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

 

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

When Life Gives You Lemons (Or Food Poisoning)

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Recognizing blessings in the good times & the not so good times.

I thought I was so medically prepared for this trip. I had gotten my travel consultation in, I was vaccinated with more needles than you could imagine, I was taking malaria pills, had packed hundreds of bandaids, a good supply of hand sanitizer, anti-itch cream for bug bites. I had gathered ibuprofen, upset stomach medication, and dehydration salts, but I don’t think I was prepared for the food poisoning that was going to hit me.

The past five days were some of the most rewarding and challenging of the past month spent here in Vietnam. Our program traveled 4-5 hours to a small rural village by the Mekong River. Here we stayed at a local university. Quickly, I was introduced to local college students that would serve not only as mentors for the five days, but also friends.

Through this experience, I was able to engage in local organic farming practices, planting vegetables and making fertilizer with a local family. I interviewed a retired nursery school teacher and local college students about the educational system in Vietnam, and was able to help build a bio-gas convertor for a local family to help fuel stoves and other appliances. I enjoyed amazing meals with fresh fish and vegetables caught & harvested that day, laughed with my fellow peers in our mosquito net/bunk bed dorm rooms, and participated in a talent show with my friend Carter. (Comment Below: Guess the song we performed?)

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Preparing organic fertilizer in the Mekong River at a local farm. 

I was touched by the compassion of the local students, the Vietnamese children that would play with us before they would leave for class, and the hospitality of the families that we met. It was a beautiful getaway from the busy streets of Saigon and a treat to be able to see the stars in the sky for a couple of nights. I was able to play volleyball with my new Vietnamese friends, sit under the palm trees and watch an intense soccer game, and learn more of the difficult language.

This leg of my journey taught me more than just my physical strength when it came to farming in the hot sun for hours. Thursday night, mid-dinner, I was not feeling too great. I thought it was just a passing stomach ache or a reaction to the malaria pills. While I kept trying to mentally will it away, the pain in my stomach was getting worse. By later that evening, I was fully overwhelmed with the symptoms of food poisoning. Every thirty minutes I was waking up to vomit and couldn’t keep water down. My stomach was achey and sore and I had never felt as sick as I did before.

With a visit to a local hospital I was given some medication that my body quickly rejected as I boarded the bus for the 5 hour ride back to Ho Chi Minh City. The entire bus ride back I just kept singing to the songs I was listening to and praying for healing and comfort. There was no greater accomplishment in my life than making it on this bus ride back to the city as sick as I was feeling. I am eternally grateful for my friends on this program who were the best cheerleaders ever, always offering a pat on the back or a hug to calm me down.

Now, back in the city, I am resting up after another visit to a International Health Clinic here in HCMC. I am so grateful for the compassion that my host brothers have shown me, the care of the doctors and nurses, the laughs and love that my classmates have given to me, and most importantly, the support and prayers from my parents and grandparents that does not cease to disappear even from across the world.

I knew that not every moment of my study abroad experience was going to be enjoyable. Just like life, we enter hills and valleys but I am so grateful for the people and the presence of God that can help me get out of those valleys and back onto the hills. Whatever the next trial Vietnam throws at me, I know I can handle it! Now to rest up and allow my stomach to heal so I can enjoy the AMAZING food this country has to offer.

(A tired, but much healthier than yesterday) EKH

99 Percent Extraverted & Alone

Guess what day it is, VALENTINE’S DAY! (Well at least in my time zone). I’ve always been a fan of this commercialized holiday. Not because I’ve always had a boy to buy me flowers and chocolate but because I love, love. I think it is fitting that I spend today, writing a blog post on being alone, seeing that I’m 9,000 miles away from everyone I know and Valentine’s day isn’t usually associated with singleness. I’m not talking relationship status. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not doing this because I am anti-Valentine’s Day, but because in the short 14 days I have been in this city, I have learned to be more comfortable with the idea of being alone.

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There are many differences between suburban small town Connecticut and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, but the big one is that this is my first time ever living in a city. I decided to put myself on a plane for over 22 hours and land in a country on the other side of the world where I knew no one. I knew there were other students who I was going to meet up with, but I didn’t know anything besides their uploaded Facebook profile picture.

While I am never actually alone in this busy city of Saigon, I am alone in an emotional way, being far away from everything that makes me comfortable: my family, my friends, and my school, but this morning, as I walk down the sidewalks looking for a new coffee shop to sit in, I was very comfortable with the idea of being all by myself. I walked down the street with great confidence. I’m okay with finding a place to eat without friends. I’m fine with spending some time in my homestay bedroom just reading and reflecting. I’m content with adventuring without a buddy.

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View from the balcony in my homestay bedroom

The homestay component of my study abroad experience is something that caused me much anxiety but is turning out to be one of the greatest experiences yet. I am living in District One of Ho Chi Minh City with my má (mother), my anh (older brother), and my em trai (younger brother). They are some of the kindest, warm hearted people I have ever met. I am dropped off every day at school, I am fed SO much food, and a fresh smoothie is waiting for me every day after my afternoon class. Their compassion does not go unnoticed. Living in a homestay is a unique study abroad experience because you are not living with another American student. You don’t have the comfort of having an english speaking friend around you at all times. Even though my homestay family’s English is pretty great, language barriers are also a common theme. Being in a homestay has allowed me to have my time alone, but also have my time fully engaged in the culture. I am grateful for both the time spent with my family and the time spent with myself.

I am 99 percent extraverted and 1 percent introverted, constantly surrounding myself with loud people at school, doing things with friends and crowds always. It has been refreshing to be able to motorbike across the city just to find a new hiding place. Last night after dinner of fried eggs and caterpillars, I told my homestay brothers that I would be back in half an hour. I wanted to walk around the district they live in and get a feel for the new view of the city that I am fortunate to get. My older brother was hesitant and asked if I wanted him to accompany me, but I knew that this alone time is an important time for me to process all the new experiences I am encountering.

There’s something empowering about walking down a crowded street and knowing no one. It gives you the ability to be whoever you want to be in a new place. I have found that in the process of being alone, I have learned more about myself. Many times, we do not give ourselves credit for our own abilities. It’s a lack of confidence in our strengths and too much focus on our weaknesses. When you spend time with your own mind, you are able to recognize all that you can fully do.

At the end of my freshman year, I was adamant about not studying abroad. I did not want to miss the people at my school that I cared about, but now I am so thankful that I forced myself to focus on me, getting out of my comfort zone, and recognizing all that I can do on my own. I am still always going to be extraverted, enjoying the company of others but I am thankful for the opportunity to get to know myself more as I begin my twenties!

EKH