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Augustana travelers on their way to the Perfume Pagoda, a complex of pagodas and Buddhist shrines near Hanoi. (Photo by Ann Ericson Nolan)

Vietnam term: learning from a former enemy

By Dr. Ann Ericson ’80 Nolan

When Dean Steve Backmeyer talked with Augustana students about Vietnam in the late ’60s and early ’70s, he hardly could have anticipated he would be talking with students 40 years later about visiting that country as part of their academic program. Back then, when he watched the lottery for the draft with students, the issues on everyone’s minds were weighty ones, such as an individual’s responsibilities to one’s country and to one’s conscience, and the morality of a controversial war that we now know took the lives of between two and five million civilians and soldiers on both sides. This time, as Backmeyer spoke to a group of 27 students preparing for the college’s first international study program in Vietnam, his subject was still serious, but lighter in nature. He discussed the importance of following Augustana's code of conduct and being respectful of the people in the host country. He reminded students that they represent our school and country when they're traveling abroad.

This is part of the careful preparation for international study that makes Augustana’s international terms such an important component of a liberal arts education. As an Augustana student, I participated in the fall 1978 European term led by Sonja Knudsen. Several years ago I decided I wanted to lead students on an international experience that I hoped would be as meaningful for them as mine had been for me. I am now an associate professor in Augustana’s business administration department, and I am fortunate the college continues to value the benefits of an overseas experience for its students and encourages its faculty to develop international programs for them.

I grew up in the ’60s, a turbulent time in our nation’s history. I was a young, not especially well-informed, detached observer of the Vietnam War. My curiosity grew from my academic interest in business as Vietnam is a country successfully transitioning to a market economy. But as I also tried to make sense of current global conflicts, I found myself studying the war to understand what led to it, its human costs and how not to repeat the tragedy. I wanted my students to learn along with me – learning from the past to make a better future. But how do you make such issues meaningful to college students when the events that raised them occurred decades before they were born?

The Reunification Palace in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), which is found in many pictures of the fall of Saigon in April 1975. (Photo by Nguyen Huy Son)

Preparing a perspective

First, you recruit excellent teachers. Dr. David Crowe from the English department and Dr. Mariano Magalhães from political science joined me as faculty on the Vietnam term. In preparing for the trip, I sat with the students in David’s and Mariano’s classes and experienced firsthand why they are regarded as first-rate teachers.

The liberal arts program at Augustana encourages students to study problems and issues from a variety of perspectives. David’s focus was on literature that came out of the Vietnam War. After he took us through a historical overview, we looked at events through the eyes of literary characters in works by Graham Greene and Tim O’Brien, among others. Drawing on Mariano’s knowledge of political development in other countries, his class covered Vietnam today and the political, social and economic issues and challenges facing this developing communist nation. My class looked at how war – amid other reasons– brought Vietnam to the brink of economic disaster and how the country pulled out of catastrophe in the mid-1980s by instituting economic reforms. (In 1990 about half of Vietnam’s citizens were living on less than a dollar a day. After shifting from a command to a market economy, the percentage dropped to less than 10 percent by 2004.) My earlier visits to Vietnam as a tourist, a student and a teacher at its national university helped me develop my Vietnam term course and the program itself.

These three courses taught on campus the first five weeks of winter term provided the varied perspectives to prepare students for their visit to the country. The group also met with two Augustana students from Vietnam who graciously answered our students’ many questions and helped with the pronunciation of key Vietnamese words. Chung Nguyen, known as Gee, and Ly Pham, both of Hanoi, just completed their first year as members of the Class of 2012. I believe they are the first Vietnamese residents and citizens to study at Augustana. Following Christmas break, our Augustana group boarded a 747 at O’Hare and arrived (after the inevitable delays) 28 hours later in Vietnam.

Expectations meet reality

What made the trip special were our 27 students who were ready to take on the challenge of learning about a former enemy. They represented a spectrum of Augustana majors, from the humanities to pre-professional programs. Two students’ fathers had fought in the war. Another’s parents were boat people who fled Vietnam’s poverty after the war. Many students mentioned that their family and friends questioned their interest in Vietnam, and raised concerns about the country’s poverty and what they thought would be distrust of Americans. What the students found instead was a welcoming Vietnam with the greatest danger being crossing the streets through streams of motorbike traffic in its major cities.

