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Returning to Vietnam

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A new generation encounters the academic richness and cultural diversity of Vietnam.

 

On January 30, 1968, 23-year-old Robert Anderson led a six-man patrol near a Marine airbase on the central Vietnamese coast. Sometime around midnight, shortly after machine-gun fire pierced the night stillness, he saw “an enormous explosion” followed by a huge mushroom cloud.

“The intensity of the firing increased and spread all around the huge airbase perimeter,” he recalls. “I realized rockets were raining down too, and I tried to determine from where so I could radio in locations for counter artillery fire, but they were coming from too many places. We spent the rest of the night as spectators–seeing tracers and explosions everywhere but nothing moving close to us.”

The event would come to be known as the Tet Offensive, the surprise assault by North Vietnamese forces on South Vietnam. It is so named because it occurred on the eve of Tet, the Vietnamese celebration of the lunar new year, the country’s most important and popular holiday. The Tet Offensive, sometimes described as the turning point of the war, profoundly affected Americans’ view of the conflict.

Flash-forward 40 years. Robert’s son, Tom, is spending Tet’s Eve in Ho Chi Minh City–previously the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon and the Tet Offensive’s primary target. A family friend from the States invites him to dinner at her sister’s house. There, he feasts on rice noodles, spring rolls, fried chicken, and bean cakes with about 15 of his host’s relatives, gamely trying to use the rudimentary Vietnamese he’s acquired during his first two weeks in the country.

Both father and son recognize the irony of their twin tales. “I can’t say exactly when I thought about the contrast between my dad’s Tet in 1968 and mine,” Tom says, “but I remember looking back on that dinner and thinking of how incredibly welcoming and friendly their entire family was, and how that must have differed from my father’s interaction with hostile soldiers and destitute citizens.”

Tom Anderson CAS ’09 was among a dozen students who spent last spring in Lewis & Clark’s inaugural semester in Vietnam. Against the backdrop of one of Asia’s most vibrant and fastest-growing economies, they studied Vietnamese religions, modern history, language, and contemporary society.

 

A Compelling Destination

Relations between the United States and Vietnam are, of course, much different now than they were four decades ago. The two countries established diplomatic ties in July 1995, and reached a major trade agreement five years later. The number of American visitors to Vietnam–lured by picturesque mountains and coastline, markets and monuments, and tasty cuisine–first jumped in the late 1990s and has increased exponentially since then. Nearly 211,000 Americans visited during the first six months of 2008, according to Vietnamese government figures, more than from any country besides China and South Korea.

Notwithstanding its emergence as a port of call for American travelers, Vietnam remains a distant shore to American colleges. That’s unfortunate, says Larry Meyers, who directs Lewis & Clark’s Overseas and Off Campus Programs. “Vietnam is underrepresented in undergrad curricula in the U.S., and the few colleges that do have programs don’t have many participants.” In 2005-06, 223,534 Americans studied abroad, and fewer than 400 chose Vietnam, according to the most recent data from the Institute of International Education.

“What makes Lewis & Clark distinctive is that our overseas programs are not simply add-ons, they are designed to enhance and support the undergraduate curriculum.”
– Larry Meyers, Director of Lewis & Clark’s Overseas and Off Campus Programs

Joann Geddes, who directs Lewis & Clark’s Academic English Studies–the program that offers classes in English as a second language to international students–would like to increase those numbers. Her interest in the country dates back to the late 1970s, when, as an ESL teacher in Beaverton, she taught some of the first wave of Vietnamese political refugees landing on American shores. And she’s no stranger to leading programs overseas, having shepherded students to Costa Rica, the former Soviet Union, Argentina, East Africa, and Australia. “To be challenged by language and culture,” she explains, “is a great reminder of what international students at Lewis & Clark experience each day.”

On her way back from Australia in 2005, Geddes met Meyers in Vietnam for a scouting mission. There, they consulted with representatives of CET Academic Programs, a respected Washington, D.C.–based organization that designs and administers educational programs abroad. CET officials pledged to work with Lewis & Clark to design academically rigorous courses that fulfilled the college’s curricular goals and objectives. “What makes Lewis & Clark distinctive is that our overseas programs are not simply add-ons,” explains Meyers. “They are designed to enhance and support the undergraduate curriculum.”

Lewis & Clark’s foray into Vietnam reaffirms the college’s place among the leaders in overseas study. Nearly 60 percent of undergraduates participate in an overseas or off-campus program. This academic year, Lewis & Clark offers two dozen overseas programs, two-thirds of which are outside Western Europe. Most are classified as “general culture” programs, which means they are open to students regardless of major.

Says Meyers, “We think it’s a very important and significant investment to be in parts of the world that demographically are going to affect our students as they go out into their professions.”

Preparation and Landing

Geddes proposed the Vietnam program. Then, after years of planning, she and Kelly Wainwright B.A. ’90, M.A.T. ’99, developed a semester-long orientation course for students before accompanying them to Vietnam. Wainwright has worked at Lewis & Clark for 15 years–including the last 11 leading Client Services in Information Technology–but is no stranger to international travel herself. She’d studied in Costa Rica as a foreign-languages major, and after college taught high school English in Japan.

