Saturday, September 3, 2011

orientation adventures

Most likely be a long post so yeaaaa just-a-lettin' you know :)

Yesterday, I returned from what was truly and experience of a lifetime. Right now, my comfort level is in Hanoi, due to spending the week there and really getting a feel for the streets and what to do during the day and night. I am hoping to bring that comfort level back to Saigon and really give this place another stab now that I have been "oriented" from orientation.

On a note regarding names to my friends from the USA: The city I am currently living is called Ho Chi Minh City (abbreviated HCMC). It is formerly known as Saigon and if you want to be cool/attempt to try to fit in among people here, you call it Saigon (or in Vietnamese Sai Gon). However, when talking about it in formal situations, such as at the Fulbright orientation, it seems to be more appropriate to refer to it as Ho Chi Minh City.


I flew into Hanoi on Monday afternoon. Hoping I would be able to feast at the airport (as I normally do), I was extremely disappointed to say that there was almost virtually no place to eat in the HCMC domestic airport. At the one "Fast Food Stand", I got a plate of fried shrimp in which this will be the last time I ever mention it due to the fact that it was so gross I can no longer stand to think about it. Eagerly waiting to get on the plane, I was also on the lookout for other American looking people sitting at my gate hoping to see other Fulbrights going to the same place. I knew that all Fulbrights living in HCMC were going to be on the same flight as me, but one stood out :(  I was still convinced that I could not possibly be the only person from HCMC.

Let me just make a brief note about how much better/nicer Vietnam Airlines is compared to any US domestic flight. First of all, there is no charge to check a bag. Second, even on just a brief (1h 40min) plane ride, we were given a full boxed lunch. Also on the flight home we were on an international plane and they had TVs in each seat and much more legitimate blankets that actually attempted to keep you warm.

Upon arriving, there was a little man waiting with a sign and he was standing with two other women. I learned to find out that one, Mary Collins, who is older, is a Fulbright Scholar (which is different from a Fulbright U.S. student grant) and she is here teaching social work at a university. The other girl, An (shout out to the other white rice !), just graduated from Emory and is here studying Dengue Fever and malaria presence in different mosquito populations.  KOOL!

Fulbright arranged a car for us to be taken back to our hotel, The Rising Dragon Palace.  All three of us were a bit suprised that we were the only people from Saigon. We were all expecting to meet a bunch of people from Hanoi at the orientation the next day.

Let me just start of by saying Fulbright spoiled us rotten this week. Our hotel in Hanoi was more than enough--soo nice. We each got our own room that had these fancy-schmancy showers.
Fancy-Schmancy Hotel

After checking in, I contacted another Fulbright that I knew FOR SURE was going to be in Hanoi because we have been chatting before hand and she had been in VN for several weeks now. Emily, from Portland, is studying ecovillages in regions around Hanoi. Seems like a pretty cool project. It is also pretty cool that all the student Fulbrighters thus far are studying environment/ecology/biology related things.

