I’m not going to lie: When I decided to participate in TEAN’s Thailand-Vietnam program, I knew very little about the Vietnam War. I didn’t know why it happened, the groups involved, or why so many people were opposed to it in the end.
Unfortunately, my high school education didn’t discuss it much, so my first lessons on it in any detail were in Dr. Chambers’ International Relations class in Chiang Mai (which I highly recommend to anyone who comes to Southeast Asia).
For anyone who knows anything about it, you can understand why I was so shocked by the details. For those of you who don’t, I encourage you to do some research, but prepare to be disheartened. A trip to the War Remnants Museum provided an especially detailed (if sometimes biased) perspective on what happened between Vietnam and the United States.
After learning more about the events following the “American War” as it’s called in Vietnam, I wasn’t really sure what to expect from life there: I learned that the government is still controlled by the Vietnamese Communist Party, but didn’t know what this meant for the average person (or study abroad student). From what I learned about communism in school, I expected poverty, food shortages, police everywhere, and strict social controls.
To my surprise, it’s meant very little so far. We were encouraged by our Vietnamese friends in Chiang Mai to not discuss the government in public, and occasionally we see a hammer and sickle on billboards, but other than these few minutiae, life isn’t significantly different from other cities.
In fact, I was shocked at how open and exciting the city is. The only way I can describe my first impressions of Ho Chi Minh City were that it seemed to be bursting at the seams.
There’s always something going on: hundreds of motorbikes whizzing by, dancing in the park, concerts in front of the opera house, street vendors selling their wares, and lively conversations between locals and tourists alike. The nightlife is busy, the food plentiful, and socializing abound. (Saigon even has its own mock Harry Potter World!)
However, this new Vietnam is not without its issues. Human rights violations are regularly brought up by the international community, and poverty in both rural and urban areas is not improving. On the bright side, Vietnam was recently praised for releasing political dissidents from prison. While it’s only a small step toward improving human rights there, it’s in the right direction.
How has all this affected my study abroad experience? Well, for one, it’s allowed me to see that having some freedom doesn’t necessarily mean having total freedom. In a place where the government has given up a lot of social and economic control but political control is still relatively absolute, it’s hard to generalize.
The other TEAN students and I live in a nice part of town, but there is no doubt poverty in other parts. While politics might not affect us for the most part (other than academic interests, like my own), the state of the system has frustrated many Vietnamese both in Vietnam and abroad.
I’ve also learned that one’s opinions of a country can’t be summed up by its history. One of the first things we were taught in Vietnam was, “we are more than war”. Vietnam has a rich history, and I have learned to shift my perspective on the country and its people away from the lens that my American education and upbringing have shaped.
Overall, I think these lessons have bettered me as a person, made me more sensitive to other cultures and histories, and taught me to not shape my opinions solely around what I’ve learned in a classroom.