There are essentially only four downsides to international travel. The three obvious ones (cost, language barriers, exhaustion – in that order) and then the worst one, which no one thinks of: answering too-broad questions about your journey. Don’t get me wrong, I love telling stories! In fact, if “storyteller” were a lucrative profession, I’d be all over that. But, when you’ve been abroad for twenty-five days, in two countries and six cities, met with dozens of people in the local communities, and taken four hundred pictures and ten minutes of video, how do you answer the question, “So, how was your trip?!” Or “Did you have a good time?” Or even, “What was the best part?”
So, when one of my friends – a recent alumna who took full advantage of Linfield’s great study abroad program and was undoubtedly the victim of such unhelpful questions – asked me, “What most surprised you about Vietnam?” I was beyond excited. I was jumping for joy at this question that showed a genuine interest and prompted some basic reflection on my part; because of her more careful questioning I think she got the best response of those who have asked me about my travels thus far, so I thought I’d share my response with you as well.
I definitely entered Vietnam with some preconceptions about what I was going to see there. On our long flight across the Pacific, I remarked to my friend sitting next to me that I was way more excited for Thailand in the second half of the course and that I would just grin and bear through the Vietnam component. I wrote a paper on government policies toward religion in Vietnam this last fall, so I wasn’t going in ignorant, but I definitely had a conception of Vietnam as this dreary, communist, authoritarian, police state. Within a couple days of being in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), I realized how wrong I was.
And what about that “communist, authoritarian, police state” stuff? Well, it’s true – but only sort of. With several uniformed officers on every street, there’s no doubt that Vietnam is a police state, but the vast majority of them are unarmed and more helpful than menacing. So rather than being this scary/intimidating thing, I felt safer than Vietnam than anywhere else I’ve traveled, including several cities in Western Europe. And, since we were a politics class, the group discussed the role of Communism in Vietnam extensively and came to the conclusion that they’re mostly faking. There’s a veneer of Communism over the top, but spending five minutes bartering for a pair of sunglasses or an extra piece of luggage (because your clothes seem to have tripled in size since arriving) and there’s no doubt in your mind that the shopkeeper is a capitalist through and through.
So, next time a friend returns from a trip abroad, try to toss them a question that will get a story out of them that they haven’t told a hundred times already. And, if I get a good question about the Thailand half of my Jan Term Class, I just might have another post in a few weeks.