LETTERS HOME: VIETNAM!
Ho Chi Minh City
Our adventures in Vietnam began in the southern part of the country. We flew into Ho Chi Minh City, usually referred to as Saigon by the local people. Ho Chi Minh City is the largest city in Vietnam, with a population of about 7.4 million. Arriving on February 26th, we had missed celebrations for Tết (the Vietnamese New Year) by about a week. Nonetheless, we witnessed the colorful decorations full of LED lights that are strung between telephone poles for months following the holiday.
The lights, the busy streets, and the motorbikes whizzing past were both exciting and overwhelming. Luckily our jet-lagged group had a restful night in store at the Palace Hotel, located in Ho Chi Minh City’s business district. We enjoyed an impressive view of the Bitexco Financial Tower from the rooftop.
In the morning, we were introduced to the in-country staff: Phuong, Tram, and Van. They are all awesome people and made possible the incredible month we had in Vietnam. Then a fantastic guide named Hoa gave us a tour of the city. He brought us to the War Remnants Museum, containing photographs and artifacts from the Vietnam War (referred to as the American War in Vietnam). While emotionally draining, the museum presented us with an alternative history excluded from our textbooks back home. We also visited the Independence Palace, the Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica, and the Saigon Central Post Office, and tried our first of many Cà Phê Sữa Đá (Vietnamese iced coffee– tastes like melted coffee ice cream).
The following day, Hao brought us to his village of Củ Chi to see the Củ Chi tunnels, an underground network used by the Viet Cong as hiding spots, transportation routes, storage areas, and living quarters during the war. The tunnels are now a tourist destination, complete with displays of violent booby traps and a shooting range where visitors may fire assault rifles. It was an uncomfortable learning experience that many of us are still processing. Then we were off on a bus ride to Can Tho in the Mekong Delta, feeling eager to meet our host families!
We had a delicious time eating our way through Vietnam. Luckily food was very cheap, so we were able to experience a lot of it. I think most of us agree that the food we ate in our home stays was the best and most varied (and came with some very interesting explanations…), but the little hole-in-the-wall restaurants, coffee shops, smoothies, and (for the really brave) street food were always an experience too.
Vietnamese people eat mostly family style, with lots of dishes served in the middle of the table, usually with rice as the base. At the table, you often get a small bowl which you fill partly with rice, and then you use your chopsticks to dig into all the goodies in the middle! Rice is by far the biggest food group—rice, rice flour, rice noodles, rice cakes— but they also eat a lot of cooked vegetables, fish, meat, and fruit.
Some of our favorite savory dishes were:
- Phở— a type of noodle soup which Vietnam is famous for. Rice noodles in broth with veggies, meat, and fresh herbs. Each had its own unique taste, but always very yummy!
- Bánh mì- The Vietnamese take on the baguette, left over from French colonialism. Soft squishy bread with pickled veggies and meat. Good for on the run!
- Bún- The vietnamese word for rice noodles. This was different from phở because it was not served with liquid, although there was usually the same great combos of meat, veggies and herbs, and sometimes peanuts too.
There were also a lot of great fruit and dessert options. South Vietnam may be called the rice bowl but it also produces a ton of tropical fruits, many of which we had never heard of before. Some favorites were little baby bananas (super sweet), dragon fruit, pomelo, milk apples, durian (just kidding, durian smells like dead animal), jackfruit, and the juiciest cutest pineapples you have ever seen. Besides fruit, dessert was often some kind of cake or sweet stew-like dish with any combination of rice, rice flour, coconut, tapioca, ginger, and beans (yes, beans for dessert!).
Of course we all have become pros at using chopsticks too. We can use them right handed, left handed, with our feet, our ears, our minds….
Biogas Digester: On our second morning in Can Tho, the group separated into three smaller groups to go to various site visits, one to the city water treatment facilities, one to a rice research institute, and my group to a small-scale biogas digester a little bit outside the city. At the biogas digester, my group learned about the VACB model, which is an integrated system using crops (V), fish (A), pigs (C), and biogas (B). The VACB breaks down pig wastes to produce methane gas for home cooking and lighting needs, but also utilizes effluent and waste water for irrigation and natural fertilizer. This system helps improve community environmental and human health by reducing dependence on firewood for cooking, CO2 emissions, and waste water discharge into public waters, all while improving rural farmers’ standard of living.
