Students’ journey casts Vietnam
in context broader than war © Oct. 10, 2008, Norwich University Office of Communications

[Left to right] James Pfeiffer, Jeff Horning, Bonnie Jo Lange and Steve Cummings,  a student at Presbyterian College in South Carolina, ride bicycles outside of Hanoi.

photos courtesy of Andrew Grady[Left to right] James Pfeiffer, Jeff Horning, Bonnie Jo Lange and Steve Cummings, a student at Presbyterian College in South Carolina, ride bicycles outside of Hanoi.

Striking landscapes, humble people and delicious, inexpensive food made for the experience of a lifetime for 10 Norwich University students who traveled to Vietnam.

Yes, that Vietnam.

Unlike the dangerous, mysterious Vietnam Americans remember from wartime, students found a welcoming country whose people harbor no anger toward Americans. Students—all from Norwich’s Corps of Cadets—traveled in May 2008 as a complement to Professor Lea Williams’ Literature of the Vietnam War class.

“The Vietnamese people are extremely welcoming and friendly,” said Ashley Lally, a senior in the Studies in War and Peace program. “I never felt unsafe at any time, besides maybe crossing the street—no traffic laws.

“By talking to Vietnamese, you would never guess that they were involved in a 10-year struggle with Americans,” she said. “They have no hard feelings about the war, whatsoever. The only effects that I saw were the American-style influence,” such as soda, music and product brands.

Norwich students James Pfeiffer, Ashley Lally, Tyler Pantelakis, Andrew Grady and Noel Whitten visit a temple outside Hanoi.

Norwich students [left to right] James Pfeiffer, Ashley Lally, Tyler Pantelakis, Andrew Grady and Noel Whitten visit a temple outside Hanoi.

The trip was organized through a literature class, but attracted students from a wide range of majors and a few people from outside the NU community, according to Williams. Students at Norwich, the oldest private military college in the U.S., can choose from majors and programs that encourage travel, such as political science, international studies and modern languages. Students also choose a military or civilian lifestyle.

Tyler Pantelakis, an international studies major, found the Vietnamese “incredibly humble people.”

“They were always helpful and seemed to love Americans despite our war ... which resulted in over 1.5 million Vietnamese killed in action,” he said.

He discussed exploding mines, somber reminders of the past.

“Many mines and unexploded ordnance are still causing casualties across the country,” he said. “I was told 30,000 [people] a year are injured or killed, but that could be wrong. I know the Mine Advisory Group was there trying to clear villages and areas of mines and unexploded bombs.”

The 16-day trip took students all over the country, including Halong Bay, Nha Trang, Hue, Khe Sahn and Ho Chi Minh City [formerly Saigon]. They soaked in sights, ate local food and talked with people accustomed to a very different culture. For some, it was the first time seeing a third-world country.

Andrew Grady, a senior criminal justice major, said the experience changed the way he sees the world.

“It gave me some cultural awareness,” Grady said. “I got to see a culture that was totally different from what I was used to—totally different than the European way.

“In the literature class, we were to examine stories written by the people who experienced the war firsthand on both sides,” he added. “We went to Vietnam to see firsthand how the war affected Vietnam and how the country has essentially rebounded since the Communist victory. We did visit some of the places mentioned in the books, such as the Marine Corps base in Khe Sahn. For the most part, the ideas portrayed in the books were confirmed by my visit to the country.”

Pantelakis said learning about the Vietnamese way of life, “made me realize how much we really have at home, and the luxuries we take for granted, and how we are generally never satisfied with what we have. They were so humble and had so little.”

Lally said she has a much deeper interest in Southeast Asian, and hopes to return.

“It was taking the literature aspect to a whole new level,” she said. “Seeing Hue, where the Tet Offensive took place, or going through the Cu Chi underground tunnels, helped us to relate to the authors that we studied. It also helped to bring history alive a little bit more. Everything from having a drink at the Rex Hotel, where the American reporters ‘hung out’ for a decade, or going to see the Continental Hotel, where American advisers stayed before the war even began—all of it really just gave us a better and more authentic feel as to what actually happened over there.”

Professor Williams traveled in Vietnam a year earlier to scout out the Norwich trip. She said bringing students to Vietnam took an enormous amount of planning, but was worth it.

“Students were wonderful, and they got to see and do a ton of different things.” Seeing Vietnam, she said, brings the literature students read, “to life in a way that the classroom setting can’t.”

Another popular trip discovery: the food.

Pho, Pantelakis said, is “the best meal for the least amount of money. I think it was around a dollar for a big bowl of pho, which was pho noodles with pork or chicken in a broth with some vegetables.”