Just a “Hẹn Gặp Lại”

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The first morning I woke up in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, I called my dad crying about how I was too scared to leave my hotel room to get breakfast. The thought of leaving the safe haven that was that hotel room made me want to puke almost as much as the four months that lied ahead of me.

But four months later, I decided to push my return flight back a few weeks, travel around Southeast Asia, and stay a week in Ho Chi Minh City solo. I went from fearing going to breakfast alone to thriving off exploring the city and eating just with myself. This week alone was the perfect end to an adventure that taught me os much about myself.

This country has taught me that I am so much stronger than I give myself credit for. I put myself on a plane, and not only existed in this city across the world, but thrived! Vietnam has given me so much to be thankful for and taught me so many lessons.

1. Just because your parents call you a “country bumpkin” doesn’t mean you aren’t capable of living in a city.

I went from a town with a population of around 5,000 to a city with millions of people. I crossed busy city streets. I navigated public transportation like a pro. I got lost. I read maps. I found what I was looking for.

I didn’t let the fear of crossing a busy road cripple me. I took full advantage of having everything at my fingertips in a city. Who know’s maybe I am fully capable of living in a city (Hint Hint: Future Law School location).

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2. My family members are my biggest cheerleaders. 

I would have not made it to this day if it were not for the love and support of my parents, my brother, my sisters, and my grandparents. I am so thankful for their letters, FaceTime calls, and prayers through out this journey.

Whenever I would get homesick during my time abroad I would picture the reunion in the airport. The thought of embracing my Mom & Dad was enough to keep me going. When I saw them waiting for me in the airport with “Welcome Home” signs and a ‘Happy Birthday” balloon (even though it wasn’t my birthday) I couldn’t help but cry of happiness.

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3. GOD IS SO GOOD, ALL THE TIME!

Who knew that my faith would grow by leaps and bounds nine thousand miles away from home in a city in Southeast Asia? I’m so blessed to have a God who didn’t leave my side from the moment I stepped on that plane. I truly do “walk by faith” and would not have been able to do it without leaning into Him.

I’m thankful that my parents raised me in the faith and that I was motivated enough to get myself to church every Sunday, end or start each day with a Rosary, and talk about religion with my friends. I could not have done this journey without the presence of the Lord.

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4. Don’t let people dictate what plane you get on.

This is metaphorical but basically don’t let people tell you what to do with your life. Remember my freshman year of college where I wasn’t going to study abroad because of a boy? Well I’m glad life worked out the way it did. I’m glad I made this decision for myself because it was what I needed in life right now.

I spend a lot of time thinking about what I can do that would best suit the needs of others, constantly worried about pleasing those around me. But Vietnam taught me that I should not worry so much about what others think. I should start doing what makes me happy!

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5. Study abroad friends are UNREAL.

I’m so fortunate to have been able experience Vietnam with some of the most amazing people I have ever met. Their radiant personalities, their passion for life, and their love and support did not go unnoticed. I have made some forever friends on this journey and cannot wait to continue growing these relationships in the Untied States.

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6. There’s no place like home!

I wasn’t sure what to expect arriving back in the United States. I didn’t know if things were going to feel out of place or unusual. I prepared myself for the lack of noodles for breakfast, more English speakers, and the political climate as best as I could. But, surprisingly, being home was the same, which was a comforting thought. Besides the new dishwasher in our kitchen and that my little sister is now driving, my family was still functioning the same.

I had never been so happy to be woken up early by my brother’s guitar. I had never been so excited to have to steal all of my clothes back from my sisters. I had never been so relieved to know that our family’s band is still existing (& doing really well without me).

I am forever grateful for everyone who helped me get to this point. My time in Vietnam was something that I would not give up for the world. Some days, the busy streets of Saigon seem more like home than my small town USA, but I am eager for the day I hop on a plane for another 24 hour trip back to my favorite city.

I’m looking forward to a summer filled with family time, working, singing, and getting over this insane jet lag. And, who knows maybe I’ll have to start a real blog now that I am back in the States. I loved writing this one so much!

