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Temple Times and International Programs present:
Overseas Adventures: Spring 2006

Khanh Le

Khanh Le

Major: History

International program: Vietnam National University in Hanoi, Vietnam

May 8, 2006 I cannot believe that this program is inching toward the end. It seems like yesterday that I was saying goodbye to my friends, family and professors. I know this might seem clichéd, but I'd like to thank Dr. Nguyen Thi Dieu, Barbara Gorka, Lydia Gonzalez-Colon and the Gilman Scholarship for making my study abroad program become a reality.

I came to Vietnam with a lot of questions, enthusiasm and goals. Some of my questions were answered, and some of my goals were achieved. Although I cannot use words such as "brilliant" or "wonderful" to describe my experiences in Vietnam, I have met a lot of intelligent and sincere friends who were willing to listen and help me. Sometimes I felt very homesick and wanted to go home. Other times I felt that Vietnam is my home, and I was scared to come back to the United States.

My journey to Vietnam has given me an opportunity to critique myself. I take things for granted. I was complaining about some inconveniences that I encountered in Vietnam, while some people are struggling to put food on the table. For example, some places in Vietnam only have squat toilets, and I was complaining that I wanted a "western toilet."

I see Vietnam as a country trying to integrate itself into the international community after years of isolation. I see Vietnam as a war-torn country trying to heal and forgive. I know that my parents' generation doesn't like the current government of Vietnam because of their experiences during the American War (Vietnam War).

On the other hand, I am an anti-war person. I don't approve of the government being in Iraq, and I don't agree with the reasons for the United States going to war with Vietnam. During the American War, the United States had dropped more bombs on Vietnamese soil than World War I and II combined. War destroyed families! War creates atrocities, such as the My Lai Massacre. My generation (Vietnamese American youth) is not hardcore anti-communist like our parents' generation.

I support Vietnam for trying to increase the living standard of the people and integration into the international community. Throughout history, Vietnam has suffered from two wars, the First Indochina War and the Second Indochina War, causing Vietnam to lose a lot of resources.

I'd love to come back to Vietnam after I graduate from college and live here for a couple of years.

APRIL 24, 2006: Wow!! I only have one more month left before I head back to the United States. I feel that I am not ready to go home yet because I haven't met some of my goals, and Hanoi has a lot more to offer me. I had wanted to volunteer at an Agent Orange clinic, but [it didn’t work out].

During the American War, the United States sprayed 18 million gallons of Agent Orange on Vietnamese soil. Agent Orange is a dioxin chemical that causes birth defects. Today, more than three million children suffer from Agent Orange.

Also, my writing level in Vietnamese is not at the level that I want. When writing an essay, I still misspell a lot of words.

I am afraid to come back to United States. Will things in the United States have changed so rapidly that I will have culture shock? Can my friends accept me after six months of not seeing me? Will I be indifferent to them?

There are a lot of questions in my head right now, and, truthfully, I don't have the answers to all of them. However, the thought of coming home is sweet. I miss my family and friends. I miss my mom's cooking! Vietnamese food in Vietnam is good, but I’ve got to say that my mom's cooking is the best.

The [one] good thing about my economics course is that CIEE students get to take with local Vietnamese students. We are not in isolation anymore! We talked to some of the students after class and hung out with them. When I hang out with the Vietnamese students, I feel that I am Vietnamese. Here, I am sitting in a stool used for children that makes me feel like an elephant sipping my sugar cane juice, laughing and joking in Vietnamese.

I am not hitting the bars or the clubs like most American students, but, instead, reconnecting with my roots.

APRIL 10, 2006: I just got back from Central Vietnam/spring break. The trip was really long and tiring, but I had a lot of fun and learned a great deal. We took a 12-hour train ride from Hanoi to Dong Ha. Dong Ha is near the 17th parallel, where Vietnam was divided during the war. This is the place that gave birth to both of my parents. Later that day, after checking in to our hotel, I took a taxi to Quang Tri to visit my grandma. I hadn't seen her in four years, and she was still the strong woman that I met then. At 96 years old, her speech is immaculate! She never stuttered when she spoke to me. She saw me sweating, turned on the fan and remarked that I would not be hot anymore. I was very pleased to hold a conversation with her. After having lunch with my grandmother, I left feeling a little sad, wondering if I will see her again.

