I’m so excited to share with you this guest blog post from the phenomenal Ali Swanson–world traveler, health-care provider extraordinaire, and dear friend. Here she writes about when she lived in Vietnam, long before the US and Vietnam normalized relations. Here’s Ali:
During the spring term of the 1991-92 academic year, I was a foreign student at the University of HaNoi. I went as part of a small group of American students on a semester abroad trip arranged through the Council on International Educational Exchange.
We were lodged in the “foreign students” dorm of the University of HaNoi, in the vicinity of Lenin Park. Our closest friends were a crew of Cambodian students, Japanese embassy affiliates, and the occasional Russian or Cuban student.
Our first task after arriving in HaNoi was to go en masse to the bicycle store to acquire the Vietnamese version of China’s most popular brand, “Flying Pigeon”. Bicycle traffic in VietNam is terrifying–there are few cars, and everyone rides their bicycle as aggressively as possible, even when they have small children in baskets on the front of the bike!
Having mastered our bikes, we were on the loose in the city. Fortunately, our Vietnamese-American professor and the foreign student liaison from the University gave us tips as to the various places of interest around the city.
The State Department Store was one of the important stops–here, you were able to find any item available on the street and find out the state price for that item. With this info in hand, you could haggle competently with the street vendors.
Of course, unless you were extremely shrewd and skilled in the martial arts, you did not go to the State Department Store to actually buy anything–it was a madhouse full of people screaming, haggling, and thieving. Young thugs spied you as you walked in, followed you for a bit, and then had the audacity to look you in the eye as they relieved you of your fanny pack or small purse.
I was lucky the one day I ventured in–I was able to grab the arm of my thief and tear my purse out of his hands! The building itself is stately, and, of course, French–an original, sweeping, wooden staircase was still there when I went. Down the street from the State Dept. Store were stamp and book shops selling Russian and Vietnamese philatelic treasures.