A tired but grateful,
EKH

Backpacks, Food, & Friends

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Four months ago I remember looking at my calendar app on my phone counting down the days till I was to return back to the United States, daunted my the large number that stood in front of me and home. Yet, three weeks into my program I realized I never wanted to leave this part of the world and decided to push my flight home back by a few weeks, extending my time abroad even longer.

Our Vietnam abroad program ended and four of my new friends and I decided to pack our backpacks for a week and head off to a bus station to embark on long journey to Cambodia. The first leg of the journey was a 6 hour bus ride to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. After a hectic time crossing the border and getting a Visa, I was able to step foot into a country that I had been wanting to visit since I was little.

Cambodia holds a special place in my heart. My two cousins were adopted from this country and I have been privileged to watch them grow up. I was excited to get to visit their both country as well as explore the world. My time in this country was met with welcoming people, delicious food, and HOT weather. I was so fortune to have the opportunity to travel here, and went to bed thanking God for my cousins every day.

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Angkorwat, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Our itinerary for Cambodia consisted of visiting Angkor Wat, the largest religious site in the world and one of the man-made wonders of the world. It stretched 402 acres outside of Siem Reap and is a must see! These beautiful and ancient temples were worth the ticket price and the amount we sweated in the heat. Taxis are not a thing in Cambodia so we payed for a Tuk Tuk driver, to take us around for the day.

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Loading up the Tuk Tuk for the airport

Our second stop in Southeast Asia on our backpacking trip was Bangkok, Thailand. We flew from Siem Reap to Bangkok and after a LONG wait through immigration and a LONG taxi ride in city traffic, we arrived at our Airbnb.

Honestly, I hated Bangkok as soon as I entered. The traffic was overwhelming and the expansiveness of the city was frightening to a small town Connecticut resident. However, as soon as I ate dinner I fell in love with this city, proving my first impressions to be false.

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Bangkok was filled with beautiful temples, boat rides down the river, and shopping. But the real focus of our time in this city was on food. So let’s recap (some) of the meals I ate.

Night One: Imagine this! A bucket of seafood in a garlic and butter sauce, dumped onto a table covered in wax paper. Then you are given gloves and told to go at it. HEAVEN! Utensils are overrated anyway! We also indulged in my first ever Pad Thai & went to a dessert bar to celebrate one of our friend’s birthday.

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Night Two: We figured out the subway system and traveled to Victory Monument to walk through the street food stalls. We food hopped and ate a total of 9 meals. From pad thai (round 2) to Thai donuts, to Boat noodles, and meat skewers! By the end of the night we were stuffed.

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Day Three: We spent the day touring temples so by lunch time we were starving. So we headed to China Town to indulge in the most amazing food I have ever tasted. Fortune cookies, shrimp toast, and ginger dumplings were by far some of the favorites.

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Mango sticky rice!

Night Three: We headed back to China town for dinner and found what we had been looking for…MANGO STICKY RICE! So we ate dessert before dinner. Then we found oyster omelettes and the best pad thai I have ever eaten. It was wrapped in an egg and served as an omelette, with lime and chili flakes.

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Up until this trip, I had never been outside of the United States, I didn’t even have a passport. But I have seen so much of the world and cannot wait to keep traveling. Bangkok did not disappoint. I gained a few pounds, added several stamps to my passport, formed lifelong friendships with my travels buddies, and sweated buckets.

Now it’s back to Saigon, Vietnam to spend the week further exploring the city that has stolen my heart from day one.

Sincerely, your wanna be world traveler.

EKH

 

Seeking Out Street Food

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I’m dedicating this entire blog post to food. No explanation needed. While this is the first time I have ever been outside of the United States, I am fully aware that the identity of a place is so deeply rooted in food and cooking. Vietnam is no exception to this rule.

The food I have eaten during my semester abroad has not disappointed. I have been constantly full, forcing myself to eat more of the delicious cuisine. Even as I traveled from the South to the North, the changes in food and cooking were noticeable.

Prior to coming to Vietnam, I had never tried Vietnamese food before. People would laugh and tell me that I should have tested it out to make sure I could manage to eat it for the next four months but I proved ’em wrong! No testing was necessary. My first real experience with Vietnamese food was with my homestay family. My host mother, even though she worked a full time job, made time to cook the most amazing dinners ever. And while the month went on, I was able to try different types of traditional dishes each night, as well as improve on my chopstick abilities (which are quite good now). Some of my favorite meals that I have had were at her dinner table.

