As the 2017 New Colombo Plan Vietnam Fellow (awarded by the Australian Government's DFAT), I am living, working and studying in Vietnam for 11 months, and Hong Kong for 2 months, to pursue my passion in humanitarian engineering.
As a student civil and environmental engineer at UTS I hope to leverage the strengths of both Australia and Vietnam in order to collaborate and help solve global issues.
A phở-real 5 months
Schools out! I have now finished my university semester in Hanoi.
Over 5 months I’ve saddled more people on the back of motorbikes
than I feel is appropriate to number, accidentally used skin whitening shower gel,
changed my iPhone language to Vietnamese and narrowly escaped death multiple
times on Vietnam’s hectic roads.
Hanoi has certainly been unforgettable.
I can now
add a couple more items to the ‘Never have I ever…except in Vietnam’ list:
- Changed footwear 3 times to get to the bathroom
(living room, kitchen and bathroom sandals)
- Been obsessed with condensed milk (fresh milk is
hard to come by)
- Sang ‘Thank you I love you’ after every yoga
- Been told to put banana on my skin to get rid of
- Drank snake’s blood (see proof below)
Top Lessons Learnt (Part 2)
1. Time is a construct
Expect everything to start early, but also expect delays. For
example, one of my lectures started at 6:45am every Monday morning. However, the
2pm bus may come anytime from 1:50 - 3pm.
2. Make the most of what
If you only have a concrete court to play volleyball on,
train on it and train hard. If you spend too much time thinking about what you
don’t have, you are wasting the potential of what you do have.
3. I am really obvious
I hear ‘cao quá’ (so tall) or ‘hai mét’
(2 metres) at least 3 times a day. Strangers will often run up to me laughing
their heads off to measure themselves against me. I can’t go far without a
Vietnamese child, extremely eager to practice their English, shouting at me ‘Hello!
What is your name?! What are your hobbies?!’ I rarely spend a whole day at uni
without someone asking me to join their English club or talk to them for a few
minutes. White skin, freckles and ‘yellow’ hair have been a fascination for
many. Try and find me in this photo of my Electronics class at HUST.
4. Generosity never goes
Vietnam's culture forms relationships through giving
and receiving. Inviting people over for meals is a great sign of respect to
your guests and the relationship you share. When I was invited to people’s
houses I often pathetically pulled out the Australian delicacy Vegemite,
however it was appreciated. Whether its time, money or energy, generosity is always
5. Worry less because things will (more or less) work out
You can’t plan everything. In Ninh Binh my friend and I hired a motorbike for the day. On the way home it suddenly broke down…and we had a train to catch in less than an hour. It felt as though we had half of the small town help us make that train. After a call to our homestay we had 2 strangers turn up with another motorbike for us, then a taxi met us on our way home with our bags already in the boot, and another man met us on the side of the road with our passports. Although we missed the train by 3 minutes and I definitely hit high-pitched panic mode, I learnt to never estimate the power of local connections.
6. Nap more: manage your
time rather than your energy
Vietnamese people wake up at the crack of dawn, but midday
napping is common practice. At 12pm you will see people sleeping everywhere: in
hammocks, on motorbikes, on mats rolled out on the streets, in luggage storage
areas of buses. Productivity is not measured in time, but outputs, so conserve
your energy to maximise efficiency.
7. Our world is so closely connected
One long weekend I stayed in Dẹ 2, a rural farmer’s village 40km
West of Hanoi, with my friend’s family. Here we watched Sydney tourism clips on
YouTube, discussed North Korean politics and FaceTimed with Vietnamese family
members all over the country. Globalisation and technology has connected us more than ever before. This is making our international network
increasingly dependent on, and responsible for, each other.
8. The paradox of Vietnam’s obsession with ‘sạch’ (clean)
Coffee shops are named ‘clean
coffee’ and food is often described as ‘clean’ rather than ‘fresh’. The slogan ‘Green,
clean and beautiful’ is all over the city. Yet, the streets are strewn with
rubbish and public rubbish bins are almost non-existent. Whilst this paradox seems illogical to a Westerner,
it is a social norm in Vietnam.
