Vietnam study abroad 2015

Independence, Freedom, Happiness

That is the motto of the nation of Vietnam (officially known as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, or SRV for short). In Vietnamese, it is written as Ðộc lập, Tự do, Hạnh phúc.

During January 2015, 25 students from Elon University will visit that storied nation, embarking on a journey of a lifetime to learn about its culture and business environment. While there, they will post their observations, insights, photos, and more on this blogsite. Visit often to get an update on what they are seeing, learning, and writing and talking about.

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Be one, come all

Blog #2
Mark McGann
Hoi an

In a span of time two big sections of the excursion are down. First ha long bay, one of the most spectacularly beautiful places in the world, and then the riveting and welcoming city of Hoi An.

Hoi an, to me, is a dream destination that I will recommend it to everyone I know for multiple reasons. On the base of it, it is a smaller city with the most thriving market scene I have ever encountered. There is truly nothing of commerce that you can’t find, and if by chance you can’t find said item, you can just design it at one of the many custom shops. I designed made myself two suits, two coats I’ve never been able to find in the states, and two pairs of shoes. All of which at an extremely responsible if not cheap price. Along with a great foodie atmosphere and barrels of fresh fruit.

But when you move past the excitement and dreams being made true, you must focus on the people. Of course everyone wants business and so everyone is trying to call you into their shop…but everyone in America wants business…and I’ve never once been summoned into a shop with pleads and smiles. And if you do decide to do business, you are greeted with the grandest of smiles, the freedom to bargain, and astounding hustle that any middle school basketball coach would be proud of.
Never before have I been outside of my country, a tourist, and been welcomed in so happily just the way I am. If you go to France or London, you better attempt to learn their culture and blend in, or it’s a low stride of shoulder shoving and under the breath comments in your future. But in Hoi An, as long as you have a good spirit and of course the business, then it is nothing but 100% gratitude in your future.

Or when we stepped out of the market, and into the culture (classroom) we were greeted with ecstatic enthusiasm and pride to share their culture. We as a group traveled to an organic farm and there I struck a friend. Always lingering in the back of the crowd, for I am not one for the ‘rush and shove’ and don’t take in the surrounding when drowned in a sea of photo flashes, I met a local farmer. She was probably about 70 years old and picking crops for that day’s market. As she picked her, what smelled to be, oregano and basil she would walk up to me with a gleaming smile and ask me to smell, as I did I saw a sparkle of pride in her eyes.

Then we traveled our way to go sailing on the river. An activity that many people, when visiting Hoi an partake in, though the second we arrived there was nothing but laughter and excitement for our presence. And in a final stop we went to a manufacturer who made things with bamboo by hand. One of the creators was standing with me in the back, and he began talking to me, asking me the basic questions like where am I from, and then I started to ask him questions. Not only did he speak great English, but he also was so open and pleased to be sharing information and background knowledge on his life’s work. He showed me the parts of making a bamboo bike and even let me graze along a finished product. He was open about income and prideful on his life’s job.

I’m just having the most riveting time learning about other cultures, and other people. It’s just like Pocahontas says “Have you ever heard the wolf cry to the blue corn moon. Or asked the grinning bobcat why he grinned? Can you sing with all the voices of the mountains? Can you paint with all the colors of the wind?” You don’t know the people, until you are with them. And then you see such glory and astonishing attributes.

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The real “farm to table”

While continuing my adventures in Vietnam, I am constantly surprised at the drastic differences in culture. A normal daily activity here seems worlds away from something I am used to in America. Traveling in Hoi An has opened my eyes up to the bluntness and openness of how food is served and supplied compared to the U.S. In America we are used to restaurants and stores hiding their kitchens or butchering their animals in another room. A customer never sees their raw meat or the head of the animal they are about to consume. It is custom to expect to be served a meal without any knowledge of what goes on behind the scenes. Vietnam is quite different. Freshly killed pigs are carried though the front door of a restaurant. Dogs running around the streets are expressed as tomorrow’s dinner. Chicken and ducks and strung in windows for display. As an American, all of these sights are alarming to me. There is a vast difference in culture and societal norm.
Seeing where your food comes from is an especially interesting topic for me to reflect on. I worked for four years in an organic food co-op that preached knowing where your food is grown, made and sold. The “farm to table” phenomenon is sweeping the US as people try to be more aware of what they are eating and straying away from highly processed and mass produces foods. People today claim to want to see where their livestock is grown to ensure it is being raised humanely and peacefully. They want to avoid mass produced, polluted and violent slaughterhouse atmospheres. Although Americans are seemingly obsessed with the wholistic free range trend, I am certain most of them would be horrified to watch their dinner being carried past them freshly killed.
It seems to me that the Vietnamese people have the right idea when it comes to obtaining your livestock right from the source. Animals are free to roam and live until they are killed swifts and immediately used for consumption. This emulates the farm to table mantra perfectly. It’s ironic though that Americans, the ones that preach organic and fresh livestock, would never accept this truly farm to table meal simply because of societal cures and social norms. An American would never watch their meat be killed and served so bluntly. It’s a contradictory lifestyle but an interesting realization to explore.

