Finding Home in Vietnam

Students in Jessica Chapman's War and Remembrance in Vietnam class are using primary materials gathered during a spring break trip there to inform their final projects.
Students in Jessica Chapman’s War and Remembrance in Vietnam class are using primary materials gathered during a spring break trip there to inform their final projects.

By Julia Munemo

Long Dang ’15 emigrated from Vietnam with his parents when he was 7 years old. The family settled in the Dorchester neighborhood in Boston, and Dang—in pursuit of an education beyond what had been available to his parents—immersed himself in the language and culture of his new country. Although he returned to Vietnam with his family three years ago, Dang says he spent the short trip hanging out with his English-speaking cousins and avoiding his Vietnamese-speaking family members. He had lost his mother tongue.

Dang returned to Vietnam again during spring break as a part of Jessica Chapman’s history course War and Remembrance in Vietnam. The semester-long course examines how Vietnam’s wars for independence have been remembered, memorialized, and represented by the Vietnamese state and by its citizens and scholars. Chapman’s 10 students got a firsthand look at that narrative, which, she says, “is very different from the one we hear in the U.S.”

In the six weeks before the trip, Chapman’s students read important scholarship on war and memory in Vietnam. Once they arrived, the group visited war museums and monuments in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, met with a National Liberation Front veteran during a two-night home stay in the Mekong Delta, attended lectures, and took an overnight boat ride in Ha Long Bay. “The students were able to situate those sites and experiences within the larger scope of Vietnam’s modern history,” Chapman says. “They understood a lot more about the Vietnamese state’s relationship to war memory than the average international tourist and were thus able to engage more critically with what they saw, read, and heard, and to place their reactions in conversation with scholarly works.”

Although their schedule was jam packed, the students did have free time to explore the country on their own terms. Dang, a history major, reacquainted himself with the language. “One day I got a haircut,” he says. “It was very empowering to be able to communicate what I wanted to my barber.” By the end of the trip, his comfort level had skyrocketed. “I noticed a big difference when I talked to my mom after we got back. It was really powerful to be able to communicate with her in Vietnamese so easily.”

Rachel Nguyen ’16, also a history major, was born in the U.S. to Vietnamese immigrants. Her parents were part of the wave of people evacuated by U.S. troops in 1975 at the fall of Saigon. She’d never visited Vietnam before, and while there, she discovered details about her family she hadn’t known. Her maternal great-grandfather was a nationally recognized businessman, and she is the seventh descendant on her father’s side of a famous Vietnamese poet. “In the U.S., my parents are in the working class,” she says. “It’s incredible to understand that their history is more complicated than that.”

The trip was made possible by the Global Initiatives Venture Fund, which was established by the Class of 1962 and supports initiatives that enhance students’ global understanding.

Back in class, Chapman’s students are working on their final research projects, which draw upon primary source material gathered in Vietnam. “The trip was an opportunity for students to go straight to the primary sources analyzed in the course readings and interpret them on their own terms,” Chapman says. “Such a course would not have been possible without the experiential learning component.”

Nguyen, who is interested in filmmaking, traveled everywhere with a camera and tripod. Her final project will be a documentary about displacement and finding community, and it will include interviews with Vietnamese refugees in the U.S. and marginalized communities in Vietnam. She plans to return to Vietnam again this summer. Dang is writing a paper about how North and South Vietnamese citizens and American refugees think about and remember the reunification of Vietnam.

Says Dang, “I’ve never felt closer to my Vietnamese identity.”

Read the blog students kept during their trip.