Written by Amanda Nguyen, (University of Minnesota-Twin Cities) Student Corespondent CET Vietnam, Fall 2018
Water has always been an important symbol in my life. Water is strong, but flexible. Water holds many forms, but is true to itself. Water heals, nourishes, brings life. Thus, it was fitting that my first most memorable experiences in Vietnam would have lessons from the river.
The first few times I have crossed the streets were terrifying. The traffic in Saigon is much different than the traffic in Minneapolis. Gone were strict traffic rules—motorbike drivers were touching elbows, cars turned left even when there was incoming traffic, painted lanes and traffic lights were merely suggestions. I was so overwhelmed by what I thought was chaos, and felt my heart stop every time I stood waiting at the corner of the street to cross. How was I ever going to navigate the city alone?
On our second day, we had residential orientation. Vu, our resident director, taught us the majority of what we needed to know. With what I now can determine to be the classic Vu charm, he said, “See the country, hear the country, smell the country. But don’t eat the country, eat the food.”
However, the most notable advice he gave us was on everyone’s biggest fear so far: crossing traffic. He said that traffic is a river, and we cannot be rocks in that river.
This clicked a switch in my head. Instead of entering and leaving traffic, by crossing the street, we are traffic. We had to have trust in the drivers to see us, to be predictable and not abruptly stop due to fear, and to keep flowing forward. Even more so, learning about a culture can be imagined like floating down a river.
We must be navigators throughout the process, but uncertain navigators because we must not have a set image of where we want to be by the end of the experience. Having such strong expectations is really harmful, and may hinder your journey. We must be a drop of water in this river, rather than a solitary force standing against its natural flow.
Before coming to Vietnam, I said that I would never ride on a motorbike, partly to reassure my mother of my efforts to remain safe, and partly due to my fear of the extremely unfamiliar. I was too scared to ride on one of the rent-able electronic scooters that popped up in Minneapolis this summer, even though I was working up the courage to for three months. On my third day in Saigon, my Vietnamese roommate, Misty, took me on a 3-hour motorbike tour throughout Districts 1, 2, and 4.
I didn’t realize that riding on a motorbike would teach me so much about Vietnam.
Vietnam has a collectivist culture, where community is valued, while the United States has an individualistic culture, where there is more of an emphasis on the individual. I have witnessed this throughout many pockets in the city, but the most notable is within traffic. At first glance, the traffic looked like total chaos.
But as I continued to watch the streets and think about Vu’s advice, I found the beauty in the madness. Most people ride motorbikes because it is much more convenient and takes up much less space than cars do, and it is much easier to weave in and out of traffic. The dance of motorbikes on the streets seemed almost choreographed—everyone is highly aware of each other, and even the quickest change in the flow is acknowledged and accounted for. The song everyone dances to consists of the low roar of motorbikes and buses harmonizing with each other, met with the constant staccato of horns, gentle reminders by drivers to let others know where they are. In the United States, I would not be caught walking outside without my headphones. In Saigon, the dance and song of traffic invigorate me. I don’t even notice that I left my headphones at home.
Being directly in the middle of traffic and driving with the flow made me aware of how alive I was. We left at sunset, subdued pink and orange hues softly kissing the afternoon’s vibrant blue, storefront signs starting to light up and inviting people in for the dinner rush, sweet breezes from every direction brushing my hair against my helmet. In this moment, everything felt right.
Misty took me to dinner in District 1, to view the skyline in District 2, and dessert in District 4. My favorite part of the night (other than getting to spend time with Misty and bonding over delicious traditional Vietnamese food) was when we visited District 2. From the opposite side of the Saigon River, we were able to view the brilliant District 1 skyline.
From here, I was still able to hear the traffic from the city, but the song I was familiar with was only half of a duet with the sounds of District 2—the rippling of the river against the sand below me, the quiet whispers of rose-cheeked couples finding an escape from the busy city life, the bells of street vendors selling fragrant snacks and desserts. Standing here in silence with Misty, absorbing the sights, sounds, and smells around me, I remembered the importance of stepping back, reflecting, and being present. This year has been so busy that I often forgot to pause and recognize where I was in my life. Even being in Vietnam, every hour seems to be packed full of activities or excursions or new experiences and I find myself forgetting the importance of what I am living through.
When immersed in a new place, it is important to seek out new experiences, but even more to reflect on how those experiences relate to the culture they emerge from, to the community that we are in, and to ourselves. Each experience can serve as a learning opportunity, even a simple drive throughout the city or a breath of fresh air near the river.
Thanks to my local roommate, the river, and the roads I walk along, I move forward with the intention to reflect more, to find nourishment in where I am.