Exploring Vietnamese Culture and Society – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
The HWS Update

Exploring Vietnamese Culture and Society

Led by Professor of Sociology Jack D. Harris P’02, P’06, and his wife Deb ’73, P’02, P’06, ten HWS students and five Union students spent the fall semester in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, Vietnam, immersing themselves in an ancient Asian civilization which is undergoing a dramatic transition and modernization.  

In Ho Chi Minh City, students took intensive Vietnamese language instruction, then traveled north to Hanoi and studied “Vietnamese Life and Culture” and learned about Vietnamese “Conflict, Contradiction, and Change” while continuing instruction in Vietnamese.  Each student lived with a Vietnamese university roommate at Vietnam National University.

“Having a Vietnamese roommate was an incredibly beneficial experience. Hien, my roommate, is one of the primary reasons I adjusted to Vietnamese culture so well,” says Rebecca Waldrop ’14.

In addition to their coursework, students also participated in an internship. Waldrop worked for the East Meets West Foundation, whose mission is to transform the health, education and communities of disadvantaged people in Asia.

“With East Meets West, I was able to assist in the planning of a reception for the opening ceremony of the Inspire Sports Photo Contest Exhibition,” says Waldrop. “This event was the culmination of a photo contest to raise awareness about disability advocacy and the necessity of creating a more inclusive society in Vietnam.”

Abigael Blumenthal ’14 had an opportunity to work for the Center for Studies and Applied Sciences in Gender-Family-Women and Adolescents (CSAGA), an NGO dedicated to promoting gender equality in Vietnam.

“A lot of the work I did focused on domestic violence victims within Vietnam– such as finding campaigns and strategies to raise awareness and eliminate domestic violence, editing a book written by domestic violence survivors, and participating in a events to raising awareness about domestic violence. It was really great to be involved in something where I felt like I was making such a difference,” says Blumenthal.

Melissa Freitag ’14 worked as a public relations assistant for a traditional Vietnamese musician. “I developed three major informational booklets to help both tourists and the Vietnamese learn the value of traditional music,” she says. “I was also able to take traditional Vietnamese voice and bamboo flute lessons – they  were an amazing opportunity.”

Lauren Blake-Whitney ’14 worked as a teacher at Hanoi Open University in the faculty of English.  Early in her internship, Blake-Whitney was asked to run a professional development day for the faculty on innovative teaching methodology. “It was initially intimidating to be in a room full of teaching mavericks, but it ended up being a success. I learned skills that I never would have acquired through the teaching program. I underestimated the power of improvisation, a skill that I needed to use quite often during class and gained so much confidence from the experience.”

Caroline Hershey ’14 of Union College worked as an editor at The Gioi Publishing House, the foreign language publisher in Vietnam. She wrote a forthcoming article on the students’ experience in its bi-monthly magazine “Vietnam Cultural Window.”

Some of the internships involved deep immersion in the work worlds of the Vietnamese. For example, Taylor Anderson ’15 traveled an hour by public bus each way to work on a family farm in rice paddies while Mike Williamson ‘14 of Union College worked in a motorbike repair shop.

Excursions included course-related visits to various cultural and historical sites in and around Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi including museums, national parks, craft villages and Buddhist pagodas and pilgrimage sites. The HWS and Union students hosted a special program of Vietnamese traditional music and theater for roommates, families and friends. They attended Vietnamese cooking classes, and visited with representatives from the American Embassy and the Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command.  The group also traveled in the north to HaLong Bay and Mai Chau, in the central region to Quang Tri, Hue, DaNang, and Hoi An, and in the south to the Mekong Delta where they helped build a trash bin for a local elementary school, modeled litter collection from the creeks and schoolyard, and donated reading and writing materials.  

“My favorite excursion was our weekend trip to Mai Chau, a rural region a few hours outside of Hanoi,” says Waldrop. “We biked and walked around the village, slept in a house on stilts, watched a performance of traditional folk dances and shopped.”

 “The food was amazing and we tried a lot of interesting things, such as wild boar, snake, rat, silk worm, wild chicken, different seafoods and even dog,” says Blumenthal. “I loved Vietnam. It was an amazing place, and I definitely see myself going back.”

“Vietnam is such a dynamic society — the students were challenged every day to navigate and negotiate everything from their transportation, food, work and friendships,” says Professor Harris.  “Deb and I loved being with the students and they were admired for their tenacity and sense of adventure by their language teachers, travel guides, language buddies and roommates.  The students showed lots of resilience amidst the cacophony and chaos that is sometimes life in Vietnam.”  

The Harris family, including Nguyen Khanh Linh ’06 and To Thu Tra ’12, will host the group for a celebratory dinner in their home this February for Tet, the Vietnamese New Year.