Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Epilogue: In Search of Saigon

By Dr Yeoh Seng Guan

This year’s study trip was prefaced by high drama. 

Firstly, three of the student travelers had to pull out just a couple of weeks before the trip for various reasons and replacements had to be found. Secondly, the fates of two other student travelers - from Kenya and Sri Lanka – were less assured until the eleventh hour. Seemingly intractable difficulties in getting their visas approved by the Vietnamese Embassy in Kuala Lumpur threatened to do more damage to team morale. It was only through the direct intervention of our host institution in Vietnam that the matter was resolved. 

Lastly, as our plane took off from the LCCT tarmac on the early morning of Saturday, 9 July we were also mindful of the much hyped ‘Bersih march’ -  led by civil society groups calling for clean, free and fair elections - that was to unfold on the streets of Kuala Lumpur later in the day. With contending groups uttering veiled threats against the march, we prayed for restraint and good sense to prevail as we flew beyond Malaysian skies.      

Once in Ho Chi Minh City, and over the course of the following days, however, the angst of Malaysian politics  faded temporarily into the background as student travelers were caught up in the intellectual and emotional challenge of apprehending the complexities of things foreign and unfamiliar. Through a variety of sources - formal lectures, dialogues with civil society groups, and snatches of conversations struck up with a range of people whom they encountered - they were given glimpses and insights into some of the challenges of modern Vietnamese urban society. 

Some of them stem from the long term consequences of war (like the widespread use of Agent Orange during the “Vietnam/American War”) and the polarized protectionism of Cold War politics. Others are of more recent provenance and flow from the liberalizing push of Doi Moi (“to change and make it better”) state policies launched in the mid-1980s. 

In myriad ways meticulously chronicled through the student travelers’ tales, they collectively paint a picture of a country on the move to make its mark in the modern world with Ho Chi Minh City very much at the center of the radical transformation.     

Once again, a venture of this nature is impossible if the assistance of our Vietnamese friends was not forthcoming. Firstly, my gratitude goes to Dr Tran Dinh Lam, the Director of Vietnamese and Southeast Asian Center of the University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Vietnam National University, for agreeing to be the host institute for the study trip. Through him, we were able to attract the services of our six local student guides – Mr Pham Tuan Anh, Ms Tran This Hani Nhi, Mr Vo Nhat Thang, Ms Nguyen Thien Vi, Mr Le Kim Thanh, and Ms Ho Thi Uyen Thu. They provided enthusiastic and competent support in logistical matters, were lively and knowledgeable company, and much more.  

For so generously sharing their local expertise and their commitment to making Vietnamese society a better place, I thank: Mr Pham Thanh Van of Chuong Trinh AIDS (who also facilitated access to four local communities); Rev Vincent Vu Ngo Dong of Caritas Vietnam; Ms Vo Thi Hoang Yen and Ms Nguyen Thuy Diem Huong of Disability Research & Capacity Development; and Mr Nicolas Lainez of Alliance Anti-Traffic.

Throughout the study trip, Mai Vy Hotel, a compact family-owned business, became a home-away-from-home. Its friendly staff members and strategic location in a non-descript alleyway gave the student travelers a close-up view of how Vietnamese people get on with their everyday lives in addition to the well-known tourist sites of the country. 

This year’s cohort of travelers attracted nationalities of five countries – Malaysia, Sri Lanka, India, South Korea and Kenya. Although not chalking up any records in terms of the diversity of countries represented – this distinction is currently held by In Search of Chiang Mai 2010 – I am glad to note that this group has broadly sustained a key ethos of the study trip, viz., learning to adapt rather quickly to each other’s quirks, and channeling individual talents and abilities for the sake of a greater project. While heartily enjoying what Saigon has to offer in terms of food, shopping and nightlife, they also worked long and hard to keep the blog regularly updated with texts, photos and videos. I must also make mention of the good cheer and efficiency with which Ms Bats Mohsinali, the chaperone for this year, carried out all her difficult tasks.       

For part of the trip, the travelers were joined by Ms Eunice Phang, an alumnus and veteran of previous study trips. She was accompanied by her mother, Ms Susan Chai, who matched the cohort’s energetic quest for knowledge and understanding of Vietnam. 