Later that day, we went to Vinh Moc tunnel. inh Moc is an expansive and sophisticated tunnel that the North Vietnamese used in order to hide from American bombings. It was also used to transport weapons from Hanoi to Vinh Moc. The tunnel has a kitchen, a school, a hospital, a well, a meeting room and a storage room. While I was walking through the tunnel, I kept thinking this is one of the reasons why the United States and the Army of the Republic Vietnam lost the war: the determination of the people to win the war.

The next day, we took a bus to Khe Sanh near the Laos border. Khe Sanh was a really big battlefield during the American war (Vietnam War). A lot of bombs were dropped here, and a lot of people were killed from both sides of the war. While touring the museum, we met two war veterans from the United States who had opposite opinions of the war. One veteran believed that if the United States had not withdrawn troops in 1975, then the United States would have won the war. The other veteran believed that the war was wrong, and the United States should have withdrawn the troops earlier. It was good that we got two different perspectives, even though I don't agree with the veteran who believed the United States could have won if they stayed in Vietnam longer. I had taken a Vietnam War class with Dr. Nguyen at Temple, and she gave a lecture on Khe Sanh when talking about the Tet Offensive. Being at the battlefield and visiting the museum really complemented my study of the American War (Vietnam War).

Our next stop was Hue, which is the imperial city. During the 19th century, after defeating the Tay Son brothers, Nguyen Anh moved the capital from Hanoi to Hue. The imperial city is very beautiful. It is like the forbidden city of Beijing. The architecture of each palace and tomb is beautiful. Each palace has its own distinctive design. The majority of the palaces are surrounded by ponds/lakes filled with lotus flowers. Besides the amazing tombs and palaces, Hue has really good food.

This trip has been really great! I learned about customs and traditions of Vietnamese in each region. Some customs are the same, and some are different. Each region has its own distinctive accent. Sometimes people from different regions cannot understand each other. Not only did I learn a lot from this trip, but I also had fun. The beach in Nha Trang was beautiful! The water was really clean and blue. CIEE rented a boat for the group, and we even went to different islands in Nha Trang to swim or sightsee.

MARCH 27, 2006: I cannot believe it! This semester is almost over, and I feel like I was in Hanoi just yesterday. I just finished all of my midterms, and they weren't a piece of cake.

I am taking “History of Indochina,” and I am very disappointed. I had a lot of expectations entering the class. The professor teaches Vietnamese history from a European's perspective and is very biased. Some of the terms he used were very imperialistic. For example, in the 16th and 17th centuries, he referred to North Vietnam as “Tonkin” and South Vietnam as “Cochin China.” These terms were not used until the French came into contact with Vietnam, which was in the 18th and 19th centuries. The correct terms to refer to Red River Delta (North) and Mekong Delta (South) are “Outer Circle” and “Inner Circle.” He believes that the Vietnamese were not nationalists; therefore, he tried to discredit certain Vietnamese figures who rebelled against foreign invaders.

The only class that interests me is “Sociology and Women’s Studies.” I am doing research on the experiences of Vietnamese women living with HIV in Vietnam. I will be volunteering at an HIV center in Vietnam, so I will gain more knowledge of how the disease affects Vietnamese women. I am really excited about this research because in the States I had worked with Asian Americans who are infected with HIV. This will give me a chance to have a better understanding of Vietnamese living with HIV in Vietnam and Asian Americans living with HIV in the United States.

I want to have a better understanding of my motherland. I want to live like a Vietnamese student. However, it is very hard because of the privilege I have and the confinement of living in a dorm that hosts international students only. The dorm is really far from Vietnam National University. Therefore, we do not get to meet Vietnamese students at the University. Some students here put a lot of effort into making friends with the locals. They talk to the local people and hang out where the locals hang out.

The main purpose of the CIEE Study Center in Hanoi is cultural immersion, but, for me, it is not just about cultural immersion; it is about reconnecting with my Vietnamese roots.

MARCH 13, 2006: These past few weeks have been really hectic for me. My uncle passed away last week. I never met him, so I felt really emotionally disconnected about his death. I did not want to pretend to be sad and grief-stricken. I don't want to feel guilty because I am not sad; I cannot be sad because I never met him. All I know is that he was my dad's brother. My mom asked me to represent the family, so I attended the funeral.

