My fifteen-minute walk to work each morning in Hanoi, Vietnam is jam-packed with sights, smells, and impressions. I see a Buddhist pagoda sandwiched on either side by a French colonial church and a shining Gucci retail store. I see stands on the street corner selling flowers, bánh rán (Vietnamese fried rice donuts), and an assortment of fruits that I still do not fully recognize after six months. However, this delightful sensory overload is also accompanied by more somber impressions. As I walk past the district hospital, I see an older man on a makeshift wheelchair, left behind by a city bursting at its seams with motorbikes and lacking any infrastructure for disabled people. I see a street vendor harassed by the police because her way of life has recently been declared a public nuisance by the government.

And so daily life steamrolls forward in “the city that never sleeps in,” in a country whose rapid economic growth has quickly propelled it to lower-middle income status, but has also created and augmented systemic issues and inequalities. In a broad sense, my role at the Development and Policies Research Center (DEPOCEN) has been to understand these problems and inequities, and to evaluate the efforts of the Vietnamese government and international actors to alleviate them. Our work examines programs as varied as community health centers, microfinance initiatives, and gender equality campaigns, and has taught me much about the unique development context of Vietnam.

One of my more significant tasks has been to help with the transition of DEPOCEN’s work from contract-based impact analysis projects toward self-directed, externally-funded research. For example, we recently won a grant from the Bloomberg Initiative to study the economic impacts of Vietnam’s new ban on smoking in public places. The wider hope of this transition is to help foster an independent Vietnamese research culture in Hanoi, where most universities and research centers lie under the umbrella of the single-party state.

Alongside my projects with DEPOCEN, I continue to work toward learning conversational Vietnamese. This has proven to be quite challenging, but I progress slowly with the help of Vietnamese friends, colleagues, and the wonderful host family I lived with for two months last summer. At any rate, the ability to express things like “My motorbike is broken, and I am 100 miles from the nearest city—please help!” has added undeniable value to my experience here. Outside of work and my comical mispronunciation of the six tones of Tiếng Việt, I spend most of my time stoking my passion for Phở bò tái chín (mixed beef Pho), Bia Hơi Hà Nội (Hanoian “fresh beer”), and the mountains and highlands of Central and Northern Vietnam.

My fifteen minutes of dodging motorcycles, buses, and buckets of water each morning give me time to ponder the challenges and advantages facing this dynamic, rapidly changing, and beautiful country, as well as my role as an outsider in this context. I look forward to six more months of reflecting, building relationships, and drinking 25-cent beers on tiny plastic stools as I appreciate the truly unique Luce-year experience.