Day 12 – The Last Day

It’s the last day in Vietnam!

I cannot believe that this trip is already over. Our final day in Ho Chi Minh City was jam-packed with all sorts of activities. Our morning started off with a coffee run and attempted bun run, but the buns were not ready when we went so we had to come back to the hotel and eat breakfast there. After breakfast, we headed to a gymnasium to play games with the UEF students. Our first game that we played was soccer. We split into two teams, guys and girls, and played about twenty minute games. The girls were more successful than the boys, with the boys losing the UEF team and the girls team winning. The gym was SO HOT so within two minutes of being there we were all disgusting, but after playing soccer it was even worse. The next game that we played was tug-of-war. The first two rounds were won with ease by the Pitt students, but the third round was so much more difficult! The UEF students were pulling the rope early and the judge was a little biased, so they won the third round. After two more rounds of tug of war, Pitt was able to pull out the overall win. The final game was a sack race in which Pitt won yet again, probably because of our height advantage.

After lots of picture taking and a gift exchange, our group headed back to the hotel for lunch, a much-needed shower, and packing. Eliza and I were very sad to say goodbye to room 326 as it was a great home for the past two weeks. We then went downstairs to check out and head to UEF for our final presentations. Our presentations were all about the companies that we have visited over the course of our trip and I think that everyone did a good job! My favorite part of the presentations were the personal slides in which everyone talked about their favorite part of the trip and shared some photos.

Following our presentations, we took even more pictures and then headed to dinner. We had a buffet style dinner on the roof of a hotel and although it was quite hot, I still enjoyed it. We were all dressed in our ao dai’s which was really cool but I was happy to be able to change out of it. After changing, we had time to get one last peach tea from our favorite coffee shop. Finally, we wrapped up the day with a bus ride to the airport with the UEF students where we played music and sang the whole time. It was very emotional staying goodbye to all of our new friends. I really hope that I will be able to see them again as I already miss them so much!

It has been an incredible two weeks and I am so thankful for this experience. I couldn’t have imagined a better group of people to travel with or better students to be paired with.

Signing off for the last time,

-Katie

Day 11 – VSIP & II-VI Site Visits

Hello again!

Today was our second to last day in Vietnam and we spent it at VSIP or Vietnam Singapore Industrial Park visiting both VSIP and II-VI. We started our morning off with an hour long bus ride eventually arriving at VSIP I, the largest of the seven industrial parks that VSIP operates. I was excited for the visit this morning because I knew a lot about the company as I was assigned it for the required group project. Our representative from VSIP was from the marketing department and gave us a brief overview of the company and its founders in the reception area, followed by a more in depth presentation in the conference room. We learned a lot about the company and I feel that I now have a real understanding of why VSIP is the most successful industrial park in all of Vietnam. My group and I are feeling very prepared for our presentation and are excited to share what we learned with everyone.

After our presentation from VSIP, David Baker, a representative from II-VI came and spoke to us about his company. II-VI is an optics company and Mr. Baker’s presentation covered all the different products that are manufactured by II-VI as well as a few other important information about the company. Mr. Baker is from the United States so I enjoyed getting to hear about his experience living in Vietnam. It was particularly interesting to talk to him about how his children adjusted to living in a foreign country especially because he told some really funny stories about their transition.

After a delicious Japanese hot pot lunch in the mall, our group went on to visit II-VI and its production facilities. I will admit that although I didn’t always understand the information that was being presented because of its engineering focus, I did appreciate the intricate work that the employees do to produce quality products. I’m also impressed with how many products II-VI produces and the scale on which they do it. All around, I would say that it was a successful day.

I’m looking forward to playing games with the UEF students tomorrow morning and also the farewell dinner tomorrow evening before we head to the airport.

Only one day left!

-Katie

Day 10 – Reunification Palace Visit – Required Topic #4

Xin chao!

Yet again, today was another great day. This morning we went o the Reunification Palace and took a tour of the building. Upon arrival we were greeted with a guide and some listening devices that had an earpiece the made me feel a little bit like a secret agent. During our tour we saw a whole bunch of different rooms in the palace including the president’s office, the bunker, and a movie theater. It was interesting to hear a little bit about the Reunification Palace, or as the older people in Saigon call it, the Independence Palace, and learn about both its former and current uses.

After our visit to the palace we actually had some time to go back to the hotel. I was able to squeeze in a short nap that kept me going for the rest of the day. We then met in the hotel lobby to head to lunch. Lunch today was a buffet at the Liberty Hotel. I was able to sit out on a balcony and enjoy the view from the top of the building while I ate which was really nice.

