For a group of Whitworth University students, a 2 1/2-week trip to Vietnam promised to unravel a few mysteries.
It did much more than that.
Surprises lurked around every corner, from modern businesses to the scars from a war that haven’t healed after 44 years.
“Immediately I was amazed at the apparent impact that our intervention … was evident even to this day,” junior Astrid Le Roy said.
Part of Whitworth’s “Jan Term” program, the trip was more a fact-finding mission than a vacation. It included a trip to the village of My Lai, where a company of U.S. Army soldiers killed several hundred South Vietnamese villagers in what became known as the My Lai Massacre.
“Before taking this trip I had never learned or even heard of this event,” said Le Roy, who came away astounded that so little about the war has been taught in American high schools.
In contrast, Le Roy said, “many Vietnamese people know the ins and outs of the battles … maybe it’s because many were firsthand witnesses to the war.”
Some Americans will argue it was North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh who instigated the war that cost 1.3 million lives, including 55,200 U.S. fatalities.
Yet Ho’s image was present seemingly everywhere,on murals in restaurants, museums and homes. Nationalism is strong in Vietnam.
“Even people who weren’t a member of the Communist Party saw Ho Chi Minh as a national hero,” said Lauren McGeorge, a junior from Metaline Falls, Washington.
However, the students found simple joys, including the celebration as the Vietnamese national soccer team defeated Jordan in an Asian Cup match.
“The longer the game went, the more people crowded around us outside a restaurant to watch it on a projector,” McGeorge said.
“When Vietnam won in a shootout, we could hear cheers down all the nearby streets,” McGeorge said.
Those streets are nothing like the past, the students learned.
“In Hanoi, there was a hip, up-and-coming bar neighborhood that I thought of as the Kendall Yards of Vietnam,” Le Roy said. “There was a street full of every sort of business you could imagine that I equated to Division Street and a university off of a busy road that I even tried to compare to Whitworth.”
Then Le Roy considered “how silly and ignorant I could be for even attempting to compare the two. After all, how do you compare two places that have had completely different histories, people and cultures?”
Then again, Le Roy and her classmates found something more important: healing.
Along with professor Dale Soden, the students were accompanied by Whitworth alum Tim Lickness, who also fought in Vietnam.
“Seeing Tim shake hands with both Viet Cong and Vietminh soldiers is a memory that will stay with me forever,” Le Roy said.
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