Dear Friends and Family of the Northern Hemisphere,
Hello from the southern side of the equator! We thought we’d fill you in on our first international leg of this semester, in Vietnam.
We spent our first week in Lac Village, a rural area with rice paddies as far as the eye could see, and hemmed in by lush green mountains. We were surprised by a cold snap that week, and spent our classroom hours competing for desks near the space heaters. Despite the chill in the air, we soaked up the natural beauty of the surrounding mountains, and explored the many acres of rice paddies. We have yet to figure out exactly how the grass grown in watery beds transforms into the white rice at the dinner table, but for now we’re chalking it up to magic.
For our case study research, we had the opportunity to drive up to two different ethnic minority villages to interview local people. We went into people’s homes and were invited to sit around their fires, drink tea, and interview them about their experiences of health and illness. Although we spoke through two translators at times – one to translate from English to Vietnamese, and another to translate from Vietnamese to the local dialect – we felt lucky to be able to connect with people whom we might normally never meet.
Week 2 in Vietnam brought a change of pace from the peaceful Lac Village. Instead of rooster crows for wakeup calls, we awoke to the sounds of rush hour in Hanoi: the rumble of motor bikes and the honking of horns. We met our host families for the first time, and practiced our new language skills. Despite the language barrier, most of us quickly settled into family life and enjoyed being immersed in their daily lives.
In the classroom, we heard from guest lecturers who spoke to us about health issues particular to Vietnam. We realized that the legacy of the American War, as the Vietnamese people refer to it, still manifests itself in the form of disabilities caused by Agent Orange. We also learned of the costs of Vietnam’s rapid industrialization. Vietnam first opened its doors to global trade in 1986. Since then, industrial pollution has led to increasing rates of respiratory illnesses, and the global market has introduced cigarettes to Vietnam, resulting in a tobacco epidemic.
Crossing the street on our commute, which at home is a mundane, organized task, is more like a social experiment in trust in Hanoi. Usually, instinct keeps you from walking into incoming traffic, but the key to success in Hanoi is ignoring your inner voice of reason. The key in getting from one side to another is simply ignoring the voice of reason that begs you not to walk directly into incoming traffic. There is no need to look both ways – there will inevitably be traffic, no matter the time of day, and it will reliably predict your path and go around you. While crossing the street might only seem like evidence of chaos, it’s also an interesting effect of packing seven million people into one city. Living in a city with such a high population density requires creativity when you and a million of your neighbors are trying to get to work on time. Though traffic seemed chaotic at first to our untrained eyes, we soon gained an appreciation for the improvised order of it all.
After our second week in Hanoi, a weekend away in Ha Long Bay proved to be a restorative break from the busy city. We certainly appreciated why Ha Long Bay earned a mention among the seven natural wonders of the world. Its otherworldy rock formations rising out of the sea raised the bar for our future weekend getaways.
As we entered our fourth and final week in Vietnam, many of us had mixed feelings about leaving Vietnam and beginning our next adventure in South Africa. We were surprised at how in just a few weeks, our host families felt like just that – family. Yet there was also a general feeling of being ready for relief from the more overwhelming parts of Hanoi – the noise, traffic, pollution, and lack of sunshine. As hard as it was to say goodbyes to our new friends, we were excited to see what was in store for us on our next continent, in South Africa. Overall, we had a challenging and enriching experience, and are looking forward to our next month in South Africa.
Wherever we may be, we all love and miss our families back home. We’ll make sure you hear from us again soon!