Volunteering in Vietnam

A Lived History


One Speech-Language Pathologist’s Experience

Note: Some spellings have been anglicized due to difficulty with the Vietnamese fonts available.

This is not the entire history of Speech-Language Pathology in Vietnam, not even a fraction of it. 

This is just the tiny part I played in it.

My Story

Some of my earliest memories are of speech therapy.  You see, my mother was an SLP during my childhood and I watched as she helped transform the field and how treatment for victims of acquired neurogenic speech and language disorders, such as stroke and traumatic brain injury, was performed. 

She and my father worked together to use computers to support rehabilitation before almost anyone else and I remember long days helping to build switches in our basement so people who could only move one finger a few millimeters could trigger the custom coded communication applications my father taught himself to write.  Their efforts are largely lost to time, but I remember wandering around hotels as they presented at conferences and ASHA.

My mother is the finest clinician and person I have ever known.


She Taught Me These Values


Everyone’s life is hard in its own way and the best way we can make a better world is by reducing the everyday cruelties of life itself.  The purpose of humanity is to increase peace and joy.


We should strive to be good at what we do, because every small action we take in the world impacts every other life in some way.  This very moment right now is of utmost importance…  Try to live it well.


My mother always spent about 1/3 of her working time doing pro bono work for families in need.  In her name, and to honor her, I am doing my best to live my life in service to others.  I do not take money for my volunteer work in Vietnam.

 Coming to Asia

Upon my graduation from Howard University with a masters degree in Communication Science and Disorders, I worked for Prince George’s County Public schools to fulfill the terms of my scholarship since they, incredibly kindly, paid for my education. 

I knew I wanted to travel, however, so I moved to Japan.  I worked in Okinawa and found it an incredible experience, but I eventually opened a private practice in Yokohama, Japan, serving clients throughout the Tokyo metropolitan area. 

Japan was an amazing place to call home for several years, giving me the opportunity to travel all over the nation from Tokyo through Kyoto, Nagoya, Osaka, Hiroshima and more.  It also was a wonderful base to explore Asia, going to countries such as South Korea, and Taiwan, and cities such as Shanghai and Hong Kong.  I was at home there.

All that changed when I took my mother and brother on a trip across Asia…

Me with a giant buddha

My Beginnings in Vietnam

My mother, brother and I traveled from Japan through South Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, India and finally to Israel.  While the entire trip was amazing I remembered Vietnam especially.

Vietnam is a country that has endured invasion and occupation for centuries, only recently having become autonomous.  That means that they have had to focus on the immediate needs of the people and have not had the money or time to develop professions such as Speech-Language Pathology.

In 2007 Sue Woodward and Professor Nguyen Thi Ngoc Dung met for the first time while Sue was on a trip to Ho Chi Minh City as part of a volunteer team working on cleft palate repair and Professor Dung was the director of the ENT Hospital in Ho Chi Minh City.  They shared a vision for speech therapy in Vietnam and Trinh Foundation of Australia was conceived.

In 2009 Trinh Foundation of Australia first began on their journey to train Speech Therapists in Vietnam.  Through a monumental effort, they have created the field of Speech Pathology in Vietnam.

After my trip with my family, I was searching for volunteer opportunities and I found TFA.  I got in touch and, following approval, they sent me to Da Nang University of Medical Technology and Pharmacy where I mentored new clinicians and met Dr. Thuy, who became a great friend and helped me with a million and one things I couldn’t begin to list.

Da Nang Team

Moving to Vietnam

Following that experience I decided to close my clinic in Yokohama and move to Da Nang, Vietnam permanently.  I made arrangements with Trinh Foundation and Dr. Thuy to set up a visa and I came here, to Da Nang.

When I arrived I started doing mentoring of the Speech Therapists at the University.  The majority of the cases they were treating were children on the autism spectrum and we spent a lot of time working through strategies, goal setting, maintaining data, and, especially, parent education.

I primarily worked with 4 therapists.  Ms. Cam, Ms. Van, Ms. Thuy and Ms. Nhi.  All of them were Physical Therapists who had taken short courses to be able to provide speech therapy.  The group was later joined by Dr. Hien, a medical doctor who had become a speech therapist.  At this time there were about 50 Speech Therapists total in the country of Vietnam.

It was astounding to see so many people from so far bring their children to us.  The need is huge and there was a look of desperation on the faces of many of the families bringing in their kids.

