Friday, May 20, 2016

May 20th - Last Day in Vietnam

Today was our last day in Vietnam, it was very sad to go but I will be happy when I am home. I will miss all of the Vietnamese students that welcomed us with open arms. Today we played games with the students in the morning and then in the evening we went to a rooftop restaurant for our final meal.

In the morning we played soccer, tug of war, and had a sack race. We won at girls soccer, tug of war, and the sack race. I almost fell on my face during the sack race and I felt bad about tug of war because we are much larger than many of the Vietnamese students. I think we also got way to competitive and we were being very loud. The Vietnamese are definitely not as intense about competitive sports as us Americans. After playing games we exchanged gifts and said goodbye to some of the students who were not coming to dinner. It was the beginning of the end for our time in Vietnam.

During the day we had our final presentations about our company visits and went back to the hotel to pack up. Throughout this entire day I still couldn’t believe that today was our last day. The trip went by very fast and I never thought it would end.

For dinner we went to a delicious restaurant that was on a rooftop of a hotel. We got a great view of the city and wore our traditional Vietnamese dresses also known as ao dais. There was a mix of traditional Vietnamese food, Japanese food, and western food at the restaurant. Our hosts have done a great job of giving us a variety of foods to eat and allowing us to have many choices.

It was sad saying goodbye to all of our Vietnamese friends, but I will be happy when I get back to the U.S. It was definitely an unforgettable experience and hopefully I will be able to travel back soon! 

Thursday, May 19, 2016

May 19th - VSIP and II-VI

Today was our second to last day in Vietnam and I am not ready to leave tomorrow. I have made many new friends from Pitt and Vietnam and I will miss spending time with them. We went on two company visits today, one at Vietnam Singapore Industrial Park (VSIP) and the other at II-VI. We also had lunch at a delicious Japanese hot pot restaurant. They had a mix of western and Japanese food. It is almost similar to the Melting Pot and we cooked our food at the table in a pot of spicy cooking sauce. 

VSIP was a very interesting company and we learned more about industrial development in Vietnam. VSIP is a company that builds and maintains industrial parks. Companies lease out the land to build factories and there are companies from over 30 different countries. Some examples include Unilever, Microsoft, and Siemens. VSIP is the only developer of its kind in Vietnam and offers a wide range of services to its tenants. They work with the government to provide a road system between factories, offer an in house customs office, and have a business licensing services. They also provide services such as waste water treatment, housing for workers, and an emergency power grid if the government shuts down the power. The second company we visited today was actually located in VSIP and we did not have to drive far to get to it. 

II-VI(Two-Six) is an optics and thermoelectrics company. They are based in the U.S.  but also have operations in China and Vietnam. We visited two of their plants and talked to their Chief Engineer. The first plant we visited was a thermoelectric plant that makes components that are used in applications such as heated seats and laser cooling systems. It was very interesting to see applications of what I learned in my chemistry and physics classes. I am also very interested in the manufacturing process, so I definitely enjoyed this site visit. The second plant visit we went to was an optics plant that makes glass tubes for lasers, medical lenses, and other glass products. The production we saw today was all low value products that take a lot of man power to make. That is why this type of production has been outsourced to Vietnam where the labor costs are lower and there are many tax incentives. The products that are produced in the United States require higher skilled labor, are protected by stricter patent laws, and are very high in value. It was interesting to see an example of outsourcing and how it has effected this company. This site visit was a lot more engineering related than the others and I enjoyed the highly technical aspect of it. 

A part of me misses home but another part wants to stay in Vietnam. It will be bitter sweet leaving tomorrow and I am not looking forward to the long plane ride home. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

May 18th - Independence Palace and Saigon Newport Corporation

Today we went to the Independence Palace and a company visit at Saigon Newport Corporation (SNP). We also had lunch at a restaurant on the top floor of a hotel and got a great view of the city while we ate.

The Independence Palace was home to the president of South Vietnam before the country was unified after the war. It was interesting to compare this to the White House in America and see the differences. There were three wings and many different rooms such as an underground bunker with a room to control the military and the president’s residence. The current building is much newer than the White House and was constructed in the 1960s after the old building was torn down. The palace is actually called the reunification palace now because Vietnam is now one unified country. The building holds a lot of historical value and was the site of many important Vietnamese events such as war discussions and presidential meetings.

