The Home of the Last Emperor

From the early 1800s until the 1940s, the Hue Imperial City was home to the emperors of Vietnam. Modeled after the Beijing Forbidden City, it was built as a fortress, with moats and thick walls to surround its six square acres. However, foreign occupations and wars destroyed much of the city and eventually drove out the last emperor of Vietnam, Bao Dai.

Even amongst the crumbling facades, chipped and faded paint, and overgrown landscape, you can still imagine how beautiful the city once was. I tried to imagine how it must have been for the royal family to live here – morning meetings with mandarins, afternoons walking between the bonsai trees in the garden.

I realize Vietnam often leads me to my imagination. I look at the New City and wonder what the future will bring, then I look at this old capital, Hue, and wonder what the past must have been like. In a country so quickly developing, I’m sure I am not the only one looking both forward and back. But we can only be here now, so we leave the past and the Imperial City behind and head to the local festival for some fire-roasted chicken, spring rolls, and Saigon beer.

Một hai ba, vô! (translation)

A New City

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Binh Duong’s new city – Coming soon!

Peering out the windows of the government administration office, I felt like I was like looking into the future. There in front of me was a vast expanse of land set to be developed into a new city, the next Singapore. I could hardly imagine what this same view might look like in 20 years.

Vietnam is one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Having the opportunity to see a piece of it on the brink of change is both amazing and surreal. It’s not often we can see this phase of development and even less often we contribute to it.

My team is working with a local government agency to better understand the industries in the area in order to help them attract this investment and growth they are planning. Our clients have a vision of where they want to go, and hopefully, with our help, they’ll be able to get there.

Many of my teammates couldn’t help but compare Binh Duong to SimCity. It feels like the whole world is at your fingertips here. But just like with SimCity, it requires careful planning and attention to succeed.

Now imagine you are here, peering out the window into the vast expanse below. What kind of city would you create?

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Discussing the plans for the area

Boats, Boats, and More Boats: A Weekend in the Mekong Delta

Last weekend, we roadtripped a few hours from Binh Duong to the Mekong Delta at the tip of South Vietnam where the Gulf of Thailand and the South China Sea meet. You can’t go very far in the region without hitting water. Paddle one way and you can end up on the shores of Singapore, paddle the other and you’ll find yourself in Cambodia. It’s not surprising that life has developed around these waterways, with boats becoming a means for transportation of both people and goods from farther astream.

If you wake up before the sun rises from the Mekong River, you can take a boat to a floating market where people sell watermelon, pineapple, squash, and more – to be certain of which, just look at the item hanging from a bamboo reed on the bow. Vendors in small boats will dock up next to you to offer coffee or pho, and, if you’re looking, you can spot someone washing their laundry or cleaning pots at the edge of the river.

Despite the rise of roadways, it is clear that there are still people who depend on the water, like those whose homes lean precariously over the river with water hyacinths for front yards or the fishermen who live for a month or more on the boat hoping for a good catch. To these people, I imagine the road, congested with its trucks and motorbikes, is an afterthought, but perhaps it is the reverse, an ever-present reminder of inevitable change.

A day in the life

Wondering what it is like for me living and working in Vietnam? Here’s a typical day:

7:00 AM – Wake up! I am not an early riser, so this is actually early for me, but not for Vietnam, where the streets are bustling by 6:15.

7:30 AM – Gym. I am surrounded by teammates who are active, and it motivates me to stay active too. The only catch is that the gym is not air conditioned, and when it’s over 80°F/27°C with 80% humidity by 6:00, this can be a real challenge. But I’ve come to really appreciate a breeze!

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The breeze by that door is top notch! I find myself standing in it after a run.

8:30 AM – Breakfast. It is common in Vietnam to have pho for breakfast. I frequently have pho, so I typically go the more American route and have eggs and fruit. Dragon fruit is a new favorite.

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Pho and fruits, breakfast of Vietnamese champions!

9:00 AM – Work. If we are meeting with our clients in the morning, we’ll typically meet by 8:00, but if not, our team starts and ends later in the day.  On a typical day, we are working on our deliverables, reading translated documents, and discussing the agenda for client meetings. Currently, we are putting together workshops on business management and IT for our clients.

12:30 PM – Lunch. We like to try as many things as possible in the area. The hardest part is getting used to eating hot foods (like soup) on a hot and humid day, but there are many delicious things to try. Aside from soups, rice, noodles, seafood, and meats are very common.

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A traditional multi-course meal that starts with salads, and moves to hot plates of meats, whole fish, and bread, and finishes with a hot pot and fruit.

2:00 PM – Meetings. Most people in Vietnam take lunch from 11:30 AM – 1:30 PM, so afternoon client meetings typically start at 2:00 PM. Though we may have a short agenda, we have to build in double the time for translation, so meetings usually last a few hours.

