Vietnam: First Impressions of U.C. Students

Fifteen UC students attended the fall semester of the Education Abroad Program in Hanoi, Vietnam in 2002. Below are some of their impressions, captured during the first two weeks of the program.

Life in Hanoi

Vietnam exceeds all my expectations in many ways, but it is also an incredibly difficult place to adapt to. Tropical landscapes, green lakes, lush rice fields, amazingly low prices, exceptional food and an exciting city life all take my breath away. But Vietnam is also an underdeveloped country going through dramatic changes. This is very apparent everywhere I go. For me, the real challenge of being here is learning how to leave behind my American ideals concerning politeness, gender roles, status symbols, and various other cultural differences. I underestimated these differences, which are not as easy to understand and get used to as I first imagined.

Traffic is a good reflection of the way Vietnamese locals think and act in their everyday life. There is no such thing as a waiting line here. At the post office, the grocery store, or anywhere, people will cut in front of you every chance they have. My idea of politeness is distinctively different.

Vietnamese are either filthy rich or dirt poor, but not many are in between. I've learned incredibly disheartening things like education is not free, and there is no such thing as a government loan, social security, or welfare. It is difficult to move up the economic ladder when one is poor. These kinds of realities appear everywhere in Vietnam and are impossible to ignore.

Students who cannot afford to go to school must resort to family businesses. If the family is poor, they must work minimal jobs like driving xe om (motorbike taxi). People who sell fruits and vegetables on the streets are even poorer. Women balance heavy baskets on their shoulders and walk around the city in the blazing heat to sell fruits for a very small amount of money.
Life is hard here, so the people become hard. They're pushy and clever because of their life conditions. It is easy to misunderstand people's intentions here because the way they act is different from what I expect. When I open up though, I start to find out how very friendly and kind many of these people are. As it is anywhere, there are good people and bad. I've learned to refrain from prejudging and stereotyping.

Learning about Vietnam is a complex undertaking, but it provides a valuable understanding of the hardships of people in poorer countries. It makes me appreciate things I have and it has opened my eyes to the pain and suffering of my people.

by Ann Nguyen, an English major at UC Davis.

Hospital Internship

My alarm rang at 7 a.m. Thursday. It had been two weeks since my arrival in Vietnam, a land my mother had designated as my true home. To me, it felt like an unfamiliar “habitat” I must try to survive in and make home for the next three and a half months.

I rushed to the bathroom to get ready for my first day at the hospital. I was surprised to find just enough hot water trickling from my faucet. I put on what little I'd thought appropriate for the hospital—my roommate's red Converse, size 5, my faded khakis, and a 30,000 dong ($2) white shirt I'd bought at a local market 10 minutes from the dorm. With my hair tied back, I ran down 5 flights of stairs, waved down a xe om, bargained for the fare, and arrived at the hospital at 7:40 sharp.

A double door separated the outside from a different more peaceful world inside—a refuge from the annoying honks of the traffic outside and from the scorching sun. When I reached the second floor the medical director, a man in his early 40s with a wonderful smile, greeted me quite warmly and introduced me to the staff of several divisions. I was well received by both doctors and nurses. I accompanied doctors on their rounds, sat in on several conferences, and watched numerous procedures. By midday, I suffered from a severely dry throat from endless chattering to everyone on the ward who repeatedly asked where I came from and why I was here.

Besides its serenity, the hospital resembles the hospital back home with its plain gray walls, and well-equipped rooms. White is the dominant color of the ward. Doctors wear white coats—one was given to me. Nurses wear white scrubs, unlike the colorfully mismatched scrub nurses back home.

During my rounds with the internal medicine physicians, I was surprised when a nurse offered the patient “anh an chau, pho hay bun,” which translated to mouth watering, stomach growling dishes. As my multiple sensory organs began to run wild, I tamed them with the thought of the hospital food back home—the overcooked vegetables and bland entrees.

I quickly realized that doctors here are not just healers; they play multiple roles. In one instance, after explaining procedures to a patient, a doctor shuffled some papers, and quoted the patient her balance due. A stethoscope dangling from his neck, he was also a cashier in disguise.

My day lasted until 5 p.m. when I exited the hospital with a big smile and stories to share with my roommate. But most importantly, my first day was a learning experience I can prolong and remember while I am here as well as when I return home.

My goal is to become a physician for the Vietnamese community in the U.S. so an internship like this one is surreal. I had never imagined I would have such an incredible opportunity, especially in a country an ocean away from what I had previously called home.

by Cam Chau, a molecular biology major at UC Berkeley.

Clues to my Identity

If I were asked in high school “where do you see yourself in five years?” I would never have said that I would be going to UC Berkeley, let alone studying abroad in Hanoi.

I chose to study in Vietnam for several personal and academic reasons. I was the first of my family to be born in the U.S. and the first to be visiting Vietnam since my family fled in 1977. I grew up in America not speaking Vietnamese or learning much about it.

When I began looking for a suitable EAP program, Vietnam wasn't even on my mind. I was considering the programs in Hong Kong, Ireland, and Spain. I was looking for a “cool” place to immerse myself in a foreign culture and learn a foreign language. As I thought about my motives for wanting to study abroad, I realized that I was in the dark about my own language and culture. So I looked into the Vietnam program and decided that it was perfect for me. It's only one semester long and there isn't a language prerequisite.

