By Katie Flynn
Daily Planet Intern
Vietnam was a country that Berkeley High School teacher Rick Ayers never thought he'd visit. But after five months of planning and a 20-hour plane ride, Ayers made the journey. It was the ultimate field trip for 13 of his students who explored the bustling cities and wet rice paddies.
“Vietnam was far more advanced than I expected,” said Arose Umar-Bey, a senior at Berkeley High. “You think of a third world country lacking technology, but really it was almost like being at home: People were going to work, going CD shopping.”
For two weeks last month, the students and four teachers toured the country by bus and stayed in inexpensive hotels. Tran Tuong Nhu, a Vietnamese-born Berkeley High parent, and Lan Cao, a professor at Hanoi University, helped guide the group.
They traveled to Halong Bay where they swam in the warm ocean water. They visited a traditional Moung village and went to Hanoi and saw the Temple of Literature, Ho Chi Min's Mausoleum and the Presidential Palace. In Danang, they met the family from the film “A Girl from Danang.” And in Hui, the group saw Buddhist pagodas.
They met with Vietnamese war veterans who told the group about how they won the Vietnam War, which they call the “American War,” through determination and guerrilla fighting.
“I use to idealize Vietnamese like the ultimate jungle warriors that couldn't be beat,” Ayers said. “But I learned they got beat up too. They just kept going back at it.”
The group visited the Amsterdam School, where a class of mostly girls was learning English and hoping to one day attend an American college. The United States and Vietnamese students paired up, sang songs, taught each other dances, and went to a karaoke bar that night.
“It was so great to meet other high school kids,” said Umar-Bey. “We realized we had a lot of things in common and we talked about boyfriends and crushes and parties.”
The group also met children at the Peace Village, a school for people born with disabilities blamed on Agent Orange, a toxin that Americans used to defoliate the Vietnam jungles during the war.
“Seeing kids who had these huge physical deformities like the wrong size head or eyes, made such an impression on us... We all started crying when we first got there,” Umar-Bey said. “It’s like looking at what carelessness can do.”
When summer vacation is over, the Berkeley High students plan to focus on sending funds to the Peace Village, as well as teaching others about it.
“We got a sense of responsibility and how it is our job to help at the Peace Village,” said Gabby Miller, a senior who has visited Vietnam three times before. Miller said she wished they could have done more for the Peace Village while in Vietnam.
A highlight of the trip was an unexpected meeting with the vice president of Vietnam, Nguyen Thi Binh, who was a friend of Nhu.
For Ayers, Binh represented the many years of fighting with the National Liberation Front, the group that opposed the United States’ involvement in Vietnam.
Ayers and two students met Binh in her office and discussed Vietnam's history while eating litchi nuts and drinking tea.
“The idea that I, a high school English teacher who was a rather small light in the peace movement of 30 years ago, should be sitting having a cup of tea with Mme. Binh and a few students, seemed almost unbelievable to me,” Ayers wrote in an e-mail about the meeting.
Next year, the students will present their trip photos, videos and notes to other students.
“Vietnam is this country filled with amazing stories. Everyone has a story of war, determination and pride,” Miller said. “You almost become jealous that you are not a part of such a proud culture.”
The trip cost about $1,600 for each person, with some of the expense offset by fundraising.
“For me it was a real pilgrimage, a trip of a life time,” said Ayers. “I never thought it would happen.”