Ca Mau Field Trip: For three days we traveled around in the Ca Mau, Bac Lieu, Soc Trang and Kien Giang provinces, which are in the southernmost part of Vietnam and in the heart of the Mekong River Delta. Our first visit in the Ca Mau Province was to a pagoda which doubles as a conservation site for giant bats in the region. We heard a quick talk from a local biologist who works to promote awareness in the communities to stop bat poaching, since apparently bat meat is a delicacy. We also were able to walk around the pagoda, where we saw the bats hanging from branches high up in the trees. Next, we headed to a shrimp-rice farming cooperative, where they farm rice in the wet season when there is enough fresh water present, then they switch to shrimp farming in the dry season to make a profit. We learned about the 29 farmer cooperative and how the group works together to get government support, technology, and strengthen their resilience against disease by testing shrimp seed prior to use in the farms.
Additionally, we traveled to an aquaculture research center, a coastal wind farm, U Minh Thuong National Park, and Mui Cau Mau National Park, a mangrove forest at the southernmost point of Vietnam, Cape Ca Mau.
Cat Ba Island & Ha Long Bay:
This past weekend a group of eight students, including myself, traveled to Cat Ba Island. What entailed turned out to be a wondrous adventure helped on by a multitude of marvelous locals who contributed to the overall wonder of the island. First, we took a bus from Hanoi to Hai Phong. Doing so allowed us to witness the beauty of the countryside and all of the remarkable agricultural displays. Once there, we took a ferry to Cat Ba Island. Stepping off the ferry was like stepping into a wonderland. Wooded mountains broke through the tranquil water in all directions. Cat Ba itself seemed to have a symbiotic relationship between building and nature. They were intermingled in such a way that it looked natural. After checking into our hostel we boarded a boat that we had all to ourselves. Our first stop was Monkey Island where we hiked to a peak that overlooked a multitude of other islands. It was quite a perilous hike by all accounts as the rocks were sharp and unforgiving, yet the view was enough to make up for any scrapes incurred. Upon walking down the mountain we went for our first dip in the sea and oh how refreshing it was. Nothing compares to floating in the water while being stared down by monkeys on a sandy shore. After this enjoyable dip we walked up the wooden plank onto our boat once more and headed on. We entered the waters of Ha Long Bay which, by all accounts are the same waters of Cat Ba and the surrounding islands but the better known version. We attached to a floating dock which just so happened to have kayaks. Kayaks. Kayaks kayaks kayaks. All of my hopes were coming true. We paddled through caves, around islands and under over hanging trees. At one point we were all silent and simply listened to the wondrous sound of the forest. My day was complete. Later that night, we sat upon our balcony and watched the symphony of lights play their silent song upon their respective boats; it was as if the dark waters were performing for us.
On day two, we hiked through a national forest that provided a remarkable view of Cat Ba Island. It also included a cobra sighting (it’s much more fun to talk about that part now that we’re back). Throughout the day we explored various parts of the island where we saw integrated shrimp and mangrove forests, a pagoda on a lake, blooming trees enclosed in wooded mountains and yours truly was even invited into someone’s house for a good ol karaoke song or two (it was actually quite bizarre). All in all, it was one of the most memorable times of my life. The people I shared it with only exemplified this experience.
Homestay in Can Tho
The highlight of many students’ time in Vietnam was the experience of living in a homestay. I had a very unique family situation and found myself in an insular Buddhist neighborhood without the presence of another English speaker. My homestay mother, Mai, and her niece Dinh, made the two weeks in Can Tho some of my most wonderful days on the program. Because we lived in a strictly Vietnamese speaking household, my roommate Emma and I picked up an incredible amount of language skills. Our family was very active and interested in holding everyday language lessons, and I am immensely grateful. Being placed in a homestay with this unique dynamic challenged me in the most beautiful ways.
In our first days at home, my mother took me to the neighborhood Buddhist pagoda which houses the monks and orphans. Here, the members of our community practice daily ancestral worship and Buddhist prayer sessions. Emma and I were given the opportunity to have a conversation with the nuns and they invited us to the full moon festival on the first weekend in Can Tho. The festival began with a large vegetarian dinner and lots of iced jasmine tea — shared family style — and I found myself sitting across from my mother’s nephew who speaks fluent English. He explained to me that the full moon festival was a monthly event enjoyed by almost all of the neighborhood and that we were lucky because this one happened to be the first of the new year. Immediately after dinner, Mai and Dinh took us down to the river behind the pagoda and introduced us to her family. Because of the language barriers, it was difficult to express my wonder and gratitude, but I was met with many smiles and warm embraces. Our community was incredibly welcoming. We ended the night in the river where I was given one hundred fish to release into the water. This is a symbol of spreading life in the new year and is also a gesture of respect in ancestral worship. When releasing the fish, we prayed together and asked for blessings in the coming year. On our walk home, I was too aggressively happy to fully notice the world around me, so my mother pointed out the glowing moon through the trees, smiled, hugged me, and said some really beautiful words that I didn’t understand. To me, this small moment in time embodies much of my homestay experience: allowing new people to guide me toward a stunning and unique reality, kindness, warmth, and subtle everyday mysteries.