Augustana students and staff in front of a statue of Ho Chi Minh and the Ho Chi Minh City People's Committee Building, formerly the Hotel de Ville completed by the French in 1908 when Vietnam was a French colony. (Photo by Nguyen Huy Son)

We began our trip in the south, in Ho Chi Minh City named for the leader of North Vietnam, but still known by many as Saigon. And while it is risky to focus on what may have been highlights for so many different students, I’d like to mention a few that underscore the value of international study for a liberal arts student. My examples are from Vietnam, but students on other terms make similar discoveries.

In Ho Chi Minh City, we visited places that memorialized the war, including the War Remnants Museum. This museum offers a fascinating, wrenching and, as many students remarked, one-sided view of the war. It includes accounts of “American atrocities,” images of Agent Orange victims and replicas of tiger cages that held North Vietnamese prisoners. The museum makes an American uncomfortable by encouraging, even forcing you to look at the war through another culture’s eyes. The museum’s “Requiem” exhibit honors photojournalists killed during the four Indochina Wars. I am from a generation who values the still images found in newspapers and Life magazine pictorials. I had already visited the museum four times, and so sought refuge in this part of it.

Augustana encourages students to think about the value of their life choices. One way to encourage that is to introduce them to people who have made unconventional choices. Our students met with Chuck Searcy, a Vietnam War veteran, who returned to Vietnam and now works for a non-profit organization, Project RENEW. This cooperative effort between the U.S. Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund and the Quang Tri Province People’s Committee was established in 2000 to clear unexploded ordnance, sponsor awareness education and offer victim assistance. The demilitarized zone (DMZ) that separated North Vietnam from South Vietnam ran through Quang Tri Province and was a frequent target of American bombers. Even today its residents are injured and killed by unexploded ordnance.

Chuck has witnessed the changes in the country from when he was a soldier in 1968 to his second visit in the early 1990s. He tells stories of a country so poor in the ’90s that Hanoi stores had rows of dusty cases, often with only a few tubes of toothpaste and razor blades. Today the Vietnamese economy is busily commercial with an assortment of goods, especially in the urban areas. Chuck’s account vividly illustrated the themes we discussed in my class, such as the effect of economic liberalization.

The impact of youth

While the images, the books, the museums, the discussions and lectures were educational, what had the most profound impact on our students were encounters with the young people of Vietnam. In ThanhUyen, a small village northwest of Hanoi, our students spent a day playing with children – first with 3- to 5-year-olds at a local day care (some of whom had never met a Westerner before), followed by games with primary school students in the afternoon. Lunch was with the village elders. It was a joyous day. From them our students did not so much learn about the war as the importance of relationships.

In Hué and Hanoi, Vietnam’s university students welcomed Augustana students as fellow students. Our students had a wonderful time with their Vietnamese peers in both cities, talking and eating and riding on the backs of motorbikes. One night some Augustana students gathered with students from all over Hanoi in a city square near Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. Our students inquired about the war, and the Vietnamese students said their families do not talk about it. I have heard the same response from the children of our war veterans, and I wonder if all of our children would be better off learning about the war from those who witnessed its horrors, not just from textbooks and novels.

On China Beach in Danang. (Photo by Nguyen Huy Son)

Based on our experiences it was hard not to feel hopeful. We all recognized that many aspects of the country are invisible to visitors and despite the economic liberalization and energy of the Vietnamese society, the nation is a single-party state. Even so, Vietnam today is one that Dean Backmeyer and Augustana students of the ’60s and ’70s would not recognize. Today, Vietnamese college students study in the United States, and American professors teach in Vietnam. Young Americans go to Vietnam not to fight, but to learn about the country and meet its people. As we think about the global conflicts our country currently faces, the Vietnam term and what we all learned together gives us hope that current enemies may become future friends.