Waterville, Maine — ALTHOUGH study-abroad programs are standard at most American colleges and universities, ``political study tours'' of the People's Republic of Vietnam are not. While some students were off snorkeling in Bermuda for biology credit, a group of 14 Colby College students and their companions spent two weeks traveling the length of Vietnam, meeting Vietnamese officials and professors, playing with Vietnamese children, and observing a nation trying to become a more open society.
The students went to Vietnam for various reasons. In a pre-trip meeting with five Vietnam veterans, one student said he mostly wanted to learn more about the war. Colby senior Wes Crain had a care package of letters, pictures, clothes, and medicine to deliver to the natural mother of his adopted Vietnamese sister.
Others had simpler reasons. ``I thought, wow, Vietnam, what an interesting place to go,'' said one sophomore.
The Colby trip was the first visit American students have paid to Vietnam since the war. Roger Bowen, who pioneered Colby's first January winter study program to Nicaragua last year, wanted to take his Vietnam seminar ``on the road.''
For Robert Weisbrot, Professor Bowen's co-leader, the point of the trip was ``to get away from abstractions, like `communists,' and start seeing an actual society with real people.''
Both professors said their expectations were minimal, considering language barriers, the Vietnamese government's propaganda interests, and the fear some Vietnamese have of associating with the West.
The students' eagerness to meet Vietnamese helped them overcome some of these limitations. This was evident in many encounters with Vietnamese, from a meeting with three Ho Chi Minh City University professors to the sea of small children that often formed spontaneously around the group.
A few of the students had taken Bowen and Weisbrot's full-semester seminar, ``Vietnam: War and Revolution,'' but for most members of the group - which in addition to Colby students included a student from Hamilton College and a student and teacher from a high school in Fairfield, Maine - a one-week seminar of reading and discussion formed the core of their research.
``Vietnam: a History'' (a Public Broadcasting System series and book by historian Stanley Karnow) was the students' main text. In a telephone interview with the Monitor, Mr. Karnow said of the Colby tour, ``You can go anywhere and learn a lot. Even if you only learn the place you're visiting is an authoritarian regime.... It was a step in the right direction toward getting relations with the US.''
Meeting and communicating with Vietnamese, both formally and informally, was the students' daily goal. Through such meetings, the group was able to glean insights into Vietnamese attitudes toward America and recovery of Americans missing in action; the withdrawal from Cambodia; and the government's attempts to reconcile its traditional policies of keeping foreigners and foreign ideas away from its citizens with new ideas of openness to outsiders and outside investment.
Sophomore Scott Perley and junior Kevin Powers deciphered one view of Vietnamese perceptions of their own government and of the United States. ``While [we were] catching rays on the beach at Nha Trang, some kids came over,'' Mr. Perley recalled. ``Kevin drew pictures in the sand. First, a picture of the US, which the kids smashed. Then, a picture of Russia, which they smashed. Next, the star of Vietnam. This they also smashed. Only when he drew one of the Buddhist swastika (a symbol for harmony - or something) did we find something they left alone. Finally, Kevin drew a picture of the US and the Vietnamese star with a line connecting it. They cheered.''
Not all the group's encounters, however, were conducive to candid communication with the citizens of Vietnam. Jennifer Rasin, a student from Hamilton College, met a woman while walking on the beach at Nha Trang. The woman, who had worked as a telephone operator on the American base during the war, invited her to her home.
The secret police, who had been following Ms. Rasin all evening, entered the woman's house and detained both women until a confession was drawn up and signed. The confession stated that the Vietnamese woman had spoken with and allowed a foreigner into her home. ``Rasin was visibly shaken,'' Bowen said. Afterward, the tour guide said he had spoken with the police to prevent the woman from being punished. ``The students were skeptical, and I think rightly so,'' Bowen said.
The detainment incident underscored one of the inconsistencies of Vietnam that pose a challenge to anyone trying to learn about the country. ``Vietnam is trying to become a more open society,'' said Bowen. ``They want delegations like ours because of a desire for rapprochement. But for generations they've lived with a siege mentality. Outsiders are, by definition, not to be trusted. They have a kind of Jekyll and Hyde approach toward foreigners.''
Such inconsistencies in Vietnam's policy toward foreigners contributed to an attitude best summed up by Wes Crain, a senior. ``We had a lot of different views going in, but I came back skeptical of the Vietnamese government's intentions.''
Despite the inconsistancies, the Colby students brought home an almost unanimous desire to see the US reestablish relations with Vietnam.