For most of today’s college students, the Vietnam War is ancient history. But for junior Calli Nguyen and senior Kyle Bridges, who are spending three weeks in Vietnam with a dozen other students and three professors, the war left a lasting imprint on their families.
The students, who left for Vietnam on July 20, will be studying the country’s political and economic systems and volunteering at a school during the annual service-learning trip sponsored by the University’s Pro Humanitate Center.
Nguyen, whose parents were born in South Vietnam and came to the U.S. after the Vietnam War, will also be learning more about his family heritage and meeting his Vietnamese relatives for the first time. Bridges, whose father fought in the war, will be learning more about his father’s experiences and how they shaped his family. Nguyen’s parents and Bridges’ father have never returned to Vietnam, but they encouraged their sons to make the trip.
Nguyen’s father, who was an officer in the South Vietnamese navy, fled the country after the fall of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) in 1975. He eventually made it to the U.S. and settled in Texas, where he met Nguyen’s mother, who had also fled South Vietnam. His father has arranged for him to meet about two dozen of his Vietnamese aunts and uncles and cousins for the first time.
“The war tore apart mom and dad’s lives,” said Nguyen, whose parents still display a South Vietnamese flag above their home’s fireplace. “They were taken away from their country and separated from their families.”
Bridges’ father was a communications specialist in the U.S. Army in South Vietnam in the late 1960s. “The Vietnam War has always been a very real thing in our family,” said Bridges, who is from Winston-Salem. “One of the reasons I’m going is to see what my father went through. It’s almost 40 years to the day that he first went in. But I’ll be seeing the country in peacetime, while my dad was forced to do something different.”
Before leaving for Vietnam, the students spent two weeks on campus taking classes on comparative world politics and economic systems, taught by Peter Siavelis, Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation Fellow and associate professor of political science, and on entrepreneurship, taught by Betsy Gatewood, director of the University Office of Entrepreneurship and Liberal Arts. Siavelis and Gatewood accompanied the students to Vietnam, along with Mary Gerardy, dean of campus life and associate vice president, who is making her seventh trip to Vietnam in the last eight years.
During their three weeks in Vietnam, the students will visit historical and cultural sites in Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, Hue and Da Nang, and spend a week helping refurbish a school in Kien Giang province, in southwestern Vietnam near the Cambodian border. As part of Gatewood’s class on entrepreneurship, they will meet with Vietnamese entrepreneurs, including some who work with alumna Jennifer Woodsmall (’04). Following her own trip to Vietnam when she was a student, Woodsmall started her own company, J.L. Lane, that sells hand-embroidered silk handbags made by craftswomen in Hanoi.
Nguyen and Bridges will see plenty of reminders of the Vietnam War in Ho Chi Minh City, including the Cu Chi tunnels, the War Remnants Museum and the Reunification Palace. Bridges isn’t sure how he’ll feel experiencing the Vietnam War from the North Vietnamese side when the group visits museums and war memorials.
Neither Nguyen’s nor Bridges’ father talked much about the war when they were growing up. Nguyen’s father, Bay, was serving at Ben Luc Naval Base, near Saigon, when the South Vietnamese capital fell to North Vietnamese forces on April 30, 1975. He fled the country in a boat with five other sailors and reached Thailand a week later. After living in a refugee camp in Thailand for seven months, he was allowed to enter the U.S. and moved to Texas with little more than a Vietnamese-English dictionary in his pocket.
Nguyen’s mother, Van, had fled Vietnam earlier with her six brothers and sisters, also escaping by boat to Thailand and then making her way to the U.S. and also settling in Texas. Nguyen’s family moved to Cary, N.C., when he was in second grade. He met his father’s mother several years ago when she visited the U.S., but he has never met any other of his father’s relatives.
“One of the main reasons I’m going is to meet his side of the family,” said Nguyen, a pre-med physics major. “I want to learn how they live and how they experience Vietnam, my home country in some aspects. I want to see what it’s like to be a real Vietnamese rather than an American-Vietnamese.”
Bridges’ father, Tilden, entered Vietnam in 1969 and served about a year-and-a-half in and around Saigon, helping to pinpoint enemy locations. He is convinced that his father’s experiences in Vietnam led him to divinity school, where he met Bridges’ mother, Linda (MBA ’04), who has taught classes in Wake Forest’s divinity school and religion department. Both father and son share an interest in military history, but had never talked much about Vietnam until Kyle took a class on the war at Wake Forest.
“Basically we took that course together,” said Bridges, whose uncle also served in Vietnam. “It was interesting to get the viewpoint of someone who was there. Before, he didn’t feel he needed to share his story. He wasn’t trying to hide it, it was just something that had happened, and he didn’t feel the need to relive it or retell it.”
His father isn’t interested in going back to Vietnam, Bridges said, but is interested in seeing the country again through his son’s eyes. “I have, I guess you could say, a more ‘spiritual’ agenda for the trip because of how it’s shaped my family.”