Vietnam - the ultimate human experience

By Ron Kitcher-Pentey ’14

“Why would anyone go to Vietnam?” I kept answering that same question since I announced my intentions to go with the art class abroad

“Because I saw it in a show and it looks awesome,” I would reply. The show, the BBC’s “Top Gear,” had filmed and aired an epic special that involved travelling across Vietnam via motorcycle.

The program showed a Vietnam of wild beauty, interesting locations and many avenues for fish-out-of-water hilarity. But even through all my confidence, deep down, I was in doubt. What if Vietnam was nothing like a written, rehearsed and staged television show?

Nineteen hours of flight later we landed in Hanoi, and from there, things were a blur of faces and activity. One day we were enjoying an afternoon with the orphaned victims of the Vietnam War, the next we were doing circles around spectacular rock formations jutting out of the waters of the Ha Long bay.

Vietnam was brimming and overflowing with so many cultural riches, from beautiful clothing to hypnotizing music to amazing food and everything in-between. Vietnam was wonderfully different, a spectacle even on the lowliest domestic level: goldfish and carp populating a man-made pond next to the kitchen and rice fields, painted water buffalo pulling ploughs through freshly doused clay fields.

The sights we feasted upon ranged from the extreme panorama of mountaintops, views of a lush green mountainside and the thin coast of yellow along a turquoise blue sea for miles on end. We went hundreds of feet below ground into a tunnel city carved out of rock where soldiers, farmers and children had waited for the bombs to cease.

Our wonderful adventures included studying centuries old pottery made by the masters, discovering ancient Egyptian, Muslim, Greek and Hindu ruins in forbidden jungles, losing our collective sense of time in museums full of timeless art and catching our seafood lunch by hand in clay dugouts with mire up to our knees.

For all its differences, however, I felt right at home in Vietnam for reasons that always seemed just outside of the ether of my perception. It was not until I was back stateside that I realized what it was about Vietnam that I loved so much.

The answer came to me when I realized I was going to miss Mr. Le, our incredible tour guide, who was so full of life and love for, and pride in, his precious Vietnam. Mr. Le — who laughed with a spark in his eyes, sang love songs to pass the time and loved to kick butt at card games — wonderfully human Mr. Le.

Our guide wasn’t the only one so forthcoming about his humanity, simply everyone we met in our activities or ran into on the busy sidewalks connected to us with a love and curiosity that only humans could fathom.

Similarly, everyone in Vietnam was a guide, offering help, advice and insight, which added further depth and meaning to our experiences.

My favorite memory from the trip, however, stems from my last few days in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). It was 6 a.m. and we were up and about in the local park, just like many of the city’s residents do to start their day.

Sitting and enjoying a blend of coffee with sweetened condensed milk at the park’s breakfast bar, I listened to the songs of the caged birds, brought by old men to sing to each other whilst their owners had breakfast and discussed news and politics.

Vietnam in many ways is like a caged bird singing a beautiful song; one must make an effort to find beauty and joy from the human connection in people of other races and places, even more so when such beauty is caged by the deeds of history.

This ultimate human experience — which I owe to Hanover’s Study Abroad Program — taught me the power and charm of forgiveness, and the happiness and peace that comes with it, leaving me with a thirst for discovering, for exploring and for learning.

Junior Ron Kitcher-Pentey hails from Accra, Ghana. A pre-med biology major and studio art minor, he is in the Business Scholars Program and a member of the File Diversity Project. The program seeks to give the freshman class pathways to appreciating and focusing on the positive sides of diversity.