As I sit down behind my computer to reflect on my journey in Vietnam so far, I’m unavoidably confronted with that paradoxical perception of time that permeates most significant travelling experiences: The feeling that it has simultaneously been both a lifetime and no time at all since I’ve hopped out of the bus and first set foot in Trà Vinh.
This peculiar impression, which I’m sure puzzles many fellow interns as well, surely stems from the wide array of new experiences inherent to living abroad in a totally different setting. The new acquaintances you make, the new food you experience, the new language you (somewhat miserably) try to learn, the new customs you are made aware of. All these novelties bombarding you in the span of a couple of weeks contribute to make that time feel like an eternity. After all, you certainly never require making adaptations of that sort, that quickly, in the regularity of your daily life back home. Hence, the reality that this much “new” can be packed into such a little sliver of time is counter-intuitive and hard to process. (Pictured above is Trà Vinh’s main pagoda overlooking the Long bình river. )
Fortunately for me though, this fast-paced eternity has been nothing short of incredible. Coming in, the amount of information I had on Trà Vinh was next to none, much to my family’s despair (“So what is there to do in [valiant attempt to pronounce the name right] again?” – my mom asked, every week since I told her about my prospective departure). And to be honest, I liked it that way. I loved the fact that I was going in kind of blindly, it added to the excitement. What I knew for sure was that spending 6 months in a seldom visited small town located in the heart of the Mekong Delta was going to be a very authentic Vietnamese experience. Needless to say that on that point, I wasn’t disappointed.
From the very palpable linguistic barrier to the relentless honks of passing motorbikes, from the countless street food stands to the infinite pairs of astonished eyes peering at you as you walk by, this is undeniably Vietnam at one of its purest forms. From the first couple of hours spent here, it became clear that the friendly reputation of the locals was well-founded. A mere two days after my arrival, I already had met and befriended most of the individuals that constitute my core group of friends today. Although bits and pieces of conversations are assured of being completely lost in translation on a nightly basis, the eagerness to communicate of everyone I’ve engaged with here has made the language barrier a lot less robust than I was expecting. Couple that with the general fascination that people here have about foreigners and you’ve got yourself a party. Sure, it’s a little destabilising to be pulled out of your work by selfies requests and having an entire classroom starring at you as you read your book on a neighboring bench (or legitimately having close to a hundred kids and their parents lining up, waiting for you to sign your “autograph” on a blank piece of paper. Feel free to read that again). But if, at any point during the course of your relatively short-lived existence on this planet, you find yourself in a situation where some of your biggest concerns involve taking an unhealthy amount of selfies with strangers and consistently not being able to settle on your dollar fifteen smoothie’s flavour, I’d tell you to take some very deep breaths and appreciate the moment.
Trà Vinh itself is pretty much everything you’d expect from a small Mekong Delta town. It has some surprisingly leafy streets filled with an equally surprising number of neat coffee shops, a very large array of restaurants and delicious local dishes to pick from, the typical southeast Asian day and night markets, more than a handful of pretty Khmer Buddhist pagodas (the province has one of the largest ethnic Khmer population in the country) and a charming little city center around which you’ll find a modern mall and a public park. The whole place has a distinctively laid-back vibe and the university makes it feel like a student town, two things which I’m all in for.
Trà Vinh also acts as a pretty good basecamp for exploring the region. One of the best decisions I’ve made here was definitely splurging on a motorbike early in my stay. It gave me the freedom to make day trips on the weekend and see other little-known places around the Delta. Plus, it acts as a sweet meditative tool whenever I’ve got my head full (although admittedly, the quasi lack of traffic regulations can make it pretty sketchy at times). Driving through the countryside along the shrimp farms, banana trees and rice paddies while the crimson sun is slowly setting on the horizon is a truly special sight to behold. Trà Vinh’s also only a couple of hours by bus from the Delta’s unofficial capital Can Tho, and from the vibrant megapolis of Ho Chi Minh City. Overall, it is a nice place to live. The sleepy nature of the place can however get a little underwhelming sometimes, especially coming from a big lively city (petit s/o à la grand ville, clin d’oeil clin d’oeil). That would be my main caveat to the future interns.
The novelty veil draping the whole experience inevitably gets a little more transparent after a while. It is a powerful testimony to the immense adaptability of human beings. Once it does though, it becomes very easy to be increasingly numbed by what’s happening around you, as you gradually fail to appreciate the distinctiveness of the situation you’re in.
I find that it’s a good thing to periodically slap yourself back in place and make time to get a little perspective. A reminder to myself: How many people worldwide get the opportunity to temporarily live, not simply travel to (although that too), but to actually live and soak in the culture and way of life of a country different than the one they’re born in? Out of almost 8 billion, what is the percentage? Now, take that relatively little proportion of people and add the further conditions to be entirely funded to do so, and to get to use the experience acquired abroad to bolster their professional credentials and careers once going back home. How many satisfy these criteria, even just potentially? Realizing this does not invalidate the feeling of homesickness I do get, being 13 thousand kilometers from home for an extended period of time. It’s not inconsistent with the fact that I’m not having a perpetual smile painted on my face, or feel bored and lonely here at times. It’s simply a little reminder to not take this opportunity for granted. An attempt to fully grasp that, by all possible measures, I am truly lucky to take part in such an adventure.
It honestly took me such a long time to decide to dive in and definitively accept the internship offer. I wasn’t too sure how it all fitted with my post-graduation plans, current personal situation at home and career ambitions. Looking back on it now, it would have been so foolish of me to turn it down for the comfort of my daily routine and close the door to all the gains derived from this opportunity. The placement one would get by getting accepted into this program is secondary in my opinion. Of course, the overarching mandate has to at least be of personal interest. But getting to intern overseas truly is a boundless experience transcending way past the professional realm, no matter where you end up. Without getting too meta here, if through the means of this small blog post I can nudge some inquisitive, but still hesitant readers towards undertaking this initiative, I’d definitely be pleased with it. So, by all means.