By Dr Yeoh Seng Guan
This year’s study trip was prefaced by high drama.
Firstly, three of the student travelers had to pull out just a couple of weeks before the trip for various reasons and replacements had to be found. Secondly, the fates of two other student travelers - from Kenya and Sri Lanka – were less assured until the eleventh hour. Seemingly intractable difficulties in getting their visas approved by the Vietnamese Embassy in Kuala Lumpur threatened to do more damage to team morale. It was only through the direct intervention of our host institution in Vietnam that the matter was resolved.
Lastly, as our plane took off from the LCCT tarmac on the early morning of Saturday, 9 July we were also mindful of the much hyped ‘Bersih march’ - led by civil society groups calling for clean, free and fair elections - that was to unfold on the streets of Kuala Lumpur later in the day. With contending groups uttering veiled threats against the march, we prayed for restraint and good sense to prevail as we flew beyond Malaysian skies.
Once in Ho Chi Minh City, and over the course of the following days, however, the angst of Malaysian politics faded temporarily into the background as student travelers were caught up in the intellectual and emotional challenge of apprehending the complexities of things foreign and unfamiliar. Through a variety of sources - formal lectures, dialogues with civil society groups, and snatches of conversations struck up with a range of people whom they encountered - they were given glimpses and insights into some of the challenges of modern Vietnamese urban society.
Some of them stem from the long term consequences of war (like the widespread use of Agent Orange during the “Vietnam/American War”) and the polarized protectionism of Cold War politics. Others are of more recent provenance and flow from the liberalizing push of Doi Moi (“to change and make it better”) state policies launched in the mid-1980s.
In myriad ways meticulously chronicled through the student travelers’ tales, they collectively paint a picture of a country on the move to make its mark in the modern world with Ho Chi Minh City very much at the center of the radical transformation.
Once again, a venture of this nature is impossible if the assistance of our Vietnamese friends was not forthcoming. Firstly, my gratitude goes to Dr Tran Dinh Lam, the Director of Vietnamese and Southeast Asian Center of the University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Vietnam National University, for agreeing to be the host institute for the study trip. Through him, we were able to attract the services of our six local student guides – Mr Pham Tuan Anh, Ms Tran This Hani Nhi, Mr Vo Nhat Thang, Ms Nguyen Thien Vi, Mr Le Kim Thanh, and Ms Ho Thi Uyen Thu. They provided enthusiastic and competent support in logistical matters, were lively and knowledgeable company, and much more.
For so generously sharing their local expertise and their commitment to making Vietnamese society a better place, I thank: Mr Pham Thanh Van of Chuong Trinh AIDS (who also facilitated access to four local communities); Rev Vincent Vu Ngo Dong of Caritas Vietnam; Ms Vo Thi Hoang Yen and Ms Nguyen Thuy Diem Huong of Disability Research & Capacity Development; and Mr Nicolas Lainez of Alliance Anti-Traffic.
Throughout the study trip, Mai Vy Hotel, a compact family-owned business, became a home-away-from-home. Its friendly staff members and strategic location in a non-descript alleyway gave the student travelers a close-up view of how Vietnamese people get on with their everyday lives in addition to the well-known tourist sites of the country.
This year’s cohort of travelers attracted nationalities of five countries – Malaysia, Sri Lanka, India, South Korea and Kenya. Although not chalking up any records in terms of the diversity of countries represented – this distinction is currently held by In Search of Chiang Mai 2010 – I am glad to note that this group has broadly sustained a key ethos of the study trip, viz., learning to adapt rather quickly to each other’s quirks, and channeling individual talents and abilities for the sake of a greater project. While heartily enjoying what Saigon has to offer in terms of food, shopping and nightlife, they also worked long and hard to keep the blog regularly updated with texts, photos and videos. I must also make mention of the good cheer and efficiency with which Ms Bats Mohsinali, the chaperone for this year, carried out all her difficult tasks.
For part of the trip, the travelers were joined by Ms Eunice Phang, an alumnus and veteran of previous study trips. She was accompanied by her mother, Ms Susan Chai, who matched the cohort’s energetic quest for knowledge and understanding of Vietnam.
Like the student travelers, Vietnam is comparatively new territory for me in comparison to other countries in Southeast Asia. Nevertheless, the stories of struggle and hope that we were privileged to hear were both unfamiliar and recognizable. At one level, they broadly resonated with the themes heard in previous study trips in the region. But they also have particularities that complicated the stereotypes depicted in most Hollywood movies on Vietnam.
|Travellers at the host institution, VNU along with our hosts and student guides.|
If this particular study trip has emboldened this cohort of travelers (and others reading this blog) to delve deeper and explore beyond the familiar platitudes usually offered to us in our everyday lives, I believe the key objectives of the annual study trip have once again endured another year.
Dr Yeoh Seng Guan, ageless and eternal, is the sole reason Monash Malaysia annual study trips exist. Loved and adored by each and every student he has ever taught, the Saigon trip will be the last one organized by the Media and Cultural Studies lecturer, before he goes off on a sabbatical.