Introduction to Vietnam!
With over 20 hours of travelling (including one layover in Taipei), all 24 of us stumbled off the plane in Hanoi, Vietnam exhausted and relieved. If you were fortunate enough to have slept on the plane, you were a little more prepared for the upcoming day, although the 14-hour time difference from San Francisco took a toll on us all. Travelling through the airport from customs to baggage claim took quite a while for our large group, but we were happily greeted by our in-country coordinator, Phuong and her assistants Mai and Duong.
Stepping outside for the first time hit us all hard. It was still morning, but the sun was beating and the humidity was high (and little did we know that that was just the beginning of our sweat stains). As we all boarded the bus we eagerly took the window seats so we could get a good view of the city and absorb the reality that we were finally starting our journey around the world. Phuong and Mai presented us all with information pamphlets to help prepare us for our time here in Vietnam. As everyone started to read, the more excited we were for the adventures that lay ahead.
As we pulled up to our hotel, we immediately got a taste of the city right as we stepped off the bus. Street vendors were trying to sell us traditional rice paddy hats, sunglasses, and fresh fruit. Although it all looked nice, the only thing on our mind was to get our room assignments so we could shower! Forcing ourselves to stay awake for the rest of the night was difficult, but we needed to get on track and sleep well for our upcoming classes.
Starting in Hanoi, we travelled down to Hoi An, Hue, and Da Nang, before finishing our time in Hoi Chi Minh City. We got to travel and experience Vietnam from North to South, by plane, coach, minibus, cruise, boat, motorcycle, and bicycle. We learned from a plethora of guest lecturers, site visits, tours, etc. which will be explained more in depth below!
Classes and Guest Lectures
The majority of this blog post has concentrated primarily on the “abroad” portion of study abroad, for good reason, but our time in Vietnam has also been filled with tons of guest lectures, class periods, and readings that have been a vitally important (if not most important) aspect of our trip so far! Upon touching down in Hanoi, our first real class in Vietnam was Survival Vietnamese with Ms. Chung, our wonderful and patient instructor. Although none of us are even close to fluent now, learning some basic phrases was extremely helpful in navigating our way through a new country. We went over the bare essentials of conversation (hello/goodbye/thank you etc.), the number system, the complex Vietnamese pronoun and accent quirks and, most importantly, how to order food. Later that day, we had a Vietnamese history lesson, spanning topics from culture and religion to governance and military conflicts over a 2000-year period. Dr. Trần Thị Tuyết Hạnh gave a lecture about the continuing impacts of the notorious defoliant called Agent Orange used by the US military in the Vietnam War; besides its well-known impacts on forests at the time of the war, spills of Agent Orange near American military bases continue to poison food for local farmers today.
Many of our guest lectures in Hanoi and Hoi An concentrated on adaptation efforts in Vietnam. Responses to future climate change can be loosely grouped into two categories; “mitigation” entails curbing emissions now to mitigate further change, and “adaptation” includes programs and strategies to prepare vulnerable regions for the impacts of sea level rise, changing temperatures and other climatic changes. Vietnam is one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change; it has hundreds of miles of coastline (where most of the population is concentrated) threatened by sea level rise, as well as an extensive and productive agricultural system that will be affected by changes in rainfall, temperature, and water availability. As a result, the Vietnamese government and civil society are promoting and implementing various adaptation practices (though probably not as many as they should). Some of these measures that we learned about from readings and guest lectures include promoting climate-resilient agricultural practices and sustainable coast development of aquaculture.
Another main focus of our guest lectures was the role and effectiveness of “civil society” in Vietnam. Civil society is loosely defined as organizations and people that contribute to discourses around policy and strategy for the country but are non-governmental; these include local and international NGO’s (non-governmental organizations) as well as regular citizens, among others. We learned from an outside, more academic perspective about the impact of civil society on climate change policymaking, and we also heard from people whose organizations are part of Vietnamese civil society, including Oxfam International, Action for the City (an urban planning nonprofit in Hoi An), and the Center for Research and Social Development (an NGO in Hue involved in community development and environmental protection).
Besides guest lectures and classes taught by local faculty, we had multiple classes in Political Economy/ Environmental History and Fieldwork Ethics/Research Methods taught by our wonderful traveling professor, Priya Chandrasekaran. Our Political Economy classes have covered some of the larger ideologies and systems that have historically created the conditions for current climate change. We’ve taken a deeper look at the hidden costs and impacts of capitalism as well as the history of colonialism and liberalism, helped by a number of student-facilitated classroom activities and discussions. We also took a class period to focus on how these and other factors have influenced Vietnam itself. Our “Methods” classes have been more informal but no less important; we’ve had important facilitations (also student-led) about Orientalism and the ethics of photography in the context of this trip, as well as discussions about how to make our classroom dynamic and wider social dynamic more equitable and inclusive. It’s been really awesome to have such an integrated, engaging, and informative set of classes and lectures so far, and we’re looking forward to carrying what we’ve learned forward to Morocco and Bolivia!
