As I started my undergraduate degree at the University of Moratuwa, I joined AIESEC, a student organization that facilitates international volunteering. During the 2 month vacation we get after the first semester, I decided to travel on such an exchange. I talked to Insaf, my mentor and said
I want to go alone. With no other Sri Lankans. Not to Europe or any "developed" country. But someplace wild and uncommon. I want to volunteer in a unconventional project too!
And so I was assigned to Saigon (HCMC), the largest city in Vietnam, on a project that aimed to raise awareness among schoolchildren on safe sex, LGBT rights, and human trafficking. Due to the topic, every international volunteer (France, Denmark, Germany, Poland, Malaysia, Indonesia...) were open-minded and easygoing people.
It was my first time leaving the country alone, so my family was a bit afraid but supportive. Dad initially was like
You picked Vietnam? Are you out of your mind? They are communists. They'll shoot you!
The 6 weeks I spent there ended up being the best summer of my life. This post is mostly photos and some interesting stories from my time there. We did four workshops for schoolchildren, and to our surprise, we found they were quite liberal and well educated on the topic. We taught them how to wear condoms (on a cucumber) among other things. I also traveled through central and south Vietnam.
Vietnamese cuisine quickly became my all-time favorite. I kept eating 2 breakfasts, 2 lunches, and 2 dinners, just to try all the different food items. Bahn Mis, Phos, other noodle soups, Vietnamese Ice Coffee... I loved them all.
I had asked for a homestay and I got the best one possible for weekly rent. A tall, 4-5 story building shared by an extended family. The ground floor was their tailor shop and kitchen. I share the room with a guy a few years younger than me: Quan Do. We quickly became good friends. I introduced him to Game of Thrones and I loved watching him getting shocked when the main characters get brutally killed. He kept teasing his sister, like I do, which was quite fun!
He took me around Saigon on his motorbike. He introduced me to his cousins and once took me to a big family event, a gathering after a few days of the death of a family member, where they cooked a hundred tasty Vietnamese dishes. The food was amazing! Roasted duck, BBQ of chicken, octopus & chicken leg, seafood soup, spring rolls (much better than the restaurant ones), rice (like Pongal), veggie+chicken salad, lots of herbs and vegetables.... oh my! All were amazing!!!
His mom was very friendly (although she cannot speak English). Her cooking was divine! She cooked special festive time dishes for me. To pay them back, I gave a big South Indian dinner the last week, which was likely too spicy for them.
Saigon and Ha Noi were the capitals of South & North Vietnam respectively when they were separated. I was told that in the 1960s, Saigon was a booming city with car factories and roads full of cars. When the North invaded and the US left (which Saigoners called a betrayal), it was renamed Ho Chi Ming City, with the name of the leader who started the communist revolution. But it is still called Saigon by the locals.
We visited the Cu Chi tunnels, an intricate tunnel network built by Viet Cong to engage in guerilla warfare. There were entire rooms with beds for surgery under the ground. The tunnels were so narrow, while the jacked-up American soldiers could not get in, malnourished Viet Cong could navigate it easily.
In 2016, Saigon had a population of 13 million people, that is 65% of Sri Lanka in a single city. It is divided into about 30 districts, with district 1 being the center. It was quite developed, way more than Colombo. The electricity lines were a huge mess, I have no idea how they fixed any issues with them.
Vietnamese Traffic is world-famous. Motorbikes flood the roads, overtake from both sides and they don't stop for anyone. A few weeks into my stay, I came home and saw Quan wincing as he applied medicine to wounds. Skin from a side of his arm was scraped off, he had a torn t-shirt and jeans nearby. A girl has overtaken him and turned across him, and gone without stopping as he stumbled and had a terrible accident. When he came home, his mom didn't care: "Just put medicine". That's how common accidents are.
If you want to cross the road, do not wait for the traffic to stop. Just start walking. Motorbikes will go in front of you, behind you, but will never hit you. Never get afraid and walk backward. You'll confuse the drivers and they'll crash into you. If someone is about to hit you, look them in their eyes.
- How to Survive in Saigon (the guidebook by AIESEC HCMC)
My homestay was in district 5, while most EPs stayed in a hostel in district 1 (center of the city). I usually hang out late with them, often in this restaurant. I got pretty close to the owner boy there, got some tips from him for traveling as well. I traveled around mostly on Grab (like Uber bikes), which were pretty cheap. I also took their buses once in a while, which were quite modern, like ones in Australia.