Like the student travelers, Vietnam is comparatively new territory for me in comparison to other countries in Southeast Asia. Nevertheless, the stories of struggle and hope that we were privileged to hear were both unfamiliar and recognizable. At one level, they broadly resonated with the themes heard in previous study trips in the region. But they also have particularities that complicated the stereotypes depicted in most Hollywood movies on Vietnam.  

Travellers at the host institution, VNU along with our hosts and student guides.

If this particular study trip has emboldened this cohort of travelers (and others reading this blog) to delve deeper and explore beyond the familiar platitudes usually offered to us in our everyday lives, I believe the key objectives of the annual study trip have once again endured another year.          

Dr Yeoh Seng Guan, ageless and eternal, is the sole reason Monash Malaysia annual study trips exist. Loved and adored by each and every student he has ever taught, the Saigon trip will be the last one organized by the Media and Cultural Studies lecturer, before he goes off on a sabbatical.

The Second Last Word- Editor-in-Chief’s Address

By Abeer Yusuf
Photos by the Photography Team

If there was one word to sum the entire trip up, this would be it.

This trip began with most of us in our somewhat knitted groups embarking on an expedition that was to bring us to the land with no Facebook access. Through our prep meetings we knew more or less the faces we were expecting on the trip, but none of us knew what the faces would mean by the end of it.
Most of us were actually anxious about leaving our native soil, as that fated day on the 9th of July, Malaysia and her people were to be put under a tremendous test- it was the day of the Bersih rally. But by the end of the day, the 19 travellers would have undergone their very own tests - walking endlessly from place to place, tired, sleepy and perhaps already ruing the decision of coming on the trip – a taste of things to come in following days. 

Spending 24 hours with 19 strangers was going to be a task- imagine walking, sleeping, eating, shopping and living with them.Everyday was as peculiar and fascinating as could be. The first two days devoted to doing ‘the tourist thing’ – visiting the Chu Chi tunnels, War Remnants museum, water puppetry show among others- allowed travellers to bond with and know each other better. Having been on two previous trips I was wary of the work ethic that was about to be displayed on this trip; while the previous year (Chiang Mai) we operated from the confines of the hotel thanks to WiFi, Indonesia (in 2009) was where I had bonded most with my peers because we had to commune at the cybercafés just a walk away from the hotel. Luckily for me, this year one room became Command Central- Room 501, where everyone would be calling for information, checking up on whereabouts of others to even sending messages to other people and generally hanging out. The itinerary design and setup therefore lead to smooth functioning when the weekdays came with its official trips to various institutions. 

A little guest we encountered during one of our many photocalls.

They say that it is only at our worst that we get to know someone the best- and I say this without the slightest hint of exaggeration that conditions indeed became very tough for us. Waters were as testy and murky as the Mekong Delta- through minimal hours of sleep, tough editorial deadlines and tons of activities, it was truly a test for us all to see what could be the resulting end of this. And it gives me immense pride in being able to say that this year’s travellers have gone beyond all sorts of hurdles, even risking their health at times, to bring forth their personal pieces, reflections and love affairs with the city that is Saigon. It is no easy task to come home after a long, endlessly tiring day only to plop yourself in front of the computer to produce words- and words that make legible sense to an unacquainted reader at that. Yet grammatical and logical sense prevailed, and thanks to the likes of Andrea, WuiJia and John (all members of the Blog team) the blog was updated, without fail, every night, making the rest of us look good!

Despite being rained on, spirits remained high on the trip.

Another very important cog in the wheel that is the ‘In Search of Saigon’ excursion is the role of the student guides. Perhaps the most resounding understanding of what the student guides meant came inadvertently in one of our formal sessions, at Doi Rat Dep, where we, able bodied individuals were shown how even the most easiest of things that we take for granted, like navigating city streets or basic access amenities, are a challenge for those with disabilities. Having come to a country where even communicating in English was a challenge, our student guides were nothing less than God sent. Signage, roads, customs, foodways all so different from a country that we are neighbours to opened our eyes as to how crippled we would be had our guides not been there. To them we owe pretty much our entire trip, which would have otherwise gone down with extreme difficulty and made Saigon all the more foreign, rather than the home it came to be.

