Ed. note: Jonah Levy '08 of Brooklyn is studying abroad in Vietnam during the Fall '06 semester. He agreed to keep a journal of his preparation and his time there. This is what's happened in the weeks since the group arrived.
We landed in Ho Chi Minh City at around 11 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 8. It's a great city, really happening, great downtown life and very bright at night.
The Vietnamese have a very strong capitalist spirit. Everywhere you look there are shops and people trying to sell you things. Everybody wants your money and we were swarmed every other block by someone trying to sell you a map, cigarettes, candy, fruit or anything else.
On the first day, we went to the War Remnants Museum, which displayed tanks, planes and a collection of war photographs. There was a disturbing exhibit on the effects of Agent Orange and an interesting section on international support during the war, from the Vietnamese point of view.
The next day, we took a day trip to a Cao Dai temple and the Cu Chi tunnels. Cao Dai is the Eastern form of Unitarianism, combining Roman Catholicism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Islam, with a focus on séances and the idea that we can have direct communication with God, who came to Earth in a form suggested in three major religions: as Muhammad, Jesus or Buddha.
The Cu Chi tunnels are a network that stretches out about 100 miles and provided an enormous advantage to the Viet Cong during the war. These tunnels were usually only 18 inches tall and wide and soldiers stayed in there for as long as a week.
Since they've been made into a tourist attraction, the tunnels have been expanded so that we could crawl through them; the meeting areas and medical centers are now only half-underground, clearly visible and filled with plastic Vietnamese mannequins.
The next day at Qui Nhon, another beach town, it seemed that most people on the streets had not seen any Westerners before we got here, and we saw scores of Vietnamese hanging out at the beach, playing soccer and swimming.
The Vietnamese people are very nice; those on the trip are making strong connections with a few of them and it's great being able to launch into a conversation on virtually any topic and have it comfortably segue into virtually anything else.
On a side note, I observed Sept. 11 as a somber day. I tried to buy some sort of black bandana to tie around my arm, but I had to settle for fashioning a black plastic bag as a reminder to myself and everyone else. At 7:46 p.m., which was 8:46 a.m. in New York, we had a moment of silence.
On our way to Pleiku, it becomes apparent that [Union College professor]Prof. Tom Jewell’s involvement is primarily in the military area.
We visited an abandoned air field, built by the U.S. troops to bring in supplies during the war, and came to a field with filled up foxholes and still-active ignitor charges.
In Pleiku, we went for a walk downtown and realized that this city is completely unfamiliar with Westerners. Everywhere we go people smile and stare. A few kids jump up and down with excitement after I wave to them. A man with a cell phone asks to take a picture of us.
The next day we headed to Kontum, where we stopped for lunch and prepared for the 8-kilometer (almost five mile) hike to the village where we stay the night. The walking ended with a canoe ride and our “jungle” experience: practically bushwacking through a tapioca field. We ended up on the beach of a river: filthy, dripping with sweat and our shoes are filled with sand and mud. We’re elated.
At the fire that night, the men banged on drums and gongs and marched in a circle, while the women followed, dancing in step. They invited us to dance and then sang French folk songs to us, in their native language, Baha. We responded with “Amazing Grace,” “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and the theme song to “Fresh Prince of Bel Air.”
During the 10-hour bus ride to Hoi An, we stopped at the monument at My Lai, where dozens of civilian villagers were shot by U.S. soldiers in March 1968.
On our bus ride to Hue, we visited a stunning museum to Cham culture, honoring the Cham people who ruled the central highlands of Vietnam between the 7th and 13th centuries.
The sculptures were amazing in their detail and for having survived for so many centuries of warfare; we were struck by the fact that the French had taken such a liking to Vietnam's ancient culture that they put the museum together.
Hue's status as the former national capital means one of the principal tourist attraction is the ancient citadel. Before dinner our first night in the city, I visited the silk embroidery museum, which displayed portraits created by stitching silk into a canvas, thread by thread.
Dinner was at Princess Ngoc Shu's ancestral home, where our hostess was a woman descendant of the mandarin servants to the last kings who lived in Hue. She showed us the ancestral shrines, some relics of royal life and gave a quick history lesson of the origins of Hue.
The dinner was our introduction to Hue cuisine, which emphasizes presentation of food, including lots of vegetable sculptures, colorful dishes and unusual serving techniques.
The next day we visited the Citadel, which was devastated in battles between the Viet Minh and the French in 1945 and the Tet Offensive in 1968. Bullet holes are visible everywhere and entire structures are still decimated. UNESCO has recognized the historical significance and begun restoring some of the buildings.
The next day we took a ride on the Perfume River, and saw people living and working in the boats.
We also checked out Hueng Re war site and the Vinh Moch tunnels, a network of tunnels 25 meters deep, where nearly 100 families lived for five years during the war, coming out only at night to fish. This was far more impressive than Cu Chi, with underground apartments, maternity rooms, wells and the like.