Life in Ho Chi Minh

Published 11/06/2022 in Scholar Travel Stipend
Written by Jamie Kim | 11/06/2022

I found living in Ho Chi Minh a great experience. The locals were always nice and helpful, even if my questions resorted to pointing to a bad Google translation. Since Ho Chi Minh was much bigger than I had thought, there was always something to do, to eat, to see, to learn.

As soon as I stepped out the doors of the slightly air-conditioned airport, I was consumed by the hot, humid, heavy air of Ho Chi Minh. I waded through the crowd to find column 10 and met two coordinators from Abroader, a student exchange program that my school had partnered with. We quickly got into a small Grab car (Vietnam’s version of Uber/Lyft) and made our way to my apartment in District 8. The drive gave me my first taste of Ho Chi Minh City: the roads were inundated with swarms of motorbikes, the sidewalks were lined with people selling goods and food, and the city scenery was defined by a mix of modern skyscrapers, narrow buildings, and ramshackle huts.

Admittedly, for the first few days, I found it a bit difficult to adjust to life here. I was not used to the weather, the pollution, the concept of literal street food, and the congestion. Furthermore, the language barrier made it hard for me to get around the city easily. Additionally, the day after I arrived, I had a chance to tour my company, the Stem Cell Institute, and I was shocked as to how different research laboratories in Vietnam and those in the US were. Here, budget for research was strictly limited, which resulted in researchers minimizing their spendings as much as possible by reusing flasks, pipettes, tubes (items normally discarded after one use in the US). Even lab space and important materials, like buffer medium and cell cultures, were scarce.

However, I gradually began to adjust to life in Vietnam. First, I became more involved in the lab. The first week involved shadowing and observing my supervisor, Ms. Khanh, and the three local undergraduates working in her team. Afterward, I was allowed to conduct experiments and work in the lab on my own. My main duties were extracting stem cells from umbilical cords and fat tissue, growing cultures from those cells, differentiating those cultures, and ultimately, characterizing them through flow cytometry methods. Throughout my seven weeks at the lab, I definitely came to understand the universality of science. Despite the differences between Vietnamese and American culture, and the resources available in both countries, all scientists were working toward the goal of advancing scientific research in the relatively new sphere of stem cells and curating more questions to look into.

Additionally, since the lab was affiliated with the University of Science, Vietnam National University, the local students in the lab taught me a lot about the education system in Vietnam, and in return, I told them how it worked in the U.S. For example, in Vietnam, students select the university they wish to go to by declaring a major and must stick with the major as long as they do not transfer. Also, attending a university confers a higher status than attending a college. I loved moments like this –– when my local friends and I could respectfully and eagerly learn about our respective cultures.

For the last 4 weeks of my time in Ho Chi Minh, I also became involved with a local nonprofit organization called Friends for Street Children (FFSC), which works to provide free primary education and health care for street children. A student from UPenn who lived in my apartment building was interning there, and after learning about the organization, I wanted to help. Also, from my previous experience back home, I knew that volunteering was one of the best ways to get involved in a community.

At FFSC, I was tasked with launching a GoFundMe campaign to raise funds for the school children’s school supplies, backpacks, etc. for the upcoming school year. I personally raised over $1,500, and as a team, we raised more than $7,000 of our total $9,500 goal! Also, occasionally, I was able to plan lessons for the children, such as a hygiene class on teeth brushing and hand washing, an art class, and an English class. These children come from underprivileged families in the rural areas of the city, and most are undocumented; these issues made them unable to attend public schools in Vietnam, since public schools are not free and require government identification. Seeing these children so eager to learn was a joy to me, and I was so grateful to know that organizations liked FFSC existed to provide these kids with stability and support. Even in the U.S., even more so now, education is the catalyst for change and social mobility. So for people in Vietnam to realize this importance and act upon it was inspiring to me.

Besides working and volunteering, I also had a lot of time to explore the rich, unique culture of Ho Chi Minh. Abroader had a group of local buddies, who are Vietnamese college students who spoke English and hung out with foreign students. With these local buddies, I greatly explored the city. I tried different Vietnamese cuisines, like papaya salad, banh xeo, com tam, etc. on both street carts and established restaurants. Abroader also arranged a few events for us, such as an International Day in which different US colleges and one of the private Vietnamese universities exchanged information and a day-tour to the Mekong Delta. Also, with one of the local buddies Tu Anh and some other Princeton students, I explored the Cu Chi tunnels, which was a crucial area during the Vietnam War.

The Milken Institute and the Milken Family Foundation both stress the importance of personal growth and leadership development, and I believe that my experiences in Vietnam definitely contributed to these aspects. Living alone in a foreign country caused me to learn things about myself and challenged me to take risks that I had never seen myself doing. However, I am most grateful for the education I received. I mean this not in terms of developing my skills in the laboratory or learning how to create proposals for FFSC, but in the exchange of cultures. Having the opportunity to truly immerse myself in Vietnamese life allowed me to expand my understanding of the people here and their culture, with the larger goal of bridging differences and gaps in our world. People don’t necessarily have to agree with others, but practicing empathy and understanding will allow us to have healthy conversations about topics that further the betterment of humanity. My summer in Vietnam showed me the importance of this interchange and trade of cultures, and I plan on traveling more to become a more cultured, knowledgeable person who can actively contribute to a more connected, united world.