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A Deeper Look at the Vietnamese People

In my last blog post, I really focused on the people of Vietnam and how I was truly amazed by their genuine happiness, and their willingness and eagerness to interact with tourists. Our stay in Hoi An has allowed me to gain further perspective on the behavior of the Vietnamese people, and perhaps take a little bit of a deeper look into why the Vietnamese people are so friendly and outgoing to tourists. I was intrigued to write about this once again, because what I saw in Halong Bay, Hanoi, and the mountainous region, in terms of the people, and what I wrote about last blog post, was only amplified in Hoi An. Shopkeepers were extremely friendly, and extremely outgoing, often standing in front of you as you tried to walk by, attempting to sell their goods and services. We participated in a soccer game, in which for most of the game, the Elon students and two French tourists played against the Vietnamese. The irony of the situation was obvious to both sides I think, given Vietnam’s history (colonization by the French, and the Vietnam War). However, there was nothing but kindness and respect from the Vietnamese players. The game was filled with laughs and good-natured competition. One Vietnamese player went far enough to walk us to the nearest hospital when our star goalie dislocated his finger. Perhaps most shocking to me was the respect, courtesy and kindness showed to us by a former Vietcong member who showed us around his bamboo bicycle workshop.
As we discussed our time in Hoi An as a group many students discussed these moments as things that really stood out to them. What really stood out to me was the role that we, as tourists, play in the Vietnam economy, especially in Hoi An. Our role in the economy was evident through the astounding amount of English that was spoken by the local people. Not once did I have a serious problem trying to communicate. Vu mentioned that in Hoi An, where tourists play a vital role in the economy by buying goods and services from local merchants, there are really only two busy seasons throughout the year, summer, and Christmas/new year time. This means that during this time of the year, most merchants must make a significant portion of their revenue in order to maintain a sustainable business. Without trying to sound cynical, this really makes me wonder how genuine the kindness is toward Americans. I do not doubt that the younger generation’s kindness is genuine in most cases. However, after visiting the war museum today, I just find it almost impossible to believe that the older generation (especially those whom were fighting against the Americans), who lived through the war and saw the tragic outcome on the Vietnamese people, economy, and natural resources of Vietnam, do not feel hatred toward the American people. The things we saw today at the museum were not things that in my mind, any person can simply put behind them. It just makes me really wonder what the true attitude of the elder generation is toward Americans, as it is very hard to truly see knowing that we play such a vital role in their livelihood.

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A Battle of Epic Proportions

