Positioned perfectly in the picture frame of a bus window, a portrait of Vietnam comes to life. Lush, jungle-covered mountains rest behind boundless seas of verdant, green fields. A single farmer, shaded by a conical, straw hat, tends to his rice paddies, a water buffalo working alongside him. This is the Vietnam of every movie, magazine, and, consequently, American expectation. And, this is the Vietnam Mount Saint Joseph students, faculty, and parents were able to see as they passed through the countryside this April.
Over spring break, nine students, accompanied by three teachers, seven parents, and a guide from Explorica Educational Tours, made the nearly 24-hour voyage to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Led by social studies teachers Ryan Folmer ’96 and Phil Campbell ’91, the group spent 10 days traveling city to city, from Ho Chi Minh City to Da Nang, Hoi An, Hue, and Hanoi. They immersed themselves in the culture, trying on kimonos, tasting egg coffee and slurping up pho, maneuvering chopsticks, and understanding the country’s history from an entirely new perspective than what they had learned in school.
“My objective over the past few years – starting with the trips we did previously to Japan, China, Cuba, and Eastern Europe – has been to expand the map, so to speak, beyond the places where we traditionally take trips, like Western Europe and Central America,” Ryan explains. “Phil and I talked about Vietnam as a place we wanted to go both from the cultural aspect as a place that is very interesting and different and, obviously, for the very important history.”
Known as Asia’s “rising tiger,” Vietnam has one of the fastest growing economies on the continent. While it is still a developing country and rural scenes like those the group caught glimpse of outside their bus windows are exceedingly prevalent, the Vietnamese people proclaim that their country will be unrecognizable in 10 years at the rate it is evolving. “It’s in the beginning stages of a transformation that countries like China have already gone through,” says Ryan. “So, we wanted to get that experience before it changes too much.”
Theology teacher Thadine Coyne, who also chaperoned the trip, says it was eye-opening for the students to witness life in a developing country. “I think they learned a lot about what it means to be poor,” she shares, adding that the country’s natural beauty juxtaposed with the poverty of the people they encountered was especially striking. “Ha Long Bay was just magnificent – but then, you would see this tiny, broken boat with one fisherman trying to make a living or a woman crouching on rocks alongside the bay, digging for oysters.”
The students experienced another revelation while walking through the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City and Hoa Lo Prison, where John McCain and other American prisoners of war were held. “Both of those sites were Vietnamese perspectives of the war, which was very interesting because we get it from the U.S. point of view all the time,” says Phil. “As an educator, it was cool to see the students who have taken my U.S. History class really taking everything in and realizing that there are always two sides to every story.”
Vietnam may not be at the top of most travel bucket lists, but the Mount Saint Joseph group would attest that there is much to learn from this beautiful, rapidly developing country and its unique perspective on a shared history.