reflecting on Vietnam!

Hello everyone! Hope everyone’s April is going just dandy. I have another blog post about our trip to Vietnam if you want to read it. The story ensues below.

I am sure I sound like a broken record, but Vietnam has a piece of my heart. Though we were only there a mere four days, the things we saw, people we met, and food we met will stay with me forever.

We started our trek into Vietnam by making a land border crossing, which was quite an experience in and of itself. We had to carry all of our stuff across by hand because they don’t let buses from Cambodia enter Vietnam. It’s weird, I know. So here we are hauling all our luggage, gallon jugs of water, pillows, and passports, waiting to talk with desk agents.



eating pho on a boat at a floating market! doesn’t get much more Vietnam than that


The whole process took about an hour, which is actually pretty impressive given the fact that there were over 20 of us who had to get through. Once in Vietnam, we boarded a new bus and took off for our hotel in a city called Can Thô. The views were absolutely breathtaking. Out the window, you could see endless green stretches of perfectly square rice paddies. The land looked lush and expansive. In Vietnamese culture, people are often buried very close to home, so the fields are littered with beautiful brightly pained grave-sites which speckle the scenery like wildflowers in an open field.


The city we stayed in is famous for its thrift shops, so of course we had to make a visit. I will never forget my first interaction with a Vietnamese shop owner. I showed him the shoes I wanted. He responded in Vietnamese, which of course I did not understand. I laughed and pulled out the 5 dollar equivalent in Vietnamese Dong (the local currency). He laughed and laughed and laughed, which I still do not understand. I decided to pull out my phone and type into the calculator how much I wanted to pay. He laughed again and brought back his friend to laugh at me also. I guess they thought it was funny I wanted to buy shoes, I don’t know. I ended up just giving them the five bucks and walking away confused (albeit satisfied) with my friend. We laughed about the interaction the rest of the night.

the infamous 5 dollar shoes

We did a lot of things while we were in Vietnam, including going birding in a wildlife sanctuary, going to a university student BBQ, having a fashion show in our dormitory hall, eating Pho, holding a mock UNFCCC convention on climate change migration, having a guest lecture from a Vietnamese professor, doing karaoke with my professors, seeing the Vietnamese War museum, drinking our first Starbucks coffee in three months, and visiting a world famous floating market. I have to say, however, that while there were many spectacular moments in Vietnam, my favorite interaction was with a small scale saleswoman in Ho Chi Minh City.

really awful pic of a really great memory during the fashion show!

Walking down the street one morning with a coffee in tow, I felt jovial about the adventures our day off in Ho Chi Minh City would surely bring. While we were walking down a busy city block I chatted nonchalantly with Molly. All of a sudden she interrupted my sentence and screeched, “Sweet Potatoes!” In case you as the reader were not aware, sweet potatoes are my favorite food and I always stop to buy them when I see them in Cambodia. Hearing Molly’s howl, I whipped my head around in delight but I did not see what she was referring too. I scanned up , across, and then down until my eyes met my feet. In a small Tupperware container next to an elderly woman sitting on the sidewalk lie a pile of sweet potatoes. Maybe she didn’t sell them from the day before, or maybe she wasn’t even planning to sell them. The answer to that I’ll never know.

I stopped and gestured to her with my hands that I wanted to buy some of them. She didn’t understand me at all, but a security guard next to her noticed I was inquiring and came over to me in English asking cheerfully, “What do you want to buy?” Bewildered by this multi-layered transaction, I somewhat rudely retorted “No, no, I want to buy some potatoes from her.” He smiled and then took that comment and translated to her my request. The smile that swept across her face is one I will never forget. Her face was glowing with the thought that I wanted to buy one of her old cold sweet potatoes. Likewise, I had not eaten a sweet potato in nearly two weeks and was so I was smiling (and salivating) as well. Using the security-guard-turned-translator, I successfully bought three small sweet potatoes from this lady. She thanked me in broken English and I thanked her back in broken Vietnamese. I also thanked the selfless security guard who made this transaction possible.

