History professors Rick Warner and Sabrina Thomas are leading students on an immersion trip through Vietnam as part of the HIS 300 “Lessons and Legacies of War: Vietnam” class. The trip will take the group to all three sections of the country, beginning in Hanoi, then fly to Central Vietnam – Da Nang and Hoi An – and finishing the trip in Ho Chi Minh City in the South. Students thoughts are shared here.
Cu Chi Tunnels via Joe Walters ’18
Coming into this day I had some background knowledge on the intricacies of the Viet Cong tunnels, but was not fully sure what to expect. The Cu Chi Tunnels were manned by 7,000 men and women throughout the Vietnam War. However, the construction initially began in 1947, during the French occupation of Indochina, and was not finished until 1967. The tunnel stretches about 210 kilometers and could go as deep as 15 feet or more. Many of these individuals lived underground during the day, in these spider-like tunnels, where they met for war meetings, slept and even cooked. The Viet Cong would emerge from the
tunnels under the cover of night to farm, lay traps, or initiate military missions. We gained first-hand knowledge on the subject from a Viet Cong veteran, who lived in the tunnel system for about 13 years.
We were given the opportunity to explore the three different levels. The first level was widened for tourists to visit and explore, so the tunnel was quite comfortable to walk through. On the second exploration, we were led through the first level to a large open area where war meetings were held. This gave an example of how the tunnels could be inhabitable.
From here, the group ventured down to the second layer. Right away, you could tell this was original tunnel work, because the walls tightened a bit. A few people commented about how they felt a bit panicked and their anxiety levels rose. In addition to this, you began to notice that you were not the only inhabitant within the tunnel. There were quite a few bats down there that would fly over your head and sometimes right into you because the tunnels were so tight. However, this was just the second layer. There was another level to explore, so the adventure continued. This was all the way down to the smallest, tightest and longest part of the tunnel network. I felt fairly confident about going down after the second level, but halfway through the tunnel, I felt the twinge of anxiety about the tight tunnel was being so deep underground. To cope with this, I just focused on the ground in front of me rather than looking down the rest of the dark and desolate tunnel. I noticed many more bats and mosquitos on the third layer. The tunnel system as a whole was incredibly hot for a cooler day, so I could not imagine what it was like on warm humid day during the wet season.
As a whole, the system was quite breathtaking, because it could survive endless bombing by the Americans, while housing up to 7,000 Vietnamese. After exploring the tunnels, there is a greater sense of how sophisticated these tunnels were and why the Viet Cong were so successful against the “might” of the American military.
Orphanage visit via Samuel Colaiacova ’19
This class has taught us how the Vietnamese people continue to struggle with children being born with deformities caused by Agent Orange. Many of us did not know what to expect in our interaction with the orphans, especially witnessing the powerful images of those victims. Personally, I was nervous. We were immediately greeted by the owner of the orphanage, Mrs. Ten; but it was obvious that she was proud of her work at the orphanage.
The appreciation for her work begins when learning that she is 80 years old and runs a private establishment — she does not earn funding from the Vietnamese government, only from donations and the money from her other business. We gave Christmas presents of our own — key chains and some religious-specific items to celebrate the holiday.
After touring a portion of the orphanage, we witnessed what an afternoon was like for these kids. We were asked to remember how fortunate we are to be in this position and know that everyone is thankful that we visited. The most important thing that I got out of our visit is that despite being victims of diseases or abandonment, these kids were just like any you come across. These kids loved to play and welcomed us into their home right away. They valued our interaction and spent the time smiling by playing sports or sharing their toys.
One of the most heart-warming moments was the expression when the kids saw Dr. Warner’s beard and were able to feel its majesty for themselves. We all enjoyed our experience, we did not shy away from interactions and were encouraged by the kids themselves to have fun. Their powerful smiles were contagious to all of us, and will remain in our heads forever.