Sunday, 21 June 2015

First impressions of my internship in Vietnam

 Arrival in Ho Chi Minh City

I started off to a new chapter in my journey. Leaving Dublin resulted in an emotional roller coaster. After being back for over two years I had settled quiet well back in Dublin and it was harder to leave this time. The good thing is I can always come back and I know I will always feel at home. After one week back in Germany seeing family and friends my Dad drove me to the airport in Munich where I departed to Ho Chi Minh City. I was excited about the internship as it was exactly what I wanted to do and I was so looking forward to gain some experience in the field as a researcher in Asia in the Water & Climate change centre.
I had booked myself in a small guesthouse in District 1 called Madame Cuc. I had stayed there previously and the staff is very kind. They gave me a special rate after I explained to them that I’m here for an unpaid internship. Saigon, District 2 is frantic! So busy, mad traffic, lots of noise, different smells of delicious food but also not so pleasant smells of rotten food and the rest is up to your imagination ;)
The first thing I did on Sunday night was looking for a restaurant to have some delicious ‘Rau mung sau toi’ (green vegetables/spinach with garlic) and com (rice) with it. Before that decided to check out the place where I had to take the company bus the next morning at 7am to go to the Water and Climate Change Centre (WACC). 35 to 40min on foot from my guesthouse; doable but let’s see how it feels in that humidity. If I also want to do 20min of Yoga in the morning then I better get up at 5.40am. I’m jet lagged anyway, so I guess that doesn’t matter.

The first few days in WACC were really just to understand the organization, their structures, and projects, to get to know the employees and the other interns. There are two more interns from the Netherlands there, doing their research for their thesis. One is an Economist and the other one a Hydrological Engineer. I’m curious about their topics and I’m sure we can learn from each other.

1st field trip - Tra Vinh province

River to the left and shrimp pond to the right

After just one week in the office, I went on a field trip with a research team of 12 people for 4 days down to Tra Vinh province in the Mekong Delta. 

The purpose was to do some test interviews with rice and shrimp farmers to understand their motivation and ability to change their behaviour of cropping and to transform due to increasing salinity intrusion. I really enjoyed riding on our motorbikes to the different villages and hamlets, talking to several farmers, listening to their problems, challenges, observations and success stories. 

Interview with Khmer farmers
Khmer's farmers Shrimp pond
Successful shrimp farmer showing us his white-leg shrimp

White-leg shrimp

Vitamins for shrimps - 'ANTI STRESS' - that made us laugh!
Some shrimp farmers mix bananas into their fodder 
Paddle wheels generating oxygen for the shrimps
It was a mixed approach overall and ability as well as location of the land seemed to be the most important. Farmers were usually successful when they were close to a cannel or river and when they were not surrounded by too many farms. 

Beautiful Lotus ponds with fish + ducks + banana trees

One severe problem, which was mentioned from numerous farmers was the pollution of the canals and rivers with wastewater from failed shrimp harvesting, shrimp diseases and farmers described the water was full of fertiliser and pesticides. This has massive implications on their new shrimp breeding as well as other farmers rice irrigation and harvest. It was a really good experience overall, I learnt a lot and got a much better insight into the research study. 

Every evening we had such tasty food, my favourite were theses Tiger Prawns – just amazing! Look at the size of them ;)

Bigger than a Saigon Beer :)

Back in the office I worked with some colleagues on the field report for our director in the institute. The research team had also decided to change parts of the questionnaire, which didn’t work so well and I was also involved in getting an improved version ready.

Excursion to Go Cong - Visiting a monk from Plum Village 

I had a contact for mindfulness & meditation in Saigon. When I got in touch with them it turned out they were literally around the corner of my guesthouse. Therefore I just said hello after returning from my fieldtrip and it turned out that some members would go on motorbike trip the next day to Go Cong, which is 2 hours south of HCMC on a motorbike. I spontaneously agreed and the next day at 7am I found myself on a motorbike going to Go Cong! Welcome to Vietnam :) It came exactly at the right time as I was stuck in finding a room and a little bit frustrated. This trip did me well. Leaving this mad city centre behind me and driving into a rural landscape with less traffic and lots of beautiful scenery was such a treat! I was so grateful that I got invited. We even had to take a ferry to cross over the Mekong. We arrived at a small village and stopped at a small beautiful garden, where we met the first monk. 

Monks home

Beautiful garden with a small lotus pond
Seedling farm
We parked our motorbikes and got invited for some lunch! That felt good. Afterwards we had some tea and a chat before we had siesta. 

Time for Vietnamese tea
We were allowed to walk across the road to the Lotus Pond, where a huge iron sheet hut was placed in the middle, which we could access on foot. 

Lotus Pond
Lotus flower
Stunning, such beautiful scenery and we are allowed to have our lunch break here. After 20 min the sky opened up and we were able to watch the lashing monsoon rain from a dry spot. 

View from the Iron sheet hut

It was such lovely sound and so peaceful. We met the monk again after the rain had stopped for an hour before we made our way back to HCMC. We had a stunning drive, as we were able to watch the gorgeous sunset while riding through such peaceful scenery and during our ferry cross over. 

Bridge being build - but up to now the ferry is the mean of transport 
Gorgeous sunset
What a beautiful day! Thank you Trung!