IHP isn’t all work and no play! We’ve had a few group R&R trips, which has served as a break from class but also nice group bonding. We also use our free time to relax and explore, whether that’s sight-seeing or simply walking around town.
Halong Bay – As a group, we took a weekend trip to Halong Bay. We stayed on a liveaboard boat that had luxurious private rooms and a huge kitchen that churned out delicious food. We spent part of our time discussing eco-tourism and the issues surrounding that, including pollution, over-use, development, encroachment on local people’s land, and cultural dissolution. Outside of the class, we kayaked through some beautiful rock features and miniature caves. Unfortunately, there was trash bobbing through the water, including a computer mouse… Unsure how that got there. We picked up what we could as we kayaked along. That night we celebrated Steffi’s birthday with cake and learned how to steam shrimp using vodka. It was quite the show. The next day we swam on Titop Island Beach and walked to the top lookout. The views were stunning! The water was warm and refreshing after the sweaty walk, but when drying off we realized a brown residue had been left on our skin. Most likely, oil from the boats had polluted the water and stuck to our skin. For lunch we made our own spring rolls and watched the head chef create artful center pieces using fruit and vegetables.
Halong Bay gave us the opportunity to not only just learn about the problems with ecotourism, but also to see the issues in action. It was an eye-opening but enjoyable experience.
Women’s Museum – Hanoi is home to the Vietnamese Women’s Museum, which a few of us visited. Each floor hosts a different theme, ranging from fashion, to child-rearing, to historic women, to marriage. I learned a lot about the culture and history of Vietnam, especially women’s role in the society from visiting this museum. The marriage exhibition included rituals from many of the different ethnic groups within Vietnam. The Viet people are the majority, but there 53 other groups! This section highlighted the different practices around marriage, including clothing, dowries, and celebrations. The historic women’s exhibition was also very interesting. Many famous women from the Vietnam/American war were highlighted here, relishing their feats at defeating enemies (the Americans or Viet Minh).
Hue – While in Hue, we had a few classes but had mostly free time. We went on a lovely city tour upon arrival where we visited Emperor Tu Duc’s Palace and the Imperial City (Citadel). Tu Duc was an emperor during the Nguyen Dynasty and he was essentially the last emperor to see a Vietnam free from French influence. During his reign, the French gained power within Vietnam and thereafter, emperors became puppet heads under the French Empire. Before Tu Duc died he built himself a lavish palace to live out the rest of his days. His tomb is also located here. Fun fact, though, the French tried to raid his tomb, but they could not find the actual body. No one knows where Tu Duc’s body is buried. This is because those that placed him in the grave were killed afterwards, forever keeping his tomb secret.
The Imperial City was home to all the Nguyen Dynasty Emperors, their families (concubines included), and their civil servants. Another fun fact, the 4th emperor had hundreds of concubines. Unclear how there was possibly enough room? It was 2 km by 2 km… but that is a lot of beds. Anyways, the Imperial City was beautiful and was modeled after the Chinese Imperial City in Beijing. The buildings were intricate, luxurious, detailed, and ornate. Unfortunately, many of the structures were ruined and/or decimated during both the French and Vietnam/American wars. Renovations are ongoing.
Cham Islands – The Cham Islands was also another educational vacation. We spent a few lectures learning about the Marine Protection Agency (MPA) in Hoi An and their work with the Cham Islands. We learned about how this 8 island chain is making a switch into eco-tourism, as it is more lucrative and incorporates sustainable strategies. The MPA helps locals make this switch but in the most environmentally friendly way, while also providing assistance on enforcing protective laws in the water surrounding the islands. The Cham Islands were declared a protected marine park and an UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
When we were there we explored the main island where most of the businesses are. We met some local people and visited the beautiful Hai Tang Pagoda. We also swam and snorkeled. While snorkeling, we noticed a decent amount of bleached (dead) coral and not too many fish. The water was very murky, possibly from a recent storm. Overall though, the beach day was a wonderful escape.
Mỹ Sơn – Mỹ Sơn is the name of ancient ruins originally built during the 4th to 14th centuries by the Champa Kingdom. This “Cham” is the same “Cham” as “Cham Islands”, which refers to the Cham ethnic group. The Champa Kingdom built an expansive cluster of 70+ Hindu Temples, all dedicated to Shiva. Throughout the many centuries as temples fell and were rebuilt, the architecture style changed. The remaining temples are predominately made of a special brick with no mortar. The Cham architects used super-heated resin to hold the buildings together.
