The moment I set foot into the Auckland Airport from domestic arrivals, I was not only overcome with enthusiasm for the week ahead - but also a dominating, nagging stress. The last hour or so had been anything but smooth sailing. After discovering that bag check-ins for our flight from Rotorua to Auckland were closed, Olivia and I had no other option but to hurl random items from our suitcases into our carry-on luggage and proceed to weigh each bag, finding that they were still overweight. This process of frantically throwing jackets and books and kitchen sinks onto the floor of the Rotorua Airport was repeated perhaps 10 times, before each bag weighed in safely (and only just) under the 7kg limit.
Now having arrived in Auckland, the first thing I wanted to do was rearrange my bags so that I did not have Olivia’s denim jacket and jeans at the top of my backpack. However, it occurred to me that indeed I had lost a sister. At this point it seemed the world was throwing everything it could towards me to prevent me from entering Vietnam. Eventually, however, the second Moore twin showed up with three bags and an extra microwave-sized camera bag around her neck. T’was a good start to the week.
The first major awareness of a change of culture was the realisation that I was eating noodles for breakfast. While the noodles were delicious and I had nothing to complain about due to my fluidity with food choices, it hit me that I was not in New Zealand anymore, with our steak and cheese pies and pavlovas - but somewhere in the air, above and beyond China, with their pork dumplings and chicken feet (which were interesting, to say the least). The second indicator was the wave of heat that hit the moment we stepped off the plane. Being a Taupo dweller, all I really knew was cold southerlies and the occasional 21°C. Gee, was I in for a treat.
After a relatively uneventful 22 hours (apart from Moore 2 losing her passport and almost being stuck in China), we were escorted to our first Vietnamese restaurant, Pho 2000. I ordered a seafood pho and a glass of carrot juice, which was exceptionally flavourful, sweet and totally different from a carrot juice you would expect to find in any Western country - and was to be my first taste of the incredible juices in Ho Chi Minh City.
After I had tried everyone’s juices and devoured everyone’s leftovers, we embarked on an informal walking tour along Nguyen Hue Walking Street to various tourist spots including the Reunification Palace, Saigon Central Post Office, Cathedral Opera House, and the City Hall. It was this afternoon when the immense dehydration and heat hit me - I’m usually a water hoarder, downing around 4 litres a day; but as of these past two days I probably only drunk about 1 litre in total. This was in 38°C heat, mind you, and sweat was cascading off me like the Reunification Palace water fountain. As soon as I hit my pillow that night, with the air con blasting at full noise, sleep pulled me under almost instantly.
The second day began with a Vietnamese buffet breakfast at the hotel. I love buffets and I love unique foods, so I piled my plate high with noodles, fried chicken, rice congee, pickled eggs, dumplings, dragon fruit, meat stew, you name it - I had it. Next on the itinerary was a quick but engaging Vietnamese language lesson, where I learned that although nam means five, Vietnam does not mean (something) five. Of course, I learned a lot more than this. However I found it intriguing and rather confusing that the same sound does not always mean the same thing, and that by saying a word slightly different (which is very easy for a new learner to unintentionally do), you could end up saying something quite offensive.
The highlight of the second day (and my favourite business visit of the entire trip), was the visit to KOTO - a social enterprise founded on the principle that if you know something, you can teach something (Know One Teach One). KOTO strives to end the cycle of poverty by teaching chef skills to targeted youth, while also empowering and helping them to feel loved and to overcome their mental and social challenges. KOTO has helped over 700 students in their training centres in Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi, with a 100% success rate.
I loved visiting KOTO not only because of the free coffee and biscuits, but because of the openness of the women who presented and how they shared KOTO’s mission and values. It brought a tear to my eye when a video was shown of the past students sharing their stories and their troubled backgrounds, and who now have hope and ambitions for their futures. It also touched me that these former students really wanted to give back to KOTO and to the community. This showed their utter selflessness, and I felt so inspired and humbled to have learned about KOTO and to dine in their restaurant, which was run by the students.
My highlight of the trip was the Saigon Street Food Tour. Food is honestly my life - I adore eating food, cooking food, looking at food, thinking about food, planning creative ways to cook and present food, being in the presence of food - so I was totally and utterly in my element, thinking of all the interesting foods I was to try next and learning about the history and ingredients of each dish. For me, there is no limit to how weird a food is. I don’t care what it is - if it’s edible, I’ll try it. I’m perhaps one of the most careless and adventurous foodies you’ll find.
First we entered a little shack-like restaurant with tiny stools and just enough room to move. I loved the rawness and kind of dirty, stripped down feel of it - this restaurant was solely focussed in serving comforting, traditional food without all the bells and whistles. We were served Cháo Huyết: rice congee with congealed pork blood, tubular innards, fried dough and 100 day old black egg. I loved every bite. The congee itself was quite bland, however acted as the perfect canvas for the bold, metallic flavours of the congealed pork blood. The tubular innards were very chewy and tasteless, and reminded me somewhat of squid. The fried dough was pretty much a just a delicious doughnut sliced into 2-inch strips. The focal point of the dish, however, was the trứng bắc thảo, or Century egg.
Century eggs are made by preserving duck, chicken or quail eggs in a mixture of clay, ash, salt, quicklime, and rice hulls for at least several weeks. The result is a mellow and slightly sulfur-tasting black egg with a creamy, set grey yolk. Although century eggs may sound questionable, they are incredibly addictive and rather common in Vietnam.
Other foods we tried were peking duck, Vietnamese coffee, peach tea, sweet fried doughnut (Bánh Tiêu) stuffed with a sweet, spongy rice cake (Bánh Bò), fried rice flour cake with egg (Bột Chiên) and sugarcane juice.
I learned so much about Vietnamese culture and business practice, and also about myself (cue the cringe). I’m usually quite reserved and prefer to work by myself, but this trip allowed me to experience what it feels like to be valued and included as part of a team, and I am so grateful that this trip opened my eyes to new ways of working. My team and I were able to apply our newfound knowledge of Vietnamese business strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats and problems into the business challenge on the last day, successfully pitching to the judges along with our Vietnamese students (both of whom were very intelligent and insightful and we could not have done without them), and placing 1st.
Vietnam has also made me realise how lucky I am to have been born in New Zealand. Although Vietnam is a beautiful country and I am in love with the culture, the pollution is something that really shocked me, as was the number of people who called the streets their home. Wherever we went, it was important to keep our belongings close to reduce the risk of being mugged, and even then a few of us got dangerously close to having money or items stolen.
However, Vietnam’s economy is growing, and the middle class population is developing considerably year by year. There is great potential in the future of Vietnam, which is a big factor for businesses looking to expand into the Vietnamese market.
I would like to thank the Young Enterprise Scheme and Sea Cape for allowing our group of students the opportunity to explore business and culture in Vietnam. I have never learned so much, experienced so much, ate so much and relied on coffee so much as last week. Tạm biệt việt nam!