Richard Wiley, associate director of UNLV’s Black Mountain Institute, was the first recipient of the Tran Thi Oanh Exchange, a visiting opportunity between UNLV and Nha Trang, Vietnam. This unique program was recently established through a gift from the Zalcman family. Wiley reflects on his experience.
Nha Trang is a golden city that sits on a concave curve of the coastline of the Biên ?ông Sea (South China Sea). It has one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, but it is also graced with ornaments of Vietnamese history: staid and lovely temples, the last home of Vietnam’s last emperor. Long before the Nguyen lords wrestled this part of the country into their dynasty, Nha Trang had the Tháp Bà Pô Tower for 700 years.
During my stay, I was accompanied by Terry Zalcman — Do Thi Tuyet Nga is her Vietnamese name — who is the founder of the exchange program. (Tran Thi Oanh, for whom the program is named, was Terry’s mother.) It was Terry’s belief that there has been a static and unfortunate impression of each country by the other since the Vietnam War, called The American War in Vietnam. I didn’t know whether that was true or not. I am of that age, but I didn’t fight in the Vietnam War. For me — and, I will venture to say, for millions of other Americans — Vietnam had ceased to be a living place after the war and turned, instead, into a moment in history. A time, not a place.
Since 1975 whenever I heard the word Vietnam, many things came into my mind: wounded men on stretchers whose evacuation I saw nightly on TV, the ubiquitous antiwar protests, tunnels with terrifying Vietcong hiding in them, peace talks in Paris where they argued over the shape of the table, the monstrous acts of Lieutenant William Calley and others. But in all those years, I never thought of Vietnam as vigorous and vital and changing, as a body of people with as complex and lasting and changing a culture as any other. For me, those images listed above were set in concrete. And now that concrete has crumbled.
In Vietnam, the average age is 23.11 years. (In the U.S., it’s 36.8.) Nearly all the people I met, on the street, in restaurants, at Nha Trang University, seemed even younger than that. And my overriding impression was that I was among a demure, kind, humorous, and industrious people — a people for whom nothing at all was set in concrete. Everything was fluid, everything aimed at the future. They wanted to talk to me about everything under the sun, but no one, NO ONE, asked me to say a word about The American War.
It’s a simple thing to know — that people are people everywhere — but a very easy thing to forget. And this short exchange program made me remember it. Others from UNLV will now go to Nha Trang, while visitors from that lovely city will soon come here — to Las Vegas, the misunderstanding of which, worldwide, might equal my own previous misunderstanding of Vietnam. Ironic, no?