Author: Bruce Kuklick, Professor of American History, Penn
This past spring, I spent two weeks as lecturer-host on a Penn Alumni Travel tour of Vietnam. I teach at Penn, and among my areas of expertise is the War in Vietnam. While the tour was not designed with the war in mind, we hit every spot that I have lectured about in my classes and professional appearances – Hanoi, Haiphong, Hue, Da Nang, Saigon, and the Me Kong Delta. Our group of 21 was diverse in its political views and backgrounds but always friendly, and above all eager to learn from actual experience what the country was about, and not incidentally the impact of the United States on Vietnam.
We had an absolutely terrific in-country guide, Quang Nguyen. Quang was friendly, fluent in English, more than knowledgeable, and catered to our needs 24/7; he was philosophical about the War, which he vividly remembered as the youngest of 11 children who with their parents left a comfortable life in Hanoi to start over completely in Saigon. He recalled the years of the War as “the empty-hand years.” With Quang we toured colorful markets, ate at great restaurants where he ordered the local specialties for us to enjoy, and went on several river boat adventures with stops along the way at floating markets, pagodas, and a fruit farm where we were served a ‘fruit’ tea and treated to a concert with traditional instruments. All of our accommodations were gracious, luxurious, and picturesque. Yet despite the well organized and comfortable travel to fascinating sites, I cannot say that this tour was exactly a holiday or a vacation. At least for me, it was too filled with painful reminders of the consequences, both for Vietnam and for America, of American policies and decisions during the Cold War. These reminders often colored my perception of what we saw, and I am still trying to figure out the complex set of feelings about the United States and Vietnam with which I came home. But for those very reasons the trip had a compelling importance for me and for my wife. Our visit to Vietnam was what we call a life experience, and, in fact, we are beginning to think about ways that we might someday go back.
Bruce Kuklick is a member of the Department of History at the University of Pennsylvania. His historical interests are broadly in the political, diplomatic, and intellectual history of the United States; and in the philosophy of history. He has won all the major teaching prizes given by the University, including the Senior Class Award.
For more information about the Penn Alumni Travel program, visit www.alumni.upenn.edu/travel.