The crowd releasing balloons at Viet Pride 2014 (credit: Mr Thao Huynh + ICS Facebook Page)
Sunny Ho volunteered as a Counselling Support Officer with the ICS – Information, Connection and Sharing in Vietnam.
My eyes followed hundreds of pink balloons as they rose to the sky, becoming smaller and smaller every second. I was one of the thousands of visitors to the annual VietPride event, a celebration of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community in Vietnam. When I looked into the crowd, I noticed that many are young. In fact, about 40 per cent of people living in Vietnam are under 24 years old. They include the leaders of the LGBT movement.
The LGBT movement in Vietnam began online with the creation of forums for gay men and women. The volunteer website administrators who established these online forums eventually came to form the current core staff members of Information, Connection and Sharing (ICS).
ICS was founded in 2008, and is the first organisation to work exclusively to promote the rights of LGBT people in Vietnam. My colleagues have worked on projects including training journalists to create more positive portrayals of LGBT issues, campaigning for same-sex marriage recognition, and establishing Vietnam's first Parents and Friends of LGBT Association.
I was born in Hong Kong but grew up near Cabramatta, an area of Sydney with many Vietnamese migrants. In Sydney I worked as a social worker with the LGBT community, asylum seekers, and in the mental health sector. I had been to Ho Chi Minh City before, but for some reason going back for this assignment felt like I was coming to a second home.
My assignment brief was to help develop a counselling service for LGBT people. This turned out to be more complicated than I initially thought. Along with my colleagues, we translated the Western concept of counselling to suit the needs of Vietnam. This included big dualisms like 'individualism versus collectivism'; to smaller issues like leaving work at work once it is time to go home for the day.
One of the biggest challenges was building my capacity to trust and work across cultures. My first task was to learn the strengths of my Host Organisation and how I could best help it.
In the beginning, it was a slow kind of chaos but eventually the counsellors were trained. We developed policies and procedures, launched services, and adjusted marketing campaign strategies.
My colleagues at ICS helped me to understand certain things about life in Ho Chi Minh City. There's a wonderful 'things will work out' mentality in Vietnam. And they mostly do work out (with a bit of a push of course). So instead of planning to swim upstream, I'll just plan to get to the other side without getting carried too far away.
Ms Hanh Dinh HONG (Project Manager), Ms Yen NGUYEN (Project Officer), Mr Tung TRAN (Director), Ms Thao TRAN (Accountant), Sunny (Volunteer) (credit: Mr Thao Huynh + ICS Facebook Page)
LGBT Vietnam at a glance: