Week 4 (belated): In which we struggle over the first assignment…

…which takes an approximate 48 hours to compose and another 5 hours to edit and footnote. Here is my copy, and here goes nothing:


Professor Atul Kohli

Assignment 1: A Realist Understanding of the Reasons for US Intervention in Vietnam

The situation in Viet Nam poses serious moral problems which are not merely diplomatic or tactical. Our nation is possessed of an immense power. To permit its utilization for unreasonable and barbarous purposes endangers the very foundation of American influence”.

 (Excerpt from a declaration signed by one thousand professors and lecturers of American universities and published in the New York Times of May 13, 1965)[1]

In the beginning, the United States of America was founded on the principles of democracy, independence and the American dream of self-determination. In 1941, abandoning its policy of isolationism to help the Allies fend off the imperialist advances of Germany and Japan during World War II, America’s military strength, its commitment to an unconditional surrender by Germany, and its nuclear bombing of Japan propelled America to the status of the world’s largest superpower, capable of wielding nuclear weapons to uphold democracy.

But the end of the war did not mean the end of American intervention, particularly in Vietnam. In 1950, shortly after the end of World War Two, following requests from the French for support to hold onto the colonies in Indochina that France had lost to Japan during the war, America sent aid in the form of money and troops, which quickly escalated as it became clear that Vietnam was a greater challenge to overcome than the French had foreseen[2]. By the last year of the war in 1954, of the $751 billion spent that year on the French effort to reclaim Vietnam, 73.9% was composed of US aid[3]; over the next 27 years, America would continue to escalate the war in Vietnam, even as the French left, defeated at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. By the end of the war, America would drop a total of approximately 14 billion tonnes of bombs, a figure greater even than the US had dropped in World War Two.[4]

Today, the Vietnam War remains a hugely contentious part of American history. Dubbed in Vietnam as the War of Resistance Against American Imperialism, the Vietnam War is one that continues to polarise America. Advocates of the war argue that the Vietnam War was a fight against the spread of Communism that begun with the best of motives; in contrast, critics of the war argue that America had no place in Vietnam, with the anti-war movement united together over the belief that the American war in Vietnam needed to end, whether that was because of the lack of a clear justification of why the war was being fought, the belief that American intervention in Vietnam was simply another form of imperialism or the high domestic costs of the war, among other reasons.

Given the continued contention over America’s intervention in Vietnam, this paper looks to explore whether American intervention in Vietnam was justified by looking at the reasons of why the US intervened. Today, the question of ‘why Vietnam’ has become increasingly important; while American foreign intervention in the Middle East is often justified under the name of fighting for freedom and justice, the Vietnam experience has challenged much of these underlying principles. As Marilyn B. Young states in her analysis of the impact of the Vietnam War on American public opinion, “many Americans born during the decade of the war grew up not believing anything their government told them”[5]. As such, understanding the motives of successive American policymakers in carrying out foreign policy in Vietnam is crucial to understanding America’s role as a global power today.

By looking at scholarly literature available over the course of the Eisenhower, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon presidencies, this paper seeks to explore the main changing rationales for US intervention in Vietnam. Through analysing arguments provided by authors Marilyn B. Young in “The Vietnam Wars 1945 – 1990” and Michael H. Hunt in “A Vietnam War Reader”, this paper will argue from a realist perspective that in the post-World War II and Cold War climate, the US intervened and continued to intervene in Vietnam not purely to uphold democracy, but for reasons pertaining to a misguided sense of Vietnam’s importance in maintaining America’s national security and a global world order, and a belief that Vietnam had symbolic importance in upholding the credibility of American commitment militarily to both US citizens and other countries, as America emerged as one of the world’s greatest powers in the aftermath of World War II.

But why approach the question of American causes for intervention from a realist perspective, and what is realism in terms of foreign policy? Realism takes as an underlying principle that the state of the world is anarchic, and under this assumption, argues that the primary goal of states is security and pursuing their own self-interests, whether that be territorial, economic or otherwise. While some scholars argue that realism as a theory is flawed as it cannot define the interests of a country categorically, within the context of the Vietnam War, realism is useful as it allows ­analysis of America’s motives for intervention against the backdrop of the Cold War and the lessons learned from World War II, without introducing concepts of morals and principles that liberalism would include, such as those of self-determination and social justice, which alone cannot be used to understand American policymakers’ decisions to both make and continue the war in Vietnam.

