We’ve all experienced it. Invest your time, money or energy into just about anything, and from then on its characteristics will have a tendency to reappear. It’s a concept advertisers rely on. For those of us who return home from Vietnam for example, signs for ‘the best bun cha in town’ will now turn up. Packaged holidays to Cat Ba will shout at you and cheap TV featuring bikers smoking opium and celebrities eating spiders will suddenly invade your schedule.
On a recent trip home, it happened to me quite simply when I realised that all around me there were students in my city, and that some of them were Vietnamese! Of course they’d always been there, but I’d been ambivalent — uninvested. So in the spirit of friendship I set out to meet some of them, and maybe find out how the life they were living now compared to what had gone before.
International Student of the Year
Meet Nguyen Trong Nghia. He’s living what you could consider the holy grail of studying abroad. The diminutive 24-year-old from Dak Lak Province, near Buon Ma Thuot, has a full tuition scholarship to Adelaide University in Australia. This year he began his PhD in Electrical Engineering and my first question was to ask him whether he could confirm the disciplined reputation of the Vietnamese student. He does — smiling.
“For me it wasn’t too hard,” he says, only a hint of sarcasm in his voice. “I went to a ‘gifted public school’ where I concentrated on maths. I liked doing maths, physics and chemistry, so I just had to get through everything else and concentrate on my areas.”
It paid off. Nghia scored a 30/30 on his entrance exam and was awarded a full government scholarship for his first year of overseas study — around A$25,000 (VND469 million) worth. Before arriving he completed his first year of undergrad work at Bach Khoa University (Ho Chi Minh University of Technology) and then came to the relative ‘hamlet’ of Adelaide, where the scholarships have continued. Before he left, he spent a month honing his English at a private language school, and now, four years later, he speaks with eloquence and only minor grammatical error.
When I meet him he appears like any other member of the student population. Delve deeper however and you find a list of honours to make most of us feel like underachievers. Nghia has won the Governor’s award for academic excellence — the modestly titled International Student of the Year award — not once but twice, in 2011 and 2012. “The first year I got an iPad,” he says laughing, “and the second time I got an iPad and a free flight home!”
So what of the differences between life in Vietnam and Australia? As you might expect from a PhD candidate, his response focuses on the academic. “Studying here is good because of the technology available,” he says. “In Vietnam this is not established yet, and this is the main difference for us students — we can do experiments and test our theories. Vietnam is still a young country in this regard, but right now instead of building hotels and resorts, they could invest more in giving academics and scientists the resources to do their jobs. This is the next step for the country to compete with Japan, Korea and Malaysia.”
In the process of meeting some other Vietnamese students including Lily — a Finance and Accounting undergrad from Hanoi — I am invited to the launch of a new marketing film by Study Adelaide. This is an organisation with remit to position the city as a premier choice for students.
It’s a competitive marketplace, and after canapes, drinks and much hobnobbing, the film is unveiled as a ‘day in the life’ of a newly arrived student. It’s filled with life affirming experiences and cultural exchanges where beaches, wineries, sunshine and kangaroos feature heavily. Lily is an ambassador for the organization too, and counts amongst her peers students from Brazil, Malaysia, India, China and Canada.
I sit down to chat with her and her friends Quinn, Brian, Wilson and Sanny. All of them resemble the young, hip kids you can find shopping on Le Loi or Nguyen Trai in Ho Chi Minh City. The consensus is that they like studying here, they like Australia and they like the people.
Sanny recounts a story about the local bus driver who stopped and got out of the bus to assist a disabled person — something she says wouldn't happen at home, and emblematic of the differences between her still developing homeland and the ‘first world’ country she finds herself in now.
They are also aware it’s a quieter place than where they have come from, and possibly where they are going. “I like Adelaide,” says Quinn, a second year psychology student from Saigon. “Compared to Ho Chi Minh City it’s quiet and organised, which is good for me be-cause I don’t like going out too much. I prefer to go to people’s houses.” There is a large Vietnamese network available to them here true — Australia has 26,000 Vietnamese students at last count — but like Nghia they don’t want to be stuck in a ‘bubble’. “It’s good to have Viet friends when you need help,” says Wilson, a future pharmaceutical engineer. “But I like to meet all the other people as well, that’s why I came here. I have friends from Australia, Malaysia, England, Poland and Spain. Not just Vietnamese.”
On The Spot
No surprises on the one thing they agree on missing as well, the food — and possibly the immediate sense of sharing what the street life of Vietnam creates. “In Danang, where I am from,” says Brian, a medicine student on full scholarship, “if you wanted to do something you would just meet outside, see whoever was there and go do it straight away. Here it’s a bit more planned, so you have to be more organised than at home.”
It’s not just a string of social events for these students though. They still feel the pressure to perform — their scholarships depend on it. “We have to live with the stereotype of the high performing Asian student,” says Lily. “It’s a good and a bad thing.” Why? “Because it can mean that we don’t meet some people outside of our circle, some people who might judge us — but good because as Vietnamese it motivates us to work hard. That is what people expect of us, what our families want and what our country expects as well.”
So its not all barbecues on the beach and fireworks in the harbour, but it does seem that these students are mixing it up and representing Vietnam well from afar. I decide to leave the last word to our two-time international student of the year though, so I ask him to give some advice to potential cohorts who might be reading back home. “Always have a goal,” he begins, “then find out what you need to do to achieve it. If you get stressed, don’t let it stop you. Never compare yourself to others, just focus, and work as hard as you can to [achieve] your dreams.”
Well said Nghia, I think there’s something in that for all of us, mate.
The High Achiever
Nguyen Trong Nghia
Hometown: Dak Lak
PhD in: Electrical Engineering
Future Plans: To keep getting better at what he does, keep experimenting and keep travelling the world while he does it.
‘Quinn’ — Tran Ngoc Thao Quyen
Hometown: Ho Chi Minh City
Course: Psychological Science
What she misses most about Vietnam: “Bun mam! I have not seen it on the menu anywhere here!”
‘Wilson’ — Tu Nhat Bui
Hometown: Phan Rang
Course: Pharmaceutical Engineering
Favourite Australian celebrities: “Hamish and Andy. Check ‘em out!”
‘Lily’ — Trang Nguyen
Hometown: Ha Tinh
Course: Commerce — Accounting and Corporate Finance
What she misses most about Vietnam: “Drinking ca phe sua da every morning!”
‘Sanny’ — Sa Hoang Nguyen
Hometown: Nghe An
Course: Bachelor of Commerce
Favourite Australian expression: “No worries mate!”
‘Brian’ — Nhan Nguyen
Best thing about studying overseas: “Meeting girls from all over the world — just kidding Mum!”