Letter Home from Viet Nam

A Letter Home written by students on the Fall 2014 program of IHP Climate Change: The Politics of Food, Water, and Energy:

Touring Ho Chi Minh City 

We arrived to the bustling streets of Ho Chi Minh City after our longest plane ride, glad to be done with it! On the first night in the City, we saw young children walking with lanterns in the park since it was the Mid- Autumn Festival. After a good night’s rest, we set off for a tour of the city the next morning.


[Photo: The French-influenced Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica in Ho Chi Minh City]

At the War Remnants Museum, we learned about the Vietnam War, or the ‘American War’ as it is called by the Vietnamese. Although it is only a chapter in US History textbooks, we were told that a large portion of history taught in Vietnam discusses the Vietnam War. I was particularly struck by the aftermath of Agent Orange as its effects do not discriminate based on nationality. Although Agent Orange impacted the Vietnamese people the most, we read about US war veterans and Korean soldiers who were affected by it as well.

[Photo: US military plane outside of War Remnants Museum]

Our guide candidly shared with us his perspectives. According to him, no local uses the official name “Ho Chi Minh City” in everyday language. Instead, people use its old name, Saigon, which was the capital of Indochina. When asked about the relationship between China and Vietnam, he said that while both appear to be good friends, they “kick each other underneath the table”.

After two days in Ho Chi Minh City, we set off for our next destination- an emerging city 4 hours from Ho Chi Minh City- Can Tho!

Homestay Life

Prior to arriving in Can Tho, we experienced the whirlwind of living life out of a suitcase. Arriving in a new city where welcoming and generous families shared with us their homes, their tables, and their conversations, made the process of transition smoother. Within the urban bustle of Can Tho, it’s nice to experience the comforting regularity of family life. By living immersed in a family, we become attuned to the rhythms of their lives, the little daily habits that families construct.

A typical day living with my host family goes something like this: Breakfast is spent sipping tea around the table, then whizzing off to school on the back of a motorbike. Before we go, our host mom sneaks cakes and bananas into our backpacks. After classes, we walk home. Before we remove our shoes to go inside, our five-year-old host niece races to the door to meet us. She pulls us inside to the dinner table by the hand, where we spend close to two hours eating some of the best food I’ve ever had, but mostly just talking. In the evening, we may go on a motorbike tour of the city, or walk around the park. The city lights up after dark. In the evening, we fall asleep to the sound of the monsoon rains on the roof.


A typical urban Vietnam residence.


One of many firsts: Getting dropped off for class by motorbike.

Academic Courses

Every morning, once we arrive at Can Tho University (via bike, motor bike or foot), we have our “Survival Vietnamese” class. Our teacher, Ms. Huynh Hong Huyen, stands in front of the classroom and dictates useful phrases and words. Thus far, we have learned the Vietnamese alphabet (same as ours, minus “j” and “z”), a list of numbers, how to present ourselves, and how to order food at a restaurant. The most difficult aspects of the language are the subtle tonal differences. For example, “ba” means father while “bà” (declining intonation) means grandmother. So you might accidentally be calling your host father, your grandmother! As someone who instantly has a strong French accent when trying to speak in another language, I know my tonalities are completely off!

Afterwards, a guest lecturer from the university gives a presentation on a specific topic pertinent to the Mekong Delta. My favorite class so far is “Understanding Climate Change in the Mekong Delta” by Professor Le Quang Tri. I found it particularly interesting because Vietnamese policy regarding climate change is more geared toward adaptation. As opposed to Western nations who are focusing on reducing emissions, Vietnam is planning for the consequences of climate change with better infrastructure and public awareness campaigns.

Visiting the Water Treatment Plant in Ninh Kiều district, Cần Thơ.JPG

Visiting the Water Treatment Plant in Ninh Kiều district, Cần Thơ

Beyond the classroom, we also learn through site visits. The past Friday, we were split into 3 groups. Group 1 went to the Cuu Long Rice Research Institute where they learned about how Vietnam is building climate resiliency in the agriculture sector through scientific research on cultivating new rice varieties. Group 2 visited the decentralized waste water treatment plant at Cai Khe market and a Can Tho water supply and sewage company. They learned that the water supply and treatment system was going to be privatized (with 65% of the shares still owned by the government). Although this will increase the price of water, the company claimed that it will also improve distribution and treatment services. Group 3 visited Le Hoan Thanh, a farmer in the My Kanh village to learn about his bio-digester operation at a farm in rural Can Tho. The farmer funnels waste from his pigpen into a storage bladder, where liquid waste settles and gas waste expands. The methane gas is used to fuel a stove and light, the liquid waste is used as fertilizer for fruit trees and nutrient input for an aquaculture pond. After the full tour, we sat outside on the farmer’s porch, harbored from the torrential rain by a roof overhang, and discussed biogas implementation in rural Can Tho over cups of strong green tea.

