Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Land of a Thousand Scooters

I have arrived!
Yesterday I got into Ho Chi Minh City around 10am after a nineteen hour flight from SFO to Tapei to Vietnam. I had a lovely send off with my family and friends and headed to the airport to catch my 1am flight. Luckily at the check in counter I ran into two girls from my program who go to UCB. Pauline, Stephanie, and I flew with China Airlines, which had terrible food and cramped seats. The connecting flight with Vietnamese Airlines was much better with larger leg space and shrimp fried rice (my first meal in over fourteen hours). I met Jihoon and Hanh in Taipei, two other kids from the program. When we all arrived in Ho Chi Minh City Airport it was hot and humid (even at 10am). We met our program adviser, Hung, who took us to our hotel. Hung is an English major, twenty six years old, and is from Can Tho. Once at the hotel we met the majority of the other kids from the program. All of us range from ages 20-24. We spent the first day going out to lunch with our Professor, Cary, who has been living in Vietnam on and off for ten years. He studies developing agriculture and is a professor at UCD. For lunch we went to a Vietnamese style dim sum place. First thing I noticed about the food was the massive amount of shrimp and fish oil in all of the dishes. The first meal we broke all of the EAP health codes...eating raw veggies and drinking tea with ice. Cary said that we are all going to get bacteria in our system and we might as well start now. Surprisingly, I have been eating raw veggies and my system is fine.
The city center
The first thing I noticed about HCM is the traffic. This place has the most hectic and terrifying traffic I have ever seen. Thousands of scooters and cars all weaving among each other, barely avoiding contact. Crossing the street is not an easy feet here, as there are few traffic lights and cross walks. It seems as if traffic laws here are just a suggestion. After lunch we exchanged some money. The exchange rate here is crazy cheap. About 2100 Dong equals 1 USD. I hear prices in Can Tho will be even cheaper than the city. We had the rest of the day to explore the city so the nine of us decided to go to the Reunification Palace (the Southern Vietnamese President's palace during the war). It was interesting to see this run-down palace be glorified from the Communist Party's perspective, having grown-up with a Western perspective. The palace glorified its opulence, rather than talk about its involvement in the war. Below ground level in the bunkers were my favorite, because they had all of the old communication technology from the war. There were maps displaying how Vietnam used to be divided. Overall, the place had a kind of eerie vibe to it, because all I could think about was what it must have been like to be in the palace during the war. 



We spent the rest of the day walking around the city and drinking Vietnamese coffee, which is very strong and very sweet because of the condensed milk. That evening we went out to dinner with Hung, his friends, and some girls from Princeton working in Vietnam. The women are in HCM for a year working on traffic safety (which really needs work!). For dinner we went to an outdoor BBQ. I had my first Vietnamese beer there, Tiger, which slightly resembled beer but tasted more like water. Fun fact, the Vietnamese drink their beer with ice which dilutes it even more. Dinner was great. We had morning glory (my new favorite veggie), goat chest, frog, fried ginger, and a crab hot pot. My stomach seems to be doing pretty well with all the food here and I'm extremely thankful for that. What I found most surprising about HCM is that beggars come up to your table during all most every meal. And they aren't just adults. Little kids and old women come up to you and try to beg by selling you chocolate or peanuts....very different then anything I've experienced. Most of us were exhausted after dinner and so we crashed back at the hotel. My first day in Vietnam was spectacular and everyone in my program is very nice.
The largest Catholic Church in HCM

Our second day was very busy. We started off by meeting Cary at a school around the corner from our hotel for orientation. We talked about our program a bit more in depth. I found out we have a vacation coming up at the beginning of September for independence day. We have options to go anywhere in the south so we'll probably go to a beach resort or an excited! We had lunch and returned to orientation, this time with some girls from a local agricultural school. The girls had done a project with Cary a few months back. All of the girls spoke really good English and they were around our age. We learned a bit about Vietnamese culture from Cary. Some of it was accurate and some of it the girls had to correct. For example. children's birthdays are marked by the lunar calendar rather than the roman calendar. So a child who is born is automatically 1. I met this girl who was born in 1993, and she told me she was 23 years-old. Other different traditions are that pictures of people of three are unlucky and the average age for marriage is between 18-22. None of the girls we met were married and none of them believed in the unlucky 3 photo. The girls and our group went out for coffee before dinner and got a chance to get to know each other. We went out to dinner at this grill place on top of a building in the city center. Apparently Brad and Angelina ate there when they were picking up another child for their army of orphans. It was really beautiful at the restaurant because we could see a lot of the city center. We got bowls of various uncooked meat, fish, and vegetables and grilled it ourselves. I don't think I like goat chest very much, because it is very chewy. My favorite dish was the shrimp. They were skewered whole and live so when we put them on the grill they squirmed around for a little. They were delicious though! My roommate Pauline and I stayed at the hotel while everyone went out to get a good night's rest for the next day. We'll go out tonight for sure!
Much love,


  1. Hi Kaitlan,
    Sounds like a wonderful start to your amazing adventure in Vietnam. I am enjoying reading about the culture through your perspective. Keep safe crossing those streets and stay healthy!
    Hugs, Cathy Petersen

  2. Actually 1 USD equals 21000 VN Dong