“Vietnam is just a war.”
When I told people I was studying abroad in Vietnam this semester, the most common reaction I received, especially from non-millennials, was a mixture of shock and fear. Many people from the generation of my parents and grandparents could not understand why I would choose such a “dangerous,” “mysterious,” or “unconventional” country to live in. As humans, we have set images of people and places, and although the Vietnam War ended 43 years ago, a staggering amount of Americans still cling to an outdated perception of the country as war-torn and struggling.
That being said, I didn’t know anything about Vietnam when I initially applied to study here. Although I study journalistic broadcasting in Chicago, I am from a small town in South Dakota. I’ve only been abroad to Mexico and Italy, and I had never studied Southeast Asia before. To me, the program was exciting, unique, and, if we’re being honest, a lot cheaper than studying in Europe…a perfect combo!
To study in Vietnam, an American student has to apply for a visa through the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington D.C. using their passport, a pre-approved application, and a passport photo. Of course, all of this happens after you have been accepted into your university’s program. So, over Christmas break, I sent in for my visa and excitedly waited for it’s return. I was to fly out on Monday, January 8th at 5am from the Minneapolis airport (about 4.5 hours from my house).
In the final days leading up to my departure, everything that could go wrong, seemed to go wrong. From my phone breaking, to my bank imposing last-minute travel fees, to issues with my vaccinations and malaria pills, I think I cried at least three times a day. After an eternity, it was Saturday morning and everything had been smoothed out, which meant my dad and I were all set to leave for Minneapolis the next day!
But by that evening, a devastating issue manifested. My passport and visa had not yet been returned to me.
Over the next eight hours, and through near constant tears, I realized that the United States Postal Service had accidentally misplaced my package and let it sit in Maryland for nearly two weeks. It was quickly being expedited to me, but would not arrive until Monday afternoon at 4pm— eleven hours after my flight was scheduled to take off. A wooden numbness creeped throughout my entire body as my parents and I made plans to reschedule my flight for the earliest possible time. That proved to be five days later, on Friday. I wouldn’t get to arrive with my classmates, I would miss all of orientation, and I would have to jump right into school without any jet lag adjustment period. To say I was disappointed is an understatement.
Still, life moves on. Despite a blizzard in Minneapolis, mechanic issues in Houston, and a nail-bitingly-short connection in Tokyo, my bags and I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon) on January 14!
Now, after two weeks of classes, I could not be more in love with my new home. Vietnam is such a dynamic, colorful, loud, friendly, and chaotic place. It is complicated and intriguing and messy and irresistible. The entire city of Saigon thrums with a pulsating energy and the sensory overload from walking down a street is truly unlike anything I have ever experienced.
As I continue to explore the city and the people who inhabit it, one thing has become glaringly clear to me: Vietnam cannot be romanticized. In the same way that it is so much more than a country we fought a war in, it is also so much more than its colorful buildings and motorbike-infested streets. There are real issues involving gender, economics, hierarchies, race, and environmental concerns. The country itself is still a middle-class and developing economy, which presents several unique challenges. And the people of Vietnam, just like Americans, have their own flaws and shortcomings.
Throughout my time here, I want to challenge my perspectives of this city and this country. However, that is not to suggest that these entries will be filled with judgmental observations and over-critical condemnations of the people who live here. Acknowledging issues is important, especially if we want to examine how human beings are treated and valued. It also plays a significant role in self-examination within American biases and downfalls. And there are so many wonderful things to be discussed as well! I want to look at tough topics that the Vietnamese are facing today, and in the same breath, I want to celebrate all of their vibrant and unique characteristics. As with any place that one lives in, life is rarely black and white. However, I don’t see this country as shrouded in gray...instead, you have an older generation as hard working and tough as any people I have ever encountered, and a young population filled with an infectious hunger, drive, and optimism.
Vietnam has so much to offer the world. And I am so ready to stop overlooking this breathtaking nation. Asking some of those difficult questions can be messy and uncomfortable, and I have often found myself in a confusing space between complacency and judgment. But the bottom line is that everyone has a story to tell. If you’re willing to come along on this ride, I ask that you listen to the Vietnamese’s stories with an open heart and respect to their life views, personal struggles, and victories. Cast aside any and all judgments or preconceived notions you may have about Vietnam, its government, or its people.
My goal this semester, and for the rest of my life, is to reframe my global experience, and I ask that you attempt to do the same. Imagine what a world this would be if we were able to value another person’s life because of their existence; not what they offer to ours.
I cannot wait to give you a glimpse into this life-changing opportunity I have! There’s a lot of semester left, and so to explore! So, as the Vietnamese say: “Hẹn gặp lại mồi ngưởi!” See you again, everyone!