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Two months teaching in Vietnam...

Kim Scipes with students in Vietnam. Substance photo.I spent this past summer (2017) in Vietnam, teaching a sociology course at Ton Duc Thang University (TDTU) in Ho Chi Minh City. TDTU is located in the southern part of the city in District 7.

Friends who had previously taught at TDTU had been asked if there were any Americans they knew who had good politics and who might be willing to teach in Vietnam. My friends gave my name to the head of the sociology department, a woman named Le Thi Mai, and she invited me for a conference last year, and then to come back and teach this year.

This was new to me, since I missed the all-expenses paid tours conducted by the US Government in the 1960s and early ‘70s that so many others “enjoyed.” I spent 33 ½ months in Yuma, Arizona at a Marine Corps Air Station, working on avionics equipment on A-4s, while pilots were learning how to bomb and strafe.

As folks probably know, after the country was unified on April 30, 1975, Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). It’s a lot larger now, over 9 million people when it was probably between 4-5 million during much of the “American” war. Parts of it today would seem familiar to those who were there previously, but there is so much modern construction currently, that it would seem completely different in those parts of the city. And they are building a subway today, which is definitely needed.

While the country suffered economically after the war—in no small part to US revenge and intransigence—since 1986, with the Doi Moi (reform) program, it has enticed extensive foreign capital into the country and, based on the backs of its’ workers and peasants, has been one of the fast growing economies in the world since 2000. While they haven’t eliminated poverty, they have drastically reduced it. And some people are getting very rich. (Obviously, there are some problems with this.)

Nonetheless, the “average people” are still pretty poor. There are relatively few cars—but of those, there are many Lexusus, BMWs, Range Rovers, etc.—but tons of motorbikes. Riding through HCMC is truly an adventure: it seems the only traffic law they absolutely obey is the one about only one object can be in a place at one time; other than that, it’s “game on”! It’s not uncommon to see someone begin a left-hand turn at an intersection from the far right-hand side of the “horde.” Yet, somehow, they make it work: I haven’t seen a single accident yet, although I did see one man frown when cut off.

It’s hard to say what’s going on in the new buildings and government offices, so my comments are only from what I’ve personally observed while walking/riding around the city, either by myself—and I don’t speak the language—or with others, whether on the back of a motorbike, a bus or in a taxi.

One of the things I’ve most noticed is the caring and kindness to other people. Like I said, even in rush hour—and it is chaotic—I’ve never seen any yelling, screaming or threatening other people. The cops don’t wear guns or even the big police belts—the only armed guards I’ve seen have been in a bank when I’ve gone to exchange money. There are security guards outside many businesses, but none of them are armed—and I wonder how many are there simply to soak up “excess labor,” and thus aren’t really needed, and how many are truly there for protection. I never saw any situations where people acted afraid of each other, and I walked around fairly late at night by myself.

Something amazing to me was how welcoming students and folks on the street were of me as an American. They have truly put the war behind them — but I was in Europe in the early 1980s, and we never talked about WW II, so with 40 years past the war, it’s probably not unsurprising — but it was weird. The only place this came up was, as I traveled through the rest of the country, I kept getting asked how old I was (65 then; 66 as of October 2nd.) I thought I knew what was going on, but finally, had to ask: it was the war, huh? Yep. There really are only a few old people that you see in public, and the government is unprepared for the mobility challenges that will hit as people in their fifties get older (thank the activists for the American Disabilities Act!)

Last year, I visited the War Remnants Museum, which is where they recall the American war. A number of US tanks, artillery, helicopters and even jets are parked outside. Inside are a lot of artifacts from the war—many pictures and equipment we’ve all seen over the years—but there is also a big area devoted to Agent Orange and its effects, including today. To be honest, I couldn’t hang there, and left the museum: there are a lot of hideous pictures being shared.

This year, I visited the old (South Vietnamese) presidential palace. It’s actually a beautiful building, very well designed, built and maintained. As you travel through it, things are explained in Vietnamese and English. (A lot of tourists come here.) But as I got up on the third and highest level of the building, I looked out and, no sign or anything, saw a recently painted Huey sitting on the outside roof! I guess no comment needed.

The tank memorial in Ho Chi Minh City.They also have replicas of the two tanks that broke through the palace walls on April 30, 1975. One sign even lists the crew members’ names.

I was scheduled to teach for eight weeks, but just before leaving, Professor Mai told me they had made a mistake and that students had their internships to go to, so I only had three weeks to teach my course on Qualitative Research Methods! I tore my course apart, and completely redesigned it—and the students loved it. This is the only university in Vietnam where students must pass a test in English to graduate, so I taught in English with no translation: over 80% got an 80 or above on their exam, and almost half got an 80 or above after their 30-45 minute interviews they did on improving the educational system at TDTU and writing them up in English! They busted their asses for me—and I’ve been invited back for next summer.

The good thing with the changed schedule is that it allowed me to travel. I went to Nha Trang on the bus—as those who’ve been there, the beaches are incredible, with many Russian tourists today. I took the train to Da Nang, and there’s a cable car ride up to the Ba Na Hills—a friend of mine who was in the area back in the day thinks it was up Charley Ridge—but the clouds came in and I could see nothing but one small wire as we went up 1,500 meters! But just looking down at the terrain we crossed, my respect for those who humped those hills only grew—there was a reason I went into Marine Air! And then took the train to Ha Noi. (Just like they break the name Sai Gon into two, they break Hanoi into Ha Noi.)

