Connecticut College Magazine · Fall 2008

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Letters from Vietnam

Letters from  Vietnam

Frances Hoffmann, professor of sociology and gender and women´s studies, led the seventh Study Away Teach Away (SATA) Vietnam with Rolf Jensen, professor of economics, in the 2008 spring semester. The two professors and 13 students lived, worked and studied in Hanoi from January to May, gaining familiarity with the city and its residents and also touring the country and southeast Asia. Hoffmann documented her experiences in several long e-mails, excerpted here, to friends and family back home.

More about SATA

by Frances Hoffmann


Monday, Jan. 21

Dear Friends and Family:
Students arrived safely Friday night, and we are settling into the semester routine. They were an excited and exhausted bunch … they are upbeat, resilient, exploratory, good-natured, and seem genuinely interested in classes as well as hanging out in Hanoi. ... I started Vietnamese this morning — two hours of private instruction, whew! Brain cells were fried by the end of the session.

… I do love the sidewalk life here — outside of virtually every establishment … one finds sidewalk activity — women with huge bags of different kinds of rice; basket women with fruits, vegetables, noodles, soup (pho), flowers; men shining shoes, sharpening knives, cutting hair; tiny food stalls with kindergarten stools to sit on popping up at lunchtime; men playing board games; the list goes on and on. That´s the charm of Hanoi for me — a rapidly modernizing city with high-rise construction and high-end establishments sprouting up like mushrooms with a local life and vibrancy that hearkens back centuries. Crowded, old markets jammed with vendors in incredibly tight quarters, piled with fabrics, shoes, leather goods, foodstuffs, etc. vie with shiny new and glitzy malls — it will be fascinating to see how this all unfolds. …

Fran (Mom to you, Jake and Sam!)


Thursday, Feb. 7


Dear Friends and Family:

Happy Tet! Today I awoke to the very strange, for Hanoi, sounds of a bird or two singing and no honking horns or traffic noise — Hanoi shuts down completely for Tet, the sidewalks are empty, streets bereft of the typical waves of motorcycles and cars, shops shuttered. It is an eerie, but also welcome, change from the normal chaos and intensity of city life. …

Students, Rolf and I will spend the next three evenings in the homes of some of the Vietnamese faculty with whom we are working, so we´ll get to participate in the family-centered nature of this season. On Sunday, the history professor is taking all of us to his family´s village to see its Tet festival, then to his house for a meal. By Monday, when classes resume, we will have done our part to usher in this year of the rat!

The students are a great group, all in all … . They have been good sports, resilient and upbeat in the face of the pretty overwhelming conditions here, including strange foods, chaotic traffic, sometimes difficult communication interactions with vendors or shopkeepers, sanitary conditions that are less (to say the least) than one is used to in the States. ... It´s been fun getting to know the students as individuals as the weeks have unfolded, and watching their various strategies for engaging life here.

Love, Fran/Mom


Friday, Feb. 29


Dear Friends and Family:

We have settled into a pattern of classes during the week and outings on weekends — the students remain a very fun, engaged, enthusiastic group, rewarding to work with. ... We have been taking buses more and more as we get familiar with the pretty extensive system of routes and bus numbers. ... Very few foreigners ride buses, so we get a fair amount of curiosity when we board and, often, efforts to speak with us in English by school children who are eager to practice English and have few opportunities. …

I´m enjoying food adventures here — much of the food is simply wonderful, featuring lots of fresh vegetables, broths, herbs; seafood, pork, chicken… . Other dishes are a tad more challenging — Rolf and I were taken to a quite fancy restaurant by one of the Vietnamese faculty; its specialty dishes were, as an appetizer, salted chicken feet — and, sure enough, that´s what they were — limp, pale, slimy, cold chicken feet … dipped in a salt/vinegar sauce; I was hard-pressed to muster enthusiasm. …

Love to all, Fran/Mom


Saturday, March 22


Dear Friends and Relatives:

Well, we´ve arrived safely back in Hanoi after two weeks on the road — Cambodia, the Mekong Delta, Ho Chi Minh City, Nha Trang, Hoi An and Hue — the whirlwind trip brought amazing experiences and gratifying goodwill and genuine interest on the part of students throughout. ... We visited Angkor Wat temples in Siem Reap, the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh, both of which profoundly affected the students. …

We took a day-long boat ride through the Mekong Delta — fishing villages, floating markets, rice paddies, gorgeous landscape, incredible variety of boats plying the waterways taking products everywhere, it was a wonderful day. …
Several of us visited the War Remnants Museum in HCMC, an interesting experience for students in de-centering their frames of reference as the museum, of course, is all about the victory of the Vietnamese over the U.S. aggressors. One of the exhibits was a very powerful photo display by a British photographer of the aftermath of the Agent Orange devastation to people and land. …

Love to all, Fran/Mom


Saturday, April 12


Dear Friends and Family:

It is hard to believe that less than a month remains before the semester is over and students make their way back to the States... . We have three more weeks of classes, a week of finals and wrap-up, and then a good-bye group dinner — with memories of our group welcome dinner still vivid in my mind! It has been a rich and very rewarding semester, all in all, for me — the students and I speak often of how much there is to process about what we´ve learned and experienced, and how to think about the next stages in our lives in ways that do justice to these months in Vietnam.

I hope the students appreciate just how enriching this semester has been for them — I think they do, and I feel free to remind them often how lucky they are… .

Love, Fran/Mom


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