Vietnam in a Coconut Shell

“Please provide a summary of the experience.” What? How do you expect me to summarize the strangest and most interesting two weeks of my life? So much has happened, and I want to say everything! However, due to time constraints and the fact that you probably don’t wish to read an 8 page paper about my trip, so I will do my best to be brief.

When we walked out of the airport, we were met with a group of Vietnamese students who were to become our friends and allies during our stay. At the end of every day Jennifer, one of the students, would make dinner plans for everyone, and we would go out and try something new. (I do count Mexican food from Vietnam as new.) The Vietnamese students tutored us in the dragon of a language known as Vietnamese, and were always there to help us through any cultural mishaps. Of all our professors, of all the people we’ve learned from on this trip, I can say without a doubt we learned the most from the students of the International Exchange Friends club.

I loved learning (attempting to learn) Vietnamese, although after a week of studying every time I see a tone or a g part of me wants to weep. (I still do not understand what sound the g makes in Vietnamese.) Although if I ever need to ask someone’s name followed by “How much?” I am good to go.

One thing we did fairly often was site visits. Some of my favorites were II-VI, Glass Egg Digital Media, and VinaCapital. II-VI had to be one of my favorites by default, as ’tis the company I’m assigned to, although to be honest I probably would’ve chosen it anyways. It was quite interesting to finally learn what exactly II-VI makes, and how international the process of developing any single piece of equipment is in the company.  The guy who spoke with us at Glass Egg was French and had exactly the accent you’d expect, which is why they’re on this list. Just kidding! I actually really loved Glass Egg because we got to glimpse the graphic artists, and got a look inside what seems to be a very interesting industry. (He did have a French accent though.) VinaCapital was just a development bombshell filled with adorable pictures of happy children who had been helped by the foundation with a sprinkle of expanding the middle class.

As much as I learned during site visits, what probably stuck with me the most was FINALLY understanding what business casual is. Which I learned by packing few to no business casual outfits. I had one nice pair of black capris which were just acceptable, and a black skirt I could wear when I just absolutely could not get one more wearing out of the capris. However, I had no appropriate tops. I had one with just the correct amount of pattern but that was too low-cut, and one that was considerably more conservative top that was basically a T-shirt. So after two site visits of not being anywhere near appropriately dressed I headed over to the coop and after considerable searching found a 4x that fit me. (I’m a large in the US, which translates to approximately “king kong size” in Vietnam.) I managed business casual for the next day, and then I bought another shirt (only a 3x this time!) for the next day. Thanks to the hotel’s quick and easy to use laundry service I was able to alternate the shirts for when we had back to back business casual days. Since Google doesn’t agree that learning to dress business casual is a transferable skill, I think this ordeal most strengthened my adaptability. When I realized what was really meant by business casual, I adapted and made sure that I had the tools necessary to dress more appropriately next time.

Whilst talking about experiential learning, I should mention that in addition to site visits we also visited some sites geared more toward learning about Vietnam’s history and culture. Some sites were related to the Vietnam/American War, such as the Reunification Palace, a cemetery for Vietnamese who gave their lives in the War, the Củ Chi Tunnels, and the War Remnants Museum. These visits really helped me to see the War from a different point of view, a view that most of us were unfamiliar, and maybe even uncomfortable with. I am glad to have had the opportunity to see this point of view, for how can one ever know the full story from one perspective.

Speaking of the Củ Chi Tunnels, that day I began to strengthen a skill I have been struggling with for some time. I have always had a lot of trouble doing something based solely on my own intuition or opinions. I almost constantly look for a second opinion or validation. But on that day I knew that if i knew that I wanted to do something I had to just do it, regardless of others’ opinions or thoughts. I had been looking forward to the Củ Chi Tunnels since the beginning of the trip, so when we finally got to visit them I literally dove in first. This mentality grew throughout the next week, and I started just doing. I stopped worrying about what the exact proper way to use chopsticks was and just did what worked. I ate the hepatopancreas of a shrimp even though the students beside me were much more hesitant. I knew I was strengthening something, and it took a while to name it, but I believe it was decisive action. I am learning to make decisions and to trust the decisions I make.

In addition to sites of historical significance, we also visited sites more representative of modern day Vietnam, such as the Bến Thành Market. At the Bến Thành Market we bargained for souvenirs and chopsticks. Let me just say I am terrible at bargaining. I did manage to win the competition for cheapest chopsticks, but only by managing to way overpay for a bracelet which actually doesn’t fit me. By winning the aforementioned competition I won two tickets to the hotel swimming pool, which I checked out the next day. So at about 8:30 Sarah and I headed up to the pool, where we had a lovely time enjoying the cooled water. Then around 9 when the pool closed we got out of the pool and realized that there were no towels. We had been expected to bring towels from our rooms. We had left our room keys at the front desk, because our roommates were out and we weren’t sure when they would be back. We did not want to go down to the hotel dripping wet in our swimsuits, so we checked our rooms in case our roommates had come back… they had not. So we put on the clothes we had worn to the pool (we had changed into our suits there) and walked soaking wet but covered into the hotel lobby, where we picked up our room keys and finally got back to our rooms. The ironic thing is that our roommates were in the lobby, and had we waited a few more minutes they probably would have been back to their rooms. I think this ordeal demonstrates the skill of problem solving with incomplete information–especially the part of that skill which is not panicking when you’re not sure what’s going on or exactly what you need to do. While Sarah and I may have done the wrong thing more than once we always kept our cool and kept trying to find a solution.

My favorite day way probably our visit to the Mekong Delta. We did so much! We looked at several local industries all tied together by the tourism industry. We tried samples from the aforementioned industries, including chocolate, coconut milk directly from the coconut and tea with fantastic honey. I got to hold a snake around my neck (I call it a sneklace), and we got to hear several South Vietnamese folk songs. It was a really fun day full of new experiences for everybody.  We tried potentially terrifying things and learned both facts and skills that will follow us throughout life. I think our day trip to the Mekong really captured the spirit of the trip in a nutshell.

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