For this stint of the program we were situated in the beautiful central city of Hoi An. It was unlike any city I had ever seen before and the transportation offered proved how different the culture of the city was. When we arrived we were each given a bicycle to ride into town and until we rode as a group into the old town, was I able to fully appreciate how chaotic their roads can be. This just confirmed what we could see in Hanoi and made me appreciate the respect for rules and regulations in the United States. Although this blew me away, the moment that I will not forget about Hoi An occurred on the soccer field in a game organized by our program coordinator.
The game really showcased the ability of the younger generation of Vietnam to look past the previous generations’ actions and live a life without discrimination or prejudice toward certain people. During the game I didn’t fully recognize the magnitude of the moment but afterwards when talking about the history of Vietnam it struck me that the game we played would not have been possible about 20 years ago. At one point the teams were 5 Vietnamese players against 2 French, 2 Americans and myself. France had obviously colonized Vietnam and of course the US had been involved in a very gruesome war not too long ago.
Vietnam had been under the control of many countries throughout its history, most recently, under French rule from the mid-19th century. Under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh, a communist party was created in February of 1930 and they soon began to fight for Vietnamese independence. It was not until September 2nd 1945 that Ho Chi Minh declared independence for Vietnam. However, in 1946 a Franco-Viet Minh War began with a French attack on Hanoi. In 1959, the North-South War broke out, which became known as the Vietnam War. The United States ended their involvement in the Vietnam War in August of 1973, and when the North Vietnam military took Saigon in April 1975, the war was over and North and South Vietnam were reunited under communist rule.
Clearly there is a long history between the 3 countries that were involved on the field but based on the friendliness displayed by the Vietnamese, no onlooker would have been able to tell. They not only let us play, but brought water, some snacks and invited a few of us for drinks afterwards. This was not just constrained to the field but this is the mindset of the people of Vietnam on a whole and something that I think will help them prosper and grow. As our program coordinator put it, “Why would you be mean to tourists who travelled 24 hours to see your country?” They are also constantly asking questions about where we are from and I believe it is because they are trying to learn from other cultures to help with their own development. They value education highly and believe that interacting with tourists is the best way to learn about alternative approaches to societal problems. They are happy for the small things I life and as we have all seen, it is a very rare sight to see someone without a smile on their face especially when dealing with foreigners. It is really a great feeling to feel so appreciated and welcomed into a society and is a major difference between the culture of the United States and that of Vietnam.

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a quaint little city

The city of Hoi An could be described in one word as quaint. The slower pace compared to Hanoi showed us a very different side to Vietnam. While driving to the hotel from the airport the first thing I noticed was the amount of signs for resorts and hotels there were along the coast. If you looked to the other side of the road there were small houses and apartments belonging to local residents. This contrast in architecture and environments made me question what is going to happen to those local residential houses once those massive resorts and hotels are built. It will be interesting to see how this increase in tourism and commercial attractions will change the lives of the local people culturally and economically. Will the local population be accepting of this new increase in tourism and commercialism?

When walking around the city of Hoi An I instantly noticed the more lively and energetic nature of the people. It is clear that the shop owners are enthusiastic about tourists and use this joyful persona to attract potential customers. One day while shopping I had a custom pair of sandals made in one of the small leather shops. The woman who took my measurements told me the shoes would be ready the next morning, not even twenty four hours later. I was shocked at how fast she could have them made and was a little worried about the quality of them. The next day when I went to pick them up the shop owner could not have been happier to see me return to pick up my sandals. She had her husband go pick up the sandals from her house a couple streets down and presented them to me with sheer pride. The shoes that she made for me are now my favorite pair of sandals and fit perfectly. This experience with a local shop owner and her family gave me an idea of how local families support themselves in this city. The efficiency and quality of the shoes she made for me proved how much time and effort these shop owners put into their work for a very small reward.

A final note about the city of Hoi An is from an experience I had with a woman working at Be Be tailor. The middle aged female employee asked me what I was doing in Vietnam and how long I would be staying. I explained to her that I was here as a college student studying abroad for 3 weeks. The woman’s face immediately lit up in awe as she explained that students in the universities in Vietnam do not have the funds or resources to travel abroad. She told me to take advantage of this experience and to cherish each moment. I assured her I was and then asked her if she had ever traveled out of the country. I was stunned to learn that she hadn’t even traveled outside of the city of Hoi An in her lifetime. This interaction was very humbling and made me stop to think about how fortunate we all are for this incredible once in a lifetime experience. Putting everything into perspective was truly humbling and reminded me to seize each moment for the remainder of this trip because only a small population of students are fortunate enough to study abroad.

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a quaint little city

The city of Hoi An could be described in one word as quaint. The slower pace compared to Hanoi showed us a very different side to Vietnam. While driving to the hotel from the airport the first thing I noticed was the amount of signs for resorts and hotels there were along the coast. If you looked to the other side of the road there were small houses and apartments belonging to local residents. This contrast in architecture and environments made me question what is going to happen to those local residential houses once those massive resorts and hotels are built. It will be interesting to see how this increase in tourism and commercial attractions will change the lives of the local people culturally and economically. Will the local population be accepting of this new increase in tourism and commercialism?

