My Vietnam Diary: The Heat is On in Saigon

Since late August and until mid-December 2019, I have the opportunity to live in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). It is the largest city in Vietnam and previously the country’s capital. Ho Chi Minh City has a population of about 12 million people, and as a journalist in training, I’m so happy to be immersed in such a culture. 

Saigon is chaotic. Saigon is messy. Saigon is overcrowded. 

Saigon is an ever-evolving city. The landscape is constantly changing and sometimes such changes literally happen overnight. Every morning, I take a motorbike to class and am mesmerised by what I see. It’s as if I go through a different street every single day.

Culture Shock

One thing you cannot ignore in Saigon is the traffic. I mean you literally cannot ignore it; the honking of the motorbikes is incessant. Every single street is crowded and loud. It took me a little while to get used to the traffic patterns because there virtually are none!

There are about twelve million citizens in Ho Chi Minh city, and about twelve million registered motorbikes. The streets are packed. Motorbike drivers have even taken to driving and parking on the sidewalks. This makes them nearly inaccessible because where there is not a parked motorbike, there is a street vendor (some even run their businesses from their motorbikes). 

Street food is a major appeal to those who travel to Vietnam and Southeast Asia. Social media and youtube vloggers have popularized street food culture even more (check out this episode from Netflix's “Street Food”). I eat street food every single day. It is cheap, it is fast and easy, and it is absolutely delicious.

Some of my favorite dishes are: Banh mi (Vietnamese sandwich), bot chien (fried rice flour), sinh to bo (avocado smoothie), pho bo (beef noodle soup), and banh xeo (Vietnamese pancake).

And don’t even get me STARTED about Vietnamese coffee. Hands down, it is what I will miss the most. Vietnam produces some of the strongest coffee in the world, and the typical way it is served is iced with sweetened condensed milk. It is what gets me out of bed every morning and ready to deal with the craziness of Saigon.

(My typical breakfast: ca phe sua da and banh mi op la!) 

It is important to understand that street food culture can be greatly appreciated, but it should not be romanticized. About 78 percent of street vendors are working outside the clear guidelines of the law in the informal sector of society. So many of these vendors are commuting from the countryside or working directly out of their homes, from dawn until dusk, just to make a living. It is hard work, and often a difficult life.

Connections

The students involved in Loyola’s Vietnam Program live in a college dormitory for the months we are abroad. We are currently staying at KTX Bach Khoa University, and Loyola set all of us up with Bach Khoa partners. My partner, Harrie, helps me define my study abroad experience.

I had the privilege to go to Harrie’s hometown. We took a 7-hour sleeper bus to Ninh Thuan Province, and I stayed the weekend with his family. His mother did not speak a word of English, so we learned how to communicate with one another in other ways. This included eating meals together, showing each other photos, and demonstrating cultural differences. For example, Harrie’s mother showed me her closet full of patterned, countryside silk outfits. I, on the other hand, showed her my contact lenses and how I take them in and out of my eyes, something she had never before seen. 

Another Vietnamese connection I made was with the female manager of a salon and spa (she is also a lawyer for her day job). This relationship started when I decided to indulge in the spa! It is true that the American dollar goes very far here, so I took advantage. This woman, Giang, spoke English very well, so we started chatting over tea. This became an event between the two of us every couple weeks or so. I learned a lot from her about what it means to be a working woman in Vietnam. 

And then, of course, are the friends I have made along this journey. It is always scary going somewhere new and not knowing a single person. I had done this many times in my life: transferring schools, moving across state lines and leaving for college. Just because it was something I had experienced before does not necessarily make it any easier. Nevertheless, I am so grateful to have made so many close relationships with those traveling with me. I know these relationships will last beyond our semester abroad. 

Finally, I have had the privilege to partake in service-learning while I am abroad. Every Tuesday and Thursday, about eight Loyola students work with clients from the Disability Research and Capacity Development (DRD) non-profit organization to teach English to adults with disabilities. I cannot stress how much fun and how fulfilling these weekly sessions are. It is so humbling to learn that I have an important life skill that I can teach to others, just because I was born in an English-speaking country. That is a privilege in itself.

Finding Myself Abroad

People choose to study abroad for many reasons. Mine is very personal, but I do not believe it is so unique. The first entry into my travel journal said the following: 

I know why I came here and what I’ve been struggling with. I don’t look at this as a cure; I look at it as something that will change my life for the better. I will grow and become better equipped to take care of myself, overcome heartbreak and handle life better. 

I have struggled with mental health issues my entire life, and I am very open about such obstacles. I believe that by exposing myself and telling my story, I can inspire others to do the same and also get help. This past year was very difficult for me. I suffered severe depression and it took strenuous time, energy, support and strength to overcome the worst bout of my life. I knew what I needed was time and space in a new environment, where I can truly process and grow. 

Words cannot explain the impact this experience has had on me and my mental health. 

Some have even looked at me with a critical eye and said, “so you’re escaping your problems, huh?” Every time, I held my head high and I said, “I am not escaping anything. I am moving on.”