Following lunch we got on the bus to drive an hour out to SNP, or Saigon Newport Corporation, a shipping company and our site visit for the afternoon. It was interesting to hear about the logistics of the company and the different facets of the business. SNP is affiliated with the government and our representative spoke highly of the company’s relationship with the government. In terms of government involvement in the business, there is a customs center on location that does semi-random checks on the shipments that are entering the shipyard. Our representative explained that the branch of SNP that we visited is pretty much at capacity which helps me to understand why not every container is searched.

Another part of the business that I found to be interesting was the logistics of getting shipments from point A to point B. Our representative from SNP talked about the company’s involvement in both domestic and international shipping either by boat or by truck. International shipping to somewhere like the US would take anywhere from three weeks to a month while shipping domestically is a much shorter. It was also explained that there may be some time that the shipments sit in the shipyard and so we learned a little bit about what that process looks like as well. Our visit to SNP was rather short, especially in comparison to the drive to get there, but I am glad that we were able to go and get a look at a different kind of business than we have to date.

I can’t believe that we only have two days left! I’m just trying to enjoy the time that I have left here in beautiful Vietnam.

That’s all for today! Check in with you tomorrow.

-Katie

Day 9 – Class and Cultural Visits

Xin Chao!

Today was filled with lessons at UEF as well as visits to a statue, a temple, and the War Remnants Museum. We got to UEF at just about 9 o’clock this morning and began our lesson on history and culture right away. Today’s lesson was a continuation of the lesson that we had last week, but this time it focused more on religion and traditional beliefs. It was interesting to hear about the traditional beliefs in particular. I found it intriguing that odd numbers are good but even numbers are bad, and more than that, this belief is seen in daily life. Some examples that were given included the number of steps up to a house and the number of roses that one gets for a significant other. This belief is not something that is present in the United States and therefore quite interesting to see the contrast in the cultures.

After our first lesson, we had our last Vietnamese language lesson. A lot of the class consisted of review but we were also taught how to order food at a restaurant and some other useful phrases like that. We then had a quick lunch of sandwiches and fresh juice in the classroom before our last lesson of the day.

Our final lesson was about Buddhist Culture and was a fantastic transition into the afternoon’s activities. We learned a little bit about the religion and heard the story of Buddha. We then got on the bus and went to the statue of the burning monk. The statue was very impressive. I think that the statue honors the brave action of the monk’s protest and serves as a reminder of strength in the community. After our stop at the statue we made our way to a Buddhist temple where we got to see the grounds and sit inside the temple for a few minutes. Though I appreciated being able to go inside the temple, I felt as though we were being disrespectful just by being there as there were people around who were deep in prayer.

After our stop at the temple, it was onto our final location of the day, the War Remnants Museum. It was very solemn and quite hard to swallow. I had a particularly difficult time when in the room dedicated to Agent Orange. The photographs that were featured in the room were very graphic and will stick with me for a long time. Although I had a hard time at the museum, I am glad that we were able to go and see the way that the Vietnamese view the Vietnam War.

All in all, I would say that it was a pretty good day! Hard to believe that we are getting so close to the end.

Talk to you tomorrow!

-Katie

Day 8 – Ben Thanh Market – Required Topic #3

Happy Monday!

We started our week off with h a group trip to the Ben Thanh market to try our hand at bartering. We got there rather early so initially the market felt rather calm, but as time went on the area began to get more crowded and chaotic. It was quite interesting to see the different ways that the sellers interacting with the buyers as some chose an aggressive approach like the woman who grabbed my arm and refused to let go while other simply nodded as we walked by. I was very happy to have some UEF students with me as I would have been charged even more than I was for the items if I was by myself because the vendors know to keep an eye out for tourists who have heavy pockets and little knowledge about prices. Overall it was a pretty successful shopping and cultural experience.

After our trip to the market we headed to UEF for our language lesson. Today was all about numbers and singing, two things that don’t necessarily go together but I guess they did today! A few students from our group got up in front of the class and counted to 50 while others sang one of two traditional Vietnamese songs. I can’t believe that we only have two more classes to go!

Our lesson was followed by lunch at Tokyo Deli and was definitely a hit in my book. There was everything from noodles to sushi to salad and I ate everything. We also were treated to dessert at the end of the meal and my strawberry sorbet was fantastic. I absolutely loved lunch today and have to say that it was one of my favorite meals that I have had so far.

