Hello, Ho Chi Minh City! I have officially been in HCMC for two days now; however, it still feels surreal that I am actually here and beginning this highly anticipated journey. But, here are my updates from the first two days:
The weeks leading up to the program, I was a bit (okay, a lot) of a nervous wreck. But, when I stepped off the plane, everything melted away. I’m not sure if it was the intense heat or just the sense of relief that I was finally here, but driving through the busy streets filled me with so much excitement.
I spent the first day with my family, who I have not seen since I last visited Vietnam 13 years ago! I am so grateful to their hospitality, and feel so fortunate to know people in this city of 10 million. It was so nice catching up with everyone, and seeing how all my cousins grew up. Later that evening, my cousins and I went to eat hotpot for dinner. After strapping on my helmet and clamboring onto my cousin’s motobike, I was fully not prepared to speed down this alleyway. We then joined the traffic flow and I learned to find my balance on the bike again after 13 years. I have never felt as free then when we were cruising through the streets. I also hope to have the unparalleled confidence of all motobike drivers one day – I don’t think I could ever drive through oncoming traffic or inches away from other motobikes. In addition, my cousin asked me if I liked the breeze when riding on the bikes. I told her it was really nice and she responded, “really? I am cold!”
When we arrived at the mall (it was very crowded because it was one of the only places open during Tết weekend), I was surprised to see a parking garage just for the motobikes. This makes sense, in hindsight, but it was so surprising to see all these motobikes crowding into a parking garage, where everyone then neatly lines up their bikes. After, dinner was very yummy, and I drank my first sugarcane juice (oh, how I missed that!). After, we went to get ice cream at Swenson’s – it was a San Francisco themed joint!
Before heading off to meet my study abroad group the next morning, I spent some time with my family watching my cousin’s wedding videos. I really enjoyed seeing everyone dressed up and enjoying such a happy occasion. In addition, it was interesting to observe the differences between Western-style weddings and Vietnamese weddings. My uncle was telling me that in Vietnam, people are invited to the wedding only 1 week before – or else they would forget! If you really think about it, it’s sort of weird how in America we send out invitations months in advance and expect people to respond – no wonder they’re such high-pressure events.
After, we loaded up the motobikes and headed to the hotel; conveniently, it was down the street. Soon, everyone arrived in the lobby and I got to meet the staff and other students. Co Thanh, our academic director, is so knowledgable and sweet – I am excited to get to know her throughout the program.
We headed off to lunch at a place that Co Thanh described as “đò ăn ngon!”, or, delicious food! I was surprised that that was the name of the restaurant. There, we ate chả giò ̣(springrolls), rau muốn (water spinach + my FAVORITE), mì xào (stir-fry noodles), and lots of other dishes. I also got to drink my first lemonade, which I remember being obsessed with as an 8 year old in Vietnam. So many people expressed intrigue and excitement that I spoke Vietnamese and knew all these foods – something I have never experienced before, but I am going to enjoy it!
As part of orientation, all students practiced riding on the motobike with two of our staff members. It was nice to get out of the classroom and see everyone experience this quintessential HCMC event.
Later that evening, and after eating pho for dinner (which was not bad, considering it was 90 degrees out), we walked to “Times Square”. It was such a bustling area full of families, young couples, and vendors, and I was a bit overwhelmed when we were let loose to wander the square. Other students and I walked down the bustling street and into a flea market/ supermarket, a crane store, and through the square exploring. It was so interesting to see what nightlife was like in HCMC. There were so many people sitting on the edge of the square (either on the ground or on their moto) eating food from the street vendors. I saw a lot of bán tráng chiên (fried rice paper with various toppings), which is something I’ve never had before. I’ll definitely come back – if I can find it! The coordinators could walk us anywhere right now and I would just follow them.
Overall, the first two days have been crazy busy and full of new experiences. It is so interesting comparing my Vietnamese-American upbringing to the lifestyle here in Vietnam. Everything is so familiar, yet different. I am still getting used to seeing only Vietnamese faces and signs, but it really excites me to be surrounded by my culture and to be sharing it with people from my program!
So, this is my view for the night – a rooftop in HCMC. I am so incredibly fortunate to be here, and so thankful for FEA! In the future, I hope to update this blog with less of my everyday happenings, and more of my experiences here as a Vietnamese-American and student interested in development issues. Till next time!