I really like Ha Noi — not near as chaotic as Ho Chi Minh City. I visited a university that had been founded there in the year 1070 (NOT a misprint)—that’s before any university in Europe — established to train people to run the state apparatus for the Chinese. (And we thought we were going to beat them!) I went to the Museum of the Revolution and I visited the old French colonial prison called Hoa Lo Prison—part of it was where they held American fliers shot down over the north and perhaps is better known as the “Hanoi Hilton.” However, I can say one thing: no matter how bad the US prisoners had it, it was nothing compared to what the Vietnamese revolutionaries jailed by the French suffered. This was what was called “hard time.” (Unfortunately, I didn’t get the chance to visit the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.)

The most enjoyable thing that I stumbled on in Ha Noi was on Friday night. In the center of the city is Hoam Kiem Lake—it reminds me of Lake Merritt in Oakland. Anyway, the night I was there, there were tens of thousands of Vietnamese out, enjoying a warm summer night, walking on the lakeside, getting ice cream for the kids. It was so relaxed, friendly, and peaceful. I walked around the entire lake before heading back to my hotel.

In all, a fascinating trip, where I met some amazing people. Worth checking out again, this time unarmed.

Kim Scipes, Ph.D., served in the Marines as an enlisted man from 1969-73. Four the past 14 years, he’s been teaching at (the renamed) Purdue University Northwest in Westville, IN.

The tank memorial in Ho Chi Minh City. The tank memorial in Ho Chi Minh City. The tank memorial in Ho Chi Minh City. The tank memorial in Ho Chi Minh City. The tank memorial in Ho Chi Minh City.



Comments:

November 30, 2017 at 5:00 PM

By: Rod Estvan

teaching in Vietnam but no comment about Doi Moi?

Kim is a pretty sophisticated veteran, but he made no mention of the Vietnamese policy called Doi Moi (meaning renovation literally). This was the introduction of so called market socialism in Vietnam and the invitation of numerous western companies producing a wide variety of products largely for export and paying extremely low wages.

There is also a human rights watch report on Vietnam titled: Not Yet a Workers’ Paradise

Vietnam’s Suppression of the Independent Workers’ Movement. Moreover, just this week blogger Nguyen Van Hoa, was found guilty of spreading anti-state propaganda for producing videos and writing about protests over the toxic spill and sentenced to seven years in prison. The discharge, which occurred when a new Taiwan-owned steel factory flushed cyanide and other chemicals through its waste pipeline, killed marine life and sickened people along a 120-mile stretch of coastline. It is one of Vietnam’s largest environmental disasters in history along with the US military's use of agent orange during the war.

There are real problems today in Vietnam and Kim really did not discuss them unfortunately.

December 2, 2017 at 5:10 PM

By: Kim Scipes

Re comment about Teaching in Vietnam

Rod--appreciate the compliment, but you read the article too quickly. I specifically mentioned Doi Moi, and suggested some problems therefrom (see para 5).

I was not suggesting Vietnam is a workers' paradise or anything like that. What I was trying to do was to share some of my experiences in a country so affected by the US, but of which few Americans know anything about, especially since 1975.

I don't know enough yet about the country to seriously comment, so I specifically limited my comments to my personal observations. There are obviously problems there--I'm just glad it's not perfect like the United States!

December 3, 2017 at 9:04 AM

By: Rod Estvan

Even in today's news we can see Vietnam's problems

Today's news from Vietnam http://www.scmp.com/week-asia/society/article/2122498/vietnam-lauds-its-war-heroes-so-why-are-so-many-fighting

It goes on and on Kim everyday. Everyone was a loser in the War Kim, we killed endless numbers to maintain a supposedly pro-capitalist South Vietnamese government and the NLF, and NVA too killed hundreds of thousands to overthrow capitalism in the South only to reimpose it and happily welcome Trump just weeks ago. There are endless reports of how Vietnam's ruling Communist Party see Trump as a possible ally against China, particularly in relationship to the Paracel Islands which China now controls.

The legacy of the War is massively tragic from every perspective today.

December 3, 2017 at 11:11 AM

By: Kim Scipes

Re comment about Teaching in Vietnam

Rod--The war against the US was tragic: according to Robert McNamara, the US killed 3.8 MILLION Vietnamese and, from official US Army documents, Nick Turse claims another 5.7 MILLION wounded. Neither of us, I'd bet, can comprehend what that means.

The Vietnamese, in general, have put the war behind them, from what I've been told and what I could see personally. Most of this is good (in my opinion), but some is bad: I think there needs to be much more work done about Agent Orange (which the US has all-but-refused to address).

The article about mistreating a veteran--any veteran--is tragic: it simply should not be done. (I'm glad the US has never mistreated any of its' vets--NOT!)

Vietnam is wary of China, and having fought for around 1,000 years against Chinese domination, that (to me) is understandable. China is not acting very friendly in the South China Sea. I don't think the Vietnamese should be buddying up with Trump, or the US in general, but I also believe that's their choice.

But, in general, what I could see in my two months in Vietnam is that people are trying to rebuild their country after the American war; they are excited about moving onto the world stage in a new way; and the college students I taught were hopeful and excited about their opportunities. And they are working hard to make them real.

Does that mean Vietnam has no problems? Not at all. I have a number of questions, myself, but I'm trying to get a more well-rounded understanding, which I don't have yet.

But, from what I could see, Vietnamese life today, in general, is far from tragic.

December 8, 2017 at 12:22 AM

By: John Whitfield

Smilling.

"A Smile is the same in any language." Remember you from seeing you speak at the NED protest in Chicago. Nice pic of you with your students, professor.

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