Students and professors from the University of Montana learn about how people are dealing with life and livelihoods under dynamic conditions

Ho Chi Minh University: A Day of Common Concern

December 30, 2010

Story By Montana Hodges

Photos By Kevin Radley

When University of Montana Professor Nicky Phear introduced us to the conversation we came here for, I was somehow surprised.

Yeah, I’d packed my bags full of research materials, hopped on a flight to Vietnam, and took a van to the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City to learn about climate change, but I still found myself sitting in the classroom at Ho Chi Minh International University (HCM-IU) with screensaver eyes, waiting for the reality to click on.

It took some lecture time, but I eventually became convinced that she’d summed it up with her first line: “we are here to talk about issues of common concern.”

This may have been my first case of culture shock. It wasn’t the shock of language, food or politics — it was the shock of realizing my connection to this foreign land and these new issues of climate change now in front of me.

Outside of the classroom, in the not-so-distant horizon, across the sky hazed by smog rather than fog, the occasional clarity of a skyscraper appeared gloomily as a reminder of exactly how different our conversation would be from the kind we have back home.

It must have been hard for our hosts as well, to even imagine the problems facing the snowy mountains and rolling plains outside our hometown university’s windows. With only about a million people populating Montana, and nearly 80 times that number within the smaller borders of Vietnam, the uninterrupted landscapes and eye stretching forests seemed, even to us, a world away.

Then again, I would remind myself: we are here to talk about the same thing. We are two universities from two sides of the world getting together to have this conversation about our common interests in climate change.

While Professor Phear and my classmates tried to explain melting glaciers, droughts and forest fires, the students and professors of HCM-IU told us about floods, factories and traffic. We learned that as Montana begins to look beyond coal, bark-beetle-killed forests, and incorporating settlements into formerly wild lands, Vietnam is looking at coastlines, bamboo export and how to manage five million motorcycles a day zooming down the slim streets of Ho Chi Minh City. While semi-arid zones of Montana lose precious drops of water every season, entire regions of Vietnam may be doomed to the bottom of the sea. We were oddly united under a single cause that may have very different effects.

The Vietnamese students and professors lectured on the exciting studies of the HCM-IU biotechnology program and their student-led climate change group, Saigon 350, a branch of The bike-riding, tree-planting students of Saigon 350 shared some of their projects to raise climate change awareness, encourage recycling, and renew denuded fields. Turns out we have a lot more in common than I thought.

When we left the artificially cooled classroom air to head to the city I once again realized that there were seven million people in Ho Chi Minh City, just outside the doors of the university, living, working, and breathing within the city’s snug boundaries.

Even as we rolled back towards our hotel — my eyes stinging with exhaust fumes — there was a feeling of community in opening this conversation with our new Vietnamese friends.

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