I can picture you reading this back at home, wrapped up in a sweater or scarf, sipping on a cup of hot apple cider, as red and yellow leaves slowly waft down outside the window. Ah, fall in New England!
It’s still hot and humid back here in Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh, and I am even sunburned from our weekend trip to Mũi Né. But all is well, and the time is flying by. After our trip in the beginning of October to the University for Rural Development in the Mekong Delta, we traveled north to the central highlands. Đà Lạt is beautiful; it is surrounded by hills and lakes; the air is cool and clean. The small city is known for its agriculture; we visited coffee and flower plantations, spent an afternoon at a cricket farm (crickets are an expensive delicacy), and studied at the only organic farm in Vietnam.
After the week, we returned to our homestays. The 19 of us are spread out all over the city, each living with a Vietnamese family, one of whose members speaks at least basic English. There is nothing like having a homestay experience to incentivize language learning. Of course, the tonal language makes for some amusing misunderstandings; I just recently found out that I have been calling my homestay sister “cake” (bán) rather than “friend” (bạn). Similarly, my homestay mother was slightly taken aback when I tried to say ‘you’re welcome’ (không có gì) but instead told her that I didn’t have lice (không có chí).
A homestay routine is slowly developing. At ten minutes to seven, my host mother comes in to wake me up, always 5 minutes before my alarm. The bottom bunk where my homestay sister sleeps is empty; she is in her senior year of high school and her school starts around 5:30am. I get ready quickly before heading downstairs for breakfast. On a good day, I can expect a warm French bread sandwich with tuna and boiled tomatoes. On a bad day, there is a large plate of instant noodles (Ramen) and powdered orange juice (Tang). Every day, I have cà phê sữa đá, iced coffee made with sweetened condensed milk.
By 7:30, I am getting onto my host father’s motorbike, which is still an amazingly novel way to get to school. Luckily, he is an excellent driver; I spend the ride watching the busy breakfast carts and enjoying the breeze. With my helmet low and my doctor’s mask up, it is a rare moment of anonymity; I am just one more passenger in the city’s chaos.
Classes are sometimes spectacular, sometimes terrible, and with a different professor almost every day I can never tell which one to expect. We have one class before lunch, at which time the whole city shuts down. During our break, we wind back into the alleys behind the school, where families sell bowls of soup from huge pots in the middle of the road, people eat huddled under umbrellas sitting in tiny plastic chairs, and little carts carry impossible loads of goods, from shoes to locks to fruit. A favorite lunch dish is Bún Cá, a large bowl of noodles, fish and broth, or bánh xèo, a fried pancake filled with veggies. On the street, both go for around 20,000 VND, less than $1USD. Sometimes, if we are feeling particularly high spirited, we stop for a fried banana or an avocado smoothie; if you chose the fried banana, it is recommended to have plenty of chili salt alongside of it to keep your yin-yang balance stable. If you choose the avocado smoothie, catch him before he adds extra sugar but acquiesce to the sweetened condensed milk.
The last six weeks have gone by so fast. I feel like I have lived in Ho Chi Minh City forever, but also like I have not even broken the surface yet. We only have two more weeks here and then we begin to make our way North. Until then, I will be exploring this mystery of a city and trying to make my homestay mother laugh.