Flashback to about three and a half months ago, it was around the Christmas Holidays in Mexico and I was surrounded by my family. But, all of a sudden I was very aware that I only had two weeks until I embarked on one of the most challenging decisions I had made in my life.
Deciding to quit my job in an up and coming graphic and product design firm in my hometown to come do a volunteer program in Vietnam for three months was one of the scariest things I’d ever set myself to do, I knew that I was going to face a completely different culture in a language I did not speak. Still, I knew it in my heart and gut that life was pulling me to a more socially conscious way of living and Zó Project- the social enterprise I would be working for- offered exactly that. So, with my stomach in a knot and my breakfast threatening to come up my throat, on January 3rd I got on the plane for the 20+ hour journey that would eventually get me to Vietnam’s capital: Hanoi. I was officially 14,500 km away from home.
Now, as a designer I was taught that a big part of making a good design was about fulfilling the potential user’s needs as well as adapting to the context in which the design is directed to. Working with Zó, the first aspect was easy for they explained to me exactly who the target user was, however I naively didn’t expect the latter to be as challenging as it was. The Vietnamese aesthetic was completely different from anything I had worked with. While in México and Latin America over the years we have been more influenced by a western style in design, with cleaner lines and sober colors, perhaps even leaving aside some of the folklore we are known for, in Vietnam there is still a very strong connection with their roots and traditional aesthetic. A perfect example can be observed all along the pagodas in the country. With strong, vibrant and contrasting colors, you can see a big combination of elements from the straight lines formed by the multiple columns to the more organic shape offered by the curved roofs. This architectonic plethora of elements, could be translated directly in the design aspects I was expected to incorporate in all the future collaborations that I would work with at Zó. At first it was a little frustrating and it felt very contradictory to my own style of designing, however as time passed and I started getting involved on more projects like greeting cards, personalized Zó products like notebooks and also the new design for the Zó Project brochure getting the hang of it became a little easier. It also helped that I started to get to know the culture better and that was specially thanks to the staff at the office, who made a genuine effort to explain to me the traditions and customs there and to incorporate me into the project.
One aspect of Zó Project that is really interesting are the constant events and fairs it takes part on. I got the chance to participate in a University Fair, a Plantation Program in which we partnered with Vietherb and a visit to the Dó Paper making village in Hoa Binh. All of those experiences really helped me understand the product and the mission of Zó much better. But the one that definitely did it for me was the visit to the paper making village.
It was my last week in Vietnam, right at the end of the internship and along with the rest of the Zó staff and interns a trip to the paper making village in Hoa Binh to oversee the production and quality levels was organized. Until then I had not had contact with the artisans who made the paper and it really felt like coming full circle to come in touch with this part of the project right at the end of my experience. Until then I had only worked in the design aspect of the project, with this idea of presenting the paper in a modernized way which eventually makes it easier to re-introduce this craft so unique to Vietnam to the locals and to the world, a concept I personally find great, especially considering the current design market, in which it is not only enough to have a good quality product, you also have to have something extra that elevates it so that it can thrive in the international market, which, after all, is what Zó’s is trying to achieve. Therefore, spending a couple of days in the village, away from the busy streets of Hanoi, and more importantly going to the roots of this project, learning how the paper is made, spending time with the artisans and being in contact with the origin of this craft truly was the perfect final note for a full understanding of Zó’s mission to preserve and maintain part of Vietnam’s heritage.
Of course my experience in Vietnam was also marked by exploring some of the country, I got to go to Hue and Hoi An during Tet Holiday, giving me the chance to compare and contrast not only the different scenery in the north, but also the food, the people, the weather; as well as visiting My Son and trekking on Bach Ma National Park. I also did small weekend trips to small traditional villages around Hanoi like Bat Trang, Le Mat and Duong Lam; as well as Ninh Binh and of course I did the mandatory trek and homestay in Sapa for a weekend.
Coming to Vietnam proved to be a real challenge, adapting to a completely different culture and environment was a constant for me, but it was also an opportunity to push myself outside of my comfort zone which in the end is the kind of experience that makes you truly grow as a person. That is why I would recommend to anyone thinking about coming to do an internship/volunteer program to take the plunge and just come to Vietnam, as daunting as it may seem, it truly is an incredible opportunity for self- discovery and growth, and at the same time you get to contribute to a great social cause like Zó Project.