When walking around the city of Hoi An I instantly noticed the more lively and energetic nature of the people. It is clear that the shop owners are enthusiastic about tourists and use this joyful persona to attract potential customers. One day while shopping I had a custom pair of sandals made in one of the small leather shops. The woman who took my measurements told me the shoes would be ready the next morning, not even twenty four hours later. I was shocked at how fast she could have them made and was a little worried about the quality of them. The next day when I went to pick them up the shop owner could not have been happier to see me return to pick up my sandals. She had her husband go pick up the sandals from her house a couple streets down and presented them to me with sheer pride. The shoes that she made for me are now my favorite pair of sandals and fit perfectly. This experience with a local shop owner and her family gave me an idea of how local families support themselves in this city. The efficiency and quality of the shoes she made for me proved how much time and effort these shop owners put into their work for a very small reward.

A final note about the city of Hoi An is from an experience I had with a woman working at Be Be tailor. The middle aged female employee asked me what I was doing in Vietnam and how long I would be staying. I explained to her that I was here as a college student studying abroad for 3 weeks. The woman’s face immediately lit up in awe as she explained that students in the universities in Vietnam do not have the funds or resources to travel abroad. She told me to take advantage of this experience and to cherish each moment. I assured her I was and then asked her if she had ever traveled out of the country. I was stunned to learn that she hadn’t even traveled outside of the city of Hoi An in her lifetime. This interaction was very humbling and made me stop to think about how fortunate we all are for this incredible once in a lifetime experience. Putting everything into perspective was truly humbling and reminded me to seize each moment for the remainder of this trip because only a small population of students are fortunate enough to study abroad.

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A Unique Culture On Water

After Hanoi we took a 5 hour bus ride to Halong Bay. A breath taking area that not only had incredible views but a rich and inspiring culture.

The initial weather in Halong Bay was not ideal. It was raining, cloudy and cold but we didn’t let it stop us. We all took mini boats out into the Bay to explore the area and what we saw was indescribable. 

There was an entire village of floating homes in the middle of the Bay. Each home was unique in its own way and painted with such vibrant colors. To be honest it was one of the most incredible things I had ever seen.

Our tour guide explained how they live in these tiny little homes year round, rain or shine. For some reason this was a concept I had a very hard time grasping. How could a village exist in the middle of the water? I had so many questions. Did they have running water, electricity, heating? I was thoroughly confused how this was even possible but my tour guide smiled at me and simply said, “it’s all they have ever known.” 

The majority of these people have probably never lived on land so they don’t know anything different. They grow up on the Bay, make a living on the Bay and then start their own family, all without having to step foot on land. It’s quite inspiring actually. 

We are all so focused on getting the best internship and the latest and greatest new product while these villagers could probably careless. They don’t need much to maintain their lifestyle. While wealth and being successful might be among our goals I bet these Vietnamese natives only have one goal and that is happiness. 

Although all human beings crave happiness I believe we allow so many external factors to get in the way of our happiness while these people just live their life. You could have all the money in the world but that still doesn’t mean you are happy. Yet these people have practically nothing and couldn’t seem happier. Seeing the villages in Halong Bay opened my eyes and allowed me to see what really matters in life. 

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Plowing the Way Towards Modernization

Hoi An and Da Nang are only an hour flight from Hanoi, but the appearance and development are very different. The deviating ideals of the government in Hanoi and Da Nang are huge reasons for this and have made these areas more modern. The government is not only focused on attracting more tourists and businesses, but also becoming aware of the environment and sustainability.

As I was riding the bus into Da Nang, I didn’t expect the architecture to be so contemporary and the business buildings to be so tall and modern. This city has sprung up in the last couple of decades and has a couple of prominent bridges that are spectacular. One of them has a golden dragon “flying” through it. The direction of the dragon is facing the sea and around 9pm the mouth spouts fire. This bridge holds a lot of significance because it represents the thirty eighth year of liberation for Da Nang. The construction for the bridge started in 2009 and only opened last year. The government spent over eighty million dollars on this bridge and worked with architects from Japan to help build it. Also as I was driving around I noticed a lot of land by the water that was under construction with pictures in front of what the resorts were going to look like. The pictures were of perfect pools and beaches, not a single chair or tree out of place. It was miles of paradise resorts after another. The government wants to build places where foreigners can come to relax and enjoy their vacation. Vietnam in general is consistently on the top of lists for places to visit. The government in Da Nang gives the money back to the city and pours it into the tourist sector, trying to build an economy on tourism. The government wants the resorts companies to come here so badly that they are willing to give good deals to them. They think the more they invest in resorts the more tourists will come. I find it interesting that the government is so willing to make the city and all the buildings so nice when in Hanoi the corruption is a lot worse and not much of the money makes it out to help the city. The government has made this city come a long way in such a short period of time.

