Ho Chi Minh City: (Un)Like Any Other

The first thing I noticed about Ho Chi Minh City(HCMC), after a decent night’s sleep in the Victory Hotel, was that it was so much like any other city, but also so different. After getting ready in the morning, and eating my first bowl of phố, my roommate Ryan and I took a walk around the block of the hotel while waiting for our departure to UEF (University of Economics and Finance.) While walking around, there were so many things going on that it was a bit of sensory overload but also was not that much different from any other city, in that it was just a lot of people working or making their way to work. As hundreds of motorbikes sped by on the street beside me, I could not help but notice the massive amount of small businesses being run along the streets.

The Vietnamese students of UEF welcomed me and my fellow students almost warmer than the humid air of Saigon did. After the opening ceremonies full of dancing and singing, with flower necklaces around our necks and UEF teddy bears in hand, the students and their professors gave us Americans our first lessons in the Vietnamese language. While challenging, my partner student Jennifer told me that I was doing well and learning fast which makes me excited to get even better at it.

After learning how to introduce myself in Vietnamese, the next stop on the schedule was lunch and a city tour. With another bowl of Ph for lunch, the tour guide took our bus around the city, pointing our the American, UK, and French Embassies, along with many other interesting buildings and monuments. The creative and unique architecture of HCMC blows me away with every new interesting building I pass. The most interesting buildings are the newest and I can see how the development of the country has allowed for more elaborate and ornate modern structures to be erected. The tour guide also pointed out a construction site where the city, with the help of Japan, is installing the first subway in the country. This is a big step for the city, as the preferred method of travel by residents of HCMC is motorbike, with thousands being driven every second. With the development of this subway line, and 7 more in the works, the city, and country, are moving into the modern, global effort to push shared, public transportation in order to reduce emissions and better the environment.

With the city tour coming to a close, and a few hours to kill, a few other students and I walked around the surrounding area of the hotel to see what the city has to offer in the next few days. Once we gathered our bearings, we headed back to the hotel to meet up and get a traditional Vietnamese dinner on a large ship in the river. With six separate courses, all for sharing among the table, I have never had such a variety of flavor in one meal. Some of what was served surprised me because it seemed rather standard and I was expecting it all to be very exotic, but some familiarity was welcome for sure. The locals and employees of our floating restaurant acted in an unsurprising way in terms of what I knew about their culture and societal norms according to the Culture Smart preparation reading. The shared center plates of food was hard to manage with chopsticks, but eventually, I made my way through the spring rolls, fried fish, traditionally prepared beef and pork, and rounding off the meal with a final bowl of rice ( the Vietnamese have their rice on its own at the end of the meal.) While I finished my meal, a few performers came onto a stage and began to perform traditional Vietnamese music. With a half a dozen instruments, none of which I had seen before and one of which was a leaf, for 3 people to play, I was thoroughly impressed with their talent and dedication to the performance.

Overall my first day in HCMC was overwhelming and completely normal all at the same time. As I sat on the bus returning to the hotel from dinner, all I could think about was how normal the city seemed for so exotic I was expecting it to be. Do not get me wrong, it is a strange and unfamiliar place, but when I look at things on an individual level, none of it is that out of the ordinary, and I find myself eager to see what more it has to offer.

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