One of the reasons why we fell in love with Saigon was the culture. Our evenings were spent walking around parks, some travellers even bonding with locals over a game ofda cau (the local shuttlecock game), eating street food, packing off to Ben Thanh market for spots of shopping and so on. I in particular won’t forget the ‘Paddle Pop song’ blaring from every alternate motorbike vendor on the roads. Transportation was another thing that caught our fancy. Having thought that we had seen the worst of the rempits and motorcycle stunts in Malaysia, Vietnam served as a reminder that we hadn’t seen anything yet. Francesca, herself a capable biker, enjoyed the many thrills and near-death experiences of the easy-going, vicarious lives motorcyclists in Vietnam live. I find it important too, to remark that the mark Vietnamese roadways left on us was quite literal- within 10 days of our time there, students were beginning to looking left to right while crossing roads-  the American road system, rather than the right to left we more commonly favour in Commonwealth countries.

Unequivocally we all admired the close-knit community that makes the Vietnamese people – people come out huddling on tiny chairs and tables, sitting and talking as days and tourists go by. We replicated much the same- huddling around our laptops in the hotel’s computer area, talking, giggling and chatting with our work tapping itself away. We formed a little community over time, the Saigonners- each with our little roles in place. Our hotel provided quite a lot in terms of making this possible- from the sweet Uncle who would open the doors to those coming back from late night travails of Saigon (at 2am no less) to Son, the building’s handyman who was ever ready to help provide us with whatever it was we needed. The hospitality offered by Vy and her mother (owners of the hotel) is one that deserves extra mention not only because they bore a young adult racket like ours, but also because they went out of their way in making us feel welcome. Seeing that some of us were staying up late at night to finish work, we were coerced into eating biscuits and bananas to keep us going, and despite having no obligation to do so, Vy’s mother came out to our bus on the day we were leaving for our overnight trip to the Mekong Delta only to see us off (it warmed my heart that she said ‘see you later’ to Dr.Yeoh by touching her palm to his and saying “Goodbye teacher”). On our last night in Saigon, we were given a farewell party in the hotel lobby, replete with lychees, French bread and drinks. If this doesn’t show the love of the people for us, I don’t know what does. 

The fruits of friendship: Christyna Fong and Sabrina Kamaruddin at the Mekong Delta

They say it’s the people that make a journey worthwhile. There is no ‘In Search Of’ trip where this testament has stood true-r. From Jia Wei the bun producing video-man to John (who unleashed his inner Mona) the man that was always there, ready to lend a helping hand whenever one asked for it to WuiJia, the woman who went beyond the call of duty only to help others in every which way possible. Nate (Audrey) the thoughtful and caring one to Joanna the maternal figure, who along with Farah, forms one half of the Medical Mary Poppins team; Farah without whom the trip wouldn’t have been half as interesting and lively (you must have her on EVERY one of the forthcoming In Search Of trips). Fei the eternal nonchalant dude to Cyren the lepidopterist who can churn articles in minutes; Sabrina the most dedicated Video Head and culturally aware personality. Francesca the hopelessly addicted Saigon-lover to Mumbi the bestest ‘bestie’ who made an amazing bus seat buddy, Christyna the lovely dainty friendly soul. Andrea the one with a voice which seems like it has been copy-pasted from a Disney animation to Nadia the child-like Korean doll. Bonnie without whose critical inputs during sessions we’d probably fall asleep, to Lochna the tireless and sweet Bhangra choreographer-cum-editor, this trip contained the most vibrant and personality-diverse melting pot one could ever ask for. From mere acquaintances to fast friends, this trip did what it set out to do- make us stronger, wiser and knowledgeable in the various ways of the world and its people. It ought to be known that this trip also had the largest concentration of LGBT community members, a feat I assume would be hard to replicate in the future study trips.