Vung Tau, a beach city next to Saigon was the first place we visited. Just the day after I arrived in Vietnam. We EPs quickly planned a trip for the weekend and took the bus there. On the first evening itself, we sat on the road and played Truth or Dare. Within minutes we were asking each other hilarious, sex stuff (which I started, with Jojo), which immediately broke the ice! We bonded so well and had a great time for the next 6 weeks.
I 'married' a Danish girl here. So, we were climbing a small tower and were greeted with this beautiful night view of Vung Tau. Jojo said, "This is a perfect place for a proposal". I couldn't hear it clearly, so I questioned "pardon?", for which she said "proposal, like" and bent her knee in a gesture of proposing to me. I immediately said, "Yes, yes, thousand times yes!".
A few days later, we were in this restaurant, where she reminded "You haven't given me a ring yet." I said "Well, it was you who proposed. You should get me one", to which she was like "Oh come on... Be a man". So I picked up a toothpick, took off its wrap, rolled it into a ring, kneeled in the middle of the restaurant, and asked "Will you marry me?". She said "Of course" and everyone around cheered!
Da Lat is a city in the mountains of South-Central Vietnam, that resembles Nuwara Eliya. During a gap between workshops, we all planned a trip there and took sleeper buses. It was my first time sleeping flat in buses. We rented motorbikes and got around there. None of us had licenses and they don't check as well. Jojo hadn't driven a motorbike before, and after a few stumblings, she picked up fast.
The night market was pretty amazing. With great street food as well. We also visited some cricket farms. They farm crickets professionally, for food. We tried some, of course. I even brought a packaged snack of fried crickets (it was like our TipiTip) and gave my friends at the university. Chinthana even took it to his boarding and shared with his roommates.
We also visited a coffee farm. They even made coffee from the poo of the weasels that ate the coffee beans.
Also, a silk farm, where they grew silkworms, harvested silk, and even ate the worms. Of course, we tried them too. They tasted really bad, yuck.
On the way back from Da Lat, we visited this town by the coast: Mui Ne. It looks like a desert, with sand dunes but it's more of a really large beach, but gorgeous.
The Mekong, the river of nine dragons, 4,300 km long, begins in Tibet, runs through 6 more countries (China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam), and ends in the Mekong delta in South Vietnam.
The organizing committee planned a 3-day tour there and took us. We traveled in rowboats in streams, ate crocodile meat, visited the floating market of Cai Rang, Cycled around a rural village, almost ate rat meat, went in a motorboat to Cambodia, went around a floating village of boat-houses...
The Mekong river floods often and the flood level can reach multiple stories. So, several communities actually live in houses that float. As shown, they have entire houses, with all furniture, TV, potted plants, and all, that float in the river. They tie the houses to support and use boats to go around.
In one particularly harsh summer, they said, China locked their dams to save water, and the Mekong started drying. As the delta is under sea level, the seawater rushed 150 km inland, wreaking havoc, destroying cultivations and withering trees. Vietnamese government negotiated with the Chinese to open the dams. When they finally did, the water took weeks to arrive.
We visited a crocodile farm, where they raise them for food. We tried Vietnamese curry. It tasted like chicken.
After all the workshops, we had an extra week. Quan (owner boy of my homestay) suggested Chloe and I can visit Da Nang. His uncle, a journalist lives there and will be happy to accommodate us.
Da Nang is my favorite city in Vietnam, probably in the world. It has everything. Imagine a big city like Colombo, right next to a beautiful beach like Nilaveli, with Knuckles mountains right by the sea, and vast plains with golden rice fields on the other side. That's Da Nang.
Son Tra Mountains
This mountain range starts from the city and extends into the sea. It was surreal!
Jes: "What was your single most enjoyable moment this summer?"
Me: "The ride in central Vietnam, where we were riding a motorbike on a steep, curvy road climbing a mountain right next to the pacific ocean, with waves crashing at the deadly fall!"
Bach Ma National Park
We then hiked this national park. It wasn't a great idea, since we started around 10 am, and the road was paved with concrete. Chloe was exhausted.
Quan's uncle was super-generous. He invited us to a restaurant for a lunch and ordered this. He also taught us (Chloe and me) how to wrap these rolls and eat them.