Reasons for the rejection of the pure application of liberal theories to understand the Vietnam War are made clear when looking at the context in which America operated in the 1950s onwards. While World War II had propelled America and the Soviet Union onto the world stage as the two most powerful states, it had simultaneously torn previously dominant countries such as Germany, Japan, France and Britain apart, leaving behind a power vacuum in both Europe and Asia. In its place stood two competing ideologies: firstly, democracy and secondly, Communism.

As such, in the face of weakened allies in Europe and the spread of Communism, the Truman administration was no longer in the position to prioritise the policies of self-determination it had lauded in World War II. Unlike Roosevelt, who had been able to argue for self-determination for all nations during World War II, the prospect of growing Soviet strength had changed the priorities of the Truman administration from maintaining principles of democracy to upholding global security. Instead American foreign policy became focussed on containment of Communism while developing good relations with countries who could support the US, such as France. Thus, it is clear that while liberalism brings forth important concepts of self-determination and principles in policymaking, the post-World War II climate had shifted America away from liberal values and towards protecting the self-interests of the state.

As such, despite the fact that the American administration knew almost for certain that Ho Chi Minh was no stooge of Communism, and was probably the “strongest and perhaps the ablest figure in Indochina”[6] according to the State Department in 1948, American policymakers refused to relinquish Vietnam and grant it independence. Repeated appeals from Ho Chi Minh to the Truman administration did nothing to change the stance of policymakers, who believed that that appeasing the French and helping to rebuild their economy by supporting their efforts to reacquire Vietnam would be necessary to secure their own sense of security against growing Communist threats. France would provide a useful ally for the US against the Soviet Union; granting Vietnam independence, though ideologically appealing, would do little for America’s state security and potentially even pave the way for Communism to gain a foothold in Indochina.

Therefore, from a realist perspective, it can be surmised that post-World War II, the US had two priorities, neither of which involved granting Vietnam independence: firstly, rebuilding a war-torn Europe in a way that would prevent further conflict happening, and secondly, preventing the spread of Communism, a goal that became more imperative following the beginning of the Korean War.

However, while rebuilding a war-torn Europe by supporting France’s claim to Vietnam in order to prevent the spread of Communism provides an explanation for why the US intervened against the Viet Minh movement, it does not explain why the US decided to continue to intervene once the French left, after a peace treaty was made in Geneva. Although America had not signed the 1954 Geneva Accords in the way that every other country that had attended the conference had, the American representative at Geneva, Walter Bedell Smith had stated that the US would take note of the agreements and “refrain from the threat or the use of force” to disturb the provisions made. [7] Yet, in a flagrant defiance of the Geneva Accords almost directly after it had been signed, the American administration supported the rise of Ngo Dinh Diem as President of South Vietnam and installed him as the puppet of America. By October 1954, only three months after the US administration had recognised the Accords, there would be 342 US military personnel in South Vietnam for the sole purpose of training the South Vietnamese armed forces against rebels in the South.[8]

Sources show again and again that this was a key point where America had the potential to pull out of the war. The Geneva Accords had not only provided the Americans with an excuse to pull troops and aid out of Vietnam, but also the opportunity to enforce free and fair elections nationwide in 1956. As aforementioned, America knew that Ho Chi Minh was no stooge of Communism and Ho Chi Minh was repeatedly described as a leader who, as Young put it, while “certainly [being] a Communist”, “put Nationalism first, had no known direct ties to the Soviet Union, but was relentless in his pursuit of direct ties to the United States”.[9] Together, Ho Chi Minh and the US administration had the potential to find a common ground on the principle of self-determination; why, then, did this not happen?

Again, a realist perspective of the US prioritising self-interests and state security that is grounded in the realities of the historical context of American intervention provides an answer. In 1954, in a personal correspondence to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Eisenhower stated, “. . . [W]e failed to halt Hirohito, Mussolini and Hitler by not acting in unity and in time. That marked the beginning of many years of stark tragedy and desperate peril. May it not be that our nations have learned something from that lesson?”[10] It seemed that while self-interest directed American policymakers towards making decisions that would protect their state on a global scale, appeasement, or ‘giving up’ in the face of another country’s victory was not an option in the decision-making process. Given the failure of appeasement as a policy to prevent war prior to World War II, the lessons that had been learned from World War II was that aggression from foreign states was to be met with a display of American strength, and the sharp rise of fascism meant that even Vietnamese nationalism was something to be feared. If a global world order were to be created, and future conflicts avoided, American strength and a credibility of commitment needed to be displayed.