Unfortunately with love comes heartbreak, and at the end of our remarkable 10 days here, we had to bid Saigon adieu. To say that tears were shed would be an understatement. The trip came to an end with a feeling of morbidity, that this camaraderie, chemistry would never be found again, no matter how hard we attempted to recreate it back home- it wouldn’t be the same. Promises made to meet each other and stay in touch, we said our last goodbyes to the city that became our second home, and will forever more be referred to as the city where we found love. Adele’s lyrics come to mind:

Nothing compares, no worries or cares
Regrets and mistakes they’re memories made
Who would have known how bittersweet this would taste?

Personally this marks the end of my official sojourn on board the ‘In Search Of’ series, having now been a part of three. If I can attribute my altered life perspective to anything, it would be this series, which showed me the bounty and difficulty both of teamwork, the beauty one can find in the smallest of places and meekest of people, and the open-mindedness and tolerance which I feel I lacked prior to undertaking these trips. I can now walk incredibly long distances without giving in to fatigue all the while actually taking in sights and sounds and having a whale of time with peers. For the incredible journey this has been, thank you. To the editors aboard this trip, thank you. Had it not been for your dedication and motivation to see the best of the articles featured on the blog, this blog would have been fundamentally lacking. To Bats, the chaperone for this year, thank you for taking such good care (and with such good demeanour) of us despite being ill. You’ve been the coolest chaperone! To Dr Yeoh, thank you for undertaking this trip year after year tirelessly, to educate and enlighten us, put up with us and bear us. If it weren’t for you and your brainchild, we’d literally not be here. And to you, my peers- you ought to applaud yourselves. This year’s blog has beaten all past years’ with a record 44 entries minutely describing everything you have come to learn and love about Saigon. And lastly, to Saigon, thank you. You were happiness- amplified.

Abeer Yusuf is currently midway through her fourth year in Honours, researching on South Asian Third Culture Kids, and would one day like to be credited with making the term ‘desi’ more commonplace in Malaysia.

Technology Lent- A Technophile’s Daring Experiment

By Abeer Yusuf
Photos by Farah Zulkefly & various sources

16 Twitter mentions.
62 Facebook notifications.
6 friend requests.
15 event invites.
8 private messages.
9 days.
One test.

To say that I am connected with the times would be an understatement. If someone were to ask me how often I ‘Facebook’ or ‘Twitter’, the answer would follow a snort from some or the other friend of mine - I. Am. Always. Online. It’s not something I ever paid attention to, my virtual attachment to the Internet, but off late I began to realise a disturbing trend that had begun to take shape in both me and my immediate society. 

Virtual presence has become so important, taken over such a pertinent aspect of our lives, it seems absolutely blasphemous that one would consider it a luxury, and not a glaring necessity of our times. No one can get away with dismissing the Internet as just a fad; it has become an existence in which our presence is vital. 

Whereas once you could keep in touch through email and the phone, if you’re not on Facebook or Twitter 24-7, you pretty much miss out on some or the other ‘major’ news. There is today, a need to be connected with each other all the time. Getting away from the networks is akin to religiously following a television series, disappearing for a few days, and returning only to find that the entire plotline has changed shape. 

The same dilemma applies for technology. Photo credit: Mahoneyjoe.com

But that is only one of the many grouses that I maintain with the online world. The other involves the quicksilver vortex that is the addiction to this technology. Devices being continually introduced to aid this addiction don’t make life any easier (be it your new Android smartphone or Apple iPad), nor does the knowledge that free WiFi access is adding fuel to the fire. Too many times I have been in conversations with my friends over lunch where I find them periodically distracted by ‘pings’ and ‘whatsapps’ and whatnots. Frustrated beyond imagination is one way of putting what I feel - you are physically with me, talking to me, kindly pay attention to me! The other thing I don’t comprehend is how people need to update their virtual lives about their physical lives. Rather than telling me how awesome it is to see me, I go home to find that I’ve been tagged as the ‘splendid person I always love spending time with HOMG it was so awesome to see you again Abeer!’ This need to be in two worlds at the same time is one that, I feel will lead to plenty of problems in the future.

