement Marianne promoted a hands-on approach to teaching and constantly reinforced the virtues of patience.

“Marianne was always attentive towards parents, giving them time to share their story and hear about their concerns,” says Hien. “I learnt by her example, it made a deep impression on me.”

VSO Chris and Marianne Marianne Simpson/VSO

Marianne's husband Chris learnt to ride a motorbike to get around in Nha Trang

After their placement ended Marianne and Chris stayed on in Vietnam to help Hien open a school for children with special education needs.

“It was the first school for children with disabilities in Nha Trang,” says Hien, now 34. “We supported over 100 families.”

For the first time local children with special educational needs had a dedicated school. It was life-changing.

“It made us happy to know that we were making an impacton these children’s lives,” adds Marianne.

The school has since closed due to lack of funds, but several teachers there went on to open their own special educational facilities. “They are thriving,” says Marianne. 

Lasting bond

Chris and Marianne finally returned home in 2012 – and Hien wasn’t far behind. 

“Hien was keen to build on her experience, so Chris and I encouraged her to apply for a British Council Chevening scholarship,” says Marianne.

Marianne Simpson and Do Thi Hien in Birmingham University dorms Marianne Simpson/VSO

Marianne with Hien in her Birmingham University dorms

Chevening is a prestigious scholarship awarded to future leaders. Hien was accepted and is now studying for a Masters in Autism in Children at Birmingham University. She’s living with Marianne, who continues to support special education projects in Vietnam through the UK-based Saigon Children's Charity.

“It seems to have come full circle,” says Marianne.

Hien, whose parents had wanted her to work in the family coffee shop, adds: “I never thought I would have the opportunity to study in the UK. If I hadn’t met Marianne and Chris, my career would be very different now. VSO has changed my life.”

Find out more about how VSO is changing lives through education and the power of volunteering.