Moreover, to American policymakers, this need to display American strength and a credibility of commitment seemed common sense given the challenges that Communism posed globally to world peace. The North Korean aggression created a fear that without America, other countries that were vulnerable could fall under the Communist sphere of influence. As Eisenhower stated at the Conference of State governors in 1953:

‘Suppose we lost Indochina. If that happened, tin and tungsten, to which we attach such a high price, would cease coming. That is why when the United States decides to give an aid of 400 million dollars to this war, it does not make a gratuitous offer. In reality, we have chosen the least costly means to prevent one of the most terrible things for the United States for its security, its strength and its possibility to obtain what it needs among the riches in Indochina and South – East Asia’.[11]

Eisenhower’s outlook towards Vietnam soon became known as the ‘domino theory’, and to American policymakers, cast Vietnam as a symbol of American strength and a stronghold for democracy. If Vietnam were to fall and succumb to Communism, then so too would the rest of Indochina, including Thailand, Burma and Indonesia. The domino theory argued that Vietnam was a key location within Indochina, and that the consequences of Communism spreading there would be as far-reaching as Australia and New Zealand. To America, who was concerned with protecting her national security, the domino theory espoused that Vietnam was integral to upholding world order.

Yet, to what extent did the domino theory hold with regard to Vietnam? Did policy makers truly believe that the fall of Vietnam would lead to the fall of Indochina? How much of it was an excuse for acts of American imperialism?

Sources show that certainly, during the early years of American intervention under Truman and Eisenhower in Vietnam, there was a legitimate fear within American policymakers of Communism, and a true belief that the fall of Vietnam would lead to a domino effect and the fall of other countries. In April 1950, the National Security Council Report 68 (NSC-68) stated grimly that, “The issues that face us are momentous, involving the fulfilment or destruction not only of this Republic but of civilisation itself”[12]. Compounded with intelligence officials calling for policies of aggressive containment in order to retract the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence, the formation of the Communist People’s Republic of China in 1949 and the weakness of Europe signalled to policymakers that the need to maintain a stronghold in Asia grew; thus, under the ideals espoused under the domino theory, American policymakers began to believe that their national security and self-interests rested on protecting Vietnam from falling to Communism, and committed as many resources as possible to prevent Vietnamese independence and maintain an anti-Communist state within Vietnam without provoking Chinese intervention.

However by 1961, the American rationale for being in Vietnam seemed less justified. In Kennedy’s private comments to his senior advisors, which included the pro-war Secretary of Defence, Robert McNamara, Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, and the National Security Advisor, McGeorge Bundy, among others, it is noted that:

“[Kennedy] questioned the wisdom of involvement in Viet Nam since the basis thereof is not clear. By comparison, he noted that Korea was a case of clear aggression which was opposed by the United States and other members of the U.N.” [13]

Unlike North Korea, North Vietnam had kept to the agreements written into the Geneva Accords; instead of attempting to reunify militarily with the South, the North turned instead to strengthening its economy and gaining political support through a series of land reform programmes. While American intervention had prevented the South from reunifying with the North by ensuring that Diem’s refusal to hold nationwide elections in the South in defiance of the Geneva Accords was upheld, the lack of American intervention in the North had not lead to a collapse of North Vietnam to Communism. In contrast, Young notes that Khrushchev, who had been hoped to loosen the tension between the Soviet Union and the US, had even suggested that the states could be permanently divided as early as 1957.[14] Thus, while key advisors McNamara, Rusk and Bundy remained positive in the face of these statements that the creation and stabilisation of an anti-Communist state in South Vietnam was still possible, it was clear that the domino theory no longer applied and that there was little real justification for America to be intervening for an anti-Communist state in Vietnam.

Yet, even as the US administration realised that the domino theory held little plausibility with regard to Vietnam, the rhetoric remained the same. Following inquiries into the stability of Diem’s US-backed regime in the South, in 1963, Kennedy stated in a press conference that “We want to see a stable government [in South Vietnam], carrying on a struggle to maintain its national independence… We are not going to withdraw from that effort. In my opinion, for us to withdraw… would mean a collapse not only of South Viet-Nam, but Southeast Asia.”[15] Given the growing belief that America had no right to be in Vietnam, why did America continue to escalate the conflict, even as policymakers slowly came to the realisation that the domino theory did not apply? What self-interests could have possibly motivated America to continue a war that was not only costly at home, but went against the very principles of self-determination that America had been founded upon?