So Emily and I met up and went looking for this Vegetarian restaurant. In my head, I was thinking, "Finally! A place where I would have no trouble picking anything out." I thought I was going to be feasting. However, after sitting and chatting within the restaurant, a giant cockroach comes scurrying along next to my feet. After squirming and standing on the chair the staff finally smashed it. I have to say that after that, I lost my appetite a little bit. Very bad day of eating in VN... After the restaurant excursion, we went to find a place to drink. We found what seems to be the "cool and happening place" of Hanoi...I am desperate to find this area in Saigon..waah. But what caught our attention was how on the street corner there would be kegs and then everyone sits on these tiny plastic stools and drinks their beers that seriously only cost a quarter. Now not that I drink beer very easily (or at all really) I tried to choke this down just for the fun of it all. Probably most fun city experience thus far! See below...
Need a drink? Why not just grab a piece of child's patio furniture and fill one from the keg!
We didn't stay out too late though due to the fact that orientation was so early the next day. Thank heavens for the continental breakfast at the hotel (which was over-the-top delicious)...I was absolutely starving. Future note to self...ordering an omelette does not mean cheese and egg omelette with all the goodies inside. It means a badly fried dried out egg folded in half with no cheese and a few vegetables. However, sunny-side up eggs in Vietnam I have found to be yummy :) The four of us (Mary, Emily, An, and I) took a cab over to this lavish 5-star hotel where our orientation was to be held. And I thought the Rising Dragon was nice. All four of us were anxious to see who was going to be waiting for us in the orientation room--hoping to meet lots of new people. We were soon made aware that we were expecting only one more person and it was a Fulbright scholar (Wendy) --meaning not a student. So it was only the five of us, suprisingly all women to start off in the Fall semester. We learned that there were 5 other Fulbright students but they will not start until January. Apparently we were allowed to pick when we wanted to start (?). Also, there was also a group of 15 ETAs (people who received English Teaching Assistantships), but they had their orientation for a whole four weeks (!) and were able to spend a significant amount of time in Hanoi hanging out. However, they left two days before we arrived so we did not get to meet many of them :(

First we were all introduced and met important Fulbright people that made you feel happy and proud to be a Fulbright Basically orientation consisted of a series of "briefings" that scared the wits out of you. Let me do just a brief overview:

  • Political briefing: Basically, Facebook is blocked and the government monitors everything (Hello, government!!!! ) so just be careful what you say and do on the Internet. Also, US and Vietnam are now besties and want to grow closer together. We are leaving the past behind and looking towards the future to live in peace and harmony (aww...)
  • Economics briefing: Made me wish I cared a little more in my macro class...but I understood words like GDP and trade and blah blah blah. Basically, VN is growing very quickly and we are in VN at a very good time while things are still very cheap.
  • Medical briefing: Let me just briefly summarize his few terrifying points--
    • If you live in a city in VN you will basically develop a permanent cough from the pollution and once you go back home it will go away. If you have a fever with your cough you will get TB and maybe DIE.
    • If you do not wear bug spray you will get Dengue Fever and DIE. However, there is no DEET in VN and the Embassy is allegedly holding a secret stash hostage...
    • Do not touch the kitties or puppies or monkeys or YOU WILL GET RABIES AND DIE.
    • If you hang out with pigs a lot, you will get Japanese Encephalitis AND DIE
  • Security briefing: basically, cross the street with your eyes closed and hope you don't die
So yeah the briefings FREAKED YOU OUT just a tiny bit....but I guess they have to tell you worst case scenario... During the midst of all of this was probably the most exciting part of it all. 

We ate lunch with the brand new US Ambassador to Vietnam. Boy, was everyone nervous. Not to mention my horrible chopsticks skills....He had just received his official credentials the day before so we were the first meeting on his agenda as ambassador which was pretty cool. He was very nice and down-to-earth but also very nice in a holly, jolly sort of way :)

We also had dinner at this really nice restaurant in Hanoi after the days festivities ended with everyone's mentor. The head of the CBD flew all the way to Hanoi just for the dinner! I definitely have to say it had been my best meal so far. 

Traditional northern food dish on left was TO DIE FOR OMG I WANT IT RIGHT NOW...followed by lots of delicious grilled oysters and squid...yumsiessss 
Okay so this is a Passion Fruit and I will vow to myself to eat one every single day because it is the most delicious thing I have ever eaten in my life. I have concluded that fruit in USA is not even worth eating...

After dinner, we went out exploring the bars of Hanoi. We met up with two ETAs that were still in Hanoi and had not started their work yet. If you would like to picture what a bar/hang out place is like in VN think: hookah bar mixed with crazy dance club with a mixture of Bon Jovi, Usher, and Michael Jackson blaring....I couldn't stop laughing to myself :)

There are plenty more adventures following the next few days. For example, our lavish excursion trip to Ninh Binh...but this post has gotten long enough and I am sitting in a little cafe with almost no battery left. Tonight I am getting dinner with someone from the CBD. Wee!

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