Once out of the homestay, meals were up to me which put a lot of pressure on making sure that I tried a variety of food. Now I do eat sushi probably two (maybe four times) a week, and my favorite pizza place is a five minute walk from my air bnb, my friends and I force ourselves to go out and explore the street food culture that this country has to offer.

Social media has helped out search for the best street food. There is an Instagram account (Foody Hanoi & Foody Saigon) that will post photos, addresses, prices, and hours of operation for every type of street food imaginable. It has become a game of picking which photo to get to see in real life.

Please admire some photos of my favorite dishes. In four months when this food is not walking distance from my house anymore, I will look back at these photos and shed a tear.

1. Banh mì: bread, cucumber, cilantro, pate, pickled onions and carrots, pork. These would be super common in the morning for breakfast.

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2. BEST AND MOST BEAUTIFUL EGG DISH I’VE EVER CONSUMED: Not lying though I went here for breakfast three days in a row. You would be served a hot skillet with fried eggs, ham pork, green onion, and tofu. It came with a baguette to make your own egg sandwich. Add some chili sauce and you have a 10/10 meal.

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3. Fried Chicken & Tra Da: This fried chicken place was located in the market behind our school and I can confidently say it was the best fried chicken I have ever eaten. Plus the iced tea was a necessity. I’m pretty sure I drank so much of it during my semester abroad my body is now 80% tra da.

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4. Phong Nha Feast: A lot is happening in this photo so let me fill you in. Here we have three different colored sticky rice types. Then a large selection of meat that you then wrap in the rice paper with lettuce, omelette pieces, cucumber, and rice noodles, dipping in the fish sauce when wrapped and ready to consume.

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5. xôi bắp: Sticky rice with corn, sprinkled with coconut, peanuts, mungbean paste, and a little sugar. I loved this dish so much it became a running joke about how much I loved xôi bắp.

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6. Kem Xoi: Yup, ice-cream on top of sticky rice. Add some shredded coconut and you have the best snack to beat the Vietnam heat.

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7. Bun Cha: Below you can see the “Obama Combo” at the famous Bun Cha place where Anthony Bourdain took Barack Obama when he visited Vietnam. The combo comes with the noodle dish, a seafood spring roll, and a beer.

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8. Banh Mi Nuong Muoi: Obsessed with this snack. It is bread covered in a fish sauce glaze and grilled over a charcoal grill. Then it is cut up into slivers and covered with chili sauce, mayo, green onions, and pork floss. Plus the vendor who sells this is a father and his ten year old son.

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9. Banh Da Tron: Noodles, fish, tofu, green onions, chili, and lime in a delicious broth. My host mom always joked that on a super hot day you should eat super hot noodles to cool you down. While it still doesn’t make much sense to me, I follow her instructions.

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10. Elephant Fish: Although it looks a little daunting, eating this fish was so fun. You pull apart the fish with chopsticks and put it on rice paper with lettuce, vegetables, and rice noodles, making your own spring rolls.

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11. Pho: You can’t visit Vietnam without trying the tradition noodle dish.

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12. Fresh Spring Rolls: Shrimp, pork, cilantro, lettuce, rice noodles all wrapped in rice paper. Dip this in peanut sauce or fish sauce and you won’t be disappointed.

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And while Vietnamese food has made it to the top of my favorite foods list, I can’t say I ate it every day. I indulged in pizza, occasional McDonalds, salads, sandwiches, and a whole lot of sushi.

Vietnam stole my heart for many reasons, but the food will forever be missed.

See you in 16 days America!

EKH

 

The Happiest (& Muddiest) of Times

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I haven’t blogged in a while because I have bene crazy busy. About a week ago we finished up our classes in Ho Chi Minh City, took our Vietnamese language final exam, said goodbye to our homestay families, and departed for the “Grand Excursion.” This period of travel is two and a half weeks before all of the students begin their independent research projects or internships throughout Vietnam.

Grand Excursion holds up to the name. Within two short weeks we manage to travel from one end of the country to the opposite end. Intense traveling like this has allowed me to be able to see many parts of this country but it has taken a toll on my mental and physical health. I am not one who enjoys constantly relocating and living out of a suitcase gives me anxiety. However mentally and physically exhausting these days have been, I am so fortunate for the chance to experience this journey.

