As Army ROTC Cadets headed on a CULP mission to Vietnam, we spent some of the pre-deployment phase at Fort Knox, getting to know each other and our mission, We were actually the second rotation of the Vietnam CULP mission, and we believed that it would not be difficult for us to communicate with the people of Vietnam for mission purposes. However, our preconceptions, as they would be throughout our mission, were wrong.
Coming into Vietnam many of us had expectations of what we would see. Some of our expectations would be proven false, but some were accurate. A few of us had been to Vietnam before, but none of us had been to the North of the country. Many of us thought that the students would be more interested in learning the language due to their future missions, and not as interested in learning about the United States. We believed that because of a language and cultural barrier it would be difficult to truly establish a relationship with anyone in the short time that we had available. Many of the Cadets were unsure of what to think of how we would be perceived by our counterparts in Vietnam. Many of us expected a lot of animosity towards us first as Americans, and second, as representatives of the American Army.
The reality was much different. Upon stepping out of the airport we were instantly besieged with foreign-sensory overload. We knew there would be heat, but the first step out of the air-conditioned airport truly shocked us. We were hit by heat, extreme humidity, and smells and sites that we had never experienced before.
The culture shocks continued as we piled into our bus and were greeted by Vietnam’s unique traffic “laws”. There were people passing our vehicle on all sides, crossing into oncoming traffic and dipping back into their lane just before collision. We repeatedly saw five or more people on a single motor bike. This would be one of the hardest things for us to adjust to during our stay.
During the first couple of days, we were completely immersed in the city of Hanoi. One of the first things we encountered was the aggressiveness of their salespeople. Due to our obvious foreign appearance we were frequently approached by sidewalk-vendors selling us anything from aesthetic fans to Zippo lighters. They would follow us for several blocks and at one time we had a crowd talk to us for 40 minutes attempting vigorously to sell us anything they could.
After our initial exploration we moved into the true execution of the mission, teaching English to officers in the Vietnamese military. The reception was completely and overwhelmingly warm—not what we expected. Our first encounter with the Vietnamese military was through a colonel, a panel of high-ranking officers and an interpreter in a very ornate and formal conference room with a large bust of Ho Chi Minh overlooking the proceedings.
For many of us, this was the realization of the importance and legitimacy of our mission. We walked into the classrooms and were greeted warmly and positively by all the participants. However, we found the first few days to be a challenge. Many of our ice-breaker games failed, and we had difficulty communicating. We were frequently met with “can you please speak slower?” Over the next few days, we learned what words our students could understand, and how we could communicate most effectively with them. At the same time we were focused on creating a positive and enjoyable learning environment.
During breaks is when we truly began to interact personally with our students. Class time was when we taught English, but during breaks they asked us to explain American culture while they explained their culture. They were fascinated by where we lived, our families, our girlfriends and boyfriends, and who we were. They were equally eager to show us pictures of their homes, their wives, their children, and their country which interested each of us. We wanted to know as much about Vietnam as they wanted to know about the United States. We were met with history lessons, language lessons, and culture lessons. Over the two weeks our bonds began to grow and our lessons became more involved and interesting. We were surprised at how attached we became to our students and how quickly the relationships formed between us and them.
Finally, we traveled the country. While traveling we learned more and more about the people of the Vietnam. We were amazed at the work ethic we saw.
While driving or riding through the nation we were exposed to farmers, working in extreme heat, waist deep in mud, dragging animals through the farms while cultivating rice, using the same techniques that have been efficiently refined for thousands of years. We saw stark differences in standards of living with shacks being placed across the streets from ornate elaborate beach resorts. We began to appreciate some of the systems for standardization and regulation that we have in our country such as the FDA and EPA that were missing here. Most importantly, we were able to see a country’s unique and developed history from its own perspective, independent of our own biases, allowing us to try to formulate a new point of view.
Our time in Vietnam has been important and has broadened our views. We know that this has been a fantastic learning opportunity for us as future leaders in the United States Army. It has given us the ability to learn to speak with people who not only do not know us, but may or may not understand us. We learned to adapt and use improvised methods to send and receive messages across a language barrier. We saw that Vietnam is completely different from how it has been portrayed by popular media; it is much more developed, vibrant, and complex.
We saw how they viewed their own national heroes when we went to visit the tomb of Ho Chi Minh. This allowed us to overcome the “boogeyman era” of the Cold War. It showed us that we could overcome our own preconceptions and that positive relations are possible–many of us were as worried about our own reactions as we were about theirs.
The CULP mission to Vietnam is incredibly important in the current political climate of Asia. We also know that since the Vietnamese military is investing a lot to teach these officers English that they will be at the forefront of future relations with the United States and it is imperative that they are given a positive image from the beginning.
Most importantly, this mission shows that even after years of some of the most hostile conflicts of the twentieth century, that peace and a positive, mutually beneficial, and long-lasting relationship is possible and well on its way.