The Flight Back
The inter-city fights in Vietnam were surprisingly cheap. But only 7 kg luggage was allowed for our ticket. Quan and I had packed 7 kg each when arriving at Da Nang. We bought souvenirs, so there's no way we could pack them again at the same weight for the return flight. After some consideration, Quan suggested wearing all the clothes. And that we did. I wore 5 t-shirts and 4 pairs of shorts, looking fat af.
Hoi An & Hue
The city of light
Hoi An is the city of lights. It is decorated with beautiful lanterns as if every day is a Vesak. We rented some bicycles and rode around the town at night. It was an amazing experience.
Hue was the capital city of the Nguyen dynasty, that ruled Vietnam for a long time in the end. Fun fact: 40% of Vietnamese people have the name, Nguyen. The city is full of grand tombs of kings, each exquisitely landscaped with gigantic gardens around them.
The organizing committee took us for a riverside BBQ
I started learning to use chopsticks pretty much immediately and was better than native Vietnamese in some 'chopstick challenges' by the time I left Vietnam.
Ca Phe Sua Da - The iced milk coffee is one of the best things in the world. Despite it costing 1 USD each (which was a lot for a Sri Lankan), I drank like three every day. I even hunted it down in Australia and drank it every week there. It was conceived during the more unfortunate times of Vietnamese history. Made with thick condensed milk, Vietnamese coffee, and ice, there's no other beverage to beat it. After a few weeks of drinking this from random roadside stalls, one day I saw how they made the ice itself. They simply put bare ice blocks on the street and hammered them into pieces. Quite unhygienic, but I didn't have any issues. If you get from good coffee shops, you are good to go.
Vietnamese is a tonal language. That is, "ma" can mean number, toad, mother, or 'to scold', just based on the tone (ma vs ma?). Most of the words have only one syllable. When they talk, it's like music. For a thousand years, Vietnamese used Chinese letters to write their language. As you can imagine that was too difficult. So, during the French rule, they adopted the Latin alphabet (A-Z) with tone indicators. So, Vietnamese is very readable for us.
Vietnamese Dong is their currency and it has extremely low value. When Vietnam was unified in 1975, the country became communist, they closed the economy which ended up tanking and taking the currency with it. They opened up afterward and are more or less capitalistic in practice now.
1 USD = 20,000 VND
7 LKR = 1000 VND
Today, Vietnam is as prosperous as other developing countries. Just all the currency notes and prices are marked with a "K". An iced coffee was 20,000 VND and clothes are 70-140 k. You walk into an ATM, causally withdraw a few million dongs and walk out.
My Skin Color
Ok, so Vietnamese aren't familiar with dark-skinned people. In the workshops, the schoolkids asked me "Are you from Africa?". Whenever I go out, people are super nice to me, they come and talk and were extra friendly, as I looked "exotic".
Chloe, the girl from France became my closest friend. She tried teaching me to swim in the pacific ocean. She had an interest in history, archeology, economics... everything, just like me. Hours before my flight back, she walked into my room when I was packing. We started a conversation about the time value of money, I stopped packing and kept talking for hours. Even after coming back, we talk often over skype and chats.
He was a medical student from Indonesia. We quickly became friends. As a Muslim, he had a hard time finding food which doesn't have pork, as it is the staple meat of Vietnam. His home is situated near an active volcano that erupts every few years causing Jakarta airport to shut down for a few weeks. When he went back, he took a photo from that volcano and sent me a birthday wish.
Chihiro, Mabel, Linny
Tam Dan (Chihiro) was the team leader of our organizing committee. She was cute, smart, and confident, I had a crush on her. I almost cried when we said goodbye. We kept in touch for years, through video calls once in a while. Mabel (Thanh Trúc Tran) was assigned as my buddy. Linny (My-Linh Hoang) took me around Saigon to temples in her motorbike. She asked me to write her name in "Sri Lankan". So I wrote in Tamil & Sinhala. She kept it as her cover photo for a year.
One beautiful girl from the workshops later messaged me and said she had a crush on me. It was super sweet made me so happy and gave me a huge confidence boost.
Two students who participated in the workshop wanted to take Chloe and me out for a special lunch. And they gave us a set of expensive mooncakes as a gift.
Sweets & Souvenirs
As always, I packed a lot of sweets and souvenirs when leaving Sri Lanka, and gave them to a lot of people.