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30 August 2004

My uncles waste no time in showing me the city! The first thing that we do is drink ca-phe (coffee). It is a humid morning and I choose to wear a skirt. The skirt is problematic as my uncles teach me how to sit on a xe om (motorbike). I have to sit sidesaddle, which is a little difficult. Om means hug and when you sit on a motorbike, you have to hug the person who’s driving! Not used to this type of transportation, I have to wrap both my arms around my uncle’s waist to feel secure. I am afraid of falling off!

The xe om zooms off! The alleyways of the neighborhood are narrow and clustered with people. Once we get onto the main street, there are about six or seven lanes of motorbikes, bicycles, taxis, trucks and cars. The air is thick with exhaust and with the drum of the motors. The number of cars here surprises me. There are Camrys, Mercedes-Benzs, Kias, Fords and several SUVs. Traffic is very noisy since people use their horn quite liberally.

I take in the scenery: Houses are built very close together, due to lack of space. They remind me of tall altars and there are balconies and broad roofs, convenient for drying laundry and housing leafy plants. Usually, if a new house is built, constructors leave one side unpainted so that the next house can be attached. That is an example of Vietnamese pragmatism. It is a colorful city painted in pinks, yellows, oranges and blues. Storefronts have decorative awnings or signs. Some people open shop right out of their own homes! There are abundant stores for cell phones, electronics, music and books, and clothes. Especially clothes. Vietnam is known for its wide selection of silk fabrics and custom-made tailoring. The clothes here are fashionable and tres chic. Then again, this is Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City: commercial polestar of Vietnam. Thanh nien (youths) my age wear trendy styles and suddenly, I feel very plain in my own clothes. I did not bring many tank-tops because I thought that might be too revealing. However, I see many girls wearing them! (I’ll have to remember to buy some because it is so hot!) I also see them sport long-sleeve jean jackets or jean blazers and wonder how they can stand the heat. In addition, I pass by sidewalk shops where peddlers spread their merchandise in a meticulous arrangement on the ground or haul it around on a cart. It is a busy morning with summer schoolchildren, peddlers, merchants, business people, uniformed company employees and tourists.

The street that we are on is wide and unmarked. To get to the opposite side, the signal light must be turned on and you can also hand-signal. You have to be patient and allow the people to go straight before you turn in somewhere. Usually, cafes and stores have a little ramp and you park right on the sidewalk. There is a person who shows you where to park and hands you a ticket to claim your motorbike later. This person watches your motorbike for you, for a fee, of course. This practice is called goi xe.

The café that we are in is fancy and modern. It has dim lighting and broadcasts the Nature channel and fashion shows on three television sets. The hostess at the door is a young women wearing a traditional ao dai (a long tunic with high slits at the sides, worn with wide-leg pants). There is a stereo playing Vietnamese pop music as well as an occasional American oldie. The waitresses are in skirts and jeans and white shirts while the waiters wear crisp white shirts and black pants. The shiny belt buckles and sequined pointy-toed shoes catch my attention the most. My uncles have invited their friends to drink ca-phe with us. They order iced black coffee and I have warm milk (condensed milk from a can mixed with hot water). Complimentary iced tea is offered too. Afraid of potential stomach upsets due to unusual food or ice, my uncles order me nuoc suoi (bottled water) instead. This seems like a popular place since the café is already packed with customers. The other customers smoke freely and I have to turn my face away since a non-smoking section does not exist. I notice that when people come in, they immediately slip their shoes off their feet. It is as if their shoes are uncomfortable and they are not used to wearing them. They then prop their feet on other chairs or draw their knees up, making themselves right at home. Even in a modern café, there are old habits.

The bill is paid and we are off to find some breakfast.

Photos of Vietnam - click to view larger image

Photos of Vietnam - click to view larger image

Photos of Vietnam - click to view larger image

Posted at 11:39 AM | Permalink

29 August 2004

I wake up feeling quite refreshed! Fortunately, I am not experiencing jet lag or insomnia due to the different time zone. (I am about 11 hours ahead of U.S. Eastern time.) I shower and the bathroom has an interesting design. The bathroom is the shower itself. I mean there is a tiled floor with a drain-hole. The detachable shower-head is connected to a faucet built into the wall. (There is no bathtub.) Then a flushing toilet is located on an elevated platform. And on the opposite wall of the showerhead is the sink and mirror. (No medicine cabinet.) The bathroom’s design is practical and the floor is easy to mop.

Posted at 11:38 AM | Permalink

28 August 2004

The flight was long but it was a very comfortable trip. The transfers also went smoothly. I basically watched DVDs and read books to pass the time. My excitement kept me awake for most of the flight! From Chicago to Tokyo, I ate five times! It surprised me that there would be that many meals. I didn’t feel tired at all until the last leg of my trip from Tokyo to Ho Chi Minh City. I slept a good five hours on that flight!

I feel so relieved to be here finally! Vietnam is amazing. Since it is already nightfall, I cannot see much or make out the buildings. However, there are blazing neon signs everywhere indicating that the city is still awake. Everything looks different and exciting. The house where I will be living looks big and spacious. It is about four stories high and made of concrete and steel. The screeching of the sliding steel door scares me a little, but that is the best safety measure here in the city – that and a padlock on the door. It is a beautiful house with high ceilings and a long winding staircase. The walls are painted blue and the fluorescent light that bounces off the wall creates a strange blue lighting. Too fatigued to unpack, I leave my luggage in the living room and climb up three flights to my bedroom. At first glance, my bedroom is unimpressive. It is small but cozy. This room definitely needs some creative decorating, I think to myself. I sleep soundly, thanks to the wonderful air-conditioning!

Posted at 05:35 AM | Permalink

26 August 2004

Welcome to my blog!

I want to thank Jayne Fox and Jack O'Connell in the Public Affairs Office at Holy Cross for setting up this blog for me.

I wake up every day feeling tremendously thankful that I am here in Vietnam. I love every minute of my new life! I hope you enjoy reading my entries.
You may also view pictures on my homepage:
If you have comments or questions, please feel free to email me at Olivia_Thao_Vo@fulbrightweb.org

Happy reading!

Posted at 11:33 AM | Permalink

25 August 2004

Libby Vo ’04 recently returned to her native Vietnam on a prestigious Fulbright Scholarship to conduct fieldwork on the effects of children with birth defects on Vietnamese family life. As she rediscovers Vietnam, reunites with family and travels throughout the country to conduct her research, Libby will share her unique experiences and impressions on this blog. Please check back often for the latest updates and photographs from Vietnam.

Posted at 11:15 AM | Permalink