For me, this semester abroad isn't just about having fun in an exotic country, it is about learning the Vietnamese language and culture so I can have a better understanding of my own identity.

Now that I am here in Hanoi, I am having the time of my life. From the moment we got off the plane I've experienced sensory overload. The sights, sounds, and smells of Hanoi are unlike anything I've ever experienced. There is a kind of poetic harmony that dictates the chaos of everyday life here.

The first thing I noticed was the insane traffic. There are absolutely no rules. (Actually there are a few unenforced and ignored traffic laws that are pointless.) Bicycles, motorbikes, and cars come from every direction, but there is definitely a method to the madness that the Vietnamese have mastered. My advice is just jump on the back of a xe om (motorbike taxi) and trust the driver—even against the advice of the EAP advisors.

One of the best things about studying in Vietnam is the currency exchange rate. The American dollar (about 15,000 Vietnamese dong) can get you a long way here. I can eat like a king here and pay pocket change for my meals. For breakfast I usually have a bowl of xoi (sticky rice) with scrambled eggs and lap xuong (Vietnamese sausage) topped with fried onions. I wash it down with a glass of soybean milk. This breakfast of champions only costs about 30 cents. Another local favorite is bia hoi (draught beer). For about 30 cents you can get a mug of good local beer at one of a score of beer-serving cafes.

Besides all the fun and games, the classes are awesome. I am currently taking histories of contemporary Vietnam, ethnic minorities of Vietnam, religions and rituals, and a Vietnamese language class.

The professors here are amazing. They are highly knowledgeable of their material. Along with the routine lecture/ discussion method of teaching, courses include field trips around Vietnam that are completely relevant to the course material. For example, we are taking a trip to Sappa to stay in a Hmong village for our ethnic minorities class.

Last, but not least, is that the amazing staff from UC treat us like royalty. They have demonstrated genuine interest and concern for our well-being. They go out of their way to ensure that all of the administrative and other bureaucratic red tape is taken care of so we can relax and enjoy our time here. For that, I am extremely thankful. EAP in Vietnam has been incredible so far and hopefully will turn out to be one of the most enriching experiences of my life.

by Hai Truong, an interdisciplinary studies major at UC Berkeley.

In Search of What my Parents See

I was expecting to see water buffalo crossing the street, farms as far as I could see, and meet people who were out to get every penny I had in my pocket. Instead I saw traffic jams that made the 405 freeway at rush hour look like playtime.

Hanoi, Vietnam—famous and infamous for more reasons than I can name. I came here to find the reasons for both.

My parents said, “Why?” They said, “There's nothing there you want to see. They're not like us. They're the reason we had to leave.” My parents couldn't understand why I wanted to go back to a place they had risked their lives to escape.

But that was the Vietnam of 20 years ago. My parents and family have never been to the North. Hanoi and Northern Vietnam are as foreign to them as countries in Europe and Africa. That was exactly the mystery I wanted to unlock. Could it really be so different? I had to see with my own stubborn eyes what it was they were so afraid I'd see, experience, and what kind of people I'd meet.

I surprise myself when I say I love it here. Sure I have a hard time understanding the people, but they can't understand me either. With all my pre-conceived notions about them, they have twice as many questions and assumptions about me. I'm American, so I must be loud, arrogant, and flashy with my cash, while I assume that because they're northern, they must be obsessed with money and the “state-run” way.

But in the short time I've been here I've come to realize that Northern Vietnam is not that different from Southern Vietnam at all. The people are kind and curious. They are willing to break their backs today if it means a better future for their children. They just want to live happy lives. The differences between the two regions are actually far and few between.

I have so many thoughts about Vietnam—the guilt over such twisted assumptions about how “underdeveloped” it was and about how genuine the people are. Hanoi is a booming city where a sweetness still exists. Where bia hois (fresh beer) and cafe sua das (iced coffees) are a daily indulgence.

I came here expecting to see lots of bicycles. Surprisingly I've been bombarded with the non-stop horn honking from the massive numbers of motorbikes, which makes home feel a little closer. Crossing the street is a daily challenge which, once mastered, becomes an art form.

What I'm saying really won't make any sense unless you come out here and experience it for yourself. Only in Vietnam can you see a man drive a motorbike with 22 roosters strapped to it, assume that it's normal for trucks to drive into oncoming traffic, and taste the yummiest and freshest fruits your lips have ever touched.

There are too many words, thoughts, and images to describe what Hanoi is, or the kind of effect it's had on me. Already, having been here for two weeks, I have learned more about a people and a country than I could have possibly learned in my four years in college.

In December when I write my last journal entry from this trip, I'll see what kind of “progress” I've made and if I've “found” myself, searching, like so many people who come abroad. I probably won't find answers to all of my questions, but hopefully I will have been able to find a piece of Hanoi that will stay with me always.

by Phi Mai, a student at UC Berkeley, majoring in Political Economy of Industrial Societies.

Originally published in UC Education Abroad Program World, 2003, pp. 23-25.

Published: Thursday, May 15, 2003