Prior to coming to McCombs I had extremely limited international experience. In putting together my application I emphasized that I felt this lack of exposure was a weakness and that I intended to utilize my two years in business school as an opportunity to gain familiarity with other cultures. At the time I thought that a Global Connections trip would be the perfect opportunity to combined business study with cultural experience. Having just returned from a two-week adventure in Southeast Asia with 31 of my fellow classmates I can safely say that the trip was the most influential experience that I have had in my brief time at school.
This year seven Global Connection trips were offered. Students had the option of bidding on trips to China, India, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Russia, South Africa and South America. In making my selection, I focused on the current economic environment of the region, the history and the culture. If the region I chose also happened to have great food, weather and access to some of the most beautiful beaches in the world than that would just be an added bonus. So based on my criteria, Southeast Asia was my clear first choice, and after a brief stint on the waiting list, I was booking tickets to fly to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
The next seven weeks were spent in classroom sessions, led by Professor Steve Courter, studying the history of both Vietnam and Thailand with the rest of the members of the trip. Groups were assigned to specific historical periods of each country and were responsible for getting the class up to speed before we left. In addition, each group was assigned a mini-Consulting project with one of the companies that we would be visiting during our trip with the idea that primary research would be completed before we left, supplemented with insights while we were on the ground and finally completed when we returned to the United States. The companies included US Commercial Services, HSBC, Ford, IBM and Intel in Vietnam and Siam Cement Group, the Thai Board of Investments and the Thai Stock Exchange in Thailand.
While we spent hours upon hours studying prior to leaving on our trip, the real learning took place once we were actually experiencing the cultures for ourselves. Beginning our trip in Ho Chi Minh we had the chance to witness the vibrancy of an economic center only a few decades removed from devastating military conflict. I think we were all amazed by the sheer volume of people, activity, motor scooters and business taking place on the streets of the city. In speaking with the US Commercial Service, and later with the Vietnamese Ministry of Trade, we gained a greater understanding of business practices within the centrally planned economy, the growth of US business presence in the country and the increasing importance of Vietnam as a trade partner.
In addition to this business learning we also had the chance to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels, spend a day floating the Mekong Delta, shop in the huge market places and eat Pho three meals a day (including the same restaurant that Bill Clinton dined in during his historic visit to the country).
After seeing as much of Ho Chi Minh as we could in 4 days, we all boarded a plane and flew to Hanoi, the political capitol of Vietnam. Here we had additional opportunity to interact with business leaders and tour the heavily French influenced sights of the city. We also had the unique privilege of taking a private boat tour of Halong Bay, Vietnam’s current nomination for inclusion into the new 7 natural wonders of the world. Despite the fog covering the bay that day, the scenery was absolutely breathtaking. The trip also included tours of underground canyons decorated by stalactites and stalagmites, shopping and a five-course lunch offering. A long day was then capped by second-year Travis “Danza” Preece leading a capella karaoke sessions on the four hour bus ride back to the city.
While Vietnam provided us with a glimpse into an emerging economy, Bangkok, Thailand provided a look at a mature, thriving economic center with a much more developed infrastructure. Our time in the city started with a tour of the beautiful Buddhist temples that dot the cityscape. We also had the chance to meet and dine with University of Texas alumni and discuss their experiences working abroad in such a dynamic setting. Our company visits were highlighted by hearing about the strategic challenges Thai companies face in diversifying their product offerings, expanding internationally and listing on the Thai stock exchange. All of this was in addition to experiencing the world-famous Bangkok nightlife.
The trip ended with a private dinner at Thailand’s Six-Star Peninsula Hotel. The following morning groups of students travelled independently to Malaysia, Hong Kong and the Ko Phi Phi islands. My group chose the Islands, and while I won’t bore you any longer by rehashing details of personal vacation time, I will say (and I believe the picture will confirm) that you would be hard pressed to find more beautiful and private beaches anywhere in the world.
So ultimately the trip was an unbelievable success! I was able to explore one of the most fascinating regions of the world and gain a deeper understating of the implications and opportunities for US companies expanding abroad. Even more importantly I learned how little I really know about other cultures, which has given me the inclination to complete more travel over the coming years. I have been bit by the travel bug and I am already considering which trip to go on next year!
Until next time.