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An Economics Researcher in Vietnam

By Leslie Lee

Forty years ago, the thought of spending the summer in Vietnam was enough to make any college student tremble. These days, college students are approaching the country once associated with war in many Americans' minds as a destination for broadening their horizons.

For Patrick Behrer, a junior at Harvard College, Vietnam offered an opportunity to research affordable housing and experience a new culture.

Behrer worked as a research intern at the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program in Ho Chi Minh City. The FETP is a post-graduate education program offering classes to government officials, journalists, teachers, and other private-sector employees. In the summer, the FETP functions as a research institute, conducting extensive case studies on Vietnam. "As a result, the FETP has become one of the leading international think tanks on Vietnamese Policy," says Behrer. His time was spent researching affordable housing in Ho Chi Minh City and investigating how infrastructure development affected housing prices.

Behrer lived in Ho Chi Minh City for eight weeks. His position was un-salaried, although he was supported by a stipend he received through his college. His daily schedule during the week consisted of work from 8:00am until 5:00pm, with an hour for lunch at noon, followed by a trip to the gym with co-workers and dinner out in the city. "In Vietnam it is less expensive to stay in a hotel and go out to eat everyday than to rent an apartment and cook for yourself," Behrer explains. This lifestyle gave him plenty of opportunity to sample the country's cuisine, including the delicious noodle soups called "pho," and lots and lots of fish sauce.

In addition to meals, Behrer was also responsible for organizing his own travel arrangements and housing. While FETP helped him arrange his original accommodation, Behrer quickly moved to a different hotel that was less expensive and more conveniently located. Behrer also arranged his own travel within the country; while working approximately 45 hours a week, Behrer used his weekends to visit different sites throughout Vietnam. "Without a doubt the best part about the internship was the chance to see a new country and a totally different culture," Behrer writes.

Ho Chi Minh City is the largest city in Vietnam, with a population of about 6.5 million. Although the city has held its current name since 1976, many Vietnamese still refer to it as Saigon. As a bustling economic and cultural hub of the country, life in Ho Chi Minh City can get a little hectic. As Behrer describes, "One of the most obvious manifestations of this is the complete lack of traffic law. The first question that people asked when I met them was whether or not I had learned how to cross the street, a seemingly simple task made extremely difficult and not a little dangerous by the sheer number of people and motorbikes on the streets during rush hour."

Crossing the street wasn't the only difficulty Behrer had to overcome during his internship in Vietnam. During the course of his research, Behrer discovered that very little historical data on affordable housing existed. This made his research "very difficult," he said, "because there is very little information available and the government is reluctant to share what information is available." Having exhausted the official resources on housing price data, Behrer and the graduate student he was working with from the University of Ho Chi Minh City resorted to collecting information from alternative sources. "Ultimately we used information from newspaper classifieds," Behrer explains.

Despite the difficulties of the research, during his eight weeks with FETP Behrer produced a database on housing prices in Ho Chi Minh City as well as drafting a policy paper outlining his discoveries, which will be included in a larger paper on general housing policy.

Behrer advises students interested in pursuing an international internship to start looking early, giving plenty of time to learn more about the country and what life might be like there. "Once you have identified one that you are interested in, speak with students who have been in that country before and can describe what the experience might be like."

Overall, Behrer's summer in Vietnam was a very positive experience for him. While many college students cherish the summer as a time to revisit home and reconnect with family and high school friends, Behrer relished his summer abroad, particularly the excitement of seeing a culture so completely different from the United States.

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