I’ve spent about three weeks in the SMU-in-Australia program so far, but it turns out I only arrived in Australia two days ago.

Before I landed in Perth, a group of SMU, Trinity, and Tulane students went on an extended tour of Southeast Asia that included Vietnam, Thailand, and Malaysia. Having spent some time to reflect on the experience, I’ve decided that this experience alone was worth the time I’m going to spend abroad.

We got to experience cultures that, on the face of it, are totally different from that of the U.S. We got to see and do things that I would never have the opportunity to do back home. Honestly, I’d have done this course (yes, it is a course where you get credit) for no credit at all. Here are some of the highlights of the trip:

Vietnam (two weeks)

• Spent a week in Ho Chi Minh City (a bustling city of over 8 million people)
• Explored the Cu Chi Tunnels
• Spent a day in a local village and took an elephant ride
• Celebrated Chinese New Year with the locals
• Visited palaces and museums all over the country
• Tried the Vietnamese cuisine (absolutely delicious, including the chicken embryos)
• Took a daylong cruise in Halong Bay

Thailand (two days)

• Toured Ancient Siam (a massive collection of Thai architecture)
• Went to the Grand Palace and saw the gigantic reclining Buddha residing there
• Attended a lecture at the Australian embassy discussing Thai politics and culture

Malaysia (five days)

• Climbed to a mountaintop Hindu temple
• Visited the KL Twin Towers and dined inside the KL Tower
• Attended a lecture at the Australian embassy discussing Malay politics and culture

Honestly, if I wrote down everything we did in that three weeks, it would go on for pages and pages. I cannot recommend the Asia Study Tour highly enough. Then again, it’s a requirement if you plan on doing the SMU-in-Australia program. So, if you’re planning on taking this trip, I have a few recommendations for you:

• Bring some cash with you, but keep a debit/credit card, too. I personally recommend a Charles Schwab check card, which boasts zero international usage fees and zero conversion fees. Living in these three countries is particularly cheap. In Vietnam, for example, a hearty meal will cost you around $5 US, and drinks can be found as low as $0.25 US. With prices like that, you’ll probably go out often, but some places won’t take cards. There are plenty of opportunities to change money on the trip, so bring some US cash with you to convert.

• If you don’t want stuff lost, don’t put it in your pockets. You’re liable to get stuff stolen by pickpockets. I actually lost my cellphone from my front pocket (!!). I’d recommend springing for a travel wallet that goes around your shoulders and under your shirt; you can find them at Target for $10 before you leave. By the way, you don’t really need your cellphone on you when you’re out and about. Leave it and other valuables at the hotels in the safes they provide.

• Don’t be afraid to explore, but be careful about it. I’ll skip all the obvious advice (i.e. don’t go out alone, especially at night), but there’s a few things to keep in mind:

– You will be called out to on the street. Street vendors are plentiful, as are taxis, motorbike taxis (don’t take those), and random people. Unless you want to talk to these people, do not make eye contact and walk past, holding up a hand if you have to. Don’t be afraid to be rude about refusing to stop.
– People have a much smaller personal bubble than you’re used to in the States. Part of it is the cities are packed (think New York City, but more congested), but squeezing past people isn’t a big deal. It might even be necessary to get to where you’re going.
– Be very, very careful crossing the street in Vietnam. The traffic is beyond insane. Motorbikes and cars are everywhere on the road, and rules of the road are largely ignored. This makes crossing the street a dangerous prospect, but there are very few crosswalks. My best advice is to just wait for a gap you can walk across and walk, making eye contact with the drivers heading your way. If no such gap exists, wait for a group to cross and join them. You’ll get the hang of it, but I cannot stress enough how careful you have to be crossing streets.

• Brush up on your haggling skills. Stuff from Southeast Asian markets is cheap, but if the store doesn’t say it’s a fixed-price store, you can bargain to make it even cheaper. Hoi An, Vietnam, is a perfect example of how this can come in handy. There are hundreds of tailors there, and they can make high-quality custom suits and dresses cheaply and quickly. I got a custom suit done in a day for $250 US, including the jacket, slacks, shoes, socks, tie, and shirt. If, however, I had gone around to different stores and compared prices and haggled, I could have done it for around $150 US.

• The easiest way I’ve found to get a price reduction is flat-out refusing the price. I saw a small gong in a shop and asked the price. I was told it was $10 US. I said no thanks, but stayed where I was. Immediately, I got a reduction to $8.50 US. I refused again. I got another reduction. This went on five times until the price was $2.50 US. It’s a shame that gong sounded tinny, or I would have taken it.

Now that I’m back from the Asia Study Tour, I’ll be studying at Curtin University in Perth for a few months. My classes are all set and I’ve successfully moved in, so we’ll see how this all turns out. So far, I’m absolutely satisfied with my experience and excited to see where it goes.