Our first day in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) was busy, hot, hectic, and absolutely perfect. After a breakfast buffet unlike any I’ver ever seen before, our group bussed over to the University of Economics and Finance (UEF) for a scheduled welcome reception. What we actually experienced exceeded any expectations I’d had. We were greeted by our new instant best friends, the UEF students, with real flower leis, traditional Vietnamese dances, Adele songs, and traditional hats. After this incredible reception, I was one of three Pitt students to do a short interview with a UEF student named Abby and I learned how to say “Hello,” “My name is,” and “I am from,” in Vietnamese. As icing on the cake – Abby told me I was pretty good with my pronunciations! (: After the interview the rest of the afternoon included impromptu karaoke, a Vietnamese language lesson, meeting with a tailor to order a custom suit (!!!), and taking a bus/walking tour of the city. Our tour stops included the famous Vietnamese post office, the Vietnamese Notre Dame Cathedral (yes, that Notre Dame cathedral), the Opera House, the China-town of HCMC, a beautiful Chinese temple, and a very large market whose name I forget where I almost got hit by not one but two motorbikes!
Every street reflects HCMC’s rich and diverse history. HCMC’s more recent development can be seen in the skyscrapers, the business men and women rushing through the streets hurriedly, and the upscale restaurants, shops, and hotels. But because the country is developing and not developed, HCMC has become a place of contradictions. This was the biggest thing that stood out to me about the city; the modern juxtaposes the traditional, the wealth juxtaposes the poverty. A stark portrait of this was when our group saw simple street vendors selling goods off of their motorbikes that happened to be parked outside Hermes and Chanel clothing shops. Through readings we learned that the wealth gap in Vietnam is becoming more of a problem as the economy soars and the nation globalizes, as some join in the new industries and some continue the traditional lifestyles. But it is one thing to read about it and another to see it.
After our tour, our day ended with a Welcome dinner at a beautiful local restaurant called Nha hang Ngon (I know Abby told me I was good at Vietnamese but please don’t ask me to pronounce this). At dinner we ate traditional foods, each of which was delicious in its own way. None of these dishes were very surprising, although I’d never had them before, because they consisted of classic Asian ingredients like eggs, greens, and rice noodles.
Overall, there was one large thing that differed from what I had expected due to the information in the “Culture Smart!” book. The book had listed several nuanced things about interactions such as: you must shake hands with two hands, a smile means confusion or a lack of understanding, you cant touch a person of the opposite sex in public even in only a friendly manner, putting your hands in your pockets or holding extended eye contact is disrespectful/aggressive, etc. However, interacting with the UEF students gave me the sense that the youngest generation of Vietnamese people is more Westernized than their older counterparts, and so these nuances were not a concern. They seemed to understand that our little actions were just part of American culture and not meant to offend. They understood our actions in the context of our own culture, rather than the context of the Vietnamese culture, which I think serves to show that they get a good international education at UEF.