Hangin’ in Can Tho
Over the course of our time in Can Tho, quite a few of us had the opportunity to hang out with our Vietnamese peers (many of whom were students at Can Tho University), and our experiences with them were unbelievably awesome.
Flying kites is a very common activity in Vietnam. At any given time of the day, we would scan the sky and undoubtedly spot at least one colorful dot bopping around. About 4-5pm is the most popular kite-flying time, and many of us were initiated into this tradition. There are vendors in the parks and along streets who peddle a huge variety of brilliantly colored kites. We’d go out with our host siblings or friends that we’d met, get a mango or papaya or passion fruit smoothie, and fly kites for an hour or two!
Another popular pastime enjoyed by Vietnamese college students is, surprisingly, barbequing! A few IHP students had the very unique experience of attending a barbeque party on the banks of the Hau River. Everyone arrived at the riverside park by motorbike, many bringing sacs of rice, tubs of raw okra, small gas stoves, or dripping bags full of marinated chicken feet. Then for about three hours, we all squatted on the ground around tins full of hot coals and grilled chicken feet and okra, regularly rotating the food with our dexterous chopstick-ing abilities. We spoke to the Vietnamese students about their lives, their families, their impressions of Western culture, their hopes for the future, and so many things in between. It was a wonderfully authentic, unique experience and we came away from it with about 30 brand new friends!
Our IHP group was also blessed with a wonderful student facilitator, Phu, who is an English Translation student at Can Tho University (CTU) and who volunteered to help the IHP students integrate with the students at CTU. Phu was amazing; showing us the best fried chicken in town, helping us to schedule interviews, singing karaoke with us, and just generally being very kind and forgiving about our cultural ignorance. It was thanks to Phu that many of us were able to make friends and connect with students at CTU. He invited us to his English class’s showing of “The Sound of Music.” A few IHP students decided to attend and were undeniably the most enthusiastic members in the audience, bursting into song during “My Favorite Things” and “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?”
Finally, a suggestion from a CTU student led many of us to explore the Tiny Corner Café in the heart of Can Tho City (We learned after going that Trip Advisor actually rates this the most popular thing to do in Can Tho!). The only way I can think to accurately describe this “English speaking happy hour” is by comparing it to speed dating (but minus the dating part and plus a foreign language component). Essentially, 20-30 Vietnamese students and young adults come to this café, order drinks, and then sit around cute little tables and practice their English with one another. Over the course of the night, people continuously switch tables so they’re conversing with everyone in attendance. Throughout our time in Can Tho, many of us went to Tiny Corner and had a blast. We discussed our cultures, our hobbies, and even brought down the guitar and had a Taylor Swift/ Celine Dion jam session!
Overall, our entire group was blown away by the unwavering generosity and kindness of every Vietnamese student and young adult that we met. It was impossible to sit in the CTU canteen for very long before someone friendly would approach you and ask about your life and your family and your studies. Everyone was eager to practice their English and we were more than happy to oblige. The cultural exchanges that we had with these Vietnamese peers were hilarious, intriguing, and absolutely unforgettable.
We arrived in Hanoi with enough time left in the evening to discover and fulfill our group-wide longing for burritos. Whether it was burritos specifically or food that wasn’t primarily white rice, fish sauce, and broth that we sought is debated among group members, but after a refueling meal and sleep, we were ready for our first lecture. This was also out first lecture from a woman! She was the founder of an organization called Green ID and the first woman lecturer we had in Vietnam. She was honest about the unfulfilled promises of Vietnam’s Green Growth Program and optimistic about the effective small-scale solutions her organization has been implemented. Following this, we had a lecture about Marxism and Classical Realism during which our peers helped us to make connections between these theories and climate change.
The following day we rode a bus to the Hoa Binh Hydropower Plant where we learned about the Soviet Union’s financial and technological support for the dam, and discussed how this demonstrated an international power play.
Over the weekend our group split up to go on two excursions outside of the city.
Monday greeted the majority of our group with indigestion and violent bowel disruption, but by Tuesday we were back in action, searching for street food in the dreary smog of Hanoi. We weren’t nearly as much of a spectacle in Hanoi as we had been in Can Tho, as tourists and expats were not abnormal, especially in the busy market places and large attractions. Many of us travelled to the Old City, which was the most densely populated by tourists, and walked around the large Hoan Kiem Lake with a beautiful old pagoda in the center. On our final morning a few of us visited Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum where his body lies, preserved, in a glass case. The whole city is adorned with propaganda, banners, t-shirts, and loud speakers hung on street lamps are constant reminders of communism at work. Throughout our stay in Vietnam, we successfully avoided motor cycle disasters and got quite confident with J-walking.