The Saigon Newport Corporation is a logistics company that manages many ship ports and transportation networks. We visited the Cat Lai terminal today, which is a very important and busy port that supplies much of South Vietnam. There are many different goods that are imported and exported from the port such as rice, electronics, and furniture. When we drove in the gates in the front it surprised me how much traffic there was and how hectic the environment is. Our presenter told us how the roads are going to be widened soon and that the port is reaching its capacity. With the high growth of the Vietnamese economy and increased trade, the number of ports has grown a lot in the past 20 years and will continue to grow. This specific port is actually owned by the navy and SNP works closely with the government to move all of the ships in and out. SNP has a good relationship with the government and coordinates on many things like customs and trade regulations. This was a very interesting company visit and it was good to see how all of the goods we use move around the world.  

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

May 17th - Buddhism and the War Remnants Museum

Today we learned more about Vietnamese Culture and the war. We had a lecture on culture in the morning and in the afternoon we learned about Buddhism and went to the War Remnants Museum. We also went to a Buddhist monument and a pagoda where Buddhists go to worship.

Learning about Buddhism was very interesting and I did not know much about it before today. Buddhism is very different than Christianity and seems to be more of an entire lifestyle than a religion. Buddhists follow the teachings of the Buddha and there are monks that people can go to for guidance. Buddhists are vegetarians, hold themselves to high moral standards, and believe in a very peaceful way of life. Another fact that I found very interesting was that they do not have a certain time during the week where they all go together and have a worship service. They just go to the pagoda whenever they want and pray. We got to experience the pagoda and it was good to see where they go to worship. We had to take off our shoes when entering and it was a very quiet and calming space. Then we knelt and prayed in front of the Buddha statue. I really enjoyed learning about their way of life and being able to experience how they worship.

After the pagoda we headed to the War Remnants Museum. It was a very intense experience to see the war from a Vietnamese point of view. While we lost about 60,000 American soldiers, they lost over 3,000,000 soldiers and civilians. I was astounded by the amount of civilian casualties and how detrimental this war was for Vietnam. The exhibit that made the greatest impact on me was the one describing agent orange. Agent orange was a gas that the Americans used on the jungle to expose the Vietcong and it had disastrous effects on the civilian population. There many graphic images of children with birth defects and burn victims. This exhibit and a lot of the other images in the museum were very hard to look at. It just goes to show that there are two sides to every story and why many American citizens protested the war. It was definitely a somber experience and it was a lot to take in. This just reinforced how terrible war is and how hard we should try to avoid it. 

Buddhist pagoda

American plane outside the museum

Monday, May 16, 2016

May 16th - Company/Professional Issues

Today we went to the Ben Thanh market to buy souvenirs and practice bartering in Vietnamese. We have been taking language classes and we were able to test out our new skills! For lunch we ate at a delicious Japanese restaurant and then in the afternoon we visited Thien Viet Securities (TVS). TVS is an investment bank and financial management company.

The market had very narrow pathways and stands that were packed with merchandise. We had to bargain prices with the sellers to try to get the best deal and I bought a lot of souvenirs. This market catered to tourists and all of the Vietnamese students said that the prices were inflated because many Vietnamese people think all westerners are very rich. Even with trying to barter many of us got bad deals, but at least we got souvenirs for our families and practiced our Vietnamese.

The company visit to TVS in the afternoon was very interesting and the staff member who showed us around was very engaging. We learned more about the Vietnamese economy and foreign direct investment. We also learned about the Vietnamese stock exchange and compared it to Wall Street. The stock market in America is much larger and has been around for a lot longer than the one in Vietnam.  A lot of the finance jargon went over our head, but the presenter and our professor did a good job of watering the information down for us. The organizational culture was interesting and visiting this company gave us a good look into how investment banks work. The investment bank had a more organized and formal culture. It was very quiet and everyone was working diligently at their desks when we walked into the main area of the company. Most of the employees had left when we got there because stock trading was over for the day, so it was difficult to get a sense of the culture when they were up and running. In general I think financial institutions are a bit more formal because there are many regulations that they must follow to keep people’s money safe and keep track of all of their stock portfolios. TVS is a relatively small company, so I think that it was a little less formal than a bigger company. This is because there is less of a hierarchy among employees and everyone probably knows each other better. There is also definitely room for creativity in this industry because each company that comes to them has a different set of needs and financial statuses, so they have to tailor a plan specifically for that company. TVS assists companies in bankruptcy, asset acquisition, and stock exchanges. Overall it was cool to learn about investment banks and the stock market. Vietnam’s stock market is growing and there will definitely be more capital entering the country in the coming years.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

May 15th - Culture Smart Reading and Cu Chi Day Trip

Today we went on a day trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels, which are about an hour outside Ho Chi Minh City. These tunnels were used by the Viet Cong during the war to move around and communicate. We have talked a lot about the war thus far and it was interesting to see where a lot of the fighting actually happened. We visited the tunnels in the morning and then went to a war cemetery in the afternoon. The cemetery was very somber and we had to make sure we dressed with clothes that covered our knees and had at least short sleeves.

