While many college students spent their Spring Break on a beach, a group of UA Little Rock students spent their spring break exploring the historical and cultural sites in Vietnam, Cambodia and China.
Eight students traveled to Southeast Asia for a study abroad led by Dr. Jess Porter, chair of history and associate professor of geography, and Dr. Jeff Kyong-McClain, associate professor of history. The two professors have led three previous trips to China and one to Korea, but Vietnam and Cambodia were new destinations for everyone in the group.
Porter and Kyong-McClain taught a class on Vietnam history and geography last semester, so many of the students in that class got to see first-hand some of the sites they had studied. The trip, though, was open to anyone.
“We like to blend history and geography to help students have a better understanding of the world at large,” Porter said. “It’s not easy to get unless you go out and see something.”
The group left March 15 and returned March 26, visiting the three countries in 11 days. Because there are no direct flights from the U.S. into Vietnam, they flew to Hong Kong, where they spent two days. One of their first sightseeing stops was Victoria Peak, the mountain that rises just beyond Hong Kong City.
From there, they flew to Hanoi, Vietnam, where they spent the next five five days. They visited the National Museum of Vietnamese History; the One Pillar Pagoda, a famous Buddhist temple; Ho Chi Minh’s tomb; Hỏa Lò Prison, where Senator John McCain was held as a prisoner of war; and the Temple of Literature, which is dedicated to Confucius. The group also cruised along Halong Bay, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and visited University of Transport and Communications, where they met students and faculty.
“The Vietnamese students were eager to get to know us and arranged activities,” Kyong-McClain said. “We saw a performance, and they served us a traditional Vietnamese lunch and then challenged us to a game of soccer.”
In Hanoi, the group stayed in a section of the city call the “Old Quarter,” a lively area marked by colorful French Colonial shops and cafes along narrow streets.
“Because Vietnam was ruled by France for so long, there’s still very much a French influence,” Kyong-McClain said. “Our students were very impressed with the breakfast crepes in our Hanoi hotel.”
The group then traveled to Siem Reap, a city of about 300,000 in northwestern Cambodia. The city is a popular tourist destination because of its proximity to the Angkor Temples.
For Gene Thompson, a religious studies major who is minoring in history, the Buddhist and Confucian temples in Hong Kong and Vietnam were the highlight of the trip.
“I am a Vietnam era veteran that did not serve ‘in country’ during the war. Instead I served for four years (1969-1973) in Washington DC,” he said. “I have heard many stories about the beauty of the country, the temperament of the people and wanted to experience it myself. This trip combined everything that I could have hoped for.”
Thompson said he was most impressed with the depth of the history for this part of the world.
“Their struggle against colonialism, their work ethic, just the planning for the future and determination to become a first world country impressed me most. Their focus on utilizing education to prepare Vietnam for an active role in the economies of the future was amazing and extremely impressive.”
On most days, the group had structured activities in the mornings and early afternoons and free time to explore in the evenings. They got around via public transportation in most places – from buses in Hanoi, to double decker buses and cable cars in Hong Kong, to boats and tuk tuks in Cambodia.
Porter and Kyong-McClain hope to lead another trip in 2020.
The top right photo shows Vietnam’s Halong Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which a group of UA Little Rock students visited over spring break 2018.