While I must address here that my addiction is different from the conventional Twitter/Facebook-user sense, it is an addiction nevertheless. I post endless news links on my Facebook page, update my status with disturbing frequency detailing minutely amusing co-incidences (I have a need to be funny, a need that has left me highly unpopular due to my apparent ‘lameness’) and post senseless updates about how satisfying a hot shower or a Cadbury bar is at the end of the day. While it could be worse- I could be the person who tweets her thoughts out virtually or updates followers constantly about her whereabouts or even be the person who details mundane activities about her life and love on Facebook- I fear the addict that I have become. It is a habit of mine to constantly go over to the Facebook page, only to see if the amber sign has flagged off, if even for one notification that has nothing to do with me. The moment I remove the page, I must put it back on, because it has become such a habit. When something remotely upsets me, I began mentally jotting ways in which I can cryptically address it on either Facebook or Twitter. If I don’t Facebook at least twice a day, I feel an uncontrollable desire to head back home and plop myself in front of my computer screen only to see how everyone else is living their lives on a busy Friday night. I have, scarily enough, begun spending time thinking about what my next Twitter update should be.¬¬

Lamebook ought to have been the real name of Facebook. Picture credit: Google Images

It was at this juncture that I decided I needed to get away from all sorts of technology. While the ubiquitous mobile phone was necessary to communicate with my parents and friends in Saigon, I decided that it was time that I went on a virtual cleansing trip. The trip to Ho Chi Minh offered me the opportunity to do just that. I decided I would see how long I could last before succumbing to the great tool that is Mark Zuckerbergs’ creation and also, just how others online would take my virtual death (and dearth of activity). I decided for that reason to try to limit as far as possible the number of people whom I told about my impending trip, only so that the lack of Facebook/Twitter activity would make them wonder where I was; I wanted to see how far they would go, or be concerned even, that possibly something was not right with me. 

It was with this medley of feelings that I plunged to my virtual death, my very own Technology Lent.

This post/experimentalso comes at a time when yet anothersocial networking platformhas launched- set to redefine social networking, many have claimed this will take over Facebook in a swipe with its easy-to-use interface and increased privacy controls. Once again, existing social media platforms are overtaken by vapid discussions raving about THE best technological invasion to preside the Internet, consuming individuals like a child takes to a new toy - all excited and unable to fault a single feature of it. In the time I was ‘dead’, I received countless invitations to Google+, which was “just the coolest thing ever- now we can group video chat!” and of course, the replacement for a leaky Facebook- “it’s got waaay better privacy control options”.

Dreams of a more topographical nature. Picture courtesy: Postsecret

The first few days were brilliant. Saigon completely usurped me. No actually, obligations to my position and Saigon completely usurped me. With so much to do, I barely had the time to be concerned about what was going on in the virtual world. 

I got my much needed respite from refreshing my Facebook page every 5 minutes waiting for an amber sign to flag and it was amazing to not be connected or to have to constantly keep up with e-etiquette by replying to posts and commenting endlessly. It was a huge relief to not have to post anything and worry about how many ‘liked’ it, how welcome or critical my statement about something profligate by the amount of comments or retweets it received, or if a photo I posted made anyone’s day. Within days however, as work piled on and hurdles began presenting themselves rather unsightly, I started missing my old venting outlet- the Internet. I began thinking again in 140 keystrokes- that if I were with access to Twitter, I’d have already written about 10-15 status updates cynically ruing my situation. Therein began agony at not being able to vent passive-aggressively. 

