Surrealism exemplified my mental state as I called an Uber to the airport. For me, this journey started not the previous fall, but rather one and half year earlier. I applied to DukeEngage Vietnam my sophomore year after talking to numerous friends who were previous participants. The stories of bonding with Vietnamese roommates, building something practical for the Quang Tri community, and constructing genuine relationships with students perfectly matched my passion. I expected this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to give me a sense of a different reality, to help me understand the differences between Western and Eastern culture, and allow me to make a recursive impact on the world of those I encounter. Although I was waitlisted the first time I applied to DukeEngage, I did not hesitate to apply for DukeEngage again the following year. That was probably one of the best decisions I made at Duke.
D-day: traveling to Vietnam.
Even though I know how long the total travel time is and have had experience traveling long distance, I wasn’t prepared. The weather that day was comfortable for a North Carolina summer, rendering no sign of the unfortunate cancellation of our first leg of travel to Vietnam. This brief dissonant episode was resolved when four of us were rebooked to a slightly later flight. The rest of the trip was rather mundanely fatiguing, aside from our persistent paranoia of whether we were at the right gate at JFK airport as a consequence of our flight’s cancellation and Raptors winning their first NBA championship. After approximately thirty hours of total travel time, we arrived at Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). The cultural differences were evident right away at Customs. The ten of us lined up zigzagged in single file in front of Customs, chatting away about our anticipations and things we wanted to try. This eagerness was very much noticed by the Customs agent for our line. Eventually he got out of his seat, walked towards us (the group of obnoxious Americans), gestured to us to maintain single file, and said “get out!”. I felt embarrassed that the first impression we Americans gave someone was that we were loud and disorganized. I definitely experienced the differences of cultural norms the moment I crossed the Vietnamese border.
It hit me. It hit all of us. The sensation of Vietnam was evident in its thick and seemingly trapped air. A sight foreign even to me, someone who grew up in Asia, awaited us at the exit of Ho Chi Minh airport: hundred of people surrounded the exit. The elderly sat in chairs neatly aligned around the exit while children ran around chasing each other. After adroitly rejecting “black” taxi drivers with faint smiles, we met our guide for our time in HCMC.
Then we embarked our drive to our hostel. I was beyond amazed at how different HCMC is from cities in the U.S. and China. Motorbikes dominated the street. The hierarchy from most to least importance appears to be motorbikes, cars, bicyclists, and then pedestrians. The coach we were on seemed unfitting amidst the hundreds of motorbikes traversing the road. Waves and waves of motorbikes squeezed through gaps between cars, the drivers all sporting similar attire of helmet and face masks. They relentlessly zigzag through traffic as if they are asteroids soaring through the galaxy, disregarding any impeding obstacles. The bikers consist of kids, elders, multiple grown men on the same bike. The massive agglomeration of bikers mirrored the presidential escort; however, the entourage was so chaotic that an accident seemed likely to happy at any moment. Bikers so close to my window that I can high-five them with ease. Bikers were not only unfazed by this uncomfortable spacing, but they were also unalarmed by the consistent deafening horn. Meanwhile, I felt so foreign and so distant from Vietnam at that moment, with the air conditioning blasting my face.