And while this blog post is not a ton of writing, enjoy some photos from adventures that will forever be some of the greatest memories I have.

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Dragon Boat rides down the Perfume Rive in Hue Vietnam

Our first stop after leaving Saigon was Hue City. A city filled with history and pagodas. It is famous for the Royal Citadel also known as the forbidden city. We also spent the days on dragon boats down the Perfume River, indulging in banana crepes and tourist-y bars. Hue is a much smaller city than Saigon but it is packed with so much history and culture. We went clam fishing in a lagoon outside the city, ate some amazing food, and got to experience traditional Vietnamese music at dinner over looking the river.

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Hue City Citadel entrance
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Phung Nha boat rides into the caves

Next we drove for an entire day stopping to plant trees at a local NGO working to remove landmines from Vietnam and educating the youth about safety. We finally arrived at Phung Nha in the late evening. The sky was dark when we arrived so I had no idea where we were but we woke up surrounded by the most beautiful rock sculptures and mountains. We spent three days here exploring giant caves, zip-lining over the bluest water, kayaking, and swimming the days away. We even went exploring in a “Dark Cave” where we were led by headlamps into a giant mud bath.

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Group photo after a mud bath after exploring the “Dark Cave” in Phung Nha
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Left a little part of my heart in Phung Nha

We boarded a night train at 12:30 am for Ha Noi, the capital of Vietnam and after a “great” sleep on the train were excited to be back to a busy city with motorbike traffic and coffee shops on every corner. In this city we were able to walk around the lake, eat amazing street food, and see a traditional water puppet show. It was a nice introduction to the city that I will be living in for a month when Grand Excursion ends.

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Rejoicing in God’s beautiful artwork everywhere I travel

My favorite leg of Grand Excursion was the last trip. It was the part I was dreading the most. I was tired and exhausted of living out of a suitcase. However, Sa Pa Vietnam proved to be the most rewarding place I have visited in this country. Sa Pa is a mountainous area that borders China. It is the homeland to many ethnic minority groups. We spent the morning having dance parties with children a local elementary school and then departed for an overnight hike down the rice terraced mountains to stay with a local ethnic group. There is nothing that I could write here to describe the sight and feeling that the area gave me. The experience was once in a lifetime and I am so grateful to have been able to travel here. I spent the majority of Holy Week in the villages of Sa Pa. It served as a time to reflect and truly stand in awe at the image of God in the landscape and people that I interacted with.

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Surrounded by a pretty view with pretty friends

Then it was back to Hanoi for the end of Grand Excursion. I spent Sunday at the St. Joseph’s Cathedral for Easter mass at 6:30 am. It was the first holiday I have ever had to spend alone and while I was blue to be away from my family, I couldn’t help but be joyful for the resurrection of my Lord and Savior (and I treated myself to an Easter lunch at my favorite pizza place).

See you in six weeks America!

EKH

A Closing Hymn

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Notre Dame Cathedral in District One, Saigon

I have found such peace in my Sunday morning routines. I “sleep in,” which in this country means I wake up at 7:30 am rather than my usual 6:00 am wake up call. After breakfast with my homestay family, I hop on a motorbike and head to the Notre Dame Cathedral in District One for mass in English. My host family is Buddhist but has made sure that I have access to mass every Sunday morning. The first weekend with them, my older host brother drove me around to visit several churches I could go to. They don’t come with me but as soon as I come back home they are patiently waiting for me to tell them about the service.

This Sunday morning, I woke up feeling a little lonely. During the Summer, my family sits in our normal pew at our hometown parish. At my college, I have my huge church network and am never able to attend mass without knowing at least twenty people. It is a community that has helped me be able to grow in my faith. However, in Vietnam it has been a faith community of two beings: me and God.

As I sat in a pew by myself but surrounded by local people and tourists from all over the world. I was immediately at peace, as hundreds of voices begin worshiping together. I remembered that no matter if it is a congregation in Ho Chi Minh City, Loudonville NY, or Marlborough CT, I am in the presence of brothers and sisters who are all there to do what I am there to do.

