Studying Abroad in Vietnam a Chance for Global Understanding

"I found studying abroad such a critical, life-changing experience that it needs to be mandatory," writes UCLA Daily Bruin columnist Nam-Giao Do.

By Nam-Giao Do for The Daily Bruin

A LOT OF people thought I was crazy to go study for four months in Vietnam.

But having returned to the United States, I have to say that I found studying abroad such a critical, life-changing experience that it needs to be mandatory. The UC system should seriously consider this in our globalizing, tumultuous age. But more importantly, it is up to the students to take the initiative, no matter what their ages or majors.

“They’re going to convert you to communism” and “don’t eat dog” were common words of comfort before my departure. Who knew I would fall so deeply in love with the people I met, the rich, ancient and changing culture I experienced, and the country where my parents were born and raised. And who knew that when I came back, all I wanted to do was tell people that, despite their time and major-related conflicts and financial hardships, they should make time to study abroad.

Last fall, I studied under the University of California Education Abroad Program for a semester at Hanoi National University with 16 other UC students. With the program, I visited Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum and traveled all throughout the central and southern regions of Vietnam. I helped harvest a rice field, taught English to an elementary school, stayed overnight in ethnic minority villages, learning every day the vibrant history of Vietnam and the prolonged effects of development on the country.

My personal growth has been apparent. I have digested sea turtle, fried frog, snake blood wine and the gentle water buffalo. My karma suffered, but I have to say I didn’t eat dog.

I drove a motorbike, zoomed through the streets of Da Lat and Hue and didn’t die. I parasailed through the beautiful islands of Nha Trang, learned to love karaoke – it’s a big thing in Vietnam – ate KFC because McDonald’s is, incredibly, nonexistent, hiked to Heaven’s Gate in the northern mountains of Sapa, and had my camera and phone stolen by a mob of desperate females.

And in Da Lat, as we toasted to Obama’s victory, the entire restaurant of Australians, Canadians and Finns joined in robustly.

All these experiences directed me to study critically the rapidly changing society of Vietnam and its transformation from a communist to capital-driven economy. Studying last fall at this critical time made me realize and see the positive and negative effects of development on the people.

Most of all, I’ve made life-long friendships with Vietnamese locals and UC students alike. My faith in humanity is renewed and re-invigorated.

Especially in these times of apprehension and misunderstanding, studying abroad in both a developing and a developed country should be a requirement to graduate college. Of course, coming back to find the United States in an ever-deepening recession makes it difficult to pitch that costly (but priceless) experience. Nevertheless, studying in Vietnam convinced me as well as the 16 other UC students I lived, laughed and learned with last fall that it is so beneficial and even necessary to get away for a while, meet new people and gain new perspectives in life.

In order to study abroad with most programs, students must be a junior or higher with a reasonably good GPA (3.0). UC financial aid does apply to EAP. UC, EAP and the host countries do offer many scholarships. But everyone deserves this experience.

I still urge the school to consider wider studying abroad opportunities in addition to broadening financial aid and scholarships – and I urge the students to broaden their minds by taking the leap and plunging into different cultural experiences. It can only make UCLA and themselves more enriching. It can only further global understanding and open-mindedness.

Want some serious, life-changing cultural immersion? Email Do at Send general comments to

Published: Wednesday, January 14, 2009