Today we fit in one last hike before leaving Halong Bay. Our guide, Tom, took us to a cave named Thien Cung which was opened to the public in 1998. We spent some time reveling in the beauty of the stalagmites and stalactites before cruising the bay one final time.
The rest of the day was spent traveling on our bus back to Hanoi which afforded us some much needed reflection time now that we have passed the half way point of our time in Vietnam. Here is our list of five take-aways from our experience so far:
1. Transportation and traffic
Witnessing traffic in Hanoi is an experience in itself. Upon first observation, it appears like there is no rhyme or reason as scooters, bikes, cars, and buses fly down the road in both directions. This means that crossing the street as a pedestrian is an accomplishment. With very few traffic lights or traffic rules that are being practiced, there are no cross walks or crossing signals. You just go. Here is our advice: keep a slow, steady pace and the traffic will flow around you. (Minus cars and buses…those you will want to slow down for or they will hit you, right Colin?)
Crossing the traffic is a lesson in bravery, trust, and patience. You have to be brave enough to step into the street in the first place. You have to trust in those sharing the road around you to not hit you. You have to be patient enough to know that you will eventually make it to the other side, even if it is at a slower pace than what you were intending ultimately knowing that we will all make it to where we need to go eventually.
Below is a video of Audrey crossing the street!
Prior to our departure, when we shared with others about traveling to Vietnam, the responses we were often met with were pretty negative. Unclean. Unsafe. Uneducated. Uncultured. Unfortunate. All of these words were used to describe this country back in the States. Additionally, most of these words describe a perceived lack of something and create an understanding of Vietnam as deficient. Throughout the experience so far we have been checking our own biases when looking at whether something is really deficient or if it is really just different. For example, I have eaten at many delicious restaurants on plastic chairs and tables on the sidewalk as a means of maximizing space and rent money. Or in some instances, I might not have not always had a “western” toilet to use that is connected to plumbing. However, my needs have not only been met, but they have often been met through means that have exceeded my daily life back in the states.
We are here to learn from our hosts and have to be open to all types of knowledge and not shut out anything because we think it is less than.
3. Connecting to students
After visiting two universities in Vietnam at this point, the group has meaningfully interacted with many committed students. Before embarking on the field experience, the class hosted a panel of Vietnamese students from Foreign Trade University (FTU) who spoke about their experiences in the classroom in Vietnam compared to the US. The students shared their perceptions that while they strove to be the best in a subject or a class, they thought their US peers were content with simply being good enough. Having this context has been helpful because students we have talked to appear to be very focused on their studies. At Đại học Thủy Lợi, the group noticed students studying in the library together were very enthusiastic and engaged with classwork. The social atmosphere of such a productive environment was outstanding compared to what I have observed about students in the US. This was also evident during the group’s visit with students at Vietnam National University of Forestry. A number of the SAHE students gave presentations about various aspects of CSU and the student affairs profession in general. The students shared they greatly enjoyed hearing the information but were not quite able to understand everything—this, however, was motivation for them to work harder at studying English! Being invited to dance with the students also reinforced our perception of their dedication to talking with English-speakers and creating friendships. Personally, having this information has helped me better support international students studying at CSU. I noticed similar behavior among Chinese students when I traveled to China this past summer and that context was helpful. Overall, it’s important to remember that continuing education at a university is not a given or even an expectation of many youth as they progress through their lives, the same way it wasn’t for my parents or their families in rural Vietnam.
The group discussed what it would be like to come to Vietnam and contribute to the tourism and consumption culture, which made me think about the personal impact I have as an individual when visiting a different country. In my own international travel experiences, I have been taught to haggle for anything I buy (in the appropriate places). Certainly, those places exist in Hanoi, as well, and have been hotspots for the group to visit and work through shopping lists. While the costs of items here seem steep—coffee can cost about ₫40,000—after converting dong, the Vietnamese dollar, to US dollars, we have not actually been spending very much of our own savings. A cup of coffee priced at ₫40,000 is actually cheaper than $2. When negotiating prices at the shops, I have typically tried to shave off ₫30,000 to ₫50,000 per purchase, depending on the cost, knowing that I am only saving around $2. Even with this, it has been difficult for me to morally negotiate that the people in the shops are trying to make a living and also are still open to lowering their prices because they know tourists are going to do their best to avoid paying the full price. Generally, it’s easy to distance oneself from narratives of exploitation when they are happening in faraway places, but in this instance, it has been somewhat of a dilemma—should I pay full price for this souvenir and feel good about supporting the person operating the store or will I feel disappointed about the purchase because I paid full price and didn’t have to? Can I feel excitement about getting a good deal on a gift, or will I feel guilty about knocking %30 off of an original price because I forced someone else to meet my demands? I am perfectly aware that I have been conditioned to want items I don’t need in general, but when it comes to places like Vietnam, I have also been conditioned to believe the quality of the items I want but don’t need from another country are inferior and should, therefore, cost less.
5. Perceptions vs. Reality
To prepare for this field experience, the group discussed at large our expectations of what we may encounter in Vietnam, and with five days behind us, it has been meaningful to have enough time to reflect on how those pre-travel perceptions have held up. Having traveled to a megalopolis in China recently, I felt I had a fair idea of what I would find in Hanoi, and so far, nothing has taken me by great surprise. When I was in China, I visited a large city, but it wasn’t a popular tourist site. Before going there, however, I expected I would encounter locals who could speak English, and that wasn’t the case. Before coming to Hanoi, I didn’t think I would encounter many locals who know English, partly because others in the group were worried about the language barrier and my family also didn’t believe anyone would speak English here. The difference I have noticed, though, is that Hanoi is a popular tourist destination, and that has been evident alone in how much English appears just from walking around the streets in Hanoi. The names of many different buildings and businesses are presented in English, most of the vendors I have met so far greeted me in English, and even most of the patrons in the majority of restaurants I have been to have been US tourists. Otherwise, navigating through the streets with the cars and motorbikes has been more intense than I was expecting, and the food has, of course, been excellent! I’ve noticed that restaurants have been fairly accommodating of dietary needs, as well, which has been a pleasant surprise. I’m sure there are more pre-travel perceptions of Hanoi and Vietnam the group will debunk or confirm in the last half of our field experience.
Erin Mross and Kevin Ngo