I was in Saigon on March 2, and on March 10, I had to fly to Saigon again. I flew back and forth from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City twice in one week, and I was not even a businessman.

At the funeral, I met my aunt and cousins. Even though we are related, I feel like we were strangers. I didn't know what to say to them. What were we supposed to talk about? We grew up in two different worlds.

The encounter with family members that I never met before made me think about the "if" question. What if I grew up in Vietnam? What if my parents did not escape Vietnam after the war? Would I be the boy on the streets shining shoes to keep his stomach full? Would I be the boy walking around in the humidity on streets of Saigon selling postcards to foreigners?

As these thoughts swam around my brain, I realized how privileged I am. Vietnamese people call me "sanh dieu" (rough translation as fashion-conscious people) as I walk down the streets of Hanoi listening to music on my iPod, wearing name-brand clothes. I don't know how to deal with the privilege I have.

Vietnam has changed my views on life. I was used to being “unprivileged” in the United States. However, Vietnam was a 360 turn, and I became a privileged person.

FEB. 27, 2006: It has been several weeks already. Time flies by so fast when you are in Hanoi and having fun.

My Vietnamese class is pretty fun, except that it is really long. We have class four days a week, three hours per day. In addition to Vietnamese, I am taking "History of Indochina" and "Gender and Society."

Vietnam has, however, changed my perspective on life. Hanoi is changing rapidly, as the old mixes with the new. Skyscrapers and apartment complexes tower over French colonial buildings and pagodas.

Sometimes I feel very privileged, as I see the huge gap between the rich and poor. Sometimes I have felt shocked because I was treated differently from the white American students in Vietnam. Do the Vietnamese dislike me because I am an overseas Vietnamese American student? For example, this weekend, CIEE organized a field trip to Ninh Binh to see Hoa Lu, the first capital of Vietnam.


We took a boat ride to Tam Coc, and they refused to let the Vietnamese American students sit with their white counterparts. We were crammed into one boat, while the white students were comfortably sitting two persons per boat. We asked representatives from the company about this policy, and their reply was that the insurance for foreigners is more expensive than the insurance for any Vietnamese passengers, including foreigners of Vietnamese descent. I believe that the mentality from the French colonial time is still being kept alive.

I know how to speak Vietnamese pretty well, but because I have a southern accent and live in the north, people in Hanoi have trouble understanding me. Last week, I went to the market to buy cups, but the lady didn't understand me. The word "cup" in the south is called "ly," and in the north, it is called "coc."

The bus system here is simple; it runs every eight minutes, and is a very cheap (about 20 cents) and convenient way to get around the city. I am adjusting to Vietnam pretty quickly; I am getting used to people staring at me when I walk down the street with my friends. I was uncomfortable at first, but I have come to accept it. I am getting used to the city, and I even know where things are now.



FEB. 13, 2006:
I just finished orientation for the program. Bob (a student from American University), Connor (a student from Madison Wisconsin University) and I missed the first day of orientation because we were stuck in Vientiane for a day, as the Vietnam Airlines flight was having technical difficulties.

At last, I arrived in Hanoi.

Once in the city, Bob and I took a xe om [taxi] to the old quarter and had some pho [a Vietnamese noodle dish], which was very good and inexpensive.

We did some bargaining with the xe om's driver; that was the fun part.

The driver wanted us to pay 20,000VND to go downtown, but we bargained it down to 10,000VND.

The secret is walking away, and the driver will follow you and agree on the offered price.

Photos courtesy Khanh Le

On the second day of orientation, the whole group met our private tutors at a really fancy restaurant called "The Press Club," which serves French food; however, the food was not good.

I guess we were just paying for the atmosphere. We also went to Al Fresco, which serves American food.

It was nice that I got to meet my private tutor, who was shy at first.

Hanoi is a beautiful city, and is very different from Saigon. Hanoi is more peaceful, and it has a slower pace than Saigon.

On Saturday, I went to Ho Tay [West Lake, at left] to eat banh tom [shrimp cakes]. I was sitting near the edge of the lake, chatting and laughing with my friends. The whole scene was very peaceful.

After that we went to Ba Dinh Square to take pictures in front of the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, where people can go to see Ho Chi Minh's body, since his body was preserved when he died.

I am enjoying Hanoi. The lakes make it nice for me to walk around at night. This city has a lot to offer!




International Programs | Overseas Adventures: Spring 2006