Going on this Lent also meant a huge sacrifice when it came to friends. One of my best friends lives in a country completely geographically removed from Asia- in the UK. And this is a best friend with whom I must communicate everyday- even if it is to talk about how I squished a snail unintentionally. While the friend did know I was going for a sojourn to Vietnam, he did not know how long for and wasn’t told about my imminent disappearing act. As situations in Vietnam got tedious for me, my one respite- my best friend, wasn’t there for me - all because I rely on technology to connect with him. I found myself unable to communicate with him or any of my other best friends because I’d have to employ the aid of email or Facebook or Twitter to get in touch with them, and having sworn off it, I was in a pickle. I got through my problems somehow (and barely), but I managed to. It was then too I realised just how involved my friends were in my life- I don’t go two days without updating them about what the scene in my life is like (in my defence, dramatic events take place with rapid succession in my life) which made me reflect; just how healthy was this? Rather than being able to update someone conventionally and tell them everything of substance that had taken place over time, I’d become so used to friends deducing conclusions from my blog, Twitter and Facebook page, that it never really gave me a chance to either take a breather, deal with my stuff on my own, nor give me the pleasure of informing/updating my friends on my own, without them having known 4 hours earlier thanks to Facebook. Of course, it also meant not being able to respond to serious incidences as well- during the course of the 10 day trip, one of my other best friends was almost evicted from her flat, causing me much panic about what was happening back home. 

Perhaps what helped in making the Lent easier on me was the fact that Facebook is blocked in Vietnam. Yes, fellow technophiles will probably gasp at this, but the communist state maintains a stronghold on its denizens by restricting this portal as a site that would otherwise allow for freedom of expression (proxy servers however have provided the sneaky way out for those who simply can’t do with it). That is perhaps also why the Vietnamese have this sustained feeling of community, though this is merely me venturing a guess. Time and again I noticed how close-knit and community-based the Vietnamese are, no doubt helped by the lack of technology infiltration. Should Facebook have been more readily accessible to the masses, perhaps the people wouldn’t come out to parks and squares in throngs and meet up as sociably as they presently do. I was also thankful for escape from the ‘Blackberry culture’ in Vietnam. The previous two study trip destinations that I’ve been on, namely Thailand and Indonesia, both have a prevailing Blackberry culture where the younger generations use the smartphone to ‘BBM’ (Blackberry Message) each other. This added to the hope that in a region where smartphones, Blackberries and WiFi access is the only way to go, there may be hope for Vietnam in holding off. 

Towards the end of the trip, I felt as though I had been happily rehabilitated from the Internet. In fact, I began contemplating going off Facebook permanently, a thought that uptil Vietnam, would have sent me into cold shivers. Not only that; we managed to attain a communication network that, though exclusive to those staying on one side of the hotel, worked like a charm- our bathrooms at the Mai Vy hotel were without ventilators, in place of which were windows with curtains. While this would alarm just about anyone as to how private the bathrooms really were (and indeed a Peeping Tom’s dream), the one positive that came out of it was that all the bathroom windows lead to a little abyss, hole-like tunnel through which sound travelled. Communication became effective two-fold, having discovered that almost anyone was just a bathroom call away (provided they were near or in the bathroom at the time), be it to rush them to get down to the lobby quickly or ask a question. I christened it the Windowbook, and it comes with a unique feature neither Facebook nor Google+ have- synchronised singing. As almost everyone would head to the bathroom the moment we got back home, we realised we could capitalise on the ‘X-factor’ that were our sweet bathroom singing nodes. Thus began an epic tale of singing Disney favourites like Mulan and Aladdin, also enjoying the likes of the Bee Gees, Beatles and ABBA. 

A blurry shot of the Windowbook and its inhabitants. Picture courtesy: Farah Z

As for me, all my plans of going off Facebook and Twitter were futile. I returned home to find myself inundated by private messages asking me where I had disappeared, what on Earth had happened to me and why I wasn’t responding to any messages. I thought I had been successfully rehabilitated but I wasn’t really- within two days, it was back to the daily grind of answering endless posts, liking every remotely funny update, listlessly staring all day at the LCD computer screen and waiting in vain for that addictive amber flag to glow. Sigh.

Author’s Note- I would like to take this opportunity to apologise to one person in particular, Ayesha, who got quite upset with my disappearing act. Never again.

