Out of its heartland, a definition of today's Vietnam


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HUE, Vietnam — Few words carry so much meaning as that poignant proper noun, Vietnam. 

Old soldiers remember hell in a small place. Policymakers still tiptoe around post-war syndromes. Now a fresh generation sees what so many of us failed to understand: a vastly productive people committed to deep roots, family sanctity and singular ways of life.

Over the summer, students from Tufts University’s Institute for Global Leadership brought cameras and keyboards to Hue to take the measure of this elusive place. Their work is featured here in this special report for GlobalPost's Study Abroad page, which every week features the work of student correspondents who are on international study programs around the world. 

It was no easy task. Vietnam defies definition. It is a totalitarian state run by a Communist Party with freebooting capitalism that would shame old-time American robber barons. Its heart-stopping beauty draws tourists by the millions yet heedless development pollutes much of what war left unscathed.

The “American War” killed a million Vietnamese; residual Agent Orange still maims. Yet surprisingly little resentment lingers. Vietnamese tend to look forward, not backward. But more, the government needs the United States to counterbalance an ancient enemy closer at hand: China.

Vietnam’s stunning metamorphosis is most obvious in Hanoi, where traffic chokes old charm, and in Ho Chi Minh City, the high-rise reincarnation of once-sleepy Saigon.

Still, Hue is heartland, capital of an old empire where few welcomed North Vietnamese who came to set them free. In some ways it booms. In others, it slowly slogs away.

Gary Knight and I helped the group penetrate surfaces. Knight, a photographer and scholar, knows the new Vietnam well. I covered the war and its aftermath. Students did the digging, equipped for it by the institute’s director, a force of nature named Sherman Teichman, and associate director Heather Barry. The institute’s watchword is Thinking Beyond Boundaries, Acting Across Borders.

For the students and the young people they targeted, Vietnam’s last war was ancient history, nearly twice as far back in time as World War II was to Americans who debarked in Saigon during the 1960s. Our reporting timeline began with 1975, when the South fell and the world tuned out.

Kahran Singh tied past to present in the coastal village of An Bang. Knight spotted the place as his plane approached Hue, 500 elaborate pagodas with rooftop statues and gleaming tiles. They were, Singh found, family tombs built by refugees who fled in frail open craft when the South fell. Now these boat people return for visits, leave behind cash and return to their new lives in America.

Samuel James pointed a lens at whatever piqued his curiosity: faces, hands at work, fishermen and factory workers, heaped-up mangos, kids at play. The resulting mosaic of odd-shaped tiles adds up to a clear panorama.

Amy Connors focused on people her age, from university grinds duty-bound by parents’ expectations to young toughs who prowl the riverbank late into the night. Senait Debesu looked at shrines around Hue and how each generation still transmits devout spirituality on to the next.

Louise Blavet followed the Huong, the Perfumed River, as it meanders through Hue. Its old floating villages are gone, displaced by authorities who believe tourists might think them unsightly. Dredging for cement and factory dumping pollute its waters. Chelsea Grayson ventured up Huong tributaries, deep into emerald-green rice paddies. Rains are growing erratic, she found, and the Huong’s level drops at crucial times. Farmers struggle to survive.

The big cities offer dramatic visual effects. Graceful French colonial charm fades into smog-shrouded traffic jams; traditional shophouses are bulldozed to make way for hotels. Danang, not far from Hue, looks less like a Vietnamese provincial capital than a mini Sydney with a towering new bridge and sparkling skyline. In the end, however, reportage that matters is about people.

Around Hue, the students found lots of 20-somethings eager to emigrate, following elder relatives who went the hard way. In the fishing village of Lang Co, Samuel James talked to teenaged girls whose goal was to do nails in California. One seemed anxious to marry him.

At the same time, many now in school or working as young professionals are committed to staying put. They see a better life than their parents knew, with even brighter prospects for the future.

At a park above the Perfume River, Nguyen Thi My Nhung told Amy Connors why she worked so hard in class: “I want to have a good job and to do something. I want to do a small thing for our country, Vietnam.” 

Get a closer look at each student's photographic essay:

Perfume River has new fragrance these days

Ancestor shrines: from mini to massive

Money from US transforms traditional Vietnamese village

Times have changed, but farming hasn't

Vietnamese youth escape in public places

Past, present and future collide on Hue streets