The biodigester is attached to the pigpen on one end, and a fish pond, stove, and lamp on the other end.

Beyond lectures on environmental topics, we also learn more about the cultures in Vietnam. For instance, we received an exciting lecture on Vietnamese music and culture from Mr. Lê Dính Bích, a legendary Mekong Delta renaissance man. He taught us that Vietnam was called Annam in the past, meaning peaceful south, and was comprised of three political factions, Annam in the North, Funan in the South, and Champa in between. The Annam state expanded southward by defeating Champa and Funan by the year 1790. The Mekong Vietnamese culture is a melting pot of different cultures, primarily Cham, Chinese, Khmer, and Viet, and Mr. Bích demonstrated this blend through live music, language, and religion. Most notably, he created popping percussive sounds with his fingers and played mournful melodies on his flute through his left nostril. I was graciously given a copy of his latest book, so I’ll end my comments on our experience with a few of his own words: “Our words, from the inception of life, are very beautiful, but then the more we live the less they become!”

Cái Răng Floating Market

Along with our courses, we also had the opportunity to explore. Can Tho City is a famous tourist spot in southern Vietnam that is widely known for its traditional floating markets situated in the Mekong Delta. On Sunday, September 14th, our class got the chance to visit the incredible scene of the floating market and see first hand the local grocery store. Arriving at 5:00am in the morning, we were greeted with a boat that took us on a 30-minute ride down the Mekong river from Can Tho City until we started to see the gathering of old wooden boats floating in the middle of the river. These boats carried all sorts of fruits and vegetables including watermelon, mango, and cabbage. Families on each of the boats sat on top of the deck waiting for another boat to come along and buy some of their goods. A stick shooting high into the air off of the highest point of the boat hung the fruits and vegetables that that particular boat was selling on the given day. There were also smaller boats that could easily maneuver in-between the larger boats that would float alongside tourists boats to offer them a refreshing drink on their sightseeing adventure. The families that inhabited these boats would live on the water for four or five days at a time before going back to land to re-supply with fresh produce before heading back out on the water once again.

After visiting the floating market, our boat continued further down the river before stopping on shore at a small rice noodle factory and fruit farm. We watched the process of the formation of rice noodles, from rice batter to sheets of rice paper that were finally cut into noodles. We were also able to try some of the fresh food after ordering the restaurants special, rice noodle pizza.


Cultural Differences

Coming to Viet Nam from the United States, I expected noticeable cultural differences to influence my daily life, yet was unsure of what differences to expect. Having only been in Saigon for two days and Can Tho for six, I am by no means an expert on Vietnamese culture. Along with the brevity of my stay is a seemingly insurmountable language barrier; these factors heavily limit the cultural conclusions I can draw from my experience here.

That being said, since I am normally very immersed in U.S. culture, some facets of Vietnamese life stand out by contrast. Two examples come to mind quickly. 1) food: In my experience in Viet Nam, meat is a central part of the diet; that’s no different than in the U.S. However, here there is much less of a disconnect between living animal and dish. Fish and seafood are often cooked whole; the fact that you are eating a formerly living animal is clear and undeniable as you pick around bones, shells, fins, eyes, etc. In my experience in the U.S., typically only the filets of fish and the meat of prawns (maybe with a tail to pick off) are present on a plate. More animals and parts of the animals are also eaten here; for example, rat and dog meat are unusual but culturally appropriate and street-side meat vendors can be seen selling various organs and even chicken feet. 2) transportation: there is no doubt that the U.S. is a car culture; the most common vehicle on just about any road is a car. Viet Nam on the other hand, could be called a motorbike culture. Scooters and motorcycles fill the streets. Our tour guide in Saigon explained that this is largely due to a steep car tax making them unaffordable to the average citizen. This tax is less meant to be a source of government revenue than it is to act as an incentive to not drive cars because the commuter to road space ratio way too high to accommodate U.S.-style car culture; if everyone drove cars the whole country would be a traffic jam.


Marinated rat being grilled. In case you wondered, it tastes like chicken but more tender.



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