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Wonderful. Challenging. HOT. Eye-opening. Thought-provoking. HUMID. Exhausting. Emotional. HOT. So many ways to describe the first two weeks here in Vietnam. My first weekend was sort of a blur and I can’t believe it’s already been two weeks since arriving. I spent the first few days in Ho Chi Minh City mostly just doing touristy things and trying to get acclimated to the heat and a different change of pace here. I explored the markets, the various landmarks and museums, the botanical garden and zoo, the tallest building in Ho Chi Minh, which was built in the shape of a budding lotus, and had some faaabulous Vietnamese veg food.

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(Some opposition to the Vietnam War from all over the world- taken at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City)

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(Made some new friends at the Saigon Botanical Garden and Zoo!)

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(Mango and coconut sticky rice is life)

On Monday I arrived in my host city on the Mekong Delta. An arranged driver picked me up from my hotel, along with two Australian women who will also be teaching at the university. The almost four hour drive wasn’t so bad because of the incredible views of huge plantations and countless motorbikes whizzing by. The last leg of the journey included taking a ferry over a part of the Delta and then finally into the city. That was super cool because I got to see all the various vendors transporting their goods across the water. The international department of the university greeted us when we arrived and I got settled in my humble abode, which quite frankly is very large. I have a separate bedroom and an even larger living room area with a desk, couch, and fridge. They even gave me a bike.  I’m in the international guesthouse of the university, so there are a number of other foreign volunteers who are also working as teachers or researchers. The English and International departments took us out to dinner that night at a nice hotel, and provided me with some wonderful veg food which was really nice and accommodating.

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(Floating markets on the Mekong Delta)

The rest of the week was filled with getting logistical things figured out, getting a phone and SIM card, bank stuff, and just trying to get settled and comfortable. I’m on university grounds, so it’s a pretty convenient location. I’m close to the center of town, near a great market with fresh fruits and veg (!!!), and have a gym about 2 minutes away from me. I got a monthly membership, which was only about 5 American dollars… This money thing is taking me a little bit of time getting used to. I feel like I’m throwing money around, but everything is incredibly cheap.  I can get a full meal for about 1 American dollar.

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I’ve been walking around quite a bit, just trying to familiarize myself with the area. I’m virtually the only longhaired, blue-eyed, young blonde woman here, which makes for some funny and wide-eyed stares. I’ve gotten a lot of hellos, a lot of stares and subsequent laughs and smiles, and I actually did get a ‘fuck you’ the other day, granted he was probably about 10 years old. Overall, I feel so welcomed and cared for. It’s sort of funny walking around and having people obviously stare at you all the time though. It makes me think about the how my appearance has so much ‘baggage’. Whether that be good or bad, because of colonization or the Vietnam War or whatever influences western society has on this part of the world. It makes me question more deeply my role here as a teacher, but also makes me feel a little uncomfortable. Of course I have no idea what people actually think about me.  What I do know is that just walking around a place where you look nothing like the majority of the people gives you a different perspective about your presence and your body and how you carry yourself.  At least in my case, it’s forced me to think a lot more about privilege and about what it means to be a white, western female in this world today.  It’s fascinating how just changing the environment you’re in can change so many things about how you view yourself and the world around you.  So, I’m in this interesting position of making sure to be conscious and respectful of all these things, but also just trying to bring what I have to offer as a human being. Not because of my skin color, or my hair, or where I’m from, or what language I speak.  We are all human, all made of the same thing, all living in this universe together. And just because we look different, act differently, speak differently, think differently, love differently, or whatever else, doesn’t mean we’re any less human than anyone else. Slight tangent, but these have been my thoughts lately.
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I’ve been observing quite a bit and have noticed so many fascinating things here. So many interesting little habits and ways of doing things. Incredibly different from other countries I have experienced and so, so different from what I’m used to in the US. I’ve been going to the market pretty much daily, buying all sorts of new fruits that I don’t usually eat at home. Rambutans, longans, dragon fruit, baby bananas, guava, also so much coconut water I’m in heaven! The woman I’ve been buying from is already giving me a discount because I keep coming back. Literally daily. And I most likely will continue to until I leave. She’s so adorable and kind and doesn’t speak a word of English, but when I see the smile on her face as I rock up to the stand, my heart is so full. I’ve had a few encounters like this so far, and those have definitely left a wonderful impression on the kind of people the Vietnamese are. So humble, so hard-working, always on the go, but also know how to enjoy the simplicity of just sitting and appreciating the little things in life.  Truly beautiful.

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(Sunrise on the Delta)

When I was in Ho Chi Minh City, I was walking past a small park and an older man started saying something to me. At first I thought he was trying to ask if I needed a ride, but then I realized he was pointing to his bag and wanted to play badminton with me. So I did. Such a simple thing, but so enjoyable even though we could not communicate with words.

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Another thing that I’ve noticed and am so curious about is how every time I buy something, I’m given my purchases in a bag, but the handles of the bag are tied together. I’m thinking this is so nothing flies out and because it’s easier to hang onto the motorbike, but I’m not entirely sure. That’s another thing. The motorbike situation here is incredible. Also absurd and terrifying and so dangerous. It’s quite the ordeal trying to cross the street. I feel like I have to wear a helmet just walking around the city. People drive down the wrong side of the street and on sidewalks and rarely stop for pedestrians. NYC streets did not prepare me for this, but I’m getting quite used to just going for it and slowly making my way as the motorbikes pass me. The bike is a different story. I thought riding a bike in New York was terrifying. No traffic lights or bike lanes here. I took the bike to the supermarket the other day along the back roads, which was fine, but the main roads… holy moly. I’ve gotten a bit more comfortable on the bike and just go for it now. Have to be a little aggressive, but that’s okay I’m a tough cookie haha.
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(An incredible Buddhist Pagoda I stumbled upon on a bike ride)

I’ve had some challenging experiences though. My third night here I was showering and the water shut off for like 10 hours, so I had to use my bottled water to finish my shower. Had a cockroach in my sink, a huge spider in my bathroom for a few days (don’t know if he’s still there…), tons of geckos (one who is still living with me and comes out at night) and ants coming in from the cracks under my door. I took some masking tape and taped the cracks under the door and somehow they’re still coming in… Need to figure that out.  The power went out last weekend so I showered in the dark with the light of my phone. Didn’t have Internet for the weekend, which was actually quite nice and refreshing for a bit.   There was some explosion or something that knocked out the power lines. LOLOL.  I just can’t help but take these things lightly. No sense in getting annoyed.  It’s humbling, really. And makes me think more about how good so many of us truly have it. I’ve seen an immense amount of poverty in the last two weeks. I’m living amongst it. It’s not easy, and every day I’m here I appreciate it even more.  It’s emotionally, mentally, and physically taxing, and all so worth it.  It’s truly perspective changing, but also makes me think that we really shouldn’t have to have these experiences to be grateful for what we have. We are alive. Whatever our situation is, be it rich or poor or whatever in between, we are alive and we have each other.  We are living in this crazy and beautiful world together.  Let’s take the time to appreciate that, even if it’s just for a moment.

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(Can’t get over how incredibly purple these are)

PS. I did have my first day of teaching on Tuesday, but this post is already incredibly long so I’ll save that for the next one, along with a few other things I’ve decided to do during my time here.