The temples are mostly in ruins partially due to weather, but mostly due to carpet-bombing by the U.S. in 1969. The Viet Cong used Mỹ Sơn and as a result, the U.S. bombed the entire area. Bomb craters are still visible and renovations are ongoing.
An Bang Beach – Hoi An has beautiful beaches, but unfortunately Cua Dai beach has essentially completed eroded. The shoreline is now sandbags. An Bang beach is still lively and is a tourist hotspot. The sand, waves, and sun are all amazing. Most of us checked out the beach at least once and had an amazing time.
Birthdays – We had a few birthdays while in Vietnam! For birthdays all 24 of us try to get together and do a big dinner and check out the night-life. All the birthday occasions have been great. We went to a rooftop bar/restaurant in Hanoi for Steffi, a vegan restaurant in Hoi An for Katie, and a delicious Vietnamese restaurant in Hue for Ali.
Shopping – Hoi An is basically the tourist tailor capital in Vietnam. On every street in the Ancient Town there are at least 10 tailor shops (don’t quote me on that fact). You can come in with a picture and they’ll do their best to recreate it. Almost all of us got at least one thing made, shoes, suits, dresses, shirts, purses, wallets, jumpsuits, rompers, overalls, thigh-high blue suede boots… you name it, one of us got it. Everything is made just for you and for pretty cheap. The tailors and leatherworkers can make something for you in about 24 hours. The next day you go in for your fitting and sometimes you can get the adjustments fixed right then and there, then 30 minutes later walk home with your brand new personalized article of clothing.
Organic Farming – Students had the opportunity to attend a question and answer session with a local organic farmer in Hoi An Vietnam. The farmer provided insight to what organic farming looks like. Students learned about the benefits and difficulties of going organic before they biked to a larger organic farm across town. The group spent the afternoon working on the farm to help weed, cycle compost, cut grass and clean up. The hands on afternoon was hot and sweaty, but an ideal learning opportunity and rewarding way to work within the community.
Hydropower Dam – The group drove into the highlands of central Vietnam to tour the A Vuong hydropower dam. This hydroelectricity plant is one of dozens across Vietnam, providing a controversial learning opportunity surrounding development and environmental impacts. Hydropower development has been crucial to Vietnam’s economic development as a country. The dams result in many negative environmental impacts as well as a need to relocate communities. Students had the honor of entering the plant and touring its facilities as well as a question and answer session with a representative from the plant. After touring, students and employees shared a meal at the staff housing unit on property.
Resettlement Village – Following the hydropower plant tour, the group drove 11km to one of three resettlement villages. This community now lives on property they have been provided through a three year contract by the plant because their old village lies on the plant’s property. Students had the opportunity to have a question and answer session with the village chief as well as tour the area by foot. The village demonstrated the struggles of resettled communities through poverty, lack of resources and dependence on supplements from the hydropower plant.
CSRD – During the group’s time in Hue, the old capital and a large city in central Vietnam, students visited the offices of CSRD: Center for Social Research and Development. This Vietnamese non-profit works directly with local communities to increase resiliency who are impacted by external change stemming from climate change, development, agribusiness and industrialization. Students were able to hear presentation about the organizations projects and outreach as well as ask questions to multiple employees. This visit provided the group with insight surrounding environmental justice in Vietnam and further understand the role that NGOs play in Vietnamese politics.
Tam Giang Lagoon – Students visited a resettled community at Tam Giang Lagoon by boat, where they were able to learn about the village’s adaptation to climate change. The afternoon included learning about aquaculture, sustainable ecotourism and the environmental benefit of mangroves. CSRD has been working with the Lagoon village since 2010 to implement eco-tour services and sustainable development to create independent economic stability. To learn about the sustainable fishing methods, students toured the lagoon by boat. Everyone had a chance to give their shot at catching clams in the water with their feet. Afterwards, we were treated to a delicious dinner with our boat captains and CSRD employees.
River Boat Trip – Upon return to Hoi An, students attended a river boat tour in the areas surrounding their home stay community. The tour guide described how the rivers and fishing have changed over time due to climate change as well as how the community and government are combatting change. Students stopped along the beach to see how beach erosion is being fought with sand bags, tree cutting, and regulations to prohibit development. Next, the group shared a lunch along the water and listened to the government’s current policy to adapt to climate change impacts in the area. Students visited a collapsed building and sea wall caused by sea level rise and erosion, as well as the recent development of a large bridge. Throughout the day, the group was exposed to multiple local examples of environmental vulnerability and development impacts.