Our site visit this afternoon was to a company called TVS located just a few blocks from our hotel. Although a last minute addition, our group was warmly welcomed to the company. Our visit started off with a brief introduction followed by a trip down to the seventh floor to see the stock trading floor. TVS deals mainly with investment banking and the stock exchange, as well as a few other smaller areas. We learned that the company is definitely professional in terms of the work that it does, but the environment seems to be rather focused on the well being of the employees. For example, our group was taken down to the meditation room that is used daily by the employees. We were told that finance can be very stressful and in order to ensure that the employees are doing their jobs to the best of their abilities, TVS offers mediation and yoga throughout the day. It was interesting to see the contrast of such a relaxed ritual of meditation be coupled with the hustle and bustle of the workplace. Although I cannot say for sure, I feel like the care that TVS employees receives contributes to the overall success of the company and helps to make them a strong competitor in their area.

Well, that’s all for today! Check in with you tomorrow!

-Katie

Day 7 – Cu Chi Tunnels

Hello again!

Today was another site visit, this time to the Cu Chi Tunnels. We started our morning at 8:45am, a little later than normal, and took a two-hour bus ride to the tunnels. Once we got there we were led by our tour guide and a representative from the tunnels around the grounds. Our first real stop was to watch a fifteen-minute video about the tunnels, their history, and their use. After the video, we took a short walk to the first of the tunnels that we had the opportunity to go through. I made it just fine but it was definitely pretty tight. I cannot imagine aving to go through those all the time like the people had to during the war. The second tunnel that we went to was much longer than the first. I went in for a few steps and then had to make some of the group turn around so I could get out because I was starting to freak out a little bit. Like I said, I can’t imagine having to be in the tunnels all the time.

Other things that we saw while at the Cu Chi Tunnels were some bunkers that had various uses such as for cooking and for medicine. We were also able to see a secret entrance to the tunnels and some examples of traps that the Vietnamese placed in the tunnels to get any Amiercan soldiers who infiltrated the tunnels. The traps were scary and had really large spikes that would go right into the body. Glad I don’t have to encounter those!

For lunch we went to a restaurant right on the Saigon River. Much like yesterday, the food seemed to be never ending and again it was quite delicious. After lunch we had to change into long pants to be able to go to our next stop at a cemetery.

Our journey to the cemetery was short but still powerful. Over 800 Vietnamese soldiers are buried in the cemetery and it was overwhelming to see all of the tombstones. Our group lined up and offered incense to a statue. We then got more incense and went out to offer it to individual graves. It was a very moving experience and it is something that I am glad that I got to experience.

We are on the bus heading back to the hotel now. Today was the hottest day we have had so far and I cannot wait to take a shower and get out of these gross clothes.

Catch up with you tomorrow!

-Katie

Day 6 – Mekong Delta – Required Topic #6

Xin chao!

Today was one of the days that I was most looking forward to during the trip- our visit to the Mekong Delta. The day started off with a little over an hour of travel by bus. We had a guide with us who was able to fill us in on our surroundings and tell us some stories about his life. Although he talked pretty much the whole time, it did help to make the trip seem shorter.

Our first stop of the day was at a snake farm at which we got to see snakes (duh), monkeys, peacocks, a weird bear/otter fuzzy creepy thing, and some other animals as well. I even got to hold a giant Python and take a picture with it which was something that I never thought that I would do. It was cool to face a fear and get a pretty cool picture out of it!

After the snake farm we continued on to our main designation for the day, the Mekong Delta. It was a super hot and humid day, but I was able to beat the heat with the help of my new rice hat that I purchased for one one US dollar. Upon arrival we met up with out tour guide for the day and hopped on one of what would be several boat rides for the day. We took the boat across the Mekong River to Coconut Island. Once we got there we were taken to sample coconut candy and also see how the candy itself is made. Some brae members of our group tried snake wine, but sadly (or not) I was not one of them. I guess I feel brave enough as is!

After our visit to Coconut Island our group split up to be able to fit into four smaller boats that would take us to our lunch spot. The boat ride was fifteen minutes f absolute beauty and pure relaxation in which I tried my hardest to take pictures remember the moment but also enjoy my surroundings from beyond the screen. Our lunch was delicious and seemed to be never ending. We had everything from fish to salad to chicken to fresh watermelon, all prepared in a unique Vietnamese way.