Even without the domino theory, the American need for world order and a space to exhibit the credibility of American commitment existed. As Bundy had stated to President Johnson:

We want to keep before Hanoi the carrot of our desisting as well as the stick of continued pressure… A reprisal policy – to the extent that it demonstrates US willingness to employ this new norm in counter-insurgency – will set a higher price for the future upon all adventures of guerrilla warfare, and it should therefore somewhat increase our ability to deter such adventures. We must recognise, however, that that ability will be gravely weakened if there is failure for any reason in Vietnam.[16]

Thus, while the Americans believed that they could still ‘win the war’ against the Southern guerrilla movement and establish an anti-Communist, US-backed regime in the South like they had done in South Korea, the goal of American policymakers remained unchanged, even as their one real justification (the domino theory) for intervention in Vietnam faded away.

In this way, successive American policymakers began to view the American commitment in Vietnam solely as a symbol to the world of American commitment to policy and democracy; commitment of which was renewed in each successive presidency by the belief of each president that whereas the previous president had failed to suppress the North, this time, America would win. In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s speech at John Hopkins University directly addressed the question of ‘why Vietnam’, stating three reasons:

We are there because we have a promise to keep
We are also there to strengthen world order
We are also there because there are great stakes in the balance[17]

While sources show that it is clear that Johnson never wanted to fight the war in Vietnam and give up his domestic plans to form the Great Society, which he once referred to as “the women [he] really loved”[18], Johnson felt bound to the commitments that future presidencies had made. While there was still a chance that America might win the Vietnam war and squeeze the North into a surrender under America’s War of Attrition strategy, Johnson felt that to give up would be “being responsible for America’s losing a war to the Communists.”[19] Thus pride, a sense of commitment to seeing through a war that had been started by previous administrations and a mistaken belief by American policymakers that national security lay in displaying strength of commitment led to protracted warfare in Vietnam even as the presidency passed onto the Nixon administration.

It was only when it became crystal clear that the war could not be won that negotiations for peace were made. Since the summer of 1965, the anti-war movement at home had been gaining momentum and by 1967, speeches of prominent activists such as Martin Luther King denouncing American intervention compounded onto the pressures that the US faced. By the time the 1968 Tet Offensive happened, it became overwhelmingly clear that America did not have everything under control. Even as a ‘peace’ candidate, Nixon had attempted to suppress domestic anti-war demonstrations, had covertly bombed North Vietnam and encouraged the Vietnamisation of troops; it was only once it became clear that Vietnam could not be a place for Americans to display their strength, and that further commitment to Vietnam would only induce further humiliating defeats and a growing domestic anti-war movement, did American policymakers decide to withdraw from Vietnam. Finally, American policymakers had realised that there was no way for the Americans to win the war in Vietnam. American interest in using Vietnam as a means to display its credibility and power had finally come to an end; the only thing left to do was rewrite history to paint America in a better light. As President Reagan would later state, Americans in Vietnam had stood for freedom, “as Americans have always stood – and still do[20].

To conclude, the exploration of the main rationales behind American intervention in Vietnam provide interesting takeaways for the uses of realism in the study of state intervention in countries around the world today, and provide a critical lens from which to view American foreign policy. Scholars often argue that America’s rise to power as a hegemony began with the Spanish American War and peaked in the twentieth century, ending with America’s failed foreign policy in Vietnam. The Vietnam War disillusioned not only American citizens, but people around the world as to the role of world powers in foreign intervention. The Vietnam war proved that in their haste to strengthen their own state security, American policymakers had never really tried to gain an understanding of the deep nationalist sentiment that drove so many of the Vietnamese forces to mobilise against foreign intervention. Instead, American policymakers had touted the domino theory as a form of rhetoric to justify intervention as a quest for a greater good. The failed policy in Vietnam was a result of American self-interest and a lack of empathy for other nations. Today, as America continues to intervene in the Middle East in the name of democracy and justice, the Vietnam War remains a part of America’s history that serves to remind both citizens and policymakers alike what fighting in the name of justice can be.

