In July 2008 my family and I moved to Vietnam for three years as my husband took up a new career. We were overwhelmed by the beauty of the country and the gentleness of the people but saddened by the poverty and the amount of children in orphanages. Once my children were settled into school, I decided to get involved in voluntary work.
In 2011 whilst Skyping with my mum, she was really keen to tell me about this lady, Suzanne Thi Hien Hook, who had appeared in the national newspapers. She went on to tell me about how Suzanne had sold her house, clothes and shoe collection and had moved to Ho Chi Minh City to open an orphanage – Allambie. She also told me how Suzanne herself had been orphaned during the Vietnam war and air lifted to the UK to start a new life. Now, she was taking this life changing journey back to where her life began to help other orphaned children.
A few weeks had passed by and whilst chatting to one of the reception staff of our compound, she too excitedly wanted to tell me about the story she’d read in the Vietnamese newspaper. It was about a wonderful English lady who had sold her shoe collection and would be opening an orphanage in Ho Chi Minh City!
With two copies of the same story from two different sides of the world I was really keen to meet Suzanne and so when my children’s school decided to hold a Charity Fayre, I contacted Suzanne and invited Allambie to take part. A few weeks later we were finally able to meet and had a lovely morning at one of the local coffee bars. She told me her incredible story and of the hardships she’d endured since arriving in Vietnam. I couldn’t believe how incredibly brave she was… She had taken on all sorts of issues, without speaking the language and with little knowledge of the Vietnamese culture and people, one of which included a high speed chase on a motorbike! After our meeting I introduced her to a couple of friends who I thought could offer her help and advice in the future and then began teaching Chuyen & Mung English lessons.
I really enjoyed teaching Chuyen and Mung. Chuyen was the “cheeky monkey” and always had a beaming smile on his face. Mung was a bit older and more self conscious but always happy and polite. We started looking at the alphabet letters and phonic sounds, then moved onto numbers and colours and days of the week. Chuyen loved singing and would happily chant away to any and every song. He was always very proud of his achievements and clearly adored Suzanne and loved to call her “mum”. Mung was also quick to learn but not so keen to sing out loud! She too clearly thought the world of Suzanne and was always proud to show “mum” her achievements.
Although I was only able to volunteer for around four months, during that time I’d seen a number of changes within the Allambie household. The family unit was growing stronger everyday despite the occasional setback and the children were all growing in confidence. I was fortunate enough to be able to join Suzanne and the children for a couple of meals and despite the language barrier there was always a happy, relaxed atmosphere around the table with lots of laughter.
Allambie is a very unique orphanage, where Vietnamese and Western cultures meet. I think the Allambie children are incredibly lucky to have Suzanne, she is a very determined, kind hearted person who is driven by passion and will do every thing in her power to provide for the children. She knows only too well the feeling of being rejected and can really empathize with the children because of this. Suzanne’s journey in Vietnam has been an immensely emotional one; not only has she come to rebuild the lives of other children but also to discover her own.