Following our lunch it was back to the boat to visit two more islands: Phoenix and Unicorn. On Phoenix Island we learned about the Coconut Religion and briefly spoke to the only living member of the religion. Our tour guide gave us background on the religion itself and then also showed us some different parts of the island with a lot of signiIt wficance in the religion. Coconut Island brought with it bees, honey, fruit, and music. Our first stop included some tea that was made of fresh honey, pollen, kumquat, and hot water. After that we ate fruit such as pineapple and watermelon but also dragonfruit and rambutan, which are a little more exotic. Once we finished up with the fruit i was time to get back on the boat as our time at the Mekong Delta had come to an end.

It was interesting to be in the delta today as it exposed me to a totally different way of living. Ho Chi Minh City is much more affluent than the area that we were in today and features many more luxuries. The delta region features a lot of farming and deals with issues such as a lack of clean water and limited resources, which is not something that people from the city have to deal with often. The part of the delta that we specifically visited has obviously been affected by tourism. Having many Americans around did not seem to bother many, if any, of the people that we interacted with today because it is something that they encounter all the time. I appreciate that we had the opportunity to experience something a little different than what we have to date.

Tomorrow we head to the Cu Chi Tunnels and I am sure I will have fun things to share about that!

Talk to you later!

-Katie

Day 5 – U.S Consulate Visit – Required Topic #5

Good afternoon from Ho Chi Minh City!

We were back in the classroom again this morning with a lecture on Vietnamese History and Culture and another language lesson. Our professor for the history lecture was such an entertaining guy. He kept us interested during the lessons with jokes and relevant anecdotes and his laugh sent all of us into a fit of giggles. I really enjoyed havAsng him lecture us and luckily he will be back next week to continue with the information.

Our language class continued with how to barter in the market and included paper money to help to make things more realistic. My first Vietnamese friend, Linh, took a picture of me with my money fanned out with a caption saying that I am rich! The teacher continued to speak quickly and blow through the information so it was difficult for me to follow along. The girl that was helping me out today kept giggling at my pronunciation because it was particularly horrible today.

After lunch in the classroom, we headed to the U.S. Consulate for a brief presentation and an extended question and answer session with three representatives. President Obama is set to visit Vietnam in a few weeks so the office is extremely busy and it was very cool to hear about the way that the preparations are going for the visit. We also learned a lot about the individual responsibilities of each of the representatives, the reasons why an officer would accept or reject a visa, and the purpose of having an American Center available for the Vietnamese. After the end of the formal question and answer session, I had the opportunity to speak to two of the representatives about their personal transition to living in Ho Chi Minh and what some of their favorite things are that they have experienced to date. Although I was initially a little skeptical about the visit, I ended up really enjoying it and am glad that we had the opportunity to visit.

As our first week here comes to an end, I have been able to take some time and reflect on the different things that I have seen and experienced since arriving in Vietnam. Although I have done some international travel before now, my time in Vietnam has been totally different. I did not know much about the culture or political system at all but now I feel like I have a much better handle on both topics. One of the best parts of being here has been being able to interact with the UEF students and use them as a resource to answer ay and all questions that I may have for them. I have learned about everything from family interactions to the school system to feelings that the Vietnamese have towards other cultures and am interested in the answer every time.

That’s all for today! Check in with you tomorrow after our trip to the Mekong Delta.

-Katie

Day 4 – Beach Day – Required Topic #7

Hello again!

Today was our trip to the beach in Vung Tau. Our day started early as we met in the hotel lobby at 6:15. Fifteen of our friends from UEF came along with us for the day which was really nice. The students were excited and energetic, singing and playing games even though it was only 7 o’clock in the morning. Although I was definitely not up to their level this morning, it did make the two hour drive from Ho Chi Minh City to Vung Tau seem much faster than that.

Upon our arrival in Vung Tau, we took a group hike up 847 steps to reach the statue of Christ that overlooks the ocean. About three steps in, I was already drenched in sweat. It was quite a tiring hike but absolutely worth it once we made it to the top of the hill. The views were breathtaking and the area surrounding the statue was filled with cultural activities such as singing and praying. The only thing I would change is the fact that I couldn’t go inside the statue itself and up to the arms because I was not wearing pants. If I ever come back to Vietnam I will be sure to make note of this rule!

Following the hike to the statue we continued onto the beach club and enjoyed an amazing afternoon. The beach club was part of a five star hotel and had both a pool and direct access to the ocean as well as a restaurant. We spent the whole afternoon swimming and tanning and relaxing, while also getting quite burnt. Our pale American skin is not cut out for the 95 weather and several hours in the sun, but I still had a fantastic time at the resort.

