It’s the year of the water snake, the weathers sunny, and I’m feeling great! All positive signs, leading to my stay here in Ho Chi Minh. Once I landed, I picked up my visa (which you have to apply for before you arrive), grabbed my bag, and met up with a coordinator from IVHQ who was waiting for me with two other volunteers. Their names are Tara (Australia) and Vivian (China). We introduced ourselves in the hot, sweaty cab ride to our home for the next month. Seriously, it’s so hot and muggy here! But I was way too excited to let that bother me. I was anxious to see what kind of place I would be living in this time. After about ten minutes of driving, we finally pulled up to The Saigon Tourist University. It was a miniature college campus in the heart of HCMC filled with smiley teenage students and teachers. There were restaurants, kitchens, classrooms, and a small scale badminton field in the middle of campus. The University was a high rise, and the coordinator took us on an elevator to the third floor where all of the volunteers dorms would be. From this floor, we had a fantastic view of the city. A few paces further there were about four or five dorms spread across. The coordinator showed me to the boys dorm. The large room had air conditioning (Thank Goodness!), eight bunk beds, a fridge, lockers, and came equipped with wi-fi. There I met one of my roommates, Shane (California, US). He’s been here for two weeks already and says he’s loved it here so far. Then all of a sudden, someone charged in, leaped to me, and gave me the biggest hug ever, even almost knocking me down! It was none other than my dear South African friend, Lucy! “I thought I heard you so I came running!” she said. It was unbelievable to see Lucy again, especially in a whole new setting. It almost seemed surreal. “We have a lot of catching up to do!” Shane looked a bit baffled. “You guys know each other?” We explained how we organized this trip to Vietnam about a year ago in South Africa and now it’s finally happening. He was quite impressed. Soon, a few other volunteers came into our room and we all introduced ourselves. I’ll tell you their names as I blog here more because I’m still trying to remember them. I will tell you that so far everyone that I met was very friendly and seemed anxious about the impending few weeks we all had in store for us. So far, I was loving everything about this.A few of the volunteers who have already been here for awhile left a few hours later and flew to Northern Vietnam to witness Halong Bay. Lucy and I will make our way up there eventually, just not sure when. The rest of us newbies however decided to go into the city and explore a bit, to see whats out there. Tom (U.K), Sophie (U.K), Shantai (Edmonton, Alberta), Tara, Lucy, and myself made the trip.
Holy motorbikes! It looked like everyone in Vietnam owned a motorbike. Actually, I heard that for every two citizens of HCMC, on average, one owns a motorbike. Which means there are 4.5 million motorbikes riding in the streets of the city! Crossing the street here, was like playing a real life game of frogger. Anways, we cautiously made our way to the nearby supermarket which had EVERYTHING you needed and everything is super cheap. I bought snacks, water bottles, soap, and a few other things for only $16. I knew Vietnam would be cheap but I definitely expected to pay more. As a matter of fact, most of my expectations so far has been wrong. For one, Ho Chi Minh is not as underdeveloped as I thought it was going to be. I pictured a worn down, dusty city (similar to Arusha, Tanzania), surrounded by villages and jungles. It wasn’t dusty at all, as most of the roads were paved. The city was bustlin’ with tons of energy and bright flashy lights. There were food and fruit stalls at every corner you turn, but there were also luxury restaurants, bars, hotels, and cafes spread throughout. And did I mention there were motorbikes everywhere?
We walked back to the college and the few of us mingled for a bit there and played cards to get to know each other better. Other new volunteers Lex (Toronto, Canada), Allison (Tasmania), and brother and sister Peter and Nancy (Alberta, Canada) soon joined us. We had five days of orientation that would begin tomorrow at the college. I called it a night early because I was still jet lagged. It was so bad that I went to bed at 8pm and woke up two hours later at 10pm, thinking it was morning and time to get up. Once Tom let me know that I’ve only been asleep for two hours, I realized how screwed and disoriented I was. I fell back asleep but woke up at 3am and stayed up the whole time. I think this may be the worst case of jet lag I’ve ever had. On the brightside, I was able to text and message friends back home in Michigan who were wide awake! Here at the Saigon Tourist College, students strive to excel in areas of tourism hospitality around Vietnam, which includes food service, hotel management, and tour guide operations. Students may take one to three years to receive a certificate in one of the three departments. It’s a very serious business since Vietnam thrives on tourism as a whole and partly relies on it. Our job as volunteers is to help these students better their English language to reach their goal and there’s no better way for them to learn than engaging with actual foreigners who are already masters of the language. But before we could start that, we have to go through this lengthy orientation. Consider it a culmination of tests in order to prove our worth. The first day of orientation, we received a tour around the campus which included multiple kitchens, restaurants, a hotel lobby and guest rooms, a few classrooms, and plenty of outdoor areas to relax and study. After a brief lesson of the Vietnamese language (which I suck at), we walked into the hub of HCMC and took a tour through the Reunification Palace. It’s a large palace where the president of Vietnam resided during the Vietnam War…I think. You guys know how I get with guided tours. My mind goes off to LaLa land. Afterwards we went to the action-packed backpacker district and ate some local cuisine there too. The awesome atmosphere of HCMC was blowing my mind!
The next day of orientation, we were faced with more tests. We took an hour and a half road trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels, a site of large, complex underground tunnels that was used as a secret jungle base for the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War. It was here where I got to fire an AK-47 and examine the weaponry, tanks, and outdoor traps used by the Viet Cong. Soon we had the opportunity to shimmy through more than 100 meters of a narrow underground passage, 20-30 feet below ground. I have mild claustrophobia but I couldn’t resist! It was a sweat chamber for sure!
Next, we went to a nearby village for lunch. What was on the menu? Seafood. Loads of seafood. I’ll try anything once, so I took a small bite of whatever fish that was. And that was enough for me! Then we were served with a soup that contained prawns, squid, oysters, and veggies. Lucy was loving it! I was not. I did muster through an entire bowl of soup though, out of respect. I just made sure my bowl didn’t have any prawns or oysters in it. I can manage with a bit of squid though.
The other volunteers, Lucy, and myself capped off the night by going to a nearby bar/restaurant called the “Bamboo Palace”. Ladies get served two free beers here while the guys have to pay for theirs. It wasn’t a big deal though considering that the beers here were literally only twenty cents. With our group of about nine, our tab ended up being $2.50. How amazing is that? By the way, the currency here is the dong. One American dollar equals to roughly 20,000d. One beer was 4,000d. This could spell out trouble for us volunteers in the near future. It’s insane how incredibly cheap everything is here.
Tomorrow spells out day 3 of orientation. Hopefully it doesn’t involve anymore seafood!