At Home As a Foreigner

Reflecting on Viet Nam. Two trips. Two months. Affected for life.

To say its humid seems inconsequential. It is a soup. Ninety-eight degrees in the middle of a chaotic Ho Chi Minh City. We had just arrived in south east Asia only days before. The exhaust chokes as an endless stream of motorbikes buzz along – each carrying more people that I ever thought possible. I am standing on a sidewalk watching. Jen stepped into a small shop. I watch and enjoy the pulse – the rhythm – of a metropolis in southern Viet Nam. After a few minutes I realize that practically everyone passing by on their motorbike looks at me. Eyes meet. Adults, children. Everyone. In that moment it hits me, as a caucasian male just over six feet tall, I stand out. I am the spectacle; not the rhythm of Saigon.

Southeast Asia has a real grip on me. From the very first time I went there, it was a fulfillment of my childhood fantasies of the way travel should be.

Anthony Bourdain

Late one summer, a friend asked if we’d like to go to Viet Nam. First thought – What?! Why? The answer much more simple than I would have expected – to work with university students and young professionals on leadership development and career preparedness. Considering how Jen and I operate, we didn’t skip a beat. Yes! We were on board. We were thrilled at the thought of our first trip together to southeast Asia. We had no idea what to expect. We began to prepare. We researched, studied the country’s history, and worked on our presentations. A life lesson (re)learned – one’s preparedness is rarely sufficient, if at all. It was wonderful!

We leave our apartment in New York at 4am with our small cohort. This is a tall tale of its own, but for another time. A short 30 hours later we arrive late night in HCMC. Delirious! As we walk out of the airport, we’re taken aback. There are thousands of people sitting around, waiting to greet us. Well, not us specifically, but anyone and everyone. We wade through the crowd and chaos, jump in a van, and head off through the night to our small hotel in the heart of the city. A soft pillow is a welcome sight!

A life lesson (re)learned – one’s preparedness is rarely sufficient, if at all. It was wonderful!

We’re up first thing the next morning and off to a top, private university. Thank goodness for caffeine and adrenaline. We meet, present, interact, and are questioned by hundreds of students. Day one. We spend a month in Viet Nam the first trip, and loved every minute of it.

Our time was not simply filled with work, meetings, and lectures. We also took the time to enjoy connecting with new friends over caphe da and spring rolls. We toured ruins, relaxed by the beach, and of course, rented (borrowed for a cost) motorbikes and set off on our own dangerous adventures. Driving a motorbike in HCMC is not for the faint of heart. And let me tell you, Jen is a trooper. She hung on tight as we sped through crazy traffic circles, drove into oncoming traffic in order to turn left – yes, driving into oncoming traffic is how one turns left – and got lost more times than we could count. And those moments when completely turned-around, no clue where we were, are our favorite moments. We memorialize them. In those moments we only have each other, our creativity, and our resourcefulness. Those are the moments we hold dear. We live for moments! We learn in those moments, and we grow stronger in those moments.

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