Today was also a great day to reflect on some of the cultural differences that I have picked up on during my time here in Vietnam. It has been interesting to find out for myself what information is true from the Culture Smart book and what information varies. For example, during our lecture on architecture from earlier in the week, our professor asked for an answer to a question to which one of the members of our students answered incorrectly. Instead of coming out and saying that the answer given was wrong, the professor stood there quietly with a large smile plastered on his face, as he did not want to hurt the student’s feelings. This, coupled with a few other experiences, has confirmed that an embarrassed smile is certainly something that is observed in Vietnamese culture.

Another thing that I have found interesting is the commonality of handshaking. My experience aligns with what was shared in the Culture Smart book as almost everyone I have met has greeted me with a handshake. On the first day, when giving us our presents, the UEF students gave us our bags and then gave us a handshake and a warm smile. Also, today, when at the base of the Christ statue, a woman came up to one of our group members and grabbed her hand to shake it. Our group member was caught off guard but it was still interesting to see that handshaking is still accepted even when outside of a major city. This seems to be a trend all throughout the country.

I think I am going to call it quits on this blog as I am falling asleep writing it! I think that the sun has drained me of my energy. It was a wonderful day and certainly one that I will look back on and remember.

See you later!

-Katie

Day 3 – 5/11/16 – Required Topic #1

Hello again from sunny Saigon!

Much like yesterday, today’s itinerary included two classes, lunch, and a company visit. This morning the lecture was focused on the Mekong Delta and featured both a professor and a student. The portion of the lecture led by the professor focused on topics such as the natural conditions, history of the area, threats, challenges, and opportunities, and a few others. Again, the professor today was a true expert in his field as he was able to articulate answers to our questions without much trouble at all. It was also clear through his mannerisms as he presented his information that he is invested in his work and enjoys sharing his knowledge with others.

An interesting addition to the lecture today was the portion of the presentation that was done by a student. This presentation was a case study of a specific part the Mekong Delta and provided an overview of the area itself and the issues that it is facing as well as a potential solution to those problems. I thought that it was really awesome to have a UEF student present to our group as it gave us a glimpse into their studies and a better understanding of the opportunities that are available to the students.

Following our lecture and a short break, we got back into learning Vietnamese. Although the song did make a reappearance today, we only had to sing it a few times, which was definitely a good thing because I had the song stuck in my head all day yesterday! Today we worked a little bit more on conversations and also introduced how to barter, as we are going to have to do this on Monday when we go to the market.

After a yummy lunch of rice and pork, we stopped by UEF’s sister school, Hu Tech, to get some ice cream to cool us down on this sweltering day. Hu Tech has a very different feel to it as there were more students around doing activities other than just going to class. It was very neat to see another school in the city and get a different perspective on the education here in Vietnam.

Once we finished our ice cream it was time to get back on the bus to go to our company visit for the day at Glass Egg Digital Media. Glass Egg is focused on both game development and art outsource, with an emphasis on the latter. Following a brief tour of the offices where we got to peek at some of the 3D art that was being created some of the 300 employees of the company, our group sat down with the COO and the CFO for a presentation and question and answer session.

The presentation that we saw was a standard presentation that is frequently given to the company’s potential clients and was therefore quite comprehensive. As one who is not really into video games, I was pretty clueless when it came to how many variations of games are produced, the modifications that need to be done depending on the gaming system, and the different types of graphics that can be produced. Due to this lack of knowledge I was quite impressed with the presentation and feel like I got a lot out of it.

The COO was very sharp, relatable, and also quietly funny, making him a great person to interact with. Our question and answer session covered a wide-variety of topics and presented some very interesting on the company itself. We talked about everything from the meaning behind the name to future plans and expansion of Glass Egg to the schedule that the employees follow. One thing that we talked about that really grabbed my attention was the role of government in Glass Egg. Because Glass Egg deals mostly in outsourced work, the company is only generating jobs for the Vietnamese and not selling to them, meaning that the business is simply beneficial to the economy as opposed to taking money from the Vietnamese. In terms of the overall success of Glass Egg, the video game industry is quite stable as once people start gaming, they pretty much never stop. Although the market evolves, Glass Egg Digital Media has done a great job of keeping up with trends and I believe that due to their track record, the company will continue to be successful.

Well, that’s all for today! Check in with you tomorrow.

-Katie