Maybe it is because I’m in Asia so everything I experience is cool and exciting, but mass here is always perfect. I leave feeling ready to take on the week of new experiences, whatever this study abroad experience throws at me. Every week, whatever the mass is about usually can relate to my life at the time, perfectly. You know those moments where you just want to shout to God, “Okay, I get it. I hear you loud and clear.” Where He is speaking so clearly to you directly and there’s no way to pretend you aren’t hearing it. His timing is perfect and He tells me exactly what I need to hear. As the choir started singing the closing hymn, the words on the television screen spoke so deeply to my 20 year old soul.

“There’s a longing in our hearts for love we only find in you, our God.”

So much of my study abroad experience is about learning about independence. I needed an adventure that would allow me to find myself, connecting with me after loosing touch of that over the past two years. The concept of this closing hymnal lyric is something that I am constantly trying to reflect on, wrapping my mind around the greatness and power that this line demonstrates.

My experience in Vietnam has taught me that I am so much more than who I hang out with, what my relationship status is, and what my weekend social obligations are. I used to put too much stress on finding love in places and people that left me feeling more empty.

At the youngest age my parents taught me that God loves me and I love God. It was a simple equation that I could repeat back, but never took time to grasp the concept. I think it is so difficult to understand because it is an overwhelming concept and idea of love. While away from my family & friends, I have felt the unconditional love of the Father in the strength that he gives me each day. It is beautiful to discover what real love feels like, looks like, and exemplifies. If you ever need a reminder, just look at the cross!

Last year I was not able to comprehend this idea of love. I thought I knew what it was and what it would look like. To be honest, I still don’t always know what real, authentic love looks like. However, Vietnam and my time here has allowed me to prayer and discern unconditional love in a different level. We want a love that we can only receive from God the Father and when you recognize that, it is a beautiful thing. I don’t think I am there yet. There are days where I think I have a hold on the idea but there are other days where I find myself settling for a love less than God wants for us.

I surely don’t have this down but since arriving in Vietnam February 1st, I set goals to better understand God’s love and how I find God’s love in others. I thought it would be a good time to do this since  I was going to be away from all relationships: family and friends. It’s a challenge figuring this out with no guidance from others but I needed the definition of love to be discovered from my relationship with God, and God alone.

I am thankful for the prayers that my family & friends back home have offered up for me. This process would be a lot harder without them. I continue to pray for guidance, answers, and peace in this process.

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I have a thing for faith based tattoos I guess?

Finally, one more religious update from Vietnam: I got my third tattoo (Are we surprised?) It is a constant reminder that God is by my side through this journey and in every journey before and moving forward.

Sorry (but not really) for another “Jesus-y” blog post. It’s the most meaningful aspect of my study abroad experience. I can’t talk about this journey without talking about Him!

Happy Sunday Blog Followers!

In His name,
EKH

A Day in the Life

 

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The view from my classroom

This may seem like a boring blog post, but I felt the need to aimlessly write and what better topic than my daily routine. If you know anything about me, you will know that routines are a big part of my life. I enjoy structure, knowing what I will be doing at every time. Studying abroad has really tested my ability to be comfortable without a program of events. There are many times where I do not have a minute by minute cue-to-cue, but after living in Saigon for a month and a half, routines are starting to be developed. So here is a typical day in the life of myself on my semester abroad.

6:00 AMI wake up, which seems super early to me, but everyone in my host family wakes up at 4:30 am so I am a late sleeper. I have really enjoyed becoming an early bird. The city is so alive early in the morning with the busy markets, people cooking on the sides of the street, and children walking to school. Vietnam has turned me into a morning person.

7:00 am: My host mom buys me a new food to try each morning from the local market next door to my house. Breakfast continues to be my favorite meal in and out of the United States. Some of my favorites include Xôi Bắp (sticky rice with corn), Bún bò Huế (a noodle and beef dish), Phở, and Banh mì (a traditional Vietnamese sandwich). I could dedicate a whole blog post to food, and I probably will, so I’ll spare you the long list.