9. Traditional gender roles are still very much in play
There is evidence of a gradual
shift to more equal gender roles, however at present, they are very
traditional. This stems from Confucian ethics where ritual, ceremony and social
roles are reinforced. Vietnamese women have
a lot of household responsibilities and are also expected to work. You will rarely
see a male in the kitchen, and you will rarely see a femaledrinking alcohol.
At large gatherings men and women eat in separate circles, however at my friend’s
home town I was invited to drink with the men. Without letting the rice wine
get to my head, this was highly unusual (wearing men's clothes helped). Here’s to everybody we’re true blue…
10. Cut the small talk
Upon first meeting you, Vietnamese
people will immediately ask for your age, profession/major, whether you have a
boyfriend/girlfriend, your parents’ age and you parents’ professions. This is
all before they know your
name. It can come across as blunt but it’s a great way of cutting the small talk
short and figuring out whether a potential love match could be made between yourself and one of the family
members. Plus, the ages are used to identify what personal pronoun
should be assigned to each person. Compliments are given out in the same blunt manner.
My friend thought ‘đẹp trai’ meant ‘good morning’ because people kept on
calling him handsome.
11. If there’s a will there’s a way
I admire Vietnamese people for
their tenacity and creativity. A small section of footpath can be a motorcycle
parking area, a food store, a bike shop, a mechanic’s workshop, a karaoke stand…This
makes walking down the footpath difficult but entertaining. I constantly admire the
plus 60 year olds competing against the traffic on their bicycles (with all their market goods strapped onto the bicycle). Motorcycles are in fact god's gift to Vietnam as they can carry anything: a 5 person family, a couple of pigs, 10m long steel bars, a washing machine, a fridge, countless goods...
You will also often find Vietnamese people 'walking' their dogs whilst riding on their motorbikes beside.
12. What doesn’t challenge
you, doesn’t change you
I admittedly took this quote off
the wall at the gym, but I couldn’t help being inspired when watching old women
workout in their pyjamas. It’s true that I have learnt the most from the more confronting
situations. Living in Hanoi has not always been easy but it’s been
unforgettable. I have learnt more than I ever thought possible in 5 months. Here’s
to the next Vietnamese adventure…
To sign off, here is a photo of one of my new
favourite dishes - miến trộn bò ($1.20 AU)
First up, what I’ve been doing in Hanoi for 3 months, apart from eating copious amounts of rice and noodles?- Studying at Hanoi
University of Science and Technology (as part of my Bachelor of Civil and Environmental
Engineering) - Learning Vietnamese - Working part-time at The Asia Foundation - Teaching English - Playing in the university volleyball and ping-pong 'super' teams - Exploring the insane organised chaos of Hanoi city and its rural outskirts
Top 8 Lessons Learnt So Far 1. Eat together and ‘cheers’ often Meals are better shared, even if the food
is cold. Traditionally, meals consist of a variety of dishes meticulously
prepared by the woman of the house which everyone eats portions of in their own
bowls. You wait until everyone is seated and the eldest male starts eating. Drinking is a bicep workout as every
sip of beer is celebrated, shouting ‘2,3, uống!’ each time you pick up your
2. Language is powerful but spoken Vietnamese
is often unforgiving My beginner knowledge…
It’s been 7 months
living and breathing Vietnam, with a touch of Laos and Thailand. I still have a
‘what the hell Vietnam’ moment most days which only increases my curiosity and
understanding of the culture’s intricacies. Whether it’s a swan lake
performance at a Vietnamese wedding or being gifted the chicken head and feet for
my birthday, there is always something to laugh about.
Here’s my latest
insights: 1. The
street seller is the rawest form of business to be admired Street sellers are
trade in its most pure and honest form. The farmers who bring their produce
straight to the market cut out all middle-men in the value chain. Street-side
food stores buy their goods direct from the markets, reducing the value-chain
to 2 parties. No land ownership is required and all their assets can be
contained within the one mobile cart, or packed onto a motorbike. Minimising
parties involved in bringing goods from the producer to the consumer maximises
profits and reduces complexities. This labori…