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

Impressions From Across the Pacific

January 2, 2011

Story By Patrick Shelso

Slide show By Kevin Radley

I woke up to the sound of rumbling motorbikes and racing cars. As I slowly dragged myself to the window and pulled back the curtains, I quickly realize I was now a small cell inside the body of Ho Chi Minh City.

Getting lost in a sea of eight million people is easy, especially when it’s someone’s first time outside the United States.  I was aware that I would be studying a new subject in a foreign country, but nothing could have prepared me for the experience I have had so far.

I do not see the shattered emotions on people’s faces or broken buildings connected with centuries of war that I had expected to see. I see a prosperous growing country where both the land and people live as one.

The differences between Vietnamese people and myself are not as large as the ocean than separates us. I’m surprised at how much I have in common with the Vietnamese students I have met. After touring the War Remnants Museum with students from the International University I was startled by their reactions. It’s as if they are disconnected from our colliding histories, holding no resentment or bitterness in their hearts.

These students seem to look only towards the future, which may be a contributing factor to why there is such a difference between the older and younger generations. Even with this separation, the Vietnamese culture stays as strong as it’s ever been.

The importance of family in Vietnamese culture can be seen through the graves of deceased family members in the middle of rice fields. The drive from Ho Chi Minh City to Can Tho allowed me to witness the low-lying farmland of the Mekong Delta and the cultural connections of ancestry and tradition seen in the landscape. Vietnamese culture emphasizes the importance of family education as opposed to formal schooling. Unlike the U.S., Vietnamese children learn how to read at pagodas, which ties religion to the country’s culture. I am surprised at how American culture can vary so significantly than Vietnamese culture.

Looking out my hotel window as the sunset reflects off the Mekong River, I can’t help but think of my hometown Memphis Tennessee. The buzzing sounds of motorbikes and cars are replaced with rumbling motorboats carrying fish and other seafood. The energy here is calm and optimistic, like the people of Vietnam.

My trip so far has been vigorous, restless, and sobering. These are the people who will suffer first from climate change disrupting the impressive progress the country has made in the last few decades. As I continue to study in Vietnam, I will adapt and look towards the future just as Vietnam has.

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