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My neighborhood in the morning

7:20 am: After breakfast, my host mother or host brother will drive me on their motorbike through the busy streets to my University. I live in District 1 and my school is in District 3. It is about a 10-15 minute motorbike ride, depending on the time of day & traffic. At first riding on the back of a motorbike was terrifying. Look up pictures of Ho Chi Minh City traffic and you will recognize why. Yet, I can honestly say that it is the best part of my day.

7:30-9:00 am: My first class does not start till 9 am but since my host mother works, I leave the house a lot earlier than all of my other classmates. I spent the next hour and a half in a coffee shop. Within walking distance from my school, there’s at least six different coffee shops so every day I can choose another one. I also visit  Đức Phát Bakery and grab a pastry or two. This quiet morning time has become a crucial part of my daily routine. I use it to write, blog, FaceTime home, reflect on experiences of the week, catch up on some homework, and most importantly I use it for prayer. It has become a great way to start my morning.

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Let’s pretend I’m studying when really we all know I’m looking at lunch menus

 

9:00-11:30: LANGUAGE CLASS! While it may be one of the hardest things I have ever had to study before, learning Vietnamese language has been an incredible experience. I am surprising myself on how much I am actually picking up on from studying in a classroom, to using it at my homestay, in the local markets, and in daily interactions with local people. I have learned numbers, pronouns, directions, food, daily phrases, introduction questions, time of day, and a couple other helpful phrases.

11:30-1:30: Lunch break is nice and long and allows us to explore the city finding some hidden gems for good & cheap food. Vietnamese cuisine is like nothing I have ever experienced before. It is AMAZING! (Coming soon: Food Blog Post).

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“Lunch Lady” aka the best meal I’ve gotten here

1:30-3:30: Afternoon class is usually a lecture on one of our topics. I am studying culture, social change, and development at Hao Sen University so many of our afternoon classes are lectures on the American War, economic developmental theories, ethnic minority groups in Vietnam, and a wide range of topics.

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Exploring Saigon

3:30 to Right Before Dinner: This has become my time to explore the city before heading back to my homestay. Whether it is finding a cool cafe to sit in and do homework, going out for drinks with some friends, shopping, or just aimlessly walking down the streets to find a new adventure, Saigon is filled with endless things to do. Vietnam has an app called “GRAB” which serves as an Uber but for motorbikes so at around 5:00 pm, I call for a GRAB motorbike to pick me up and take me back to my homestay for dinner with my family.

6:30 pm: I usually have dinner with my host mother and my two host brothers at our house. My host mother is a great cook and always prepares an amazing spread. Dinner is a great time to continue learning Vietnamese words and to get more of my questions about the culture answered. My older host brother is very intelligent and loves to discuss elements of Vietnamese culture and tradition with me at dinner. My host mother speaks English very well. We keep a notebook at the dinner table and every night I write down two or three new english words for her to study for that day.

8:30 pm: Dinner is followed by a trip to the local park near my house. My host mom takes me jogging in the park every night. It has become a tradition that I really enjoy. The park at this hour is still very busy. People of all ages hang out here, exercising, dancing, eating food, or just hanging with friends. Plus at this time, the sun is down and the Saigon heat is more bearable.

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Beer & noodles along the Saigon River with my Host Mom

9:30 pm: Some nights I go straight to bed, other nights I will meet up with my friends. Tonight my host mother had bought sun dried squid off the street and we enjoyed a late night snack as we cheered “một, hai, ba, yoo” with our beers. Then it’s off to bed and ready for another amazing day!

While I will always be a type-A person, thriving off detailed schedules and plans, this adventure has forced me to get comfortable with being more easy-going and adapting to whatever is happening around me. I am fortunate to have amazing teachers, program staff, homestay family members, and friends who make each day fun and filled with adventure. Every day here is different and I am thankful for each new experience.

EKH

What a Buddhist Monastery Taught Me About Being Catholic

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Sunsets over the Truc Lam Monastery

I spent the last week in the beautiful city of Dalat, Vietnam, a city filled with flowers, coffee, french architecture, strawberries, mountains, and more. The cool “spring-time” weather was a nice break from the heat and hustle of Saigon. This short excursion was filled with a visit to a silk factory, a coffee farm, two trips to waterfalls, rainbow sightings, an intense hike up Langbiang Mountain, walks down the streets of the famous night market, and an evening spent at the Truc Lam Buddhist Monastery.