I am confident her warm smile and his generosity will remain with me forever. It might not have felt like much, but making someone smile (especially at 7AM) is an incredibly gratifying feeling.

an old cathedral in Ho Chi Minh City! Pretty cool it survived the

In general, Vietnam and Cambodia seem to me more alike than they are different. “Motos” rule the roads, clothing abounds in colorful arrays, sweet and fishy smells fill the humid air, and rice takes center stage in both culture and cuisine. In both cultures, it also seems the people are very kind and eager to talk (or sell). Market saleswomen and men in both places are quick to laugh at you, but even quicker to help you. I was excited to get back to Cambodia, but now I miss the sounds, smells, and sights of Vietnam too. I’m confident I will be back, that’s for sure.

Thanks for reading along! Lia sin huey (goodbye)

a quick note– villages can float!

Cambodia is home to the Tonle Sap, which is a large freshwater lake in the middle of the country. The Tonle Sap is really neat because it actually flows both ways, depending on the time of year. During the wet season, rainfall into the Mekong River increases to the point where the actually lake fills up. It increases in size from 2,500 to 13,000 square kilometers (at least I think, that is what I wrote on my final at least)! The Tonle Sap is also one of the world’s largest source of freshwater fish, and it provides 70-80% of Cambodia’s protein.

I know I might be boring some of the non-sciency folk, so I won’t stay on the topic for too long, but you should know this lake is no joke. In addition to providing habitat for millions of fish, the lake also provides homes for nearly 1/4 Cambodians. Many live on the floodplains near the lake and grow rice during the part of the year in which it is flooded, but some live actually on the waters of the lake in these crazy floating villages.

view of the lake from the roof of the restaurant we ate at!

boat buzzing by as we travelled to our homestay! (peep the water hyacinth)

I had the amazing privilege of seeing one of these floating villages, commonly called Prek Toal. Prek Toal is on the northwestern tip of the lake. During the wet season, the “streets” are very wide and the town is more spread out, but during the dry season, the city is much more tightly packed. This is because there is less water which brings the homes closer to one another. The lake is covered in an invasive plant known as water hyacinth, and the stuff gets stuck in boat motors and crowds out native plants. We made a pit stop at a community-based basket weaving project that turns the invasive plant into cool baskets, purses, and cups. After being briefly shown how the weaving works, I tried my hands at the sport. Turns out it is not my calling– the woman weaving immediately removed the pieces I weaved and redid them haha.

three hour birding session on the lake! lots of fun, lots of chaos! Check our me, staying hydrated as always


turning the invasive water hyacinth into a cool bowl!! resourceful amirite

During our time at the lake, I also had the privilege of spending the night in a homestay with an incredibly generous and kind Chinese-Khmer family. Two things about the homestay that I will never forget are the boats and the crocodiles. Raising crocodiles is a newfound livelihood on the lake. Many families (almost every family actually) has begun to raise and rear crocodiles for crocodile leather. The funny thing about crocodile rearing on the lake is that most families simply keep the crocodiles in small wooden boxes attached to their houses. Quite literally, there was only two walls of separation from me and the crocodiles when we were sleeping, which made falling asleep a little less inviting. Additionally, the boats that roam the lake lack mufflers. Our professors told us that they are four times louder than the legal limit, and after trying to sleep with them buzzing all night I would have to agree. Oh well, all in the name of adventure am I right?

In all honesty, I loved spending the night with local people. We interviewed them for a class assignment and learned a lot about the struggles of local livelihoods on the lake, especially with over-fishing and changes in water regimes from climate change. I’ll cut myself off again because I am sure I’m boring you all.

right before we got stuck in the mud!

In funnier news, the next day as we were leaving, we quite literally got stuck in the mud. The water level had dropped so much in the one night that we stayed at the lake that our boat got stuck in the banks on the way out. Seeing this as an opportunity to help (and cool off a little), we all hopped into the mud (waist deep) and pushed our boat into the deeper part of the channel, grinning and laughing even though the situation was actually quite grim.

Moments like that are some of my favorites. When things safely go wrong, opportunities for personal growth and reason for laughter tend to rise. Pushing a giant boat out of the sand is just one of many experiences this semester that have arisen from unintended circumstances, and I look forward to the next one.

Fleas in my boots; Tubers in my dreams

One of the problems with this blog is that I always want to start them off by feeding you the same cheesy line “Long time no talk”. Despite it being true, yet again, I will refrain from using it directly.