When we went to the tunnels we had the chance to walk through a portion of them and see how they were designed. They were very narrow and I can't imagine how stressful it would be for a soldier to use these tunnels while they were being attacked from above. Besides going through the tunnels the tour guide showed us examples of the many traps and spikes used to injure outsiders if they tried to come into the tunnels.

In regards to the war cemetery, it was a very enlightening and humbling experience. We were able to take part in a short ceremony where we burned incense and presented it to the monument to honor those who lost their lives. Before the trip we had to read a culture smart book about Vietnam and I found similarities and differences between the book and what I have been experiencing culturally. In the book it said that we must be careful about what we say and make sure to be not to sound condescending about anything culturally. This gave me the impression that the people would be much more sensitive about cultural issues or much more angry if we messed something up culturally. When in reality the Vietnamese students are open about talking about sensitive topics and very understanding if we accidentally do something that does not align with their cultural values. This may also be because they are in a younger generation and have learned more about western culture. The students today were very open to talk about the types of behavior and clothing that was ok at the cemetery and very understanding if we were accidentally talking too loud or pointed at one of the graves with one finger. Another interesting fact from the culture smart book was that a smile can signify sorrow or grief in Vietnamese culture. When in American culture, a smile obviously signifies happiness. We had to take a photo in front of the memorial at the war cemetery today and all of the Vietnamese students told us to smile. This was obviously a little confusing because we were at a cemetery and it felt strange to smile, especially a war cemetery on foreign soil. I still am confused if the Vietnamese students consider smiling as a sign of happiness or not, but it was very interesting that this nuance in their culture came up in my travels. The culture smart book definitely prepared me for my visit and I think the most helpful aspect of the book was learning about what types of food to expect. Food is very important to me and I am usually not very adventurous, so it was nice to know what to expect before coming to Vietnam.

Visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels and the war memorial was a very enlightening experience and it was very interesting to hear about the war from the Vietnamese perspective. I now really know why this war was so controversial and had such an impact on Vietnamese and American society.

 Example of one of the narrow entry points to the tunnels

Saturday, May 14, 2016

May 14th - Mekong Delta Day Trip

Today we went on a day trip to the Mekong Delta, which is about an hour south of Ho Chi Minh. The Mekong Delta is where the Mekong River empties into the South China Sea and it is home to many farmers and fisherman. The Mekong is seen as the lifeblood of Vietnam and provides a lot of the crops consumed by the country and the entire world. In the morning we went to a snake research center/zoo and then in the afternoon we took a boat ride in the delta itself.

At the snake research center and zoo we got to see a lot of different animals and we got a chance to actually hold a boa constrictor. There were many different kinds of animals such as alligators, monkeys, snakes, toads, porcupines, and birds. I definitely noticed that there were more animals per cage than in a U.S. zoo and the water in the tanks was not as clean as it may be in the U.S. Another thing that we saw there was something called snake wine, which was made by taking a live poisonous snake and submerging it into a alcohol mixture. Then they have to wait a couple years before they can drink it so that the poison dilutes out of the liquid. It was cool to see what zoos are like in other countries and see all of the different kinds of snakes.

On our afternoon boat ride in the Mekong, we stopped at a couple of islands and learned more about culture in the region. For lunch we got to try native elephant ear fish and it tasted like a stronger version of cod. We had it in a spring roll with lettuce and noodles and it was very delicious. The boats we rode in were very low to the water and the smaller ones we rode in were a little bit scary. To get to one of the islands we had to load into four smaller boats and travel down a narrow canal. When getting on and off the boat I thought that I was going to fall in the river, but I was able to stay dry. Another thing we learned about was the coconut religion, which many native people used to practice. It sounded made up to me, but we learned that they only eat and drank coconut and all lived together on one of the islands we visited. On the other islands we listened to native music and ate fruit that was grown there. Overall it was a great way to learn about native culture and I would definitely go back to the visit the delta.

Riding the smaller boats down the narrow canal. 

Posing with our new friend!