REI-Vietnam News

Collegiate Cultural Exchange

by REI-Vietnam |

Image: Collegiate Cultural Exchange
College students from US and Vietnam exchange culture, language and life

This past June, REI-Vietnam and the University of Languages and International Studies, or ULIS—one of several colleges in Vietnam National University—conducted their first cultural exchange program. Eight college students from three universities in Kansas and Missouri arrived in Hanoi on June 8th. They were joined by REI’s Jeff Stebbins, a Ph.D. in Vietnamese linguistics who has lived in Vietnam for more than 20 years.

Jeff's team picture

Cultural Orientation

The nine Americans began with three days in a hotel to get over jet-lag. Jeff also used that time to show the students around Hanoi’s downtown Hoan Kiem area with its delicious street foods. He also prepared them for their language classes with a foundation in Vietnamese phonology (how to pronounce VN’s consonants, vowels, and tones). After repeatedly using chopsticks and making many sounds they’d never made before, the students complained of sore muscles in their fingers and mouths. But they quickly forgot their pains after a tasty, traditional breakfast of sticky rice, crushed peanuts, and sweetmilk—and some of Vietnam’s deliciously strong café au lait!

Program Development

On Monday the 13th, the US students met their ULIS counterparts, more than thirty English majors, eager for conversational practice with native speakers. After introductions all round, and a brief campus tour, most US students went to stay with a Vietnamese family. A few stayed in dorms on the ULIS campus.


Each weekday, the US students had classes in VN language and/or culture (music, history, religion, family life, etc.). Some classes took place in the field, as the ULIS students took their new American friends to see a museum or nearby village. In exchange, on most afternoons, the VN students learned about US culture. Dr. Stebbins gave illustrated (PowerPoint) talks about American history, geography, holidays, employment, sports, etc.—followed by an hour of discussion groups led by the US students. VN students could immediately use new vocabulary, and the friendly conversations grew loud and animated. Hard work didn’t keep anyone from laughing out loud!

Relational Fun

Chris and guitar

In their free time, the US students and VN students enjoyed going out together for noodles, tea, or karaoke. Chris jammed with some other guitar players on campus; Carolyn and a friend shopped for cool shoulder bags downtown; and Josh played hours and hours of basketball. All nine Americans also enjoyed an amazing weekend boating around the gorgeous islands of Halong Bay.

Girls with Fans

Shortly before their departure on the last day of June, the US and VN students put on a talent show together. A traditional Vietnamese fan dance, a hilarious facsimile of Beyoncé's "Move Your Body," and everything in between! Then, in a closing ceremony, ULIS’s administration presented each student with a certificate for successfully completing the language & cultural exchange program.

Take Aways

What each person treasured most, though, was a friendship or two (or dozen!) with students from the other side of the world. There were many hugs and tears as they exchanged e-mail addresses so they could stay in touch. And well before anyone headed for Hanoi’s airport, ULIS and REI were already talking about next year…

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