[1] War Remnants Museum Exhibit, 2016

[2] Hunt, Michael, ‘A Vietnam War Reader’, 1st Ed, The University of North Carolina Press, 2010, pg. 22

[3] War Remnants Museum Exhibit, 2016

[4] War Remnants Museum Exhibit, 2016

[5] Young, Marilyn B., ‘The Vietnam Wars 1945 – 1990’, 1st Ed, 1991, pg. 314

[6] Young, Marilyn B., ‘The Vietnam Wars 1945 – 1990’, 1st Ed, 1991, pg. 23

[7] Young, Marilyn B., ‘The Vietnam Wars 1945 – 1990’, 1st Ed, 1991, pg. 42

[8] Hunt, Michael, ‘A Vietnam War Reader’, 1st Ed, The University of North Carolina Press, 2010, pg. 34

[9] Young, Marilyn B., ‘The Vietnam Wars 1945 – 1990’, 1st Ed, 1991, pg. 22

[10] Hunt, Michael, ‘A Vietnam War Reader’, 1st Ed, The University of North Carolina Press, 2010, pg. 27

[11] War Remnants Museum, 2016

[12] Young, Marilyn B., ‘The Vietnam Wars 1945 – 1990’, 1st Ed, 1991, pg. 25

[13] Hunt, Michael, ‘A Vietnam War Reader’, 1st Ed, The University of North Carolina Press, 2010, pg. 48

[14] Young, Marilyn B., ‘The Vietnam Wars 1945 – 1990’, 1st Ed, 1991, pg. 53

[15] Hunt, Michael, ‘A Vietnam War Reader’, 1st Ed, The University of North Carolina Press, 2010, pg. 51

[16] Hunt, Michael, ‘A Vietnam War Reader’, 1st Ed, The University of North Carolina Press, 2010, pg. 68

[17] Hunt, Michael, ‘A Vietnam War Reader’, 1st Ed, The University of North Carolina Press, 2010, pg. 70

[18] Young, Marilyn B., ‘The Vietnam Wars 1945 – 1990’, 1st Ed, 1991, pg. 106

[19] Young, Marilyn B., ‘The Vietnam Wars 1945 – 1990’, 1st Ed, 1991, pg. 106

[20] Young, Marilyn B., ‘The Vietnam Wars 1945 – 1990’, 1st Ed, 1991, pg. 329

An Incoherent Reflection on POL438: America’s War in Vietnam

Chào các bạn!

Today was our last official “class” of the seminar, and at the very end, our professor (the #1 hero Atul Kohli) had us share our thoughts on the seminar: what we learned, what the best experiences were, what the worst experiences were, etc. What resulted was perhaps the best bonding moment of the seminar – an hour of honesty, reflection, and thanks as we looked back on the past six weeks, from the moment we stepped off the plane into the humid Hanoi heat to our final lunch together with our professor and Vietnamese friends. In an effort to immortalize my current thoughts on these reflections before they drift away (but mainly an effort to actively avoid starting my final paper), I thought it’d be nice to post on the PIIRS blog a recap of our feelings as the seminar comes to a close. Awkward moment when my first blog post comes on the second to last day in Vietnam – but hey, better late than never, right?

Personally, I came into this seminar, a course titled “America’s War in Vietnam”, knowing embarrassingly little about the Vietnam War. What I DID know came from the movie Forrest Gump and my 11th grade US History class (but mostly from Forrest Gump). I could not have told you why the war was fought, who was involved besides the Vietnamese and Americans, which side was communist, or what on earth Ho Chi Minh did. Now, six weeks later, I can answer not only all of those questions (in case you were wondering, Ho Chi Minh led the communist North), but also tell you what the United States’ changing rationales for staying in the war were, whether they were justified, how the different presidents handled the war, and what differing perspectives on the war are (liberal vs. realist vs. radical).

This isn’t an attempt to boast, nor am I now an expert on the Vietnam War. But it’s a testament to how much I (and everyone else on my seminar) have learned throughout these past six weeks. Being an engineering student, almost all of the classes I took freshman year were STEM based. Life revolved around aggressively remembering that F = ma and V = IR, or that mergesort has a runtime of O(N log N), and forgetting a semicolon in your Java code really is the end of the world.  And while an engineering education has its own merits, I think in pursuing one, I had lost my grasp on the humanities. I came from a hyper-competitive high school in the Silicon Valley where math and science reigned supreme, and people really only took AP Literature or AP US History because of the “AP” label, not to learn the material more rigorously. I didn’t really believe in the value of humanities, as much as I wanted to – what’s the point in learning about the Vietnam War? It’s not like you’re going to walk on the streets and flash off your knowledge about the Tet Offensive.

