Five Study Abroad Programs in Vietnam
When asked about Vietnam, most people will defer to their knowledge of the Vietnam War. But if you're interested in studying abroad in Vietnam, learning about the country's history prior to the war, and afterward, will prove invaluable. Being ready to expect the unexpected helps, too.
Be prepared for "visual overload" when you first arrive. Cathryn Dhanatya, an International Programs Counselor at UCLA, says from her own experience, "I think Vietnam is in a lot of ways more foreign than most Asian countries...there are entirely different rules of traffic and things like that. They have intersections with traffic going eight different directions without any lights, and people just go any direction they want. But also just the smells, the air...it can be very overwhelming when students first get there."
Shoshana Woo, a junior at Yale who went to Vietnam for a summer immersion program in 2002, was overwhelmed in other ways. "As much as I'd read in newspapers and seen on TV, the poverty and all the suffering that's visible on the streets was not a reality till I got there. That was one of the hardest things.
"You can get into the mindset like you want to escape it a lot of times, and you can't deal with it. But you have to experience it without pushing it away," Woo says.
Some programs will arrange homestays on a case-by-case basis; however, be sure that you're truly an ideal homestay candidate before asking for special consideration. First, you must plan to be incorporated into the family unit of your Vietnamese host family, which means the host family will expect you to be present for family meals and to be home by curfew. Second, the local government does keep tabs on foreigners, so if you get in trouble, your host family will have trouble, too.
Ben Bangs writes in the ThingsAsian article "Stepping into a New World (First Time in Vietnam)": "We are just settling in for a leisurely cup when we get an unexpected visitor-some kind of police officer in red pants and a white shirt, who speaks softly but firmly to my host, obviously about me. My Vietnamese isn't good enough to understand more than about thirty percent of what my new family says to me v-e-r-y sloooowwwwwly; this dialog is completely beyond me. After he leaves though, my host explains that this local cop was here to make sure I will behave myself while on his beat. My host is completely and unconditionally responsible for my behavior."
Study abroad administrators and former study abroad students warn that a student's own ethnic background often has an impact on his or her experience in Vietnam. Heritage students (students of partial or full Vietnamese descent) can expect to face different obstacles than non-Asian students.
"[The students of Vietnamese descent] will be treated poorly because [the Vietnamese] say, 'Oh you've forgotten your heritage, you've forgotten where you come from. You can't speak, you don't understand the social norms,' says Dhanatya. "Whereas a student of Caucasian background goes there with the same, very beginning language skills, and people will say, 'Oh, that's wonderful, you're learning our language!'" On the other hand, Dhanatya points out, Caucasian and other non-Asian students will have to watch out for things like being overcharged or swindled. All students are more likely to experience discrimination in rural areas than in urban ones.
For every downside to Vietnam, there seem to be two or three upsides. For example, most programs offer beginning levels of Vietnamese language study, so knowing the language before you go, although preferable, isn't a requirement. Also, most programs have been careful in their selection and training of teachers, so in general, the teaching method in programs is a method familiar to Western students. In addition to language studies, Vietnam is an ideal place for students interested in development issues or countries that are in transition to study. Some programs even offer students the opportunity to participate in community service. Shoshana Woo cited volunteering in a center for street children as the most rewarding part of her experience.
Former students are quick to point out the vast difference between studying Vietnam from books and lectures and actually being there. Says one former study abroad student who is now an assistant program administrator herself, "I had studied Vietnamese for two years, I had majored in Southeast Asian Studies, so supposedly I knew a little bit about the culture and history. But when I got there, I felt like I didn't know anything about it at all. It's just a whole other world."
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Author's addition (March 28, 2003): At the time I was researching programs and interviewing administrators and students for this article, the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) virus had not yet been diagnosed in Southeast Asia. However, on March 22, 2003, the US Department of State issued a SARS-related travel warning for Vietnam. Officials state that Vietnam does not have adequate medical facilities to diagnose and treat SARS patients. Please continue checking the Department of State's travel advisories for updates. (http://www.state.gov/travel/)
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1. CET Academic Programs
Location: Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh
Contact Information: CET Academic Programs, 1920 N Street NW, Suite 200, Washington, DC 20036, Tel: 1-800-225-4262, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
2. Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE)
Contact Information: CIEE, 633 Third Avenue, 20th Floor, New York, NY 10017-6706, Tel: 1-800-40-STUDY, Fax: 212-822-2779
3. SUNY Brockport
Contact Information: Office of International Education, 350 New Campus Dr., Brockport, NY 14420, Tel: 585-395-2119/1-800-298-SUNY, Fax: 585-637-3218, Email: email@example.com
4. University of California, Education Abroad Program
Contact Information: UCLA Education Abroad Program, 610 Charles E. Young Dr., 1119 Hershey Hall, Los Angeles, CA 90095-7108, Tel: 310-825-4995, Fax: 310-794-4428, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
5. Vietnamese Advanced Summer Institute (VASI)
Contact Information: Vietnamese Advanced Summer Institute, c/o Center for Southeast Asia Studies, 1890 East-West Road, Moore 416. University of Hawaii, Manoa, Honolulu, HI 96822, Tel: 808-956-2687, Fax: 808-956-2682, Email: email@example.com
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