My Vietnam Memories
by Elsa Lantz,
2019-2020 SALT Participant, Hanoi, Vietnam
I worked for Thế Giới Publishers as a part of MCC’s Serving And Learning Together program from August 2019 to March 2020, having graduated from Goshen College in May of 2019. As someone who is passionate about editing and international connection, getting to serve with MCC at a publishing house in Việt Nam felt like an incredible opportunity. Even though I wasn’t able to complete my full SALT term, I loved the time I spent in Hà Nội, both working and learning about Vietnamese culture. I’m grateful for the connections I was able to make with people there, especially with my host family, and I hope to return some day.
One large challenge I faced during my term was the CoVid-19 pandemic. Shortly after Tết—the Vietnamese Lunar New Year Celebration that takes place in the beginning of February—the virus began influencing life in Hà Nội. At first I continued to work at the publishing house, but I began wearing a face mask, which I’d never done before. There were frequent ebbs and flows to the level of fear towards the virus, ranging from mild to incredibly high.
In the middle of March, I went on a short weekend getaway with some MCC teammates to mark and reflect on what was meant to be the midpoint of my SALT year. The weekend I was away, several new cases were found in Hà Nội, and the light restrictions that had been in place became much more rigid. I began working from home, as did millions of Vietnamese citizens. That retreat, instead of being just a part of my year, ended up being my last adventure in Việt Nam outside of Hanoi. Two weeks later I was on a plane back to the U.S. after it was decided I should end my term early. I never expected that a virus from outside Việt Nam could end my term three months prematurely.
Pandemic aside, I loved the time that I spent in Việt Nam. I didn’t realize how comfortable I’d become until I had to leave. My host family was incredibly welcoming and they are one of the highlights of my term. They took me to their hometown and treated me like a family member, eager to teach me about their culture and traditions. Even on my last night with them we were discussing our cultures and spending meaningful time with one another.
One particularly fond memory I have is of my host mom teaching me how to make nem—fried spring rolls—so that I could make them for my friends and family in the U.S. A few weeks later, we made nem a second time, and my host mom told me to show my host sister how to fill the nem, joking about how amusing it was that an American was showing a Vietnamese person how to make Vietnamese food.
I also appreciated all the little moments with my host siblings, from conversations about differences between our cultures to walks along the lake by our house. We often played games and puzzles together. I enjoyed answering their questions about the English language, and by the end of my term I felt like I’d learned just as much about English as I had about Vietnamese.
While I was in Việt Nam, I wrote a blog to keep friends and family updated. I’d planned on writing about Hà Nội as I experienced it through all five of my senses as a way to end my year. When my term came to a more sudden end than anticipated, I used my blog posts as a way to process some of my memories of Hà Nội, as well as the parts of the city I liked and appreciated. My last blog post focused on touch — not things I physically felt, but felt emotionally. I don’t typically write poetry, but the post ended up as a free-form poem that encapsulates a lot of my feelings towards Hà Nội and my experiences there. I’ve included it here as a way to summarize my SALT term.
Hà Nội feels like
Warm, humid air that clings to the skin when it's hot out, and cold humidity that seeps into my bones when the weather is cooler.
A sense of accomplishment after ordering in Vietnamese at a coffee shop and having the waiter understand.
Joy after realizing that things look familiar and maps aren't as necessary as they were before.
Rain dusting my face and glasses as I ride on the back of a motorbike alongside a lake.
Wet sandals that refuse to dry after stepping in a puddle while trying to get to shelter during a rainstorm.
A sense of satisfaction after catching the bus in the nick of time, or when there's a seat open during the morning commute.
Impatience while sitting, or more likely standing, on the bus during the pre-Tết traffic jams that made my morning commute twice as long as usual.
Pride when I realize I can cross the street without getting scared of the speeding motorbikes.
Gratitude to those who took time to welcome a stranger into their home, and who shared tears over an unexpectedly sudden departure.
Frustration over not understanding the language being spoken around me, but at the same time pride for how much I do understand.
Joy and appreciation for the strangers around me who offered tea, snacks, and limited conversation to me out of kindness, even though our interaction was short.
Thank you, Hà Nội, for welcoming me with open arms and showing me all your hospitality and friendliness.
Thank you for making me feel at home in a new city, and for reminding me that I will always be welcome.