I received only quizzical looks when I shared the news that I would be traveling to Vietnam to study, and it is a common misconception that all there is to the country is the history of the Vietnam War. People seemed to think that I would be living in the jungle and obtain Dengue fever, and so I think one of the benefits of my time here is educating those at home about the complexities of Vietnam, and how they would like to be looked at as more than a country associated with past conflicts.
Reading my title "Stuck in Vietnam" may give the impression that I am being held here, unable to get out, when in reality I chose to remain here completely due to my own desire and love for this country. I am stuck here because I was granted the most incredible study abroad experience that I then extended several months due to a medical internship that I was able to acquire. If it was not for my need to finish school, nor my mother’s intense sadness over not seeing me for half a year, I am not positive I would return. Whether that is the goal for a study abroad program I am unsure, but the Loyola Vietnam Center was the initial connection that allowed me the opportunity to travel to Vietnam. Pre-departure to Ho Chi Minh City consisted of the usual precautionary tales and advice on how to cope when you hit that "homesick" mark. After completing month five in Vietnam, I can say I have yet to hit that mark. My comfort level in Ho Chi Minh City, or preferably "Saigon", has granted it the status of feeling like “home”. The past several weeks I have been trying to reflect on this progression in Vietnam. My culture shock lasted about a day in which I adjusted to the overwhelming traffic, unkept streets, and stares of the Vietnamese people. But, through my time studying the history, culture, theology, literature, and language of Vietnam, those initial observations shifted. I have become deeply attached to the lovely noise of the bustling city, with the lively nature of motorbikes zooming about. The unkept streets give me a "homey" feel of being lived on, and the stares of the Vietnamese are simple curiosity which I can now respond to with limited chatting.
I have been gifted with infinite stories that have defined my time here, but since my experience has been longer than the average trip, I will choose to reflect on only several of the most significant moments. The more minuscule, yet no less important events and interactions, will remain my own, as it is often difficult to convey their meaning in writing. I will begin with a story about my initial education in Vietnam, something that defined how I viewed the country and interpreted what I was seeing. Within month one of Sociology class we were asked to write about our first impressions as well as take a picture of something on the streets in order to analyze some deeper concept. The picture I chose is included below and depicts a woman on her motorbike surveying the hectic scene on the streets. It portrays the adrenaline she feels as the U23 Vietnam Soccer team had just advanced to the AFC Finals. I took this picture as I walked back to the dorm in which we were housed. Initially we had hopped in a taxi, but after traveling five feet in the span of fifteen minutes me and two others opted out, as the excitement in the streets was too much to only experience in the backseat of a car. It was undoubtedly one of the most amazing experiences in Vietnam and something I talked about for weeks. We walked down the streets weaving in and out of traffic, and when the flow became too much we simply cheered louder at the incoming motorbikes who then stopped to let us pass. They cheered back at us screaming the popular "Việt Nam Vô Địch" which means “Vietnam Champion". The scene reminded me of when the Chicago Cubs won the World Series, with nothing but smiles and everyone instantly became your friend. The major difference I was able to pick out between these two types of celebrations came the week later when Vietnam lost the finals to Uzbekistan. Despite the loss, the streets still flooded with people at night. One might think that the loss would bring anger and overwhelming sadness, and while the country was heartbroken, the cheers were those of pride for the country and what they had accomplished. It was these moments that were most special because it helped me to learn more about the Vietnamese people, their willingness to forgive, and the intense love they hold for their country. It is through this that I can come to understand their kindness and how it takes only one short conversation to become instant friends.
This kindness was exhibited everywhere I went, from food venders outside the dorm, the men drinking beer on the streets, and the Grab (Uber) Bike drivers that transported me to and from class. On my first night in Vietnam the table behind us at the local beer corner bought us food they termed the "welcome" gift, and I met an older man named Binh whose children studied abroad in the United States. The following weeks I would run into him and give updates on my status and the various adventures I had completed. As time progressed, I was able to converse more in Vietnamese and make very limited small talk with those that I met. Every single town or province I visited I made friendships and learned more about what makes the Vietnamese people so special.