Covering over a month of eating in a country whose food varies tremendously from region to region, city to city is almost impossible. To sum it up: Vietnamese food is healthy, fresh (though it does have its fair share of fried yummy-ness), flavorful, full of delicious meat, seafood, vegetables, herbs, and let’s just hope you don’t have a peanut allergy. Throughout Vietnam there are a handful of staples that tend to sneak into just about every meal. Whether that’s the ever-present nuoc mam (fermented fish sauce), rice, peanuts, bánh mì (short French-style baguettes), broth, or a combination of the above, we’ve had it all. Drinks are equally ubiquitous with sweet teas, famously delectable and strong coffee (caphé), bubble tea, smoothies, and even local beers.
The North differentiates itself through heavy Chinese influence, black pepper, love of deep-fried and stir-fried foods, grilled meats, and less reliance on fresh herbs and vegetables. While we got our fair share of fresh produce, the cooler Northern climate lends itself less so to growing fresh produce.
The Central coast is defined by its amazing seafood, particularly fish and clams, spicy peppers grown in the neighboring mountains, and lots of fresh herbs and vegetables.
Ho Chi Minh City, which is situated smack dab in the Mekong Delta brings together loads of fresh produce, seafood, and fruit into delectable savory sweet combinations. While the Vietnamese have, in general, a sweet-tooth Southern Vietnam takes the cake.
Though we were in Hanoi for just over a week, we experienced the cuisine with the help of Phuong, Mai, Priya, Caitlyn, and our Vietnamese Co Chung! The thing to know about city living in Hanoi is that street-food is the way to go. It’s cheap, delicious, and awesome to watch them make the food in before your eyes. Food stalls often specialize in one or a handful of similar dishes, whose recipes may have been passed down through the generations. We started off on our own and got to know the local favorites, such as a small Phó restaurant around the corner from our hotel, Cha Ca La Vuong, a grill your own Báhn mí, and great Restaurant-Bar with an amazing rooftop bar and view of Turtle Island in Hanoi’s Center.
As a present for doing well on a Vietnamese numbers “quiz” Co Chung took us to her favorite Bahn Cuon stand near the center of Hanoi’s old district. Bahn Cuon, a Hanoi speciality, consists of a large crepe-style rice noodle served plain, or filled with diced pork (heo) and mushrooms (nam) or egg (trung) rolled up inside. Served with nuoc mam and a gigantic pile of greens. To make each roll, the stall-owner would ladle a spoonful of mixture onto a flat cooking surface and cover it with a lid in order to let it steam until cooked.
Some of the best food we had in the North was on our overnight stay in Halong Bay. We were treated to tomato-sauce tofu, fish, fried cauliflower and corn, braised eggplant, shrimp freshly cooked before our eyes, local squid and oysters from the bay. To finish off the night we even had cake for our very own Steffi’s birthday. The following day after a delicious breakfast of Phó, eggs, yogurt, and Caphé we tried our hands at making spring rolls. Vietnam has two distinct variations: fried and fresh. Even though they were laid out for us, putting together the noodles, carrot, cucumber, eggs, mushrooms, beef, and mint into rice paper neatly is easier said than done. Despite the struggles, the components were eaten up regardless if they were wrapped up or from the plate that they had fallen out on.
Central – Hoi An & Hue
If there was one thing we’d say to one another about our homestay food it was: “My family serves the beeest food!!!” And the response was usually: “No way, my mom does!!!”
While our eating in Hoi An has largely been defined by the food that our homestay family makes for us, we’ve gotten to try many of the regional specialties. Cao lầu, appropriate for every meal, is typically thick rice noodles topped with crunchy bits, herbs, pork, and a special sauce. Bahn Xiao is a rice flour turmeric pancake with bean sprouts, sauce, herbs, and shrimp and or beef inside. Squid salad, clay pot fish, white rose (beef) dumplings, bun (vermicelli noodle soups), che (sweet soups), fresh local fruits of which the English names we are not even sure of (we prefer the name “chom chom” to “rumbutan fruit,” not to be confused with lychees or longans, and buoi (pomelo) rinds are meant to be worn as hats).
And while we did eat a ton of amazing Vietnamese food, we had our guilty pleasures as well. Cocobox makes the best smoothies, as I am sure we can all attest too, and Hoi An has some great Mexican and Indian food as well! A number of us got into the habit of getting our morning coffee fix before class. Vietnamese coffee is traditionally dark and strong, served with a bit of sweetened condensed milk, and is either hot or iced. There were plenty of European-style coffee available as well, but make sure to ask for “fresh milk” or you may end up something a lot sweeter than expected!
