Almost three weeks in, and Vietnam is both comfortably familiar and wonderfully new. We have spent most of our time so far in Ho Chi Minch City, a place that is impossible to describe. It is loud, crowded and polluted; the people are the friendliest I have ever met, the coffee is the best I’ve ever had (secret ingredient is sweetened condensed milk) and even the motorbikes add to the charisma of life in the city. The sidewalks are meant for every activity imaginable: people eat delicious bowls of hot beef noodle soup in tiny chairs at small metal tables; incense burns at the feet of enormous trees whose roots warp the pavement around them; excess motorbikes disregard the curb and take advantage of the extra space; small dogs look for scraps as farmers bring their heaps of dragon fruit, mango and pomelo to be sold.
The tropical fruit is only one small part of the delicious food here. A generous meal can be bought for 12,000 VND (about 50 US cents) from one of the food stalls on the street- fried egg omelet with rice and veggies, noodle soups with sea foods, bánh mì sandwiches on warm French bread… One of our program directors is found of telling us the “secret ingredient” in all of these foods. “Ah, it’s the secret ingredient,” she says knowingly. “The chilies,” “the fish sauce,” “the butter.”
Even a simple action like ordering food, however, is not a simple act. In order to talk to anyone, you must first get a working grasp of the over ten pronouns that you must use in order to address yourself and the people you are speaking to. For example, when I am talking to anyone older than me, I must call myself “em.” The pronoun I chose to address them varies on their age in relation to me, their profession and their gender. When I am talking to my friend, I call myself “tôi”. And when I am talking to someone younger than me, I must call myself “chị”. It is interesting to note that these pronouns carry a special type of respect attributed only to age; even if I was to meet a famous, wealthy and well educated person who I respect tremendously but they were one year younger than me, I would use the same pronoun I use with my younger siblings, regardless of my respect for them. The only exception is the Prime Minister, who, according to our other program director (pronoun Anh), you always call Prime Minister, no pronouns necessary.
The best way to learn these kinds of cultural necessities has been spending time with Vietnamese students. All of the students in our program, 19 in total, were paired with Vietnamese “buddies” who are attending university in Saigon. These relationships have been one of my absolute favorite parts of the program; my buddy picks me up on her motorbike and we tour the city together, going to both her favorite places and exploring new places for the first time together. More importantly, we are all able to have group discussions, both formally and informally, about our lives as young people in two different places. The Vietnamese students answer questions about the tensions between the ‘traditional’ and the ‘modern’ in Vietnam or the LGBTQIA community in the city, while we answer questions about the class, race and gender issues playing out in the United States.
I always have to remind myself, however, that culture or ideas in Ho Chi Minh City are not at all representative of the country as a whole. Not only do perspectives differ between urban and rural areas, from what I am told, the cultural vastness separating Northern Vietnam and Southern Vietnam is similar to the difference between America and Scotland. We share the same general language, but live very different lives. So far, I have only gotten a small taste of what life is like in Vietnam outside of Ho Chi Minh City. Two days ago, we took a bus down south to the Mekong Delta, the “food basket” of Vietnam, where the majority of Vietnam’s rice and seafood is produced. We are currently studying and staying at the University of Rural Development. The crickets chirping and the welcome breeze offers a nice respite from our first weeks in Saigon. The city is a confrontation of colors and sounds and smells and feelings and traffic and it never stops and it is beautiful and exciting. Phew. The Mekong is calmer. It is slower, quieter.
On the day we arrived almost three weeks ago, the staff gave us program T-Shirts- simple, navy, and with two words, “Impressive Vietnam” printed on the back. The choice of adjective amused us so much, but the more and more we use it, the more apt it becomes.
Here’s to another great few weeks in Impressive Vietnam!