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Experiential Learning in Vietnam

Luke DaunerLuke Dauner is an ARCC Gap Instructor currently leading the Asia Gap Semester that travels through China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. Our Gap Year Program in Asia is a unique blend of education, service and exploration of these intriguing and ancient cultures. Our exclusive access to people and places, developed over decades, gives us a window on aspects of China and Southeast Asia rarely experienced by outsiders. In Luke’s blog below he shares his perspectives from his group’s time in Vietnam as considered through the eyes of an experiential educator.

Luke studied Neuroscience and Religion at Middlebury College. Prior to ARCC, Luke was a Field Instructor for the Teton Science School in Jackson, WY. Luke has led ARCC’s California: Urban and Wilderness Service program, Thailand: Hill Tribe Impact program, and is currently leading the Asia Gap Semester.


As an environmental educator for the past two years, I have always considered “experiential education” to be most effectively implemented in nature’s classroom, learning about ecology, geology, and scientific inquiry through direct engagement with one’s surroundings. For me, history, as an academic subject, has never seemed as conducive to experiential education as science—how can one have direct experience with something that by definition has already occurred? Science is all around us, history is in the past. After traveling through Vietnam, however, I quickly realized how wrong that assumption was. History is on display in this proud country, and the decades of war that has shaped the identity of its citizens inspired as much curiosity in me as any ecology experiment ever has.

With scientific inquiry, unexpected results can often produce the most profound findings, and this is exactly what our group discovered during our first week in Vietnam. The highlight for many of us was during our stay in a community just outside of Hanoi. Here we had a talk with the American War veterans [Editor’s note: In Vietnam they refer to what we call the “Vietnam War” as the “American War”]. Coming into this experience, many in our group were harboring some guilt over our country’s brutal engagement with Vietnam, so it was no surprise that there were some nerves before we had this discussion with the veterans—our parents and grandparents were their enemies. They have every reason to hate America (and Americans): we bombed vast regions of their country, killed many thousands of civilians, and even sprayed the chemical defoliant Agent Orange, which is still causing disease and deformity in their children and their children’s children.

Yet the veterans showed nothing but compassion to our group (the first Americans they have ever met, I might add). They spoke primarily of forgiveness and reconciliation, emphasizing that it was a war between governments, not people. When we spoke of our guilt, they made certain that we abandon that guilt, and when we asked them about their country they spoke of love and pride, patriotically orating about their fight for independence and the optimism they have for the future. I think it is fair to say that our entire group was surprised, inspired, and moved by the attitude of forgiveness and compassion that seemed to permeate that room, and that became characteristic of seemingly all Vietnamese people when asked about the past. For me, I realized that I have to broaden my definition of “scientific inquiry”; observing, asking good questions, and collecting data allowed us to learn experientially about Vietnam’s history in an incredibly profound way.

Yet, just when I thought I had a firm grasp on Vietnamese identity–transfixed by an unabashed patriotism I have never known and a depth of forgiveness usually reserved for literature–we traveled south to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon). Like in all great experiments, we were presented with entirely new and unexpected evidence, and my schema once again had to readjust. Saigon is the cultural and economic center of southern Vietnam, and was the stronghold of the South Vietnam-allied U.S. military during the American War. The impression of the war that the northerners gave us was one of national pride and independence–going to war was never an option for them because their freedom was at stake. In the south, however, that impression was much more skewed. Instead of a war between the governments of the U.S. and Vietnam (as it was treated in the North), some southerners defined it as a civil war in which the U.S. simply participated. Instead of a fight for national independence where communism was hardly a factor, communism was a driving force in the conflict. Instead of an unequivocal victory for all Vietnamese, reunification had its pros and cons.

As we strolled through the emotional War Remnants Museum in central Saigon and the Cu Chi Tunnels just outside the city, we were presented with a new and sometimes brutal perspective of the war. Nobody we met in Saigon ever expressed any contempt for the North or lack of pride in Vietnam–the country as a whole is strong and dignified–but the moral complexity of war and identity was revealed in the restaurant owner who is nostalgic for the days before skyscrapers, the tour guide whose parents are blacklisted from government employment, and the flagrant western influence of the city itself. This contradicting evidence ignited our curiosity, and caused us to think more critically about one of the great questions of history: how can we learn from our past?

Personally, Vietnam gave me a much greater appreciation for history as a subject, and for experiential education as a purveyor of that subject. I also realized that curiosity and inquiry doesn’t just connect you with nature, but to whatever you direct it towards–in this instance, I feel deeply connected to Vietnam. As a group, our time in Vietnam was an exercise in depth psychology and, from a scientific perspective, a wonderful and robust experiment. Our engagement with Vietnam’s history seemed at first to provide us with conclusive and meaningful results, but we realized before leaving that we had barely scratched the surface. And like all great inquiries, we left with more questions than answers.

Written By ARCC Gap Asia Instructor Luke Dauner

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ARCC Gap Year Programs offers Gap Year travel programs in India, Asia, Latin America, Africa, Patagonia and Cuba.