Semester at Sea: Vietnam

Rowing down the river toward home, outside Can Tho, Vietnam
Downtown Ho Chi Minh City

Downtown Ho Chi Minh City

Editor’s Note: Lauren Jones, a third-year student majoring in English and Economics, is on Semester at Sea this spring and has agreed to blog about her experience. Catch up with her previous entries here.

SAS students had been told that Vietnam would be the first of the “gritty” countries. Our pre-port lecturers hammered out the warnings: travel with a group, cover your shoulders, keep an eye on your wallet, and avoid rides from unmarked taxis. With this in mind, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Americans often link ‘Vietnam’ with either picturesque rice fields or the controversial, sixteen-year Vietnam/American War. But Vietnam isn’t a postcard or a war – it’s a whole country.

When you step into downtown Ho Chi Minh City (also called Saigon), the traffic overwhelms you: thousands of motorbikes transform the streets into this electric, exhaust-breathing river as soon as the sun goes down. Each bike will carry two, three or even four passengers – whole families – and will come within inches of colliding with each other, or pedestrians, at every intersection. At night, families and friends will congregate in the sidewalks outside these tiny hole-in-the wall restaurants and will chow down on the most delicious (and cheapest) meals – warm pho (noodle) and rice dishes, with beef and herbs and tons of sauces and seasonings. Add the packed markets and street vendors looking for your business, and the city is loud, fantastic-smelling chaos.

Downtown Ho Cho Minh City

Downtown Ho Cho Minh City

After a couple days in Ho Chi Minh, I traveled with a group to the Mekong Delta, where we booked a home stay in a village outside Can Tho, the major trading city on the river. When we arrived, we found that there was no A/C, hot water, or electricity in our rooms. We did, however, have hammocks and bicycles – which, when you’re in the delta, is all you really need.

The home stay was incredible. The rows of houses built right along the river wouldn’t amount to much by American standards – most were made from metal sheets and wood that the families had either bought or found somewhere, according to our host family. All the houses had open doors and no A/C (though I did see a few TVs), laundry hanging the yards and wooden boats floating outside on the river. Everywhere I biked, many residents would wave and yell out the only English word they knew, “hello!” Still, I could talk easily with most children in the neighborhood – because they’re learning English in school.

Rowing down the river toward home, outside Can Tho, Vietnam

Rowing down the river toward home, outside Can Tho, Vietnam

My group took a boat trip to the floating markets of Can Tho, where people from all over southern Vietnam sell tons (literally) of produce every morning. We explored all over the delta area – a rice factory, rice fields, a vegetable farm, and we learned to make fresh rice noodles at an outdoor factory. The tour was humbling; after we’d just been to ultra-urban Hong Kong, Shanghai and Tokyo, here we were in Vietnam, the world’s #2 producer of rice, where these people with simple lifestyles work everyday (in 90-plus degree heat) to harvest food that feeds the rest of the world.

An early morning cruise through the Mekong Delta’s floating markets

An early morning cruise through the Mekong Delta’s floating markets

Back in Ho Chi Minh, I learned alongside many others on Semester At Sea about the effect of the Vietnam/American War on southern Vietnam. After visiting the War Remnants Museum and underground Cu Chi tunnels where much of the fighting took place, we learned how the war devastated southern Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh City. It’s still rebuilding, and traces of napalm gas, or “Agent Orange,” sprayed by U.S. troops during the war are still causing birth defects in Vietnamese babies.

The War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City

The War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City

As an American, learning about the effects of our government’s war against this country, after spending a week being treated like the best kind of guest by its people, made the trip to Vietnam one of the most touching and humbling weeks I’ve spent. This country is full of such laid back and welcoming people, and for a place that’s been through so much, you could see that there’s huge economic promise – new skyscrapers were springing up over the old buildings and markets in Ho Chi Minh City and even downtown Can Tho. Major financial forecasters have predicted that Vietnam will be the fastest-growing emerging economy (PwC ’08) and break into the world’s top 20 GDP list (Goldman Sachs ’06) by the year 2025.

One of the great things about Semester At Sea is that students get a comparative glimpse of where these countries stand in the world – how fast they’re changing, what their problems are and where they’re innovating. Vietnam is one of those evolving places, and it’ll be cool to see where it heads in the coming years. Now that we know more, many of my friends onboard have already said that they want to go back as English teachers, to do what they can to help this country that’s bursting with opportunities in industry and education – along with really, really delicious food.

In Can Tho, I also wrangled myself into a visit with an English Language class at the local Tay Do University. My group actually got to help with a lesson, and I’m writing about the experience on the Semester At Sea webpage later this week – stay tuned!

 

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