The therapists were extremely hard-working but they had little time and resources.  They were expected to teach courses in their field, provide physical therapy, and provide speech therapy.  It is a significant amount of work but rarely did I hear a complaint.

Teaching in Da Nang

Short Courses & Lectures

I also created and taught short courses on topics such as Childhood Apraxia of Speech and Autism Spectrum Disorder.  These courses were generally practical application courses so the therapists could walk into their speech rooms and actually use the information to work with students.

The courses were complicated to put together.  I had to consider several things.


Time and Interpretation

All of the classes had to be taught in English and intrepreted to Vietnamese.  In some of the classes we had additional therapists from a local hospital joining us, so the time it took to teach a course was on the order of 3 to 5 times the time it would take without the the interpretation.


Level of Knowledge

While all of the therapists were trained to some extent, the level of detail in a course on a particular treatment paradigm for CAS requires knowledge that most US SLPs pick up during their master’s degree and most SALTs from Australia pick up during their bachelor’s degree.  So there were a lot of side discussions as we clarified information.


Cultural & Linguistic Differences

Vietnam and Western countries are very different, and Vietnamese and English are also very different.  Adapting information that has been specifically researched with English-speaking children in Western countries requires a lot of discussion with the team.  “Is this appropriate for parents here?” was a common question I had, along with specific questions about adapting protocols that include aspects of language not found in Vietnamese, or that leaves out aspects that Vietnamese does have.

Even with all of these considerations, the courses were quite interesting to teach.  Eventually I was invited to Ho Chi Minh City and Ha Noi to teach courses there as well.

The interest level was quite high and I made many friends and learned a huge amount from the entire process.

I thought that I would just continue with this project indefinitely, but one day I got an email asking me to participate in a much larger project.


The Nationwide Needs Assessment

As part of a five year partnership between Trinh Foundation of Australia and the Medical Committee Netherlands – Vietnam (MCNV)  a 3 month research project into the needs for Speech and Language Therapy education in Vietnam was performed.  The project was managed by Dr Phạm Dũng (Country Director, MCNV) and Mrs Nguyễn Thị Thanh Thủy (Program Manager, MCNV).

The needs assessment team gathered data from a cross-section of stakeholders: clients and families, clinicians, managers, education personnel, Ministry officials and graduates from speech therapy training programs. Over 3 weeks of data collection, 81 focus groups were interviewed across 8 Provinces in Vietnam and all 65 graduates from University of Pham Ngoc Thach (UPNT) courses were invited to complete a written survey. The participants were asked about the current situation of speech-language therapy services and training in Vietnam and their visions for the future of the profession.

I participated in this effort by performing the interviews with all of the focus groups throughout northern and central Vietnam, speaking with government officials from the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Health, as well as stakeholders of every description.  Along with the amazing interpreters (Ngô Y Sa, Dr Cao Bích Thủy, Trần Thị Hà My and Lê Thùy Nhung) and the other Technical Consultant aside from myself, Emily Armstrong (who, frankly, did far more work than me), we were able to gather and analyze data that led to the creation of the first  Speech-Language Pathology Bachelor’s and Master’s degree programs in Vietnam.

Teaching the Bachelor’s Degree

Following the completion of the needs assessment, and the Ministry of Health granting the opportunity to create and perform the degree programs in speech therapy, I was asked to participate in the next phase by teaching in the Bachelor’s degree program in Da Nang.  I was, of course, thrilled to be of additional service and even more thrilled that the curriculum had already been designed and created for me to use. 

Sarah Day, a volunteer with Trinh Foundation of Australia, did immeasurable work on the degree program, essentially creating it out of hopes, dreams and ideas. 

With her expert guidance I taught the first cohort of Speech Therapists from Da Nang University of Medical Technology and Pharmacy their course on early childhood language.

What Comes Next?

I feel that there are wonderful Vietnamese professionals who have more cultural and linguistic knowledge of Vietnam and its people than I ever really will.  I hope that the small role I have had in the development of speech therapy in Vietnam will give them some useful stones to stand on as they create the kind of services that the people need and deserve.

I will always be available to help in whatever way I can, and if my family life permits I hope to teach the next cohort of students in Da Nang, but I think that my primary involvement right now in speech therapy in Vietnam should transition to one of support of Community Education. 

I am currently working with a non-profit organization that is focused on Autism Awareness in Vietnam.  I’m excited!