But I can honestly say this class has made me think critically about the world, question American government and policies, and made a bigger impact on me as a person than any math, physics, or computer science class I have ever taken. Which isn’t a knock on STEM – those classes have pushed me and taught me to problem solve in a different way than this course, and I still plan to graduate with an engineering degree. But there is such a human element to the humanities that I don’t personally get from STEM courses, and that I didn’t realize I was missing until I took this course. It feels so darn good to know enough about a subject that I can formulate my opinion on it and be able to have a discussion where I’m not just blindly accepting everyone’s viewpoints. To be able to tell someone not just what happened in the war, but WHY it happened and whether I think the American leaders’ decisions helped or harmed. To be able to make connections between what happened in the war and what we should learn from it. To be able to apply what I’ve learned on this seminar to conversations that I have in daily life, whether it be relating the 2016 elections to the Nixon elections or realizing what a strong grip the media has on how we as a country view things.

I think a major point that all of us on this trip have also taken away is to “question America,” to say the least. Don’t get me wrong – I’m still incredibly proud to be American, and grateful that my parents came over 35 years ago to grant me the privileged, comfortable life I am lucky to lead today. But as the very trite saying goes, “nobody’s perfect,” our country included. One of the selling points in the description of this course was that we weren’t just going to learn the American perspective of the war, but also the Vietnamese perspective. (Historical fun fact: the war(s) for Vietnam started way before the United States even intervened. Originally, the struggle for the Vietnamese was to escape French colonialism. Long story short, the French failed to protect their colony, and the United States decided it was time to play superman to prevent Vietnam from falling to communism.) Even before starting the seminar, I realized that I learned about the Vietnam War in U.S. History, not World History, which goes to show the biased perspective you could get as a student in the United States. And being able to see the war from the Vietnamese side truly made me realize how inexcusable and unwarranted some of the atrocities we committed against the Vietnamese were.

One particularly emotional moment for us was visiting the War Remnants Museum in Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City. I’m not much of a museum gal, but I left the museum speechless, unsure of what to think or how to feel. When you walk through the exhibits of the War Remnants Museum, you don’t get smiling pictures of soldiers. What you get is pictures upon pictures of this (sincere apologies for the graphic pictures):

ago1 ago2 ago3

These are just three of the thousands of victims of Agent Orange, a chemical defoliant we used against the Vietnamese, which resulted in birth defects in not only the victims, but also their kids (possibly for generations to come). And while we may not have MEANT to cause pain and suffering against so many innocent people, these pictures are objective proof that we still did. In trying to save Vietnam (or at the very least, save South Vietnam), we were destroying it, destroying the scenery and people that were just trying to make a life for themselves. To try and get North Vietnam to try and agree with our concessions, we bombed the living daylights out of Hanoi, partly because we were trying to make up for withdrawing troops (a story for another day), but partly because that was all we seemed to know how to do.

So no matter how good the intentions of the United States leaders may have been, there is no doubting that the actions we carried out were flawed – after all, it was indeed the first war the United States (according to most scholars) “lost.” This is why although many war veterans come back bitter and with PTSD, Vietnam War veterans perhaps are the most disillusioned – because they feel they fought a meaningless war. Whether or not they did is an interpretation up for grabs. But learning about this and being able to see this in real life, and crawl through the very Cu Chi tunnels where North Vietnamese soldiers would live for weeks, made me feel so utterly human and grounded.

I’m not entirely sure how my post digressed from being about an uninformed student to ending abruptly with an unintentional criticism of the United States…if I had written this for writing seminar, I would probably be workshopped on everything from flow to structure. But. hopefully, (if anyone actually chose to read this massive chunk of text by a procrastinating student who really needs to get started on her final essay), it gave some semblance of what I got out of this seminar! I had planned to write about Vietnam as a country and the Vietnamese language as well on this post (if not for anyone potentially reading this than for myself to look back on in a couple of years), but perhaps that should serve as a massive chunk of text on a separate post.

If anyone is still reading at this point…cảm ơn for sticking with my rambling thoughts.

Hẹn gặp lại !


Week 3: In which we take a trip down South…

… and I take over Princeton’s Instagram account for the journey to Saigon where we:


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explore the vibrant night life

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forge valuable bonds of friendship

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stare at pictures of Uncle Ho

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strike a pose

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and most importantly: open our eyes, listen and remember.

