This summer I was lucky to have received generous financial support from the Streicker program to conduct political and economic research in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. I am tempted to try and summarize this glorious summer with some sort of overarching, thematic message, but I suspect this would minimize the way small moments over eight weeks specifically impacted me. Instead, I think I’ll showcase some of these moments when I felt I learned the most, and when I felt the most welcomed and at home.
Most mornings, I woke up at 7am to read downstairs at my favorite coffee shop before going to the office. Over time, the owners of the coffee shop learned my usual order, cà phê den dá (iced black coffee), but I never learned even their names. I picked up a bit of Vietnamese over the summer but language sometimes became a barrier in day-to-day communication. I got used to expressing myself using body language. In my final week in Vietnam, I somehow managed to say to the shop owners that I would be leaving for home in a few days, and they brought out a pomelo fruit that we ate together in celebration.
I worked this summer under Prof. Vu Thành Tu Anh at the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program, a graduate school in public policy and management. We met often, but every Friday we would sit down and have a longer chat about more general topics such as politics in Vietnam and America, both of our goals for the foreseeable future and academia. In one meeting, he shared with me his distrust of the way Western economists produce simplified theories about the developing world and try to force them upon countries like Vietnam. We debated the role of theory vs. empirical work, but his lesson stuck with me: when learning about others, whether in the classroom, or in travel, we should challenge our assumptions and respect our differences.
I was fortunate to share a research space with other intern friends – Ian, Tian Wen, Vedant, Bryan, Adnan – as well as Vietnamese co-workers. We enjoyed taking our time venturing out to new lunch spots and talking about experiences in our respective countries (South Korea, Singapore, Pakistan, India, US…). It was hard to say goodbye without any certainty about whether we’d see each other again.
One evening when I was walking down a street in my neighborhood, I happened upon a street-festival. High school students were singing and dancing before a sign which google translated to “Propaganda Groups Celebrate the Revolution of 1947”. Vietnam has remained a Communist country since the end of the Vietnam War, and this scene raised a lot of questions for me as an American: Are these students being innocently mislead through propaganda? What does Communism mean to them? What does this say about how I celebrate my nation’s revolution of 1776? Vietnam always kept me curious.
It was easy to meet locals on the street, in coffee shops and restaurants, in markets and in my apartment complex because of my appearance, and to be fair, also my height. I hesitate to paint a single, monolithic portrait of the Vietnamese people, who in general I found friendly, open-minded and industrious.
In the final week, my workplace hosted an event for bright young Vietnamese to explore the nation’s contemporary economy and entrepreneurship environment. On the last day we all sang karaoke – my co-worker and I picked Toto’s 1982 soft-rock hit Africa – and it was fun. The evening was a perfect reminder of how enjoyable my summer had been and how fast it had flown by. With all that I had learned, this summer was, only through the help of the Streicker Program, a genuine blast.
Sam is one of 12 undergraduates who were awarded 2017 Streicker International Fellowships. Streicker Fellows design their own projects or internships in conjunction with a hosting organization. During his fellowship, he worked as a research assistant at the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program in Ho Chi Minh City.