Xin chao from Ho Chi Minh City

October 1, 2019 | Ryan, Honours Bachelor of Social Sciences in International Economics and Development, Vietnam, Uniterra - Ho Chi Minh College of Economic (HCE), Soft Skill and Marketing Officer

It’s been four weeks since I’ve arrived here in Ho Chi Minh City, yet it feels like a lifetime has already passed.

If I could describe Vietnam in a single word, it would be contradictory. This is a country of stark contrasts, with 5-star hotels sitting side-by-side with centuries-old temples to Thien Hau – the Buddhist goddess of the sea – and old aunties selling noodles on the street next to Starbucks and luxury sushi restaurants. Even the traffic, as chaotic as it is, has some sort of orderly nature to it; granted, crossing a 6-lane avenue is always a bit hair-raising, but once you start walking the bikes and taxis will just weave around you almost effortlessly. This is a place where old and new, east and west, all seamlessly combine to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Economic inequality is striking here, as is the fast-paced nature of the country’s development and the constant determination and drive of its people.

There’s something that stirs the heart about clinging on for dear life on the back of a motorbike taxi as it races down neon-lit rain-slicked streets (with a helmet on, of course!), or about sipping iced coffee (extra condensed milk) at a rooftop café while watching the world pass you by. And there’s something about greeting the banh mi stall auntie at the end of my alleyway every morning with a xin chao and a wave, and about petting the overfed neighbourhood dogs who come up to me with wagging tails, that never fails to bring a smile to my face.

In short, Saigon feels like a home away from home, and it’s an experience that I wouldn’t give up for the world.

That’s not to say that there haven’t been challenges, of course. The language barrier is ever-present, perhaps even more so given my East Asian descent. I’m assumed to be a local wherever I go, at least until the shopowners start bombarding me with questions in Vietnamese only to be met by my wide-eyed, uncomprehending stare and an embarrassed chuckle. The air pollution is ever-present, too, enough that I’ve taken to wearing a mask whenever I step outside on some of the worst days. If it doesn’t protect me against the particles in the air, at least it’ll help shield me from some of the smell of durians being sold on the street.

Most WUSC volunteers are in Hanoi, on the opposite end of the country. There’s only one other volunteer in my office, but even then it hasn’t really been all that lonely here. We’re both Asian-Canadians, and while her Vietnamese background makes it easier for her to adjust, her presence and the ability to share our experiences together has made working and living here an incredibly enjoyable and refreshing journey.

During the first two weeks of work here, I had the opportunity to go out into a rural community to live and work alongside local farmers while supporting a joint Vietnamese-Singaporean social innovation project. I was lucky enough to have observed as a team of 18-20 year-old students matured and grew over those two weeks to become some of the most passionate and brightest young leaders and innovators who I’ve ever met, and to have been able to directly contribute to the development of Southeast Asia’s youth. The fact that some of these same students now bring me an iced coffee every day after they saw me sneak off to buy one in the middle of the jungle doesn’t hurt, either.

Something that becomes very clear very quickly, though, is how much the work culture here stands on ceremony. Every event must have a hundred photographs, usually with an oversized bouquet of flowers in each participant’s hands. I’ve felt as though myself and the other volunteer are often wheeled out as a way to show off the school’s international partnerships, though after speaking with other WUSC staff in Hanoi I’m thankful at least that we’ve been given meaningful work instead of being simply token foreigners.

Despite the difficulties and awkward moments, though, the chance to work here as a Soft Skills & Marketing Officer has been nothing short of incredibly rewarding. I feel like I really can make a difference here, however small, and I look forward to the next two rewarding months.

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