Volunteering at a Saigon Orphanage

J’adore the children at Thien Phu’oc orphanage in Saigon.

I was hesitant, dare I say nervous, to volunteer at an orphanage in Vietnam.  Not only had I never worked with children with disabilities but I was uncertain about how to volunteer exactly. Should I just call and show up?  Is it ok to barge in and hang out?

Absolutely!  I called Thien Phu’oc orphanage and was told to stop by at anytime. And so I did.

children at saigon orphanage
Tien & her partner in crime Tai

The first day wasn’t easy. It’s hard to face human suffering and on the surface the children appear to be in pain. Many of the children at Thien Phu’oc can not walk, some can not talk and some are impacted by Agent Orange. Upstairs were 16 smaller children who have more severe mental and physical disabilities; they’re not mobile and spend most of the day laying on their bed.

I was so uncertain what I should do, and if my silly back rubs and attempts to smile and chat with the kids were doing any good.

Volunteering at a Saigon Orphanage
Her face lights up when you sit down for a chat

But as I walked downstairs to spend time with the more advanced kids, something really unexpected happened.  One of the older kids piped up, “Hello! Where are you from!”

I was shocked!  The sisters who work at Thien Phu’oc don’t speak much English and here was this kid in a wheelchair speaking perfect English with an American accent! The boy’s name was An and he is AWESOME.

An at orphanage in Vietnam
An is amazing

This small interaction helped to remind me of the advice given to me by my best friend (who is a school psychologist): Try to talk like you would to any kid their “true” age. Their receptive skills are probably much better than you suspect- they understand a lot more than they can verbally communicate.

Talking just happens to be one of my strong suites.

If An can teach himself English then who knows what the other kids can understand! After this I was able to relax and enjoy spending time at the orphanage. Some days we spent time doing physical therapy and other days I read, played ball and just spent time hanging out.

Kris and Nguyen working it out

The kids are utterly fantastic and are absolutely thrilled to spend time with you. And after a few hours I realized that An may be the only person that speaks English, but all the children communicate in their own way: pointing, smiling, motioning with their heads. Even the smaller children upstairs will follow you with their eyes and give you a big smile or nod their head when you sit down. Not only do they communicate with you, they care about and look after each other.

Tai, Phuong, Nguyen and Kris

I was surprised to find myself looking forward to returning. It wasn’t hard to fall in love with some of these smiling faces.

Loving the children at a Saigon orphanage
I have big LOVE for Bac

I highly recommend spending several afternoons at the Thien Phu’oc Orphanage.  Here are the details – just give them a call and head to district 12 on a xe om. It takes 30 minutes to get there and roundtrip cost is about 7 bucks. Free time is from 8am-11:30 and 2:00-4:30 pm.

If Sister Kim Chi isn’t around, you have to ask where the toys are stored (unfortunately they’re not just lying around). They toys are kept in the very front room on the right – just point to the door and someone will give you the key.

Sister Kim Chi at Thien Phu’oc Orphanage
156 / 1, An Phu Dong Ward, District 12,
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). Vietnam
Tel / Fax: (84-8) 7195997  0903 949 981  0918 207 660
E-mail: thienphuoc20012004@yahoo.com

10 thoughts on “Volunteering at a Saigon Orphanage

  1. Hi Kristine,

    Was inspired by the article and have just e-mailed to see if I can do a similar thing.
    I’m in Saigon until Sunday so I thought, why not?
    Getting involved in these things are quite daunting and its definitely easier not to, but your article
    has given me the impetus to give it a shot.

    Thanks again


    1. Hey Darrell,
      That’s fantastic! I hope you and the kids have a great time hanging out. And if you need some toys, point to the first room when you walk in the doors (on your right) – it’s where all the good stuff is located. Enjoy!

  2. hey hey
    myself and a friend are heading there this September – we both had a mixed bag of feelings about this – confrontational yet rewarding, but also thought the same… what if they dont understand us? – thanks for the post, i think it is going to be amazing!

    1. Hi Seon, It’s probably true that no one will understand you but that’s half the fun! I hope you enjoy every minute of your time in Vietnam. – Kristine

  3. Hi, I’m currently trying to find a volunteering program in Vietnam working with children in orphanages and happened to stumble on your post – very inspirational! I was curious to know whether there was any type of structure or set tasks that you were allowed to assist with or were you more of a visitor to the orphanage during your stay? I’m thinking of volunteering for a period of at least 2 weeks, cheers!

    1. Hi there, Volunteering at the orphanage in this post was fairly unstructured; I just showed up and played with the kids or fed and washed them – depending on the time of day. Many of the programs want the volunteer to pay to partake, and being a backpacker I just didn’t have tons of cash. If you want a more structured volunteer experience with tasks, a leader and a clear purpose, you should join a program. If you’re cool showing up and just figuring it out, this orphange was a wonderful experience. The children were inspirational – expecially An. I loved each minute that I spent with them – Kristine

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