In Hoi An the government supports the farming industry as well, not just building and tourist development. The organic farm that is in Hoi An is one of nine that has been started by an NGO. They employ around one hundred fifty people for these farms. Before the farm was up and running last year, people from other countries and areas we’re brought in for their experience and insight. I was surprised that there were so many different strategies to growing organic crops besides crop rotation and using no pesticides. The farmers also planted flowers to distract from the crops, grew tall grass around the farm to keep out outside factors, and filtered the water a couple of times before watering the plants. Unfortunately, a majority of the farmers are in their fifties and sixties and none of the young people want to farm. They want to go into the city to work and build their companies. The government recognizes that organic farming is more time consuming and expensive, so to get more farmers to switch to organic farming they are offering to pay the loss. This now gives many farmers the incentive to switch methods and it helps the environment as well.

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Textiles In Hoi An

Hoi An is such a beautiful city with a lot going on. Hoi An used to be a major port city because of it’s great location right on the water. The Thu Bon Rive that runs right though the city used to be used as an important trading center. The river today is seen as a tourist attraction. You can not walk along side it without being asked to go on a boat tour. Today the streets are filled with markets, local stores, tailors and restaurants.

One thing that Hoi An is know for is its beautiful silk and textiles. Before traveling to Hoi An I had heard amazing things about what the tailors could make for you. Friends and family members who had traveled to Hoi An before had talked about how quickly you could get custom clothes made. This made me extremely excited to experience this type of shopping. On the first day we arrived in Hoi An a group of us were eager to get to the tailor to get our measurements taken. There was a large group of us who wanted to get dresses made, we bargained with the lady so that we could get a good group price. Although bargaining is a big part of the culture it sometimes is uncomfortable. At home there is no bargaining, the price is the price. But here it is the norm to bargain. I find it hard to bargain sometimes because the difference in pice could be 10 cents to me but to them it’s is so much more. It’s hard to feel like you are taking money away from someone who needs its more than I do.

When we went back to the store around closing time the following day to pick up our dresses. As we were all paying for our dresses we were telling the lady how beautiful all of the clothes were. She then led us to the back area where all of the clothes were being made. The room was a small dim lit room with at least twenty different people hard at work at their sewing machines. At this point the store was about the close but we knew that these men and women were not leaving any time soon. This moment put everything into perspective for me. This beautiful dress that I had just bought was not just an ordinary dress, is was someone’s masterpiece that they had spent all night working on. It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of shopping and lost track reality. But you need moments like this to make you step back see what is happening. The men and women who are making the clothes are there every night until they finish every piece they need for the next day. This hard work is easily overlooked but the people who shop there. It’s it easy to get caught up in the bargaining and excitement of shopping, but it is important to realize and appreciate the hard and tireless work that they put into making their customers happy everyday when they are making very little.

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Learning to Bargain

Spending a week in Hoi Ann and adapting to the transition of the Vietnamese cities to the countryside gave me a new perception into the Vietnamese culture. As we were blown away by the beautiful beaches and riverside village we roamed the Ancient village in search of souvenirs and bargain deals. For Hoi Ann tourists, buying a custom made suit or dress is a must-do. The clothing and silk industry is one of the main economic sources for the local people, and many shop keepers rely on tourist sales for their income.

As an American, when I go shopping I am used to buying products at their retail price. I know that when I want to buy an item I either accept the price set by the retailer or choose not to buy the product. However, shops in Hoi Ann do not share this same similarity. Whether it was in the small local shops or the large commercialized tailors no price was set in stone, meaning that the consumer had the power to dictate the price of their desired item.

After meeting some of the local people and visiting local shops this was a cultural difference I had a hard time understanding. I felt uncomfortable with the fact that I was bargaining between one or two US dollars just to try and get a lower price or to feel like I wasn’t being ripped off. However, in reality that one dollar would have meant so much to the shop keeper, which made me feel as though I was robbing or cheating the Vietnamese shop owner from their livelihood.

As we continue our journey without Vietnam I continue to realize how much bargaining is apart of their culture and as tourists we must learn the trade in order to become apart of this unique and vibrant country.

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