Semester at Sea 4

The fourth segment of Sarah’s Semester at Sea

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Around the World in 105 Days

February 18, 2017

6.39N, 198.9E

Day 44

“Happiness cannot be traveled to, owned, earned, worn, or consumed. Happiness is the spiritual experience of living every minute with love, grace, and gratitude.” – Denis Waitley

My first view of Vietnam was from the window seat of a charter bus while traveling with a group of Semester at Sea students throughout Vietnam and Cambodia. As we left Hi Chi Minh City and drove along the two-lane roads going through small towns, I couldn’t help but notice the tiny, tin-roofed, makeshift homes lining the streets. They were all on stilts, due to the frequent flooding in Vietnam, and many of the homes had a small business in the front with the living space visible behind the small banh mi stands or fruit displays. Trash lined the streets, and people selling various food products stood on the highway between the hammock-lined shelters.


While observing the shack-like homes of many Vietnamese people, I was overcome with feelings of gratitude to be able to live in my comfortable home in the mountains of Colorado. I know that when I return from my semester abroad, I will have a solid roof over my head, clean water to drink, and a pantry full of food to eat. Every day, I wake up knowing that I will eat at least three meals, wear clean clothes, and be provided an excellent education. Because I have always had such things, it is normal, but I have recently realized how I take it for granted. To me, these seem like normal aspects of my life; however, just a few minutes in Vietnam reminded me how incredibly privileged I actually am.

Despite the poverty that was prevalent across the areas I visited or passed through during my time in Vietnam and Cambodia, everyone seemed to be genuinely happy and kind. The more we traveled through the little Vietnamese towns, the more charming the locals became. Residents were standing at their small businesses, selling durian fruit or street pho; children rode their bikes to school, dressed in their uniforms; and people walked the streets, heading towards their next destination. Day-to-day life in these areas appeared as normal as my own day-to-day existence; however, the Vietnamese and Cambodians didn’t appear bitter or upset about their small homes, the dirty streets, or the impoverished world in which they live. Instead, Vietnamese flags – both new and patched – flew in front of nearly every building, showing the peoples’ sense of pride in their small country.

The sincerity of both the Vietnamese and Cambodian people was plainly evident, and it really made me think about my own life and self. I am so privileged in my American, middle-class life, and yet, I still find things about which to complain or worry. On the other hand, there are people living in Vietnam and Cambodia on less than $1 a day, and I saw so many smiles and such genuine kindness. I believe that Americans have become so focused on commercialism and self-centeredness, that we often forget to be thankful for what we do have.

While in Cambodia, I visited Kompheim Village, which was just outside of Siem Reap. The children at the school were running around barefoot or turning to look out the open wall of their classroom at the group of American people walking through their village. They smiled widely and waved, a few shyly saying “hello” before they ran back to their recess games. As we walked through the residential area of the village, I recognized how the majority of homes had make-shift walls built from bamboo frames covered in palm leaves. Yet, like Vietnam, the people in this village appeared to be genuinely happy.

Cambodia is currently still in the process of moving forward from a mass genocide that occurred during the years of 1975-1979. In just 3 years, 8 months, and 20 days, around two million people died due to mass killings or starvation. By looking at the people of Cambodia today, it is hard to believe that the majority of people my parent’s age have had a family member (or multiple) killed because they were intellectuals. It didn’t appear as if the people dwelled on the past and on the catastrophic loss they endured. Although they remember the horrific incident that happened four decades ago, this country seems to be moving forward with strength and a positive view of the future.

Most people of Cambodia and Vietnam live on an incredibly small income in comparison to those in the U.S. (an average of $6,000/year in Vietnam and $3,000/year in Cambodia), yet the people remain so positive, light-hearted, and happy. Their happiness isn’t dependent on their income or the home in which they live. Rather, the happiness of the Vietnamese and Cambodian people stems from their love for each other, pride in their country, and the gratitude they possess for the things that they do have, not what they lack. You see, only we recognize what they lack, as Americans are often focused on materialistic possessions, rather than basic needs of happiness and survival. During my five days in Vietnam and Cambodia, I was overwhelmed by the depth of poverty, but I was more impacted by the grace with which the people lived with such joy in spite of their American-observed “poverty.”