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I pray for those who are long gone, who have suffered, and those who continue to suffer from the consequences of the Vietnam War. 




Week 2: In which we meet Melanie Ho…

… a rising junior at Princeton University, aspiring director and American born Vietnamese, looking to understand the American War in Vietnam.



—> “I like dogs.”  <—

Tạm Biệt!



(P.S. Click on the link above!)

Week 1: In which we discover the delights of Hanoi’s street food…

… and the true value of the VND

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A basic ode to street food:

I profess my professor said to not

Eat ice, or fruit, or anything not hot

But with price so low and a wallet thin

How could I resist a lime with Phố Tình?


With pointed gestures and smiles I try

To communicate with shopkeepers even as they lie

To foreigners like me who don’t speak Vietnamese:

‘That will be 90,000 VND, please.’


I’ve tried Bánh Mì, Chè and Bánh cuốn

And there’s even more food I want ‘fore I’m gone

With only five short weeks left, how the time will fly

Soon I will miss you, Vietnam, tạm biệt , goodbye



Hẹn gặp lại!



A Religious Street in Hanoi’s Old Quarter

Walking down Hanoi’s Lý Quốc Sư Street of Hanoi’s Old Quarter, I, the inquisitive tourist, came across, in close proximity, two Vietnamese landmarks of seeming peaceful but curious coexistence. At the head of the street stands the grand St. Joseph’s Cathedral with a rusted metal statue of the Queen of Peace (Regina Pacis) outside.


The church immediately stands out in the region not only for its great height and clearly Western style architecture, but also because of the open space it is afforded in a region of the city where most streets are as narrow as a single car. As I passed by St Josephs, congregants streamed out of the Sunday morning service, and later, as I was returning in the opposite direction, a young Vietnamese bride in a traditionally Western white dress was taking wedding photographs with her groom, the two effortlessly smiling in the 97-degree heat. A man at a coffee shop across the street tells me I am welcome inside the church, if I want to enter.

Only a few doors down the street, tucked away from the bustle of motorcycle traffic, stands a Buddhist shrine Chùa Lý Triều Quốc Sư (Choo-ah Lee Chee-oo Qu-ohk Soo-er). A young woman sits outside the gate of the temple, selling firecrackers and Vietnamese cone hats. I ask her if I can enter, and after receiving no answer, I step in. A classmate says the Buddhist monks waved her in after she hesitated outside.


Within the shrine monks sit at tables, peeling and eating small fruits, while western dressed Vietnamese men and women kneel shoeless at various altars with their hands together praying. I slip my sandals off and walk towards one of the shrines, noticing a stack of fake American 100 dollar bills in a pile next to a gold Buddhist figure, a pile of curiously shaped green fruits and a poster with about fifty photographs of whom I assumed were former or current congregants in the Buddhist community. One of the formerly praying women smiles at me as she exits.


I learned in my course reading that Vietnam is a predominately homogenous population of ethnically Vietnamese people who have long practiced Buddhism. However, the country has nevertheless struggled throughout its history with how to deal politically and socially with its minority religious and ethnic sects, including its Catholic population which arrived in Vietnam with French missionaries in the seventeenth century. Lý Quốc Sư Street, which itself is named after an 11th Century Buddhist monk (as is the shrine), demonstrated not the struggle between, but rather the peaceful coexistence of different peoples, as well as their welcoming attitude to outsiders such as myself. The two landmarks also showed to me the preservation of the old and historical Vietnamese tradition in the modern world. The church shows wear from pollution with its grey stone now blackened with soot, but happy Vietnamese teens take selfies on iPhones outside. I discover the Buddhist community has an active Facebook page, featuring photographs of boys and girls my age in the standard blue robes praying. A girl comments on one photo about how funny her expression is in the image.



Chao, Hanoi!

Chao, everybody, and welcome to my first blog post for Princeton’s Global Seminar in Hanoi! My name is Vanessa and I’m a sophomore (excuse me, a rising junior) at Princeton University.

This is somewhat belated, since I’ve already been in Hanoi for exactly a week and a day now, but for my part, I’m going to be blogging on my experience in Hanoi for all of you to see on this website.

Follow me to see the transition from gross airport food…


to being united with friends…


to having our first dinner together as a class and so much more during our time in Hanoi!


Shout-out to Princeton and the Office of International Programmes for making all of this possible, and I’m looking forward to sharing my experience with you!