Jacob Cohn (Vietnam)

Jacob Cohn is a graduate student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, where he is studying for a master’s degree in human security and conflict resolution, with a particular focus on migration and human rights protection. Before coming to Fletcher, Jacob served as an AmeriCorps VISTA member at the International Institute of Minnesota, a refugee resettlement agency in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he managed an adult education program for refugees and recent immigrants and tutored refugee students in writing. Jacob previously worked as an intern for the US Department of State, the office of US Representative Eliot Engel, and the National Security Network, and his writing has been published in local and regional news outlets. Jacob grew up in New York and California and received his B.A. in international relations from Carleton College in 2013. Jacob spent his 10-week Peace Fellowship in partnership with families impacted by Agent Orange. Upon returning, Jacob reflected, "I came into this fellowship knowing almost nothing about Vietnam or Agent Orange, and getting to learn about both firsthand, and to hear firsthand the stories of those most affected, was a deeply moving experience. I know I'll carry the lessons I learned as an AP fellow throughout my professional and personal life, and I'm incredibly grateful to Iain and everyone at AP for giving me this opportunity".

We’re Halfway There

14 Jul

Today I am halfway (whoooooooah) through my fellowship here at AEPD in Dong Hoi, Vietnam. In the last five weeks, I’ve gotten to meet several of AP and AEPD’s beneficiary families—it’s been a privilege getting to know them, and learning more about the important work AEPD does on their behalf. The main thing I’ve actually accomplished so far, besides all the blog posts and photos that I’ve posted on this site, is to start raising funds for Duong Thi An’s new buffalo. I expected that I’d maybe be able to raise around $500 or so and leave AEPD to finish the campaign, but as of this writing we’d gotten over $1000 in contributions in less than a week, getting us tantalizingly close to our $1500 target. I’ve had everyone from family members and close friends to distant acquaintances to complete strangers offer their support, which has been both surprising and incredibly inspiring. (Incidentally, if you’d like to join them, you can find more information about the campaign and make a donation here.)

My time here hasn’t been all about work, though—I’ve thoroughly explored Dong Hoi and the surrounding area as well as the larger cities of Hanoi and Hue. In a desperate attempt to keep generating precious, precious content fun departure from my last several posts, here are some tidbits from my time here that aren’t work-related.

–People are really friendly and seem to be big fans of the US, despite all the history between us. I still get a lot of shouts of “hello” when I walk down the street—in Hanoi and Hue that’s usually a prelude to selling you something but in Dong Hoi it’s simple curiosity. Most people I have enough words in common to talk with are approachable and curious about me and what I’m doing in Dong Hoi; I haven’t been very active in what nightlife there is in town, since being in a foreign country hasn’t magically made me more outgoing, but I’d imagine I’d be the center of attention there too. People have nothing but positive things to say about America and its culture. The war rarely comes up unless I bring it up, and most of the remnants of the war I’ve seen have been museums and monuments aimed as much at foreigners as Vietnamese. People seem to be focused on the future, not the past, and historical sites seem like less of a priority, which makes sense considering how long Vietnam was engulfed in war. Also, it’s possible people are more introspective when they lose a war—think about all the American music and pop culture inspired by our experience in Vietnam. I don’t think Vietnamese commemorate the war in the same way.

–I’ve been struck by the fact that nobody I’ve talked to has brought up US politics, last year’s election, or the Trump presidency, despite all that’s happened since I left. (I traveled a bit in Africa last summer and most people I talked with at any length brought up the election.) That could be simple politeness, or just a result of the fact that US news is obviously less important here. (None of the Vietnamese TV news I’ve seen seems to talk much about news outside Asia—English media here is mostly run by the government and dominated by such compelling stories as “National Assembly Standing Committee Concludes 12th Session.”) That hasn’t stopped me from following events in the US, but it’s made them seem a bit less real and more distant.

–Saigon beer is the best I’ve tried here so far, Hanoi is probably my least favorite but still OK. I haven’t braved the local homebrew yet, but I’m sure I will at some point. My favorite restaurant in town serves a dish that I don’t actually remember the name of; it’s pieces of grilled pork with rice paper, chili sauce, and vegetables, and you make your own delicious wraps. I split my meals between local places and Western restaurants, of which there are a surprising number for a small city (including not one but two places that specialize in pizza). But I’ve been learning about more restaurants that locals frequent, which tend to be cheaper and better.

–When I was in Hue I went to a Mexican restaurant out of curiosity and it was overpriced but actually not terrible.

–I jog here sometimes, but I don’t think local people do that for exercise. I also joined a gym (it’s a steal at $9 a month), but it’s not air-conditioned so I often find myself getting tired out more easily and sweating a lot more. (I’ve gotten a bit more used to the climate here but I’m still not comfortable in it. I’ve stopped looking at weather forecasts because they just depress me.)

–Dong Hoi is a beach town—that’s mostly why people come here. But I’ve heard mixed reports from locals about whether the beaches are actually safe. When I’ve gone swimming I’ve seen plenty of people in there with me, including lots of families, but I think a lot of them are from out of town—last year a company called Formosa Ha Tinh Steel was accused of dumping toxins into the ocean nearby, which forced the fishing industry here to temporarily shut down and devastated the economy. Supposedly the beaches and local seafood are safe now (that’s what my hotel and the government say), but a coworker told me there’s no way to really tell. I’ve gotten itchy skin a couple of times after swimming here, so I think I’ll stay on land for now.

–Dong Hoi doesn’t have the volume of traffic of somewhere like Hanoi, but you still need to watch your step. Lots of narrow streets means that danger can come at you with very little warning. Most Vietnamese people drive motorcycles—cars are for people with money—and there are lots of motorcycle cabs around. They usually give you helmets, but whether those actually provide protection or are just there to look pretty is anyone’s guess. My hotel also has a bicycle I sometimes borrow—when I’ve asked about getting a helmet for the bike the reaction has been confusion, as if I’d asked to wear a helmet while driving a car.

–My beard makes people think I’m older than 26, and seems to interest kids in particular. Almost none of the local men I’ve seen have significant facial hair. (Of course one of the few exceptions is the face on all Vietnamese money.)

I think that’s all I have, but of course I’ve got five more weeks to learn, explore and enjoy. Did I mention the climate and how that still kind of bothers me? I probably did.

Posted By Jacob Cohn (Vietnam)

Posted Jul 14th, 2017


  • Scott Zeman

    July 14, 2017


    Hi Jacob, I am the newest member of the Advocacy Project’s Board of Directors. Thank you for the amazing work you are doing in Vietnam. Also, as a historian of popular culture, I find your analysis of Vietnamese pop culture in the posting fascinating.

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