Abeer Yusuf is currently midway through her fourth year in Honours, researching on South Asian Third Culture Kids, and would one day like to be credited with making the term ‘desi’ more commonplace in Malaysia.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Diary Entry Day 10: Miss(ing) Saigon

By Jia Wei Low
Photos by Audrey Samuel
Our evening began much like any other time commitment we’ve had here in Saigon, running on Malaysian time. Picking out the right shirt, trying not to blotch make-up and getting last minute preparations for Cultural Night seemed to be the usual suspects to fault for our tardiness. We managed to pull through however, getting there in time to prepare for the arrival of our guests.
 On our last night in Saigon, we decided to give back to those who graciously helped us in our journey - the facilitators of our learning sessions, our student guides and even those who put us up and put up with us for the past nine days. To show our appreciation, we invited all those part of ‘In Search of Saigon’ for a Thank You dinner and cultural show.  Dinner consisted of delicious Vietnamese fare while the show included songs from four of our student guides; Pham Tuan Anh, Nguyen Thien Vi and the dynamic duo of Vo Nhat Thang and Le Kim Thanh. Following that, the Indian Bhangra dance was put on, with a makeshift singing group following after, belting out tunes such as Kau Ilhamku, Ais Kacang and Stand By Me. Then all the travellers joined to perform the Dikir Barat with a finale comprising a tribute to Dr. Yeoh, our guide and mentor for the trip, sung to the tune of P-p-p-poker Face by Lady GaGa.

Some of our guests at Cultural Night with our student guide Thang Vo standing

Following a tradition established last year, awards were given out to our travellers, who were voted and nominated for individual categories by the rest of the travellers. The winners for this year’s awards included Lochna Menon, for Most Considerable and Helpful Person and John de Silva for Most Culturally Aware and Perceptive Person.  Mumbi Munene, an exchange student from Monash South Africa (and Editor on the trip) took the prize for Best Travel Companion while the Most Hardworking Person was well-deservedly Abeer Yusuf (the Chief Editor).  In the last of the official categories, Andrea Tee, also the Blog Team Head, went home with the award for the Most Well Written Story for her two part coverage on food in Saigon. One special unofficial category was also included- that of Most Persistent Session Sleeper, for the one person who slept through all 6 official school sessions. In a unanimous decision, Bonnie Teh went home with the infamous moniker.

Sorry Abeer for using this unflattering picture!
Once all the awards were given out (with Oscar worthy speeches following some), tokens of appreciation were given out to our guests and guides. The most special moment of the evening for me however was when everyone gathered to watch the slideshow of our adventures in Vietnam thus far. The video brought out streams of emotion from (almost) everyone there. While the trip might have started off on uneasy footing, we eventually formed a sense of camaraderie in the truest sense of the word- our own fellowship.  The evening concluded with one final walk through the city to our hotel, to take in every last bit of sight, sound, smell and taste of this wonderful place we’ve come to call home.

Farewells are never easy- pictured here are traveller Mumbi and student guide Anh

These past 9 days have been quite the ride. It feels like we’ve been here for an eternity, yet still it is too short a stay. Every single experience here, though not always pleasant, will forever be treasured. I cannot speak for everyone else, but I personally wouldn’t change a thing. Stolen wallets, hangovers, everything. Its these important life lessons that have given me perspective on just how privileged we are and how so often others have to grit their teeth just to achieve a fraction of what we often take for granted. 
Our last morning seemed a bittersweet affair. Though many of us relished the thought of Malaysian food, not waking up to see each other’s faces in the morning and walking down the spiraling stairs seemed like a heavy price to pay. But still, we packed our bags, said our last goodbye to our home/hotel in Saigon and hopped into a taxi to the airport. Our guides and friends awaited us there, to share last farewells and tears of parting.
Goodbye to the alley we’ve come to know so well

 At that point, waves of emotions were building as it dawned on many of us that our sojourn in Saigon was ending. The curtains were being drawn and even though we knew that all good things must come to end, the bitter pill remained bitter. But the memories remain with us, immortalized within each and every one who walked the alleyways of Saigon, be it student or teacher, guide or traveller. In the end we will always have this blog; a little piece of our history. Our mark on the world.

Till we meet again, travellers
Fit into small holes
Crawl through underground tunnels
Only in Chu Chi

Riding on a boat
Abundance of sky up high
Only in Mekong

Dodge motorcycles
Crossing streets like you own it
Only in Saigon

LowJia Wei, 23 is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree majoring in Writing and suffers from chronic Internet addiction.