Letter Home from Vietnam

A Letter Home from students on the IHP Climate Change: The Politics of Food, Water, and Energy program:

“The second day I was in Can Tho with my host family, my host mom took me and my roommate to a yoga class across the street. At home I teach yoga regularly so I was particularly eager to try yoga in Vietnam, a country heavily influenced by Buddhism. Boy, was I in for a surprise! The class was less yoga than an oddly suggestive, 80’s style aerobics class for middle-aged women. Of course after giggling through the first class and being laughed at ourselves for not understanding the directions we were receiving in Vietnamese, my roommate and I had to go back.

Through this strange yoga class we learned how to count backwards from ten in Vietnamese, dance to the strangest warm-up music around, and how to breathe in a very specific and challenging new way.
We ended up making friends with a few of the younger students in the class and even got to spend some time with them outside of yoga too. My roommate and I had gotten really into practicing headstand pose, so at the end of every class we would balance on our heads. The other students really enjoyed this, and some of them even gave it a try with us. At the end of our stay in Can Tho we had to tell our class and teacher that we would not be returning for another class, and literally everyone asked if we could be friends on Facebook, which of course we said yes to. We took some photos all together, hugged, and said our farewells knowing that we had enriched each other’s lives.

What I take away from this is not only that amazing experiences can be found in the most unexpected of places but that the warmest and most inviting communities can be formed in environments that may contradict everything you would think. I am definitely leaving Vietnam with a more open mind regarding what it means to practice yoga as well as what it means to interact with the people around me.” – Alexandra Cooper

maddie blog“Today we visited some monkeys at the Endangered Primate Rescue Center in Vietnam. I study primates back at school so had been looking forward to this visit for the whole trip. We got to see gibbons swinging from tree to tree, long-tailed langurs perching, and macaques finding their way back into the wild. It was so empowering to see people who care so much about bringing these primates who had been trapped by hunters back to their homes. You hear all the time about how forests are being destroyed and how more and more species will go extinct because their homes are disappearing. But it’s not all bad. Some of these little cuties are finding their way back home.” – Madeleine Marino 

“We had a fantastic time in Vietnam! We split our time there between two cities, Can Tho and Hanoi, with a few day trips scattered in between. We arrived at our homestays in Can Tho City on February 16th after a short stay in Hoa An Village. Can Tho is the 4th largest city in Vietnam, located in the Mekong Delta which is at the very bottom of the country. The land in the Delta is very fertile; about 50% of all agriculture in Vietnam is produced there! Can Tho itself is a fairly new city with bustling streets full of motorbikes and some cars. The two weeks we spent there were during their dry season which lasts from October to April. This meant that every day was sunny and very hot in the afternoon, meaning everyone tried to stay inside during the afternoon hours to avoid the temperatures and inevitable perspiration. This wasn’t difficult since we had our lectures and classes at Can Tho University almost every day.

jillian blog

In the morning when the temperature was still cool and manageable, everyone would use whatever mode of transportation was most convenient (bike, motorbike, walking, or taxi) to get to the University to begin our day. We had a two hour lunch break at 11:30 every day when we would feed ourselves with banh mi, coconuts, and smoothies and return to classes in the afternoon. Most days, we would go back to our homestay families for a home cooked dinner and some time to read and relax. While we were in Can Tho, we got to see the famous floating market, shop in the night market while eating street food, and most of the girls got our nails done at least once. Manicures are only $2 at the most in Vietnam! On March 1st, we packed up our things and said a sad goodbye to all our homestay families on our way to the airport. We flew to Hanoi, where we spent our last week and a half.

Hanoi provided a perfect respite from the hot Can Tho sun. In the North of Vietnam, there are four seasons, and we made our stop there during their winter time. It was about 55 – 60 (F) degrees every day, often with a constant drizzle that was sometimes undetectable. Staying in a hotel didn’t come with the benefits of home-cooked meals and cultural immersion, but it allowed for us to come and go as we pleased. Most of us walked over to the historic Hoan Kiem Lake at least once, wandered through the night market, and spent many meals at Joma, a western-inspired cafe with great wifi and a menu in English! Some of us chose to visit the Temple of Literature, Ho Chi Minh’s embalmed body inside his heavily guarded mausoleum, or enjoyed a traditional Vietnamese water puppet show. We flew out of Hanoi to begin our journey to Morocco on March 12th, a bitter sweet day. We’ll hold Vietnam in our hearts for the rest of our lives.” – Jillian Conner

“Back home in the States, I proudly adhere to a strictly vegan lifestyle (and anybody who knows a vegan can vouch: veganism is a way of life). Imagine now, after nearly a full day of transit and underwhelming airplane meals, a food snob like myself sitting down to a dinner of pho bo (beef soup), mystery fish spring rolls, and fried chicken feet in the Mekong Delta of southern Vietnam. Well, I couldn’t imagine it either: steamed rice served as my sole source of sustenance that night. After a full month of living (and resultantly, eating) in Vietnam, my peers might argue that not a whole lot has changed. I still can’t stomach a bowl of pho bo (though apparently it is a borderline mystical experience for omnivores), and I will politely refuse an opportunity to try the fish balls every time. But by limiting my diet in this way, a whole new window of food opportunities opened themselves to me.