4:00 PM – Tea break. Our clients will normally end their day by 4:30 PM, so after our meetings finish, we will have tea and fruit before leaving. Tea is available all the time and iced tea is served at restaurants in place of water.

8:00 PM – Dinner. Our team will debrief after our client meetings and continue working on deliverables and preparing documents for translation. Since people here start their days early, they tend not to stay out late. Dinner for locals is usually much earlier and shops tend to shut down by 10:00 PM. With our busy days, we’ll often have a smaller meal, like Banh Mi, for dinner. Beer is also a popular addition to meals in Vietnam with Saigon beer being available everywhere.

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The banh mi stand is the place to be at night!

11:00 PM – Bed. After dinner we may have more work to complete and if not we’ll use the time to catch up on writing and talking with family and friends.

Translate This: Working in another language

 

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Pictures are the international language

Imagine you are on a deserted island with another person. To get off the island you must work together to build a boat. Now imagine that person does not speak the same language as you. How do you build the boat?

This may seem like a ridiculous comparison to working in another country, but the main theme is the same: our team and our clients are working toward a common goal and different languages are a barrier to achieving it.

With the end goal in mind, we deploy many tactics to try to understand each other:

  • Pictures are the international language. Visuals can help to fill the gaps and clarify ideas. After struggling for a while to understand a complex problem, both my team and the clients were relieved when one of my teammates took to the whiteboard to draw it out.
  • Ask, ask, and ask again, then ask in a totally different way. Since there is no way for us to verify if our translated questions were understood as we intended, we will ask multiple people the same question, ask the same question multiple times, or ask the same question in different ways.
  • “Let me see if I understand…” This is a statement I make multiple times a day as I work between our translators and our clients. By repeating back what I think I’ve heard, it helps to ensure I’ve heard it correctly.
  • “Did you hear that too?” At times, I think I understood a point only to find one of my teammates heard something different. We often check in with each other to reach a common understanding.
  • Speak slow and use keywords. My teammates like to tease me about how fast I speak, but when talking to the translator and clients, even they’ll admit that I slow my speech down considerably so it can be more easily digested. I try to highlight keywords by using simple and concise language and by saying things in multiple ways.
  • Use your body. Both intentional and unintentional body language can say a lot. I let my inner Italian run free and use my hands to demonstrate what I am saying. However, it is just as important to remember what your body language is saying for you when you don’t realize it. Am I smiling or frowning? Do I seem serious or happy or angry or intimidating? This can be the difference between someone being comfortable enough to talk to you and being too nervous.

Every question we ask must be translated into Vietnamese and then the response translated back into English. Multiply that formula by every follow-up question, every clarification, every change in direction. Meetings take twice the time and you’re never quite sure if your point was understood. Despite these challenges, we still persist, because we’re all in it together. We’re all building the boat.

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For many of my teammates, translation doesn’t end at English, they must also translate to their own native languages.

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Translators working hard to help our team understand a Vietnamese presentation before we present back to the group in English.

 

 

A Festival…or Two.

Our team was fortunate enough to be in Vietnam during a national holiday, the Hung Kings Festival, which celebrates the original founders of the country. A local school hosted a day full of activities like slowest (yes, slowest) bicycle riding to best bánh chưng (rice cake) contests, bamboo dancing, and traditional song, dance, and funeral orations.

Holidays give you a unique peek into a culture, allowing you to see the way the people preserve and celebrate their history, and having this opportunity to experience the day with the local students was especially wonderful.

Two days after the holiday, Binh Duong was home to the National Tài Tử Music Festival. The festival showcases traditional music (and food…I must learn to make these pancakes) from Southern Vietnam. The style of music, Đờn ca tài tử, is embedded into the life and culture of the region and has been inscribed onto the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

As a visitor to a country, it can be hard to really understand the culture. You are often separated from the authentic experiences that make a society unique. If you’re lucky, you get an experience that gets you a little closer, and I knew as I skipped across the bamboo reeds, hand in hand with a nervous looking 10th grader, that I was quite lucky indeed.

Thank you to Elizabeth Hickey for video contributions.

Welcome to Vietnam

I finally arrived in Vietnam! Our team met in Ho Chi Minh City for a day before heading to our destination, Binh Duong, a nearby province. We had just enough time to wander around, see a few sites, and try to master crossing the street with motorbikes coming at all angles. As the afternoon rain began to fall, we hurried to a bánh mì stand. Being last in line, I found myself caught out alone in a torrential downpour. The banh mi vendor was kind enough to lend me a chair, so I took a seat, ate my sandwich and watched the rain and motorcyclists (still undeterred) pass by as fresh baguettes baked in the oven, new cucumbers were thinly sliced, and thunder boomed heavily above.