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A Student's Perspective: Visiting Vietnam

Before my visit, I had only ever heard Vietnam surrounded by war jargon, like the terms “Agent Orange” and the “Viet Cong”. An overall opposition to the events that occurred there clouded my perspective on the country. I have heard Vietnam War vets speak with trembling courage about their experiences, I have watched documentaries, and I have listened to the music of Woodstock, but I had never separated the country and Vietnamese culture from the war. With that being said, nearly everything I experienced in Vietnam took me by surprise.

My journey through Vietnam began on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) where I was quickly introduced to the chaos of traffic. Nearly everyone rides a motorbike, and I mean everyone. I saw everything from families of four dressed in ponchos, squished on a single motorbike to an elderly woman with caged chickens fastened to the back seat, whizzing in and out of traffic. I saw young women in stilettos, nonchalantly texting while dodging other riders and a man with a 5-foot tree balancing on the back of his seat – And there I was, simply trying to cross from one side of the street to the other.

Though the streets appear fairly disordered, there is a definite method to the madness. From simple observation, I learned that pedestrians often stride through traffic fearlessly at a constant pace. The motorbike drivers will easily move around the walker and continue on without commotion. At first, I was hesitant to jump in the middle of traffic, but after being led across by a few nice (and extremely skilled) locals, crossing the street became an essential part of assimilating into Vietnamese culture over the course of my brief visit.

Aside from the traffic, the streets are lined with vendors selling brightly colored paper crafts, coconuts filled with cool refreshing milk, and an assortment of street food. I was hit with a sensory overload. Street life in itself was so dense with culture. Within ten minutes of exposure, I was completely distracted from all of those history lessons that told the sad tale of a broken culture that had experienced so much hardship.

Over the course of my time in Vietnam, I encountered many people who were eager to practice their English. I was greeted with “hellos” paired with big smiles and even given a quick tutorial on how to eat phở (pronounced fuh), a popular Vietnamese noodle soup.

My last day in Vietnam was spent on the Mekong Delta, where I had the opportunity to try locally grown fruits and listen to a traditional Vietnamese music performance. Three generations of women sang songs about love, good fortune and bringing in the Chinese New Year. Accompanying the vocals, were two men playing traditional Vietnamese instruments, including the đàn bầu, a Vietnamese monochord, or one-string guitar. From a historical standpoint, the Mekong Delta was an area directly affected by the American war in Vietnam. However, I can’t help but remember the pride that beamed out of the locals I met there as they opened up and shared a piece of their culture with me, a foreigner.

Experiencing Vietnam firsthand while traveling with Semester at Sea, dispelled every preconceived notion I had prior to my visit. Vietnam buzzes with life—the sounds, the colors, the smells, the food, and most importantly the people have far more to teach than any textbook or documentary I have ever read or watched.

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