Reach Out Vietnam

It’s been almost three weeks since Spring Break. I’m still answering some questions about my Reach Out trip to Vietnam with friends that I run into, and it’s interesting what I remember after three weeks.

I remember certain scenes vividly, imprinted in my mind after all this time, maybe because they were strange and new to me.

I remember walking through clay-like, orange mud, past houses where clothes hung out to dry and chickens waddled on the front lawns.

I remember the outhouse by the library – a white basin on the floor, an enormous monarch butterfly perched on it, making it difficult to pee, if having to squat didn’t already.

I remember the classrooms of the middle school we taught at – the shabby walls, the rows of rectangular tables, and the rules of good citizen-students under “Father Ho Chi Minh” posted in the front.

I remember in particular a teacher who served on the board of the college we visited.  He was an elderly man, with squinting eyes and pockmarked tan skin. He had dyed his hair black, in the way that some aging Vietnamese men do.  He said our group’s visit to the college was a diplomacy trip, one that helped bridge the gap between the US and Vietnam. I was skeptical that our mere visit was all that important, but then I realized by the fiercely proud look on his face that our presence was anything but mere to them.

I remember… not a lot. See, I’d been to Vietnam three years before. I didn’t want to write about the trip through the lens of someone who couldn’t see the country with fresh eyes, so I’ll include perspectives from some of the 11 other Yalies on this trip.  One told me that he remembered most vividly the experience of crossing the chaotic streets of Đông Hà, the rural Central Vietnam city where we spent most of our trip, something that had shocked me the first time visiting the country as well.

Another trip member was awed by the shops of the open markets, how merchandise spilled out on the streets and lined every wall, piled up to the ceilings.  Behind these storefronts, were homes.  We were all awed by the unusually tall houses. Some were on stilts and some had several stories.  Families build on each other, so that when children grew up and married, another floor was added.  It’s a small country with a dense population. That makes sense.

People asked me before and after my trip whether I felt any strong emotional connection upon returning to the country of my birth, the site of my heritage.

If there was one connection I felt to my homeland, it was through the language.  I remember singing a Vietnamese children’s song, “Ngày Đầu Tiên Đi Học” (“The First Day of School”), one day with a kind, local man.  I conversed with the young man who worked on a bus that transported us from Đông Hà to Huế.  He clung to the door like a monkey, swinging and sliding across the seats, bending himself to fit into the car when the bus filled to almost twice its capacity.  The entire time, he wore an impish smile.

Remembrance also came in a different way, in remembering the Vietnam War, and its impact on the locals.

It is the living who suffer the most.  On the first day of service, we talked to landmine victims, two adults and two teenage boys who had lost limbs when they accidentally detonated the bombs leftover from the war. I had heard of these bombs, had been flashed with pictures of these sad, handicapped victims in Church-sponsored videos asking for donations from America that my mother often made me watch. The most chilling fact, I recall, is that these bombs were designed to maim.  It took two additional soldiers to help an injured one, whereas if the bomb killed it would only take out one soldier, the guide explained. Now the innocent would have their lives changed forever.

The Vietnamese do not seem resentful against America, but they are scarred.   They desire peace and fear war so much that they are willing to put up with a government most are not happy with.

Looking back on the trip, the days of service do not stand out the most to me.  The experience is not really coherent in my mind. I think I remember most bonding with the incredible people on the trip, the jokes, the laughter, the communal silences on the bus ride home.  The trip, for me, is made of images. The last image I remember are the narrow, rain-soaked streets of Hà Nội, where we spent the last three days of the trip, so beautifully silent and empty the morning we said goodbye to Vietnam. Maybe I did go to another world after all.



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About Catherine Dinh

My name is Catherine Dinh. I'm a freshman in Pierson. I'm from Fremont, which is in the Bay Area, California. I am considering majoring in English or Psychology. I enjoy reading, writing, watching movies with friends, shopping, graphic design, taking walks, eating, imagining, and learning new things. I'm a member of ViSA and TAS, but I joined the APA blog because I wanted to reach out to more of the Asian American community here at Yale. In short, I hope this blog will be a huge success and am looking forward to seeing it grow.

2 thoughts on “Reach Out Vietnam

  1. I’m proud of you for leading the Reach Out trip, Catherine.
    I wonder if you really think it’s the fear of war that underpins the reason why the Vietnamese people put up with a government that they are not happy with. The American people also put up with a government that we aren’t happy with. It’s not because we fear wars. For the people in Vietnam, don’t you think economics have anything to do with it? People want to grow out of poverty, they want to be richer and enjoy life. Do you think they care about political freedoms?

  2. Good point… I sort of just paraphrased what I overheard one of the Vietnamese people say. One of the reasons they aren’t happy with the government must be the way they handle economics, so by being complacent, they’re probably not going to grow out of poverty… But I actually don’t know a lot about this.

    Paulina and Binh actually led the trip, not me. Sorry that was not clear in the article.

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