Thursday, April 13, 2017

Behind Every Vietnam Trip Is A Research Topic

For Throwback Thursday, we have a retroactive guest post from Rachel Minogue, a Master of Arts student concentrating in International Law and Organizations. This winter break, Rachel and a group of her peers traveled to Vietnam to dive deep into issues surrounding Vietnam’s political climate (and...apparently into the waters of the Halong Bay). Thanks to Rachel for the phenomenal piece, it's really a great read!

SAISers enjoy an afternoon swim in the waters of Halong Bay

Just as winter in DC hit below freezing, I joined a group of SAIS students in escaping the frost to a study trip in Vietnam. For just over a week, we had the privilege to attend almost a dozen meetings with Vietnamese government agencies and non-governmental organizations while exploring Hanoi, a city unfamiliar to most of the students. The week’s broad topical agenda had special emphasis on the South China Sea dispute, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and illegal wildlife trade. 

Organized by International Law Program Director Ruth Wedgwood and Associate Director Tiffany Basciano and sponsored by a grant from the Starr Foundation, the trip allowed face-to-face interaction with Vietnamese officials from the Ministries of Defense, Foreign Affairs, Industry and Trade, and Natural Resources and Environment. The group also met with intergovernmental organizations, including the EU-Multilateral Trade Assistance Project and the International Labor Organization, think tanks like the Institute for East Sea Studies, and local and global non-governmental organizations, such as the Education for Nature – Vietnam and the Wildlife Conservation Society. One particular highlight, however, was speaking with Ted Osius, U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam and alumnus of SAIS. The trip leaders also organized a happy hour with SAIS alums living in Hanoi, who shared their experiences working in Vietnam and provided ample advice on our future careers.

Though directed by the International Law and Organizations program, the trip included students from a diverse group of relevant concentrations, including Southeast Asia Studies, Conflict Management, China Studies, and Energy, Resources, and the Environment. This assortment allowed for a unique fusion of interests and excellent conversations with Vietnamese officials.

Behind every student’s Vietnam experience is a research topic that drove the discussions during the daily meetings. Subjects vary widely, ranging from Vietnam’s balancing of relations with China and the U.S., the country’s role in international arbitration under the U.N. Convention of the Law of the Sea, labor and environmental reforms as a result of TPP, and impacts of deforestation, urban planning, and air pollution on Vietnam’s environment. However, after several rounds of meetings, we quickly realized the critical ties between all our areas of research, and the important implications of each set of Vietnamese policies on the success and failure of others. 

Four SAISers explore a traditional Bahnar communal house
at Vietnam Museum of Ethnography
Students not only utilized the meetings to delve deeper into Vietnam’s political climate, but also found inspiration for new areas of research. During a morning discussion on illegal wildlife trafficking with the Wildlife Conservation Society, current M.A. second year Ashley Patton was struck by how Vietnam’s Doi Moi economic reforms of the 1980s influenced respect for both the environment and human rights in the country. She now looks forward to further evaluating the historical and current costs of Vietnamese economic development.

As proficient travelers, SAIS students know well how to maximize their time in a city, and Vietnam was no exception. The group was extremely proactive in filling all extra hours with city tours, museum visits, and culinary adventures. Highlights included a visit to the Hanoi Hilton, where Vietnamese and Americans alike were imprisoned in the past, and a tour of Hanoi’s famed street food scene. While the group enjoyed many a banh mi and pho for dinner, Trang Dang, a first year M.A. student from Vietnam, helped the group find authentic Vietnamese cuisine throughout Hanoi. Students also enjoyed Hanoi’s leisure activities, including Vietnamese massages at local spas, weekend night markets, and literal street-side bars.

The group also participated in a weekend cruise through Halong Bay, regarded by many as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. Students who entered the trip as relative strangers bonded through swims in turquoise waters, misguided kayaking adventures to rocky, bug-ridden beaches, and poor singing to Vietnamese karaoke.

Several students, myself included, extended their stay to explore other regions in Vietnam or neighboring countries. One trekked through the woods of Laos, another to the beaches of Phu Quoc, while one enjoyed a rural Vietnamese homestay at Mai Chau. I preferred the hectic metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City, where preparations for the Vietnamese New Year celebrations of Tet were speeding along as fast as the city’s endless supply of motorbikes.

Looking forward, in addition to a paper on their chosen research topics, students will present their findings from the trip at a public presentation in April 2017. We look forward to sharing our experiences and new political and cultural awareness of Vietnam with the broader SAIS community, and encourage all those interested in further engagement with Vietnam to attend the event!