Vietnam is a country which predominantly practices the Buddhist religion, with ten percent of the population being practicing Christians. I knew the adjustment from my faith filled college campus to this country was going to be a challenge and I was expecting my faith to be tested but I was not sure what to expect.

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“Elephant” Waterfall outside the city of Dalat

Growing up Catholic, my family would go to mass every Sunday, with an occasional skipping of one Sunday for family vacations here and there. If we couldn’t make it on Sunday, we would go Saturday night. This was all a part of my weekend routine. Now, as a 20 year old college student, I have decided to continue furthering my faith. I am blessed to go to a Franciscan Catholic College which gives me opportunities to grow spiritually alongside my peers. And it’s not uncommon for me to attend mass 2-3 times every Sunday just because I love the people who go and all that I get out of college mass. While College has truly taught me more about my faith, being abroad has pushed me closer to God than I ever thought it would. I have been forced to lean upon His strength when He was the only comforting and familiar voice I knew. I left for a country across the world with just Him and I, and I continue trusting that He is with me through this entire process.

This past week, my class was invited to a Monastery to have dinner and practice meditation with the Buddhist nuns in Dalat. It was a beautiful experience that I am very thankful for. As we entered, we were given robes and took our shoes off. We sat tall on pillows as the nuns led us in a meditation.

In the Buddhist faith, meditation serves as an important tool for practicing mindfulness, being attentive to the true nature of one’s body and thoughts. The nun led us in a ten to fifteen minute silent meditation where we were to count our breaths. However, I didn’t follow the instructions and rather than focusing on my breathing, I decided to use to this time to sit with God in prayer. (I get that this defeated the purpose of a Buddhist mediation but a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do). This was a perfect chance to spend time in deep and meaningful prayer. No distractions! It was a form of my own meditation. This allotted time forced me into constant and undisrupted prayer.

I came out of this prayer time calm. I was able to acknowledge and thank God for the opportunities I’m having, the people I’m meeting, and the beauty of the country that I’m observing. However I also left with the strongest yearning for Eucharist. I have never gone this long without communion and I knew that prayer and rosaries were doing me good, but nothing is as important as taking part in the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

So Sunday came and I found myself a beautiful Catholic Cathedral to attend. Mass was at 7:00 am but for all that God is doing for me, waking up early was the least I could do. The mass was in Vietnamese so I was unable to understand the majority of the mass, but I was able to tell what part of the mass we were on and “Amen” is a universal word.

Walking up for communion was honestly the greatest feelings I have experienced here. I imagine I looked like a little kid in line to meet a Disney World character. I  was beaming, knowing that in a few more steps I would receive the Body of Christ. Language barriers have hindered my ability to understand at times, distance has made it hard, and fear has knocked on my door many times, but this entire experience has shown me that God is going no where. Whether it is in small town Connecticut, my college campus, or on the other side of the world, He is present always, in the hills and in the valleys of this journey.

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Smiling at the hills that God created. (Langbiang Mountain)

While I am unable to be constantly surrounded with a church community like back home, I have been able to maintain my faith life through different ways.

  1. I started saying rosaries every night (additional rosaries when stuck on a bus with food poisoning for five hours).
  2. I start every morning with prayer time and praise time, recognizing the blessings in life at this time.
  3. I keep in touch with my faith mentors back home through email, listening to their encouraging words and testimonies.
  4. I talk about my faith with the people around me.
  5. I learn about the different religions in Vietnam. Educating myself about the religious beliefs of others gives me much insight to religion as a whole.
  6. I listen to a lot of “K-Love” radio station and contemporary “Jesus-music.”
  7. I have two praying parents and a whole lot of praying family members who are always there to support me on this journey.
  8. I read a LOT of Catholic blogs.

I am finding God’s presence in so many ways here. I am finding him in the beauty that this country has to offer, the kindness of the people I am meeting, the relationship with my parents and family members back home, and through the strength that I am surprising myself I have. It has been the biggest test of my life and especially with the start of the Lenten season. It is difficult not having a faith filled community to back me up, but this study abroad adventure was about focusing on independence, being alone, and recognizing all that I am capable of. I think it is important that I grow as a Catholic, just me and my God.

In His name,
EKH