In Vietnam, I have spent the last month being uncomfortable—and I couldn’t have loved it more. It’s been a time of navigating the winding alleys of Hanoi, hopping on the backs of motorbikes, crossing roads blazing with bikes in every direction, and trying to communicate with lost drivers who don’t speak English. Half the time I haven’t been quite sure what I’m eating (Intestines? Cartilage? Ear?), where I’m going (I swear we didn’t mean to get stranded in the rice paddies), or what I’m even doing (Pottery? Games? Chopsticks?) But it’s also been the time of my life.
Vietnam has been filled with countless moments, big and small, that I’ll never forget. We spent a weekend at a beach near Ha Long Bay, where giant limestone crags cut out of the ocean. There, we hiked a jungle-encrusted trail up a foggy mountain and kayaked on water smooth and green as jade. The natural wonders of this place were breathtaking, and I was heartbroken to hear about the pollution spilled by hundreds of cruise ships into the nearby bay, and to learn how unsustainable tourism can displace local people. While tourism is definitely a complicated issue, it’s very important that we are always mindful of the place we are in and the consequences of our actions. (If you’re unfamiliar with sustainable tourism, this site is a good introduction).
We also stayed a week in a rural village where we lived in a house on stilts, talked to locals about their experiences of health, and hiked up 1200 steps to reach a beautiful cave nestled in the mountain. We met a woman who, in addition to telling us about her role as a traditional healer, showed us how the Hmong use sticks of melted wax to create intricate patterns on cloth before dying them a rich indigo. Unfortunately, large health disparities divide urban and rural populations, but solutions that use technology to improve healthcare knowledge and treatment are currently in development.
But the highlight of my experience has been the friends and family I have gained. I lived with a host family who strove to make our time in Vietnam unforgettable. The kindness of my host sister, brother, and their extended family opened up a side of Vietnam I would otherwise never have been able to see. We spent so many nights singing VPpop (cue All My Ex’s Hate Me) and Sean Mendes karaoke at the kitchen table, exploring the shops at the Night Market, and eating at the best local restaurants. They cooked us a feast each not and explained, among other things, that in Vietnam vegetables are cheap, fresh, and plentiful. Meanwhile, fast food is considered a luxury! And the students—no one can believe that we went from being complete strangers two months ago to swapping TMI about our latest infections in the weirdest places. What else would happen when you put a bunch of public health students together?
It has been a wild month. While we’re all sad to leave Vietnam, we also can’t wait for the next leg of our trip to begin. South Africa, here we come!
Apologetic Note: This post was severely delayed due to difficulties with WiFi and electricity in South Africa.