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


At nine o’clock on a sticky, noisy Tuesday night, my roommate and I met up with our new friend Roy&Katy_HostMom_150Phuong and our homestay sister Thi. We were dressed up to join a night out with a gang of students from Can Tho University to tour the streets for cheap food and window shop for clothes we’d gawk at but never buy. Our favorite shops, being a band of humor-seeking youths, had to be the lingerie shops, where every bra had no less than an inch of padding. CanThoAtNight_591As did most respectable, modern youths on the streets of Can Tho, we traveled via motorbike, with those whose family could afford the newest models driving and the rest hitching rides. MotorbikesParkingLot_CanTho_508
The wind felt great, since even in my sleeveless dress, I felt reduced to a sweating mess. Some of us playfully suggested jamming ourselves into a busy club, if only all of us exceeded the legal age of 18. Unlike the United States, where the age gap between young friends tends to be close, we ranged from the ages of 14 to 26.

Despite how tired I was growing, my eyes were fixated on the passing city as we zipped through packed traffic. Though I found Can Tho oddly calming during the day, the night had a crammed, rushing feeling to it.


Restaurants that were empty in daylight hours became busy, and the shopping malls so cramped I often found myself trapped in the aisles. We weren’t the only young adults out for a night of fun at the time; once the sun was down, the city emptied itself onto the streets, overrunning the outdoor markets.

In daylight, it’s easier to see that Can Tho is, like many other Vietnamese urban areas, a city that built itself in a feverish development rush. Even if Rome, with all its coliseums and aqueducts, really did build itself in a single day, each city of Vietnam seems to triple that accomplishment within the span of a single week. SkyscraperConstruction_CanTho_795Shabby, cement concrete buildings are bordered by shimmering steel and glass towers, the skyline dotted with the telltale cranes that herald future skyscrapers. The concrete jungle hybridized with real jungle flora, vibrant, green fanning leaves poking out between the gaps of pastel concrete walls, offering shade and rain cover to busy passersby. To put it romantically, there was a wild, organic, and rapidly paced style to the city, a beauty interspersed with litter, car horns, and thick tangles of power lines that wove through the trees.

The buildings aren’t self-generating wonders, but rather the built up backbone of a fast paced and growing urban population. Vietnam is a nation of growth, not recession—one of our Can Tho lecturers, Dr. Le Khuong Ninh, explained to us that Vietnam has the 13th largest economy in the world, and has an estimated workforce around 53.4 million people and a GNI per capita of $1,740 USD. This distinguishes it as a lower middle income country. In the past decade families have seen the addition of electricity, cable, washing machines, and internet in their homes, even in rural areas where formal roads can’t reach them. Most of the population carries a cellphone in the family, and in the city keep close ties to social media. You can spot people texting while they’re driving, sitting in class, or even on the job behind store counters and security posts.617_MotorbikeVendorSocTrang_333

With a medium income stable enough to maintain a middle class, education has become more and more accessible, even to farmers deep in the mangroves whose children rely on community boat rides to get to school. Before, only men were sent to college, and a family only sent their most studious children. SmallGroup_DYA_187Now, if a family can afford it, they send all their children off to study, male or female. Our friend Thi’s parents are rice farmers in the province of Kien Gian near Can Tho, but Thi doesn’t have plans on continuing their work. he’s majoring in Chemistry with a focus on pharmaceuticals. Most students from the university that we met have parents that share in common an income based on agriculture, but they’ll be pursuing higher paying careers of more diverse interests. Like my friend Thi, students stay in the city with their relatives if they can in order to study, or like my friend Diep, they stay at one of the massive, white on-campus boarding houses that can provide living space for hundreds of students at a time.

According to Dr. Ninh, with an increase in education and an explosion in urban populations, Vietnam’s economy is shifting away from its agricultural base and towards a market more specialized in industry and services. Statue_CanTho_However, the trend isn’t without major problems. Very few of Vietnamese people that move to the cities seeking jobs or education move back to the villages they come from, causing an overload of social problems in the cities and a drop of available labor in rural areas. Cities are producing trash and pollution that’s difficult to manage. Most motorcyclists on the road don face masks in an attempt to reduce how much exhaust and other pollutants they breathe in.

Vietnam’s educated youth are adopting urban cultures of East Asia and America quickly, watching popular Japanese animes and using English slang terms like ‘Cool’ and ‘Awesome’ and ‘This sucks’ while out for a night around town. There’s pressure to fit in—Ninh described to us an argument he had with a student that recently moved to Can Tho from a rural village. “Rural students buy motorcycles, even when they don’t need them, so they are like all the other city people,” RoyOnMotorbike_406Dr. Ninh said, “I asked [my student] if he needed the motorcycle, and he said no, so I said don’t buy it.” Despite the hot weather, Vietnam’s youths wear long, ripped jeans and faux leather jackets, donning motorcycle helmets printed with their favorite mascots. At times, I would see female riders holding their helmets in their lap in fear of ruining their hair. It was hard for me to believe that just a single generation before, these street styled youth’s parents were modest rice farmers in homes that didn’t even have power. These same parents were also witnesses to the destruction and malnutrition of the American Vietnam war, a history now confined to the museums and monuments whose shadows don’t even reach the busy streets.

Still, poverty is persistent, and as Vietnam becomes more and more developed, the equality gap grows larger and larger. It’s joined the fast paced cultures of Asia, obsessed with fashion, music, and other things that can be seen as either stunningly modern or carelessly frivolous. The egalitarian principles of Communism seem to be getting lost in the radical shift that promises a new face to a Vietnam long recognized as a poor, third world country. PoorManWashingFace_700During our night out with friends, we were visited by a young boy under the age of 10 wandering around the streets of Can Tho alone, selling beaded keychains to tourists and passersby for a few thousand VND. He was eager to take photos with us, and some of our friends affectionately pinched his cheeks but otherwise paid him little mind. I found myself heartbroken to see his blackened teeth, and saddened to see how skinny and malnourished he was. I could pick him up easily as if I were carrying a child half his age. He spoke no English, but I found myself asking him anyway where were his parents? Where did he live? How often did he eat per day? And how many more children were like him, out in the streets of the cities of Vietnam, left behind in Vietnam’s rush to develop?

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