This past week, I spent four days with a group of eight Fulbright scholars and students who are conducting research at various locations in Vietnam. The US Embassy in Hanoi organized an orientation for us which began at the luxurious JW Marriott in Hanoi and culminated in an excursion to the mountains several hours from the capital. Six of the eight Fulbrighters have been to Vietnam before, a few speak Vietnamese, two are Vietnamese Americans. They are studying areas such as public health, mental health, teacher training, anthropology, history, business and political science. They come from all ages and backgrounds but share an interest in and passion for Vietnam. Most are staying one school year in Vietnam. Although we are all working on independent projects in different locations, it is nice to make these connections so that we can keep in contact and support each other during our time here.
Our orientation has been packed with practical information (keep moving forward when crossing the street), security advisories (assume you are being monitored at all times), safety tips (watch out for vehicles on sidewalks) and much more. Here’s a few of the things I learned.
- Vietnam is a Communist country with a capitalist economy. The Communist party still owns all of the land in the country and there are many large state-owned businesses, but it is much different than the communism I learned about growing up in the ‘70s.
- While the US Embassy (present here since 1995), still focuses on many war legacy programs, it has shifted its focus, like Vietnam, towards the future.
- The effects of Agent Orange which was used during the war are still prevalent today. The US is funding programs to deal with birth defects and to clean up contaminated areas.
- Unexploded ordinance is another legacy issue from the war. About 20% of the land here is contaminated with unexploded ordinance. Besides clean-up efforts, there are education programs in schools to teach children how to recognize and avoid bombs. Although there are several dozen casualties every year, the number continues to decrease.
- Vietnam and the United States continue to work together to find remains of soldiers listed as Missing in Action. There 2,000 US MIAs and 200,000 Vietnamese MIAs.
- Vietnam is very concerned about the effects of climate change and other environmental issues. The long coastline and vast amount of fertile soil in the Mekong and Red River deltas make Vietnam particularly vulnerable to climate change. Pollution from China is another issue affecting Vietnam’s environment.
- Vietnam is a safe country. Most of the crime involves small theft and snatching phones and bags. It is one of just 30 countries labeled as having a low threat of terrorism, according to our briefing from an embassy official.
- Vietnam has signed onto the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), currently being debated in the US. The TPP would require Vietnam to establish unions for workers among other things. Vietnam has already ratified a free-trade deal with the EU.
We also learned a lot about the education system in Vietnam which I will be writing about throughout my time here. More in my next post about what we did during our free time, but you can catch a glimpse on my Instagram feed!