Today was an exciting first day in Vietnam! I had no idea what to expect from the welcome ceremony and the energy and excitement of the Vietnamese UEF students blew my mind. After a couple hours of singing, dancing, speeches, and games, we headed off to our first Vietnamese language class. The class was very educational, and also very overwhelming! If my one year of Mandarin class taught me anything, it’s that tonal languages are hard to learn. Vietnamese definitely seems to follow this trend. After class, and my first taste of pho for lunch, we had a tour of Ho Chi Minh City. I kept trying to compare the city to previous experiences I’ve had in places like New York City, Barcelona, and San Francisco, but it’s so different than anywhere I’ve ever been. The first thing I noticed was the traffic- the streets are completely full of motorbikes and from an outsider’s point of view, there seems to be no organization and few rules. I asked a lot of the Vietnamese students about their experiences with driving in the city, and was amazed that it was just a normal, routine thing for them. They start learning to drive at age sixteen, just like most Americans.
From the tour, I gained the sense that Vietnam really is a big part of the global economy. Everywhere you look, there are countless stores and restaurants with large, recognizable brand names- Chanel, Ralph Lauren, Popeye’s, McDonald’s, and more. In terms of development, it was obvious that Vietnam is on the rise, but still developing. For all the modernity of the technology and large shops, there were areas where neglect and pollution were more evident. Many of the storefronts seemed to be in disrepair and the abundance of motorbikes are a large cause of air pollution.
For our welcome dinner, we were treated to a six course meal during a river tour of Ho Chi Minh. The food was traditional Vietnamese food and unlike anything I’ve ever had. Fortunately, everything was delicious and filling! It was interesting to see how Chinese and French culture contribute to Vietnamese cuisine. A lot of the meal was similar to Chinese food, including spring rolls and honey chicken. For dessert, we were served crepes with a lemon cream. The foods we ate were not really a surprise to me, since they were similar to the foods mentioned in the Culture Smart book. However, many other aspects of the book seem to be outdated. The book made it seem like the Vietnamese are very shy and reserved, but the students at UEF were some of the most outgoing and energetic people I’ve ever met. They also dressed in a very American style and were interested in American pop culture. Some of the songs they knew by heart were new pop songs that I haven’t even heard yet. The students were more open than I expected as well. They answered all of my questions and even asked me about religion and politics in America.
Overall, I had a great first day in Vietnam and can’t wait to spend more time in this country and with our new UEF friends. The thirty hours of traveling are worth it!