Posted on Nov 23, 2002

Prof. Motahar in office at Ho Chi Minh University in Vietnam, where he is a visiting Fulbright Scholar

Eshragh Motahar, associate professor of economics at Union College, is in Vietnam this fall as a visiting Fulbright Scholar at the Fulbright Vietnam Program. Run jointly by Harvard University (JFK School of Government) and the Ho Chi Minh University of Economics, this graduate school is for Vietnamese professionals concentrating on economics and public policy.

Here are some of his reflections on the experience:

“We have a very bright, highly-motivated, and hard-working group of students from many sectors of the economy, the government and the academic world, and from all geographic areas of Vietnam. Contrary to stereotypes back in the U.S., students are very active participants in class, and, while polite and respectful, they take no nonsense from any one. They have a great sense of humor. They work very hard, but have a lot of fun as well.

“Subsequent to economic reforms in the mid- to late-80s, Vietnam has had a vibrant economy.  For example, during the 1990-99 period Vietnam was the fourth fastest growing economy in the world, at an average annual real GDP growth rate of 8.1 percent. Ho Chi Minh City, like many other cities and communities in Vietnam, is full of energy and vitality.

From Prof. Motahar, a banner announcing a Vietnamese performance of Hamlet (with the title spelled in the syllabic form). “U. Sec xpia” translates to “W. Shakespeare.”

“This is a peaceful and safe country, with an extraordinary variety of social and economic activities going on in the streets, on the sidewalks, on rivers, along the coast and in rural areas. The food is delicious and inexpensive. In addition to all kinds of “regular” food, I have dined on snakes, fried silkworms, and frogs. The variety and freshness of fruits and vegetables is just incredible. 

“The climate varies from tropical (hot and humid) in Ho Chi Minh City to crisp and cool in the mountains of the northwest.  Right now (early November) in Ho Chi Minh City, temperatures during the day are in the upper 80s, and mid 70s in the evening, with humidity to match both day and night.

“There is a horrendous traffic problem here in Ho Chi Minh City. Motorcycles are very popular, and nobody seems to walk; there is no good public transportation system. Motorcycles — mostly Hondas — are the universal mode of transportation for practically everything. I have seen sacks of rice, bags of vegetables, chickens, live snakes, flowers, trees and construction materials being carried on motorcycles. It is not unusual to see four people (man and wife and a couple of kids) riding one motorcycle.

“Crossing the street, especially during the rush hour, can be a bit of a challenge. Though once you get the hang of it, you cross with confidence and marvel at your ability to do so unscathed.  If you wait for the traffic light to give you a safe go-ahead, you could be waiting for a long time!

“In spite of its painful past relationship with the U.S., Americans, like visitors from other countries, are welcome here. In fact, a visit to Vietnam will, among other things, demonstrate yet gain the terrible harm caused by war, and the futility and absurdity of it.”