We will begin our exploration of Vietnam in Ho Chi Minh City, where we will experience the changing Vietnam in the form of a modern commercial city. We then will travel to the Mekong Delta, a world of waterways, farming, and rural charm, resting on the South China Sea. After that, we’ll head to the center of Vietnam, where we will visit historical sites, eat traditional food, and learn more about the Vietnamese culture. We will end our exploration with visits to Hanoi, more like an old colonial city than Ho Chi Minh City, and the stunningly beautiful Halong Bay.
Most of our students have not thought much about developing nations, and our goal was for them to consider the nature of modernization, which Vietnam is currently experiencing. Modernization comes with both gains (more opportunities, better education, improved access to health care) and costs (loss of traditional values, environmental degradation, potential gaps between rich and poor). We wanted the students to think about these trade-offs and understand more fully that there are multiple goals that have to be balanced.
It was important for the students to travel to Vietnam so they could fully experience the ideas we teach them. For instance, students could better understand the role that food plays in the culture by sitting in a local shop and eating with locals. They also read about the families who dug tunnels and lived in them during the war, but they only understood how it happened by walking through them themselves.
There are two features of the trip that surprise most students who haven’t previously experienced or thought about Vietnam. The first is the role of the communist party. It’s easy to forget that the communist party still governs the state. You don't see communism on a daily basis, but people are still arrested for challenging the state. The second surprise is how much the Vietnamese love America, and I believe it has to do a lot with the character of the Vietnamese people. They are extraordinarily kind but are also quite forward-looking, not tending to dwell in the past. Furthermore, one of our speakers talked about the strong sense of tolerance as a single defining characteristic of the people.
While choosing a study-abroad experience, I was drawn to locations that I knew I would never travel to myself. The Vietnam study-abroad program was particularly intriguing to me because of the history and mystery of the country today. Going to Vietnam with a group of students, professors, and tour guides seemed to be the best way to learn about the place and the culture.
Three memories from this trip stand out to me. One of them was in Hanoi when we broke into groups of five and squished ourselves into a taxi to go to dinner at the homes of Luther alumni. They made incredible meals (up to eleven courses) for us, and it was fun to learn more about their lives in Vietnam.
Another experience was kayaking in HaLong Bay. While we enjoyed seeing the bustling cities of Saigon and Hanoi, HaLong Bay was a little quieter and more my pace. While kayaking, we saw monkeys racing down the side of a mountain to greet our kayaks.
One last experience that stands out is when we did a service project picking weeds and shoveling compost at an organic farm. To get to the farm, we rented 27 bikes and rode about 10 miles down the traffic-filled streets of Hoi An. Seeing our professors weave through motorbikes was absolutely priceless!