Volunteering or Backpacking: Which is better?


Last summer,  I spent six weeks volunteering at a children’s nursery in Hanoi (Vietnam’s capital) and then spent a further week backpacking. Having tried both of these two different forms of travel, I will try and answer the age-old question – which is better: volunteering or backpacking?  

Why is volunteering better?

Volunteering takes you to more interesting and remote locations than backpacking does.  Our group visited Haiphong (a city about 120 km away from Hanoi) in order to teach at a Government Nursery. It was fascinating to see the beautiful nineteenth century French style architecture in such a remote location.

Some of the French style architecture in Haiphong (see the yellow building)
Some of the French style architecture in Haiphong (see the yellow building) Source: Mark Marsden

Volunteering should be about trying to make a difference by benefiting people whom you wish to help.  From my stint at teaching, this was mostly achieved, as the children’s and staff’s ability to speak English improved with our help. Yet perhaps people living in the suburban areas of Hanoi benefited most from our presence; they rarely have any opportunity to practise their English as so few international tourists visit their area.

My experience volunteering with the Vinschool Group (one of the richest teacher corporations in Vietnam) should be questioned. Did these children really need my expertise when they already had numerous English lessons? A more challenging, but better use of my time would have been to teach in under-funded government nurseries, where significantly less English is taught.

The luxurious surroundings that one of my nursery classes at VinSchool enjoyed
The luxurious surroundings that one of my nursery classes at VinSchool enjoyed. Source: Mark Marsden

Volunteering enables you to get a broader sense of the country that you are visiting and in turn this broadens your cultural horizons by introducing you to new practices.  For example -Vietnamese workers exhibit utter discipline and respect towards their superiors, where obedience is simply expected.   Similarly, commuting on Hanoi’s severely overcrowded buses gives a truer perspective of everyday life in Vietnam.

As a traveller you, might speak English to more  people; but will probably end up only using set lists of useful phrases such as  “How much is that?”.  On the other hand, the length of volunteering enables closer relationships to develop; which allows for more English to be learned.  For example- during my visit, I was able to successfully teach some English to one of the hotel’s employees.                                                                                                                         Volunteering enables you to gain more transferable skills for employment than backpacking. Although backpacking demonstrates a certain degree of independence and intuition, volunteering exhibits a wider range of skills including: leadership, time management, teamwork, communication and being able to adapt yourself to difficult situations.

Why is backpacking better?

Backpacking allows you to see much more of a country than volunteering. This is because most of the time, volunteering generally entails working in one location; whereas backpacking, of course, has no such restrictions. Although, our group saw some amazing locations on my trip (such as Sappa), it would have been amazing to see even more of the country – especially in the south where one could have visited  sites iconic sites such as Ho Chi Mihn City.

Sappa – a mountainous town in the north of the country Source: Mark Marsden

The freedom of backpacking offers other advantages; a key one being that this type of travel allows for much more flexibility than volunteering. For example, backpackers can party all night long  because they don’t need to go to work the next day.  Similarly, backpacking  offers more social opportunities; because as you travel around you meet and talk people from all around the world (locals and travellers).  Whether over a few drinks in a club, or in a train carriage, it is fascinating to meet such a variety of people,  this being less likely to happen when you volunteer  (as you are stuck in the same place).

One of the many streets in Hanoi where business is thriving . Source: Mark Marsden

The economic impact of backpacking is arguably more significant than that of volunteering.  Tourism creates many jobs (such is in the numerous travel companies present in Hanoi); which has helped most of the country to economically develop.  This was not only evident from wandering around Hanoi (where many small business are over-employing people); but, also, from economic statistics. Such recent rapid economic growth has enabled Vietnam’s financial position to develop from being weak (in 1986 GDP per capita was $100) into a much stronger financial position (at the end of 2014 GDP per capita was  over $2,000-source: World Bank).

The wonderful people that you can meet backpacking, especially on a good night out !
The wonderful people that you can meet backpacking, especially on a good night out! Source: Mark Marsden


 Although, both backpacking and volunteering are both worthy travel experiences; in my opinion volunteering is  more fruitful. This is not only because it makes a difference, but also as it enables you to understand a country and    its people more. Only by talking to the local Vietnamese people (work colleagues)  and experiencing their lifestyle (I  was privileged enough to go inside one of my nursery teachers’ houses), will make you truly understand what  Vietnam means for its people: an invaluable and unique experience.

I mainly focus on news and travel, in my Wessex Scene writing. I am a third year History student at the University, who has a passion of learning more about the world around me and visiting new places when I can. I also enjoy doing many different societies at university, including: Wessex Scene!

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