CHRISTOPHER BARKER ’20 | STAFF WRITER • Wabash College broke new ground in immersion trips this past winter break. Students in Sabrina Thomas, BKT Assistant Professor of History, and Associate Professor of History Rick Warner’s HIS-300 course, “Lessons and Legacies of War: Vietnam”, traveled to Vietnam in Wabash’s first-ever immersion trip to Asia. The class spent their time traveling throughout the entire country, and this past Sunday and Monday, these students told their stories to the Wabash community. The group began in the capital, Hanoi. They then moved southward, passing through Da Nang and Hoi An before exploring South Vietnam from Ho Chi Minh City.
This trip served as some students’ first adventure outside of the United States. As someone who has spent the entirety of his life in Crawfordsville, Heath Whalen ‘19 experienced a profound culture shock. “On our first day, we took a walking tour of downtown Hanoi, and it was hectic to say the least,” Whalen said. “Traffic flooded the streets, and the sound of honking filled the air as motorbikes and cars whizzed past our faces. There is not an abundance of stop lights or street signs in Vietnam, so our tour guide Moon told us about ‘sticky rice’; we had to be attentive and stick together at all times! I had never seen anything like it, especially not in Crawfordsville.”
“Hanoi had the strongest Communist presence we saw,” Wyatt Gutierrez
‘19 said. “We saw communist officers standing with their MP5s and AK47s
in the streets, and it was intimidating. However, as we went south, the Communist presence diminished.”
In Hanoi, the group visited the Temple of Literature, which is a Confucius temple built in 1070. The Temple has pillars that read of this ancient way of life, one of which read similarly to the Gentleman’s Rule. “It talks about educating people to be a just member of society, and it reflected standing TALL,” Jordan Hansen ‘18 said. “It’s such a huge, old, quiet relic that once was a school for boys who were expected to be the next leaders of the generation. I felt this weird parallel between this place and Wabash.”
As they journeyed south, the group walked over footprints of military boots, big feet, and small feet on the concrete sidewalks of My Lai. This site is one of many where American soldiers indiscriminately killed Vietnamese villagers in the war. “When you walk over these footprints, it makes you uncomfortable, which is what you should feel,” William Kelly ‘18 said. “I like to go to places like this by myself, take my time, and take it all in; I sat on the ridge of a trench where American soldiers laid Vietnamese villagers and shot them. It makes you realize your capabilities of inhumanity, which ties to what we discussed in class. I stood on the grounds of American inhumanities, and that was extremely powerful.”
After settling in Ho Chi Minh City, the group visited the War Remnants Museum, which featured displays of protests around the world, American war equipment, American war crimes, and Agent Orange’s aftermath.
Agent Orange causes birth defects and disabilities that last for many generations, and this was evident when the group was there. The museum told an narrative that Americans might not hear. “A lot of it has photos there were difficult to look at: Vietnamese bodies being dragged by tanks, Americans holding Vietnamese body parts, and other graphic and disturbing images,” Joe Walters ‘18 said. “We are really good at remembering our humanity and the inhumanity of others, but we are bad at remembering our own inhumanity.”
After arriving to what seemed like an ordinary picnic area, a brief tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels showed the group why the Viet Cong were so difficult for the Americans to fight. Vietnam was a foreign land to American soldiers, and they were unaware of the tunnel system. Americans unintentionally built a base over the tunnels, which explains how Viet Cong troops were able to infiltrate the base. The tunnels are still in nearly pristine condition 70 to 80 years after their construction.
“It was quite extravagant to see this ingenuity,” Parker Redelman ‘18 said. “We also talked with a Vietnam veteran who was part of the Viet Cong and had been around the Cu Chi Tunnels for 11 years during the war. He said that he and other veterans didn’t really talk about the war anymore; they’ve moved on from that part of their lives. He only thinks of the war now as a good time for him as it was when he met his wife.”
Later on in the day, the group drove to visit an orphanage where some of the orphans were victims of Agent Orange. The group felt very timid and unsure
as to how to react; some of them felt responsible for the problem.
“It felt uncomfortable just staring at these kids with all these problems like they were on display for us to see; we were walked around the bunks like we were visiting them in a museum,” Redelman said. “However, we saw them light up; they had people to talk to and be around. After the first 15 minutes, we got to start playing with the kids, and everybody loosened up. We played with toy cars, catch, and tag. The orphanage really opened my eyes to how everybody in life wants the same things: to be happy and have a good time in life. The owner is an extraordinary woman; she’s owned the orphanage for 40 years. Unfortunately, a lot of kids, especially those suffering from Agent Orange, end up dying. She actually doesn’t let anybody adopt the kids she takes in. This, along with the trip as a whole, brought full-circle the way that humanity is and that there’s good in it. It was good to do this as part of the trip; it can really humble yourself.”
These stories, along with other experiences in Vietnam, transformed the ways in which the members of the class think about gratitude, humanity, and how to come to terms with the past. Before the trip started, the students thought the Vietnamese wouldn’t be welcoming due to the lingering negative sentiments of the war, especially among the older generation. However, these students were proven wrong. Rather, they saw that the Vietnamese attitude of the war is completely different from the American attitude. They see how the Vietnamese want to move on from the war, and how Americans are stuck in trying to come up with ways try to say the U.S. didn’t really lose. “Everybody
I talked to received me well, and the attitude of the younger generation was very happy to see us,” Gutierrez said. “They are looking forward, focusing on building positive relationships with other countries, which will help develop their beautiful country economically when they are the leaders.”