While it is hard to choose my favorite part of the program, the Service Learning portion in which we had to choose somewhere to volunteer, quickly became something that I looked forward to every week. We had several options, the first teaching English, the second at a boys’ orphanage, and the third at a health clinic. I chose the health clinic as a would like to go into medicine in the future, and so hoped to learn something about healthcare in Vietnam. The clinic served the impoverished people of Vietnam and most who came were older women from the countryside. It specialized in holistic medicine with procedures such as Paraffin wax for arthritis, leg compression sleeves to relieve swelling, and acupuncture among other things. These aches are extremely common with the types of work that they do and so any bit of temporary relief is beneficial. I went in with the impression that I would receive mostly health knowledge, but I came out with a completely difference experience, and what I believe was the best possible outcome. While I could have rotated and worked in some other aspects of the clinic, I have to admit I stayed in the same place for the majority of the time; the reason being that I made some very close friends within the priests, nuns and med students who worked at the clinic, as well as with the older patients whom I began to recognize every week. I specialized in helping the patients with the paraffin wax treatment as well as assisting with the leg compression sleeves when needed. My exchanges with the patients was limited as most did not speak any English, but through a mix of limited Vietnamese and gestures or smiles, I was able to communicate. Towards the end of the day when the clinic was near closing, I would be told to sit down and proceed to learn Vietnamese from my Priest friend Thang. He was eager to learn English as well, and so we would often switch off reading and taking turns to teach the other the pronunciation. I clearly remember one day in which I was told to sit and then surrounded by Vietnamese women all astounded by the fact that I was learning a little Vietnamese. I was stuck on saying the Vietnamese word for "hotel" and had more than five women all yelling the word “Khách Sạn” at me in hopes that I would pronounce it fluently. Their excitement over teaching me, and then in wanting to learn English, was only one of the reasons I would return every week. Proceeding the Vietnamese/English lesson I would be told to join them for food. Once more the hospitality of the Vietnamese people was shown as they cut up Guava (ổi), Plum (mận), and watched in excitement as I tried the assortment of foods they had prepared by hand. My three hour volunteer session quickly turned into four, but I was never in a hurry to return home.
I could write pages on my experiences, but there were too many excursions and numerous tiny moments in each day, all of which will make it harder to detach myself from this place when it comes time to leave. From the time I am writing this I have less than two months left. Currently I am working at a hospital in Saigon in order to gain experience for my post-grad career, hopefully as a Physician's Assistant. A common misconception is that you cannot study abroad if you are a pre-health student with the rigorous course load. But, without this study abroad experience I would never have looked into internships in the hospitals and learned as much as I have so far. My future goals are starting to take hold, with a return to Vietnam definitely part of the plan. It has gifted me with patience and allowed me to uncover qualities that I never knew I possessed.
I have never been on a trip so far from home, and have yet to frequent Europe, but after spending so much time in Vietnam, it will be hard to top. While I am sure each country has its charm, each day I am assured that Vietnam is where I should be. I am often told by my Vietnamese friends that I know more about Vietnam than even they, except the language, of which I have continued my studies. While the program has ended, I owe the new experiences I am having now to the previous program and the wonderful job they did of giving me the tools to live comfortably in Vietnam and make handfuls of friends along the way. I miss the beer corner nights with our Vietnamese "partner" students, the soccer games on Sundays, karaoke, getting smoothies, and all the smiles I was gifted.
If I had any piece of advice for future students, it would just be to just be open to any experience and friendly to everyone you talk to. Also, to smile. Sometimes the stares would get overwhelming, but a simple smile real opened the space and invited conversation. I appreciated any instance that someone would come and chat with me as it enabled me the opportunity to share with them my experiences and reasons I like Vietnam so much. Secondly, don't make judgements based on what someone tells you. Especially in Vietnam, everyone will have a different experience, each special in their own way. I was initially told that the health clinic was lots of work, and I nearly chose a different site due to this. While it was much more self-taught, it became all the more beneficial because I could choose what to make of it. I have come to appreciate the flexibility of each day and how you never know what interaction you will have. If there is a discouraging day, or stressful moment, have hope in the fact that it may turn around in an instant. For me it was chatting to a new friend for more than two hours in a café. Say hello to those who smile at you, or perhaps “Xin Chào” if you want their smile to grow bigger. The time I did I ended up making friends with two young girls who were eager to practice their English, yet were too shy to approach me. Try all the food and savor every bite. That is what I will miss most after the people. Lastly, don’t be too scared of crossing the street. It is not nearly as hard as people make it out to be.