My new home in HCMC

After a few days in WACC, I have decided to let go of the idea to be based in Tra Vinh and to focus on my own research project. It seemed like there are much more opportunities staying in the office in HCMC. However, that also meant to start looking for a room! I was not really prepared to live in Saigon, but well, nothing I can do. I better get used to it! Charlotte, the other intern was so nice to introduce me to two FB groups – Expats Saigon and Housing Saigon. That did help a great deal in trying to find a suitable room. Finding a room in HCMC felt like a rollercoaster ride! One day you felt over the moon as you thought you had found your new home and a few days later other expats come back to you with excuses and blaming the Vietnamese landlord that they all had to move out. But after almost 2 weeks living in a guesthouse in District 1, I finally found a cute and quiet room in District 2 on the 2nd floor, with a balcony. 

My lovely room in my new home!
I’m sharing the house with three Vietnamese girls, where one of them is running a business and we have two dogs. The house is massive; I would describe it almost like a Villa. 

Our beautiful house!
Our road in District 2

We have a big roof terrace where I am sitting at the moment writing this blog entry ;) But believe me most of the time it is too hot out there to even thinking of sitting there!
Roof terrace


I had arranged to rent a motorbike from a private girl here in HCMC and I was just waiting to move into the house, so I could get the bike. So last week, I finally got the bike – it was a Sunday morning and I felt I was independent again! I was curious to drive around the neighbourhood, discover the unknown places and finally get to work on a motorbike again! Yes, that created happiness in me :) On top of it all, it was my favourite kind of bike I had bought in 2010 when I had just moved to Danang – Yamaha Sirius same model & design! I’m loving it! Such a cool bike :)))

Yamaha Sirius - My rented motorbike :)

Food & coffee

Tham’s boyfriend Ngu was so nice to pick me up with his bike and we drove around HCMC a little bit, had some tasty Vegetarian food in a really reasonable priced restaurant not far from my home. The other day we stopped at a really cute coffee place in District 3 called ‘sách’ (meaning books), which was located just beside a small river and the wooden tables and chairs were set up on the pavement. It was so nice to sit there and watching people driving or walking past. Two things are always important in Vietnam: Good food and good coffee! :)

Rainy season has officially started 

So far we were really lucky as the locals told us that the rainy season is late this year. Yeah, and they were so right! Since one week rainy season has started, but I don’t complain. So far it is much less rain than in Danang during monsoon season and apparently it will also only last for one month! Let’s see how it goes, but the tendency is that it starts raining around lunchtime or in the afternoon. Rain poncho is essential, but other then that, it is not so bad. It’s still hot!

Next business trip on the cards

The director of the Water & Climate change Center mentioned to me another project they are involved in. This comprises of consultancy work for the German company ‘GIZ GmbH (Gesellschaft fuer Internationale Zusammenarbeit)’ and looks at flooding and drainage problems in 5 different coastal cities in Vietnam. This project is done in cooperation with an Architectural company in HCM city to design climate change adaptation measures. Our role in WACC is to understand the motivation and ability of local citizens, members of the people committee and the Department of construction. We might be travelling next week already and we will kick off the week with a meeting on Monday morning with GIZ and the Architects in HCM city. I’m curious to see some designs and to understand the project in a bit more detail.

Driving in HCM city

Driving a motorbike here is Saigon is a different kettle of fish than in Danang ;) I was not scared to drive; the bigger problem is to know which road to take! No proper maps except of Google maps, but driving and looking at your I-phone at the same time isn’t working for me especially in Saigon’s traffic. Anyway, I was so courageous yesterday to go an excursion to test out the way to the stadium where the Yoga event was happening the next morning and I also needed to find the way from my house to turtle lake in District 3, where we will be picked up on Monday from our director. 5 min after I sat on my bike driving over the first bridge toward the direction of ‘downtown’ it started to lash down! We all stopped at the side of the road, got our rain ponchos out and back on the bike again. It was actually easier to find my way in the pouring rain, as there were less motorbikes and everybody drove a way slower. I found both places, that was all good, however finding my way back was a bit more challenging as I was twice stuck in one-way streets. Nevertheless I made it back home in one piece and that’s all what matters.

1st International Yoga Day in HCM city

I had picked up a leaflet from a bakery here in District 2 about an event in a stadium for the International Yoga day on Sunday morning. My colleague Luan was so nice to check the location online and I printed the map. After my excursion on Saturday I was ready to drive there. Got up at 6am and left my house twenty minutes later to pick up some lovely ‘Banh Mi’ (baguette) for breakfast. I was riding on very quiet roads at least from a Saigon’s perception and I was excited to reach the stadium. Lots of Vietnamese people were already dressed with white T-shirts saying “I do YOGA, do you?” – made me smile! The event was free of charge and we got free drinks and such a funny white T-shirt. 

The event was even live on Vietnamese TV and hosted by Indian Yoga Masters. We practiced Yoga together for over an hour, in the middle of a stadium on the grass where we had laid out our Yoga mats.
In the middle of the stadium

Delegation of government officials in green on the yellow seats!
It was a beautiful set up and very peaceful :) That was a great start to a Sunday morning!


  1. I love to read your exciting stories, almost like watching a movie...Enjoy your time in Vietnam Kerstin - your amazing adventurous journey and keep us updated ;-) Looking forward to the next one! Hugs from Dublin xxx

  2. Thanks Subbu and Jana for your kind comments :) Let's see what is coming next ;) xxx

  3. Great Read - Sounds like a wonderful adventure. Much love from Dublin Wake-Up. PS. Thanks for the Lotus pic. John H.