It started with the bananas. For every American who thinks they enjoy a Chiquita with breakfast or as an afternoon snack, you have no idea. I, like you, thought I enjoyed them too. But then I tried a banana grown by some guy down the road, and my banana worldview was forever revolutionized. And the mangoes and watermelon: sigh. But what really rocked my world were the fruits I’d never even heard of prior to visiting the Mekong: man cau (a custard apple!), passion fruit (is not just a shampoo scent!), vu sua (literally, “breast milk”!). These things become an integral part of my existence. Furthermore, I cultivated a healthy obsession with lemongrass and sweet chili sauce (both of which I will sincerely miss when I leave this place). And finally, I could not be more pleased with the way Vietnam does tofu. Not only are there five or six core seasoning methods (not least of which is spicy lemongrass!) and equally as many cooking methods (fried, sauteed, boiled, tempura-ed…), but countless different mediums of tofu (I suppose it’s kind of like how some artists work with oils and others with watercolors or charcoal). Though my initial experience with Vietnamese cuisine might be best framed as utterly abysmal, I can honestly admit I’ll be missing each and every stinky piece of durian when I bite into a mealy red delicious back home.” – Carly Poremba

Sam blog pic“Because we traveled around so frequently, classes in Viet Nam were diverse and unique based on each location. Though the readings were informative and insightful, most discussions revolved around our observations during site visits or conversations we had as a group outside of class. Bengi and Chris always proved knowledgeable and challenging ways that forced us to be better thinkers and more constructively critical community members. Socialism and capitalism oft butted heads, but all debates were lively and educational.” – Samantha Schipani 

“So far on this program and in Vietnam especially, a lot of learning has been done through site visits to everything from various non-governmental organizations to small, local projects to areas of natural beauty and ecological value.  One of the highlights of these site visits came on our three-day excursion to Bac Lieu, a small city near the southern coast of Vietnam, when we had two very different site visits scheduled back-to-back:  a visit to the Bac Lieu offshore wind farm followed by a visit to a Khmer Buddhist temple.  The wind farm, the second constructed in Vietnam, had only ten turbines when we visited but is expected to include up to 250 turbines by the time the project is complete.  However, although this renewable technology has great potential, the farm has only been built to supplement Vietnam’s burgeoning energy needs and has not actually replaced any of the dirtier fuels that provide most of Vietnam’s energy.  Right after we finished exploring the grid of concrete walkways that took us out to the turbines, we all piled back into the bus, and ten minutes later found ourselves exploring the radically different environment of a Buddhist temple.  Although it’s a tourist attraction of sorts nowadays, the bright colors and unique architecture still made us all feel that we had suddenly stepped into another world.  Inside the main temple, under the watchful gaze of the Buddha, a small boy who appeared to be maintaining the temple lit a stick of incense for me and helped me put it with the hundreds of others in front of the statue of the Buddha, just another example of the surprising hospitality of people on the other side of the world.” – Daniel Nigh

“Fun, challenging, and bouncy! These are just a few of the words used to describe our group’s experience learning Vietnamese. Some made valiant efforts to prep on our 14-hour plane ride between California and Singapore; however, our formal introductions to Vietnamese came upon arrival to Can Tho (“can tuh”), the largest city in the Mekong Delta. With seven tones and regional pronunciation differing between the north and the south, we quickly realized we were in for quite the experience. Our time in the Mekong Delta was spent predominantly in the classroom at Can Tho University. Our first week, before classes or lectures began, we were graced with 40 minutes of “survival Vietnamese.” These lessons included: “introductions,” “directions,” and “bargaining and money.” Our teacher, Ms. Phuong, taught us vocabulary, corrected pronunciation, and laughed as we butchered simple phrases. Nonetheless, after 4 days we were released onto the streets to purchase coffee, bargain in the streets, and make new friends!

Some key phrases we learned were:

“Xin chào! Tôi tên là  (insert name).” – Hello my name is… (Phonetically: “Seen chao! Doy den lah …)

Xin lôi – I’m sorry/excuse me (Phonetically: “Seen loy”)

And our favorite: Hen gap lai – see you later (Phonetically: as written)

After two weeks in Can Tho, we traveled north to the capital city of Hanoi. What a place! In addition to no longer being the only westerners walking down the street, we also became aware of the fact that our “southern accents” were a little hard to understand. Nevertheless, we charged onward and used our slim vocabulary to continue bargaining in the markets and ordering coffee with milk.” – Sofia Soto Reyes

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