During our stay in the Central Coast we got to eat beach-side in Danang, at the cafeteria of A Vuong Hydropower plant, Hue City, and the home of a family at a resettled community of Tam Giang Lagoon. The family that we ate with at Tam Giang Lagoon brought out a full spread of fried spring rolls, pumpkin soup, stuffed tofu, Bahn Nam (tapioca flour dough with fillings steamed in banana leaves), fish fresh from the lagoon, steamed bok choy among other greens, maize on the cob (not your typically sweet corn!), and cassava.
As a goodbye to the host families that MPA hosted a farewell dinner and party for us. Hors d’oeuvre, Phó, Bahn Nam, Banh Beo (flat rice cakes with dried shrimp), beef hand pies salads, bánh ít (steamed rice cakes in banana leaves with sweet mung bean fillings), cream puffs, and tons of fruit prepared by the MPA workers. Central Vietnam was truly home to food cooked in banana leaves and rice/tapioca cakes.
A week after arriving in Vietnam, we traveled to Hoi An, where we spent the majority of our time. For about two and a half weeks, we lived with host families around the city. Each family hosted two students, so we were spread out across 12 families – living apart for the first time since we met! That wasn’t the case for all of us, though. One extended family, living in four houses next to each other, each took in two of us. One set of grandparents, and three of their eight sons lived in the four houses with their respective families. Even though we weren’t all exactly nearby, we had bikes for our time here, which was very exciting for some of us. Since Hoi An isn’t a huge city, biking was a quick way to get around, and is common among locals who aren’t riding motorbikes. Every homestay experience, of course, was a little bit different. Some of us had done homestays before, others hadn’t. Some families spoke English well, others spoke none at all. Some slept on thin bamboo mats, some slept in beds. Some had cute younger host siblings, some were living with sweet older parents. Families even found ways to overcome the language barrier, which seemed to be a common issue, by starting traditions of teaching each other Vietnamese and English over meals. A few families took their students around Hoi An and the surrounding countryside, and most introduced us to extended family at various points. No matter the family, everyone was well taken care of, and enjoyed wonderful home-cooked meals every day.
On one of our last nights in Hoi An, we were invited to a farewell dinner with all the host families. The evening started with everyone showing off their parents or students to their friends, and then a round of Vietnamese games. One involved transporting ping pong balls across the room on a spoon held in your mouth and then passing it along to your partner without using your hands. Another required one partner to hold a banana in their mouth while the other partner peeled and ate it – again without using hands and while walking across the room. Both resulted in riotous laughter from everyone involved and photos and videos taken by students and families alike. Then we were asked to teach an American game. As we brainstormed ideas, Mr. Thao, one of the host parents who works at the building we had class in and had observed some of our daily activities, requested one – Pterodactyl. In case you are not familiar with this game, it involves saying the word “pterodactyl” to your neighbor as you stand in a circle. The catch is that you have to use your lips to cover your teeth at all times – otherwise you’re out. You can reverse the direction of the circle by making any screeching dinosaur noise at your neighbor. After the rules were explained in both languages, we stood in a circle with host families who looked somewhat anxious and confused. Soon they caught on, and may have even surprised their students to the point of making them laugh and even cry. We were served a delicious meal, with lots of fruit and pastries for dessert, and coconuts for everyone. The evening ended with some karaoke, which included another request by Mr. Thao for us to sing “Umbrella” by Rihanna. It was a wonderful night, filled with food, music, laughter, and lots of translations!
I think something we can all agree on is just how grateful we are to have had the chance to do this. Whether we learned a new Vietnamese word every day or that our roommate can eat more than someone twice her size at each meal, it was a great learning experience for everyone. Living with a family is the best way to be truly immersed in a culture, and I know we were all sad to leave the wonderful people who have been our families for the past few weeks.
Throughout our time in Vietnam, we have had some overarching themes that collectively, as a group, we have had to approach and overcome. Culture shock, being one of these themes, has been a struggle for us all as time progressed in Vietnam, especially once we got to our homestays. Through our debriefs and community check-ins, we have been able to voice our concerns and reflect on our positionality, from being students and tourists in another country.
Being a group of 24 students can be hard at times especially when we live together, sleep together, eat together, and go to class together. By creating community guidelines and opening up a safe space has helped us to communicate with one another so we can continue to thrive together as a group this large. Although we still have some work to do, the dialogue is present and we will continue to bring these conversations with us through our next country visit. Although we thoroughly enjoyed our time in Vietnam, we are ready for what lies ahead in Morocco!