REI has conducted a Summer Cultural Exchange program for several years, connecting students from the USA with students from Hanoi’s University of Languages and International Studies (ULIS) and other universities as well. This year 6 students, Christal Porter, our Team Leader from Rice University, José Escobar from Houston Baptist University, Olivia Ortiz from Texas A&M, Gabi Hadad, also from Texas A&M, Michael Mason from Oklahoma State, and Caroline Lane from Rice, came to Vietnam from May 19 (Happy Birthday, Uncle Ho!) to June 13. Our own Dr. Jeff Stebbins was the REI facilitator. The first weekend was a time for initial orientation to the country and getting over jet lag, and then from Monday, May 23 the program was off and running, meeting ULIS administration and students and getting a tour of the campus. For the first week the American students stayed in Vietnamese homes, experiencing first-hand Vietnamese home life.
The sweltering heat of the Vietnamese summer day saw the majority of the formal cultural exchange. The American students studied the Vietnamese language for 2 hours daily, and also received presentations on Vietnamese culture or went on a local field trip for another 2 hours. The cultural presentations addressed such topics as holidays, cuisine, social customs, and so forth. In return, Dr. Jeff presented lectures on American education, politics and elections, a brief history of North America since 1492, hobbies and interests, social customs, employment and work conditions, and the holiday of Christmas. The current election season in the USA prompted the question, “Who will you vote for?” Not an easy question, this time around! The lectures on American culture were given to 20 to 60 Vietnamese students, depending on their availability, which in turn depended on their exam schedule. Animated discussions typically followed the presentations, whether on presidential candidates, world view, or life in general. Great fun.
Our students this year connected remarkably easily with the Vietnamese. We have had students in the past who were initially uncertain about how the home stay would go, or about the different foods, etc. This year all of our students dove right into the Vietnamese culture and never seemed to need to come up for air! Remarkable, given that half of the team had never been overseas before. Happily, for the first time, none of our trip participants came down with any form of illness, which of course made for a more pleasant stay all around.
The Vietnamese are typically warm and welcoming, but that was especially true this year, as President Obama’s visit to Vietnam coincided with our team’s stay, and there was a special atmosphere of welcome. Thanks, Prez. Obama’s visit to a bún chả restaurant made that meal of grilled pork and noodles a viral hit. But by all accounts our students liked all the food they tried, and even though Western fast food is available in Hanoi, one student said, “I’d rather have good Vietnamese food than bad Western food!” Thai and Indian food were also consumed and enjoyed, followed at least once by a trip to a Karaoke parlor, a high note of the program!
Jeff and the students commented on how well preparations had been made for the team’s travel, whether internationally or for their weekend trip to Halong Bay. Our thanks to Madame Lien and Ms. Ngà, our indefatigable administrative team for their efforts.
And our thanks too to each team member, to Jeff, and of course to our gracious hosts, the staff and students of ULIS. Our hope and intention is to follow this year’s program with more to come, as we continue to build relationships which will lead to the further building up of the nation of Vietnam!