Instead, *clears throat* Hope things are going well on your side of the world! Welcome to another edition of “What’s in Sienna’s what?”: the Fleas and Tubers edition.

Spring is definitely in full swing here in Siem Reap. The days are getting longer and the heat is getting hotter. I’ve started to jump in the pool after class, after lunch, before dinner, after running, before going shopping, and even before going to bed! I know, I know, poor Sienna jumping into a refreshing pool all day, what a rough life… But to be fair, it is insanely hot (100+ degrees) and the humidity feels thicker than a slab of butter fresh out of the ice box.

Since we last spoke, we traveled to Phnom Penh, where we learned about some of the grisly details of the Khmer Rouge period in Cambodia. Seeing the torture center (S21) stirred up immense despair in my heart and twisted my stomach into indescribable knots. This is a happy blog so I will hold myself back from sharing more of my personal experience with the memorial, but it is shocking and brutal to say the least. I recommend if you visit Cambodia that you make a visit, but prepare yourself beforehand.

After our travels in the Cambodian Big apple, we flew back to Siem Reap and participated in Cambodia’s first World Wildlife Day. The event was all fun and games (literally) minus the fact that it was held in midday outside with little access to shade. Besides the unrelenting heat, it was actually really rewarding to interact and inform both expats and local Cambodians more about the endangered species of the area, among other conservation topics.

My peers and I (plus a Cambodian college student) working at World Wildlife Day.

What else did we do in the last two weeks? Well, we visited a degraded wetland area and performed line transects, which meant a lot of sloshing around in knee deep water trying to identify plants. After five hours of laughter, jokery and some occasional science, we all rode the bus home feeling soggy, smelly, and high-spirited. It was also on this trip that an unfortunate event took place unbeknownst to me. Inside of my knee high rubber boots, something feasted on my legs for the whole five hours we spent at the wetland. Funny enough, I didn’t notice until I peeled off my socks to (yep you guessed it) jump in the pool. All down my legs were these raised red bumps (at least 150 or more). Actually, they really haven’t gone away, so you could say the issue is still plaguing me. The positive side is that I can’t feel them and they don’t itch or hurt, so I don’t really care. Definitely not the most attractive look though, I should add.

In the past few weeks, we have also been writing and testing like mad. I’m talking three papers due in three days and four tests in 48 hours. It was ROUGH to say the least, but it was really exciting at the same time to display our learning on paper and reflect on some of the amazing experiences we’ve had. The reward to all the exams and paper writing came in the form of a dessert tour through town and our Directed Research selection. Directed Research is a separate course from the rest of our semester, where we spend 10 days collecting data in the field with our professors and then spend two weeks writing a fat paper about it. We were all bubbling with excitement as the professors told us the different projects, but I particularly bubbled over with delight about a project trying to understand why Cambodians use and cultivate a special kind of tuber, known at Protiel. For those of you who know me, the appeal of magical tubers is obvious. I have an obsession with sweet potatoes and magic is also pretty cool, so the project seemed like a dream come true.


Showing my enthusiasm for dessert during out dessert tour.

Tubers! Not like the ones I’ll be studying though. We gathered these from a traditional Bunong farm.


ow you’re probably thinking, what the heck does Sienna’s economics major have to do with traditional medicinal tubers? The answer is absolutely nothing. I’ve learned this semester to trust in my passions and sometimes throw logic to the wind. I’m not sure what I want to do with my life and I’m not even sure what I’m doing after I finish this blog post (Probably getting another cup of coffee actually), but the point is that I am so happy because I am attentive to my interests. A real-life example of shows in my constantly changing career plans. Every day we do something new in the field I say, “I’m doing my PhD in _____”. The latest was yesterday when a bat specialist came to tell us about Cambodian fruit bats. I called my mom and was like “I’m gonna be a bat specialist!” She probably rolled her eyes. Oh well, I’ll take eye rolling over apathy.

Until next time, my readers! Hope you enjoyed this post and I appreciate all of you who have the patience to read my work.

PS- We leave for Vietnam on Tuesday, so don’t expect another post for at least two weeks LOL