It has been a crazy two weeks so far! I am writing this after having finished the first week of work and teaching in Quang Tri and I have to say it has been both wonderful and exhausting. But it is impossible to talk about the work and the teaching without first talking about the environment, the culture, and the people.
The first thing one notices when stepping out of a plane in Vietnam after having traveled for more than 14 hours (and that was relatively short compared to some of the other students) is the heat. During the interview for the program, one of the questions was, “How well do you deal with heat?” I had thought the question was a bit odd; I mean, we’ve all experienced a bit of that North Carolina heat while at Duke. As it turns out, that question was incredibly relevant. It is HOT, and while many places in Ho Chi Minh are air conditioned, that is not true in Quang Tri. However, though it has not been easy to adapt to the 100+°F heat, I have been acclimating much faster than I would have thought. I had read in former students’ blog posts that they would play sports after they finished teaching their classes, but I did not think that within a couple days into being in Quang Tri we would already be following that trend.
It is also interesting to think about how much the heat affects our schedule and the culture here. Since sunrise is at 5:20 am, it starts getting hot very early. Due to this, we follow the locals in getting up very early to start the day’s work. However, later in the day, from 12:00 to 2:30, it is almost too hot to be able to do anything. We have a break then, and some (but not all) of the stores and restaurants are closed during that time. The rhythm of life here is very different from the 9-to-5 that we experience in America.
Culturally, Quang Tri is quite different than other places that I have experienced. The big difference for me is that I have never lived in a small town before. The closest thing to a small town that I have experienced is being at Duke. I grew up in the suburbs of DC and have been visiting and seeing cities my whole life. I thought I was going to be more prepared for the difference in culture, since just before this program I was studying abroad. In part, I was right; Ho Chi Minh, despite the language barrier, felt familiar. After all, I had been living in the middle of a bustling city for the last 6 months. The buildings were taller, there were WAY more motorbikes, the food was different, and the people were too. Still, in the end, it is a city. And to me, all cities have a common undercurrent of energy. That’s not to say that they are the same; DC is wildly different from Madrid, and Madrid is wildly different from Ho Chi Minh. But there is something about having so many people living in a small area that emits a certain feeling. Places where everyone is trying to get to where they need to go, and where when you pass a stranger on the street, more likely than not, you will never see them again. I am familiar with these places and those feelings, but Quang Tri is a small town and therefore different. So far it has been very nice. For example, on the first day at the work site, one of the people who lived right nearby gave us watermelons to eat and ice to put in our water. That gesture was incredibly nice, and really a godsend because I will admit that 2 hours into working in the heat on the first day, I was incredibly tired and not feeling great. But that slice of watermelon made a huge difference. It also makes me very happy when I hear “HI GABY!” while I am biking, and I turn to see that it is one of my students. There is definitely more interactions with people that are just passing by.
Also, being in a group of students again augments the difference. When I studied abroad, I was in a city, but I was mostly by myself. I did travel and hang out with other students, but I did many things by myself because I was not going to lose out on amazing experiences just because I was the only one who wanted to go. However, here we are very reliant on each other (especially our roommates) because we do not speak the language. I am incredibly grateful for my roommate and all of the roommates, because they are also so nice and enthusiastic. It can be difficult at times because there is still a language barrier between us, and sometimes we (I and the roommates) have to repeat things 4 or 5 times to get our meaning across. Nevertheless, the enthusiasm and just how willing they are to talk and work and play with us makes it much better. Having them as part of the group also allows us to interact with the community in a way that is different than what would be possible without them. We are very much dependent on our roommates for communication, in a way that I have not been dependent on anyone in a long while.