Getting to Know Vietnam

Village near Kontum town

While in Hanoi as tourists in 2004, my wife and I were invited to return to teach medical topics to young Vietnamese physicians and nurses. Since 2007 we have spent about 3 months every year teaching in Vietnam, and now teach in over 10 institutions in the north, south, and central regions of the country. More recently we have added some teaching in Myanmar (Burma) and Laos.

We are not connected with any organization and pay our own expenses. For a richer experience and to keep costs down, we rent a simple room in the house of a Vietnamese family and have followed the evolution of their three generations over these last 10 years. We generally travel locally by public bus -- for all the discomforts still a fantastic way to meet people and to find adventure. We walk a lot. We frequently have phở (far tastier than in the US) on the street outside our room when the restaurant arrives by shoulder pole at 6 pm.

We struggle to learn the language, vocabulary slipping back out of our aging brains, with nuances of sound escaping our auditory perception. Pronunciation is critical when speaking Vietnamese. A missed tone can change meaning enough to express a concept totally different from what is intended. We have encountered many blank expressions as we try to speak, our listeners eager to know what we have to say but totally baffled by what they have heard. We slowly climb the learning curve while in country, only to slide back down when we return to the US. Three month blocks are not long enough.

These activities have taught us a lot and have brought us many friendships. Although we arrange our collaborations with institutional leaders, our day-to-day activities are primarily with young people: professionals in their 20’s and 30’s. We get to know them well and they bring us into their lives. We watch romances blossom and fade. We attend many wedding parties. We see families grow. These friends invite us into their homes for dinner and we contemplate with them the wide range of circumstances experienced by young people in a rapidly changing society. Our friends escort us to meet interesting people and to visit points of interest in the countryside. Because of this cumulative opportunity, many Vietnamese friends remark that we have seen more of Vietnam than they have.

We have endless opportunity for photography but, again, we choose to be participants, not merely observers. Photography can sometimes get in the way.

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