Most of Ho Chi Minh City’s six million inhabitants were asleep when the group landed in the wee hours of Tuesday, January 15. But the city–one of the world’s most densely populated–sprang to life the next morning. Many first impressions centered on how sweltering, busy, and overwhelming the place seemed, as well as the relative youth of its inhabitants. “I’d always thought of Vietnam as rice paddies and farms,” Wainwright says, “but here we were in this bustling city.”

The next afternoon, the Lewis & Clark students met the Vietnamese undergraduates with whom they’d be sharing rooms for the next seven weeks. Finding a program that offered such pairings is rare in Vietnam, Geddes says, and one of the main reasons the college chose to partner with CET.

Garik Asplund CAS ’10, who hails from Columbus, Ohio, was paired with Tung, a studious 19-year-old majoring in tourism at the Ho Chi Minh City College of Marketing. The duo initially bonded over their shared interest in music: both played guitar. “His English wasn’t as good as some of the other students’, so we had to get creative with our communications,” Asplund says. “We’d use hand signals, simple words … He taught me basic phrases we could use together, and I would help him with his English homework.”

 

Most days began early, with an 8 a.m. Vietnamese language course, while most afternoons–and some weekends–throughout the semester were devoted to studies in history, religion, and contemporary society and the state.

Beyond the classroom, students were welcomed more warmly than they had ever anticipated. “Expectations for friendship were really, really high,” says Asplund. “People my age would always want to go out for coffee and stuff. A lot of them invited me to their homes, which were often hours away, even though we’d only talked for two minutes.”

One of the Vietnamese roommates, 21-year-old Tram Ngoc Nguyen–who also served as CET’s student coordinator–says she and her peers were astounded by the variety of liberal arts disciplines their American peers could pursue, such as anthropology or history. “I go to school for business, so I’m just learning business; people who go to technology school are just learning computer science. We don’t have the option to learn things outside of our major, and the variety of majors in Vietnam is not there.”

On the other hand, Alyssa Conley CAS ’10 said she gained a greater appreciation of her own freedoms as a result of seeing the cultural restrictions that her roommate faced. “All the students there work so hard,” says Conley, a sociology/anthropology major from Mercer Island, Washington. “In Vietnam, your parents raise you and take care of you, and in turn your duty is to work hard and start taking care of your parents as soon as you’re able. My roommate was really torn between the Western ideals of independence that have begun to seep into the culture–she wants to be independent, to travel–and the responsibility to her family.”

Study and Exploration

After spending their first seven weeks in Ho Chi Minh City, the group stopped in five cities over 10 days to immerse themselves in the historical center of Vietnam. Lectures and guided visits to places such as the Citadel of the old capital, Hue; the Demilitarized Zone that divided north and south for 22 years; the My Lai Memorial, site of the infamous wartime massacre; and the centuries-old temple ruins of My Son offered opportunities to reflect upon ancient as well as more recent history.

The final educational component included four weeks in the nation’s capital, Hanoi, a city some students likened to Portland because of its slower pace and abundance of parks and trees. While in Hanoi, they pursued more coursework and conducted primary-source research on contemporary society and state in Vietnam before returning south. The program concluded in Ho Chi Minh City in mid-April with final exams, moist-eyed farewells to roommates, and a closing retreat in the nearby Mekong Delta, where earlier in the semester students had gone to study issues of sustainability, biodiversity, and land development.

Afterward, not a single student headed straight back to the States. Some left instead for Cambodia, others for Laos, and many went on to Singapore, Thailand, or Malaysia–either alone or with other students.

 

A Happy Irony

Tom Anderson spent a week in Thailand followed by a month in Laos, where his father directs a small organization that runs educational and income-generating projects in poor villages. Vietnam’s next-door neighbor presented a different picture of Southeast Asia. “In Vietnam,” he explains, “the economy is growing so fast you can kind of feel it–everyone is entrepreneurial, they’re energized. Laos is the opposite. The national ethos is relaxed. It’s much more rural, much less developed.”

Robert Anderson finished his Vietnam tour in November 1968. He worked as the Minnesota coordinator of Vietnam Veterans Against the War for two years, then had no further connection to Vietnam or the region until 1984, when he was asked to volunteer in Minneapolis helping Hmong immigrants who had resettled there from Laos. That led to a decade of work as a manager of nonprofit Southeast Asian refugee programs in Minnesota, which led in turn to consulting work in Laos and Cambodia and, ultimately, to his current role leading Community Learning International.

Tom wants to return to both Laos and Vietnam after he graduates, possibly to teach English. His father is grateful for the opportunity Tom had to immerse himself in another culture as a full-time student. “Certainly there was a great irony–a very happy one–for me in having my son choose to be a student in Vietnam, given my very different role there,” he says. “America learning from Vietnam. Americans learning from Vietnamese. It took 40 years, but the world has finally turned that much.”

Dan Sadowsky is a freelance writer in Portland who has traveled as far as India, Africa, and the Middle East–but has not yet visited Vietnam.

Photography by Joann Geddes and Kelly Wainwright B.A. ’90, M.A.T. ’99.

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